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Difference between Japan and US

Two manhole covers--one about 100 yards from my Colorado house:

and the other on a typical residential district in Tokyo.

Any questions?

Beauty and attention to design detail... everywhere I turned during my two week stay (Tokyo and Kyoto), I saw it. Every--and I mean every Japanese restaurant (including the fast-food sushi joints) had an architectural bent. A sense of style. An aesthetic sensibility you just don't see throughout the US!

Does this matter for the rest of us? If you listen to Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, yes. It matters deeply. It might even mean our jobs.

Eric gave a brief preview of the book in this entry, and I'll do a more thorough review when I finish, but his main premise is that in the new economy, we can no longer rely on left-brain activities (he uses left and right brain as a metaphor), because those are being outsourced and automated. And because there's so much abundance of goods out there, you cannot compete on utility and function. You must add meaning (or what he calls "significance"). Through aesthetics... look and feel. Adding beauty and style and fung shui or...

His notion is that if you are doing something that a computer can do, or that can be done by someone else for less money, or that is not in great demand (either because nobody wants it or because the supply is already so great), you better start looking at enhancing and evolving your right brain skills. Design is one of those.

Really, we're all designers -- at least with a lowercase "d". We're all trying to create solutions. But we should all--ALL OF US--be adding design to the list of "must learn" topics for this year.

The Japanese are being raised with a design/art/aesthetic sensibility, and we need to do the same. Besides the manhole covers and the gorgeous Japanese lunchbox take-out meals, I noticed another dramatic example of the relative importance of design to the Japanese vs. the average American:

I went into a large Borders-like bookstore in Kyoto, and considered how it matched (or didn't) the way one of our large US bookstores is laid out. The main difference? In a typical Borders or Barnes & Noble in the US, the art/design section is off in a corner somewhere while the top bestsellers (DaVinci Code, etc.) are all displayed right up front near the cash registers or wherever the most prominent location is for that store. But in this Japanese store, the bestsellers were off to one side and the art/design section was in the center location right in front of the main registers! But that's not all... it was also the most crowded section. I had to fight my way in while Japanese of all ages were browsing through books on everything from architecture to zen gardens to pop culture graphics to photography to illustration and... (not anime, which got its OWN section).

We should all start thinking like designers. Lots of folks are talking about it, and we made references to it in Beth's entry Why cool is good for your brain and my earlier How well do your know your user's brain, where I gave links to Don Norman and Virgina Postrel's books on rise and importance of aesthetics today.

The good news is anyone can learn design. With a lowercase "d". A good book to start with might be one of these two:

Design Basics, or the newer Universal Principles of Design.

And you can also start by picking up a design magazine like iD or HOW, or something on architecture. It'll be good for your brain, and good for your users. Whether you're a software engineer, marketer, teacher, doesn't matter. We all need to start thinking more like designers and we all need to add meaning and significance to the things we create from software applications to learning experiences to books.

I'm a little too jet-lagged to say any more right now except to leave you with some fun links I found about others who've been captivated by manhole covers (I had no idea).

the Flickr manhole group

Drainspotting, a manhole enthusiast site.

A company that sells some cool ones (why isn't that nautilus one on MY street?)

And someone else who blogged about the beautiful Japanese manhole covers here.

Vancouver Canada is doing something interesting, considering manhole covers "art under foot", here.

Have fun! I'm glad to be back... I missed y'all. Thanks Beth for your wonderful blog entries, and thanks to the rest of you for participating.

Posted by Kathy on April 30, 2005 | Permalink


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» Design is a Cultural Thing from KasLog
Kathy Sierra reports from a visit to Tokyo and Kyoto, that everything, even fast food restaurants and things as mundane as manhole covers, are beautifully designed. Most telling: I went into a large Borders-like bookstore in Kyoto, and considered ho... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 30, 2005 11:02:48 PM

» Giving a damn from Awasu
An intriguing post came my way this morning, talking about the difference between Japan the the US: Every--and I mean every Japanese restaurant (including the fast-food sushi joints) had an architectural bent. A sense of style. An aesthetic sensib... [Read More]

Tracked on May 1, 2005 12:10:57 AM

» The Difference between Japan and US from cph127
Here's two manholes. The one to the left is from the US and the one to the right is from Japan. That's pretty amazing. Now you'll probably all think I am going nuts, but I really am not. I [Read More]

Tracked on May 1, 2005 2:12:42 AM

» man-hole covers from gapingvoid
Kathy Sierra (my future wife) writes about the importance of good design in terms of it actually saving your job. She compares Japanese and American man-hole covers to illustrate her point.... [Read More]

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» Good idea, bad example from life (over IP)
Kathy Sierra writes (via gapingvoid) about the looming importance of design in our work lives, referring to Dan Pink's assertion that, since all the left-brain work is now being outsourced, what US workers need to get is what the... [Read More]

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» The Pontiac Aztek and the Perils of Design by Committee from Coding Horror
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» Of manhole covers and creativity from Greek Complexity
(How do I categorise this post!) Came across this interesting post that relates the patterns on manhole covers to the extent of creative thinking by societies at large. Confused? Go look! Kathy Sierra writes:Two manhole covers--one about 100 yards from [Read More]

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» The Pontiac Aztek and the Perils of Design by Committee from Coding Horror
In a recent interview, Don Norman warns of the perils of design by committee: You don’t do good software design by committee. You do it best by having a dictator. From the user’s point of view, you must have... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 21, 2007 11:09:52 PM


As for japanese beauties, I elect Ruby (http://www.ruby-lang.org) and Rails (http://www.rubyonrails.com) as good additions to Software Development. Ruby is a nice and addicting OO Dynamic Language. Rails is one of the easiest Web-Frameworks which happens to be based on Ruby, but has been developed with help from occident people.

I missed you. :-)

Posted by: JP | Apr 30, 2005 8:46:40 PM

Great thoughts indeed. I think that we fail to realize the value that beautiful architecture has to our souls. Two trends of our modern U.S. culture with regards to architecture that truly disturb me are: 1) the boxiness of new buildings and 2) the proliferation of parking garages.

It has always baffled me why, when spending millions of dollars to construct a new commercial office building, "they" are so satisfied with a form of a big box with only minute feature variation. Maybe some window treatments or a slight curve on one end of the building, but it is essentially a giant rectangle sprounting from the ground. In a way, driving through most downtown metropolitan areas or - even worse - suburban commercial centers is like viewing the graphics of video games of twenty years ago when just the rudimentary rectangles and trapezoids could be rendered with any type of motion.

Also, we seem to exert so little creativity when building parking garages. Surely our American ingenuity could figure out a better way to showcase structures that house our cars when we drive them to spend time in giant rectangles. In many places it looks like people built a bunch of parking garages, then decided to add some buildings around them.

Beautiful architecture truly can enrich our souls, and I think we're really missing out with many of our new buildings.

Posted by: Matthew Hollingsworth | Apr 30, 2005 11:23:46 PM

funkypancake did a whole series of shots of ironwork in a single street in London one day...


...some nice designs, and some dull ones.

Posted by: Michael Randall | May 1, 2005 5:18:27 AM

Well, America isn't so bad. At least at Disneyworld, they have a logo on them:


Posted by: Elliott Bäck | May 1, 2005 5:22:22 AM

Not to nitpick someone who's probably jet-lagged ... ah, hell, I can't help myself ... it looks like you meant to have the word "Japan" in the same typeface on the second picture and then forgot to?

How unappreciative of me! Forget I said that. Welcome back! :)

Posted by: Keith Handy | May 1, 2005 9:20:44 AM

The Japanese are being raised with a design/art/aesthetic sensibility....

Have you been to Europe?

Let's not exagerate. I went to Japan, and some design and fashion is

The attraction occurs, because everything is different, from an American
or European prospective,

Let's not exaggerate !!!!

Posted by: roberto | May 1, 2005 10:47:17 AM

Who says the US design is worse? Why? It seems pretty functional and unfussy to me.


Posted by: Wally | May 1, 2005 3:35:29 PM

I recently devoured Daniel Pink's new book "Whole New Mind" almost whole ~ more or less in one sitting. It's a fascinating book, but I'd argue that some of the outsourcing going on right now is for right-brained stuff every bit as much as for left-brained. A good friend of mine makes concert quality instruments by hand ~ won't say which ones to protect him. His boss has actually been thinking about trying to outsource this to China! Oh great ~ land of no respect for trademark or copyright in USA. Great move! But note ~ this isn't the accounting or parts manufacturing or customer service ~ this is the right-brained fine handwork and the right-brained design work! My husband questions whether Daniel Pink's model is accurate ~ not that it isn't happening, but rather that it is happening at a much greater rate than even he was expecting...

Here's the thing that puzzles me, and maybe I just missed it in the book: the east is supposed to be the center of wholistic thinking already. So why wouldn't western companies outsource more than just the boring stuff if they thought they could get away with it?

Posted by: Cyndi | May 1, 2005 7:40:25 PM

I have seen both sides of outsourcing. People were threatened by me as they thought I was going to take their job. I was threatened by people who followed same path as me (new graduates from India) once I jumped fence and became part of US work force.

One thing that most people suggest is value addition (creative design) on the services would save jobs. Well, people on the other side of the ocean can be creative as well. Looking at India and China, which have culture of being creative, you can depend on it.

I would bet more on physical proximity being the key. Show how you can save by avoiding setup time, communication lag time etc. For small projects it is a compelling argument.

Posted by: Prashant Rane | May 1, 2005 8:57:54 PM

What you're also talking about (to an extent) is Emotional Design (http://www.jnd.org/books.html#E&Dbook_notes) isn't it? Both manhole covers are similar in function but one looks way better than the other.

I'm also reminded about a German improvement I read (or heard) about somewhere. They had a problem with manholes being stolen for the metal. They invented a compartment below the manhole that could be filled with water which would make the manhole almost impossible to lift. When the engineers needed to move the thing, they put in a key which drained the water and they could lift it. All this on a manhole cover.

Making the user's (customer's) life easier and better, that's going to be something we're all going to have to pay attention to.

Posted by: Percy | May 2, 2005 4:59:57 AM

I've never been to Japan, but I'm a firm believer in designing in context - which to me means designing with half an eye on the cultural and social background the product's headed for.

Now, I'm speculating that maybe one of the reasons why Japanese design appears to be so much more context-sensitive is because it's such a small, crowded country - and has been for a long time. For one thing, the amount of human attention that's been devoted to it per square foot is going to be higher than in the nicely spacious US of A. One upshot of this is that poor designs for buildings, etc. get pulled down more quickly because the space can be better used for something else, while somewhere else it might be possible to move a bit further along and build anew. Evolution happens more quickly through conflict and competition. It also tends to take funny directions when it's isolated, and Japan's history has plenty of that.

Posted by: Matt | May 2, 2005 5:57:47 AM


I have been to Japan several times, and I agree completely with you.

Your speculation is very interesting + on the dot.

Posted by: massimo | May 2, 2005 7:51:53 AM

In the UK the older Victorian covers are very decorative. The modern ones are plain boring!

Posted by: Geoff | May 2, 2005 10:00:42 AM

(Note: I'm not the same Geoff who just posted)

I've noticed the same odd thing about American cities. With some notable (and high-profile) exceptions, aesthetic considerations are almost non-existent in new buildings/structures. But almost every historic downtown I've visited in the US has appealing architecture. This is true in postcard cities like SF, New Orleans, New York, as you'd expect, but I also found the older areas of Milwaukee, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle to be very attractive as well (actually, the manhole covers in SF have such interesting designs that we made crayon etchings of them during one field trip in grade school). And yet every single one of these cities has the same, depressing, soul-crushing mini-mall perimeter.

This makes me wonder if the issue is really as cultural as people often think (i.e., attributing the differences in modern architecture to cultural differences between Asians, Europeans, Americans, and so forth). Yes, culture can change, but the brutally ugly strip malls and soulless office buildings seem to be a relatively new pheonomenon in the US (maybe even the last 50 years?). It's hard to believe that such a rapid, sudden shift can be explained purely by cultural differences. It also serves as a warning - i.e., I would caution against assuming that "cultural differences" will protect European and Asian cities against the forces that changed American buildings so powerfully over the last 50 years.

Not that I have a great suggestion as to how or why this happened. Economic factors? The emergence of a consumer society?

Posted by: Geoff B | May 3, 2005 4:09:34 PM

I'll throw out a couple of alternate explanations that come to mind, rather than the popular "their brains are different" or "aren't we just dumb" ones.

Maybe the design you saw is better simply because of more specialization in Japan vs. the US? They have rankings for nearly everything, and few people earn more than a one or two (in school for example, you go to one and only one "club", meaning extracurricular activity ,like a sport or music). Thus whatever job you have, you are probably good at it but crummy at anything else. The opposite of liberal arts.

Maybe they are pickier about what to spend their money on, since 1) the oldest generation lost everything and lived through it, and 2)they don't have enough much space and so tend to want to only pay for things that will be easy on the eyes/last.

Maybe they expend money and effort at manhole covers at the expense of other items. Did you notice the open sewers nearby? They're common in Japan, even in the big cities. How about the tangle of lines overhead? The garbage overflowing from the public cans? Did you notice that the schools and apartment buildings are from the painted cement block school of design? See any parks with actual plants? On the other hand, the traditional roofs are beautiful and common, stationery stores plentiful and well-stocked, and even the cheap department stores have very nice dishes.

Hm, it's almost like there are the same resources (even aesthetic ones) just distributed differently with different values. Overall, I liked the post, but the overreaching of "just don't see in the US" is a little... trite. I've eaten at enough station soba shops and neighborhood kalbi dives to know that not every restaurant is designer heaven. Seeing real differences glossed over with worn stereotypes or just plain missed is a little surprising here.

Then again it's late and I'm cranky at work, so never mind all this.

Posted by: DonD | May 4, 2005 4:22:45 AM

Minor nitpicking, but it's feng shui, "wind & water", fuusui in Japanese; dead on for a pronunciation spelling of the Chinese, though (except shui would be "shway").

While I agree in general, much of the residential architecture over here is uninspired and downright aesthetically displeasing, especially the cheap "rabbit hutch" apartments many landowners put up to offset property taxes. FWIW.

Posted by: RJCraig | May 11, 2005 4:59:56 AM

sometime somwhere in life we do meet people,who changes our lives in many different positive ways.we then become thankful to god for bringing that person in our lives.yes i thank GOD for giving you life.very few people do have your special teaching and writing talent.your knowledge makes our lives rich.if you can please continue writing.
be happy,healthy and full of life.
thank you once again.
jane alam.

Posted by: g.r.jane alam | May 16, 2005 11:08:19 AM



Find 100 differences :)

Posted by: Yaggi Jah | Oct 17, 2005 6:41:36 AM

I'd love to spend some time in Japan. that's a whole different world.

Posted by: Sarah | Feb 8, 2006 3:12:39 PM

Interesting bit about the manhole covers. It just so happens I was watching TV the other day and on one show they had a segment, about a good 5 minutes long on the varied manhole designs both artistically and structurally (holes to release air pressure in case of floods, etc) all around Japan. Amazing stuff!

Inccidently, I'm an American living and working here in Japan with my Japanese wife. Cultural differences are always fun to discover, even after 8 years since we first met. I am always hard pressed to explain to my university students what American culture because invariably they think American culture is; Steak, Coke, Hot dogs, baseball, football, Big cities, roads, fat tall people. Okay, so they're mostly right, but then I when I try to add to that, I always have to think about it...and when I can only think of American 'Values' - freedom, justice, truth, etc...I feel like I'd be a propagana tool for the US Government! Culture indeed! Design indeed!

Posted by: DanInJapan | Jul 17, 2006 3:31:45 AM

Great bit about the manhole covers, I love the contrast between Japan and almost any other culture in the world. Their attitute to design and the thought that goes into things that affect daily life could teach us all something

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