Apple Culture News, , , , , — January 26, 2012 6:02 — 0 Comments

Steve Jobs and the art of Zen

Steve Jobs, Zen

Steve Jobs: although hisZen-likequalities were not immediately apparent, his devotion to Buddhism remained a constant in his life

While there will be no formal tribute to Steve Jobs at Macworld | iWorld 2012,  he will be remembered in many ways. Here, we look at the influence that Japan had on his life: the aesthetic and the spiritual

Since his untimely death from cancer last year, much has been written about Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs; his achievements and failures in business, his charisma and forthright personality, his drive, spirit and demons that contributed to his success and mystique.

But not a great deal has been written about Jobs and his relationship with Japan and the influence of eastern philosophy, in particular Zen Buddhism, had on his own values and aesthetic sensibility.

In his brilliant biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson recounts how Jobs copied Japanese manufacturing techniques in his factories that made Apple and NeXT products.

The period when Jobs established NeXT after being ousted from Apple in the 1980s, Isaacson writes: “He insisted that the machinery on the 165-foot-assemblyline be configured to move the circuit boards from right to left as they got built so that the process would look better to visitors who watched from the viewing gallery.

“Empty circuit boards were fed in at one end and twenty minutes later, untouched by humans, came out the other end as complete boards.

“The process followed the Japanese principle known as kanban, where each machine performs its task only when the next machine is ready to receive another part”.

His obsessive personality was of course legendary and he insisted that the buildings, machines and robots all had to be coordinated to an exact colour scheme of his choosing, which of course he kept changing.

When it came to Apple products and computers, Jobs was greatly influenced by Sony for its sleek design and functionality.

“The admiration Jobs felt for Morita Akio, the company’s cofounder, is well known,” says Japanese IT journalist Hayashi Nobuyuki, who has written about Steve Jobs and Apple for many years.

“At a product launch 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.”

Sony even inspired  Jobs’s trademark look of jeans and black turtlenecks. 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.

Isaacson recounts the story of Jobs being so impressed with this corporate conformity he decided to introduce a similar uniform at Apple, but he had to ditch the idea after an angry backlash from employees. As a compromise, Jobs ordered several hundred Issey Miyake tops for himself, which he continued to wear for the rest of his life.

His attention to detail and the craftsmanship of his products not surprisingly earned Apple a particularly enthusiastic following in Japan where Jobs washero-worshipped.

And Jobs also maintained a great fondness for Japan throughout his life, which started from an early interest in Zen Buddhism during his ‘hippy’ phrase.

As a young man Jobs visited the Zen center near his home in Los Altos, California, led by Otogawa Kōbun, a Sōtō Zen monk originally from Kamo in Niigata Prefecture.

Jobs revered Otogawa as his teacher and invited Kobun to serve as “spiritual advisor” when he set up NeXT, and he was also invited years later to his wedding. Jobs would also regularly invite aikido masters to the workplace to give demonstrations and workshops for employees.

Upon hearing news of Jobs’s death, Apple devotees left bouquets and messages in front of the Ginza Apple store. Many stood with their hands folded in prayer.

“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,” Nobuyuki says.

“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,” he says.

The ‘snow white’ iMac, released in 2000, was supposedly chosen to match the Japanese-styletatami room in the home of Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who was a close friend of Jobs.

But however much he was influenced by, and admired Japanese culture, he was not always as gracious in dealing with its people, as his sometimes ‘difficult’ personality would get the better of him.

Isaacson writes that on one of Jobs’s first business trips to Japan to meet executives of Alps Electronics Co., which supplied the floppy disc drives for some of Apple’s early computers, he would turn up to meetings in jeans and sneakers where Japanese managers would be wearing dark suits.

“When they formally handed him little gifts, as was custom,” writes Isaacson, ‘he often left them behind and he never reciprocated with gifts of his own.”

Jobs’s behaviour gets worse: “He would sneer when rows of engineers lined up to greet him, bow, and politely offer their products for inspection. He hated the devices and the obsequiousness.”

His hosts were appalled, some looked bemused, as he called their products “pieces of crap”.  They had heard tales of his brash behaviour and were willing to tolerate him, even when he would leave his gifts behind in the hotel room when it was time to leave. But that is Steve, seemingly not bothered whom he upset.

While Jobs was very much Zen in his approach to minimalism and aesthetics, as Isaacson writes, his Zen awareness was not “accompanied by an excess of calm, peace of mind, or interpersonal mellowness”.

His offices and home were ordered along Feng shui principles and there is a beautiful picture in the biography of Jobs, the youngmulti-millionaireentrepreneur, sat on a rug in a room of his Californian mansion with no other furniture apart from a lamp; the only accessory a record player.

Jobs devotion to Buddhism remained a constant in his life.  After he became ill, says Nobuyuki, he continued to visit the Japanese city of Kyoto, taking his son and daughter on tours of its Buddhist temples. He worshipped Saihōji (the moss temple), one of the city’s Rinzai Zen temples, says Nobuyuki.

Jobs was also a strict vegan and at one stage in his spiritual journey became a fruitarian. 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, says Nobuyuki.

Jobs was a regular at Jinshō, a sushi restaurant in Silicon Valley, and Kaygetsu, which served sushi and kaiseki (elegant multicourse meals).

If he couldn’t get a reservation at Kaygetsu, a restaurant that refuses to give celebrities special treatment, (it closed two days after Jobs died) 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.

When Jobs heard that the restaurant was due to close he made an offer to the restaurant’s manager and chef Sakuma Toshio to work in the Apple canteen and serve up his favourite dishes for employees.

Jobs maybe gone, but his energy, spirit and influence lives on and in the Apple campus on Infinite Loop, so does his taste and fondness for Japan.

• Thanks to for permission to use quotes from Hayashi Nobuyuki

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About the author

Tony Myers has written 866 articles for Smart Movie Making

Fooling around with the iPhone since 2010. Taking it to the next web by writing about new media, new technology, new wave cinema and the digital revolution.

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