Glimpses of Culture Through How We Dine (and the Power of Kikubari)

WaiterGraphic

Did you ever consider how many questions you have to answer just to eat at a restaurant in America? The interrogation begins the moment you walk in the door: Booth or a table? What to drink? What kind of beer? (Can I see an I.D. young lady?) Appetizer? Soup or salad? What kind of dressing? How to prepare the burger – rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well, or well-done? What kind of cheese on it – American, Swiss, cheddar, or Monterey Jack? Lettuce? Tomato? Onions? Curly or steak fries? With cheese melted on them?

And so on.

How we break bread together speaks volumes about our values, and (surprisingly) reflects patterns of behavior found in the business world. To illuminate the different ways Japanese and American teams behave at work, I like to compare the way the two cultures approach the dining ritual. As strange as it sounds, we work much like we eat.

Individual Choice in America

The American pre-meal interrogation alluded to above is a natural outgrowth of a culture that values individualism and personal choice. American culture assumes that people are not only free to order whatever they want, but that they should have plenty of choices so the meal can be customized to the individual’s specifications.

When the food finally arrives, the meal commences with unspoken assumptions about who is supposed to eat and drink what at the table. Even the beer bottle is sized for the individual to accommodate that American love of personal choice. An inevitable side effect of individual-sized packaging is that it delineates a priori each person’s area of responsibility. This is MY beer!

And the beer-drinking American would never think of filling someone else’s glass with his beer (it would be darn difficult pouring beer into those narrow, long-necked bottles anyway). The American diner assumes, often without being conscious of it, that his “responsibilities” are to drink his own beer and eat his own entrée–and ditto that for his table-mates. Focused and efficient, the American proceeds to consume his meal and enjoy his beer with little regard for the needs of the people around him. And it is all good, of course, because everyone at the table implicitly agrees on the rules.

How Do the Japanese Dine?

First, few questions are asked up-front because the Japanese meal is less concerned with individual choice than with anticipating the overall needs of the group and proactively fulfilling them. Besides the obvious goal of enjoying good food, dinner is considered the ideal setting for building and nurturing relationships.

A typical Japanese business dinner will begin with several large, frosty bottles of beer set in the middle of the table. Each diner gets a small, empty drinking glass, rendering the boundaries of drinking responsibilities fuzzy from the start. How much of that beer belongs to me?

In a land where harmony rules and the individual is but a “fraction” of the whole, it’s not appropriate for the Japanese diner to put a personal desire above the needs of his table-mates – God forbid, pouring yourself a glass of beer! Instead, each person at the table focuses on attending to the needs of everyone else. The low-ranking employee will be especially vigilant in filling others’ glasses when the opportunity presents itself, always before being asked to do so. Senior-ranking members will reciprocate, so beer is poured almost non-stop during the course of dinner. And it just brought back a fond memory…years ago an American friend, thoroughly overwhelmed by his first Japanese business dinner, leaned over and whispered in my ear in slurred tones, “I drank fifty-three half-glasses of beer!”

Parallels in the Workplace

Just for fun let’s superimpose the dining behavior described above onto Japanese and American group behavior in the workplace.

The cultural reality is that in an individualistic culture it makes sense that companies would invent “individual job descriptions”. Conversely in a group-oriented culture like Japan’s, it makes sense to have everything structured down to the level of “group job description”–and stop there. No surprise these different ways of organizing and distributing work can ruffle feathers in a workplace shared by Japanese and Americans. Here’s a conversation I once heard between a Japanese production control manager and his American subordinate:

Japanese Boss: Why didn’t you do that?

American: It’s not my job!

Japanese Boss: Of course it is!

American: You never told me that!

Japanese boss: You should’ve known!

America: How would I know–it’s not in my job description!

Japanese boss: Your job description is to do whatever is necessary to help the company!

And so on.

Like the American diner’s entrée, job responsibilities in American companies are defined a priori via precisely documented job descriptions. As the American diner is expected to focus on eating his clearly-defined entrée, the American employee is expected to adhere to his or her clearly defined job-description. No surprise that fulfilling the requirements set forth in one’s job description is every American employee’s top priority. And just as the American diner knows in his heart that “this food is mine and that is not”, so goes the delineation of responsibilities at work: “this job is mine; and that is not.” (These words never fail to make a Japanese manager’s blood boil.)

Japanese team dynamics truly come alive when Japanese businessmen gather for dinner at a restaurant and the alcohol starts flowing. Meal portions are ambiguous from the start since a good portion of the food is set out in common dishes for everyone to share. This parallels exactly how Japanese employees approach their jobs; they do not work from a strict, predefined personal job description, but rather draw from a common pool of work, from their fuzzy group job description. And the proactive nature of the beer-pouring ritual parallels how the Japanese employee is expected to interact with his or her team at work. The employee must stay alert, be observant, identify any “half-empty glasses” that need to be filled, then promptly take action without being asked to do so.

Interestingly the Japanese beer-pouring ritual offers glimpses at Japanese-style customer-service as well. The idea of first observing people’s needs, then proactively fulfilling them, is the ultimate standard in Japanese-style customer service. The Japanese word for this is “kikubari”, translated as “care”, “attentiveness” or “consideration for others.”

An old ANA Airlines advertisement captures the essence of kikubari:

“Anticipate”

At ANA, service isn’t just a reactive endeavor. It’s steeped in centuries of Japanese culture. That’s why our flight attendants take great pride in delivering outstanding service even before you’re aware you need it. Whether it’s a cold drink, a warm duvet or any other touch of Japanese hospitality, we’ll be there faster than you can hit a call button. After all, we’ve been training for a thousand years or so.

The American service sector would do well to study the art of kikubari. It is a powerful communication tool that requires no special skill, and no words to be spoken. A nice little side-effect is it removes the pesky language barrier from the equation altogether.

Japanese and American team dynamics are so different that you might wonder how the twain could ever possibly meet. The answer is through a willingness to cooperate, a mutual awareness of the other culture’s way of doing things, and a recognition that complementary cultural strengths can be harnessed for the greater good. American cultural strengths include efficiency, focus, and creativity; Japanese culture boasts a proactive approach to work, attention to detail, careful planning, and relentless follow up to ensure plans get implemented. Both cultures share a strong work ethic and competitive fire. Figure out how to harness these strengths and you’ll create a thing of beauty!

So where does the twain meet? I see kikubari as a powerful connecting point, a relationship-building tool with universal application. For any two people struggling to communicate, my advice is to seek out opportunities to practice kikubari--opportunities to do something kind and considerate for the other person. By incorporating kikubari into your daily interactions you strengthen teamwork, reduce the need for words, improve customer service, and build human relationships.

(For more on the subject of kikubari, check out Japanese Customer Service: the Art of Kikubari.)

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

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22 responses to “Glimpses of Culture Through How We Dine (and the Power of Kikubari)

  1. And, as if all this choice and forced involvement during American restaurant dining wasn’t enough to bring stress to an otherwise peaceful day, we now often find the same thing when we check into the allegedly luxurious hotel, only to find pillow ‘menus’! Hard or soft? Feather or foam? Large or small? You get the picture.

    I always loved the Japanese expression ‘Not saying is the flower.’ How lovely not to have to interact at all when enjoying ‘down time,’ and instead have someone else anticipate and act on your needs. Now that’s customer service.

    Kikubari rules!!
    Mahalo, Tim.

  2. Aloha Tim! I think this is your best post in terms of being able to apply a culture developed skill to improving everyone’s relationships no matter what culture. Wider readership appeal than most of your posts. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with all of us. As Sue says “Kikubari Rules!”. Perhaps a good book title?

  3. What really irks me, is that despite Americans having so many choices to have it “their way”… So many will choose to complain about the smallest little problem with their food when it does come to them.

    I have honestly quit eating out with someone I knew on the mainland because it was so embarrassing.

    The worst is eating with someone who also works in the restaurant industry AND is a complainer… I won’t even go there with a story of this asshole that I knew.

    I’d be interested in learning about “Tipping Customs” in Japan. That’s a pretty touchy subject here in America. Is that an a big issue over there?

  4. In Japan it’s simple: no tipping.

    I even tried forcing a tip onto a Japanese hotel employee several years ago because he was so damn good. He refused to take the tip, which made me want to give it to him even more. In the end I was “forced” to keep my money.

    As an aside, I love Japanese customer service and believe it sets the world standard in many ways. But there is at least one advantage to American-style customer service: when you get the right person the American server is friendly and entertaining. In contrast, Japanese service tends to be more “serious”, with the server’s role more in the background…the customer is the star not the server.

    You want to know the “ideal server” in Japan? Think “Radar”in the TV series M.A.S.H.–a step ahead of everyone he’s the first to hear the choppers, always hands the Colonel his report a split second before it’s requested…basically he anticipates everything!

    Now imagine if you could combine the best of both cultures into a hybrid model? (Currently working on a project to help a client do just that. :-))

  5. Hello Tim,

    A bit off topic but, is Karlton Tomomitsu
    a chiropractor?

  6. Hey Tyson, thanks for checking in.

    Last I checked, Karlton was an executive recruiter. Somehow I can’t imagine him as a chiropractor…

    Tim

  7. Hello Tim,

    Thanks for the informative post, definitely a topic worth talking about.

    The tacit interplay of actions that flow through a business dinner in Japan can be very alluring. Although it is difficult to express in words, the smooth and constant wave of reciprocal action and reaction brings the river course of multiple personalities into one bigger, stronger flow that can surmount all obstacles. Something as simple as pouring a client’s beer can do wonders to enforcing a bond and building a sense of trust.

    One question though: do you think many Japanese managers take advantage of the blurry lines between job duties? For example, rather than take responsibility for failing to oversee the project through, the boss chews out and slips the blame onto a subordinate. The incentive to use the blurry lines to a person’s gain in ever present, especially in a seniority system. However, you have much more knowledge about it than I do, so I would like to hear your thoughts on it.

    Anyhow, I do agree that the traditions of kikubari would be useful in building a “willingness to cooperate,” and “strengthen teamwork, reduce the need for words, improve customer service, and build human relationships.” Just imagine American workers pouring water at the water cooler; excluding sociopaths, it would definitely create a sense of gratitude and an awareness of the other.

    To save your bladder it is worth noting how to signify you have had enough alcohol to Japanese associates: simply do not drink all the alcohol in the cup, if you drink all the beer in your cup, your associates will assume you want more.

    Haha, we must definitely be talking about the wrong guy.

    Tyson

  8. Aloha! Quick comment on not drinking all the alcohol in your cup…you will still be poured alcohol even if you have some left in your cup. A key is to sip just a little and ALWAYS be available for receiving a pour even if it is just a little.

    To turn down a pour offer is extremely rude.

    My father in law who was the president of a medium sized construction company took me to his company’s new year party. I noticed he wasn’t drinking which was unusual for him. Then each of the 350 employees began to come up to him to offer him thanks and pour a bit fo sake into his cup….350 pours later I carried him out to the car. But he would never had turned down one of the employees offers to pour….

    My guess is that perhaps this is changing a bit as people become more aware of global customs and health concerns…although that is not the case in rural northern Japan where we were based.

  9. “To turn down a pour offer is extremely rude.”

    Is everyone a drinker?

    I’d be interested to find out the comparison of DUI’s in Japan vs. Other Countries.

    I wonder if America leads the world in DUI’s ratios… simply because we have a lot of idiots?

  10. Hi Tim,

    Great post. I really like the way you were able to link culturally different social interactions to the workspace.

    I’m currently working in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia where the most striking habit in dining is to eat before everyone has received their meal.

    When a group sits down in a restaurant, orders their food and drinks at the same time, the meals will not come out at the same time, not only that but often it will come out in a 5 minutes timespan and sometimes even 15+ minutes. This is not only the restaurants behavior. It is custom to just start eating when your food has arrived where as in many other cultures the initial bite is shared by all.

    I will continue thinking about the implications of this dining behavior on Malaysian business manners and operations.

    Cheers.

  11. Thanks so much for all your comments and sorry for taking so long to respond. Moshiwake gozaimasen! (Okay, I’m American so I’ll give you an “excuse”: I’m on the mainland working!)

    First wanted to follow up on Grif’s comments. Refusing an offer for someone to pour your drink can certainly be interpreted as rude behavior. One technique is, as Grif stated, just take small sips so you appear to be drinking more than you really are. The more definitive “non-verbal” way to stop the flow of beer is to keep your glass full–a visual indicator that you don’t need/want anymore. But as anyone who socializes with the Japanese on a regular basis knows, this doesn’t always work, as your Japanese host may encourage you (push you?) to drink up. That’s when you go to Grif’s “Plan B” and start sippin’.

    However, this doesn’t help the non-drinker cope with the situation, and I would never encourage anyone to drink alcohol if they don’t want to. So here’s my solution (learned it from my wife who doesn’t drink). When she’s offered alcohol she always says “I’m allergic to it.” It’s one of those great “polite lies” that instantly solves the problem since even the most aggressive Japanese host will back off.

    True story: a client of mine, who happens to be a recovering alcoholic, went to Japan on business several years ago. In the evening his Japanese hosts took him to dinner at a nice restaurant. When his Japanese host tried pouring his beer he waived it away and said, “I’m an alcoholic.” To which his host replied, “Then you’re gonna LOVE this!”

    It sounds like a cruel punchline, but the Japanese guy wasn’t joking. Why? Because “alcoholism” is not considered a disease in Japan. In fact, the “alcoholic” by Japanese definition is the guy in the gutter who loves alcohol so much that he doesn’t work or do anything productive. In fact, the notion of a functioning alcoholic doesn’t exist in Japan: if you go to work everyday and meet all your social commitments, but go home every night and get hammered, then you’re not an alcoholic–you just love alcohol! (Japanese logic, of course.) I remember being shocked early on when a Japanese acquaintance told me with a big grin on his face that he was an alcoholic. It was his joking way of simply saying he liked alcohol.

    As for DUI’s in Japan, it’s not as big a problem as in the U.S. The explanation is pretty simple: they have a wonderful mass-transit train system. Usually the last train leaving the station on any given night will have lots of drunken Japanese businessmen. But I’ve also seen groups of Japanese guys carry their “drunk” friend onto a train, get him seated (or lay him on an empty seat), then leave him there to go catch their own train going to a different location. As soon as his buddies leave, the guy pops up, perfectly sober. He was “faking” being drunk so he wouldn’t have to keep drinking…another technique to counter the alcohol flow!

    Getting to Tyson’s question: Do I think many Japanese managers take advantage of the blurry lines between job duties to blame subordinates?

    Great question, probably worth an entire post. (I touched on it in a previous post: Can American Executives Manage Without Their Corporate Jets?)

    Truth is, blaming a subordinate in Japan (at least in the manufacturing world) is considered irresponsible and bad form. If one’s subordinate fails then the boss must accept responsibility because he didn’t provide the conditions where his subordinates’ success was assured. (Tateishi’s “Theory of Provided Conditions”). This is one reason why it’s embarrassing for a Japanese person to fire a subordinate because it indicates a failure on the boss’s part to ensure the subordinate succeeded. In fact the biggest gripe Japanese managers have about American counterparts in the workplace is that “Americans blame others rather than focusing on improving the process”.

    This doesn’t mean that the Japanese boss doesn’t scold subordinates. Scolding is a common practice in Japanese companies, akin to a parent scolding a child. The point being that scolding is done to teach–not blame. In fact, some Japanese have complained to me in the past that their boss didn’t yell at them enough (meaning he doesn’t care enough to scold). Many Japanese managers tell me they pick on the talented subordinates the most because they want them to keep improving…it’s a Zen-Samurai thing… :-)

    Eric, thanks for checking in and offering yet another cultural perspective. Very interesting custom, look forward to seeing a future post on this topic at your site!

    A hiu hou to all! (Until we “meet” again.)

    Back in Hawaii Saturday…can’t wait to go home!

  12. Aloha Damon! I suspect DUI’s are very low in Japan because people can use public transportation or taxi’s. The stigma of being caught for a DUI is extremely high. In many companies it is automatic cause for firing.

    I believe about 30% of adults don’t drink…physically can’t handle alcohol which is much higher I believe than the U.S..

    Most business owners and executives I worked with in Japan, even if they didn’t drink alcohol would never say so and would sip just a bit of beer/sake/scotch and water so they could always accept a pour.

    In the sake industry and construction industries which I was involved with it was a matter of pride to have a “drinking reputation”…for example my father in law was know as an “issho” drinker which means 1.8 liter of sake in one sitting….my father and I decided to challenge that one New Year’s day and did 4 1.8L bottles in 8 hours…didn’t remember the next day BUT I had a “nisho” (2 1.8L bottles of sake) drinking reputation which as stupid as it may seem to us now was pretty important in my business dealings….

    I suspect Tim can share a lot of his observations on how alcohol plays a role in business in Japan…

  13. Grif,

    Thanks for correcting me. Most of my experience socializing with the Japanese has been with friends, teachers, and co-workers. However, it was with lawyers, and everyone was quite laid back. I based my comment on that experience.

    Thanks Tim, it always amazes me how economic principles often fail when applied to Japanese people.

    I did an article on tsukidashi on my blog, and I was wondering if you had time you could check it out?

    http://thebaboose.wordpress.com/2009/09/12/tipping-and-tsukidashi/

    Tyson

  14. “The point being that scolding is done to teach–not blame. In fact, some Japanese have complained to me in the past that their boss didn’t yell at them enough (meaning he doesn’t care enough to scold). Many Japanese managers tell me they pick on the talented subordinates the most because they want them to keep improving…it’s a Zen-Samurai thing… :-)”

    Very interesting, I wonder if it relates to me being constantly correcting by a group Japanese teachers – several men over 65 years old – at the community center I study at. They rarely correct the other students who attend the school – I was the only one to pass 1 Kyuu. I’ve been curious to why they only made an effort to correct me. If what you say applies to them as well, it brings a new light to something that has bothered me.

  15. Two things:

    1. Grif, your mention of one’s drinking reputation being of grave importance, even to the extent of attaching specific numbers to it (talk about father/son bonding!! you guys must have some great laughs about your days in the sake industry), points to the macho nature of doing business in Japan. What, then, happens to women trying to break through the ever-so-thick glass ceiling there? While Tim’s suggestion of the ‘allergy’ alibi does work magic in terms of letting people off your back, it unfortunately also leaves you out of the loop — to a lesser extent now, it seems, but I still think that’s the case, and there’s not much to be done about it, other than making the very most out of your daytime dealings. I was fascinated to hear some time ago that in Japan and Korea, women were hiring guys to, in effect, drink for them, which I thought was both brilliant and funny, since it preserved the protocol AND face-saving factors. Have any of you heard or seen this in action?

    2. While dinner indeed is the optimal time for cementing business relationships, lunches have their own idiosyncrasies. Keeping in mind Tim’s theme of dining as a reflection of culture, the Japanese emphasis on consensus comes through when lunch is ordered. Whereas in the U.S., our individualism results in everyone often ordering different dishes, with extra requests to boot (dressing on the side, rice instead of potatoes, and we could go on and on), in Japan the most senior person at the table, or the one in charge of organizing the lunch, takes the lead in ordering, meaning ‘Set A’ or ‘Set B’ or something equally uncomplicated. Invariably, everyone else orders the same thing, or very close to it, even if they cannot stand what they’ve just ordered. The idea is that emphasis should be only on harmony and a pleasant atmosphere; so many choices and expressed differences of opinions, even on something as seemingly innocuous as food, it is felt, detracts from this goal. To be fair, there are so many aspects of Japanese life that are exceedingly complicated; thus, keeping things simple wherever possible must also serve some higher goal of preserving balance and keeping chaos at bay.

  16. Aloha Sue! You are correct that saying you have an allergy will get you off the hook from having to drink but it also makes you an outcast…

    As a Gaijin business owner in rural northern Japan I was an outcast many times over so needed a way to develop business relationships….

    So a key was being very open to drinking with the “boys”…and to actually establish a “man, can he hold his sake” reputation.

    I went through a six month period where I decided not to drink (I said “doctor’s orders”) which my business partners kind of understood but put a real damper on our relationships.

    Drinking in Japan was such an integral part of relationship building as a business owner that I have a hard time imagining a business owner developing business without drinking.

    I wish that was not true….as much as I enjoy drinking!

    For a woman to develop business relationships without drinking…I think that would be a HUGE challenge.

    My suggestion is to work with other women and forget the men.

    I do see that trend in Japan and Korea as well as here in Hawaii.

    Very positive. Certainly better for one’s health.

    Although enjoying 1 or 2 glasses of premium chilled sake daily I think does make life a whole lot more enjoyable!

    If someone would like a PDF file of my sake book send me an e-mail to griffrost@vrhi.com.

  17. Fun discussion, thanks everyone for chippin’ in :-)

    Can’t disagree with Sue and Grif on the consequences of abstaining from alcohol in social gatherings. And no argument that it puts women at a disadvantage in cementing business relationships. (More on this coming up.)

    And like Grif I’ve consumed copious amounts of beer and sake during my 32-year love affair with Japan, admittedly not as much as Grif. (Grif’s way more macho than me. :-))

    No surprise that alcohol plays such an important role in relationship building in Japan. It’s such a pressure-cooker society with lots of shy, timid people unwilling or unable to assert themselves. I feel so sorry for some of my Japanese friends. All day they suppress their personal desires, conform, nod their heads even when they disagree, stay late at work every night–not because they are workaholics, but because if they don’t stay, their membership in the clan gets revoked (nakama hazure), leaving them outcasts, possibly even sitting in that dreaded seat near the window, the infamous madogiwa-zoku. To make matters worse–as my buddy Darren points out (and I paraphrase)–”God forbid a Japanese person utter the words “I’m bummed out.” Society doesn’t want to hear your sob story. No sympathy: suck it up and get your #@%& together! shikkari shiro!

    So after a day in the pressure cooker, what better way to open the pressure valve than cracking open a beer or bottle of sake. Then like magic your normally reserved Japanese coworker suddenly let’s his hair down, acts like a goof, sings karaoke off-key with enthusiastic encouragement from drunk coworkers. (Ya know, that obligatory clapping at set intervals within the boring Enka songs that all sound the same?)

    To take a little detour here, think about the connection between honne-tatemae and drinking. (For the sake of the uninitiated: honne is “one’s true feelings”; tatemae, “the truth for public consumption). I can think of only two ways to connect with a Japanese person’s honne: build a personal relationship of trust (a long-term process), or…take a shortcut and get that person really drunk! LOL…But buyer beware: you might end up getting a dose of “fake honne”…after all, they want their gaijin guests to feel good about themselves, lol!

    Getting back to Sue’s point about a female’s disadvantage in the drinking arena. Putting aside that indisputable reality, I submit that American females have some advantages over men in other areas. (If you haven’t already read it, you might want to check out “Of Mice and Japanese Men“). During the day, in the workplace, where the rubber meets the road, I have seen many, many American females excel where American male counterparts couldn’t. Knowing the role of women in the Japanese workplace, this “pattern” took me by surprise at first. Then I read “Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus” (a book basically about “cross-cultural differences” between men and women), and realized that what Americans would consider “female values”–harmony, reaching consensus, consideration, “feelings”, the importance of human relationships, etc–exactly describes key values in Japanese culture. Giving just one example, a Japanese manager (and personal friend) confessed to me years ago that he came to actually prefer American females because (he believed) they tried harder, were more attentive and observant, and were superior multi-taskers. Was wondering if Sue (or any females reading this) have ever felt this “advantage”.

  18. Aloha Tim,

    ‘Been thinking quite a bit about your thorough response, and was hoping I’d have some concrete examples in the interim here, but no such luck, as my interactions in the past week have all been with Japanese women, alas (no alcohol involved either! LOL). Along with your list of compatible character traits, I have one more to add, one which has, for me, been my lucky charm, as it were: the gift of “women’s intuition.” While it is considered a trait shared by women across all cultures (guys — what do you think??), some do seem more blessed with it than others. For those of us lucky enough to interact with Japanese nationals in the business arena, it can work wonders in building credibility, not only with men, but with women as well.
    Getting back to Tim’s original idea, that customer service in Japan relates to the uncanny talent for anticipating the needs of its clients, there is an element of ‘ishin denshin’, of being able to actually read the minds of others. Thus the connection to the power of intuition in the workplace. So yes, there are, fortunately, ways of getting around the alcohol infused system, and hearing this from “the other side” is always music to my ears. Nevertheless, when hours upon precious hours are spent over those drinks outside the office, one wonders about all the missed opportunities therein…….

    • Sue, I agree and thanks for sharing a female perspective. Intuition has always been considered a “female trait”, and it’s absolutely indispensable in Japanese social and professional interactions. Acknowledging that exceptions exists, I think most people would agree that females tend to be more intuitive than men. Not sure if it’s nurture, nature or both, but society has traditionally had females in a role that required observation, anticipation, multi-tasking, etc. The nature argument works too: when my kids were infants my wife physically “knew” (even before my sons) that feeding time had arrived. Then watching her nurture my children into adulthood…magical stuff. Corporate America must seem easy to a mom, because I don’t think there’s a tougher job. It’s just one reason females make great workers…wow, just had a disturbing thought: if Samurai Wife ever left me I’d have to hire at least 3 people to replace the lost output…So I’m staying married! :-)

  19. Wow… so many interesting thoughts, ideas, insights, and reflections.. Am starting to appreciate just how powerfully blogging brings people together around discussions.. (Without it needing hundreds of comments to completely lose track of the conversation ;)

    Ok.. Some responses/reflections insights I’d like to share..
    Firstly.. I can’t remember which book I’ve read this in, but at a basic level, when experimenting with perception between Japanese and US students, in an experiment where they showed both kids the same fish tank, with fish in it, when they removed the fish from the fish tank, the Japanese students couldn’t identify that the fish were missing, but the American students could tell that the fish had gone. Equally, when something else was changed in the fish tank, like the rocks, or plants, etc, the Japanese kids could tell the difference, but the American kids couldn’t tell that something had changed.

    For me, that kinda reflects in the key difference between Japanese teams/harmony and the need to look at the ‘context’ whilst the US based folks would focus on the ‘subject’ and look at the individual objects of note. Similarly, I guess Japanese people think more of the ‘big picture’ and less of the ‘individual’, whilst with the US it’s the opposite. Clearly both have complementary advantages, when contextualised one with the other.

    Also, I was wondering about the dining experience a little more.. I lived in South Korea, as an English Teacher, back in 2004, and the most notable difference for me, was that the local Korean teachers would order food that they would share, whilst the non-native foreign English Teachers would each order foods and dishes that only they would eat. Sharing was almost never done between them. I wasn’t sure, but do Japanese people equally share everything they order? Especially in resturants?

    Also, being of Asian origin, whilst I wouldn’t assume it to be the case, I know that in Asian culture, traditionally, at least when we go out to eat as a family, it would always be my father who would order for everyone, being the eldest. Less so now, as we’ve become more ‘western’, but back in the day it would be the case. And as a sign of respect, in indian resaturants when we were younger, the waiter would always go to the eldest looking person in the group, to get the order for everyone. And they would order what everyone wanted.

    Also, another observation, from South Korea, was that the ‘oldest’ person in the group would always insist on paying for everyone. (And where the group was work related, it would be the boss of the company). Is that also the case in Japan? That the ‘eldest’ would pay? I became close friends with some South Koreans, and whenever we went out, they would always insist on paying, being elder. Again, another practice that seems intrinsically Asian, as even within our family, or close friends, it used to be considered disrespectful, or almost dishonourable if the eldest person didn’t pay. (Though again, the dynamics of that culture are starting to change for us as a family, as we start adopting increasingly western norms – even though we were born and raised in the UK, we always maintained our Asian values, and sensitivities around these things, until the last 10 years or so.)

  20. Hey Tim,

    明けましておめでとうございます!今年もどうぞよろしくお願いいたします!!! Sorry I’ve been out of the loop, but for great reasons — lots of work and in Tokyo for much of December. Wishing you a smashing 2010!!

  21. Aloha guys,

    So many new topics opened above, which we could go on about for hours — differences between Korean and Japanese culture, contextual differences relating to culture, and so much more (Tim, I’m sure you’re busy conjuring up some responses).

    Grif, Tim and everyone, as per our earlier discussion of drinking (and the pitfalls of not drinking) in Japan, I was eager to mention that on my recent visit there, I noticed articles everywhere on the increase in alcohol consumption among women at every age level throughout the country (I love the title of the article “Go and play, kids — mom wants to enjoy a beer”). Marketers are zooming in for the kill, and makers of alcoholic beverages are coming out with lots of lower calorie versions just for women. Did I actually notice more women out at bars and restaurants partaking? Yes, I definitely did, usually in ‘women only’ settings. It will be fascinating to see where this development leads, and I wonder if it will serve to level the playing field among the sexes there (hard to imagine, don’t you think?), or make it more difficult to refuse alcohol in some circles.

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