Niponica magazine is published by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the purpose of introducing, explaining, and promoting various aspects ofJapan’s complex culture. The Japanese, no amateurs at marketing themselves, already have a content-rich, multiple language website, but they well know that websites aren’t enough.
A magazine printed in an oversize format with fine typography, professional photos, and a beautiful layout is just the vehicle to convey their message about a country that offers its visitors a marriage of elegance and technology.
In keeping with this theme Niponica ran back-to-back issues last year devoted to topics that, at first blush, might seem diametrically opposed.
First, an entire issue was devoted to chanoyu or the tea ceremony. This stalwart Japanese tradition migrated from China about a thousand years ago and reached its zenith in the 16th century. Stressing the virtues of patience, simplicity, concentration, and ritual, tea ceremony purists must struggle to convince Japanese youth of the relevance of chanoyu in today’s world—to say nothing of making it interesting to other cultures.
Bite the Bullet
The next issue of the magazine dispelled any notion that Niponica is a journal of ancient history. This time the topic was the shinkansen or bullet train.
Planned in 1950s when conventional wisdom was that passenger trains were doomed, the first bullet train began operations between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964, just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games. The original shinkansen operated at speeds of 130 miles per hour. Bullet train routes now blanket Japan, and a policy of constant upgrading permits top operating speeds of 185 miles per hour.
But that’s not all!
A new bullet train route is currently under construction with an opening planned for the year 2027. Using superconducting magnetic levitation technology, this new generation shinkansen will not run on wheels, but instead float four inches above the ground. The current speed record for these maglev trains is 361 miles per hour.
In the space of two issues Niponica magazine jumps from a cultural icon that was already popular before Columbus discovered America to another that wasn’t even possible a few decades ago and won’t be fully implemented for another 15 years.
That’s quite a stretch. They pull it off without ever losing site of their mission, which is to increase investment and tourism by creating interest in Japanese culture.
None of us (or our companies) are 1,000+ years old, but we may feel as though we’ve lived through technological changes of the same magnitude. Some people react to the technology tidal wave by clinging rigidly to old ways. Tradition has much to recommend it. Virtues of stability, reliability, continuity, and stamina are all positive attributes of people or organizations that are viewed as traditional or venerable.
Of course, if they aren’t careful, established companies may also comport themselves as cranky, outmoded, incompetent, or irrelevant.
Others rush to embrace high-tech. Apple has made a fortune by playing on this segment of the population, depicting them as hip, stylish, savvy, and ahead of the pack. Clearer eyes sometimes perceive those on the bleeding edge as cheeky, impractical, unpolished, or downright weird.
Isn’t it most desirable to have the best of both worlds? Who wouldn’t want to do business with a person perceived as solid, reliable, classy, and wise as well as savvy, informed, and highly competent? This transcends even business, for such people attract not only clients but friends, colleagues, and the opposite sex.
Can one successfully straddle both worlds? My opening example clearly shows that a magazine (and an entire country) can do just that.
We can and must do so as well. The printers of today should depict themselves as proud curators of a 500-year-old unbroken tradition while using tools that are exclusively 21st century.
An image that combines timeless craftsmanship with imaging science is simply irresistible.