May 1st, 2011
Photo of The Day
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Color-codings during Diaster Times

As I have written in the previous post, buildings that are severely damaged by the 3.11 earthquake, are not necessarily obvious. As after-shakes continue and over 70 of them have been recorded to exceed the magnitude of five, the risk of damaged buildings to come down when people are much relaxed about the safety, cannot be undermined.

City offices seem obviously aware of the issue and sending staffs to investigate buildings. By simply being in Sendai for a brief time, I have managed to see three different color codes: green for safe, yellow for caution, and red for danger.

According to Mr. Ishii, who is behind many of the non-governmental activities that take place in Tohoku Region, color-coding are playing important roles in many of the refugee camps and, sadly, the temporary space where bodies are placed. When bodies were found from the areas damaged from tsunami, bodies are categorized by the area they are found, each of which are color coded. Mr. Ishii also described the importance of where to place these colored signs, as many of the families and relatives who visit the place often are not walking with their eyes at the front, but rather to the ground.

Considering the significance and the state of shock that ‘users’ of the facilities are in, I am glad that there are such design solutions found and someone is executing them in a consistent manner.

For more design solutions, have a look at issue+design, which is Hakuhodo’s effort on how to solve some of the social issues using the power of design, though in Japanese. In terms of using color codes to solve some practical issues that exist in natural disasters and evacuations, I recommend checking out the Dekimasu Zekken: A simple color coded badge that can be taped on the back of the volunteer staffs. There are altogether four colors, each of which describes the different types of skills of the volunteer.

Dekimasu Zekken (Japanese):

April 30th, 2011
design, issue
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Sendai, My First Impression

Tohoku express train, which runs between Sendai and Tokyo, has recovered on March 25th, 2011. Taking one of the first trains, we arrived to Sendai, one of the major cities which had been struck by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that took place on 3.11.

Upon arrival, there is no obvious damage you see in Sendai station. In fact, I was surprised to see how bright it is inside the station, with all the signs lit in full strength, contrasting to how things are in Tokyo: For several weeks now, major train and metro stations have dimmed quite a few lights. As an ignorant who had this simplified conclusion of ‘Sendai is damaged,’ this was one of the first surprises I have encountered. Later I found out, that because factories are shut down and no longer in function, there are less demands in consuming electricity, thus any remaining facilities do not need to be concerned much on their part of consumption. In that sense, there is no secret to the matching electricity demand and supply.

Inside Sendai station. Notice all the signs are lit. April 25th, 2011.

Major stations dimming lights to save electricity. Iidabashi, Tokyo.

It turned out that the central part of Sendai remained less damaged considering the impact of the earthquake. It appeared as quite a contrast to some stereotypical images of earthquakes we see in Japan. For example, upon the great earthquake in Kobe in 1995, over 200,000 buildings were completely shattered and caused 77% of the deaths from whom laid underneath those roofs.

Later I have learned from Professor Motoe, who teaches architecture in Tohoku University, that different types of earthquakes cause different shakes thus change the impact to buildings. The earthquake that hit Kobe was so called shallow inland earthquakes, which took place right south of the Kobe city. The land shook in a strong and sharp manner.

Meanwhile, this time, the epicenter of the earthquake was 72 kilometers away from the coastline. The land shook hard, but as I understood, was felt more in sideways. According to the professor, this time, wooden-structured buildings, which consist of most of the residential homes in Japan, were not damaged. Wooden homes are typically two-stories, or three at max, and simply does not have the height to be shaken. On the other hand, tall buildings shook side ways. This series of strong horizontal shakes lasted several minutes, and gave a severe damage to old and tall buildings.

The photo is from the university campus located in Aoba-Yama, Tohoku University. This building stands high and strong from a stranger’s eye. However, professor pointed at the horizontal crack that goes across the entire building. This crack is a proof that the building hard that steel rods inside were bent permanently. From what I imagine, it’s like those paper clips: when you stretch them and play too much with it, the metal gets too weak and falls apart.

A horizontal crack goes across the building. Most likely to be torn down as it is more costly to reinforce the steel rods damaged inside.

Similar damages can be seen at a pachinko parlor in the center of the city.

On March 11th, teachers and students ran out without taking much of their belongings. Laptops, textbooks, they are all in there. Professor doubts whether anyone could claim them, as aftershocks of such large earthquakes themselves can be called great. Despite of the damages, the school will start after the long Golden Week holidays that take place today, however, as students have lost their studios, it would be difficult for them to have a proper class.

Fortunately, many universities outside of the region, both domestically and internationally, are offering engineering students a temporary relocation and taking classes. With so many offers, some might even have a rare opportunity of experiencing exciting courses, which they might not have had otherwise.

But there is one major obstacle to this positive scheme. Professor told us that despite of such opportunities given to students, it can be hard to convince students to take part. Some students have already been to Osaka and Tokyo for the past few weeks, as the school instructed them to be away unless they have families in the region. These students were in a shock, as particularly in the West their everyday lives seem to be no different from the days before the earthquake. In addition, students also feel some sense of responsibility and should not leave the city behind.

It is no surprise but I felt that we are reminded that in order to make sure of the recovery, it is the psychological aspect that needs as much care as the physical. If universities are to offer their courses and accommodations to students, they will also need a community which could also be engaged with them. This, I am afraid, is not the biggest expertise for many Japanese institutions. How can we ensure to people who were affected with the earthquake to have a proper start-up as they are to be back on track?

March 22nd, 2011
Photo of The Day


My personal note, Saturday March 12th

March 12th, Saturday.

I remember telling Chika it is 1:40 now. We turned the lights and TV off (I forgot in which order), went to bed. For Chika, in fact it was a small uncomfortable-looking couch, which didn’t even allow her legs to be stretched, with a pillow and an extra blanket, which the hotel staff prepared for us at the last minute.

Before we went to sleep, I took shower and brushed my teeth. But I’m not quite sure how much Chika did any of her daily routines. “I rather not get myself comfortable,” she told me, as she refused my proposal to make herself comfortable. “I’m afraid I will miss the train if I do,” Chika added. While I saw the point of her claim, a part of me was thinking, “There goes again the Japanese humbleness.” For someone like myself who has been spoiled abroad and forgot to be well-mannered, what Chika was saying seemed like one of those excuses that try not to disturb the host of the house (in this case, me). Despite of the fact that it was only by chance that Chika was leaving one night earlier and checking out accordingly, she repeated, “I’m really sorry for disturbing. You must feeling uncomfortable to have someone in the same room.” Come on, I thought, no one was able to predict this and there was no reason why she should feel sorry, especially for sleeping on a sofa that was only one-third the width of the bed I was sleeping. I felt quite obliged to be stubborn to her. I think she at least wore the extra pajama offered by the hotel and brushed her teeth. But I don’t think I managed to make her to take shower.

It was around 4:40 that Chika woke up. As I was suffering from a terrible cough, I failed to sleep well and by chance woke up to realize there was no one sleeping on the sofa. Her consideration to the ‘host’ was again obvious, as without turning a single light on, she got dressed. Her trolley was still opened but packed with her stuff before she went to sleep, and placed right behind the door so that the sound of dragging it would be, if any, minimized. She once again repeated for her early departure and headed for Shin-Osaka for the first bullet train to Tokyo.

18:50 Shin-Osaka Shinkansen Platform

After that, the business was usual, at least for Osaka. At appearance I saw no effect of the great earthquake whatsoever in Osaka. Mao and I, two team members on the field, continued observations and interviews to customers and staffs. We arrived at Shin-Osaka ten minutes before 19:00, the departure time for the bullet train we have booked. As we headed for the platform, Mao had a reasonable question: “Uh, should we actually buy some food? I mean, I hear that food is scarce in Tokyo.” I must say I found her suggestion quite silly. Perhaps I was too distracted, or simply I was too stuck in a small, didn’t quite feel like eating anything although usually, I am having dinner around this time of the day. I also found it absurd that despite of all areas, Tokyo, will be running out of food. And in Osaka, there was absolutely nothing that seemed to have been influenced from the disaster. Mao thought that it would still be wise to buy a few batteries, so that she could at least use a flashlight at home. Now that I think of it, Mao was more updated on the situation. After all, she was the one who had One-Seg, mobile TV on her phone. In few hours, I was proven to be wrong. Tokyo can run out of food.

As I return back to Tokyo, I was encountered by a completely empty Tokyo station, which all restaurants and shops were closed, trains running with less frequency with amazingly few little people inside. I intended to buy food once I arrive to the station near home, only to realize that nothing was left in the convenience stores. Even McDonald’s, which mostly opens 24 hours in the metropolitan area, had run out of burgers and only served drinks.

Eventually I learned this was due to highway shutdown preventing trucks to deliver food. However, I am quite certain that this scene made quite a few people paranoid, rushing for food that can be stored, primarily cup noodles and rice.

Photo by Benoist Sebire (see for more)

March 18th, 2011
Photo of The Day


Practical Tips on How to Use Home Electronics Wisely: Laundry

For the past few years I have been fortunate to work with clients I admire. Hoshino-san is one of them, and his tweets as @hoshigogo is something worth looking as he is an experienced designer with keen eyes on social infrastructure, interaction and innovation. Through Twitter he shares some practical tips on how we could save energy during this time as we need to save energy to make sure that people and institutions who are in need do not need to go through any more sacrifice.

I know that depending on the circumstances, the list has no meaning as it assumes the Japanese house context, which heavily relies on home electronics and the approach will not fundamentally change the fact that you use electricity. But if any of you are interested, here is the list.


  • Fill washing machine up to 80%. Putting more clothes will not only waste energy but also decreases the washing power. In comparison to the case when you only fill up 50%, washing the same amount of clothes, this would save the electricity by 17%.
  • Rinse once. Most Japanese washing machines allow you to choose the number of times clothes would be rinsed.
  • Use quick mode. Depending on the model, quick mode will save up to 50% in comparison to the standard mode.
  • Shorten the spinning time. First three minutes takes away a large portion of the water from the clothes. As many Japanese households rely on drying the clothes outdoors, this short spin should do most of the job. If clothes are to be dried indoors, run for five minutes instead.
March 16th, 2011
Photo of The Day


My personal note on what happened last Friday

The following is a note to myself in order to remember what I have encountered on that day. Countless individuals have experience the earthquake, and for those who have been through so much more, this note means absolutely nothing. However, I think I also know as a researcher what is the power of individual insights and how accumulation of life bits can turn into life logs, and on the other hand, how forgetful I am without. Using yourself as an instrument to learn what is happening in the context you are in, and make sure to share when necessary, that is what I believe any researchers in field do. Taking the advantage of being cut from the current projects, I will try to write up my experiences in chronological order.

Pure facts would remain in an official history, when tsunami happened or when the reactor in Fukushima power plant exploded, media would be able to track them down easily. But what individuals went through on that day, can perhaps only be tracked down by that individual alone. If we are to think of how to solve the similar crisis in the near future in a human-centric manner, in fact I encourage who is not in the worst situation to consider each experience being precious and keep personal log of any kind.

Friday, March 11th 14:00 –

Together with the team, I came into Osaka from the night before to run observations on retail space in one store in Tennoji area. When the earthquake hit us, I was in a Korean restaurant on tenth floor, taking some break as we downloaded our findings from the morning and reviewing check points for the following hours.

Although I was seated, I suddenly felt sick, as if I was going to faint. Strange, I thought, as I am not the type to faint usually. Then I mumbled without confidence, “shaking?” Maio, who was with me and eating Korean lunch set at the time, agreed, as she told me that she as well thought that she was being sick for some reason.

We both started to look around. The lamp shade hanging from the ceiling with a wire was swinging. So was the small dangling thing hanging from the blind curtain. It was shaky and we did not feel too well. We both said to each other, “oh this earthquake is long.” “I don’t feel well, it has to stop real soon!” We also realized that other customers in the restaurants started to feel uneasy about the situation.

The earthquake was quite long. To me it felt like it lasted for three minutes or so. In fact it may have been shorter. Mao and I, we both agreed, this was the biggest earthquake we have ever experienced, and then started to wonder whether the tenth floor of a building is the right place to be in this circumstance. Many people seemed to have thought the same. Two ladies in 40s stood up, as the earthquake seemed to settle down. “Let’s leave,” they said, and rushed to the cashier. I, too, thought it is a good idea to finish payment right now, so even if we feel the urge to leave right now, we are at least reasonable citizens. I stood up with my wallet in my hand, and saw upwards to check how much the ceiling light is swinging. I felt I should not have done that, because the tip of the light was swinging sideways in an abnormal angle, and it reminded me how much the building is still shaking. Then I glanced at the table next to us. Two ladies, who just stood and left as they paid in rush, were eating bibimbap, rice stirred with variety of vegetables, served on a heated stone bowl. Both bowls were half full.

I realized that Mao also lost her appetite. When the earthquake happened, her meal was just served. I, on the other hand, finished lunch an hour ago, and was sipping sweet, plum tea. Her speed of eating accelerated, bringing her long silver spoon into her mouth without much break in between. “I’m just bringing the food into my mouth without tasting anything,” she said and eventually stopped eating her bibimbap.

We both checked outside of the window. From meters above the ground, nothing seem to have changed down below. We also told ourselves, “Aren’t high-rise buildings built for earthquakes?” and tried to calm down. I think the building was still shaking. The ceiling lamps, which I hoped to have ceased to shake by then, was still swinging. In fact, I think there was the second big earthquake around this time, and lights seem to be losing control.

Around then, we heard the building announcement. In department stores and shopping malls, background music is usually so constant and mind-numbing that I found the sane male voice quite odd to hear in such a set-up. The details of the announcement did not go through, I guess I was quite disturbed, then Mao said with a mildly surprising manner, “Did he say the source is Kanto?” (Kanto is the region which includes Tokyo metropolitan area). I didn’t quite believe her. I thought she misheard Kansai, which was where we were in, an area that includes Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and other major cities of the West. Knowing that Kobe was earlier struck by a large earthquake, to me it was an easier conclusion to think that we are much closer to the source than where we usually live in.

I don’t remember the exact sequence any longer, but I think around then, Mao took out her ‘gara-kei’: Gara-kei is an abbreviation for “garapagos keitai”, a term which locals have been using ironically, to describe the domestic mobile phones that are so isolated and unusable elsewhere. She took out her gara-kei, stretched the antenna, and started to check NHK, the national broadcasting channel. Checking the TV, we confirmed that the earthquake was indeed from the North. Gradually, the fear was replaced by the concern to whoever I was not with. First, we tried to call up Chika, another team member in Osaka who was then away for shadowing one informant for simulated retail experience in the neighborhood. Then we started to think about our family members in Tokyo. Both of us took out phones, but there was no ringback tone. Obviously, everyone in the area was reaching to their loved ones over the mobile. Our call was not even picked up by the base station in Osaka, let alone go through to reach people in Tokyo. I quickly switched to SMS, thinking I would have better luck with data. I realized after several trials that my messages are not delivered.

After making alternative calls to Chika and my husband in Tokyo, we had a luck and somewhat managed to reach Chika first. She eventually joined us and now there were three of us in a Korean restaurant, all of us trying to understand the situation and to reach to our family. I somehow gave up quite quickly, perhaps because of my background in telecommunications that in such circumstances chances are slim that my phone call would go through. Chika then reached to her husband. She was for sure the most desperate one of all, as she was planning to leave Osaka on that day. Her husband was also away from their home, which left them to think of the consequences as they try to pick up their two year old daughter at daycare. We left the restaurant, and head back to the fourth floor where the shop we are observing locates. I went back to the observation, Mao did more interviews, while Chika tried to confirm the situation.

At this point, there were two things we learned. One, was that trains stopped moving, including bullet trains heading for Tokyo. This meant that Chika, who initially planned to head back home, might have to stay overnight in Osaka and if so, have to find a place to stay. But it was Friday evening. No hotel near the station had vacancy, and I called the hotel for extra bed, which, we did not get as the hotel staffs for such ‘labor’ left the hotel already. The staff in any case promised to leave us an extra blanket, pajamas, and towels. Two, was the phone battery. We did have our equipments with us, but phone batteries were off the list as typically during observations, we are concerned of batteries for video cameras or data storage. Unreachable mobile network, mobile phone battery drainage, and irregular train schedules are three things we have learned to be a serious psychological constraints every time earthquake happened. But on Friday, I was naive. It felt so strange as something that usually works perfectly stopped working all of a sudden.

And this was also the moment I realized how much we are dependent on an orchestrated public services. Had this been a typical day, working parents would work until they have absolutely no time left and rush to day cares to pick up their children. In Chika’s case, what I ironically call as “Cinderella time”, takes place around 17:00, and mine 18:00. Just like any other moms, we all take for granted that trains come one after another, and in an accuracy of one to two minutes, we would be able to arrive at the destination. But on that day things turned out different. Elevators stopped working and people had to take stairs in their office towers. Trains stopped and people had no choice but to walk. Roads were packed, taxis occupied. Although Chika confirmed her husband and her daughter are safe, she continued to feel helpless as her husband was stuck in a taxi and had no chance of arriving to the daycare to pick the daughter up in the normal hours. In the end it was around 20:00, which is way later than daycare closing time. Chika knew very well there was nothing she could do. But thinking about her two year old daughter, she was constantly concerned that her daughter would have a traumatic memory about the day as neither parent appeared way past the normal pick up time.

As there was nothing we could do at that point, we continued the observations as planned. I received a text message from my husband a few hours after. It said “ca va?”, which made me slightly angry, because I wanted to know if he was ok rather than him asking me. The network was still occasional and my reply to him was not delivered for coming hours. Around the time, I learned that all trains in Tokyo have stopped. By six in the evening, I managed to reach my family in Tokyo, and was surprised to hear my young sister joining my husband and my daughter. She told me there was no way she could walk back to Kichijoji, where she lives in an apartment with his husband. So instead, she walked about one hour or so from Tokyo station. Trains did not recover on that day, she slept over at our place.

Chika tried to go to the railway stations, however, learned that in Shin-Osaka, there are people forming a big crowd, waiting for bullet trains to recover. By the time we finished observation around 20:30, we learned that there will be no trains heading back to Tokyo tonight. We all packed our stuff tried cheering ourselves with delicious udon in town, and head back to our hotel.

By the time we arrived to our hotel, it was around 23:30. I immediately turned the TV on, and I think it was only after then that we have learned the magnitude of the earthquake. TV channels showed us countless consequences of the natural disaster for those who reside much closer to the origin. On one side, there was tsunami washing away the entire town. On another, there was Kesen numa city, filled with fire. The top left side of the screen showed the death polls. Numbers were slightly different by the channel (typically NHK, the national broadcasting channel somehow estimates smaller numbers than other channels for any polls), but ranged between 200 to 300. As I read a book called “Disaster Ethnography,” which counted the death poll from Kobe’s earthquake as 6,500, at this point I thought that perhaps the Tohoku region miraculously avoided the impact. I thought that perhaps because Tohoku tends to be less populous, the casualty could be less than populated, big city Kobe.

February 28th, 2011
Photo of The Day

How dodgy and cheap places can be a heaven

Just like there is Tokyo tower in Tokyo, Osaka has its own tower called Tsutenkaku. The neighborhood is often covered by TV programs for its cheap food. Simultaneously, it is where you will find many people who live on daily wages, and one of the very few places in Japan where women are advised not to walk on their own.

But as we visited the neighborhood and walked into the old shopping street, we were captivated by number of places where money is not the condition to have fun: Signs show there are game arcades where you can play with 50 yen (60 US cents); Across the street lies a Kushi-yaki (skewers) restaurant, where you can buy a stick of meat skewers from price of 100 yen (about 1.2 USD). Or if you like, you can choose to play Smartball, what has eventually became Pachinko, which you can play for at least good ten minutes with that very coin. The neighborhood gives you an impression as if time has stopped a long time ago. The fact that you can buy anything with a mere 100 yen coin is such a rare encounter, that it reminded me of the time when I can buy a can of drink could be purchased with this very coin (which is at least 22 years ago). It is quite amazing that the area managed to preserve these places up and running for a very long time.

But the highlighted was definitely the Japanese chess room. The room offers customers a place to play Shogi, Japanese chess, or Go, another board game which is played across East Asia. It costs 300 yen to play for an hour, or 1000 yen at max if you play for the entire day. The room is obviously offering a quiet yet interactive place for the people who get together. A scene which is quite hard to encounter in modern Japan, and rather, reminded me of the atmosphere in parks in China.

A recent survey reports that Osaka was ranked 12th as a city that is easy to live in. That is the highest rank in fact for an Asian city. When I heard that I was not quite sure what it meant. For people who live in Tokyo, Osaka seems equally crowded and perhaps even noisier than this rival city. But now I tend to believe that now.

Japanese Bullet Experience

Just a few snapshots from the trip between Tokyo and Osaka. Be welcomed by two conductors bowing for every customer getting into the bullet train.

Buy bento box containing beef and rice. Pull the yellow string and heat will be infused and heat the entire bento for you.

Together with the PET bottle containing hot Japanese

December 28th, 2010
Product of The Day

Selection of things

What would you like? Strawberry, pair, or cherry? Or, perhaps, milk, orange peel with chocolate, apricot and basil, or mandarin with green tea? Whether for men, women, kids, or for someone with a sensitive skin, the French retail provides such an immense selection to body soap. The shelf is almost overwhelming for someone who is accustomed to a single brand providing a single product. Here, in one of the
supermarket chains, take one brand and you will easily get three fragrance variants. The incomparable rich selection of products are not only for the body soap; on the other end of the aisle lies hundreds of boxes of toothpastes, each brand offering easily ten variants.

In times when you have the information and most likely even the access to products around the world online, you feel like there is not much difference when it comes to a retail such as supermarkets; however, the actual experience tells you otherwise, as the combination of product range and how space is allocated makes each market can be so unique. Now I am curious: if everyone has such a specific taste in what toiletry product to use, will they ever have an enough space in the bathroom? What motivates consumers to choose one from so many variations?

December 23rd, 2010
Product of The Day

Thermometer: it is not about measuring the temperature.

A simple gun-shaped thermometer sold in France, measures temperature of your body or room in a matter of a second. This device allows you to measure the body temperature a few centimeters away from a suspected patient’s forehead, which is something any parent would appreciate as babies are so restless and can never be still for more than ten seconds. What is more, the backlight changes its color by the result, indicating one’s body temperature being normal (green), relatively high (yellow), or high (red). Ultimately what parents would like to know is whether the child has developed a fever or not: the solution makes sense and worthy.

To my knowledge, a thermometer with an equivalent feature is not available in Japanese market. There is at least three thermometers in my house but all are slow, requires contact, hard to use. I am curious to find out what is holding things back.

December 14th, 2010
Photo of The Day


Avoiding the Usual

Great experience at, at University of Tokyo, where students demonstrated the power of storytelling without being depending on the slides.

One team brought in a bicycle and acted out as they explained their service concept called Mono-log. The service values your experience and memories over an object and provides you benefits in case it needs maintenance or repair.

Another team showed their proposal using a video clip. They fast forwarded their drawing on the glass which enabled us to see the dynamics of the business models they were proposing. The idea was concerning how to utilize the unused, empty houses to increase sustainability concerning the construction industry in Japan.

Then, this team was my favorite. Had a concrete and what seems like a good communal solution not only in Japan but also in some other nations. They proposed an application where the aggregated intelligence would affect the public services. The idea exists in US or in other nations where the public service is failing, but I thought they had their job well done as they had more positive connotations and thought of the application in Japan. They obviously spent most of the time preparing the ideas rather than practicing their skits, but nevertheless, it was entertaining.

This is their intermediate presentation in front of the actual CSR and venture judges: Would be interesting to see how their ideas will evolve towards the final. in English: