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    Rising sun

    Ghost of a Flea has yet another Kylie picture up, but what caught my attention even more was a link to this site, which gives animated instructions for Westerners about to go to Japan to work. You have a sequence about navigating the office, one about visiting people at home, and one about going out drinking with colleagues. If you can stand to watch the Beavis and Butthead-ish characters (I mean, they don’t act like them, obviously, they’re just drawn like them), the information is pretty good. Telling points:

    • Like a lot of explanations of tricky Japanese ceremonial maneuvers for Westerners, the one for exchanging business cards on this site doesn’t tell you about the little parts that can get you in trouble–in this case, how you’re supposed to hold two at one time. I mean, obviously, there’s nothing difficult about it physically, but if you’ve just received your visitor’s card, is there a certain set of fingers you’re supposed to hold it between while proffering yours? If you get it wrong, you could make it hard for your visitor to take your card from you. Or someone could get a nasty paper cut. Theoretically speaking, you understand.
    • The house depicted in the home entertainment section is of the traditional Japanese kind with shutter-type front door, tatami rooms, side garden with stone lantern, and tokonoma (display alcove). What do the animators put right next to the front door to let you know you’re looking at the exterior of a realistic Japanese house? A beer vending machine.
    • The proprietress of the bar in the sequence about drinking looks like Barbara Hale.
    • The writer of the text keeps saying that Japan doesn’t differentiate between right and wrong. I think that’s a bad way to put an excellent point. What she’s talking about is the idea that Japan believes in extremes of behavior rather than moderation. In the West (sweeping generalization alert!), we like to get a sense of people’s real, essential personalities even in formal circumstances. If you know someone who acts one way at work and 180 degrees the opposite way outside it, you regard him as untrustworthy. In Japan, the opposite is true. You defer utterly to the group and the demands of ceremony at work, and then you let off all the resulting stress by being sloppily demonstrative while getting drunk later. Being too honest about your actual opinions in formal circumstances makes you look, paradoxically, untrustworthy–because what you need to be trusted to do is cooperate, and you may not attend to other people’s needs if you’re busy articulating your own.
    • On the same token, those of us who were ruthlessly schooled in most of these little rules are often told, after we arrive in Japan, “You sound like an old man–no one acts like that anymore!” Years ago, a friend of mine presented a gift of sweets to her middle-aged host mother and that lady’s friends with the respectful words, “お口に合うかどうか分かりませんが” (o-kuchi ni au ka dou ka wakarimasen ga: “I’m not sure this will [be good enough to] suit your exalted palate, but [please take it]”). The assembled ladies were silent for a few beats and then burst out laughing. “You’re talking as if you were about to be interviewed! We’d be more likely to say, ‘Hey, I think you’ll like this!'” True, meeting a group of elder friends for lunch isn’t the same as doing a presentation at a prospective client’s place, but friends who are around my age and older are always complaining when we get together that they’ve had to drop a lot of the etiquette with which they were brought up. The last half-decade’s worth of hires at work don’t understand them.
    • I think my favorite sequence is when the guy’s in the bathroom and there’s an excursus on windchimes in the middle of the directions for using the Asian-style toilet. What might have been more useful was a warning that there may not be soap or a guest towel at the hand-sink, so you need to be satisfied with splashing your hands very thoroughly and having a handkerchief in your pocket to dry them on. I can’t imagine how they missed that, since it’s one of the first things people express shock over on arriving here. If you want to give yourself a fighting chance of avoiding nasty germs, you can get alcohol-soaked wet handwipes at any convenience store. Not soap and hot water with a clean, soft towel to follow, but better than nothing.

    Oh, and while we’re on this topic, I would just like to point out that in the months that Simon World has generously linked my little pieces on Japan Post privatization, Social Insurance reform, and Japanese views of the WOT, the link that has gotten me the most traffic from his site is my post about a musical toilet. I’m pretty sure there’s a life lesson there, but I’d prefer not to know what it is.

    Added on 12 February: And, as Atushi just reminded me, I forgot to congratulate Japan on its Founding Day. But, congratulations on Founding Day, Japan!

    6 Responses to “Rising sun”

    1. John says:

      “If you know someone who acts one way at work and 180 degrees the opposite way outside it, you regard him as untrustworthy.”
      That’s true about etiquette, but not always true about substance. I pictured the nemawashi process to be as smooth and harmonious as the final product, based on acculturation classes over here, then I got to Japan. The in-group out-group stuff leads to some pretty serious inter-company wrangling that I never expected to see (but should have, given my other experiences with Asian sterotypes).
      One big difference between the West and Japan is that after the decision is made, everyone gets on board and you hear no grumbling at all, for the most part – the 建前 goes up and everyone is back to being an inscrutable Easterner again.
      I was going to say that another big difference is the diffusion of responsibility – the buck rarely stops anywhere definite in Japan. However, having worked in a huge, bureaucratic US firm, I’d say that the difference is not that great between large US firms and Japanese firms on most levels, until you get to the very top, where a US CEO and his direct reports have a lot more power than their Japanese counterparts.

    2. John says:

      “beer vending machine” – hah.
      I’m surprised they didn’t use the one that dispenses panties – I know, I know, they quit doing that years ago.

    3. How to bow

      How to bow. And much more… this is absolutely fascinating. Whether you visit Japan as a tourist or a businessman – there’ll be many occasions for you to drop a brick! And then… White Peril offers thoughts on changing etiquette…

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      Well, if they actually showed the guy using the toilet, who knows what to expect, huh?
      As far as strategy meetings and things go, yes, it’s misleading to say that people always, always, always pretend they agree with each other. I think it’s pretty accurate to say that within departments and project teams that’s pretty close to the mark, though.

    5. Simon says:

      It’s always the silly things that get the hits. It’s a law of blogging.

    6. Sean Kinsell says:

      I understand that in general. But we East Asian types are supposed to be setting the standards for koan-wreathed profundity.
      Not that my Japan Post posts have any koans in them, for that matter. Unless you count the unanswerable riddle of how they’re going to avoid a mess.