The edified and TEDified in Japan

by Kit Nagamura

Special To The Japan Times

On May 21, Tokyo’s third annual TEDx event was held at Miraikan (the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation) in Odaiba. Though officially closed until June 11 due to the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, Miraikan hosted 300 guests to this year’s event: TEDxTokyo 2011: Enter the Unknown.

The live colloquium, featuring some of Japan’s most innovative and thought-provoking speakers, focused on practical and innovative ways to rebuild, support, and rethink Japan’s future. As well as the live audience, TEDxTokyo was viewed by more than 50,000 people via simultaneous bilingual live-streaming broadcasts.

TED was originally conceived in 1984 as a nonprofit stage for groundbreaking thinkers in the fields of technology, entertainment and design — hence the acronym. Since then, however, it has burgeoned into a multimedia-savvy “tribe” of minds dedicated to the exchange of challenging ideas, ideals and appreciation of the arts. Its concept is simple and seductive: Give recognized experts in their fields — whether game designers, botanists, novelists, yo-yo cognoscenti or brain surgeons — a chance to convey their passions, inventions and dreams to a focused and open-minded audience in brief, condensed presentations. Then, to maximize exposure to the speakers, the talks are both streamed live and archived on the Internet.

Currently owned by the private nonprofit Sapling Foundation, which was established by former British magazine publishing entrepreneur Chris Anderson, TED is driven by the notion that “an idea weighs nothing” and can be “transferred across the world at the speed of light.” Its events have inspired the creation of fellowships, prizes and international independently organized TEDx events. Like TED, TEDx events have a way of reverberating, and effecting change, which has led to their rapid expansion to cities across the globe.

The first TEDxTokyo event was organized in 2009 by Patrick Newell, founder of the Tokyo International School, and Todd Porter, a former Silicon Valley employee of Chris Anderson, and it has experienced an annual uptick in interest from sponsors, volunteers, and viewers.

TEDxTokyo 2011 comprised four sessions — Human Coexistence, Solutions, A Life of Purpose, and Forward Thinking — each packed with ideas and fabulous talks, and all of which can be viewed online on YouTube. Sitting through the 30 presentations, each stipulated to be no longer than 12 minutes, must have left the audience feeling like Gilbert & Sullivan’s Modern Major-Generals, conversant on matters “vegetable, animal, and mineral.”

In the first session, Human Coexistence, Kathy Matsui, co-head of Asia macro research at Goldman Sachs gave a riveting overview of her groundbreaking 1999 research report, “Womenomics,” offering a no-brainer solution to the current downward trend in Japan’s population. With charts backed up by extensive research, Matsui suggested reasons why women find it difficult to enter the workplace in Japan, decried the salary differential (Japanese women still earn only 68 percent of what men do at the same job) and presented proof that areas in Japan with the most women in the workforce are also those with the highest birthrate. Presented with humor and clarity, her message was welcomed with vigorous applause.

In the Solutions session Akinori Ito, inventor, environmental problem-solver, and CEO of Blest Corporation, made the audience gasp by instantly dissolving a 2-meter-long stick of Styrofoam board — notoriously problematic to dispose of — in a jar of liquid chemical. While he did not go into the particulars of the magic trick or the liquid he used, he did demonstrate in more detail his invention of a compact machine that can gobble up a kilogram of plastic garbage and convert it into a liter of oil that can be processed into gasoline, diesel, or kerosene fuel.

Ito and Blest have designed both industrial and home models of the machine, and more than 80 have been sold in Japan and abroad. But Ito is more ambitious: “My dream is to install each household with this oil-converting machine,” he said, “and to make it affordable in every country!”

A Life of Purpose, a rich session of presenters, was set spinning with the life story of BLACK, a professional yo-yo performer, whose life has had its ups and downs. As a teen, BLACK got bitten by the yo-yo bug, pursued the skill, and eventually wound up winning the world championship in 2001. At age 18, he had reached the pinnacle of his career, and expected to be lauded on his return to Japan. But it just didn’t happen. Disillusioned, BLACK turned to the life of a salaryman.

“I lost my passion,” he said, “and I lived spiritless days for many years.” Then, one day, BLACK, who had grown up detesting sports, watched a Cirque de Soleil performance, and was moved to start training with the yo-yo again. He combined physical acrobatics and dance moves, and ultimately became world champion once more in 2007. He then successfully auditioned for the Cirque de Soleil in 2009. His tale of perseverance and passionate yo-yo performance won him a standing ovation from the audience.

The line-up of Forward Thinking speakers addressed disparate topics, from advances in sensory brain-mapping by Dr. Naotaka Fujii, who heads the Laboratory for Adaptive Intelligence, BSI, at research institute RIKEN, to a galvanizing presentation by TEDster Gunter Pauli who invited companies to join Blue Economy, his business paradigm that focuses on using renewable energy sources and weaning ourselves off nuclear power with money-saving and community-supported methods.

Perhaps the most eye-popping presentation, however, was made by Masaki Takeuchi. After detailing current techniques to stabilize buildings against earthquakes, and recent design inventions aimed at reducing energy usage in large office complexes, Takeuchi, the general manager of engineering and construction company Shimizu Corporation, introduced the audience to Project Green Float. Like something from a sci-fi movie, the Green Float is a self-sustaining, carbon-negative vertical city designed to house 100,000 people on a free-floating island in the equatorial ocean. Still in the planning process, the idea is projected to reach realization by the year 2025.

“At the equator, temperatures are constant and typhoons aren’t a problem. Everyone will have an ocean and a green view, and we’ve already had people reserve spots,” Takeuchi explained in a brief interview. “The president of Shimizu bought the first one,” he said jokingly.

All TEDxTokyo 2011 talks and performances are available in both English and Japanese on YouTube. There is a link to the entire playlist on www.tedxtokyo.com.

From dancers to scientists: TEDxTokyo’s 30 inspiring presenters

Human Coexistence

MARO: Contemporary juggler and dancer

Lara Stein: Global TEDx director, producer, performer

Garr Reynolds: Presentation guru, brand-community expert, TEDster

Eiji Han Shimizu: Documentary filmmaker and producer

Kaori Brand: Online media producer and documentary filmmaker

Dr. Naoto Ueno: Oncologist, researcher, cancer survivor

Kathy Matsui: Japan financial strategist and female empowerment leader

Ryutaro Kaneko: Japanese drum-player and percussionist

Solutions

Winchester Nii Tete: Master percussionist

Shiroh Tenge: Inventor, medical pioneer, and business educator

James Kondo: Social media advocate and health activist

Nana Watanabe: Photographer, author, and social change advocate

Dr. Hiroshi Ishii: Jerome B. Weisner Professor of media arts and science, associate director of MIT media laboratory, and human-computer interface researcher

Toshi Nakamura: Technology disseminator and sustainable life advocate

Akinori Ito: Inventor and environmental problem solver

Magnus Jonsson: Applied research authority and climate change investigator

Life of Purpose

BLACK: Professional yo-yo performer

Tetsuya Mizuguchi: Master game creator and digital storyteller

William P.J. Hall: Market research consultant, international economist, corporate citizen

Carlos Miranda Levy: Disaster response expert and social entrepreneur

Kyung Lah: Television journalist and international correspondent

James Curleigh: Green business

leader, brand builder, and “hybrid life” advocate

Patrick Chamusso: AIDS activist and children’s advocate

Junko Edahiro: Environmental journalist, sustainability proponent and “happiness” researcher

SMILY: Didgeridoo master and beatbox instrumentalist

Forward Thinking

Tetsunari Iida: Sustainable energy policymaker and green proponent

Yuichi Mori: Medical bio-expert

Masaski Takeuchi: General manager of Project Green Float

Naotaka Fujii: Neuroscientist

Sungene Ryang: Connector, entrepreneur and people mover

Michael Maher King: Network organizer, fundraiser and catalyst

Gunter Pauli: Expert on designing competitive businesses, innovation accelerator, global educator

ABC-Tokyo Ballet Company: International dance troupe and social activists