Apple and its late co-founder Steve Jobs are American success stories. Yet, there isn’t much that’s baseball and apple pie about them. Instead, there is something very Japanese about both. At times, Apple is more Japanese than Japan. Here’s why.
When I say Apple is more Japanese than Japan, I’m not talking about the company’s corporate structure — even though, you could argue that Jobs’ refusal of focus groups seems like the way many Japanese companies used to operate until focus groups watered everything down and made the world boring. But, you could say that about American and European companies, too. No, that’s not what I’m talking about.
Japan has a long history of beautiful (and simple) design outside of consumer electronics (and to be fair, not all consumer design has been bad!). Apple’s appeal in Japan is undeniable. The country’s art and architecture as well as Zen Buddhism put an emphasis on clean and crisp designs. So do Apple products. Japanese people obviously respond to this. Well, so do people almost everywhere. This also isn’t what I’m not talking about.
Rather, one of the things that makes Apple more Japanese than Japan is how it packages its products. In Japan, there is a culture of wrapping — and, in turn, presentation. This culture of wrapping started over a thousand years ago, when people began using cloth to wrap valuables. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), notions of the “correct” way to wrap and present gifts became solidified. Even today, the wrapping culture can be complex. For example, you might give someone a bag which contains a present; that present could be wrapped in a special way; unwrapping it would reveal a box; inside the box, there is a tray of, let’s say, cookies; and those cookies are individually wrapped. It’s like the Inception equivalent of wrapping.
So much of the wrapping culture is based on presentation. Apple is a master of presentation and electronics wrapping. The way the Apple puts hardware in boxes, but uses the packaging to be part of the experience was revolutionary for consumer electronics. For gifts in Japan, this is normal. For electronics, it wasn’t. Apple’s packaging and design influence on Japanese companies, such as Nintendo, has been noticeable.
There was also something “Japanese” about Steve Jobs. It’s not merely that he followed Zen Buddhism or wore Japanese designer shirts or even tried to unsuccessfully introduce Japanese style work uniforms at Apple, but there was something about his personality which would make him right at home in Japan. It was something that went beyond his love of Japanese food. Steve Jobs was “komakai”.
The Japanese word “komakai” (細かい) means “small”, but it can also be used to refer to meticulous, detailed, minute, particular or even trivial. Generally speaking, Japanese people consider themselves to be very komakai. Not everyone is, of course, but it’s the stereotype Japanese people have for themselves. They think they’re detailed oriented and that they notice the small things, which is why the culture of wrapping is so entrenched. Conversely, Japanese people don’t think Americans are komakai — which is incorrect, of course. You cannot get astronauts on the moon without a team of komakai people. You cannot do, well, most things without being komakai.
But Steve Jobs was extremely komakai — even by Japanese standards. It wasn’t only in his professional life, but stories of him spending absurd amounts of time searching for the perfect home appliances and furniture showed just how much he cared about the details.
Steve Jobs’s “komakai” wasn’t learnt through his interest in Japan or Japanese culture. He had it since youth. His carpenter father taught him that you need to make the parts of furniture people cannot see as beautiful as the parts people can see. The ability to pay attention became part of Apple’s DNA, too. And it’s because Apple notices the small stuff, that so much emphasis is placed on how its hardware is packaged and presented.
Apple did this better than anyone — and way better than the Japanese electronics giants. This could be why Apple is — for the first time — the number one consumer brand in the country by, simply put, out-Japaning rivals.
Wrapping gifts and noticing small details didn’t only matter centuries ago in Japan. They still matter today. Just ask Apple.
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Photo: Junji Kurokawa/AP