Japan: Between Tradition and Innovation

Every Discovery Expedition combines stays within both a developing country and a developed one. The China expedition was therefore followed by a visit to Japan, providing a very contrasting experience.

After landing in Osaka, the group headed to Kyoto, where Tomo Noda, founder of the Institute for Strategic Leadership and active member of Keiza Doyukai (Japan’s Association of Corporate Executives, tasked with revitalizing the economy of various regions in the country), introduced us to local company executives as well as Keiro Kitagami,  Japanese politician within the current opposition party and member of the House of Representatives in the Diet. In addition, visits to historical businesses and cultural sites in the area were arranged.


The tight schedule for a stay in Kyoto of only 2.5 days was expertly managed by Miko Ozawa, who displayed a level of perfection in her organization that was second to none. From the maps with handwritten notes and highlighted locations handed out to each one of us at the start of a day, down to the Pasmo smart cards for public transports charged with the required amount for all trips during the stay, the dietary requirements verified weeks prior to our arrival in Japan and communicated in advance to all the restaurants we went to – in short: whatever you could possibly think of, Miko had thought about it long ago and down to a level of details that surpassed everyone’s expectations. Less than an hour after meeting her, one of us claimed: “this is going to be the best-organized trip I have ever been on.”

Miko – in many ways – embodies the Japanese values we witnessed again and again during our various interactions with locals. Even in seemingly mundane regularities of daily life, the attention to details, the rigor and absolute dedication to one’s tasks is so prevalent that small gestures such as the refined way shopkeepers hand out the change are opportunities to smile with admiration.

From a business perspective, it was greatly enriching to see how century old companies, such as the tea company Fukujuen, founded in 1790, and the textile company Hosoo founded in 1688, managed to continuously adapt to changing times while staying true to their origins. In the case of Hosoo, this constant balance between innovation and tradition allowed the company to shift from its original focus on producing superior quality garments for kimonos worn by the nobles of Kyoto’s Imperial Courts and the samurai class, to becoming a producer of fabrics for high-end interior and fashion designers such as Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari and many others. Hosoo reacted to a declining demand for traditional clothing – driven by multiple factors such as Japan’s changing demographics – by exploring new opportunities in which its famous textiles could be applied.



In our discussions with Masao Hosoo, President of Hosoo and 9th generation of the family running the business, great emphasis was also put on the importance of continuity (according to him, a 300-year-old company is “not that old in the eyes of a Japanese”) and the will to perpetuate the craft, so that people around the world keep  benefiting from the results of traditional production methods such as the three dimensional weaving technique or the special yarn dyeing art of Nishijin.

All business owners and managers we encountered in Kyoto genuinely believed that their mission was – first and foremost – the preservation of ancient traditional arts and values, with financial rationales dictated by NPVs and other metrics only coming in second; business owners acting as guardians of traditional culture and collective identity.

Interestingly, the balance between tradition and innovation permeates all layers of Kyoto’s society and can also be witnessed outside of the family owned businesses. All it takes is a quick stroll through Arashiyama’s Bamboo Forest in the Western part of the city, where encounters with women in traditional kimonos playing on their smartphones are numerous.



Despite its constant attention on innovation with one of the world’s highest R&D expenditures (both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of GDP), Japan is a country facing multiple challenges: extreme demographic shifts are affecting the entire societal framework, deflation remains an uncured chronic illness, government debt is equivalent to over 250 percent of the country’s GDP in 2016, and Japan’s defense budget has been underfunded for decades, forcing the country to largely rely on the US to counterbalance the growing military strength of China.

Where can Japan find a lasting economic growth that Shinzo Abe is so desperate to bring back?

Or could this entire obsession for growth, largely promoted by economists, industry, and government, in spite of the expected population decrease, be entirely wrong?

What if Japan, with its developed society and aging population, needs a different model?

And while those questions remain unanswered, fuelling a certain kind of anxiety as to what the future may hold for members of Japan’s lost generations, I have come to realise that there are only very few things in life more soothing to the restless mind than an early morning walk through the countless gates – donated by Japanese businesses – of Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine.




Continua a muoverti

Two months have passed since my last entry here. That was not supposed to happen. Yet, it did, affecting once again the German regularity on which I usually like to rely when it comes to structuring my schedule. As the speed of the program increased again during May and the first week of June, priorities shifted towards the execution of various tasks, leaving reflection and introspection on the side for a while. Boxes had to be ticked off. While some of it felt like jumping through the hoops, fuelling my more rebellious side whose disdain for grades seems to increase exponentially as I get older, going through the various simulations provided me with team experiences that I will cherish for some time and look back to as some of the defining moments of my stay here. Continue reading “Continua a muoverti”

Roaming and constraining

TGV France 2

As the TGV from Paris to Lausanne blasts through the French countryside, green patches of forests and yellow fields of rapeseed zipping behind the window, sounds of French, Swiss German and English colliding in this wagon number 6, I catch myself gazing into the distance, mentally going through the last twelve weeks at IMD before diving back into it after a short 4-day break over Easter.

Having put both mind and body through the MBA grinder over the past few months, I know more or less what’s coming now; the rhythm of the program has been internalised. Regarding how I approached the challenges of the past three months, my personal assessment remains – however – slightly tainted with mixed feelings.

Spending a tremendous amount of time and energy on group works, to the detriment of individual exam preparations, might have been a costly choice (I will find out about that once the marks fly in). On the other hand, as pointed out in a reassuring manner by a wise soul, coming here to focus on acquiring knowledge through readings and individual studies wasn’t the objective from the get-go. There are multiple other ways of doing just that at lesser costs than those of an MBA.

I also gravitated – naturally – towards tasks that suited my interests more than others, thereby missing some valuable opportunities to extend beyond the reaches of my comfort zone. I have to remind myself that strengths are not lost because they stop being used for a few weeks or months, but that not taking chances when opportunities to enlarge myself manifest ultimately prevents me from building up new ones.

As someone who usually requires a lot of space to roam and changes of scenery to thrive, spending so much time inside the IMD bubble sometimes felt like going against my very own nature. I must concede that – although I continue to believe that being here and experiencing all this is a real privilege – I did have moments when the routine of certain parts of the program felt constraining. After some initial resistance and just like during my previous studies, I arrived at the conclusion that the captivity and immobility of the body is sometimes necessary for the mind to unleash.

“…the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; it needs trouble and difficulty to hollow out various mysterious and hidden mines of human intelligence.

Pressure is required, you know, to ignite powder: captivity has collected into one single focus all the floating faculties of my mind; they have come into close contact in the narrow space in which they have been wedged. You know that from the collision of clouds electricity is produced and from electricity comes the lightning from whose flash we have light amid our greatest darkness.” (Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo)

The coming transition from a purely class-driven setting to a broader environment, encompassing Company Engagement and – later on – International Consulting Projects around the globe, hints at the importance of making the most out of this remaining period with the entire class before we all scatter like sand in the wind. Some of us are thinking of going into Venture Capital in Japan for the one-month break in July, others are keen to explore the healthcare sector in Switzerland, others again mention Hyperloop One in Dubai; the range is mind-boggling.

I personally find myself moving back and forth between the possibility of going for something completely out of the ordinary that will remain with me as a unique experience (think NGOs in Emerging Economies) or opt for a more strategic approach and select an industry I have a knack for in order to gain some precious on-the-job experience before graduating at the end of the year. The debate is still raging inside of me at this stage, fuelled by the desire for social conformity and a more risk-averse approach on one hand, while at the same time, I can’t deny the opposing desire to completely discard all those external factors and hope for the fire inside me to eventually burn brighter than the one around me. Rage on.



Shadows, apologies and learnings

“Go meet your shadow” is what the former biologist turned Jungian psychoanalyst tells me on the way out.

I reply with a short “Again, thank you for your time. Au revoir Margareta.” before shaking the lady’s hand and exiting the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center on IMD’s campus.

Every IMD MBA student can – for a good part of the program – benefit from a personal coach and analyst to gain insights into what it is that makes him or her tick. This offering is part of the Personal Development Elective and plays a central role in the leadership stream.

I like the idea of the shadow – an image of everything a subject refuses to acknowledge about him- or herself, containing self-denied qualities and impulses – and the belief that the less it is embodied in an individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.

However, the very process of opening to an analyst and going through the layers of my inner workings is something that I am still not very fond of. Maybe that does say something about me, or maybe it simply says something about the culture and environment I grew up in and was shaped by. Either way, I am willing to take that red pill and go down the rabbit hole for a little longer (the cinematic reference in that sentence will most likely have been spotted by millennial readers).  

Those introspective journeys remain a rarity though. The amount of time that went into reading, writing, analysing, preparing and presenting during the entire month of February and the fact that we will continue to be swamped with work all the way to Easter makes any attempt at procrastination futile. Time for self-reflection is a luxury these days, which I think is a pity. As a matter of fact, this post is actually overdue and the only reason I have opted to carve out some time for it now is because I have decided to choose this battle instead of the other ones revolving around Finance, the start-up project and their likes. I won’t even mention the countless books I brought with me from Zurich and was looking forward to delving into, but will most likely not even look at over the coming weeks. The false feeling of having entered a “rat-race” can sometimes resurge and although I believe that it is often much easier to lie about the state of one’s heart than we imagine, I find it relatively easy to dispel those feelings.

It is true that due to their previous studies and professional experiences, some of us are familiar with certain contents of the program. In fact, that is one of the benefits of studying here since a lot of knowledge can be gained through those participants. But so far, what I found out for myself is that I probably wouldn’t have been able to understand certain things without coming here and that this knowledge alone will hopefully serve me well beyond the program.

I have realised that growing up between two cultures and having worked in various places around the globe is not a vaccine against cultural blunders and I have apologised twice during the past two weeks for causing pain to people I consider myself very fortunate to study with.

I have come to understand how important it is to let go of wanting to control it all, since there is only so much one can accomplish over an entire day packed with personal and team deliverables. I must concede: the German in me finds this one very hard to implement.

I believe I have grown slightly better at putting more distance between myself and all the stuff that’s flying around us during the program, somehow insulating myself a bit better than I was able to during the previous years.

Despite the shortage of time, I have found ways and means to maintain regular contact with parents, siblings and close friends; something I wasn’t able to accomplish that well while working.

And although all this feels pretty new to me, I am also aware that some of the previous MBA batches most likely went through similar experiences. If that is indeed the case, I will hereby put the blame on my relative youth and finish by quoting one of my favourite authors:

“Young people get the foolish idea that what is new for them must be new for everybody else too. No matter how unconventional they get, they’re just repeating what others before them have done.” – Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses


Narrating the journey

As one of the four official bloggers who will share their MBA experiences at IMD, using this space to highlight both highs and lows (after all, experiencing setbacks and learning how to navigate through murky waters is also an integral part of a transformative journey) over the next 12 months, I think it only makes sense to use this first post of mine to explain why I decided to come here, describe what I hope to achieve through this blog and briefly introduce my background in the process, before Priyanka, Sathappan and Mohammed do the same over the next few days. Continue reading “Narrating the journey”