Category Archives: Personal

Humility in a Culture That Rewards Tooting Your Own Horn


I recently read an insightful article titled When Humility Hinders Career Progress. The article featured the struggle of an Asian-Australian man in reconciling his value on humility with his career ambitions in a culture that exalts self-promotion. (For the record, the value on self-promotion applies even more to American culture.) The story struck a chord and underscored the power of cultural values in influencing what we perceive as “good.” And it reminded me of a personal experience I had years ago that inspired a shift in my own values.

It was 1978. I was a clueless 20-year-old kid living the good life in Yamato Japan, just fifty minutes south of Tokyo as the train flies. I knew just enough Japanese at the time to be dangerous; I could order a beer, buy a train ticket, and negotiate that elusive phone number from a pretty girl. Beyond that, I was lost.

One evening, while on a mission to discover signs of nightlife in our sleepy little town, my buddy Dave and I stumbled into a drinking establishment called Bonanza. About the size of a walk-in closet, Bonanza was run by Taro, a tall, lanky man with a scraggly beard and disheveled hair, someone you’d expect to see in a biker bar. Sitting across the bar was a bearded 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 somehow 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 few harps in his back pocket, Taro pulled out a guitar from behind the bar and handed it to Keni.

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

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

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.

I’ll never forget what happened next. When Keni started playing, my worries were immediately replaced with awe. His power, technique and musical soul blew me away. Here’s my analysis of what was happening below the linguistic (and musical) surface.


Viewing the situation through my young American eyes, Keni’s humility seemed way out of whack with his talent level. This gifted artist had just downplayed his ability and then let his performance do the talking. It was an aha moment for me on so many levels, both humbling and cool beyond words. And I remember wondering: If this wonderfully gifted artist is being humble, then what about me?

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

That humble blues musician eventually became a dear friend, my mentor, a big brother, Japanese language teacher, and guitar instructor. Forty years later, we are still close friends.

Thanks to Keni, my Japanese is much better now. My guitar playing is…good enough to be dangerous. 😉

Below is a clip of us jamming four decades later. Dave is on harmonica, Keni on lead (on the left), Tatsumi also on lead (in the back), Hatchan on slide, and Tim on rhythm. Enjoy.



Why Do Americans Say “My Lovely Wife”?

Americans think it’s odd, even mean, when Japanese men introduce their spouses as their  “foolish wife” (うちの愚妻). It’s not that the Japanese don’t love their spouses, they just express it differently. And while younger Japanese don’t use this expression very much these days, I also have never heard a Japanese man—young or old—publicly shower their spouses with glowing accolades.

Which brings us to the flip side of this cultural phenomenon. I’m occasionally asked by Japanese participants at my seminars why Americans, when introducing their wives, say, “This is my lovely wife.” I usually answer with a joke: “Because we have to!” Some laugh, but some of them take me seriously. Check out my analysis below.

(Note that I’m fortunate to be married to a lovely Japanese lady. If I ever introduced her as “my lovely wife” she’d likely punch me or, at the very least, ask what the hell I was saying. Fortunately, she doesn’t read my blog, so I’m safe. ;))



How Not to Refuse a Drink in Japan

Anyone who has lived in Japan or just deals with the Japanese on a regular basis knows that social attitudes toward alcohol consumption are different here.

That said, it appears attitudes are changing and that younger Japanese are less interested in drinking, a positive development in my opinion. And yet I still hear Japanese friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who like to imbibe jokingly say that they are “alcoholics.” In fact, I just heard it last week at a local drinking establishment. It reminded me of a nomikai (drinking party) a few years back when I had to interpret a conversation between a Japanese host and recovering alcoholic named “John.” Below is my analysis of what was likely going through the Japanese host’s head at the time.

Keep in mind that the scenario below is a great example of how not to refuse a drink in Japan. With the wisdom of hindsight, I should have handled the situation differently. What’s my advice to non-drinkers who want to politely avoid a drink when it’s offered in Japan without getting into the details of alcoholism and what it means? Simply say, “I’m allergic to alcohol,” “I’m on medication,” or “I can’t drink due to health reasons.” One of those polite lies usually gets the desired response.


Patience Grasshopper: Japanese Versus American Communication Styles

The first big translation project I ever did was a production control manual about the Kanban (Just-In-Time) system. It was boring beyond tears, but I’ll do my best not to make you cry.

It was the late 1980s. I was working at a new Japanese factory start-up in the Deep South. My Japanese boss mentioned in passing one day that, once we stabilized operations, we would be implementing Just-In-Time. Without any thought whatsoever, I volunteered to translate the manual, even though I had absolutely no idea at the time what “Just-In-Time” meant.

A novice to the industry, I had zero knowledge of manufacturing and knew even less about production control concepts (if that’s even possible). And as I started reading the manual (in Japanese, although I probably wouldn’t have understood it in English either), it didn’t take long before I wondered what I had gotten myself into. The manual was a bloody mess!

To the credit of the manual’s author, it started out simple enough with a clear objective: “To create a visual inventory control and scheduling system that keeps inventory levels to a minimum while ensuring components are produced only as needed.” I was fuzzy about what all this meant, but at least I had a general inkling of the goal. Or so I thought.

Then things got gnarly. The manual immediately jumped into the nuts-and-bolts of the system’s standard procedures without offering an overview of its key components, functions, and how the components fit together. At the time, I thought my confusion was due solely to my ignorance of production control concepts, which admittedly, was a big part of my problem. But what I didn’t realize was that it was written in typical Japanese “whodunit” expository style, best described as the “inductive approach”: start with the specifics and build to a conclusion until the mystery is solved.

This went against my deductive American (Western?) sensibilities, which craved for a general overview of the system followed by the details. No surprise, I spent lots of time picking my Japanese boss’s brain, while he gently encouraged me to “Be patient Grasshopper!”— although not in those exact words. I wasn’t at all patient, but I somehow muddled my way through, and by the time I got to the end, the lightbulb finally clicked on. Which just compelled newly enlightened Grasshopper to go back and rewrite the whole damn thing.

It shouldn’t surprise that the Japanese inductive style is not limited to technical manuals. I deal with it every day on a personal level. (And so do numerous non-Japanese friends who are married to Japanese spouses.) Because I love my dear wife with my whole heart and soul, I’ve learned over the years to approach her communication style as if I were a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: can I figure out the answer before my wife is done giving me hints?

How have I faired? Let’s just say that if “The Secret” were true and my imagination could manifest reality, I’d be a rich man!

Disclaimer: Of course, not all Japanese communicate this way,. But it’s a discernible cultural pattern in their writing and verbal communication styles, as proscribed in the traditional 起承転結  (Introduction-Development-Transition-Conclusion) approach.

Below is my analysis of the communication gaps at play:


“You Probably Won’t Like This, But…”

The first time I was invited over for a meal at a Japanese home, I remember being confused (and a tad scared) when the wife, upon serving me food, said that she didn’t think I would like what she prepared. With some trepidation—and out of grudging politeness—I forced myself to take a bite, only to discover to my delight and surprise that the food was delicious. And I remember at the time wondering why she would say such a thing to a guest. It didn’t take long for me to learn that this was a common practice in Japan. But for a long time, I didn’t know why.

This scenario happens often in Japan, whether the guest is a foreigner or not. The expression “Kore wa kuchi ni awanai ka mo shirenai kedo…” (Literally, “This may not suit your palate, but…”) is a standard, scripted expression Japanese hosts typically use prior to presenting food to a guest.

What, you may ask, is going on below the linguistic surface? Here’s my analysis:


Cross-Cultural Expressions of Love & the Implied Double-Negative

Following up on yesterday’s Humor Lost In Translation post, today’s scenario deals with two cross-cultural communication issues: one linguistic, the other concerning different ways of defining and expressing love.

On the linguistic front, this scenario represents a common communication breakdown that occurs in dialogues between English speakers and Japanese who haven’t mastered the finer nuances of the English language. In this case, the unsuspecting American husband asks a question in a negative format. (i.e., “Don’t you…?) The Japanese wife responds the way she would if the same question were posed in her native language: with an implied double-negative that she fails to clearly articulate. As a result, the two lovebirds get their wires crossed.

On the “love” front, sure wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a forlorn gaijin husband complain about the “lack of affection” from his Japanese spouse. (And I’d gladly give the nickel back if I could help them work out their issues.) Goes without saying, nothing beats an open dialogue and better understanding of each other’s culture. Below is an attempt to provide a framework for such a dialogue.


Disclaimer: in no way am I suggesting this applies to all intercultural (“gaijin”-Japanese) couples. Also, keep in mind that couples can evolve. For example, when I first started dating my wife, she wasn’t a hugger. After 33 years of living in the U.S., she’s become much more openly affectionate. And even my 88-year-old mother-in-law has gotten into hugging, although she reserves it exclusively for her gaijin son-in-law. 🙂 


Humor Lost in Translation (and the Ticked-Off Japanese Wife)


The graphic above is an example of an attempted joke that, had it actually been told in the context described, would have failed miserably in eliciting a laugh. First, a disclaimer: I’ve never been so bold as to say such a thing to my Japanese wife, as we always communicate in Japanese. Truth is, I wouldn’t know how to communicate this in Japanese anyway, as certain types of humor get obliterated in translation. Also note that I stole this particular line from my high school math teacher, so the exchange above is completely fabricated. But it doesn’t matter: Just about any sarcastic remark will elicit a similar reaction. After 35 years of marital bliss, I’ve learned how to make my wife laugh but occasionally stumble and make jokes that…well…let’s just say she is not amused…

That said, I can attest from personal experience that humor, if used in the right way, can be a powerful tool in bringing cultures together. But it can just as easily offend. And this underscores the reality that communication is much deeper than words, especially when a comedian-wannabe wades into the unfamiliar waters of cross-cultural humor.

Indeed, even people who speak the same language can miss an inside joke. I experienced this firsthand when I attended a party in Chicago in the late 1980s after living in Japan for ten years. My brother’s friend was telling jokes and doing impersonations, and everyone in the room was roaring with laughter. Except me. In this instance, the jokester was impersonating well-known characters on Saturday Night Live, a cultural phenomenon I had missed during my Japan residency. (Nope, no American TV in Japan back in the old days.)

Think about it: If I had never heard or seen the characters being imitated, then how could I appreciate the quality of the impersonation? This is precisely the same reason my Japanese wife never laughed when she’d hear Rich Little impersonate John Wayne. She knew who John Wayne was but never heard his voice since Western movies in Japan were always overdubbed in Japanese. (Nothing is trippier than hearing John Wayne utter in Japanese, “Well, okay pilgrim!”)

Likewise, I didn’t get the humor at the aforementioned party because I lacked the shared experience that gave context to the Saturday Night Live impersonations. I had completely lost touch with American popular culture.

The moral of this anecdote is that even though linguistic barriers make bridging the humor gap a challenge, the gaps are much deeper than words. Humor requires a degree of shared experience and common values to crossover.

Years ago I read about an American businessman who went to Japan to give a speech. He met with his interpreter in advance to preview the content. Somewhere in the speech the American planned to tell a joke. The interpreter understood the joke but knew the Japanese audience wouldn’t. He advised the businessman to remove it, but his advice fell on deaf ears. Frustrated, the interpreter took matters into his own hands. When the American delivered the joke, the interpreter turned to the audience and said (in Japanese of course), “the American told a joke. He thinks it’s funny. Please laugh!” As instructed, everyone laughed. (I envision in my mind’s eye the American speaker at some point turning to the interpreter and saying, “See I told you they’d get it!”)

Is Sarcasm a Foreign Concept in Japan?

I’ve heard many Japan pundits claim that Japanese don’t use nor do they understand sarcasm and irony. (To distinguish between the two, by definition, sarcasm is “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.”)

My first observation is that the Japanese language has one all-encompassing word—”hiniku” (皮肉)—to describe sarcasm, irony, satire, and cynicism, all of which are slightly different concepts.

My other observation is that, in general, Japanese humor tends to be more self-deprecating than its American cousin. As far as I know, there is no Japanese comedian who openly mocks people a la Don Rickles. Another difference is that Americans value the notion (if not in reality then at least in principle) of not taking themselves too seriously. So when someone takes offense from a joke directed at them, my compatriots will often say that the offended party is “too sensitive” and “can’t take a joke.”

It shouldn’t surprise that in Japan—a culture which values harmony, understatement, politeness and sincerity—the practice of openly mocking people would be considered bad form. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that sarcasm doesn’t exist. It’s just more subtle. One could argue that the example of the interpreter’s joke above was, at the very least, borderline sarcasm (i.e., the American told a joke, he thinks it’s funny…”).

Here’s an example of a subtle version of Japanese sarcasm that someone shared on a reddit message board:

“…one time my boss, a Japanese guy, was bragging about being popular in high school, saying he had lots of girlfriends and experiences. Another Japanese guy just looked at him blankly and, after about 10 seconds, said ‘そうか,’ meaning something along the lines of ‘Ok then….’ It was expertly timed and everyone around laughed, including myself.

Another example is how Japanese parents might use polite speech to gently mock their own children. For some background, it’s generally considered improper to address one’s inner group (which of course includes family members) with honorifics like “san” or “sama.” A Japanese mother might sarcastically refer to her willful, demanding daughter as “uchi no ojōsama” (うちのお嬢様), a polite term normally reserved for someone else’s daughter. The context in this example makes it clear that the remark is sarcastic. But even in this situation, the joke has a self-deprecating nuance, as it is directed at one’s own family member.

The Pitfalls of Being a Smart Ass in Japan

The movie Gung Ho has a scene that shows a wise-cracking American completely bombing with his Japanese audience when he uses a sarcastic, rhetorical question to answer “yes” to a a straight-forward question. (I truly wish they had used native Japanese speakers for the movie, a discussion for another day.) Here’s the dialogue between Hunt Stevenson (played by Michael Keaton) and his Japanese coworkers right after Hunt has been offered a job in the plant:

Kazuhiro:“Can we count on you?”

Hunt:“Fellas…is a frog’s ass watertight”?

Kazuhiro: After intense discussion in “Japanese” with his colleagues, Kazuhiro turns back to Hunt and says, “Yes, we believe it is!”

I’ve had my share of jokes bomb in Japan. After many years living here, well-intentioned Japanese friends and acquaintances still compliment me on my “amazing chopstick skills.” (It happens to all foreigners.) Truth is that I am skillful; it’s what happens when you use them everyday for four decades. But after a thousand or so compliments, the remark started to annoy me and one day I finally snapped. While eating a Japanese bento with chopsticks, my Japanese table mate hit me with the dreaded chopstick rap: “Tim-san, you are very skillful with your chopsticks!”

In an ironic twist of fate, my friend was cutting into a piece of beef with a knife and fork. So without thinking I blurted out, “Well you’re pretty good with a knife and fork!”

To which he replied in earnest, “Arigato!” (Thank you.)

Of course.

Religion and Other Sacred Cows

Religion is a risky topic for humor even within cultures. For better or worse, most Japanese see religion as fair game, including Buddhism (see the rakugo story Okechimyaku for more on this). Noteworthy is that the important exception is the Japanese Royal family, completely off limits.

I’m dating myself here, but back in the 1980s, a controversial commercial aired on Japanese TV. The product being advertised was innocuous enough: Bee Line pens. It was a very strange ad indeed: A Japanese comedian impersonating Christ on the cross was suddenly doused with a red liquid that looked like blood. That’s it. After which they pitched their pens and the commercial was over. The commercial was so offensive to Christian viewers that it prompted a slew of angry letters to the editor of The Japan Times. The ad left me scratching my head, totally beyond my ability to comprehend. Truth is I was much more confused than offended, but I completely understood why Christians would take offense.

The commercial was so strange and controversial that I couldn’t help but discuss it with Japanese friends and colleagues. Nearly everyone I spoke with was oblivious to how offensive it was to Christians. At first, I rationalized: how could they empathize unless they themselves were offended by the desecration of Buddhist or Shinto symbols? Then Shinto rang a bell, and I started asking how they’d feel if a member of the Imperial family were in the commercial rather than Jesus. That got the point across.

Humor that Works in Both Cultures?

In my quest to identify American jokes that work in Japanese culture, my Japanese wife is my test subject. Below are some examples of American-style humor that made her laugh.

Here’s a “dad joke” (known in Japanese as 親父ギャグ) that worked, one I heard from none other than retired basketball player Charles Barkley. It’s a silly play on words and requires a minimal understanding of English. But it has already gotten a laugh from not only my wife, but also several other Japanese friends (even those who speak very little English):

“What do you call someone with no body, and no nose?

Nobody knows!”

Yuk, yuk, yuk.

My wife also thinks the snarky mother-in-law character in the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is a scream, a character that reeks of sarcasm, albeit the sarcasm is not directed at a real person. My wife’s ability to relate makes total sense, as in Japan, mother-in-laws are notorious for verbally abusing their daughter-in-laws.

My wife also appreciated the Seinfeld episode on “re-gifting” because Japanese also happen to be notorious re-gifters. Back in my college days when I taught English to Japanese doctors, they all gave me copious amounts of premium Scotch and other spirits that their patients had given them, all of which I re-re-gifted to friends who actually drank the stuff. Like America, it’s technically taboo to re-gift in Japan even though everyone seems to do it. The unspoken rule is that it’s okay as long as the original gift giver doesn’t find out.

Here’s another joke that made my wife laugh:

An experiment that proves dog is truly man’s best friend: Lock your dog and your spouse in the trunk of your car. After an hour open the trunk. Which one is glad to see you?

If there’s a pattern in humor that can cross over to other cultures, it’s the universal human condition. Most folks, regardless of culture, can relate to annoying in-laws, social taboos, angry spouses, and even black humor (as demonstrated by numerous death-related Rakugo stories and Itami Juzo’s dark comedy, The Funeral [お葬式]). But bridging the gap can be risky business. And while I believe humor is a wonderful tool in bringing people together from different cultures, my advice is to tread carefully, and leave irony and sarcasm to the local native speakers.

Can anyone offer examples of humor that crosses over?