Tag Archives: japan

There’s No Rule Book for Building Cross-Cultural Bridges

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Clients occasionally ask me to incorporate a list of “dos and don’ts” into my cross-cultural training. I always balk because I don’t have any rules, at least none that I haven’t broken. But if I did have rules, they’d go something like this:

1) Be authentic.

2) Don’t do dos-and-don’ts.

Let’s start with authenticity. It’s a beautiful thing and grossly undervalued. For people who are self-aware and authentic by nature, it’s an effortless state-of-being that serves them well. Other people spend a lifetime searching for their true authentic selves and never find it. The rest of us are somewhere in between, doing our best. But however evolved and self-aware one may be, nothing is more powerful than authenticity in connecting with people, whether within or across cultures. If you can’t be yourself after all, what’s the point of making a human connection in the first place?

Here’s an extreme example of authenticity trumping cultural differences, one that’s so counterintuitive I struggle to believe it myself.

I have an American friend who is loud, brutally direct, and obnoxious—even by American standards. He once bluntly told a dear Japanese friend in a public setting that her English was incomprehensible (it wasn’t), and that she should “really work harder on improving it.” (This coming from someone who struggles with his own native tongue.) And yet, this friend is also one of the most authentic, attentive, and caring people I know. In a bull-in-a-China-shop sort of way.

Now if I were to list the traits most likely to alienate the Japanese, loud, direct and obnoxious would be at the top. Which means that in no known theoretical universe should my friend be getting along well with Japanese folks. And yet, all the Japanese people who have met him are crazy about him. His authenticity and attentiveness somehow cancels out his brashness and lack of tact. As an interculturalist, I can’t explain how he does it. All I can do is point to his personality and shrug my shoulders.

And while I believe adjustments in cross-cultural interactions with Japanese (or any other culture) are critical in building bridges, going to the extreme of “acting Japanese” is a horrible and ineffective option, as it will only creep out the Japanese; they value authenticity just like the rest of us.

But hitting the cross-cultural sweet spot is indeed a tough balancing act. For even the most sincere, authentic person in the world struggles to find that elusive balance between staying true to oneself and making just the right adjustments to build that bridge.

The question then is how to strike the right balance. The challenge is finding your cross-cultural sweet spot, a place unique to—and only discoverable by—each person. We’ll come back to this. First, let’s put to rest the dreaded dos-and-don’ts list.

As mentioned above, any cross-cultural rule I could possibly make, I could just as easily break. Let’s use a real example. We all know that Japanese greet each other by bowing. We also know most Japanese will adjust their greeting style by shaking hands when meeting Westerners. But anyone who has regular contact with Japanese folks also knows they don’t hug. Exceptions exist, of course, but hugging is not a common Japanese pattern of behavior, even within Japanese families, much less with overly affectionate foreigners. In other words, if I were so inclined, I could incorporate a “don’t-hug-Japanese-people” rule into my training. It’s safe to say that following this rule would be advisable in most encounters with the Japanese.

Before proceeding any further, full disclosure: I come from a family of huggers, and after living in Hawaii for fifteen years, I’ve become even “huggier.” My Japanese wife is—thanks to 33 years of intensive hugging therapy in the U.S.—a recovering non-hugger. Together we break the no-hug rule every time a Japanese guest visits us on the Big Island of Hawaii. And we get away with it, because it’s all about authenticity and context.

Here’s the context: we always pick up our Japanese guests at Hilo airport. Upon their arrival, we put leis around their necks then move in quickly for our hug. The move surprises them, but it also breaks the ice and makes them smile; they know they’re on our turf now, and are happy to suspend their hug-less existence to experience life like a Hawaii local, however briefly.

Could it be the magic of Hawaii? Maybe. If it is, that magic travels well, for when I meet these same folks in Japan, they greet me with a smile and a hug. (And even seem to enjoy it.) And this illustrates in concrete terms the effectiveness of strategically breaking a “rule” in the name of authenticity and making a human connection.

But there is no rule book, no prescriptive paint-by-the-numbers scheme for every possible situation and personality one might encounter in a cross-cultural interaction. Connecting with people is an art, not a science. Education helps, but it’s up to each person to design and build a unique, customized bridge, one that starts from a place of authenticity and reaches across cultural and linguistic gaps to connect with a unique human being on the other end.

While I don’t recommend you start hugging Japanese people willy-nilly, you will be more successful at communicating by not letting one-size-fits-all rules limit how you engage. Find your sweet spot. Be authentic.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019
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How a Bearded Barbarian Won Over His Japanese Mother-In-Law

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We were resolute but worried. After an eight-month courtship, I had finally popped the question to my Japanese girlfriend. She accepted, and with that, we were committed to tying the knot come hell or high water. But we still had to break the news to her parents. We were cautiously optimistic they wouldn’t try to stop us, but we had concerns. Mostly about dad.

Her parents had met me six months earlier when my girlfriend decided—against my better judgement—that it was time to ease me into the family fold. It’s worth noting here that I am three years younger than my wife, so at the time she viewed me—somewhat condescendingly—like the little brother she never had, a formidable barrier in getting her to consider me as a serious suitor. But alas, I was too in love to be deterred, so was more than willing to overlook a little condescension. Like an obedient little brother, I did what I was told. It was time to meet the parents.

When girlfriend called her parents to let them know she was bringing home a guest, she referred to me ambiguously as otoko no ko, which literally means “a young boy,” even though I was 24 years old at the time. Hilarity would ensue, although it wasn’t funny at the time.

Honorable girlfriend was a teacher by profession. I would later find out that Japanese mom and dad were half expecting their daughter’s mysterious guest to be a young student of elementary-school age. And they were half-right: I was a student, in my 3rd year at International Christian University. Unfortunately, I was also an idiot, a fact bolstered by my lack of proper grooming. Think wild, disheveled hair, scruffy beard, and sloppy loose-fitting clothes that could easily be mistaken for pajamas. My heart was in the right place, but I lacked the wherewithal to dress the part. I would find out later after we left that day that intense debate ensued within the family on whether I looked more like Jesus or Socrates.

Now try to imagine the look on Japanese mom’s face when she greeted us at the front door. The scene is still vivid in my memory even after 36 years: door opens, mom looks downward expecting to see a little kid, her eyes track upward until she stops abruptly at my unshaven mug and curly, wild hair. Normally a stoic, poker-faced woman, she couldn’t hide her disdain. It was obvious even to common-senseless me that I’d blown my one and only chance to make a good first impression.

Japanese dad’s reaction was tougher to read. I had no clue what he was thinking, which was, in a weird way, more disturbing than knowing for certain that he disapproved. The only saving grace at the time was that neither mom nor dad knew the nature of my relationship with their daughter. To them, I was just a “friend,” albeit a barbarian friend who didn’t have the good sense to change out of his pajamas.

Fast forward six months, back to our impending engagement announcement. In retrospect, why we were more concerned about dad than mom is beyond me. Maybe it’s because we knew his approval carried more weight. Or that we overestimated mom’s tolerance for foreigners. Whatever we were thinking, they both threw us a curveball. Here’s how it unfolded.

Girlfriend phoned home to break the news. Dad answered because mom was out and about. A straight-shooter by nature, my wife-to-be didn’t mince words:

“Dad, remember that foreigner I brought home about half a year ago?”

“You mean the guy wearing pajamas who looks like Jesus?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

“What about him?”

“We’re getting married.”

“Oh, that’s good. Anything else?”

“No that’s it. Could you let mom know?”

“Sure.”

Click.

Girlfriend was stunned. Bearded barbarian was equally stunned. Dad didn’t object! And suddenly we were hopeful. That is, until half an hour later when mom called back in a tizzy.

“You’re going to marry that hairy foreigner who looks like Socrates?”

“Dad said he looks like Jesus.”

“Well, I still don’t approve!”

“Dad didn’t object.”

Pregnant pause.

“Are you sure about this? Don’t you know that all foreigners get divorced?”

“They don’t all get divorced. You worry too much.”

“How will you communicate?”

“He speaks Japanese, mom, remember?”

“But he’s going to take you back to America, and I’ll never see you again!”

“No, he wants to live in Japan forever.”

“But what does his family think?”

“They are fine with it.”

<Sigh>

Then just for fun, my fiancé dropped another bombshell.

“Oh, and before we get married, we’ve decided to live together for half a year, just to see how it goes before we make it official.”

Needless to say, fireworks ensued and it wasn’t pretty. But my fiancé held firm.

We would later learn that dad put the kibosh on mom’s objections when he told her, “If I had listened to my parents, I’d have never married you. Our daughter is a grown woman, we raised her to make good decisions. We have to trust her and let her live her own life.”

And that’s when we realized just how cool Japanese dad was.

On the other hand, it took a big adjustment to my grooming standards—not to mention help from a trusted friend—to move the needle with mom. My Japanese guarantor, a well-respected researcher with a steady job and doctorate degree from a highly respected school (Kyushu University), was kind enough to drive out to the homestead to assure mom that, despite my appearance to the contrary, I wasn’t the devil. By then my friend had already met my parents and understood that I came from “good stock” (or so he thought). His ringing endorsement went a long way in mitigating the situation, as Japanese mom quickly went from “absolutely not,” to “grudging acceptance.” Not optimal, but it was a start.

The following year we officially tied the knot. I buckled down on my Japanese studies, graduated from college, cut my hair, became gainfully employed, and even upped the ante a year later by producing (with some help from my wife) a grandson for my in-laws, making it virtually impossible for mom to withdraw her support, however grudging it was. The only glitch occurred when I was offered and accepted a job with a Japanese automotive parts supplier committed to building a new factory in America’s Deep South. This was a career-altering opportunity, a two-year stint that my wife enthusiastically supported, which means we had to break that little promise about me living in Japan forever.

Well, that two-year stint turned into a thirty-three-year stay in the U.S. So we didn’t just break that promise, we blew it to smithereens. As penance, we gave Japanese mom another grandchild, which compelled her and Japanese dad to come for a visit. After meeting their second grandson and a face-to-face with my parents, there was no turning back. Mom was now firmly trapped in “grudging-resignation” mode.

From that fateful day thirty-six years ago when my wife brought me home to meet the parents, winning over mom has been like turning a battleship around in the water. Four years ago during a Japan visit, mom finally came clean about her strong opposition to our union. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d been privy to her feelings all along.) Most impressive was that she openly admitted she’d been “wrong” to oppose our marriage, that she could see how happy her daughter was, and that she was genuinely glad we had gotten married. And yes, her precious grandchildren had a lot to do with it, too. But she still likes to remind me how pathetic I looked the first time we met, and we laugh and laugh. Still, words can’t express how good it felt to officially win her approval, and how much respect I have for her ability to reflect, transcend her prejudices, and admit to me she was wrong.

And today we’re as thick as thieves.

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After thirty-three years in the U.S., we’ve come full circle. Sadly, Japanese dad passed on four years ago, so mom now lives alone. We recently moved back to Japan permanently to care for mom in her old age.

I’ve spent my 40-year career helping Japanese and non-Japanese connect in the workplace, often going into hostile environments to defuse explosive situations, with the goal of coaxing clients into “kissing and making-up,” so to speak. And yet, I consider the relationship I’ve built with Japanese mom to be my ultimate cross-cultural accomplishment. If I can bridge a culture gap on this scale—further compounded by the poor judgment of my reckless youth—then I can bridge just about anything.

The “Cool Japan” They Don’t Show You on TV

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“Dad, your friends are so cool!” said my 13-year-old son after meeting my running buddies from Japan for the first time. He said it with genuine surprise. Hard as he tried, he just couldn’t fathom the notion that anyone “cool” would ever be friends with the likes of me.

This all happened about fifteen years ago when, after more than a decade of living in the U.S., I finally brought my family back to Japan for a visit. My kids had only heard stories from me about our former life in Japan. My stories obviously fell short in capturing the coolness of my friends.

But have to give my son his props–his assessment was spot on: my friends really are the coolest people you’ll ever meet. And on my recent trip to Japan earlier this year, I was reminded just how precious and wonderful these friendships are. Or maybe I’m just getting sentimental in my old age? But thinking back over my ten-year stint in Japan in the 80s, I was so lucky to be on the receiving end of so many kindnesses from the coolest friends a guy could ask for.

How Japan Adopted Me

I got to Japan in the first place thanks to Uncle Sam. Two and a half years later when my Navy enlistment was up, instead of going back to the US and starting civilian life like most normal Americans, I took my discharge in Japan and planted roots.

Problem was, my Navy roommate at the time was being discharged too. He had just married a lovely Japanese lady, so parting ways was in the cards anyway. My friend chose the conventional route and took his wife back to the States. (He would return to Japan five years later and never leave, so turns out his route wasn’t so conventional after all.)

Well, I was in dire straights at the time and needed to find shelter, preferably with a compatible roommate. The stars aligned one night in a bar called Bonanza, when I befriended Keni Inoue, a great guy and wonderfully talented musician who played soulful guitar and made a living doing it. When my Navy gig ended he was kind enough to let me move in with him. Soon after, Keni took me under his wing.

In all we lived together for four years and I had the time of my life. Keni’s influence will forever be tattooed on my soul. He became a big brother; he taught me that modesty was cool; he coached me to err on the side of polite speech, and encouraged me to speak “beautiful Japanese.”

He taught me to indirectly suggest rather than hit people over the head with the blunt truth. He taught me to pay attention to subtleties I’d otherwise have missed.

Here’s a true story that still makes me laugh.

When Keni and I would go out to eat together, I had a bad habit of ordering extra cheese on burgers, pizza, etc. Most Japanese folks don’t request extra condiments like that, they tend to go with the flow and accept whatever the honorable chef offers up. But not me. I was the quintessential pushy, individualistic American who wanted extra cheese damn it! And I was more than happy to pay for it.

Unfortunately I always failed to articulate the part about paying extra when I ordered. So Keni, concerned that I wasn’t communicating my intentions properly, instructed me to say this:

“Tsuika ryokin wo haraimasu node, chiizu wo takusan nosete kudasai!” (追加料金を払いますので、チーズを沢山のせてください!)

Translation: I’m happy to pay extra, so please add lots of cheese!

(Reflecting on my behavior back then, it’s painfully obvious what a bloody, clueless, insensitive American I was!)

Too many kindnesses from Keni to list here. Suffice it to say he opened up a whole new world of understanding about Japanese culture, and introduced me to so many cool folks who also became good friends.

And without Keni, it’s unlikely I’d have met my best friend and wife of thirty years. So as friends go, he was definitely a game-changer.

Real Friends, Fake English Students

So many other Japanese friends have had my back over the years. Shortly after my discharge in Japan when I was unemployed and desperate, thoughtful Japanese friends once again came to the rescue. My good friend Tatsumi Nagasu pushed free food and drinks on me at his bar for months, knowing I was struggling to make ends meet. He also made sure his Japanese patrons knew I was available to teach English to anyone who wanted to learn. (When I started school at Waseda and later ICU, he’d help me with my Japanese language homework while I ate, drank and socialized at his bar–did I mention I was having the time of my life?)

Several of Tatsumi’s patrons eventually became my students, even though (as it turned out) they really weren’t much interested in learning English. They simply took pity on the poor foreigner, and refused to let me fail. Without them, I would never have lasted long enough to get financially stable and survive. How can you not love friends like that?

And as these friendships deepened and my situation stabilized, I eventually stopped teaching them English and started drinking beer with them instead. The irony is that they ended up teaching me Japanese. Thirty five years later, we are all still friends.

So where are all these “cool friends”?

As fate would have it, you can see most of them in the three youtube clips below, all shot recently.

The first clip is a blues jam in late March of this year. The lead guitarist is none other than my ex-roommate Keni Inoue. On awesome harmonica is my ex-Navy roommate Dave Steenken. The tight rhythm section is Hideo Inoura on drums, and Takashi Onzo on bass. (These guys seriously rock.) I’m the white guy sitting in the middle, pretending to play the acoustic guitar.

The second clip was taken the same evening, Inoue Ohana making beautiful music. It’s an original by Keni, a sweet “feel-good” guitar instrumental called Sunset Surfing. If you enjoy this kind of music then check out Inoue Ohana’s facebook page, and throw ’em a “like” if the spirit moves you.

The third clip features the other thoughtful friend mentioned above, Tatsumi Nagasu. Did I also mention he’s a talented musician? Oh yeah. Tatsumi playing live at Paradise Honpo (at a previous gathering last year), with lots of happy friends in attendance.

Enjoy.

 

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

One Japan…Scratching the Surface

Just got an email from a lady who stumbled onto my blog. She attached a vimeo link and asked me to check it out, says she’s promoting it out of love  😉 (her boyfriend made the movie) and because “it’s really very good.”

Happy to report that love wasn’t blind on this one: I think it’s better than “very good.” Anyone interested in modern Japan will love this clip, a story told with beautiful visuals, and a soundtrack to match. Thanks for sharing Jes, and well done Davey Martin!

Shot in Osaka, Nagano, and Kyoto…Enjoy.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/95289235″>One Japan</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/davymartin”>Davy Martin</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Lessons in Culture from Twenty-Four Japanese Hula Dancers


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It was going to be a fun gig. Twenty-four hula instructors from Japan were to visit the Island of Hawaii to study traditional Hawaiian Kahiko-style hula from a local kumu hula. Our job was to facilitate communication and cooperation between the local hosts and our Japanese guests.

Upon arrival we placed a lei around the necks of our guests, then broke the Japanese “no-hug rule” with each and every one of them. (Freaked them out a little but made everyone smile.) Next stop was the local hotel where they rested and freshened up for our opening ceremony that evening.

The next four days our guests underwent intensive instruction from the local kumu hula, learning Kahiko basics and the proper chants, culminating in a sacred gathering at the edge of Hawaii’s smoking Halema’uma’u crater where they danced and chanted for Madame Pele.

I wasn’t there to witness the event myself but my better half was. Keep in mind my wife isn’t prone to hyperbole nor is she particularly spiritual. But if you believe her, it was an uplifting, awe-inspiring, emotional experience that ended with lots of hugging and crying.

If this is not a profoundly awesome way to connect cultures, I don’t know what is.

And while the ladies were crying and dancing and hugging and bonding up at the crater, I was busy at home setting up for our final celebration party, the last night before our guests would return to Japan.

We wanted the celebration to be authentic, with a human touch. So we decked out our car port, scrubbed the floor for our barefoot dancers, hired a local band to play traditional Hawaiian music, and brought in local-style food—or “grinds” as they call it here in the islands. We also invited lots of friends so our guests would get the chance to interact with living, breathing human beings outside their own culture.

And the party rocked! Our guests, most of whom weren’t shy about consuming beer and wine, spent most of the evening dancing hula in my carport, a lovely and memorable evening.

When the party was over, the charter bus pulled up to my front gate, our guests danced their way onto the bus, blew us kisses, and headed to Hilo where they’d spend their last evening on our lovely island. (Okay, I blew them kisses.)

The Danger of Gloating

The next day, shortly after our guests departed, we would glimpse our evaluations. Imagine our delight when we found nothing but glowing reviews.  An authentic experience! Exceeded our expectations! A life-changing event! It was perfect!

As you might imagine we were now pretty full of ourselves, and quietly gloated well into the afterglow of the project. Truth is the gig did go well. So well that we continued nurturing relationships within the Japanese halau. Forget that my gut was telling me we weren’t getting the whole story. Hey, when false information says you’re perfect who wants to argue?

Well, on our next visit to Japan we made it a point to visit our new friends in Tokyo and Osaka. As one might expect, our hosts graciously extended their exquisite brand of Japanese hospitality, in both instances taking us out for dinner and drinks. And once again we bonded, thanks to liberal amounts of beer and saké, although sadly no dancing this time. It was yet another step forward in nurturing our relationship. The after-dinner conversation with our Osaka friends in particular turned out to be a breakthrough.

Japan’s East-West Rivalry

For folks unfamiliar with Japan, it’s worth taking a cultural detour here to point out that the Tokyo and Kansai areas—Osaka in particular for this story—represent two distinct subcultures within Japan, a kind of “East-West” rivalry with historical roots that run deep.

I’ll preface my comments by saying that even though I spent all my ten years in Japan in the Tokyo area and have many dear friends who are from there, I absolutely love Western Japan’s Kansai culture.

As a native of Chicago I feel a particular kinship with Osaka folks. Just as Chicago is cast as “second city” to New York, so it goes for Osaka, always lurking in the shadow of Tokyo.

And even our sports teams have parallels. New York has the Yankees, Tokyo the Giants, both winning franchises with a long, proud history. In contrast, Chicago and Osaka have the hapless Cubs and Tigers with just two measly championships between them in the last thousand years or so.

But what I love most about Osakans is our mutual love of breaking rules, an endearing quality that resonates, probably because I come from a long line of rule-breakers myself. This also explains why I enjoy watching Osakans jaywalk with a purpose, ignore “Don’t Walk” signs, and shamelessly haggle at the department store then brag about their cheap score, behavior that describes many of my American friends to a T.

And just to show Tokyo folks that they don’t “play according to Hoyle,” Osakans even have their own escalator etiquette: while Tokyoites stand uniformly on the left, Osakans keep to the right, a brilliant passive-aggressive practice that just radiates defiance.

And last but not least, Americans generally find Osakans refreshing because they are more apt to tell you what they’re really thinking. And if we Americans like anything, it’s knowing where we stand with others.

Why Osaka and Tokyo Clash

So why would Osaka and Tokyo be so different? The widely accepted explanation is that Osaka is a “merchant culture” as opposed to Tokyo’s stodgy “samurai culture.”

The merchant-culture theory feeds the image of Osakans as pragmatic, entrepreneurial, down-to-earth, free-spirited and fun-loving, the opposite of their cultural cousins in Tokyo. At the risk of overgeneralizing here, there is indeed some truth to this characterization of Osaka, as the cultural tendencies are obvious to anyone who has spent time in Japan’s bustling merchant city.

But if you ask  Osakans to describe  Tokyoites, you’ll probably hear words like “cold,” “shy,” “reserved,” maybe even “stuck up.”

Can you feel the resentment? It shouldn’t surprise that Osaka’s resentment toward Tokyo has been building for a long time, thanks largely to the Kansai area’s long, proud, thousand-year cultural history and political dominance—that and the fact that Tokugawa (the shogun famous for uniting feudal Japan under a single ruler) had the audacity to make the Eastern city of Edo the seat of political power from the early 1600s. To add insult to injury, old Edo was renamed “Tokyo” (literally “Eastern Capital”) when the Tokugawa shogunate officially ended in 1868, prompting the Emperor to up and move East. Ouch.

Well this naturally stuck in the craw of the entire Western Kansai district and resentment simmers today—albeit mostly in a playful, creative way. Suffice it to say that if a battle of wits ever erupted between Tokyo and Osaka, Tokyo wouldn’t have a chance.

One can only guess that it’s a lot more fun and edgy being a hustling, bustling merchant than an obedient, protocol-following Samurai, although I never tried the latter. Still, the merchant-Samurai angle seems to explain a lot.

With this backdrop, the after-hours drinking party we had with our straight-shooting Osaka hula friends will make a lot more sense. But before returning to our story, let’s examine one more cultural concept pertinent to the discussion.

Official Reality Or the Real Story?

The Japanese have a dualistic concept they call “honne/tatemae” (pronounced “hone-neh/tah-teh-mah-eh”). Think of honne as “one’s true feelings,” and tatemae as “the truth for public consumption.”

It’s a concept that manifests in all cultures, of course. The difference is that the Japanese openly acknowledge the gap between what people say and what they’re really thinking. In America we kind of sweep it under the rug, even though we know deep down it’s there.

With the honne-tatemae dichotomy out in the open, Japanese listeners are quick to discern between a speaker’s honne and tatemae in any given interaction, although it’s a bit of a guessing game even for Japanese.

Americans, on the other hand, actually practice honne-tatemae but don’t have a name for it. It’s our quirky way of “looking the other way” and pretending it doesn’t exist. The closest concept to tatemae might be the “white lie” an American tells to spare someone’s feelings. What comes to mind is the standard American response when the host of a party asks a guest how the food tastes. No matter how bloody horrible it may be, most Americans will say it’s delicious just to keep the harmony and spare the feelings of the chef. (With the caveat that when brutally honest friends are involved all bets are off!)

So the real challenge in making an authentic connection with Japanese folks in general, is getting past the tatemae façade and gently coaxing out the honne. There are only two ways that I know of to accomplish this: one is develop a relationship of trust. The other is to go out drinking together.

Drinking is the quickest path to honne.

Honne…Osaka style

So back to our story–there we were, my wife and I in an Osaka beer joint, pounding mugs of Sapporo Draft with a dozen lovely Japanese hula dancers. And the more we partook of the hoppy brew, the more and more transparent our conversation became, and the elusive “honne” gradually made itself known.

Turns out there was, after all, one teeny-tiny little problem with our event—no, with MY event! The one thing my dear wife put me in charge of, the final celebration, left our guests with the proverbial “bad taste in their mouth”: they admitted to us–under the influence mind you–that we overwhelmed them with food, and that they felt really bad leaving so much uneaten. They said it was “mottainai” or “wasteful.”

As the guy who was charged with cleaning up after the party, I can attest that most of the ladies indeed ate only about half their portions. The rest went in the garbage because our guests were leaving early the next morning, and it just wasn’t practical to wrap up their food to go. This was totally on me.

Portion size might seem like a trivial matter, but it’s a great example of stumbling over a culture gap with the best of intentions. Ironically, as many deep connecting points that the Japanese share with Hawaii—volcanic island dwellers, shamanistic roots, a this-worldly spirituality with multiple deities (powerful female deities, mind you), and an awe-inspiring reverence for nature–where we stumbled was in the everyday, practical realm of breaking bread: in Hawaii it’s unacceptable to run out of food, so locals go to the extreme and provide massive portions. In contrast, Japan, a traditionally resource-starved culture, sees waste of any kind as taboo.

What our hula friends were telling us in their gentle, respectful, boozy way is that we failed to anticipate the optimum portion-size for them, forcing them to do what Japanese folks abhor doing: waste stuff, especially food.

Shame on me for not anticipating this from the start–I absolutely should have known better. The silver lining is that, thanks to our kind Osaka hula friends, I now in fact do know better.

It may sound strange to describe getting constructive feedback as a “bonding moment,” but it absolutely was in the most tangible sense. As I see it, our straight-talking Osaka friends thought enough of us to respectfully provide constructive feedback, although admittedly it took a few beers to get there. But in my eyes it was a wonderful gift, one that will last me a lifetime. What more can a friend ask for?

But the real gift was being part of an event that connected Japan with local Hawaii culture, and creating new friendships that continue today. Can’t think of a more gratifying way to to make a living.

Aloha nui from the Big Island of Hawaii.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

American Customer Service Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

A couple months ago I went shopping for new car insurance. Got a quote from a reputable company that turned out to be cheaper than my incumbent insurer. So I made the switch.

Fast-forward to last week when my new agent informed me my premium was going up because, according to their underwriters, my traffic abstract indicated “two recent speeding tickets,” the last one a year ago, the prior one three months before that.

This was news to me. I clearly remembered getting one ticket in the recent past, but couldn’t for the life of me recall two. My initial reaction was to question my sanity. Was I getting so forgetful in my old age that I wouldn’t remember a speeding ticket? I racked my brain but was drawing blanks.

So I shot an email to said agent asking for confirmation that the abstract was indeed correct. Without checking he assured me that the underwriters were “very accurate with their research,” and that I must’ve forgotten, end of story.

I’m embarrassed to admit that he almost convinced me I was senile. And I probably would’ve let the whole thing slide had I not glimpsed the revised quote showing an 80% increase in my premiums!

Needless to say, this was enough to make me reconsider my premature-senility theory, and further scrutinize the traffic abstract. Turns out the first speeding ticket was issued on October 16th 2012, the second on January 1st 2013. So I pulled out my trusty checkbook ledger and quickly found a record of payment to the county court for the first violation, case number and all. So far so good.

But it was the January 1st ticket that was bugging me. One, because I would’ve absolutely remembered getting a speeding ticket on the first day of the year, and two, there was no record of me ever having paid it. So either the ticket never happened or….I forgot about it, neglected to pay it, in which case the police would’ve issued a warrant for my arrest. This would definitely be on record. It wasn’t.

Emboldened, I sent another email to my agent challenging the second ticket on the grounds stated in the previous paragraph. Here’s how he responded:

Hi Tim, I have some good news for you. The second speeding ticket is one and the same as the ticket on 10/16/2012. Evidently, when we initially did the quote that was the best guess estimate. The underwriters took the 1/1/13 date as an additional ticket.

As you can see when mistakes are made in my culture, rather than apologizing, customer service folks default to the positive spin. Absent was an awareness on the agent’s part that he wasted my time, absent was any concern about my fragile memory, absent was any hint of regret that they made a mistake. Instead, he had “good news” for me.

The late and great George Carlin would call this response “high quality manufactured bullshit.” As a former salesman who once made a living in corporate America’s customer-service spin zone, I can vouch that Carlin’s description is spot on.

Now compare my agent’s happy spin to this story, as told by a dear old American friend who lived in Japan for fifteen years.

“One of my adult (Japanese) students back in the late 80′s worked for Hitachi. I just so happened to have a Hitachi VCR that stopped working for no apparent reason. I made the “mistake” of mentioning it to him one evening after class and wanted to know where I could get it repaired. Well, you’d think I blamed him for it not working, as I was totally unprepared for what ensued.

He immediately apologized profusely for the defective product and insisted on taking it to his factory where he worked to have it fixed. I balked, but he continued his apologizing and practically demanded that I turn it over to him which I did. To top it off, he returned to my house about a half hour later with his own VCR for me to use so I wouldn’t be inconvenienced while mine was being repaired!

How’s that for customer service? An employee apologizing for his entire firm and personally taking the product to the factory to have it repaired! Would, or could that ever happen in the US? I think not.

My VCR was personally returned to me about a week later with more apologies along with a 10 pack of blank cassettes, courtesy of the company, for a “defective” product!”

In fairness the Japanese apology is not always sincere. But at least they pretend to care, and usually do the right thing.

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t expect Americans to behave like the Japanese. What I did expect in this instance was for my agent to preface his words with a simple “I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding, here’s how the mix up occurred and here’s how we’ll rectify the matter.”

Admittedly I’ve been spoiled by Japan’s excellent customer service. But regardless of culture, is a simple apology too much to ask for?

For more on how culture drives customer service in Japan, check out Japanese Customer Service Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Americans More Rank Conscious Than the Japanese?

A friend just shared with me an interesting article, The Extra Legroom Society. It’s about America’s obsession with status, and it’s spot on.

This is where I confess that I’m complicit as hell. After all, I’m yet to turn down a First-Class upgrade offer from my airline, and don’t plan to in the future. (Does that make me a bad person?) But as an observer of my own culture from way back when, America’s obsession with status in the workplace has been obvious to me since returning to the U.S. some 27 years ago.

This was back in my former life as a transplant factory rat. During a late-night drinking session, a Japanese colleague confessed to me that before he came to the U.S., he read that America was an egalitarian society. But after he got here and worked with Americans for a couple months, he concluded that “Americans are more obsessed with rank and status than we Japanese, and we’re pretty bad.” He then proceeded to point out all the rank/status symbols that permeate corporate America: fancy suits, colorful neckties, private jets, the corner office, big salaries, reserved executive parking spots, executive cafeterias, not to mention reluctance by white collar types to get their hands dirty.

It’s hard to deny that we Americans were obsessed with status 27 years ago. The bad news is it’s gotten much worse.

Talk about a counter-intuitive value contradiction! Aren’t Japanese managers supposed to be hard-core Bushido authoritarians? And American counterparts casual and sensitive? If you believe in stereotypes, then yes.

I believe in reality so here’s my take: Americans pretend to be egalitarian because it’s a cultural ideal that we cherish, at least in the abstract. But we’re really into status too, perhaps driven by the ideal that America should be (at least on paper) a meritocracy where any person with the drive and talent can succeed? 

To the Japanese credit, at least they’re honest about their rank-consciousness. They don’t pretend there isn’t a pecking order. The Confucian hierarchy is woven into the fabric of their collective society, out in the open where they can deal with it, even choose to downplay it. Speaking from my experience in Japanese manufacturing, most J-managers took great pains to downplay rank, easy to do when everyone knows their place in the pecking order. In concrete terms, Japanese managers routinely work on the factory floor, wear the same uniforms as production associates, share the same cafeteria, fight for the same parking spaces, and get their hands dirty everyday.

In contrast, too many Americans are in denial about their love of status and rank. We deal with it like anyone else deals with a value contradiction: through cognitive dissonance–like being on a first-name basis with the boss while knowing in your heart of hearts you’re not equal, or accepting that First Class upgrade and the added perk of boarding the plane before those poor souls condemned to coach.

As the attached article states, our society continues to ratchet up the status game. Can’t help but wonder if a cultural backlash is coming.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/12/opinion/bruni-the-extra-legroom-society.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1&#038;

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013