Tag Archives: kikubari

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!

The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service


Back in my Japan university days I eked out a living teaching English conversation part time. Made just enough money to support a weekend gallivanting habit. It was a hand-to-mouth bachelor existence, and I was having the time of my life.

But no gallivanting for me every Thursday, when I’d rush off campus in Mitaka Tokyo to get to my gig in the Japanese boonies on the outskirts of Atsugi City. In all it took two hours door to door.

My Thursday student was a Japanese doctor. Dr. Thursday wanted lessons at his home where we conspired every week to fake our way through an English lesson, sessions in which I mostly listened to his troubles and regrets, secrets he would never have dared tell his family and friends.

Our therapy sessions were especially interesting on the rare occasion the doc would crack open a couple cold Sapporo drafts. Drinking beer was not part of my curriculum, but doc was the customer after all. So when he picked up the beer I’d hold out my glass for him to pour, reciprocate, then we’d toast our fake English class. No one was more qualified to do this job than me.

Being a foreigner was a big part of my qualifications. Thoroughly insulated from the doctor’s inner group, I was one of the safest sounding boards in all of Japan. Indeed I was the only game in town where he could confess his sins with no social repercussions. (Think “Father Timothy” without the penance and Catholic guilt.) So our English class was, in essencethe doctor’s weekly refuge from the oppressive social pressure cooker he inhabited most of his waking hours. Dr. Thursday paid me fair market price to lend a sympathetic ear. By default, I became an unlicensed therapist at English-teacher prices.

Looking back at these weekly sessions—and all my other private students back then—they provided a precious glimpse into the soul of modern Japan. In this case, my subject was an intelligent, successful Japanese doctor who, on paper, should have been the happiest man on earth. In fact he had spent his whole life making others happy: happy parents, happy in-laws, happy teachers and happy patients. Even his wife looked happy, but you never knew for sure.

And yet the good doctor didn’t strike me at all as being happy himself. So my mission as his fake English teacher was to keep the session as happy and engaging as possible, while sneaking in some English chops along the way. Turns out my approach was literally “just what the doctor ordered,” as the gig had legs, lasting through college and well beyond. I eventually handed the doctor off to a capable friend (a real English teacher) when I got a regular job and moved back to the States. Never thought I’d say this, but I miss those Thursday evening sessions with doc.

Kikubari Blues

This particular gig had a predictable routine. From the moment I’d knock on the doctor’s front door the same scenario would unfold, my weekly deja-vu moment: the doctor’s wife would answer the door, greet me with a bow, and escort me to the coffee table in their living room where I’d sit on their comfy Western-style sofa and wait for the busy doctor to call me to his office upstairs. When he was ready.

In the meantime, the wife would bring me a cup of instant coffee with lots of cream and sugar in it. I would thank her, drink just enough to show my appreciation, then leave the rest untouched.

By unilaterally deciding that I, the foreigner from America, wanted to drink sweet, creamy instant coffee, doc’s wife was practicing what Japanese call “kikubari,” the fine art of anticipation. But because her knowledge of my culture was limited, she was clueless about what I really wanted: choice. I can only guess that she assumed foreigners like sugary, creamy, instant coffee—so that’s what I got.

In fairness the doctor’s wife had part of it right. I do love coffee. In the morning. Freshly brewed. With a little cream. No sweetener.

But if she had thought to give me a choice, I’d have done the obligatory refusal before humbly accepting a cup of green tea, one of my favorite drinks in the world. And while I truly appreciated the intent behind the wife’s thoughtful gesture, the downside was that I ended up drinking way too many half cups of creamy sugary coffee.

No complaints because it was a great gig. But with the Japan Olympics right around the corner, it’s worthwhile pondering the cultural ramifications of overdoing the kikubari thing, especially when an unsuspecting, choice-loving foreigner is on the receiving end.

The Dark Side of Kikubari

What happens when kikubari is unleashed outside Japan’s cultural borders?

It’s useful to compare two cultural extremes. Picture in your head a “bell curve of anticipation.” On the far right end of the curve is Japan, the land of unbridled kikubari, where hosts are expected to anticipate all their guests whims and desires, sometimes to a fault.

On the other end of the curve is American culture, where personal choice is highly valued, and guests are encouraged to “feel at home” by “helping themselves to the fridge,” etc.

It makes perfect sense that a Confucian culture would have kikubari built into its hospitality model since the guest is required—by Confucian protocol—to refuse any gift or kindness offered by the host. Kikubari, in effect, removes the social requirement of the guest to refuse the drink by not asking the question in the first place. The result is that most guests get a cup of tea—or a beer—whether they want it or not.

In this sense, kikubari is the antithesis of choice.

So this is much bigger than a fake English instructor being forced to drink sweet creamy instant coffee. It’s about the same foreigner getting a fork and knife because his Japanese waiter assumes he can’t use chopsticks; it’s about being spoken to in unintelligible broken English because the Japanese taxi driver can’t fathom the notion of a foreigner mastering his language; it’s having everything decided in advance—the restaurant, the meal, the beer—because the needs of the collective trump individual desires.

With four decades of Japan experience under my belt, I’ve learned to appreciate the intent and thoughtfulness behind kikubari, along with its value-added application in customer service. Even when it misses the mark.

And yet as much as I profess to love the practice of kikubari, it’s kind of like eating ice cream: wonderful in the right doses, but too much can make you sick. Sometimes kikubari can be so annoying that I just want to scream, “Let me decide!”

Bridging the Kikubari Gap

The best way to build this bridge is to come at it from both sides of the cultural divide.

For non-Japanese on the receiving end of unwanted kikubari, my advice is to recognize it for what it is and appreciate the intention behind the gesture.

For Japanese hosts dealing with non-Japanese, it’s a good idea to study up on your foreign guests so you truly understand what they want. Also understand that offering choice is itself a useful cross-cultural kikubari technique; anticipate that your foreign guests want choice and give them options. They might surprise you and ask for green tea.

Japanese should also be aware that some foreigners are seeking authentic Japanese experiences. That the more adventurous foreigners would prefer to fumble their way through dinner using chopsticks, practice their imperfect Japanese with taxi drivers, drink green tea and eat sushi, natto and rice crackers. But you’ll never know unless you ask.

And finally, Japanese can avoid disappointment by not expecting kikubari from foreign hosts. For better or for worse, kikubari is not how most foreigners roll. Japanese should consider this an opportunity to step out of their kikubari world and embrace the freedom of having choices.

The dark side of kikubari notwithstanding, our world clearly needs more kikubari not less. We need more observation, more consideration of others’ needs, more conscious acts of kindness. In my book, the benefits of kikubari far outweigh its dark side. And if that means occasionally drinking sweet creamy instant coffee, then I’m happy to do my part.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

Japanese Customer Service According to Joe

Every now and then I revisit my old posts. It usually happens when said post gets a flurry of new hits. It makes me want to go back and see what the fuss is all about! And there’s nothing like seeing one’s own ramblings from the past with a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes the comments are even better.

That’s exactly what happened the other day. A bunch of folks were kind enough to click on Japanese Customer Service Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry last week, a piece I wrote over three years ago. After reading it I noticed there were 28 comments in total, admittedly many my own because, well, you just can’t shut up the Irishman from Chicago!

One comment really jumped out and grabbed me. For a couple reasons: first, it was very incisive and well-written. Second, it was a great customer-service story told by my dear friend Joe Cyr, a kindred spirit who recently passed away. (See Footprints in my Heart for background.)

The story inspired reflection, and I decided to make the comment a post of its own. Can’t think of a better way to honor my friend, and also pass on his wisdom to anyone hoping to improve their customer service, or simply better understand Japanese culture.

To put the story in context, Joe was commenting specifically on the passage below that was in my original post:

“And since apologizing is less an admission of guilt than an expression of regret that someone was inconvenienced, it makes it a lot easier for Japanese to apologize than Americans. So everyone apologizes and it’s all good!”

Here’s how my buddy Joe responded:

So very true.

One of my adult 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!

As Erik mentioned above (citing another comment), ‘In fact by apologizing, the company is saying: “you are more important to me than my pride” ‘

In Japan, even today, they live by those words whereas, in the US they only pay lip service to the phrase “the customer is always right and most important.”

What a great customer service story! And as always, Joe was spot on in his analysis. Some other knowledgeable cross-cultural experts commented as well. I’ll add later after I get permission to quote them. Stay tuned!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

The Kikubari Guy

Just a short post to announce that I created a new blog. I’ll continue posting my ramblings on the Intercultural Twilight Zone, but all future pieces about kikubari will go on the new blog with an accompanying Japanese version so we can speak to a Japanese audience as well.

Check out the links below and let me know your thoughts. Mahalo in advance for taking a peek. Here’s something to get you started:

What is Kikubari?

“I’m writing slowly because I know you can’t read fast.”

Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly (M*A*S*H*)

Remember the character “Radar” in the TV series M*A*S*H*? For the younger folks who didn’t grow up watching it, the series was a dark comedy set in the Korean War that grew out of a hit movie with the same name (an acronym for “Mobile Army Surgical Hospital”). Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly, the company clerk played by Gary Burghoff, was the character who was always anticipating, always a step ahead of everyone else. He was able to stay a step ahead because his “radar” was perpetually on. He was paying attention.

Radar’s powers of anticipation bordered on the supernatural…Read the rest»

The Kikubari Guy

Japanese Customer Service & the Art of Kikubari

Kikubari and Growing Old: A Tribute to My Japanese Dad

My 85-year old Japanese father-in-law just flew in from Japan yesterday to spend a few weeks with us in Hawaii. It’s 3:00 pm, a lovely day in the jungles of Pahoa as I type this (a week will have passed when I finish this piece). Dad is jet-lagged, napping on our recliner in the family room. I’m on the lanai, occasionally glimpsing the colorful tropical foliage around me that includes red and green ti plants, wild yellow hibiscus, and coconut palms. After spending the day communing with Japanese dad and nature, got some thoughts percolating about two seemingly unrelated topics: kikubari and growing old.

Japanese Dad

Dad and I have always had a great relationship, just shy of three decades now. But we don’t talk a lot. Unlike me dad’s not a talker, typical of Japanese men that age. But we do enjoy a quiet comfort when we’re in the same room. Japanese dad communicates less with words, mostly through anticipation and kind deeds, what Japanese call “kikubari.”

No surprise that I have great love and respect for my Japanese father, although it would be inappropriate to verbalize such sentiments in his culture. Old-School Japanese believe talk is cheap; if you really love someone then show it everyday through actions. I read somewhere a great quote that basically says while an American husband will tell his wife “I love you”, the Japanese man will insist his wife go to the doctor for a physical. (Hopefully even a romantic person would get the loving intent behind that.)

“Action”–or a call to action–is the operative word here, because without action all that’s left are empty words. Kikubari, the fine Japanese art of anticipation, is the action that gives meaning to words and good intentions. But action alone does not constitute kikubari. Paying attention is indispensable. And for that to happen you must be internally motivated to do so.

This is precisely what’s so amazing about my Japanese family. My wife is the master of kikubari. Now I understand where it came from: Japanese mom and dad–of course!

What Did Japanese Dad Think About His Daughter Marrying a Barbarian?

This was our biggest worry when Kurumi and I agreed to make a go of it. We were concerned about dad’s reaction because back in the early-1980s, a large majority of Japanese fathers would have objected to their daughter marrying a foreigner. But unlike most Japanese ladies dating foreigners, Kurumi chose not to keep me a secret from her parents. (Big sister knew about me from the start so we were busted anyway.) And no, my wife wasn’t completely forthcoming about our relationshiop with her mom and dad either. She was…strategic.

How my wife introduced me to her parents (six-months prior to me ultimately popping the question) is indicative about her approach to life. Her direct (yet subtly indirect) approach would have made Sun Tzu proud: in retrospect she was brilliant! (She still is.) Especially in light of the hand she was dealt…um…that would be me.

The year was 1983. I was between my second and third year of college. My wife says we met at a party a year or so before that, although to this day I can’t for the life of me recall the encounter. (No I wasn’t drunk; the alleged party was full of Japanese people–and one foreigner, me–so I kind of stood out and she didn’t.) Again, I remember none of this so as far as my feeble memory is concerned, we first met in 1983.

It happened in front of a 7-11 near Tsuruma station in Yamato City. Had no idea who my wife-to-be was when she reintroduced herself, but I was thoroughly smitten the second time around. We did the perfunctory chitchat routine required by Japanese protocol when acquaintances have a chance meeting. Then we parted ways.

In the excitement of the moment I forgot her name.

Only by happenstance through a mutual acquaintance did we manage to hook up again. I was just smart enough to remember her name by our third encounter: it was “Kurumi”, which literally means “walnut”. (A reality that allows me to say silly things that make my wife’s eyes roll, like, “Kurumi is a nut”.) Suffice it to say that fate had to work overtime to create this union. My wife’s patience has kept it together for 27 years.

After dating my wife for several months, she decided one day to “take me home” for the weekend to meet the parents. (Leading up to the big weekend I had dreams of Kurumi pleading with her parents, “Can I keep the foreigner, oh please, can I keep him?”) I remember being nervous, but Kurumi assured me her parents were nice folks and that she’d handle everything. Of course this didn’t ease my concerns. But I went along for her, and maybe deep down the challenge of winning them over trumped my nervousness?

This is where I paint a picture of what I looked like in 1983. Imagine long, scraggly hair just above my shoulders with a bushy, unkempt beard, think “college bum” dressed in bright pastel pajamas. Later I would learn that Japanese mom described me as looking like “Jesus”. Other relatives thought Socrates was a better fit–and as far as I know they never reached consensus. As a clueless foreigner I was totally flattered by the comparisons, very happy to resemble either of these great historical figures. But with the wisdom of hindsight I realize mom and relatives weren’t complimenting me at all.

So on that fateful day Kurumi and I jumped on the train at Tsuruma Station near our homes in Yamato City (me dressed in my very best pastel pajamas). A couple hours later we were standing in front of my future-in-laws home in Atami knocking on the door. If only I had taken a picture of the next thing that happened, I’d have a priceless memory: Mom opened the door, looked down at my feet then tracked her gaze upward until she saw the bearded barbarian. Had she known I was destined to be her son-in-law, she’d surely have dropped dead of a heart attack right there. After a moment of quiet shock, mom gathered her wits and invited us in. Reluctantly.

Later I would learn the source of her shock: over the phone Kurumi (almost 3 years my senior) had told mom that she was bringing home an American “otoko no ko”, an ambiguous expression that can mean “young American man” or “little American boy”. Apparently mom was expecting the latter, hence, her initial glance downward. So I disappointed her right out of the gate!

Kurumi’s strategy apparently was to “ease them into” the idea that she was interested in hanging with foreigners. In a classic Kurumi-like strategy, she figured there was no use punching them in the nose with the truth when she could sneak me in the back door. To achieve these ends, as far as Japanese mom and dad were concerned on that first visit, Kurumi and I were just “friends”. Naturally our characters in this little charade required that we show no public displays of affection. I think we acted out a very respectable Platonic façade as they didn’t seem to suspect anything. But just as likely they were in denial.

Six months later, after having met me just once, Kurumi informed mom over the phone of our plans to tie the knot. If this wasn’t shocking enough, she also mentioned that we planned to live together for a year before making it official. Whoa Nelly! What happened to sneaking me in the back door?

As you might expect, Japanese mom was concerned. She worried that “Americans get divorced,” and that her precious daughter would be whisked away to the other side of the planet forever. We assured mom we’d make the marriage work, and also that we’d live in Japan forever. And we meant it.

Full disclosure: we kept one of those promises. In my defense, after our “temporary” 2-year stint in the Deep South, their daughter wanted to stay in America not me. So what could I do?

By that time it was too late for Japanese mom to fret anyway, since she had two freshly minted grandsons, a reality that helped carve out for the ages my place in the Ishiyama clan.

How did dad react to the notion of his daughter living in sin with a barbarian prior to formal nuptials?

“That’s good,” he said with a shrug. And mom-in-law said no more.

Growing Old

From the moment I met dad he was moving, working, anticipating, always attentive to the needs of others, especially me. From our first encounter he’s always treated me like an honored guest, even though technically, in the Confucian pecking order, I was at the very bottom. And yet, dad never once made me feel that way. The only downside to this reality is the embarrassment and guilt on my part; but through the years it’s inspired me to get off my ass and reciprocate as best I can. I’ve improved but not nearly where I need to be. Kikubari is not part of my cultural DNA so adapting my life-style to the kikubari path has been a challenge. Still climbing that mountain!

My point in bringing up the kikubari angle is that Japanese dad has always had this quiet energy, grounded in action, an energy felt but not seen. And it’s the very same energy I feel from both his daughters, especially my wife (although the daughters didn’t at all inherit dad’s “quiet gene”.)

Even when dad visited Hawaii seven years ago at the age of 78, he was easily able to keep up with me at the Kapoho tide pools, hopping from rock to rock with the agility of a man decades younger. Watching him maneuver the ponds from a distance, he could easily have passed for a fifty-year-old man in very good shape. But the difference between dad at 78 and now at 85 has been dramatic. Didn’t help that he had a stroke a couple years back.

Late last year when we spent time with our in-laws in Japan it was obvious that time had crept up on dad. But we took comfort in the fact that he was still moving, still attending to the needs of others, even those of his wretched barbarian son-in-law. In fact before we arrived in Japan last November, dad made sure the fridge was stocked with beer (a vice I’ve since given up to maintain my girlie figure). And as always, he made sure they had fresh, tasty sashimi on hand, knowing how much I love raw fish. Not only did dad do our laundry while we were there–against our protests–he cooked dinner, washed the dishes, and continually kept my beer glass full from the moment we sat down for dinner. He wouldn’t let us help him do anything beyond clearing the dinner table; and he genuinely seemed to enjoy serving us.

Dad was old, but still full of energy.

Fast forward to a week ago. When dad got off the plane he seemed to have “lost a step”. His words weren’t coming out right; he was disoriented. Truth be told we were a little worried. Watching a loved one that you live with slowly age day-by-day is not so shocking because it happens gradually. But seeing someone age in “snapshots” from year to year amps up the shock level. Kind of like fast-forwarding to the future.

Rather than fret we decided to take it as a challenge, as a way to give back what dad has given us all these years. So we thought about dad’s love of work and serving others–something that seems to give meaning to his life–and decided the best therapy was to keep him busy and put him to work.

Kikubari Therapy

“Therapy” in this context is about us reciprocating through acts of kikubari. Dad’s “kikubari therapy” then, could only happen if we took the time to consider what he might want out of the visit. After all kikubari is about anticipating needs, not asking folks what they want. Dad wouldn’t have told us anyway.

So prior to dad’s arrival Kurumi stocked the house with his favorite summer beverage, mugi-cha (barley tea), chilled and ready for consumption. She also placed on the coffee table a Japanese book on Hawaiian history and culture, knowing dad eats this stuff up. In retrospect it was a good call: dad’s been reading the book everyday.

Every morning Kurumi gives dad a massage after breakfast, something he’d never ask for. And after dinner she tucks him in at 7:00 pm sharp–then checks on him before we go to bed several hours later.

Kurumi is always observing, on the alert for kikubari opportunities that are easy to miss with someone as quiet and shy as dad: she decides his spoon is too big so swaps it out with a smaller one; she pushes his chair in at dinner so he’s just the right distance from the table; she fetches the wooden disposable chopsticks when she notices dad’s udon noodles keep sliding off his lacquered chopsticks; she helps him take off his shirt, and tie his shoes. This is an ongoing process of observing and anticipating.

At the most basic level of kikubari is proper food selection. In dad’s case it means serving good old healthy, Japanese comfort food…with our own twist, of course.

Kurumi did her best to duplicate dad’s breakfast in Japan, even called mom and big sister to confirm in advance: yogurt, fruit, half toast (no more!), a pickled plum and fried egg.

For lunch it’s been mostly soba or udon, sliced raw onions sprinkled with katsuo bushi (dried fermented bonito fish flakes), salad with a squeeze of lemon, miso soup and tofu.

For dinner we’ve been more adventurous, using it as an opportunity to broaden dad’s horizons with new cuisine (mixed in with familiar Japanese dishes). We always have Japanese pickles, rice, ginger, seaweed, and complement it with fish or chicken of various flavors. So far dad’s been gobbling up everything we serve.

But it isn’t just about what dad is eating. Portions are important too. Unlike the local Hawaii custom of throwing food at guests, dad comes from a time and place where food was scarce, which means wasting food is the most grievous of sins. In concrete terms it means dad will keep eating until his plate is clean–whether he wants to or not.

So as Kurumi observed dad eating this past week, she could see that the portions she’s been preparing were too large, and slowly has been scaling back. She’s also been admonishing dad repeatedly to “chew more slowly.” He nods, smiles back and says nothing–meaning he’s listening but will do what he damn well pleases. A man after my own heart!

As you can see, dad is almost never direct in his communication style. That’s why the onus is on us to anticipate what he wants, just as it’s his job to anticipate what we want when we visit Atami. Observing and solving riddles is the nature of the kikubari game.

In Search of Kikubari Clues

Here are a couple kikubari “clues” dad dropped on us. The first came while dad and I sat in the car waiting for Kurumi to lock up the house. To put dad’s words in context, it helps to understand first that before he lost his driver’s license in Japan (due to the stroke), he kept his car immaculate, wiping it down everyday before driving it out of the garage; the interior always looked and smelled like a new car.

Not so with our car in Hawaii. We’re not total pigs but we’re not very diligent either. Rarely do we wipe down the car; candy wrappers are always stuffed in the door pockets. (We empty them when they get full.) Of course this is “normal” to us so was completely off our kikubari radar.

This apparently didn’t sit well with dad, as he was compelled to say, “Aw, too bad we don’t have time to clean the car.” When I told Kurumi later she laughed. This morning we will clean the car before heading out. Kikubari rules!

Another not-so-subtle clue from dad made me laugh. We were having dinner two nights ago. Based on the cues Kurumi has been giving me, I haven’t been offering dad an alcoholic drink with dinner (save for one night when Grady graced us with his presence and the three of us shared a Kirin tall boy). That’s because when dad got here he mentioned the first night that he had “quit drinking”, a surprise because he was never much of a drinker to begin with. Two beers and his face gets as red as a beet. And that’s usually his limit. With this new information, the proper response on our end–or so I thought–was to serve him his favorite non-alcoholic beverages: water, green tea or mugi-cha (iced barley tea). Dad seemed very content with all those drinks.

But since the very first day some 28 years ago that dad and I broke bread together, we’ve always poured each other’s beer during dinner. It’s been a bonding ritual for us. So having dinner every night this past week together without our beer-pouring ritual somehow felt wrong, and it was bumming me out. But I kept it to myself, lest I incur the wrath of dad’s protective daughter (otherwise known as Samurai Wife). I went with the flow thinking all was hunky-dory.

Based on dad’s “clue” it wasn’t: during dinner when Kurumi once again admonished dad to “slow down and chew your food”, dad said with a devilish grin, “If I had a glass of beer I think it would help me eat slower.”

I almost fell out of my chair. It was a moment of joy: dad missed the beer-pouring ritual too!

And herein lies a great example of a kikubari-challenged American (me, who should know better) dropping the ball. I lacked the foresight to stock the fridge with beer “just in case” dad wanted it; and the consequence of my oversight on that fateful evening two nights ago, was that dad had to suffer the fate of eating too fast, with no beer to slow him down.

As they say on the basketball court of life, it was “my bad”: an inexcusable kikubari oversight. But on the happy flipside of all this, I had a shot at redemption and took it.

What’s unusual about this story is my wife always picks up on subtle hints from people, innuendo much more subtle than dad’s blatant hint above. But amazingly she missed this one. And even more amazing, in a rare display of “sensitivity”, her wretched barbarian husband caught it! (And trust me, I’ve been gloating about it since.)

When I dropped Kurumi off at the supermarket yesterday and reminded her to pick up some beer, she answered me with a blank stare. I reminded her about dad’s remark the previous night. She hesitated and cocked her head, giving me her best “I-doubt-it” look. But she got the beer anyway.

Then last evening, dad, who didn’t know we had bought the beer earlier in the day, said he wanted to try a glass of wine (what I’ve been drinking with my dinner of late). Since dad had never tried red wine before, I offered him a taste, knowing he wouldn’t like it. He didn’t. Then I told him we had beer and he grinned.

At dinner we poured each other’s beer and toasted our good fortune. We limited dad to one very small glass, but he was happy.

Beyond the Basics

Moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we figured dad also came for physical and intellectual stimulation, something he hasn’t been getting in the sleepy hills of Atami. He used to walk up and down the steep hills overlooking the town, an activity that kept him fit all these years. But post-stroke dad, who is supposed to be using a cane but won’t, can’t hack the Atami hills anymore so he stopped walking! His only exercise has been climbing and descending the stairs of his home. Clearly dad’s been bored and his once mighty legs have atrophied.

We too live on the side of a mountain, one that happens to be an active volcano. Thankfully our inclines are much gentler than those of Atami, so taking walks in the neighborhood with dad has been a no-brainer. Already his atrophied legs are getting stronger and his blood circulation seems to be improving.

Yard work is another great activity for dad. He loves nature, enjoys being outside, and craves to be productive. So we had him pulling the weeds around Kurumi’s flowerbed. Then we took him shopping to help us pick out more flowers, which he planted for us when we got home.

Knowing dad is a dog lover, we also put him in charge of feeding our two feisty mutts. No surprise that the dogs are always hanging with dad now, their new buddy. Dad has thoroughly embraced his new alpha dog role.

After a week of kikubari therapy we’re seeing great results. Dad is chatty, his slur is gone, and he’s smiling a lot. Our only worry now is overdoing it, as dad would never tell us to slow down.

The Dude I Owe Big Time

Japanese Confucianism has a concept called “giri-on”, best described in English as “reciprocal obligations”. The tradition assumes that from birth we all start out indebted to our parents, grandparents, and on down the line to our ancestors because, simply put, without ’em we ain’t here.

Hence, in this value system the idea of a “self-made man” doesn’t exist. No such thing as a rugged individualist lone wolf surviving on the frontier on his own wits. The collectivist culture of Japan preaches that everyone needs everyone so ostentatious displays of power and status are frowned upon. As the old saying goes in Japan, “the nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” Said another way, even an arrogant jerk in a leadership position is wise to at least feign humility and downplay his status. (No need to push it, everyone knows he’s the boss anyway.) The ideal leader in Japan is the genuinely humble moral Confucian gentleman. The next best thing is a leader who fakes it very well.

In such an ethical system, when one helps another for whatever reason (altruistic or pragmatic), the giver of the favor becomes the recipient’s “on-jin” (in American vernacular, “the dude you owe big time”). That means you’re forever in that person’s debt. In practical terms it means reciprocation on an ongoing basis whenever the chance presents itself, whether it’s money, or just simple acts of kindness and anticipation–acts of kikubari.

No surprise then that Japanese dad is my “on-jin”, a very righteous man whom I owe big time. From day one he’s had my back.

Over the years I’ve made some surprise discoveries about Japanese dad along the way. My biggest surprise came one night–my best guess 25 years ago– when we drank enough beer to get dad in a rare chatty mood. We started talking about the War, a subject we had never touched on before. It’s the only time I remember seeing dad emotional. He told me how much he had trusted the Japanese government during World War II; that he believed with all his heart the propaganda that touted Japan as “defender of Asia from the Western barbarians”.

He was in the Japanese Navy at the time. In fact dad was in line to be deployed shortly after the war ended. When the truth came out after the war, dad said he was livid with his government leaders who had led Japan into such a destructive war.

As the U.S. occupation was rolled out, dad said Japanese people were terrified of meeting their occupiers as Japan’s militaristic leaders had painted America evil, the land of the barbarians. So in the weeks leading up to the occupation, dad’s fear was that the Americans were going to do horrible things to their women and children.

The very first American G.I. that dad met gave him a piece of chocolate. Later, others would bring food.

Dad says the humanity extended to him in the aftermath of the war forever changed his image of Americans. He’ll never forget what America did for Japan.

Can’t say that this is why dad approved of the marriage, but it couldn’t have hurt either. Today I consider the American G.I. who shared that piece of chocolate with dad as my “on-jin” as well.

When the idea was first proposed for Japanese dad’s visit to Hawaii earlier this year, I was happy for the chance to spend time with him. But no way did I anticipate how much I’d enjoy it.

Dad’s quiet support all these years helped bring into existence my own family, the people I value most today. Without the Ishiyama clan, I absolutely would not have developed the skills I need to do my job today. And ultimately it all comes down to dad, the dude I owe big time.

As a postscript, last evening, exactly one week after dad arrived, I finally got around to asking dad why he didn’t object to our marriage 28 years ago. His answer surprised me but it shouldn’t have: he said that he had raised and educated his daughter to make good decisions so he had to trust her judgment, including her decision about whom she would marry. Dad said my race was never an issue with him, although he admitted that Japanese mom had a problem with it. But dad apparently “overruled” mom’s objection, telling her that their daughter had her own life to live. After that we never heard a peep out of mom. It took awhile, but mom and I eventually grew closer over the years. As proof, she always hugs me now when we make our yearly visit to Atami.

I’ll close with a story Kurumi shared the other night, new information she never told me before. Apparently the Ishiyamas had a family get-together shortly after our engagement became public knowledge almost three decades ago. At this particular gathering–one I was not part of–dad’s older brother turned to Kurumi and said, “How could you marry a barbarian”?

Japanese dad stepped in: “Kurumi made her decision. You’re talking about her future husband, so back off.”

And big brother backed off.

How cool is that?

So glad Japanese dad came to visit us.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

Tattered Shoes, Duct Tape and a Kikubari Moment


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

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

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


At ANA, service isn’t just a reactive endeavor. It’s steeped in centuries of Japanese culture. That’s why our flight attendants take great pride in delivering outstanding service even before you’re aware you need it. Whether it’s a cold drink, a warm duvet or any other touch of Japanese hospitality, we’ll be there faster than you can hit a call button. After all, we’ve been training for a thousand years or so.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2010

Glimpses of Culture Through How We Dine (and the Power of Kikubari)


Did you ever consider how many questions you have to answer just to eat at a restaurant in America? The interrogation begins the moment you walk in the door: Booth or a table? What to drink? What kind of beer? (Can I see an I.D. young lady?) Appetizer? Soup or salad? What kind of dressing? How to prepare the burger – rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well, or well-done? What kind of cheese on it – American, Swiss, cheddar, or Monterey Jack? Lettuce? Tomato? Onions? Curly or steak fries? With cheese melted on them?

And so on.

How we break bread together speaks volumes about our values, and (surprisingly) reflects patterns of behavior found in the business world. To illuminate the different ways Japanese and American teams behave at work, I like to compare the way the two cultures approach the dining ritual. As strange as it sounds, we work much like we eat.

Individual Choice in America

The American pre-meal interrogation alluded to above is a natural outgrowth of a culture that values individualism and personal choice. American culture assumes that people are not only free to order whatever they want, but that they should have plenty of choices so the meal can be customized to the individual’s specifications.

When the food finally arrives, the meal commences with unspoken assumptions about who is supposed to eat and drink what at the table. Even the beer bottle is sized for the individual to accommodate that American love of personal choice. An inevitable side effect of individual-sized packaging is that it delineates a priori each person’s area of responsibility. This is MY beer!

And the beer-drinking American would never think of filling someone else’s glass with his beer (it would be darn difficult pouring beer into those narrow, long-necked bottles anyway). The American diner assumes, often without being conscious of it, that his “responsibilities” are to drink his own beer and eat his own entrée–and ditto that for his table-mates. Focused and efficient, the American proceeds to consume his meal and enjoy his beer with little regard for the needs of the people around him. And it is all good, of course, because everyone at the table implicitly agrees on the rules.

How Do the Japanese Dine?

First, few questions are asked up-front because the Japanese meal is less concerned with individual choice than with anticipating the overall needs of the group and proactively fulfilling them. Besides the obvious goal of enjoying good food, dinner is considered the ideal setting for building and nurturing relationships.

A typical Japanese business dinner will begin with several large, frosty bottles of beer set in the middle of the table. Each diner gets a small, empty drinking glass, rendering the boundaries of drinking responsibilities fuzzy from the start. How much of that beer belongs to me?

In a land where harmony rules and the individual is but a “fraction” of the whole, it’s not appropriate for the Japanese diner to put a personal desire above the needs of his table-mates – God forbid, pouring yourself a glass of beer! Instead, each person at the table focuses on attending to the needs of everyone else. The low-ranking employee will be especially vigilant in filling others’ glasses when the opportunity presents itself, always before being asked to do so. Senior-ranking members will reciprocate, so beer is poured almost non-stop during the course of dinner. And it just brought back a fond memory…years ago an American friend, thoroughly overwhelmed by his first Japanese business dinner, leaned over and whispered in my ear in slurred tones, “I drank fifty-three half-glasses of beer!”

Parallels in the Workplace

Just for fun let’s superimpose the dining behavior described above onto Japanese and American group behavior in the workplace.

The cultural reality is that in an individualistic culture it makes sense that companies would invent “individual job descriptions”. Conversely in a group-oriented culture like Japan’s, it makes sense to have everything structured down to the level of “group job description”–and stop there. No surprise these different ways of organizing and distributing work can ruffle feathers in a workplace shared by Japanese and Americans. Here’s a conversation I once heard between a Japanese production control manager and his American subordinate:

Japanese Boss: Why didn’t you do that?

American: It’s not my job!

Japanese Boss: Of course it is!

American: You never told me that!

Japanese boss: You should’ve known!

America: How would I know–it’s not in my job description!

Japanese boss: Your job description is to do whatever is necessary to help the company!

And so on.

Like the American diner’s entrée, job responsibilities in American companies are defined a priori via precisely documented job descriptions. As the American diner is expected to focus on eating his clearly-defined entrée, the American employee is expected to adhere to his or her clearly defined job-description. No surprise that fulfilling the requirements set forth in one’s job description is every American employee’s top priority. And just as the American diner knows in his heart that “this food is mine and that is not”, so goes the delineation of responsibilities at work: “this job is mine; and that is not.” (These words never fail to make a Japanese manager’s blood boil.)

Japanese team dynamics truly come alive when Japanese businessmen gather for dinner at a restaurant and the alcohol starts flowing. Meal portions are ambiguous from the start since a good portion of the food is set out in common dishes for everyone to share. This parallels exactly how Japanese employees approach their jobs; they do not work from a strict, predefined personal job description, but rather draw from a common pool of work, from their fuzzy group job description. And the proactive nature of the beer-pouring ritual parallels how the Japanese employee is expected to interact with his or her team at work. The employee must stay alert, be observant, identify any “half-empty glasses” that need to be filled, then promptly take action without being asked to do so.

Interestingly the Japanese beer-pouring ritual offers glimpses at Japanese-style customer-service as well. The idea of first observing people’s needs, then proactively fulfilling them, is the ultimate standard in Japanese-style customer service. The Japanese word for this is “kikubari”, translated as “care”, “attentiveness” or “consideration for others.”

An old ANA Airlines advertisement captures the essence of kikubari:


At ANA, service isn’t just a reactive endeavor. It’s steeped in centuries of Japanese culture. That’s why our flight attendants take great pride in delivering outstanding service even before you’re aware you need it. Whether it’s a cold drink, a warm duvet or any other touch of Japanese hospitality, we’ll be there faster than you can hit a call button. After all, we’ve been training for a thousand years or so.

The American service sector would do well to study the art of kikubari. It is a powerful communication tool that requires no special skill, and no words to be spoken. A nice little side-effect is it removes the pesky language barrier from the equation altogether.

Japanese and American team dynamics are so different that you might wonder how the twain could ever possibly meet. The answer is through a willingness to cooperate, a mutual awareness of the other culture’s way of doing things, and a recognition that complementary cultural strengths can be harnessed for the greater good. American cultural strengths include efficiency, focus, and creativity; Japanese culture boasts a proactive approach to work, attention to detail, careful planning, and relentless follow up to ensure plans get implemented. Both cultures share a strong work ethic and competitive fire. Figure out how to harness these strengths and you’ll create a thing of beauty!

So where does the twain meet? I see kikubari as a powerful connecting point, a relationship-building tool with universal application. For any two people struggling to communicate, my advice is to seek out opportunities to practice kikubari--opportunities to do something kind and considerate for the other person. By incorporating kikubari into your daily interactions you strengthen teamwork, reduce the need for words, improve customer service, and build human relationships.

(For more on the subject of kikubari, check out Japanese Customer Service: the Art of Kikubari.)

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

The Power of Meibutsu

In my previous post I mentioned the Japanese word meibutsu or “local specialty”. Today we’ll look at meibutsu in the context of the restaurant business.

Anyone who has had the good fortune to travel around Japan knows that each geographic area boasts its own meibutsu. Indeed one of the joys of travel in Japan is the chance to sample meibutsu from the various prefectures. So popular is this practice that many Japanese will even consume food they don’t particularly care for. It’s not about the food; they are hungry for authenticity.

When we first moved to Hawaii my wife—born and raised in Japan—insisted on trying Loco Moco at a famous Hilo establishment. Knowing her aversion to greasy food I was sure she’d take a few token bites then leave the rest for me. But in just minutes my little Asian flower devoured two eggs, a beef patty, a slice of spam, and two Portuguese sausages on a mountain of rice smothered in gravy. She answered my question before I had a chance to ask:

“I’ll never eat this again, it’s too greasy.”

The first thought that popped into my head was, Why did she have to eat all of it? The answer, of course, is for the bragging rights to say she had eaten Hawaii’s famous meibutsu.

My wife’s attitude is reflective of her culture: meibutsu has special appeal for Japanese travelers because (again) it’s authentic. Featuring a local delicacy in your restaurant is an excellent way to attract Japanese customers, and connect them with local culture.

How Important is Service?

If you ask the Japanese, even the tastiest dish in the world is spoiled by bad service. I once observed a Japanese diner in a Chicago-area restaurant scold a young American server who brought him a cup of hot green tea filled to the brim. The cup was “too hot to hold,” said the irate customer before instructing the waiter on the exact amount of tea that should have been in the teacup (leaving about one-third unfilled). When the waiter left, the diner commented to his tablemates that the restaurant’s management was to blame for such poor service because of “insufficient training”.

Another cross-cultural mishap occurred at a premium resort in Hawaii where an angry Japanese guest reportedly sent back a bowl of ramen with a request that the chef, “please decorate noodle presentation”.

In the first example, we have a waiter who has never been instructed on the finer points of serving green tea in cups without handles. In the second example, the restaurant staff was oblivious to the importance Japanese guests place on aesthetics and food presentation.

These are minor cross-cultural infractions easily remedied with a sincere apology and sufficient effort to rectify the problem. But imagine all the mistakes that go unnoticed?

Unfortunately, more often than not an inconvenienced Japanese customer will choose not to verbalize dissatisfaction, so servers don’t get the benefit of learning from mistakes. Short of direct customer feedback, the most effective way to expose the hidden cultural pitfalls is through education and training.

What Level of Service do Japanese Diners Expect?

The bare-minimum expectation is that your employees master the basics: make guests feel welcome when they walk in the door; seat them promptly; get drinks on the table and a menu in their hands; then back up quality food with efficient, attentive service.

The magnitude of the culture gap becomes more apparent when you examine the different nuances of the word “attentive” in Japan and America.

The reality is Japanese customer service attempts to deliver a level of attentiveness some Americans would consider excessive, in some cases even intrusive. The unspoken goal of Japanese servers is to anticipate all customers’ needs and desires. Japanese service attempts to remove all decisions from the customer, a practice not necessarily appreciated by individualistic, choice-loving Americans. (In Japan, no choice of soup or salad, how your steak is prepared, or what to put on your baked potato; the meal is all “anticipated” for you.)

Hence, the ideal server in Japan is a mind reader who shows up at the customer’s side precisely when needed, clears dishes promptly, fills glasses just before they’re empty, and replaces used napkins before anyone realizes clean ones are needed.

If the Japanese standard strikes you as unachievable, that’s because it is. The good news is that Japanese customers don’t expect you to be perfect. The bad news is that they expect you to try very hard to be perfect. In the eyes of the Japanese, a sincere show of effort alone adds value to your product. Demonstrating effort is a surefire way to win the heart of even the most finicky, demanding Japanese customer.

Guidelines for Success

Master the basics. Know that quality is a given and effort buys you a lot.

Beyond the basics train servers to anticipate and proactively fulfill customer needs—the Japanese call this kikubari. The added benefit of kikubari is that it neutralizes the language barrier since words are not required to provide attentive, proactive service.

A little Japanese goes a long way. No doubt Japanese guests want to hear “aloha” when they walk into your restaurant. But when mistakes are made, the same guests expect to hear an apology in their own language. Train your staff accordingly.

If you really want to impress Japanese guests, encourage servers to learn simple Japanese words and phrases to describe featured dishes. Better yet, put pictures on your menu and translate into Japanese.

Consider featuring local Hawaii meibutsu in your shop as it works on many levels: It’s an effective way to attract Japanese customers; an opportunity to connect them with the Hawaii experience; a boost for the local economy; and it creates the conditions for employees to share aloha with Japanese guests.

Whatever market you serve, whatever measures you choose to employ, value comes from the personality and performance of your employees. A successful Japanese entrepreneur once told me that his only advantage over competitors was his team. Without his people, he said, his company would be nothing but an empty building filled with idle equipment. He worked in a different industry, but his logic rings especially true in the restaurant business.

In today’s competitive crunch it is no longer enough to just satisfy customers. It’s about creating high-value experiences that engage guests on a human level. The Japanese visitor market is hungry for a quality restaurant that can provide a unique culinary experience infused with tasty meibutsu, warm human interaction and kikubari-style service.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

Japanese-style Customer Service: the Art of Kikubari

It’s humbling to hear what Japanese say about American customer service. On the positive side we’re “kind,” “friendly,” “charming” and “warm.” But we can just as easily be mean, scary, obnoxious and aloof.

America is indeed a culture of extremes: when we’re good we’re really good. But when we’re bad we’re really bad. Most Japanese would rank average American customer service well below the average in Japan. Problem is, Japanese customers are notorious for not complaining when they feel mistreated–while they quietly stew in their own juice.

Here’s what they tell their friends and family when we’re not around: Americans don’t always keep their promises; don’t apologize for breaking promises; make excuses; don’t know how to properly speak to customers; and are not considerate.

What level of customer service do Japanese get in Japan? A personal experience at a Japanese hotel tells the story: on the way to meet the chairman of a company that employed me at the time, I walked for twenty minutes in the sticky heat of Japan’s late-July summer. I entered the lobby of the Otsuki Hotel drenched in sweat. The chairman had not yet arrived so I found a sitting area to wait.

Meanwhile an observant clerk behind the check-in counter noticed my discomfort, and took it upon herself to bring me a glass of iced barley tea and a chilled oshibori towel. She anticipated my needs and fulfilled them proactively, the ultimate in Japanese-style customer service. The Japanese call this “kikubari” (pronounced “key-koo-BAH-ree”).

The value of the employee’s thoughtful gesture was immeasurable. The cost to create this wonderful experience was a cup of tea.

What similar high-impact, low-cost measures bring instant value? Review the complaints listed above then educate your employees to do the opposite. Specifically, commit your organization to:

  • Keeping promises
  • Apologizing when customers are inconvenienced
  • Taking action to solve problems rather than making excuses
  • Learning to greet customers in a respectful way
  • Being observant and paying attention to detail
  • Practicing kikubari, the art of anticipation, with customers and with each other

All this requires training, of course. But it cuts much deeper than training. Business leaders in Western companies that serve the Japanese market have to first acknowledge the need to upgrade their product. Once leaders get their heads wrapped around Japanese expectations, most will understand the need to improve. Without leadership’s understanding and support, there’s no point in educating the troops, because nothing will stick.

Education is essential for opening minds to the creative possibilities and guiding employees on innovative ways to connect with Japanese customers. Education is also a low-cost-high-impact way to get quick results. It sets favorable conditions for leveraging the mind-power of  your people. The improvement ideas that come from the hearts and minds of employees always work best: if it’s their idea they’ll do it; if it’s someone else’s idea they won’t.

The foundation of any improvement strategy is staying true to your organization’s values and culture. Japanese guests seek authenticity; the last thing they want is their foreign hosts acting like Japanese! You have to be who you are. Kikubari is a natural and beautiful way to put Hawaii’s customer-service values into practice.

In the end human relationships trump all. They have the power to overcome rising costs, aging facilities, and the inevitable cross-cultural faux pas. Human bonds cemented by acts of kindness add precious value to the customer experience that money can’t buy. Kikubari is a simple but powerful way to reach out and build relationships with people from any culture. Whether or not you serve the Japanese market, making kikubari part of your customer service culture will give you a powerful edge over competitors that are reacting rather than anticipating.

For another take on kikubari check out The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011