The “Cool Japan” They Don’t Show You on TV

KeniTimCrop

“Dad, your friends are so cool!” said my 13-year-old son after meeting my running buddies from Japan for the first time. He said it with genuine surprise. Hard as he tried, he just couldn’t fathom the notion that anyone “cool” would ever be friends with the likes of me.

This all happened about fifteen years ago when, after more than a decade of living in the U.S., I finally brought my family back to Japan for a visit. My kids had only heard stories from me about our former life in Japan. My stories obviously fell short in capturing the coolness of my friends.

But have to give my son his props–his assessment was spot on: my friends really are the coolest people you’ll ever meet. And on my recent trip to Japan earlier this year, I was reminded just how precious and wonderful these friendships are. Or maybe I’m just getting sentimental in my old age? But thinking back over my ten-year stint in Japan in the 80s, I was truly blessed to be on the receiving end of so many kindnesses from the coolest friends a guy could ask for.

How Japan Adopted Me

I got to Japan in the first place thanks to Uncle Sam. Two and a half years later when my Navy enlistment was up, instead of going back to the US and starting civilian life like most normal Americans, I took my discharge in Japan and planted roots.

Problem was, my Navy roommate at the time was being discharged too. He had just married a lovely Japanese lady, so parting ways was in the cards anyway. My friend chose the conventional route and took his wife back to the States. (He would return to Japan five years later and never leave, so turns out his route wasn’t so conventional after all.)

Well, I was in dire straights at the time and needed to find shelter, preferably with a compatible roommate. The stars aligned one night in a bar called Bonanza, when I befriended Keni Inoue, a great guy and wonderfully talented musician who played soulful guitar and made a living doing it. When my Navy gig ended he was kind enough to let me move in with him. Soon after, Keni took me under his wing.

In all we lived together for four years and I had the time of my life. Keni’s influence will forever be tattooed on my soul. He became a big brother; he taught me that modesty was cool; he coached me to err on the side of polite speech, and encouraged me to speak “beautiful Japanese.”

He taught me to indirectly suggest rather than hit people over the head with the blunt truth. He taught me to pay attention to subtleties I’d otherwise have missed.

Here’s a true story that still makes me laugh.

When Keni and I would go out to eat together, I had a bad habit of ordering extra cheese on burgers, pizza, etc. Most Japanese folks don’t request extra condiments like that, they tend to go with the flow and accept whatever the honorable chef offers up. But not me. I was the quintessential pushy, individualistic American who wanted extra cheese damn it! And I was more than happy to pay for it.

Unfortunately I always failed to articulate the part about paying extra when I ordered. So Keni, concerned that I wasn’t communicating my intentions properly, instructed me to say this:

“Tsuika ryokin wo haraimasu node, chiizu wo takusan nosete kudasai!” (追加料金を払いますので、チーズを沢山のせてください!)

Translation: I’m happy to pay extra, so please add lots of cheese!

(Reflecting on my behavior back then, it’s painfully obvious what a bloody, clueless, insensitive American I was!)

Too many kindnesses from Keni to list here. Suffice it to say he opened up a whole new world of understanding about Japanese culture, and introduced me to so many cool folks who also became good friends.

And without Keni, it’s unlikely I’d have met my best friend and wife of thirty years. So as friends go, he was definitely a game-changer.

Real Friends, Fake English Students

So many other Japanese friends have had my back over the years. Shortly after my discharge in Japan when I was unemployed and desperate, thoughtful Japanese friends once again came to the rescue. My good friend Tatsumi Nagasu pushed free food and drinks on me at his bar for months, knowing I was struggling to make ends meet. He also made sure his Japanese patrons knew I was available to teach English to anyone who wanted to learn. (When I started school at Waseda and later ICU, he’d help me with my Japanese language homework while I ate, drank and socialized at his bar–did I mention I was having the time of my life?)

Several of Tatsumi’s patrons eventually became my students, even though (as it turned out) they really weren’t much interested in learning English. They simply took pity on the poor foreigner, and refused to let me fail. Without them, I would never have lasted long enough to get financially stable and survive. How can you not love friends like that?

And as these friendships deepened and my situation stabilized, I eventually stopped teaching them English and started drinking beer with them instead. The irony is that they ended up teaching me Japanese. Thirty five years later, we are all still friends.

So where are all these “cool friends”?

As fate would have it, you can see most of them in the three youtube clips below, all shot recently.

The first clip is a blues jam in late March of this year. The lead guitarist is none other than my ex-roommate Keni Inoue. On awesome harmonica is my ex-Navy roommate Dave Steenken. The tight rhythm section is Hideo Inoura on drums, and Takashi Onzo on bass. (These guys seriously rock.) I’m the white guy sitting in the middle, pretending to play the acoustic guitar.

The second clip was taken the same evening, Inoue Ohana making beautiful music. It’s an original by Keni, a sweet “feel-good” guitar instrumental called Sunset Surfing. If you enjoy this kind of music then check out Inoue Ohana’s facebook page, and throw ‘em a “like” if the spirit moves you.

The third clip features the other thoughtful friend mentioned above, Tatsumi Nagasu. Did I also mention he’s a talented musician? Oh yeah. Tatsumi playing live at Paradise Honpo (at a previous gathering last year), with lots of happy friends in attendance.

Enjoy.

 

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Intercultural Twilight Zone Hits a Milestone

JILogoHiroshige

The Intercultural Twilight Zone just hit a milestone: 100,000 hits.

Granted, lots of those hits were bogus bots, or seekers of illicit material (boy they must’ve been disappointed when they stumbled onto my anthropological ramblings without the naked pictures), or perhaps fans of the Twilight Zone series?

I didn’t set out to accumulate x number of hits when I started writing my blog in 2008. I started blogging because writing is a therapeutic outlet for me, and it’s an incredible feeling to know you’ve connected with people through words. (You know it when you get lots of hits on a given post and when people take time to comment.) It’s worth mentioning that I intended at one time to write another book, but have found blogging much more attractive. Why? Instant publishing, instant feedback, instant gratification, and I can write whatever I want.

A big mahalo to all my subscribers and to everyone who takes time to read my ramblings.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

One Japan…Scratching the Surface

Just got an email from a lady who stumbled onto my blog. She attached a vimeo link and asked me to check it out, says she’s promoting it out of love  ;) (her boyfriend made the movie) and because “it’s really very good.”

Happy to report that love wasn’t blind on this one: I think it’s better than “very good.” Anyone interested in modern Japan will love this clip, a story told with beautiful visuals, and a soundtrack to match. Thanks for sharing Jes, and well done Davey Martin!

Shot in Osaka, Nagano, and Kyoto…Enjoy.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/95289235″>One Japan</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/davymartin”>Davy Martin</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

If I Could Turn Back the Clock & Talk to My Mom Once More


MomDadOval

A philosophy professor told me years ago that the essence of culture is transmitted from generation to generation through mothers. Indeed the magnitude of a mother’s influence over her children runs deeper than any other influence imaginable.

But motherhood is so much larger than culture. Without mothers, human life grinds to a halt and our species is gone. That’s one heavy burden to bear.

And yet here we are, precisely why we celebrate the very people who shoulder the burden of humanity: our mothers.

For the record, I’m not big on commercialized “Hallmark-greeting-card days.” But I’m willing to make an exception for Mother’s Day because if anyone deserves their own day, it’s our moms. And at the very least, Mother’s Day invites reflection.

So in lieu of a greeting card here’s my reflection: Almost twenty years ago I lost my sweet, loving mother. If I could turn back the clock and talk to her once more, what would I say?

Thank you for giving me life.

Thank you for taking responsibility to care for and nurture me.

Thank you for talking to me when I was a toddler.

Thank you for singing to me.

Thank you for kindling my appreciation for and love of music.

Thank you for teaching me the cha-cha when I was four years old.

Thank you for making my transition to kindergarten an exciting adventure instead of a scary leap into the unknown. I still remember you saying over and over, “Tim, you’re such a big boy, you get to go to school, it’s going to be so much fun!” :)

Thank you for calming me as we entered kindergarten class that first day and the crazy kid in front of us threw a tantrum, knocked over the card table, and scattered tags and pins all over the floor. He’s not a big boy yet, Tim,” you whispered in my ear, “but you ARE!” And at that moment, in my 5-year-old head, I believed I was a big boy.

Thank you for continuing to encourage and build me up through all my trials and tribulations in grade school (especially that horrendous year in fifth grade with the crazy nun who made my life hell).

Thank you for putting up with my adolescent moodiness and aloofness, and continuing to love me even when I wasn’t at all lovable.

Thank you for sticking with me through my rebellious years, and for keeping me connected to my family during my darkest days.

Thank you for helping me reconcile with dad when I was convinced he didn’t care. (You were right, he did.)

Thank you for writing to and encouraging me in my transition to military life, you have no idea how much your letters and phone calls helped.

Thank you for your understanding and support while I spent ten years carving out my niche on the other side of the planet.

Thank you for being the loving, nurturing person that you were, and leaving a legacy of kindness, compassion and respect for others. Your spirit lives on in your children.

And thank you to all the good mothers out there for doing what you do. Enjoy your special day.

A final thought: how about we all try to love, appreciate and celebrate our mothers and spouses and children and siblings and friends every single day of the year, and see how that goes?

In the meantime, Happy Mother’s Day!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

The Joy of Gnarly Cross-Cultural Gigs and Reducing Secret Meetings

The client approached me for help. Productivity was down, tensions were high, the American staff felt disrespected, and Japanese managers were perceived by the locals as arrogant and unwilling to adapt their management style to American culture. Same old story.

This time I really did have my work cut out for me. More accurately, the client’s staff had their work cut out for them. But it was too early to break the news that outside consultants can’t solve a company’s internal problems, that my job is to help them better define their “current situation” so they can figure out for themselves how to best solve their own problems. This explanation would come soon enough. For now I would tread lightly and work on educating both sides to understand the deeper causes of their intercultural struggles.

The endgame in my workshops is to get both sides talking to each other without all the accumulated misunderstandings and accompanying emotions muddying the waters. It’s kind of like marriage counseling, just without the marriage part.

My approach is a bit unconventional but there’s a method to my madness. I spend several hours un-muddying the waters by educating American and Japanese staffs on each others’ cultures separately, then bring them together for a joint session at the end where a meaningful dialogue can unfold. It’s never easy.

At the beginning of each separate session I have participants make a list of what they like about working with the other culture, and also what drives them crazy. As you might expect, the “drives-them-crazy” lists are always longer than the “like” lists, a statement about human nature for sure. I also spend a good part of the separate sessions explaining the meanings, misunderstandings, and cultural ramifications of the listed comments. This provides badly needed context. Then in preparation for the final joint session, both lists are translated so both sides clearly understand what the other side is saying about them.

Sounds dangerous, right? That’s what I thought the first time I launched this program ten years ago. Happy to report that not once have I had to break up a fight. But it isn’t a love-fest either. It’s like incrementally turning a battleship around in the water with no single definitive turning point.

In my world, every workshop takes on a life of its own, so no paint-by-the-numbers magic. Lots of improvisation but it starts with education. Then I build on that foundation with humor, facilitated dialogue, self-reflection and structured brainstorming on improving relationships. But if I have a “go-to” technique it’s humor, a natural output of discussions that take place in the joint sessions. Indeed, cross-cultural interactions are ripe with humor, but only if you’re paying attention and seize those opportunities. Sometimes humor even happens by accident.

I once facilitated a joint session between Japanese and Americans in which the Americans had complained (as they always do) that the Japanese held “secret meetings,” implying they were intentionally withholding information from the Americans. The expression “secret meetings” took the Japanese by surprise. They simply took for granted that behind-the-scenes negotiating was how decision-making was supposed to happen.

In the course of the training the American participants learned that that these private meetings weren’t aimed at shutting out the Americans, that their Japanese counterparts in fact routinely held small private meetings off-line even in their own country when working only with fellow Japanese. This revelation went a long way in placating the American staff.

At the end of the session, after the Japanese had thoroughly reflected on comments made by American counterparts, the Japanese managers addressed the “secret meeting” complaint. Not knowing the proper English words to describe their off-line meetings, they defaulted to the “secret meeting” description. With a straight face, one of the Japanese managers faced the American audience and proclaimed in earnest, “We are so sorry. It is true that we Japanese have many ‘secret meetings.’ So our corrective action will be to reduce the number of secret meetings!”

To the Japanese presenter’s utter surprise, the Americans burst out laughing. They understood from context what he was trying to say. But try, if you will now, to imagine if context had not been provide upfront: it could have easily been a communication disaster!

The Battleship Does a U-Turn

Admittedly, this particular workshop was a tougher nut to crack than most I had administered in the past. In the initial American session the tension was palpable. It would take most of the session to get the American managers’ collective heads wrapped around the problem.

The Japanese session was a bit easier, although they were shocked to hear just how much resentment had built up with American counterparts.

Then in the final joint session the battleship did an unexpected and sudden U-turn. After hearing numerous comments from the American staff that they felt “disrespected” and “unappreciated,” the top Japanese executive present asked me to interpret. Here’s what he said:

“I suspect that I am guilty of offending you, and for that I want to offer my sincere apology. We Japanese come from a tiny-island country with no natural resources. America has kindly allowed us to build our factory here in this huge, wonderful market, and it has greatly benefitted our parent company. We are very grateful for that. So we have absolutely no intention to insult or belittle you. We will do our best moving forward to change that perception, and would like very much to work together. We are on the same team, have the same goals, and want to work together as one team.”

I could almost hear the tension escaping from the room. The Americans immediately softened, it was written all over their faces.

The rest of the session was fun, engaging and productive. Everyone left the room at the end of the day with the agreement that they would all work harder to communicate, cooperate, even socialize outside of work. They also agreed to hold similar joint sessions periodically to ensure proper follow up, and keep the lines of communication open.

Postscript

At the end of all my sessions I get a “report card” from each participant, ranking the effectiveness of the training on a scale of one to five (one being the worst, five the best). Also included is a comments section. This session yielded a 4.5 average ranking, a score to be proud of for sure. But two comments really stuck with me: in both cases, the participants said that they had low expectations coming into the training. Both said they were “very surprised” at how effective the training was, and thanked me for administering the workshop.

Nothing beats turning a battleship around in the water, turning conflict into harmony, and connecting cultures. Can’t wait for my next gnarly gig.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Lessons in Culture from Twenty-Four Japanese Hula Dancers


kiwala'o

It was going to be a fun gig. Twenty-four hula instructors from Japan were to visit the Island of Hawaii to study traditional Hawaiian Kahiko-style hula from a local kumu hula. Our job was to facilitate communication and cooperation between the local hosts and our Japanese guests.

Upon arrival we placed a lei around the necks of our guests, then broke the Japanese “no-hug rule” with each and every one of them. (Freaked them out a little but made everyone smile.) Next stop was the local hotel where they rested and freshened up for our opening ceremony that evening.

The next four days our guests underwent intensive instruction from the local kumu hula, learning Kahiko basics and the proper chants, culminating in a sacred gathering at the edge of Hawaii’s smoking Halema’uma’u crater where they danced and chanted for Madame Pele.

I wasn’t there to witness the event myself but my better half was. Keep in mind my wife isn’t prone to hyperbole nor is she particularly spiritual. But if you believe her, it was an uplifting, awe-inspiring, emotional experience that ended with lots of hugging and crying.

If this is not a profoundly awesome way to connect cultures, I don’t know what is.

And while the ladies were crying and dancing and hugging and bonding up at the crater, I was busy at home setting up for our final celebration party, the last night before our guests would return to Japan.

We wanted the celebration to be authentic, with a human touch. So we decked out our car port, scrubbed the floor for our barefoot dancers, hired a local band to play traditional Hawaiian music, and brought in local-style food—or “grinds” as they call it here in the islands. We also invited lots of friends so our guests would get the chance to interact with living, breathing human beings outside their own culture.

And the party rocked! Our guests, most of whom weren’t shy about consuming beer and wine, spent most of the evening dancing hula in my carport, a lovely and memorable evening.

When the party was over, the charter bus pulled up to my front gate, our guests danced their way onto the bus, blew us kisses, and headed to Hilo where they’d spend their last evening on our lovely island. (Okay, I blew them kisses.)

The Danger of Gloating

The next day, shortly after our guests departed, we would glimpse our evaluations. Imagine our delight when we found nothing but glowing reviews.  An authentic experience! Exceeded our expectations! A life-changing event! It was perfect!

As you might imagine we were now pretty full of ourselves, and quietly gloated well into the afterglow of the project. Truth is the gig did go well. So well that we continued nurturing relationships within the Japanese halau. Forget that my gut was telling me we weren’t getting the whole story. Hey, when false information says you’re perfect who wants to argue?

Well, on our next visit to Japan we made it a point to visit our new friends in Tokyo and Osaka. As one might expect, our hosts graciously extended their exquisite brand of Japanese hospitality, in both instances taking us out for dinner and drinks. And once again we bonded, thanks to liberal amounts of beer and saké, although sadly no dancing this time. It was yet another step forward in nurturing our relationship. The after-dinner conversation with our Osaka friends in particular turned out to be a breakthrough.

Japan’s East-West Rivalry

For folks unfamiliar with Japan, it’s worth taking a cultural detour here to point out that the Tokyo and Kansai areas—Osaka in particular for this story—represent two distinct subcultures within Japan, a kind of “East-West” rivalry with historical roots that run deep.

I’ll preface my comments by saying that even though I spent all my ten years in Japan in the Tokyo area and have many dear friends who are from there, I absolutely love Western Japan’s Kansai culture.

As a native of Chicago I feel a particular kinship with Osaka folks. Just as Chicago is cast as “second city” to New York, so it goes for Osaka, always lurking in the shadow of Tokyo.

And even our sports teams have parallels. New York has the Yankees, Tokyo the Giants, both winning franchises with a long, proud history. In contrast, Chicago and Osaka have the hapless Cubs and Tigers with just two measly championships between them in the last thousand years or so.

But what I love most about Osakans is our mutual love of breaking rules, an endearing quality that resonates, probably because I come from a long line of rule-breakers myself. This also explains why I enjoy watching Osakans jaywalk with a purpose, ignore “Don’t Walk” signs, and shamelessly haggle at the department store then brag about their cheap score, behavior that describes many of my American friends to a T.

And just to show Tokyo folks that they don’t “play according to Hoyle,” Osakans even have their own escalator etiquette: while Tokyoites stand uniformly on the left, Osakans keep to the right, a brilliant passive-aggressive practice that just radiates defiance.

And last but not least, Americans generally find Osakans refreshing because they are more apt to tell you what they’re really thinking. And if we Americans like anything, it’s knowing where we stand with others.

Why Osaka and Tokyo Clash

So why would Osaka and Tokyo be so different? The widely accepted explanation is that Osaka is a “merchant culture” as opposed to Tokyo’s stodgy “samurai culture.”

The merchant-culture theory feeds the image of Osakans as pragmatic, entrepreneurial, down-to-earth, free-spirited and fun-loving, the opposite of their cultural cousins in Tokyo. At the risk of overgeneralizing here, there is indeed some truth to this characterization of Osaka, as the cultural tendencies are obvious to anyone who has spent time in Japan’s bustling merchant city.

But if you ask  Osakans to describe  Tokyoites, you’ll probably hear words like “cold,” “shy,” “reserved,” maybe even “stuck up.”

Can you feel the resentment? It shouldn’t surprise that Osaka’s resentment toward Tokyo has been building for a long time, thanks largely to the Kansai area’s long, proud, thousand-year cultural history and political dominance—that and the fact that Tokugawa (the shogun famous for uniting feudal Japan under a single ruler) had the audacity to make the Eastern city of Edo the seat of political power from the early 1600s. To add insult to injury, old Edo was renamed “Tokyo” (literally “Eastern Capital”) when the Tokugawa shogunate officially ended in 1868, prompting the Emperor to up and move East. Ouch.

Well this naturally stuck in the craw of the entire Western Kansai district and resentment simmers today—albeit mostly in a playful, creative way. Suffice it to say that if a battle of wits ever erupted between Tokyo and Osaka, Tokyo wouldn’t have a chance.

One can only guess that it’s a lot more fun and edgy being a hustling, bustling merchant than an obedient, protocol-following Samurai, although I never tried the latter. Still, the merchant-Samurai angle seems to explain a lot.

With this backdrop, the after-hours drinking party we had with our straight-shooting Osaka hula friends will make a lot more sense. But before returning to our story, let’s examine one more cultural concept pertinent to the discussion.

Official Reality Or the Real Story?

The Japanese have a dualistic concept they call “honne/tatemae” (pronounced “hone-neh/tah-teh-mah-eh”). Think of honne as “one’s true feelings,” and tatemae as “the truth for public consumption.”

It’s a concept that manifests in all cultures, of course. The difference is that the Japanese openly acknowledge the gap between what people say and what they’re really thinking. In America we kind of sweep it under the rug, even though we know deep down it’s there.

With the honne-tatemae dichotomy out in the open, Japanese listeners are quick to discern between a speaker’s honne and tatemae in any given interaction, although it’s a bit of a guessing game even for Japanese.

Americans, on the other hand, actually practice honne-tatemae but don’t have a name for it. It’s our quirky way of “looking the other way” and pretending it doesn’t exist. The closest concept to tatemae might be the “white lie” an American tells to spare someone’s feelings. What comes to mind is the standard American response when the host of a party asks a guest how the food tastes. No matter how bloody horrible it may be, most Americans will say it’s delicious just to keep the harmony and spare the feelings of the chef. (With the caveat that when brutally honest friends are involved all bets are off!)

So the real challenge in making an authentic connection with Japanese folks in general, is getting past the tatemae façade and gently coaxing out the honne. There are only two ways that I know of to accomplish this: one is develop a relationship of trust. The other is to go out drinking together.

Drinking is the quickest path to honne.

Honne…Osaka style

So back to our story–there we were, my wife and I in an Osaka beer joint, pounding mugs of Sapporo Draft with a dozen lovely Japanese hula dancers. And the more we partook of the hoppy brew, the more and more transparent our conversation became, and the elusive “honne” gradually made itself known.

Turns out there was, after all, one teeny-tiny little problem with our event—no, with MY event! The one thing my dear wife put me in charge of, the final celebration, left our guests with the proverbial “bad taste in their mouth”: they admitted to us–under the influence mind you–that we overwhelmed them with food, and that they felt really bad leaving so much uneaten. They said it was “mottainai” or “wasteful.”

As the guy who was charged with cleaning up after the party, I can attest that most of the ladies indeed ate only about half their portions. The rest went in the garbage because our guests were leaving early the next morning, and it just wasn’t practical to wrap up their food to go. This was totally on me.

Portion size might seem like a trivial matter, but it’s a great example of stumbling over a culture gap with the best of intentions. Ironically, as many deep connecting points that the Japanese share with Hawaii—volcanic island dwellers, shamanistic roots, a this-worldly spirituality with multiple deities (powerful female deities, mind you), and an awe-inspiring reverence for nature–where we stumbled was in the everyday, practical realm of breaking bread: in Hawaii it’s unacceptable to run out of food, so locals go to the extreme and provide massive portions. In contrast, Japan, a traditionally resource-starved culture, sees waste of any kind as taboo.

What our hula friends were telling us in their gentle, respectful, boozy way is that we failed to anticipate the optimum portion-size for them, forcing them to do what Japanese folks abhor doing: waste stuff, especially food.

Shame on me for not anticipating this from the start–I absolutely should have known better. The silver lining is that, thanks to our kind Osaka hula friends, I now in fact do know better.

It may sound strange to describe getting constructive feedback as a “bonding moment,” but it absolutely was in the most tangible sense. As I see it, our straight-talking Osaka friends thought enough of us to respectfully provide constructive feedback, although admittedly it took a few beers to get there. But in my eyes it was a wonderful gift, one that will last me a lifetime. What more can a friend ask for?

But the real gift was being part of an event that connected Japan with local Hawaii culture, and creating new friendships that continue today. Can’t think of a more gratifying way to to make a living.

Aloha nui from the Big Island of Hawaii.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Musical Chairs on a Rush-Hour Train: Connecting Cultures Through Storytelling

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“If you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story.”

–Jonathan Gottschall

I come from a family of storytellers—parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them—it’s in our Irish blood. My favorite childhood story was dad’s annual Christmas-Eve yarn about how our grandfather saved the life of Santa Claus. Dad’s narrative had all the classic elements of a compelling story: good guy, bad guy, problem, climax, and resolution.

The good guy of course was grandpa. The bad guy was grandpa’s crazy next-door neighbor Seamus O’Toole who, one fateful Christmas morning, took umbrage with Santa “breaking into his house.” As grandpa was getting home from Midnight Mass he heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from inside his neighbor’s house. He dashed in only to find Seamus choking poor Santa! Grandpa proceeded to pull him off Santa and a fight ensued. Of course our hero prevailed, Seamus was subdued, and when Santa regained his wits he was so appreciative that he promised “from now on forever and ever, I will always bring presents to the children in the Sullivan family!” And as sure as the sun rises, the next morning we’d wake up with lots of presents under the Christmas tree, proof that dad was telling the truth.

How can anyone not love such a convoluted load of blarney? We ate it up.

This load of blarney is brought to you by Culture, where value lessons get wrapped in wonderful stories. The lessons of dad’s Santa story were unspoken but crystal clear: help people in need, be on the side of good, take action when you must, be proud of your pedigree.

This is the beauty of story: the good ones stick in your head right along with their accompanying value lessons, just as the Santa story is emblazoned in my memory fifty years later.

Long before humans were writing books, stories were told and passed down from generation to generation orally. Folks gathered around the hearth with family, friends, and neighbors, and listened to elders, shamans and raconteurs lay down their rap. Stories were about religion, entertainment, social interaction, and education. Today we’ll focus on the educational dimension of stories, specifically the role of stories in the cross-cultural field. First some background for context.

What’s In a Story?

Psychologist Keith Oatley calls stories “the flight simulators of human social life.” Jonathan Gottschall explains why in his book The Storytelling Animal:

…we are attracted to fiction not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kind of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

The relevance of storytelling to my situation is that one of life’s most pressing problems, indeed something “crucial to our success as a species,” is the challenge humans face connecting with other cultures. And as fate would have it, this is what I do for a living.

So many ways to skin the cross-cultural cat, but it makes good sense to use stories—both real and fictitious—in imparting cross-cultural knowledge and skills to anyone with the will to learn. Real stories for lecture, fiction for role play if it works. Whatever the context and application, stories rock it in any lecture or workshop.

And what does every story have? Conflict of course. Remember all those Grimm tales we were told as kids? Gottschall itemizes the carnage for us:

…children are menaced by cannibal witches, wolves bolt down personified pigs, mean giants and innocent children meet grisly deaths, Cinderella is orphaned, and the ugly stepsisters slash off chunks of their feet in hopes of cramming them into the tiny glass slipper (and this is before getting their eyes pecked out by birds)…”

If, as author Charles Baxter says, Hell is indeed “story-friendly,” then so it goes for cultures that collide. If you’re paying attention you won’t need fiction, as the cross-culture reality provides ample conflict, problems, humor, even horror. And whatever the outcome of any cross-cultural encounter, you’ve always got your story as a takeaway.

So why didn’t my anthropology teachers tell stories? Or was I not listening? All I remember are models, theories, graphs, charts, psychological references and lots of jargon to obfuscate simple human interactions. When stories were told they were stripped down and clinical in nature. It was painful to learn that way, and as a teacher I never wanted to subject others to that pain. Storytelling mitigates the pain.

Here’s a story I might tell in my seminars.

Musical Chairs

Shortly after arriving in Japan some thirty-seven years ago I was blown away by the kindness, attentiveness and hospitality of the Japanese. They were so gracious, so generous, sharing their food and drink and knowledge, even inviting me into their homes where they treated me like royalty. And I carried this gentle, caring image of the Japanese in my head until precisely the first time I boarded a rush-hour train in Tokyo.

The memory is still vivid. I was standing in line on the platform waiting for the Odakyu train to dead-end at Shinjuku station. The train eased its way in and stopped just short of the bumper. The doors remained closed on our side of the train, but slid open on the other side for the incoming passengers to file out. (And no, you’re not allowed to enter the open doors on the other side, you’ll get scolded if you try–but don’t ask how I know that.)

So there I was, standing quietly in line, thinking how much I loved the gentle, caring, hospitable Japanese people, when suddenly the doors on our side of the train opened and all hell broke loose. Little old ladies and pregnant women were shoved aside as blue-suited men, high-heeled office ladies and rabid students battled for seats. It was musical chairs played by people of all ages, shapes and sizes, and my mind was completely blown. I would soon learn that this wasn’t an aberration, as the same scenario played itself out again and again on rush-hour trains all over Tokyo everyday.

And this seeming contradiction in Japanese behavior dogged me. Were my Japanese hosts gentle, polite and attentive? Or cold-hearted scrooges who would deny a little old lady a seat on the train?

Fast forward several years when, in a flash of enlightenment, it all started making sense. I was a college student on my way home from campus, and had just boarded the very same Odakyu train in Shinjuku station. The same scenario unfolded: doors open, hell breaks loose, musical chairs, watch out grandma!

As a Westerner I’m not culturally programmed to fight for a seat under these conditions. So I slid into my favorite spot near the rear door, where I could lean against the train bulkhead, the perfect place to practice writing Japanese kanji on my scratch pad.

The moment of enlightenment hit when I happened to look up and see a blue-suited Japanese salaryman who had been particularly aggressive at getting his seat, sitting against the window reading the newspaper. As he turned the page he glanced up, and immediately realized that he knew the man standing in front of him, also a blue-suited salaryman. It was obvious there was a connection because the seated man immediately offered his seat to the standing man, insisting he take it. The standing man declined. The seated man, now in a half-sitting-half-bowing position, insisted again. The exchange continued–insist, decline, insist, decline, and lasted just long enough for me to consider sliding into the man’s seat myself. (Only in my imagination.) In the end, the half-seated man apologized for keeping his seat, sat back down, and harmony was restored to the universe.

And that’s when it hit me. The seated man had just out-dueled a little old lady for his seat, and now he was offering it to someone who needed it the least, a perfectly healthy middle-aged man. The more I thought about why this had just happened, the more I realized how rich the spectacle was in cultural meaning.

Cultural Lessons from the Rush Hour Train

It’s generally accepted in Japan that strangers on a train fight for seats, and everyone implicitly agrees on the rules so aggressive behavior is tolerated, even encouraged. Fair enough. But as soon as an acquaintance, friend or family member steps into the picture, inner-group rules kick in.

The sudden transformation of behavior that took place before my eyes on the train that fateful day was a story that stuck in my head: the man went from aggressive rugby brute to humble Confucian gentleman in mere seconds. This is a great example of what Takie Sugiyama Lebra refers to as “situation ethics,” not unusual in Confucian cultures where one’s duties and obligations are dictated by one’s situation in relation to others. Hence, universal rules of behavior don’t apply, and equal treatment is promised to no one. It also points to the importance of “inner versus outer” group behavior in Japan. Outside the confines of one’s inner group, rules for human interactions are minimal; but inside the group it’s a pressure cooker with strict protocol that’s heavy on duty and obligation.

In contrast Western culture has a tradition of absolute rules that apply to everyone equally, in principle if not in reality. And it makes perfect sense. Western culture is built on a Christian tradition that teaches we are all equal and under the moral scrutiny of an omnipotent, omnipresent God who watches us twenty-four-seven. That’s some heavy pressure on the individual when you think about it.

Applying this assumption to the rush hour train, God (and by logical extension, Western culture) expects strong, healthy young people to offer their seats to all pregnant ladies, the elderly, and the less fortunate–whether or not a relationship exists–because Christian morality is framed in universal laws not by “who you know.”

Many Westerners who claim no religion also behave according to universal principles. Whether they realize it our not, their behavior is rooted in these kinds of universal concepts set forth long ago in the Old Testament.

I’d be remiss not to mention here that it’s unfair to paint the Japanese as a culture that denies the elderly seats on a train. “Silver Seats” designated specifically for senior citizens are provided in each train car, although they surely need to be expanded to accommodate Japan’s growing senior-citizen demographic. I’ve also seen compassionate Japanese people offer their seats to the elderly. But looking back it still surprises me (as an outsider) how often it didn’t happen.

And as one digs deeper into the concept of situation ethics, there’s clearly more to teach on the impact of Confucianism on Japanese culture, including the concept of filial piety and the “rule-of man-over-rule-of-law” mentality that puts family and friends even before a government-issued edict.

The point of telling my musical chairs’ story is to illustrate how a story can give meaning and context to a discussion as abstract as ethics and behavior. Stories breathe life into abstractions by connecting them to the real world. In concrete terms the story above suggests how situation ethics might manifest in real life, and invites reflection on how one might adapt to that reality. Discussions can be interesting.

The versatility and power of stories make them applicable to any cross-cultural abstraction imaginable, from collectivism to power distance to empiricism to high and low context cultures. So many stories to tell.

Rockin’ It with Stories

My favorite teachers growing up were storytellers. They engaged me, entertained me, and wove in lessons that stayed with me. But just as important as the knowledge they imparted, their passion and storytelling style inspired me to seek out knowledge on my own. You can’t put a price tag on that.

Sadly we don’t have enough storytellers in the educational field today, and I’m really not sure why. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the Aristotelian structure we imposed on our learning institutions? Did we suck the joy out of learning to make it rational and scientific?

Nor do we have enough storytellers in the cross-cultural field and it’s a shame. So many stories to tell, so little time to tell them all, so many people who could use the knowledge. So I tell stories. And invite others to share their stories too.

For a related article, check out A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo-Jumbo

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014