Friday, February 25, 2011

Oh, Oh, Tokyo

Some friends have asked what I'm doing here in Tokyo, so I'll share the story here:

So, why the heck am I in Tokyo?

The story goes back to last fall when I took on a project to represent a Japanese company called Remo System that wanted to attract press in the US around the New York marathon in November.

The company makes, among other things, a shoe insert called the i-Grip, which has an elevated bump in the center that is intended to help your feet ‘grip’ better. Their media hook was that they were sponsoring an elite Japanese runner who had a chance to contend in the race. He had an interesting twist in that this runner broke away from the traditional Japanese corporate system and was running as an independent. So I took on the project and we were able to land some nice coverage, like in Runner's World and the Times

After that, they asked what I could do for the Tokyo Marathon in November. The goal, again, was press in the US because they want to get someone in the US to sell their product and want some credibility in the market. So I said well, you’re a Japanese company, with a Japanese product, and your endorser is Japanese and the race is in Japan. I don’t know how I’m going to get the NY Times to care about that.

So we got to thinking about who we might hire to represent Remo in the Tokyo Marathon that press in the US and internationally would take an interest in. At first I was thinking about a reality TV star or a retired athlete, but ultimately suggested Edison Pena, the Chilean miner who completed the New York marathon just three weeks after being rescued from the mine. I was in NY for the NY marathon for Remo and sat in on the press conference when he was introduced. The guy is a natural in front of the media and his story is compelling of course.

They liked the idea so then I had to go about finding him and making an offer and working out all the details. This took about two months, but we finally got it done. Here’s where I need to give a shout out to Barry Flaks. Barry speaks Spanish and made himself available to me to call Pena and his wife and present our offer to them and finalize all the details.

Anyway, so once Pena agreed, then we were able to make an announcement about it – which generated some good press -

I’m over here now working to drum up more media interest, build the relationship with the client, and try to see what Tokyo is all about. There are so many details I could share, but let me just start by throwing out some random observations about Tokyo, in no particular order:

It’s clean, really clean. The people and the cultural are all very orderly. The people on the subway almost don’t talk at all. Very nice people if you ask for some help but they are not outwardly friendly; as in they don’t make eye contact and nod to a stranger, they barely make eye contact at all if you don’t know them; My toilet seat is heated and has a bidet feature. I would pay good money to install both of these features at my home, just sayin. Our American way of dressing down for work has not caught on over here. People wear suits. They are very stylish, they dress well and seem to be incredibly attentive to the details. Lots of people, maybe 15 percent, walk around with surgical masks in public, I think this is related to the cleanliness obsession.

There’s an odd, sort of whimsical nature about Japanese cultural that I can’t quite describe. For example, at night the last 2 nights I’ve noticed that there are these weird shows that I guess you’d describe as a variety show, where you have performers and talk segments and weird stupid human tricks, and it’s all set against a kaleidoscope of a background that’s colorful and weird and childlike.

What else can I tell you? I had a moment in a minivan today when it was me, Edison and his wife, and 5 Japanese people from Remo, the company that hired me. My contact to Remo is Kaz, a US-based Japanese business development guy, whose job it is to connect Japanese businesses with international opportunities.

I’ve gotten to know Kaz pretty well and today in the car I asked him what city he is from. And he replied, “Hiroshima.” And a short uncomfortable silence during which I contemplated apologizing on behalf of the US for dropping an Atomic bomb on his city, I instead went with, “so what is your favorite sport to watch?”; to which he answered baseball; so I quickly changed the conversation to my appreciation of Ichiro’s approach at the plate.

My role here is very odd in that I am a US PR guy who speaks only English and I’m with the Chilean miner who speaks only Spanish, working for a company of people that speak mostly Japanese. So there are weird situations where there isn’t much conversation going on because, basically, no one understands each other. Well, that's not entirely true. Kaz speaks good English so he talks to me and I speak a little Spanish, so I try with Edison and his wife but once they get going in Spanish in return, I can’t understand a word, unless for some strange reason they ask me ‘donde esta el quarto de bano?’ which means, as you who took Spanish in high school know, “Where is the bathroom?” But they have yet to ask me where is the bathroom.

Anyway, the language thing is confusing. I’m finding myself saying gracias to the Japanese concierge, who speaks pretty good English.

What else should I share? Here was my day today:
Woke up around 7 a.m. local time and went to breakfast with Edison and the media director from the NY marathon, who wanted to present him with a gift. Table conversation was difficult so I literally had Kaz call Barry, who walked away from his kid’s basketball practice in Reisterstown for 10 minutes to translate a conversation in Tokyo between me, Edison Pena and his wife and the NY marathon guy, Richard. Have I mentioned that I love Barry?

After breakfast we were picked up by the Remo CEO and drove to the official marathon expo, where Edison met the Chilean ambassador to Japan for a meet and greet and photo opp. A quick note on driving in Japan – they drive on the left. The cars are a touch smaller. Like the minivan we were in, was 3 rows, but a bit more narrow and sleek than the US minivans, which are more bulky. This design, it seems to me, goes hand in hand with the fact that Japanese people are much slimmer than Americans and don’t require as much space. I wish they sold a van like that in the US, it’s got what you need but isn’t a beast to drive around.

Anyway, after the expo, it was time to go to the official marathon press conference. I arranged for Edison to be introduced and interviewed and it went pretty well. There’s some conflicts between Remo and the official marathon sponsors that I’ve had to tip-toe around so it wasn’t as highly publicized as it could have or should have been, but hopefully we’ll get some nice coverage out of it.

After the press conference we took the train back to our hotels. The Japanese subway system is awesome. They have digital readouts above the doors that tell you where you are and what stop is next. There are English translations for most things and everything operates with mind-blowing efficiency. Unlike the subways in DC or New York for example, where people gaggle around the doors all mish-mashed, they have people whose job it is to line you up and there are tight lines of people waiting to get in, who stand behind the line. There’s a crush to get in, of course, but it’s an organized crush.

I’m trying to think of some other good tidbits but my brain is starting to feel a bit soft and uncooperative so I’ll wrap it up. I’ll send some more news and notes later this weekend, hope you made it this far in my little write-up.



Anonymous said...

Great to hear from you again Greg. I have been to Tokyo a couple of times and find it fascinating. Like another planet in some vending machines on the streets... the Japanese businessmen reading those 2-inch thick comic books filled with Anime of hot young girls. Those people with surgical masks are usually people with colds - they are actually protecting you from infection: the height of courtesy in my opinion. See if you can bring back a 60% 3-point shooter who loves turtles. BL

Greg Abel said...

BL - thanks for your note. We will have to get together to compare Tokyo stories at some point. I found the city fascinating as well, just so different and interesting. For example, the taxi I rode to a meeting was the cleanest car I think I've ever been in. Crazy.