Lessons in Humility from a Japanese Blues Guitarist

A superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.


In the late Seventies, Uncle Sam sent this clueless nineteen-year-old to Japan to finish out the last two-and-a-half years of a four-year stint in the Navy. Too young to be afraid I forged ahead into uncharted territory. I knew nothing of the world, even less about Japan.

It took six months to get oriented, a year to feel comfortable. I learned enough Japanese that first year to ask for directions, buy a train ticket, order a beer and negotiate that elusive phone number. Meaningful conversations in Japanese were far beyond my linguistic abilities. But I was having fun!

Japan was an unfolding riddle. The “odd behavior” of my Japanese hosts combined with reams of misinformation from equally clueless American colleagues had me thoroughly confused. But with time, patterns began to emerge. They made no sense at the time, but reinforced an awareness that something very different was going on in the heads of my Japanese hosts. It would take years to understand just how wide the gap was.

With low self-awareness, I made the innocent but critical mistake of projecting my values onto my host culture. As an American I embraced as “givens”, values like truth, fairness, equality, freedom and individualism. My folly was assuming these values carried the same weight in Japan, and it only compounded my confusion. (For example, how can the Japanese be so polite when you meet them, then suddenly turn into maniacs on the rush-hour train?)

But once in a while I would stumble onto a shared value, make a sudden cross-cultural connection and feel a rush of excitement in that brief moment when the gap disappeared. The second year into my military deployment in Japan, I had my first game-changing experience.

Humility Blues

On a mission to discover signs of nightlife in Yamato (back in the Seventies when it was still a quiet little town), a buddy and I stumbled into a drinking establishment called “Bonanza.” The size of a walk-in closet it was run by Taro, a tall, lanky man with a scraggly beard and disheveled hair, someone you’d expect to see at a biker’s convention. Sitting across the bar was the only other patron present, a Japanese man with long wavy hair and a gentle demeanor. Taro introduced him as “Keni”.

With our limited Japanese, their broken English, some creative gesturing and a few beers for good measure, we made a connection. Our conversation drifted to the topic of music. That’s when we discovered a shared passion for the blues.

When I mentioned that my friend Dave played harmonica–and had a couple with him–Taro pulled out a guitar from behind the bar and handed it to Keni.

As Keni tuned the instrument, I asked if he knew how to play the blues.

“Just a little,” he answered softly. “I’m still learning.”

Taking his words at face value I remember worrying that the poor guy might embarrass himself trying to keep up with my talented harmonica-tooting friend.

But when Keni started playing my worries were immediately replaced with awe. His power, technique and musical soul took me by surprise. Here this talented artist had just downplayed his ability, then let his performance do the talking. I was impressed.

Viewing the situation through my young American eyes, Keni’s humility seemed way out of whack with his talent level. And I wondered, if this extremely gifted artist is being humble then what about me?

With that simple thought came a subtle shift in my world view. It was the first time in my life that I entertained the notion that humility just might be a good thing, and it has remained a source of inspiration since.

This cultural commitment to humility has turned out to be a recurring pattern in my dealings with Japan for the past 30 years. The most surprising discovery is that Japan’s best companies have harnessed the power of humility to drive continuous improvement in their organizations. With all the fancy books on lean and TQM, you’d think that more American business leaders would understand that improvement only happens if employees are humble and fearless enough to acknowledge they can get better. It’s one of those simple but powerful total-quality truths that always seems to get lost in translation. The truth is that companies who hope to survive in an increasingly competitive world had better figure out how to develop a fearless, humble, reflective workforce. Japanese automakers understand this. The Big Three don’t.

And it begs the question: if Japan’s elite companies are being humble, then what about the rest of us?

The next post discusses the values necessary to create a fearless, reflective organization that never stops improving.

Below is a clip of Dave, Keni and Tim jamming in Japan 35 years later.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2008


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