Random Observations From Post-Disaster Japan

I type this as my 16-day stay in Japan winds down. Sadly we’re leaving tomorrow. Sad because I love Japan, but not so sad because we’re returning to our home in lovely Pahoa Hawaii. If there ever was a no-lose proposition this is it!

The point of my visit was business, but we found time to sneak in some pleasure as well. The first leg of the trip I conducted a 3-day cross-cultural team building workshop for a Japanese client. Normally my seminars focus on connecting Japan with Westerners (usually, but not always, Americans), but this gig was a bit more complicated. Participants heralded from China, India, Japan, Korea, Poland, Spain, Thailand, Taiwan, UK and US. It’s amazing how different our cultures are, but reassuring that we found ways to connect. Humor really helps: once folks can laugh together, human connections naturally follow. This particular gig ended with lots of smiling faces, and as an added bonus, I’ve now got some new friends spread around the planet. What a great job I have!

Random Observations

Observation #1: Happened while riding in a taxi from Haneda airport to my hotel. The cab driver was chatty and friendly–for a Japanese cabbie. He almost seemed surprised to see me because, in his words, “foreigners aren’t coming to Japan these days.” The reason is obvious: thanks to our irresponsible media outlets, non-Japanese around the world seem to think that Tokyo is in the disaster zone with nuclear fallout out raining down on its 13 million residents every day. I’m here to tell you that all is well in Tokyo, with the important caveat that the disaster area up north is still reeling from the disaster.  We can’t forget them. One way to contribute to the cause is to put aside your irrational fears and come visit Tokyo, Osaka and other great cities of Japan. It’s a great way to help Japan jumpstart its economy.

Observation #2: Taking the trains in and around Tokyo, there appears to be an increase in angry people talking to themselves–or to anyone within earshot. I counted four of these lost-souls over several days. In all cases I thought at first they were talking on their cell phones, but upon closer examination, realized they were telling the world how ticked off, tired and frustrated they were with their lives. One was repeating over and over, “I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired!” And I couldn’t help but think that if I lived in the Japanese pressure cooker, I’d be doing the same thing. Fortunately for me, as a non-Japanese living in Japan I never had to endure the stress that most Japanese are burdened with. On the one hand I feel very lucky to live in a society that tolerates those who refuse to conform (something that describes me to a tee); on the other hand, it inspires compassion for all my Japanese friends who live their lives conforming to impossible pressures. Such is life in the Japanese pressure cooker.

Observation #3: While Tokyo is touted as one of the most expensive places to live, I found that some foods are a lot cheaper than where I currently live in Hawaii. For example, I bought world class sushi at a takeout fish store in Atami for 15 dollars (that’s 8 succulent pieces that didn’t last very long). In a fancy-schmancy sushi restaurant serving the same quality of food, it would’ve cost me an arm and a leg and then some. Also, eggs are unbelievably cheap: the regular going rate for 10 eggs (at 76 yen to the dollar) was about $3; the ones on sale just a buck and a quarter–compared with Hawaii where we pay $6/dozen at the supermarket (free when our chicken-raising friends are kind enough to share their bounty). For more information on food prices in Japan, check out my next post, An Unauthorized Video Tour of a Japanese Supermarket.

Observation #4: Japan is now on a “globalization” kick. Everyone in Japan seems worried that the country is falling behind competitors in Korea and China when it comes to internationalizing. And their fears are not unfounded. Japanese college students are shunning opportunities to study abroad, their companies struggling to globalize, even though they are well-entrenched in countries around the world. While it’s bad news for Japan as a whole, it’s good news for me: I see lots of opportunities for a cross-cultural business consultant in Tokyo right now, especially because so many non-Japanese have packed up and left the country. My ideal situation and goal as a business is to continue developing business in Hawaii while spending several months a year doing gigs in Japan. My next step is to find a sales presence in Tokyo to start knocking on doors, perhaps even do a public seminar in Tokyo to drum up business myself. Already in contact with several candidates. Wish me luck!

Lots more observations to list (for example that one in four people I saw in Japan are over sixty), but this is more than enough for one post. The next two posts will feature video clips I took of a Japanese supermarket and unique coffee shop in the town of Kannami. Stay tuned!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

3 responses to “Random Observations From Post-Disaster Japan

  1. Aloha Tim! Very valuable insights. Thank you.

  2. Hi Tim,
    We just got back from Japan a couple weeks ago and I’m often asked how things looked now compared to our last trip (which, yes, was during the earthquake). There is one image that really highlighted the differences for me.

    When we left Japan in March, about two weeks after the earthquake, we had the late night HA flight from Haneda. I was sort of surprised then to discover the airport was practically a ghost town at that time. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed and you could count fellow passengers almost on one hand. At the time, I figured well, it’s late night, there aren’t many flights out this time of night and oh yeah, probably fewer people are travelling right now.

    This time, however, same late night flight, same airport, and it was PACKED! The stores were open, the restaurants full, and the announcement board, full of flights coming and going. What I attributed mostly to a late night flight last time had nothing at all to do with that. Instead, it had everything to do with the fact that most foreigners had already left, few new ones were arriving, and almost no Japanese were travelling, themselves. The good news is, things at Haneda, and in town, look to be returning to normal. (Although there is now a new normal as defined by decreased lighting, heating, and general use of power.)


    • Hey Scot, thanks for that update! And yes, Japanese are still practicing “jishuku” (self-restraint) with energy consumption, etc. I also noticed that Tokyo’s neon lights have been toned down as well so it no longer looks like Vegas at night, a good thing. What really surprised me was that “radiation” reporting has become routine on TV, right there next to the weather report. Also, due to the lack of trust of the government, lots of grassroots activities on radiation reporting and neighborhood clean-ups, etc. (They are now selling jackets that slip over your smartphone to make it a geiger counter.)

      Hopefully the government’s new initiative to kickstart tourism will be effective. Would love to get a couple of those 10,000 free plane tickets–sign me up!

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