Near Yellow Mountain

Monday, August 11, 2014

Culture Club

Cross cultural training covers many of the obvious issues an ex-pat is likely to face when dealing with an unfamiliar culture. Before doing business in Japan, I sat through a few days of cultural training classes and was given books to read covering well documented issues between individualistic Americans and the Confucian influenced culture I was being sent to. 

The training was basic things: the importance of the group culture, protocol in meetings such as handling business cards with two handed respect, allowing time for chit chat (aka - not getting right to the point), “yes” doesn’t necessarily mean “yes”, etc. All good things to learn but just scratching the surface of the skills needed to operate effectively in a foreign environment.

As an American who came of age well after the end of the hard drinking post war culture popularized by TV series like “Mad Men” or seen in old black and white Super 8 family home movies across the 50 states; I was not prepared for the importance drinking as part of business in Japan.

Even Bill Murray had to be trained about Japanese drinking culture
 Nobody taught me that more than half of my time with customers would be spent “after 5PM” – the time of day when relationships are cemented and important insights to business problems are gained. Those expensive training classes taught in American conference rooms did not cover the critical topic of cross cultural drinking. 

Drinking was not an important part of my business or personal life in the US. Business dinners and golf outings in the US, while not normally alcohol free, were certainly much more temperate affairs than my normal evening with customers in Tokyo or Osaka.

Fortunately, despite the holes in my cultural training, I had a Japanese mentor 25 years my senior who enjoyed explaining Japanese culture to foreigners. His experience was that most "gaijin" didn’t listen. I tried to be the exception to the rule. Among the many topics we covered, the lessons on Japanese drinking customs proved to be some of the most useful.

The fact that I was a runner helped because the first lesson in Japanese drinking was that it is a marathon not a sprint. My first trip to Japan included several evenings in row where meetings ended at 5:30 PM and dinner started about 6:00. What I learned on that trip almost 20 years ago was that “dinner” often continued with a trip to a club (second party) and often to a third party. More often than not the festivities lasted four hours and on some nights as long as seven. Another feature of a night out in Japan was a pretty standard schedule of starting out drinking beer with appetizers, changing to sake during the meal and drinking whiskey at club or shot bar after dinner. If we ate western food then wine might replace sake but in many cases it was simply an addition. Occasionally the night ended in a ramen shop.

The companies I worked for in America did not have a culture of co-workers frequently spending time eating and drinking together after work – with or without customers. Japan is quite different in this regard and the emphasis/importance of eating and drinking together in Japan is hard for many Americans to understand or accept. 

My mentor, who came of age during the post war boom, patiently explained many things to me as we poured each other countless tiny glasses of Asahi “Super Dry” beer during dinner meetings. Details about how decisions were really made inside his company, the official and unofficial roles of different people in his organization, how foreigners are “evaluated”, etc. I was asked my opinion regarding many real and/or perceived flaws in my culture – why are American’s so short term focused? impatient? arrogant? Poor behavior or “scorecard liberties” on the golf course was another hot button and something that came up more than once in bar conversation. Never stated directly but always the point amounted to: “If Mr. XXXX can’t give an honest score, how can we trust him as a business partner?” I was fortunate that a senior person in a Japanese company was so candid with me so quickly. 

At first I wasn’t a big fan of the tiny beer glasses used in Japan and the custom of only pouring for others and not yourself but it quickly became obvious that pouring for others was a reflection of the culture of interacting with the group. The small size of the glasses increased the frequency of the interaction. I was introduced to sake - which was an acquired taste. I was cautioned of the dangers of hot sake (“too easy to drink”) but encouraged to drink flask after flask. The fact that I like all types of Japanese food and was studying Japanese also helped me be accepted as a “reasonable gaijin”.

When I arrived in Japan, I had not had whisky more than five times in my life. I wasn’t a fan in general and really didn’t like the whiskey and water mix most Japanese drink. At clubs, I would order a straight whiskey which implied I liked the taste and was a strong drinker and then leave the drink untouched after a ceremonially first sip – avoiding a headache the next day and allowing me to get up for my morning run. If I did have a headache, Japan has an ample supply of hangover remedies available at train stations and the plethora of convenience stores in every neighborhood
One of the many widely available "hangover" drinks
Part of my role as the only foreigner from my company living in Japan was to assist colleagues from the US and Europe who were making their first or one of their infrequent trips to Japan. Some were faster learners than others.

On one occasion, one of my US colleagues who is a friend and also the size of a pro football linebacker joined me for several days of business meetings in Japan. Dinners in Tokyo and Osaka were no issue. Our hosts took note of his size and made dinner reservations at places with tables or horigotatsu (sunken) seating which could accommodate his bulk and keep him from having to sit cross legged on tatami. Several meals were at steakhouses assuming he could not survive long without beef and providing the hosts with a good excuse to eat an expensive steak. In general, my friend has a large capacity for drinking beer or whiskey. He tried limited amounts of sake without issue and his “11 on a 10” scale volume at karaoke brought more than one manager running over to check on the loud but less than talented Bon Jovi imitator only to see his size and meekly bow while backing out of the room with a smile.

Our final stop proved the most memorable.

We flew to a small city on Shikoku Island to visit the plant of a very large customer and have dinner. I had recently taken our host to the US and Argentina to tour our lithium plants and do some sightseeing so I knew we would be treated as honored guests. Unfortunately in a small Japanese city there is only so much you can do to accommodate a large foreigner especially in space challenged dinner places. I knew it would be a long evening but I was looking forward to it. The first stop was an excellent traditional restaurant where we were seated in a tatami floored private room with very low tables. I advised my friend to sit on the end so he could stretch his legs. He, uncharacteristically, waved off my advice. I smiled to myself already knowing the outcome. A few moments later two, attractive young kimono clad ladies appeared with flasks of hot sake to break the winter chill. I advised my friend that the hot sake would go down easily and he should pace himself.  The two ladies giggled when they saw the large American squirming on the tatami and quickly filled his sake cup. 

My friend’s drinking pace seemed to quicken when he realized the kimomo clad attendants would not let his glass stay empty. Everyone at the table was enjoying the food and pleased that my friend seemed to be having such a good time. A couple lively hours passed and it was time to “move to another place” for drinks. It seemed both of my friend’s legs had fallen asleep after resting unnaturally on the tatami. I was hoping his walking skill would return once the circulation returned to his legs. After a short taxi ride we entered a club. It was great to see tables and chairs but they were definitely not size appropriate for my buddy whose walking seemed to be impaired by more than circulation problems. A bottle of whiskey was ordered and after a couple of drinks my friend decided it was time to visit the restroom. Everyone in the crowded room seemed to look up as the American giant (although still much smaller than a run of the mill sumo wrestler) made his way up a step and out to the toilet. I smiled and thanked our hosts for the great meal and spending so much time with us.  Conversation continued and, unfortunately, I didn’t notice my friend approach the step down toward our table. I heard a gasp and then several others as I looked up to see my friend airborne, unable to right himself, and coming in for a landing at the table next to us. Like a car crash it seemed that just before impact all motion slowed down. I still remember trying to calculate if my descending colleague was going to land on another patron or simply destroy the table he was headed (literally) for. Glasses and a bottle flew, people scrambled out of the way and after the crash landing my friend slowly rose to his feet, smiled and said maybe it was time to return to the hotel. After the requisite bows and apologies to those nearby; I assured our hosts my buddy was absolutely fine and just a little drunk. They quickly expressed grave concern for his well-being. We agreed to have one member of the group take him back to the hotel and rejoin us later. The rest of us moved on to another bar. My departed friend was, of course, the topic of animated conversation for the rest of the evening. “Your friend looked like a 747 coming in for a crash landing”. “We are happy that he survived but the table did not….”

This incident happened several years ago and despite no longer working for the same company an increasingly embellished version of events that night is told and retold anytime I am with someone who was at that dinner. Although it may sound strange to Americans, the “flying gaijin” cemented an already strong bond with that company. Had a similar incident happened in the US, my friend might not have survived the fallout if HR had been informed. My friend’s nickname in Japan remains “the Shikoku destroyer”.

There is no shortage of drinking places in Japan
Drinking plays a significant role in Japanese business culture and if properly managed can result in stronger work and personal relationships. Of course it is possible to not drink and be successful in Japan but that is the exception rather than the rule. Anyone from my company that came to Japan with the attitude that they would not eat the local food and at least pretend to drink part of a beer during the first toast at dinner  normally didn't do very well from 9 to 5.