Tag Archives: japan

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

KeniTimCrop

“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

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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


kiwala'o

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

Japan Insight Goes Social

JIhead2a'09Aloha! Brief post today to announce that, after much hemming and hawing and brawling inside my own head, the pro-social-media forces of evil won, compelling me to create my company’s new Japan Insight facebook page. Then I went really crazy and resurrected my twitter account, even uploaded my pretty logo (above).

Since we’re on the subject–Japan Insight also has a youtube channel.

As you can see it’s too late to turn back now–so no choice but to enjoy the ride. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

If you’re kind enough to click your way over to the links posted, and like what you see, we’d appreciate if you’d honor us with a “like” and keep coming back.

Mahalo!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

One Minute Insight: The Art of Japanese Kikubari Service

What makes Japanese customer service so special? In a word, “kikubari,” the art of anticipation. Learn how you can improve customer service, build relationships and connect cultures–without spending a penny. And it’ll only take a minute!