Perfection Is Made in Japan

The Wall Street Journal magazine article, "Made Better in Japan" talks about how the Japanese have perfected... everything. What does it mean for the future of innovation?

For the best French food in the world, visit Tokyo, where there are more restaurants with Michelin stars than in Paris.

For the best espresso drinks, skip Italy and go to Japan. (Though several places in the US come close.)

For the best cocktails, again, go to Japan. I'll never forget the Japanese bar I visited years ago in New York. The Japanese bartender literally tasted every cocktail with a tiny tasting stick, to ensure the perfect balance of flavors. And that bartender has subsequently returned to Japan.

The best fashion denims may also come from Japanese makers like R by 45rpm.

And there are many who insist that the original Japanese version of Iron Chef is far superior to the American clone.

Even in our current cultural moment where artisanal local products like pickles handmade by hipsters are the fad of the day, the WSJ example shows what can happen when locavores serve up foreign fare. They can do it better.

Perfection can abstract away what makes something great. Sometimes it's a single dimension that's easy to measure. Other times, it's a more complex blend of characteristics that produce the perfect outcome. Either way, once something becomes perfectible, it also becomes potentially transplantable.

I won't overstate the case by calling it a paradoxical result, necessarily. But it does seem counterintuitive that the cultures that gave birth to a product might cease to be its leading producers.

America created the mass market automobile. Then Japan and Germany arguably became the leading producers.

Today American journalists like to criticize the Chinese for lack of originality. But as academics and business leaders perfect our understanding of innovation, creativity may well be transplanted and scaled up outside of the innovation centers of Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and New York.

What do you think? Will the best Hollywood movies one day come from a film studio in Japan or China? Will the best high tech products be designed, and not merely manufactured, in China?

Related posts:
Building Foundations for Innovation in China


  1. China and Japan are certainly centers of culture and the former has come into its own as of late. However to say that they will be sources of innovation because of the espresso and cocktails they drink is to put a superficial view on what makes innovation. Taste can easily be replicated and improved upon but it is not a good proxy for innovation. However, I would assert that diversity is. If you look any two amazing innovators - Leonardo DaVinci and Steve Jobs, both had both incredibly diverse backgrounds and experiences. The benefiys of diversity are amplified in collective environments like the Silicon Valley. The people who thrive in Silicon Valley come from all parts of the world. Germany, France, Russia, India, China, and Japan have all exported some of their best talent to Silicon Valley. However diversity is not something I would attribute to either Japan or China. Both cultures are fiersly homogenous and while outsiders can participate, they remain outsiders. I do not believe such ecosystems produce the same rich innovation experienced in the Silicon Valley. In the end, I would assert London or Istanbul is more likely to be a challenge.

  2. That's a very reasonable argument to make. To put it in the terminology of my earlier blog (Disruptive vs Revolutionary Innovation), you're saying that Japan and China may be great places for sustaining innovation (like better electronics or cars), and maybe even disruptive innovation, but the real leaps of revolutionary innovation are unlikely to come from an ethnically homogeneous country.

    In terms of the sheer numbers of people who can interact in a city like Shanghai or Tokyo, places like Silicon Valley and London can't compete. But several studies of innovation have found that mixed cultural populations with artists and alternative lifestyles contribute. That supports your point.

    I'm sure there's more to be learned, and some surprises to come.

  3. And remember, China invented paper, printing, the compass, fireworks, and most importantly, noodles. For centuries China was the most advanced and inventive country on earth. If they regain that kind of creativity, watch out world.