Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A tale of two cities

For the past 15 years I have spent more time in Japan than I have in the US. I have not spent eight weeks in a row out of Japan since the mid 90s. Despite all the time here I am still amazed at how much I don’t know about the “Dai Nippon” and how much I enjoy learning.
While much conventional western “wisdom” paints the country as one where almost everyone thinks and behaves in lock-step, my experience would indicate that is view of Japan is one based on vast oversimplification.
Generally speaking societies influenced by Confucian thought are more group centered than individualistic in outlook than western societies – particularly the US. This is neither good nor bad, it simply is but it certainly can cause misunderstanding when Americans arrive in Japan.
A classic example of confusion is the first time American businessman coming to Japan and being told “hai” means “yes”. During a week of meetings when he hears his Japanese hosts say “hai, hai hai” to almost all his utterings, there is a tendency for the self confident American to think he has bridged the cross cultural gap via his natural ability. It is only when the first timer returns home to report his great success to HQ and finds out later none of his “agreements” resulted in any concrete results or new business that he wonders why all those friendly Japanese “turned” on him after he left the country. Of course, in the age of Google, anyone with ten minutes and a few key words can find the classic cultural differences BEFORE going to Japan but still very few American business seem to do that. On my first few visits I had the good fortune to meet an older Japanese man who explained in detail the classic difficulties in communicating with American. As I began to learn the basics of the language, it was easy to see that the fundamentals of language and thinking in Japan were in many ways opposite of American thought and language.
After becoming interested in Japan and making frequent trips, I read many things about the country that in most cases were written by Americans who had never lived in Japan, I found it interesting that, despite what I read, Japanese rarely seemed to “think alike”; they simply paid more respect to other’s opinions. While it seemed that the Japanese cared more about their group than Americans did; the people I interacted with seemed just as different from one another as Americans.
On most visits to Japan, I visited both Osaka and Tokyo. Each time I arrived in Tokyo after taking the Shinkansen from Osaka, I felt like I was in a different country but it was a feeling I had a hard time articulating. After several trips I finally noticed the fact that on escalators in Tokyo the behavior was opposite of Osaka. In Osaka, like the US, if you are going to stand, you stand on the right side of the escalator; if you want to walk you walk on the left. Not so in Tokyo which is the oposite. A simple thing that became a metaphor for me of the differences between the two major regions of Japan.
I also found I like the food in Kansai (Osaka area) better than Kanto (Tokyo area). Gradually I noticed simple things like the fact Tokyo soy sauce was thicker and saltier. Later I was to learn that the power in Osaka is different than Tokyo 60 Hz vs 50 Hz. This became a major issue after last year’s Tsunami when the power difference greatly limited the ability of western Japan to share power with eastern Japan.
When my family moved to Japan we lived in Kansai. It became more and more apparent that I felt more comfortable in the Osaka area than Tokyo because the people in Kansai seemed more outgoing and friendly to foreigners even when they couldn’t speak the English.  I had previous experience with this, on one of my first trips I was given a map and told the taxi driver would have no trouble getting me from the hotel to the restaurant where I was supposed to meet a group for dinner. Try as he might, my driver could not find the place so I motioned for him to stop and took the map into a convenience store and showed it to the man behind the counter. He didn’t speak English but it was obvious I needed help. The man grabbed his coat, locked his store and escorted me to the place. I could not imagine that happening in Tokyo or NY.
I am back living in the US but still visit Japan every six weeks or so. Most of my visits to Japan now center on Tokyo because most of my customers are headquartered there. Now that I speak the language well enough to get around without a “handler”; I appreciate Tokyo much more than I used to but I still have a soft spot for Kansai – when I got off the Shinkansen a couple hours ago in Shin Osaka station; I smiled as I stood with my luggage on the down escalator – on the “right” hand side.