Tattered Shoes, Duct Tape and a Kikubari Moment


In my customer service seminars I always emphasize the importance of providing “kikubari service” to add value to the customer experience at little or no cost.

Kikubari is best defined as “the art of anticipation”. It comes from two words: “ki” meaning “spirit”, and “kubari”, the noun form of the verb kubaru, which means “to distribute”. Hence, kikubari literally means “to distribute one’s spirit”. Said another way, kikubari starts with paying attention to the needs of others, processing the observation, then initiating an act of kindness that anticipates those needs.

Years ago I stumbled onto a magazine advertisement by All Nippon Airways that elegantly defines the concept of kikubari in the context of customer service on an airplane:


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.


Of course kikubari can be applied in any situation–whether it’s customer service or simply extending a kindness to a friend. In short, kikubari is about paying attention to the needs of others and taking initiative to fulfill them.

Several years ago I was on the receiving end of a beautiful–if not somewhat embarrassing– “kikubari moment”. Here’s the set-up:

We are acquaintances with an elderly Japanese couple who own a vacation home in our neighborhood. They flew in for the summer only to find that their old oven range had crapped out. So they ordered a new one and asked us to help them dispose of their old. So I called a friend who owns a truck and we arranged to swing by their house to haul it away.

For the rest of the story to make sense, it’s important to mention that when I’m putzing around my garden I always wear an old pair of tennis shoes that I love, not for their looks, but for their sheer comfort. And in my garden the shoes get so grimy and muddy, why would I even care what they look like?

Sadly my beloved shoes are literally coming apart at the seams. But since I’ve yet to find another pair that match their comfort level, it’s been very tough parting with them. So being the practical guy that I am, I fixed ‘em. With duct tape.

As you might guess, my beauty-loving Japanese wife absolutely hates these old, ugly shoes, but she’s been kind enough to tolerate them because I only wear them in the yard.

That is, until I inadvertently broke that unwritten rule. Yes folks, I was wearing my duct-taped shoes when I loaded our Japanese acquaintances’ oven range onto the back of my friend’s truck. Didn’t even realize I had ‘em on. But guess what? Our Japanese friends were “distributing their spirit” and noticed my wretched shoes.

So what do you think happened next? You guessed it: the Japanese couple showed up at my front gate the next day with a new pair of shoes! (How did they know my size? They didn’t, but it’s the thought that counts.) I can only imagine what was going through their heads: “Poor Tim can’t afford to buy a new pair of shoes, so this will be a good way to thank him for hauling away our oven range.”

Needless to say, Samurai Wife was not pleased with this development. (Highly embarrassed is a more accurate description.) Imagine her at the front gate, bowing profusely while apologizing to our friends for her wretched husband’s filthy, ugly, duct-taped shoes.

With this backdrop, thought my readers would appreciate the following visual.

I’d be remiss not to extend a red-faced mahalo to our Japanese friends for their thoughtful and compassionate application of the kikubari principle.

And apologies to Samurai Wife. Amazing she’s still with her “wretched husband” after 27 years. 😮

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2010


2 responses to “Tattered Shoes, Duct Tape and a Kikubari Moment

  1. You’re shoe actually looks injured. It looks like it needs crutches. Gives new meaning to “playing hurt”, but it seems like this shoe has a potential metaphorical, inspiring, sports story.

    “After a fulfilling and promising career, shoe was determined to win one last title to further cement his legacy. With his loyal coach of over 10 years, they were destined to ride out into the sunset…together. With the game on the line, shoe was badly injured. With his body falling apart for the last 2 years, it didn’t matter what was injured, what mattered was whether he could still walk. With the help of the trainer, shoe was taped up one last time…for one last drive. Knowing full well that shoe was in no condition to play, coach wiped tears from his eyes, hoping for his over-the-hill, faded star to shine one last time.

    As the crowd watched shoe for the final time, coach knew that his career had ended with no regrets, even in defeat. Coach was fired and the front office was replaced immediately. With new management and a healthy budget, dead financial weight was dropped and a pair of fresh rookies were inserted as a new era began…”

    • The General Manager (mom) stepped in to retire my beloved shoes. (I was too close to the situation to make a rational decision.) Attempting to extend their usefulness, we even tried giving ’em to the dogs, two more toys to amuse them. But the dogs wanted no part of those shoes, LOL. So we’ll just have to give my old friends a decent burial and move on.

      I will dearly miss the comfort.

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