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The Amazing Surprises of Living in a Japanese Home

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The time-tested ways to get a quick exposure to a new country are to go grocery shopping and, if you are lucky enough, be invited to stay with a local. For example, a US grocery store visit quickly reveals national obsessions with teeth whitening, dieting, and red meat. A visit to a Japanese store reveals obsessions with germs, pickled ingredients, and adorably cute sweets in every possible form.

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This weekend in Tokyo I was fortunate to be invited to stay with a Rakuten colleague/HR executive for two nights. I asked her permission to photo my experiences. Being a designer, I really only focused on the appliances and products in her home. I would have to stay a lot longer than two nights to really know anything meaningful about how she lived.

But here goes. Chizy is 49 and has lived in France, Pakistan, Sudan and is currently dividing her time between Boston and Tokyo. A few years ago she bought a house in the same neighborhood where she lived after university. It’s a quiet and calm west Tokyo location called Nishiogikubo with many small crafts shops and tiny charming restaurants lining the narrow dense streets.

This is Chizy’s own street. In contrast to most of Tokyo, Nishiogikubo is markedly low rise and homey.

IMG_1390 This is her house, below, which she renovated after purchase. It’s probably about 1,500 square feet in size.

IMG_1389While relaxing alone in the living room–with the big grated window opened–I heard a grandfather singing to a baby, the whoosh of cycles passing, neighbors calling to each other, and children playing. As I quietly tapped on my computer a–dare I say–sense of Zen fell over me, being in the company of those soothing but untranslatable foreign sounds. I heard no cars, sirens or air traffic. The immediate neighbor behind Chizy’s house has a large yard so there were also lots of bird and cricket sounds and gentle breezes cooled the rooms.

Here is Chizy, serving cake after a small dinner gathering. It was interesting to me that she served a variety of store-bought small dishes as the dinner. It was kind of like an assemblage of appetizers, with one substantial dish in the form of roasted pork. I was happy for this efficiency as she had spent the Saturday in a training course and the last thing I wanted her to do was cook. It struck me that an American friend would probably have knocked herself out to prepare something homemade–and there would have been a great loss of conviviality sacrificed for that purpose. Chizy calmly served the array of tasty treats and was able to focus on the conversation rather than inventing a culinary extravaganza.

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Her home is full of strange wonders, many electronic. It reinforced my perception that much of Japan is just slightly over-engineered, or over-featured, or over-personalized.

Here’s an example (I think). I had some time in Chizy’s home by myself and had half a mind to do a load of laundry, being out of clean clothes. One look at this “jet engine” dashboard on the washing machine and I decided my dirty duds would have to do.

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As a business sidebar, this control panel reminds me of every Japanese PowerPoint I’ve ever seen. Japanese presentations are always ten times more complex than an American version. My Japanese colleagues seem totally comfortable with the density of information and I can only speculate that either 1) they fake that they understand their colleague’s work, or 2) they can take in complex visual information more easily than an English-language-reader, because at a young age they all learned to read a very complex pictographic alphabet, Kanji.

Speaking of complexity, any visitor to Japan knows the Ph.D it takes to use a toilet. Here is the wall-mounted control panel example from Chizy’s home. Just what button would you push to flush, anyway? (It’s not the orange one.)

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This was a really cool feature of her sanitary fixtures: there is a tiny hand-washing sink right on top of the tank that starts flowing the perfect amount of water after a flush. The blue thing is a sanitizer doo-hickey. One odd thing is that in both private and public restrooms I rarely see hand soap. That is not consonant with the whole germaphobe Japanese society.

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What is consonant is the ever-present pair of slippers in every Japanese bathroom. I am not quite sure their purpose and I forgot to ask. When I was raising young boys with bad aim though, I would have liked to follow that custom.

IMG_1385 While Chizy was preparing dinner I did ask her about the giant 7” diameter sink drain. She showed me a gauze “basket” under this drain that she periodically disposes and replaces. Chizy said she is constantly clogging the drain of her American apartment because it does not have this two-step sort of system to catch the big stuff before it flushes down. I neglected to ask her about the oh-so-tiny sponge scrubber next to the drain, but I saw them for sale in packs of eight or so. I can’t imagine why they are a good idea.

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Here is Chizy’s living area and kitchen. We had dinner gathered around the coffee table. Her “office” is the little desk behind the plant. I was pleased to see that Japanese women really do have giant stuffed animals in their homes (note the green one) because we launched this same Japanese company as a Grommet. I always pray that our Discovery team is not duped when a foreign manufacturer tells us “This is very popular in our country.” I fear someone selling us the Japanese or Spanish or Australian equivalent of say, a Cabbage Patch Doll or Spam.

IMG_1381Chizy’s windows were covered with a type of shade that filters the light, lets in air, but prevents people looking in. The windows and screens were engineered to within an inch of their lives, for easy operation.

IMG_1380Chizy lives very, very sparely. Even with such a small footprint house, most of the storage spaces were empty or uncrowded. Walls were largely bare and the furniture minimalist. I have no idea if this is typical but I know that when I stay in traditional Japanese inns there is a similar aesthetic. The simple but pleasing details of this staircase feel all the more luxurious for not competing with a great deal of ornamentation or décor.

IMG_1379Ascending the stairs I had two silent disappointments. One, the hard tiny pillows worried me, as a person who needs a good fluffy pillow, that I’d be up half the night with my head on a rock. This is not unusual—Japanese hotels usually have a small buckwheat pillow on the beds (alongside a soft Western one). I speculate that this practice keeps the Japanese tough, as there is zero comfort in laying your head down on those hard, unforgiving sacks. At Chizy’s I ended up wrapping the colorful little lozenges in the generous comforter and getting by just fine.

IMG_1387The other worry was the humidity and heat in the second floor room—it was positively oppressive on entry. We opened the windows and relief seemed possible but the coup de grace was this “air cleaner” appliance. It is some kind of combo dehumidifier and purifier and it works a charm. The room was soon very comfortable and I slept like the dead.

IMG_1388The next morning Chizy showed me the shower and I had to ignorantly ask “Where do I stand to use it?” The answer was that you sit on that little stool and basically the whole room turns into your shower.  OK then! It’s a lot like the shower set-up at a traditional public onsen bath. I should have known–I’ve been to at least ten.

IMG_1382I was curious about the cover on the bath and was surprised to roll it back and find the bath full of water, whose warmth was retained by the double walled insulated protection. Baths are religion in Japan so the various rituals and industries built around them clearly extend to the home.

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Chizy shared with me her precious supply of a fairly unusual breakfast treat: a paste made of sesame and honey, on toast. It was delicious. I wanted to bring some home as it is also meant to have health benefits. I also adore looking at the cartoony graphics. This new addition would complement my fanatical devotion to a weekend toast ritual. Below is what I usually have in the summer. (I love it so much I took a picture to remind me in the winter when I am stuck indoors with my Maine blueberry jam.)

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This is the neighborhood restaurant where I subsequently had a delightful solo lunch.  Re:gendo is in a very traditional building transported to this location and restored to a lustre. It’s operated by a cadre of sweet, pretty former housewives. In this singular place, I finally found my dream “local” Tokyo restaurant, nicely complemented by a small craft shop.

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Chizy says there is another restaurant in the neighborhood manned by older women– “grandmothers” who are very slow and often screw up your order. But their warm charm and steady conversation are the draws to the establishment, not speed or accuracy. In contrast there is a small local bar owned a silent bartender where Chizy says she goes if she is tired of talking and just wants to slam down two drinks in peace.

I’ve been to Japan five times since last year. I’ll be back many times and I am hopeful that I was a good guest to Chizy so I can return to her lovely abode. One of the secrets to surviving this kind of travel, according to my globe-trotting Japanese colleagues, is to establish firm routines around the flights you take, the food you eat, where you stay and the public transport routes, and preserving your personal exercise routines.

I’ve not managed to find that balance on prior trips but I can now see a way to create a little bit of home in Chizy’s neighborhood. And maybe next time I will brave operating the washing machine.

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About the Author

This article was written by Jules Pieri. Jules is the Co-Founder and CEO of the product launch platform The Grommet. The company’s Citizen Commerce™ movement is reshaping how consumer products get discovered, shared, and bought. see more.

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Daphne Ng, CEO of JEDTrade

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Daphne Ng is the CEO of JEDTrade, a blockchain technology company focused on trade, supply chain, and financial inclusion projects in ASEAN. She is also the Scretary-General at ACCESS and Exco. of Singapore Fintech Association

What makes you do what you do?
I was introduced to blockchain technology in 2016 after I left my corporate banking career after 10 years. It was my mentor who first got me interested in this technology, which I then went on to delve further into, on its potential applications in the lending and trade finance space – domains where I came from.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Being in the space for 2 years and actively involved in the ecosystem, I was able to bring on the projects, network and a good degree of thought leadership in this vertical. Early on in the startup journey, our team faced many challenges. And to me, the key to rising above failures are two essential factors – resilience and support. While resilience is innate, I received a lot of help be it in terms of connections or advice. ‘Nobody succeeds without help’ rings very true for me.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
From the start, I focused on my domain expertise in trade finance and the application construct of how blockchain and DLT can be applied to these use cases. Also, my strategy from the start was to build a technology company made up of 80% tech and engineers, which is also our key competitive advantage today. At the end of the day, deliverables are about strategy and execution, which includes building and leading an ‘A’ team.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I have many mentors, which includes our company advisors (all of whom are well-known in this industry) and mostly informal mentors I meet via my connections, and on various occasions and circumstances. Creating opportunities also means putting myself in the right place, at the right time. And in my case, these were mostly organic and genuine friendships formed from the initial connection.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
To me, a match in values is very important. It also takes humility to ask for help and be willing to listen to advice, which is important in order for mentorships to be successful – be it formal or informal.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I love this question! I am passionate about building strong teams and helping my people grow. I abide by the 3Rs when identifying talents: resourcefulness, resilience and right values. And then I invest in the ‘potential’ and this means giving them room to lead, make decisions and take risks.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
My support of diverse talents, skillsets and characters can be seen in the make-up of our core team – all helming specific roles and each bringing their own value to the table. We need the sum of all parts to build a great company.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
Great leaders emerge in times of failures and challenges, never abandoning the team, and always putting the team’s interests before her own. And I consciously live by these mottos every day.

Advice for others?
My advice to other entrepreneurs: be resolute and dare to be different. If you are going to follow others, then you will end up on the same path as them. No right or wrong; but I would rather chart my own path. This June, we are officially launching our blockchain project, Jupiter Chain (www.jupiterchain.tech), which have garnered much interest in the industry, even before we made it public. We believe this project is the epitome of marrying innovation with practical implementation, and we want to be the first to truly operationalize blockchain for our ecosystem projects in this region.


If you’d like to get in touch with Daphne Ng, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daphne-ng-%E9%BB%84%E7%91%9E%E7%8E%B2/

To learn more about JEDTrade, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Jace Koh, Founder of U Ventures

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Jace Koh believes cash flow is the lifeblood of your business. Understanding it will enhance your ability to run and manage your business.

What’s your story?
My name is Jace Koh and I am the Founder of U Ventures. I’ve always been inclined towards investment and entrepreneurship. I’ve played a hand in starting businesses across these industries – professional services, cloud integration, software and music. I believe that succeeding in business is tough, but that’s what makes the rewards even sweeter.

What excites you most about your industry?
Everything excites me. These are my beliefs:

  • Why is accounting important?
    The accounting department is the heart. Cash flow is like blood stream, it pumps blood to various parts of the body like cash flow is pumped to various departments and/or functions in a business. It is vital to the life and death of the business.
  • Is accounting boring?
    Accountants are artists too. They paint the numbers the way they want them to be.
  • What makes a good accountant?
    A good accountant can tell you a story about the business by looking at the numbers.
  • Why is budgeting and projection important?
    Accountants are like fortune tellers, they can predict the numbers and if you wish to understand your business and make informed decisions, feel free to speak to our friendly consultants to secure a meeting.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore, and here’s where I want to be.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore is my favourite city. We have great legal systems in place, good security and people with integrity. Most importantly, we have a government that fosters a good environment for doing business. I recently went for a cultural exchange programme in Hong Kong to learn more about their startups. I found out that the Hong Kong government generally only supports local business owners in terms of grants. They’ve recently been more lenient and changed the eligibility to include all businesses that have at least 50% local shareholding. But comparing that to Singapore, the government only requires a 30% local shareholding to obtain government support. In the early days of starting a business, all the support you can get is precious. It’s great that we have a government that understands that.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best time ever to plant a tree was 10 years ago as the tree would have grown so big to provide you with shelter and all. When is the next best time to plant a tree? It is today. Because in 10 years time, the tree would have grown big enough to provide you shelter and all.

Who inspires you?
Jack Ma. His journey to success is one of the most inspiring as it proves that with determination and great foresight, even the poorest can turn their lives around. I personally relate to his story a lot, and this is my favourite quote from him, “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I’ve faced multiple rejections throughout my business journey, and recently came across a fact on Jack Ma about how he was once rejected for 32 different jobs. It resonated very deeply and taught me the importance of tenacity, especially during tough times.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. I live a life with no regrets. Everything I do, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, happy or sad, and regardless of outcome, it’s a lesson with something to take away.

How do you unwind?
I love to pamper myself through retail therapy and going for spas. I also make a conscious effort to take time off work to have a break outside to unwind as well as to uncloud my mind. This moment of reflection from time to time helps me see more clearly on how I can improve myself.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Taiwan! Good food with no language barriers and the people are great!

Everyone in business should read this book:
I don’t really read books. Mostly, I learn from my daily life and interactions with hundreds of other business owners. To me, people tell the most interesting stories.

Shameless plug for your business:
We’re not just corporate secretaries, we’re “business doctors.”
U Ventures is a Xero certified advisory firm that goes beyond traditional accounting services to provide solutions for your business. You can reach us on our website: http://uventures.com.sg/

How can people connect with you?
Converse to connect. You can reach me via email at [email protected] or alternatively, on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacekoh/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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