Hobonichi Planner going global — PingMag talks to Shigesato Itoi

Every year lots of different companies produce all kinds of planners and diaries. Some use the GTD (Getting Things Done) method, others are beautifully bound, or have been designed by a “work style” professional — each has its own sales point. But in Japan there is one planner that for some years has been gathering a huge following. The Hobonichi Techo. (Techo — pronounced “tetch-oh” — means “handbook”.) One thing that makes it unique is that it is produced by the web media site Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun (or Hobonichi), but more than anything it is the sense of affection and camaraderie it has created amongst its users that has lifted it above the rest: “I use a Hobonichi Techo.” “So do I.” “Me too!” So the conversation goes.

And now, from this autumn, the English version of the Techo, the Hobonichi Planner, is due to go on sale worldwide. Tom Vincent sat down with the editor-in-chief of Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun and the person who created the Hobonichi Techo, Shigesato Itoi, to learn all about how the planner came to be.

hobonichi-planner01Photo: tada (YUKAI)

(Tom Vincent) Did you have the idea for the Hobonichi Techo yourself?

(Shigesato Itoi) Yes. For a long time I used to think that it was no good taking notes. I reckoned if you couldn’t remember something it probably wasn’t very important in the first place. I thought people who took notes were a bit stupid. When I was young.

But sometimes, you know, when you really don’t want to forget something, you write it down on the back of a piece of paper or something, right? That can be really useful! [Laughs]

Hahaha! [Laughs]

It sounds a bit over the top, but that thing you wrote down can be even more valuable than a wad of money even. The seed of an idea. But if you just keep writing things down on the back of bits of paper, they get lost.

At first I used to write things on the back of writing paper. I had a place to keep them, but they would end up being stored and then getting thrown out. I tried using other planners, but none if them suited me. And I tried a blank pad of paper, but that just wasn’t interesting. And also there’s no date so you can use it anytime at all.

The date is pretty important. One thing is always related to all kinds of other things, so it can be really useful to know when you thought of something. Ah, I was thinking about something-or-other at that time, I must have been influenced by that friend, and so on.

So I gradually realized that taking notes and memos wasn’t stupid, in fact it was doing me a big favor. What I wanted was something the size of a Japanese bunko-bon paperback so I could write lots in it, but there wasn’t such a thing.

Ah, bunko-bon. I think bunko-bon size books are only available in Japan, maybe?

hobonichi-planner02The standard size Hobonichi Techo is the same size as a Japanese bunko-bon paperback

There was a time when I actually used a bunko-bon novel as a notebook. It’s a terrible thing to do to a book, but if you write with a fat marker it works as a memo pad. Even with the printed text underneath. And it’s cheaper. I thought it was a good idea at the time, and I was young so I was being a bit rebellious, too. It’s pretty punk to write in a novel, isn’t it?

People would say, “You can’t do that!” and I’d just say, “Sure I can.” It was okay because the book I was writing in was by Nietzsche…

Haha, very cool!

Well, I was doing that for a while, but to be honest it wasn’t a very good solution. The marker shows through the back of the page, so you can’t write freely. Actually the printed text underneath is quite interesting, though. I don’t do that anymore, but it’s a fun memory.

Sometimes you want to make a uniform with your mates, right? We made the first Hobonichi t-shirts, and I wondered if people would want them, and they did. So we tried selling them, and sure enough they sold. I realized we could do all kinds of things like that. In the old days Japanese companies all had company notebooks.

I don’t think we have them in the UK.

And there are school student handbooks too, with the school song printed in them and things. I sometimes wonder why they ever bother with those things, but there’s also something kind of nostalgic about them, too. There’s a feeling of identity. I thought it would be fun to make a Hobonichi handbook, and a Hobonichi song. And then when I started thinking about it I thought we could do this, or that — I had all kinds of ideas.

For instance, there needs to be lots of space to write. And a notebook with no dates is pointless. And it should be something you can read, as well. We’re all busy, so it needs to be 24 hours. And graph paper would be good, with a grid, so you can draw room plans. Maps and room plans are easier if you have grid.

hobonichi-planner03The first Hobonichi Techo. Graph paper is better than lines or blank pages!
Photo: tada (YUKAI)

The squares of graph paper are quite Japanese, I think.

Tatami!

In the UK, estate agents don’t use room plans like in Japan.

How do you choose a room, then?

Photographs. And size. And then you go and see for yourself. I still don’t like just having a room plan — at the estate agent, where all the rooms are shown just with a plan. Talking to Japanese friends, they will say that imagining the room from the plan is fun. I get the imagining thing, of course, but that’s not what’s fun about choosing a room…

So this is a tatami room!? [Laughs] This page.

Sure. You can use to lay out your futon, or have tea, or watch TV, or have friends round for a party…

Okay! That’s interesting. It’s fun at a bar when you’re talking to a girl you’ve just met to say “I’ll draw a plan of your room.” And she’ll say, “How do you know what it’s like?” And then you can play at being a fortune teller. You start with “Okay, here’s the door.” And she’ll be all eyes on what you’re doing. That’s lots of fun. And it’s easy with graph paper.

You can draw snakes and ladders fortune tellers, and dot pictures and stuff. And you don’t go over the edges like with lined paper. It’s funny, but with only horizontal lines you’re always going over the edges.

So anyway, we put all sorts of ideas together like that, and the result was the Hobonichi Techo.

hobonichi-planner04Photo: tada (YUKAI)

hobonichi-planner05The cover of the English version, the Hobonichi Planner

It’s not just the page design, is it? The binding itself has been really thought through, too.

When we made the first one, making a planner with one page for each of the 365 days of the year was really difficult and it would soon fall apart, so it seems nobody had been able to do it up till then. But I said you can make a dictionary, so it should be possible, shouldn’t it? And they told me that even a dictionary would fall apart. You’re always carrying your planner around with you, so it’s even more likely to break. So anyway, they said they could do it with a certain type of binding, but then at the launch party the guy in charge came up to me and said, “You know, I don’t know if that thing’s going to hold up a whole year.” And I was, “What!? You could have told me that sooner!” [Laughs]

So then we rushed around making a new version that really would be okay for the whole year, and sent a second improved version to everyone who had bought the first one. That was really tough.

A thing to enjoy

hobonichi-planner06Photo: tada (YUKAI)

I think freedom is really important. Sometimes freedom can be not so helpful, but I think it’s actually really important not to be too helpful all the time.

What do you mean by that?

If you’re too helpful, it ends up being a like package tour. “It’s okay, you don’t actually have to think about anything yourself”. The largest space in a planner is free space for you to write in, but if there’s nothing at all to hold on to it’s actually quite difficult to use. So the Hobonichi Planner has a time line that can can use, or you can ignore if you want.

The way the time is shown is really interesting, I think. The graph paper has just one line that is dotted, and there’s simply a 12 written on it.

All the times are written in the Japanese version, though.

Ah, so they are.

Japanese people prefer to have them all.

hobonichi-planner07The design of the English page

hobonichi-planner08This is the Japanese version.

I see. But you know, I think this is great. It has the date indicated so you can use it as a diary if you want to, but simply by adding 12, you know that’s a time line. It wouldn’t work if you wrote 8, would it! [Laughs] And the 12 isn’t in the middle, either.

That’s because the morning is shorter than the afternoon. There are clocks with just 12 on them, too, right? But you’re free to use it how you want.

But by making it free like that, I think for someone who is just starting to use the Hobonichi Planner it takes quite a bit of courage to get going. I mean, it’s a bit nerve-racking making your first entry. What can you do about that?

I think there are two ways. The first is to write down what you did on that day. That’s like a diary. The other is to write what you are going to do today. Or tomorrow. Like a schedule. You can do both. Write down who you are going to meet, or what you ate, and things. Whether it’s recording the past or the future, you can just try whichever is easier. That’s what I think.

It’s interesting even if you just write what you had for dinner, or the weather. You might wonder what’s the point, but as you continue it will come into shape. Us Japanese like those kind of things, things that change as you do them.

Yes, the more you use it the more it’s purpose becomes clear, and you see how it is useful. It’s taking that first step that can be hard.

You need to just dive in.

That’s where the courage is needed, to take the plunge.

You can have a long meeting about how to swim in the sea, but that’s not going to teach you to swim, right? It’s the same with a diet, or exercise. You don’t get it at the beginning. You don’t have any muscle. You’ve got a paunch. But then one day you notice the change. It’s a bit like that.

But really I want people to do whatever they like with it. Not just times and dates. Write down the thing you like most in the world today, you know? It’s not a duty. The handbooks given out in Japanese companies up till know were basically on the restriction side of things. “Meet so-and-so at such-and-such time.” But I want the Hobonichi Planner to be on the fun side.

Restrictions and freedom again. When you get your school handbook, it has the school rules written in it. It’s all about teaching you to manage your time properly. Same with company handbooks, to be sure you keep your schedule properly. But the Hobonichi Planner is somewhere in between doing things “properly“ and simply playing about.

Yes. You can choose whichever you like.

It’s not about the Planner, it’s about You.

hobonichi-planner09Photo: tada (YUKAI)

Do you have to write anything at all? Couldn’t you just leave it blank?

You can leave it blank if you want. That’s your record, right? Some people tell me that over a whole year they only wrote in it once and they just can’t use it right. But it’s only a planner, you don’t have to worry about using it right or wrong. You are what is important, so if you left your planner blank, well what’s the problem?

We make the Hobonichi Planners and sell them, but the Planner isn’t what is really important. The one left standing on the stage is you yourself, the one using it. That’s really important to remember.

It’s odd, there’s a guy in the office here who never writes in his Planner, but always carries it around with him. He says he likes having it with him. And he likes the cover. He has no intention of using it, but always has it with him.

hobonichi-planner10 hobonichi-planner11

hobonichi-planner12There are loads of different covers for the Hobonichi Planner

That’s funny. But I kind of understand what he means.

I think you’re probably like that, Tom. [Laughs]

I take notes sometimes, but I don’t read them later.

You should. I think you’ve probably never been helped out by something you wrote down.

I think I write things down to organize them in my head. But just by writing them down I get things straight, so that’s the end of it. I don’t look at it again.

Looking at your notes again is good, even if it’s years later. I found this out by making the Planner, but you realize that when you wrote something back then actually you weren’t thinking about it very deeply at that point.

When you look back at it later, you’ve added a whole lot to the idea since then, so it seems completely different. I want people to think of Planners not so much as something you write in, as something you read.

hobonichi-planner18 hobonichi-planner17

Something to share

hobonichi-planner13Photo: tada (YUKAI)

People really love their Hobonichi Planners, much more than a normal diary, right?

It gradually becomes a part of you. So the more you use it the more you feel affection for it. And you want to share that feeling with people. If someone else is using a Hobonichi Planner, you want to share that affection with them.

Yes, it’s definitely true that Hobonichi Planner users find each other.

With clothes, it’s usually awful if you’re wearing the same thing as someone else, right? But with the Hobonichi Planner, it’s different. There’s an empathy. That’s very gratifying for us. I think it’s because we haven’t messed with it. If we did something stupid, it would be embarrassing to carry around, wouldn’t it?

But it hasn’t turned out like that, so it’s a kind of affirmation of all our efforts, and that makes me really happy. I get lots of people coming up to me in the street to tell me they use a Hobonichi Planner.

That must be very gratifying. And it’s a huge honor for the person who sees you, too. You know, if you go into a stationery shop and buy a pen or something, it might be the same type of pen that you always use, but you don’t know who made it, do you? If you saw the CEO of Pilot or whatever on the train, you wouldn’t go up to him and say, “I always use your pens. Thank you!” would you?! [Laughs]

Nope. Only Steve Jobs and me! [Laughs]

[Laughs]

On the other hand, I think there are people who don’t like that, and don’t buy the Planner because of that, but that’s OK too.

That’s the way it should be. It’s a strength if there are people who don’t like the Hobonichi Planner. Just like lots of people hate Apple products.

But if people use it anyway, that’s the most satisfying thing. I see it on Amazon and things, where lots of people write “I never really liked Shigesato Itoi much..” Do they all hate me!? “…but I love this Planner.” Stuff like that. It does hurt a bit though. [Laughs]

Only is not Lonely

hobonichi-planner14Photo: tada (YUKAI)

But I think that thing that binds Hobonichi Planner users together is really interesting, though. Hell, in the end it’s only a notebook, right? There are loads of similar planners and diaries in the bookstores. What is it that makes this so different?

I don’t know. I think one thing is that it is its own media. Swatch is a bit similar, maybe. The way you can change the cover is like Swatch watches, isn’t it? A watch is just a watch, right? If the only thing that matters is knowing the time, you can get a watch for $10. But even so, there are people who spend hundreds of thousands on a watch.

It’s also something about going beyond the country or organization you are in, and building a fantasy world with people you like. There’s something of that about it, I think. You know, “Imagine”.

“Imagine you have a friend somewhere.” I always make excuses about it, but we have the catch copy “Only is not Lonely” which isn’t proper English, but who cares! “Only” and “Lonely” are not the same thing, and you can say that about the Hobonichi Planner, too. That someone somewhere is not on their own, there are kids just like you all over the world — it’s nice to feel that.

The internet has that about it, and I think what we’re doing is similar. Even if there’s nobody close to you to talk with about something, there is someone out there somewhere. That’s a part of the joy of using the Hobonichi Planner.

Relax, Obama-style

hobonichi-planner15Photo: tada (YUKAI)

It will be great when people are using this all over the world, won’t it?

It would be fun if it became the standard, wouldn’t it? How about if President Obama started using it! That reminds me, I actually bought the same watch as Obama.

Obama’s watch?

Most presidents wear really expensive watches. But Obama has a $300 watch that anyone could buy. That’s just like him. So when I saw that I thought I’d buy the same watch as him. [Laughs]

I think there’s something about Obama that unconsciously gives people a good impression of him. So, at a funeral or something when I don’t know what kind of expression I should have, I do Obama. [Laughs]

I had no idea. [Laughs]

I didn’t tell anybody till now. [Laughs] At some kind of official occasion when you can’t really mess around, if you think how Obama would hold himself if he was there, it’s a perfect balance.

I see! [Laughs]

Just a little bit relaxed, you know.

You’re right, Obama is good. You wouldn’t do so well with Putin.

Putin’s a judo expert. He has that “Hey, how about it?!” attitude about him. But when the presidential candidates are talking to each other, Obama is really good at being soft at the right times, and strong at the right times.

So I do Obama at funerals and things. Or when some big knob comes from the government. I think, Obama would be just about this relaxed, and stuff. Don’t lose your smile. There hasn’t been a president who made me think that before. You know, Reagan and that lot, puffing their chests out and looking a bit of a bully.

That’s great. Obama.

And it’s good that nobody realizes, too. Nobody would think, “Ah, he’s doing Obama”, would they?

Nope. [Laughs] But they will now.

‘Cos I told you. [Laughs]

Just one more thing about the Hobonichi Planner before we finish. It’s hard to take something like this to a place where they don’t have the same customs, but if just one or two people started using it I think that would be really interesting. I’m looking forward to PingMag spreading the word about Hobonichi Planners all around the world!

Itoi-san, thank you very much!

hobonichi-planner16Photo: tada (YUKAI)