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Bob Sliwa

by Judit Kawaguchi

Bob Sliwa, 50, who hails from Massachusetts, has lived in Japan for 22 years. He is the Advance Design Director at COBO Design Co., Ltd., one of the biggest industrial design firms in Japan, and a judge for the Japan Car of the Year Award. He followed the success of his 2004 book “Lexus ga Ichiban ni Natta Wake (The Reason Why Lexus Is No. 1),” written in Japanese and later translated into Korean, with “Brand Design ga Kaisha o Sukuu (Brand Design Can Save Your Company),” in which he offers an irreverent look at the successes and failures of branding around the world.

Many people come here for Zen or kabuki or some traditional art. For me, it was more the Sony Walkman or the Datsun 240Z or any number of cheap electronic gadgets that pulled me over.

I also love the Japanese aesthetic sense, from subtle to over the top, from rock gardens to pachinko. There is great beauty in the aesthetic of food: Eating is as much a visual experience as it is a gastronomical one.

Abroad, the Japanese were often accused of copying automotive technology and that was true, but nobody can criticize them in eco technology. With everyone starting on a level playing field, Toyota and Honda dominate hybrid-engine technology. Now the tables are turned. Foreign companies are lining up to buy parts and licensing agreements.

Japan allows me to be myself. Donald Richie said that Japan allowed him to keep his freedom and I feel the same way. I guess this is because I am a foreigner and I don’t ever want to “become Japanese” like some people you meet.

Most Japanese still believe that success is based on making high-quality products, but, unfortunately, this is not always true. Japanese excel at monozukuri [making things], but now so many companies have copied the Japanese style of production that the Japanese cannot succeed on quality alone anymore. They need thatCopy for Web “plus alpha” of branding and design to stay ahead.

Japanese are not good at promoting themselves. I guess it is a national characteristic. They have an inherent humilitytom, so even though they make the best thing in the world, they are not going to say so effectively.

I hate the inability of Japanese companies to think out of the box, the fear to make a leap to the next level.

Two rules of branding I preach to Japanese manufacturers are “lipstick on a pig” and “garbage bag on a supermodel.” Basically they mean the same thing: You can’t build a brand with fake decoration and surface. If your core is solid, honestly showing it is the best way to brand — be yourself. Pigs are cute or delicious, take your pick, but they look foolish with unnatural sprucing up. I think it was Jean Paul Gaultier who put supermodels in garbage-bag dresses and, of course, they looked great — they are supermodels.

I decided a long time ago to make myself into a brand. I only wear bright, loud short-sleeve shirts, all year round. This is how I am identified and I never change my brand’s core value. People know who I am. They might not like me wearing those shirts everywhere, but they certainly recognize me.

You can copy the methods and rules of Japanese manufacturing; Americans, Germans and now Koreans do it. But it doesn’t mean you get a Japanese product. A lot of Japanese character is in their products, like the maniacal attention to detail. One of their strengths now is keeping quality high while cutting costs. They are also adept at bring new technology to the market fast and cheaply.

Tokyo is the best food city in the world. OK, some people get mad when they hear this, but it is simple to prove. If I go to Rome or Paris, how many top-level Japanese restaurants do they have? Very few. But in Tokyo I can take you to 20 to 30 absolutely top-level Italian or French restaurants. Why? Because the Japanese nature compels chefs to go out there and study from the best around the world and then come back and make it their own.

I meet many foreigners who complain about Japan, but most of those people do not see or know enough of this country. Japan is an amazing place to travel. Every little mountain valley has its own wonderful sake, its own delicious pickles and its own authentic cuisine. I think the variety of local delicacies is the most in the world. It’s so developed. I’ve traveled around all 47 prefectures, mostly by car, and everywhere the countryside is so beautiful. You just gotta get out more.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Weekend Japanology” www.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/japanology_e.html