Steve Jobs and Japan

Society Culture

Apple founder and CEO extraordinaire Steve Jobs had a close relationship to Japan. Hayashi Nobuyuki, an IT journalist who has written about Steve Jobs and Apple for many years, traces the course of Jobs’s links with Japan, dating from his first interest in Zen as a young man.

When Steve Jobs passed away on October 5, 2011, the world lost a great man. The cofounder and CEO of American consumer electronics company Apple Inc. was the kind of figure who comes only rarely.

Since his death, Steve Jobs has attracted huge media attention around the world, being feted for his remarkable achievements as an entrepreneur and business manager—the man who brought Apple from the brink of collapse to become the world’s most valuable company in the space of just 15 years.

He was also renowned as a public speaker. The commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005 moved people around the world and has been used in English textbooks for Japanese high schools.

The Man Who Made the Twenty-first Century

But to regard Jobs as nothing more than an outstanding CEO and gifted public speaker fails to do him justice. His true genius lay in the fact that, more than anyone else, Steve Jobs created the culture and new markets of the early twenty-first century.

“Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything,” said Jobs himself. His life and career were the perfect illustration of this adage. Apple’s groundbreaking products changed the world again and again.

Jobs founded Apple in the 1970s, when he was still in his twenties. The company brought personal computers into the lives of normal households for the first time. In the 1980s, he introduced the revolutionary mouse-operated devices that are the standard today to the consumer market. He was also instrumental in slashing the cost of laser printers, making them commercially viable for the first time and opening the door for the desktop publishing revolution.

When he was ousted from the company he had founded in the mid-1980s, he used his temporary absence to found Pixar, which was instrumental in developing the new genre of computer-animated movies. After returning to Apple in late 1996, he revolutionized the way computers looked with the colorful and stylish iMac range of desktop machines. In 2001, Apple launched the iPod, revolutionizing the music business and signaling the end of the line for older formats like the MiniDisc and CD. With the iPhone, he united the cellphone with the personal computer and sent shockwaves through the world’s telephone industry. Now used by nearly 100 million people around the world, the device brought a piece of cutting-edge technology into people’s pockets.

This was followed by the iPad, which continues to enjoy phenomenal sales, defining a new way of living and working for the twenty-first century and promising to make the personal computer a relic of the past.

Jobs and Japan: A Reciprocal Love Affair

The effects of Jobs’s digital revolution were felt far beyond the specialized worlds of personal computing and the music industry, and far from his native California. They also had a huge impact here in Japan.

Bouquets and messages left in front of the Ginza Apple Store following news of Jobs’s death. Some people stood with their hands folded in prayer. (October 6, 2011) Photo: Sankei Shimbun

After the iPod launched, Japan’s crowded subways and commuter trains were suddenly full of men and women of all ages sporting the distinctive white earbuds. The iPhone turned the Japanese mobile phone market on its head. And with the iPad, he helped push Japan’s laggardly publishing industry a step closer to digitization and offered an opportunity to the older generation who had been left behind by the IT revolution, bringing many of them online for the first time.

When the new iPhone 4S went on sale shortly after Jobs’s untimely death, hundreds of people lined up outside the seven Apple Stores in Japan: Ginza, Shibuya, Shinsaibashi, Nagoya, Sapporo, Fukuoka, and Sendai. Messages and flowers were piled high in front of the window displays at all seven stores, left behind in affectionate tribute by legions of fans.

Jobs’s exacting craftsmanship, which regarded simplicity as a virtue and insisted on a perfectionist attention to detail, won Apple a particularly enthusiastic following in Japan. And the CEO himself maintained a great fondness for Japan throughout his life.

Jobs, Japan, and Zen Buddhism

Jobs’s first point of contact with Japan was Zen. Put up for adoption as an infant, he embarked on a lengthy search for himself as a young man. For a time, he even underwent ascetic training in India.

His spiritual quest eventually led him to a local Zen center close to his home in Los Altos, California. The center was led by Otogawa Kōbun, a Sōtō Zen monk originally from Kamo in Niigata Prefecture. Jobs revered Otogawa as his teacher.

When Jobs founded his second company NeXT in 1985, he invited Otogawa to serve as “spiritual advisor.” Otogawa was also present at Jobs’s wedding. Otogawa, whose English was still rudimentary, was frequently subjected to a passionate barrage of probing questions from the young Jobs about the true nature of reality.

Jobs continued to be fascinated by the Sōtō sect of Zen. At one stage he had to be held back from carrying out a threat to renounce the world and enter Eiheiji, the sect’s head temple in Fukui Prefecture.

Zen Buddhism had a major impact on Jobs’s philosophy and aesthetic sensibility.

In the commencement address he gave at Stanford toward the end of his life, he revealed that he asked himself the same question every morning: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” It was a question that occasionally pushed him into making tough decisions. This point of view had much in common with Zen dialogs.

Jobs believed that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” For him, the aim was to make an object that was stripped down to its core elements without any superfluous adornment. Along with the German Bauhaus movement, the chief influence on the development of this aesthetic was Japanese Zen.

Collaboration and Competition with Japanese Firms

Jobs delivers a tribute to the recently deceased Morita Akio at a new product launch event. (October 5, 1999) Photo: AFP/Jiji

The other major Japanese influence on Jobs was Sony. The admiration Jobs felt for Morita Akio, the company’s cofounder, is well known. At a product launch exactly 12 years before the date of his death, Jobs delivered a eulogy to the recently deceased Morita. He spoke movingly of the excitement Sony’s transistor radios and Trinitron televisions had inspired in him and of his drive to create new products that Morita would approve of.

Steve Jobs’s trademark look of jeans and black turtlenecks was also inspired by Sony. On a visit to a Sony factory during a trip to Japan, Jobs asked Morita why all the employees wore uniforms. Morita told him that after the war no one had any clothes and companies like Sony had to give their employees something to wear each day.

Impressed by the story, Jobs decided to introduce a similar uniform at Apple, but he had to ditch the idea after an angry backlash from the employees. As a compromise, Jobs decided instead to order several hundred Issey Miyake tops for himself, which he continued to wear for the rest of his life.

The close relationship between Jobs and Sony continued until the time of Idei Nobuyuki’s resignation as CEO. Jobs invited Sony president Andō Kunitake to join him on stage at his product launch events and occasionally entertained senior Sony executives at concerts and Japanese restaurants.

He would sometimes drop in on Sony unannounced to share his ideas for new products and their dimensions. In particular, he was a passionate student of Sony’s directly managed retail outlets, which would have a major impact on the direction his own company took.

Another Japanese company with which Jobs had a close working relationship was Alps Electronics Co., which supplied the floppy disc drives for some of Apple’s early computers. Jobs visited the factory several times and summoned Alps employees to Apple headquarters for advice. Jobs himself gave a lecture at the Alps factory in Japan. Alps provided Jobs with useful hints on effective factory automation.

A Love for Japanese Craftsmanship

Jobs’s relationship with Japan went beyond the business sphere.

Throughout his life, Jobs had a great interest in the Japanese lifestyle and aesthetics. The color for the “snow white” model iMac released in 2000 was supposedly chosen to match the Japanese-style tatami room in the home of Larry Ellison, a close friend and founder of Oracle, an IT company.

When it came to making purchasing decisions, Jobs was a perfectionist, capable of taking nearly seven years just to decide on a sofa, or engaging in thoroughgoing family discussions over dinner every night for several months before deciding on what kind of washing machine to buy. In spite of being such a difficult customer, though, he had an enormous respect for the craftsmanship and precision of Japanese artisans.

He met the designer Issey Miyake several times, following an introduction by Morita Akio. As well as ordering several hundred of his trademark black turtlenecks, it was Miyake he turned to again when he finally succeeded in locating his birth sister, the novelist Mona Simpson, after a lengthy search. The first present he gave her was a selection of Issey Miyake clothes.

Jobs was a great admirer of Shakunaga Yukio, a ceramics potter from Tateyama in Toyama Prefecture. Jobs first encountered Shakunaga’s work in the mid-1990s at a gallery in Kyoto. He fell in love with it instantly and went back repeatedly during the three days of his stay to buy piece after piece. He continued to order Shakunaga’s work by fax and phone after his return to the United States.

Jobs visited Kyoto numerous times for pleasure, always staying at the Tawaraya ryokan, one of the oldest and most prestigious traditional inns in the city.

In his later years, after he became ill, he continued to visit Kyoto, taking his son and daughter on tours of the city’s Buddhist temples. His absolute favorite was Saihōji (the moss temple), one of the city’s Rinzai Zen temples.

A Love of Japanese Food and a Final Keepsake

Another aspect of the closeness Jobs felt for Japan was his love of Japanese food. Soba noodles and sushi were particular favorites. In his younger years, Jobs was a fruitarian (someone who only eats fruit), and he continued to be a strict vegan throughout his life. But he made an exception for Japanese food.

Such was his love of soba that he sent the chef from Café Mac, the Apple company cafeteria, to study at the Tsukiji Soba Academy and had him serve a dish called “sashimi soba,” an original Steve Jobs creation.

Jobs was a regular at Jinshō, a sushi restaurant in Silicon Valley, and Kaygetsu, which served sushi and kaiseki (elegant multicourse meals). Despite his famous secrecy when it came to company affairs, he would occasionally bring in products under development and discuss work openly over dinner. These favorite restaurants were also the venues for farewell parties with employees after he realized that he didn’t have long to live.

If he couldn’t get a reservation at Kaygetsu, a restaurant that refuses to give celebrities special treatment, he would order takeaway sushi and drive down to pick it up himself. His favorite toppings were fatty tuna, salmon, yellowtail, ocean trout, sea bream, mackerel, and saltwater eel. He and his daughter once managed to polish off 10 plates of eel sushi between them over dinner at Kaygetsu.

But by July 2011, his body ravaged by the cancer that would take his life just months later, he was unable to eat any of the eight pieces of his favorite dish he ordered at Jinshō. He placed an order of hotpot noodles instead, but wasn’t able to eat that either. In the end he was reduced to staring longingly at his food, unable to eat a bite.

On October 5, 2011, Steve Jobs passed away in his prime. As it happened, his death came just two days before Kaygetsu closed down for good. When Jobs heard that the restaurant was due to close earlier in the year, he had a proposal for the restaurant’s manager and chef Sakuma Toshio. Sakuma accepted the offer, and soon after Jobs’s death, he started to serve up the former CEO’s favorite dishes at the Apple employee cafeteria. To borrow his signature phrase from his keynote addresses at Apple events, it was a fitting “one more thing” from Jobs to his employees, and a sign of his enduring affection for Japan.

(Originally written in Japanese. Title background photograph courtesy Sankei Shimbun.)

▼ Further reading

Kyoto’s “Nippon to Asobō” Event Blends the Old and New
Every year since 1994 Kyoto has played host to “Nippon to Asobō”...

Convenience Store Sushi: A Surprising Success
Among the various convenience store chains that have started to sell packages of chilled sushi...

Exploring Kenninji’s Beauty (360˚ Panorama)
Attractions at Kyoto’s Oldest Zen Buddhist Temple

Sony Kyoto Zen Steve Jobs computers IT iPhone iPad Soto Bauhaus Morita Akio Issey Miyake Japanese food Apple Inc.