Tag Archives: Western culture

Glimpses of Culture Through a Lava Flow: Bomb the Crater or Clean Your House?


Kalapana lava flow (photo by Kurumi Sullivan)

A contrived reality show couldn’t be more compelling. Survivor’s got nothing on this. If I made documentaries or movies or even cheesy reality shows, I’d be camped out in Pahoa right now.

Since yesterday our friendly neighborhood lava flow has advanced a paltry 50 yards, the continuation of a gradual slowdown that’s been happening over the past several days. Just days before that the flow had advanced a whopping 150 yards in a single day, and right before that it had stalled for almost a week. There’s no rhyme or reason to this flow.

And the longer I observe the flow the more I’m convinced it has a mind of its own, although I might just be losing my mind. This flow has given me a serious case of lava fever: it’s the ultimate mystery story because no one has a clue–not even our smartest scientists–how it’s going to end.

What I’ve learned in the past month about this particular flow (besides its unpredictability) is that it not only burns a swath of land in its downhill path, it also creates compelling human stories. Throw into the mix two distant cultures dealing with it in completely different ways, and the intensity level goes off the charts.

That’s what happened at a recent County-sponsored informational meeting on our lava flow conditions here in Puna. It was surely not intended, but the meeting ended up showcasing some mesmerizing cross-cultural exchanges. Thankfully Big Island Video News was there to capture the highlights.

Whatever your personal beliefs, life doesn’t get more real and compelling than this. And if cultural anthropology happens to be your thing—even if it’s not—prepare to be enthralled.

The embedded clip at the end shows a segment of the town meeting that followed the County’s presentation on the lava update, during which time those in attendance were invited to ask questions of the Civil Defense Director and Geologist from Hawaii Volcano Observatory. I can only speak to the footage on the linked clip since I wasn’t at the gathering in person. My guess is that some folks actually did ask questions during the meeting.

But not so for the folks in the clip. Well, technically they asked questions. But the questions were just thinly veiled attempts to give advice: Could we use D9s to divert the lava flow away from town!?

And the Hawaiian speakers on the clip were less concerned with asking questions, and more concerned with refuting the notion of messing with the volcano in any way, shape or form.

Keep in mind that the Civil Defense Director has stated publicly numerous times that no attempt will be made at diverting the flow. The stated reason for the county’s stance is the danger of unintended consequences: any attempt at diversion could conceivably create more damage to residential properties that are not currently in the projected flow path.  (And just imagine the liability issues!) The Director also mentioned, as he should have, the cultural sensitivities at play with Native Hawaiian religious beliefs.

As you’ll see, based on comments made subsequent to the Director’s remarks, the County’s stance against any kind of lava diversion apparently didn’t sink in with everyone, as the Director had to repeat it more than once during the question-and-answer period. (I think you’ll agree that he handled it with grace and impressive restraint.)

Bomb the Crater or Change Your Bedding?

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”—Genesis 1:26

As I type this a molten lava flow creepeth upon the earth just five miles uphill from my neighborhood. And as far as I can tell, no man has dominion over it.

What’s so fascinating about this slow-motion disaster, is how differently folks are dealing with it. And it’s a testament to the power of culture in driving not only our respective behaviors, but in predisposing how we choose to view events like these.

So it didn’t at all surprise me that someone from my cultural tribe would suggest diverting the lava flow—or even bombing the crater as the third speaker suggested. As a guy who stands to lose a lot should the lava keep coming, I completely get the rationale. Why would thinking people passively stand by and watch their houses and businesses go up in flames?

In contrast, some of the Hawaiian responses (certainly on the video and in local online forums) are completely counterintuitive to my culture’s way of thinking. The last Hawaiian to speak in the clip, Pi’ilani Ka’awaloa, did in fact make it a point to invite “tutu Pele” to come to her house!

As a product of the West, it’s a big cultural stretch to understand exactly where Pi’ilani is coming from. But as fate would have it, there’s a story behind the story to help us understand.

With lava in the news, a local TV news station recently ran a special segment in their newscast on Pi’ilani. The gist of the piece is that on three different occasions lava flowed up to her family’s home and stopped. Pi’ilani explains what her mother told her when lava reached their driveway:

Mother: “What do you do when an important guest comes?”

Pi’ilani: “You clean the house, mow the yard, change the bedding.”

Mother: “We are getting ready for a very important guest…And if the guest wants to stay at the house, the house is there. And if she doesn’t want to, then she can leave. But at least we made an offer.”

Putting literal interpretations aside, truth and humanity are clearly behind the symbolism. Woven into Pi’ilani’s mother’s words and actions is a resignation that the flow is going to do what it’s going to do no matter how she might feel about it. From that assumption she chooses to transform a devastating event, completely out of her control, into a positive experience within her control, by welcoming the encroaching lava as “an important guest,” rather than casting it as an antagonist.

(On a personal note, I’m learning firsthand that there’s an added psychological benefit to staying in a routine. Mowing your lawn, cleaning your house, changing your bedsheets and other mundane tasks have a way of keeping folks grounded and focused during times of stress and uncertainty. I’m still sane so it must be working.)

And this brings us to the essence of the gap: does your culture predispose you to repel lava flows with bombs and D9s? Or welcome the lava as an important guest? And why such starkly different responses to the same phenomenon?

Here are some of the key cultural drivers at play:

-My culture has traditionally put man above nature, and with that position comes license to control and manipulate it as he chooses. Hawaiian culture on the other hand, sees nature as a manifestation of divinity, and man as subordinate to nature’s whims, especially to those of the volcano.

-My culture separates God from nature. As an offshoot of a desert religion, the traditional Judeo-Christian view casts nature as a foe (albeit an unconscious foe), an antagonist to be feared, battled, fled from, and overcome. This metaphor of nature as foe is so deeply ingrained in the Western mindset, that bombing a volcano doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea. Traditional Hawaiian culture in contrast is shamanistic; it animates nature with spirits, and believes nature to be alive and conscious. The notion of bombing the crater is blasphemous.

-My culture believes that man can “own” land; Hawaiians believe that they are “children of the land.” This explains why the Western mindset laments the prospect of losing land to the lava flow, while Hawaiians believe it was never our land to begin with, and that we should all just be thankful to Tutu Pele for allowing us to live here as long as we did.

At the risk of stating the obvious, these are some incredibly wide gaps to fill. Some are too wide to even try. The trick is figuring out which cross-cultural connections are possible, which are not, and setting realistic priorities accordingly.

Where Does the Twain Meet?

Cross-cultural cooperation is the art of the possible.

It’s possible to not focus on issues beyond your control (like trying to change the beliefs of others).

It’s possible to respect others’ rights to believe what they want without accepting those beliefs yourself.

It’s possible to focus on common ground and cooperation for achieving mutual benefit.

All these are conscious choices that must be made by all parties involved for any kind of cross-cultural cooperation to happen.

Even as someone who is not a follower of Hawaiian spirituality, the Hawaiian justification against diverting the flow based on religious grounds is a non-issue with me, as it should be with everyone else.

I choose to be respectful and focus on points of agreement, in my case, that we should not mess with the flow for any reason. Admittedly my reasoning comes from a different place: I’m convinced that we do not possess the knowhow to do this, as our County still struggles just to design safe traffic intersections. It’s tough to envision these same folks diverting the flow without causing disastrous unintended consequences. There is much debate about whether anyone has ever successfully diverted a lava flow. I’m obviously on the non-believer side of the issue.

So I’m in lockstep agreement with the Hawaiians on leaving the flow alone, and I can’t think of a single reason to initiate a religious debate. It’s not my place to challenge others’ beliefs anyway.

And while I personally believe tolerance is all about showing respect for my neighbors whatever their religious beliefs may be, some folks from my culture struggle mightily to get past their disagreement with indigenous Hawaiian beliefs. The heated exchanges on local forums can be brutal.

But even for non-believers, there are a couple practical reasons to avoid a religious debate: it will not change the Hawaiians’ beliefs, nor will it change the County’s stance. So why bother? It will only serve to alienate people within the community during a time that we need to be sticking together. There are many more productive places we can focus our energies.

Differences aside, I think the County has struck a wonderful chord with the community by making their lava-update meetings an educational event. It is slowly turning all of us–Pele believers and non-believers alike–into amateur geologists.

The community might be scared and divided on some issues, but everyone I’ve come in contact with is engaged and interested in learning about the science behind the volcano. After attending three such meetings in person, these educational sessions with the geologists seem to have had a positive, almost therapeutic effect on the community. It also keeps the focus on something that can truly connect us: shared knowledge.

But Pi’ilani’s appeal at the end of the clip really drives home the reality: we need to put aside our differences and start helping each other if we hope to survive and get past this lava flow as a community. Can’t think of a better reason to link arms and work together.

There’s a whole other discussion on the role of myths in our respective cultures, a subject we’ll handle in a future post. In the meantime, some food for thought from the late and great anthropologist Joseph Campbell:

“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014


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.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

Invisible Culture Gaps in the Workplace: How Is Information Supposed to Flow?

My Japanese boss never gives me feedback; he never explained the parameters and expectations of my job when he hired me. I have no idea what he’s thinking, and feel like he’s purposely withholding information from me.

 –Frustrated American working for a Japanese company

My American subordinate never takes initiative to gather information; this behavior makes me think he doesn’t care. Why doesn’t he ask me for information? Why doesn’t he pay more attention and figure out for himself what to do? And why doesn’t he come seek out my advice?

 –Frustrated Japanese boss of American subordinate

These are completely disjointed views of reality that permeate the mixed Japanese-American cross-cultural workplace. Lot’s of folks in Japanese-owned subsidiaries in the U.S. are thinking these very thoughts. And unfortunately, it’s a conversation both sides are not having.

So where do you suppose the communication gap is here? It’s different cultural assumptions about how information is supposed to flow in the organization.

In corporate America, information is expected to flow systemically to the recipient in need of it, an efficient, linear passive management system that Americans excel at. American employees expect bosses to explain the subordinate’s individual job description, overall expectations, including periodic feedback–ideally positive and negative–so the subordinate has the chance to adjust as needed. And if the American subordinate happens to be the production scheduler, she expects monthly orders and other projection data to systemically flow to her in a timely manner, so she can do her job ordering raw materials within her restricted lead times.

And when information doesn’t flow systemically, then the system is deemed flawed (or else “someone screwed up”), and corrective action is expected. God forbid anyone goes out and gets the information; that would require active information-gathering behavior that’s not recognized or encouraged by the American management model of efficiency.

This may surprise the uninitiated, but no Japanese employee expects all the information to flow systemically in a Japanese organization: the burden is on the individual to seek out and gather the information necessary to do his or her job, by personally connecting with other people in the organization. The belief is that a face-to-face meeting is packed with information that, for example, an email or even a phone call could never provide. For this reason, misuse of email is frowned upon. And even when email is used appropriately, Japanese still expect follow-up face-to-face contact.

Edward T. Hall would agree:

“Although we tend to regard language as the main channel of communication, research reveals that anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of information is communicated by other means.”

That’s heady stuff. Through the years I’ve grown to understand the importance of the non-verbal communication world. So much rides on context and the strength of relationships, especially in Japan. In my work experience, the most effective Japanese managers had allies and friends spread throughout the company, folks with whom favors and information were exchanged based on the strength of those relationships. Ditto all that for the best American managers as well. The difference is that in Japan it’s expected, while in America it’s considered “exceptional”, for example the talented wheeler-and-dealer personality we all know, the guy who just knows how to get things done.

What this means is that in a Japanese company, if you wait for information and don’t have allies across the organization to help you, you’ll be left in the dust twiddling your thumbs.

This difference in expectations of information flow can have morale-busting effects on feedback-starved Americans waiting for direction from a Japanese boss who, unbeknownst to the American subordinate, expects him to take initiative to gather information for himself. I’ve refereed some intense exchanges based on this misunderstanding alone. The problem is further compounded by all the other invisible gaps muddying the waters.

After working in and with both Japanese and American systems for many years, I’ve concluded that the optimal workplace information-exchange system is a hybrid of the two extremes. The strength of Western-style communication within the workplace is efficiency and “automation” of information flow. The weakness is that the world we live and work in is dynamic. No matter how great an information system you have, something always falls through the cracks, or new information outside the system becomes relevant, or information doesn’t yet exist and therefore must be mined through active collection of data and subsequent analysis.

The strength of the Japanese system is the breadth of data collection, and the tendency to look at issues in the workplace from as many points of view as possible, achieved through solicitation of input from functions across the organization. In this sense, Japanese are masters at holistically defining problems in great detail. Another strength is that it gives most employees and managers a much broader view of the organization than Western counterparts, by fostering and nurturing cross-functional communication on an ongoing basis through the Japanese-flavored “chosei” (coordination) process, an organic, informal “negotiating” method with no parallel in the West. The glaring weakness of the Japanese method of course, is its sheer inefficiency, not to mention that only people lucky enough to be in the “informal loop” are privy to key information.

Westerners would do well to expand their approach to encompass all departments, and develop corporate cultures that encourage individual initiative in collecting  information (in addition to standard “passive” channels of communication), while promoting more face-to-face consultations among departments across the organization.

The Japanese would do well to get more systemic in the way they exchange information, but do so without abandoning their holistic approach to defining problems and making decisions.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011