Archive for November, 2012

No country for young men

[Editor’s note : Coincidentally, two friends brought up the topic of the ageing of Asia recently. One gave the link to a World Affairs Journal blogpost on his facebook page, and another wrote about the ageing of Japan on his own blog after a visit to that country. This post is a reproduction of the latter (read it here) and is being run on the Escape Velocity blog with the author’s permission.]


Not that long ago, Japan was the cynosure of the world’s eyes – anxiously watched by the developed world, enviously admired by the developing.  It was, by all accounts, the center of technology innovation and hi-tech manufacturing prowess.  A whole cottage industry developed around Japan watching, and incorporation of Japanese principles into management.  What a difference a couple of decades makes!  At a conference the other day, someone asked a speaker “Is Japan the future of Europe?” That tone in his voice?  Closer to dread than envy.

The stagnation of the Japanese economy over the last twenty years is now a much discussed topic.  The demographic challenges of the country are also well known as one of the fundamental drivers behind the malaise.  I was as aware of the statistics as the next guy when I went for my first visit to Japan recently.  From the moment the plane landed in Osaka, though, the reality of the situation hit me as if for the first time.

If demographics is destiny, Japan is headed down a road to oldtown.  Let’s look at the statistics first.  In 2011, 23% of the population was 65 years or older.  By 2050, that proportion is expected to grow to 40%!  Two our of every five people would be over 65! The very young, i.e. less than 15 years old population is only 13%, the lowest of major countries.  And it is going down, not up.  By 2050, this proportion is expected to be only 9%.  The population pyramid of the country, which shows the distribution by age group, has been tagged by some as going from Pyramid to Kite.

japan's age distribution

This isn’t all with their demographic trouble either.  Apart from the distribution by age getting worse, the overall population of Japan, for all practical purposes, has peaked and has now started to shrink.  The population today is exactly the same as it was in 2001.

Now as I said, some of this was known to me, in broad brush-strokes if not in this detail.  But seeing it in person is a whole other thing.

Osaka is the commercial capital of Japan.  I have never been to Tokyo and I guess I was expecting the sparkling sights and bright neon lights of the capital.  The first impression Osaka makes though is not nearly as spectacular.  There are the obligatory tall buildings and well developed roads, but it all seemed just a little run down.  The hanging electrical wires, the mildly unsavory back alleys and the generally well aged buildings were my first clue that this wasn’t going to be the Japan I expected to see.

The more I looked, the clearer the images got.  This is not a country for young men (or women).  Most everyone around seems just a tad older than expected.  I took the subway a few times during my stay, and by my count, I saw no more than three kids over all my hours of subway travel.  Clearly, there aren’t enough children in this country.

It isn’t uncommon of course, for high income economies to have low birth rates.  Much of Europe is a case in point.  The way most countries end up solving that problem, is through more open immigration.  Invite more … let’s say fertile, citizens from developing countries, and you solve two problems at the same time – those of getting enough labour force for all the work of running a country, and of making enough babies to have a country in the future.  On this front, Japan seems maddeningly closed minded.

This is not a country that is very foreigner friendly.  I don’t mean the people are rude to foreigners.  Far from it.  In fact, I found the Japanese to be among the warmest, most helpful people I have ever encountered.  But somehow, the culture as a whole seems too … self-sufficient.  Too internally focused.  Closed.  All signage in the city are in Japanese.  Or almost all, at any rate.  If you don’t know the script, and have undertaken a foolhardy venture to explore the city by yourself, by subway, well – good luck to you!

I stand in line at a station along with many other patient locals, waiting for my turn at the ticket machine.  I reach there finally, only to find that every single sign on the machine is in Japanese.  I can’t make out what buttons I am supposed to press to make a darn ticket pop out!  I exit in frustration, walk up to the ticket booth attendant to ask for his help.  Only to realize that he doesn’t know a word of English either.  We do some sign language, I show him the ticket machine, say the word ‘English’ many times, and he finally gets it.  He directs to another machine on the side.  This one does have English sub-titles.  There you go!  I am sure I am on my way now.

Except of course, I am not.  Turns out, the machine doesn’t accept cards (or doesn’t accept international cards, not sure which).  It needs currency.  And I don’t have any Yen on me, having left the hotel confident in the ability of plastic to get me around the city.  But what is it I see there?  An ATM!  That should do the trick.  We are back to the patient line standing business now.  Get to the ATM finally, to discover … yup, all Japanese.  Try to figure this guy out.  A helpful old (they are mostly old) gentleman recognizes my problem and signs me some help.  Not that it gets me far though, because the machine doesn’t accept international cards either, even though it prominently displays the Visa and Mastercard logos.  Finally, I find a currency exchange counter (also manned by a lady who doesn’t speak English), get hold of some Yen, and at long last get on the train.

Walking the street later that night looking for dinner, I am reminded again that this country would rather be just left alone.  I don’t think my vegetarianism has given me this much trouble in any country as it did in Japan.  The Japanese, bless them, have a well evolved cuisine of their own, and give no room for vegetarians in it.  And going with the general trend in other matters, there isn’t much in the name of international fare in the city either.

So yes, it can safely be said that this isn’t a country that is going to willingly or easily welcome a horde of immigrants to solve its aging problem.

My short Japanese adventure over, I am on my Japan Airlines flight back, flying to Bangkok where a familiar Jet Airways to Mumbai awaits.  My seat doesn’t want to recline, hard as I try.  I call the crew member.  An elderly Japanese lady arrives, recognizes the problem in one look, and nods knowingly.  She presses hard against the recliner lever while encouraging me to push back as hard as I can.  I do, and with a soft creak of protest, the seat gives up its verticality.  “It is a very old plane sir” offers the stewardess, smiling sweetly.

A few hours later, I am on Jet Airways, moving onward to Mumbai.  Some rows behind are what appear to be half a dozen screaming children, their noises melding into one another, till it is no longer clear whether their squeals are of protest, complaint, celebration or simply ticklishness.  We seem over-weight on our kids quota today.  Yes sir, we are flying back to India.

November 30, 2012 at 6:45 am 1 comment

From the mouths of babes and sucklings – technology and toddlers

My five year old nephew was chatting with me during a journey once, bubbling over with curiosity and a million questions about everything. Instead of entertaining myself by warping his mind with made-up answers the way Calvin’s dad does (for examples, see this link), I tried to answer his questions as simply and logically as possible. However, reality is often stranger than fiction, and some answers related to geography and astronomy sounded far-fetched to him. So the young man turned his gimlet eyed gaze on me and warned me, “Are you really sure ? Don’t lie, ok. We can go home, open the laptop and check on googil too.” Once kids relied on older and wiser ones for information, now we’re redundant since there’s good ol’ googil.

Another young 3 year old – a friend’s son, gave me the next anecdote for this blogpost. He gets confused reading books because once he’s done reading the page he swipes his finger across to get to the next page – the way he’s used to doing with pics on the iphone; needless to say, that doesn’t work at all with a book and it leaves him confused, frustrated and cranky.

While on the topic of young ones and technology, there’s an interesting anecdote in this blogpost – as an aside, you should follow the link and read the whole post, interesting example of communication going awry due to incorrect assumptions. The comments on that post are also worth reading.

But I digress, the anecdote follows :

Setting, San Francisco, where some friends recently told me how their five year old went up to a framed picture in their living room and started pinching at it with his fingers, the exact same gestures one would use on an iPhone to zoom in and out of a picture. “Broken, broken” is all the five year old said after that disappointing experience.

How much and in how little time technology is changing the reading and viewing habits of this generation of toddlers ! Paraphrasing the headline of this Forbes article, does this change herald just the death of print or will it also eventually lead to the death of reading too ? I fear that it may be the latter. What’s your point of view ?

  • Zenobia Driver

November 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm Leave a comment

The Great Indian Khana Khazana

Food. One of India’s greatest passions. ‘Aaj Khane me kya bana hai?[what’s on for food today?]is the most important question asked in every household, almost every day. No surprise then ,that it is also the sunshine industry of India. Estimated at over US 100 Bn dollars, it is almost 2/3rds of the total Indian retail market. The food and grocery segment is growing at an incredibly fast pace too.

The history of Indian food is as diverse as this country itself. Apart from the geographical and cultural specialities,like idli-sambhar in the south, macher jhol in the east, makki ki roti sarson ka saag in the north and sol kadhi, masale bhaat in the west, there is also the influence of the Portugese[pork vindaloo], the Moghuls [dum pukhtetc.] and not to forget our very own invention of Indian Chinese cuisine[gobi manchurian!].

Much later, in independent India, multinational brands such as Nestle,Unilever etc have been forced to recognize and acknowledge the Indian palate in order to get wider acceptance for their offerings. Right from the ‘Meri masala Maggi dumdaar noodles’ to the ‘Masala Penne Pasta'[made from suji], their Nestle’s ‘Taste bhi Health Bhi’ offerings have had to bend to the Indian tastes.Their health platform has taken into account the Indian’s healthy respect for atta and sooji vs maida.

Giants like Pepsico have recently introduced Homestyle Masala and Lemony Veggie flavoured Quaker oats alongside recipes for oats upma and poha in order to cater to the Indian penchant for mom style breakfast. Unilever has introduced Knorr ready to cook Hyderabadi Biryani, Chana masala etc.  to bolster the Knorr brand’s traditional offering of soups. Nestle’s Maggi has enhanced its soup range with Maggi Souper roni[which has suji,vegetables and macaroni]to cater to the old Indian habit of a bit of this and a bit of that. Its traditional  sauce range now also includes the Maggi imli sauce[a home style tamarind sauce] available in a Pichkoo[local lingo for a squeeze pack].

Our very own home grown Indian companies realised the scope for growth in this arena long ago. ITC has taken its legendary Dal Bhukara and Biryani to the customer in the ready to eat market through its Kitchens of India brand. Its Ashirvaad branded rava idli mix etc are following the lead of MTR’s[Mavalli Tiffin Room] multifaceted offerings in the ready to cook range. In fact MTR’s traditional fare which included tomato rasam powder and Puliyogare [tamarind rice] mix, has seen a healthy facelift with the additions of Ragi Rava idli/Ragi dosa/Oats idli/ Multigrain dosa offerings. Britannia has entered the healthy eating market with its breakfast range of poha and upma available in broken wheat[dhalia] and tomato spinach.

These examples are just a snapshot of the big picture. No downturn for this industry then; the Indian continues to feast in both good and bad times. And, the great Indian taste buds are ready for the’ branded home style offerings’. If it has to be international cuisine, it better be an Indianised version[remember how the good ol’ Big Mac had to do a chikken Mc tikka to woo the Indian consumer]. And so, while India is waking up to the global phenomenon of Eating Healthy – it better be’ Taste bhi, Health bhi’,  and in that order, necessarily.


Sita Lakshmi

November 21, 2012 at 6:59 am Leave a comment

Moving with the times – a few species that made it

While I was musing over the comments on last week’s post, I happened to flip through a book on birds, the environment and conservation*, and a chapter on some survivors caught my attention. The book’s title is clear, it’s about saving the birds, many species of which are threatened by rampant deforestation and are on the verge of extinction. However, there happen to be a few species that have adapted surprisingly well to the change in their environment and have flourished as human habitations and farmlands expanded over grasslands and forests.

Are there any lessons businesses faced with a rapidly changing environment could learn from these hardy survivors ? Read on and let me know what you make of the examples that follow.

Background – Farmland as an ecosystem :

Agricultural land is not a natural habitat, it exists at the expense of some natural habitat. Agricultural ecosystems differ from natural ones in several respects that are important to birds and other wildlife. In most cases the biggest yields are obtained by growing a single crop in large fields, dressed abundantly with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Relatively few kinds of birds can thrive in these conditions; tree nesting species have nowhere to nest, and ground feeding and ground nesting birds are vulnerable to  the heavy machinery used to plant, manage and harvest the crop. Not an easy environment for any bird species to thrive in, right ? But a few did.

Cattle Egret (Bubulcus Ibis) :

A common sight on the outskirts of most cities and in rural areas, often spotted on grassy patches within urban areas too.

Cattle Egrets are exceptionally successful followers of pastoral man. The Cattle Egret’s success lies in its great adaptability. Where the birds used to follow the herds of grazing herbivores across the African savanna, they now adopt the same close relationship with man’s domestic cattle. Throughout their range they are associated with cattle, feeding on large insects and small vertebrates which the cattle disturb as they move through the grass. The birds divide their time between sitting on the backs of cattle and foraging around their feet.

In Africa they can still be seen accompanying herds of wild game as they must have done before people began to replace the game with cattle. The African Cattle Egret is just as much at home with the cattle of the Masai and other pastoral tribes as with the migratory herds of Wildebeest, Eland and other animals which are gradually being squeezed out of grasslands and bush as pastoralists or farmers take over the land. Indeed, the egrets are probably better off with cattle than with antelopes, for cattle do not migrate the huge distances that wild game do, and never stray far from water.

They are useful rather than a hindrance to herdsmen and so have little to fear from man. They take insects that graze the same grass his cattle eat, fertilise the ground with their droppings, and even give warning of approaching predators. Cattle Egrets have occupied a new niche, created by man, and have even colonized regions where their natural niche does not exist.

The Rosellas :

The eight species of Rosella are all brilliantly coloured, long-tailed Australian parrots. Several of them have adapted so well to agricultural land that they are sometimes treated as pests, at least in parts of their range.

The natural habitat of the brightly coloured Eastern Rosellas (Platycercus eximius) is open woodland and lightly wooded grassland, and this has enabled the bird to adapt readily to the farmlands and gardens of human settlement. They spend much of their time on the ground, eating grass-seed. They are versatile feeders and have no difficulty in adding a wide range of agricultural produce to an already varied diet. They feed not only on fallen grass-seed, but also on spilled grain in farmyards and fields, and seeding grasses in pastures, but also on seeds and blossoms on the tops of trees. They seem generally to take grain that has already been spilled, and thus lost to the farmer, and probably do little actual damage except on the occasion when they take orchard blossom.  They find the blossoms of fruit trees at least as attractive as those of native species, and can do considerable damage in orchards.

In the more thickly forested part of their range, the closely related Crimson Rosella (P. elegans) was better adapted to the native habitat, but as the forests were cleared, farmed and settled, Crimson Rosellas were less able to adapt and have been replaced by the Eastern. An interesting comparison from a business perspective, isn’t it ? **

Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto):

Until the end of the last century, Collared Doves were found in southern and central Asia, east to Japan and west as far as Turkey. They were found mostly in dry or lightly wooded country, usually close to human settlements and cultivation. Then they began to spread northwest through Europe, reaching Britian in 1952. They first bred there three years later and by 1969 had swept through the country to become common birds of garden and farmland. In the following decade their British population increased fourfold.

(One interesting – and unexplained – point about their expansion is the mystery about the original cause of the expansion. Why did the Turkish population of collared doves move so suddenly to Europe ? The spread of human cultivation in Europe preceded the arrival of Collared Doves by several thousand years.)

This astonishing expansion has few parallels, except the Cattle Egret and a few other birds. Collared Doves feed mostly on small seeds on the ground, and in Europe today they are virtually parasitic on man, taking grain spilled in farmyards or put out for poultry. They also compete with other birds – house sparrow, starlings, domestic pigeons – for breadcrumbs at garden bird tables and at parks.

A useful point about the expansion of Collared Doves to Europe is to note what all they achieved with the change : They were newcomers to the local eco-system, they didn’t even exist in that geography before, yet they managed to find enough ecological space to establish themselves and enough surplus resources to survive and  thrive. Probably the Collared Dove’s secret lies in its versatility, and the fact that although its requirements do overlap with those of several other species, it does not overlap completely with any of them.

*‘Save the Birds’ by Antony W. Diamond, Rudolf L. Schreiber, Walter Cronkite and Roger Tory Peterson).

** The writer of this post acknowledges the urgency for conservation and environmental protection measures; this post is by no means intended to convey that the species that are struggling for survival or are extinct are responsible for their situation, neither is it intended to lighten our responsibility towards saving those feathered friends that are still around.

  • Zenobia Driver

November 6, 2012 at 7:24 am Leave a comment

Recent Posts


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5 other followers