Thursday, November 09, 2006
I know the American political world is in a state of upheaval, but I'm not an American. I'm a gaikokujin. Welcome to the Japanese world, wandering souls.
I've touched upon workplace behavior - genkiness, overtime (zangyou), work ethic - before, but obviously, I'm only scratching the surface; there's so much that I don't know about, or some things I'm aware of but have not yet fully understood. The business world in Japan is just as much a culture shock as entering the country itself.
"The Japanese have a saying: fix the problem, not the blame. In American organizations it's all about who f****d up. Whose head will roll. In Japanese organizations it's about what's f****d up. and how to fix it. Nobody gets blamed. Their way is better."
Michael Crichton, Rising Sun
You're an American. You've traveled to Japan to work in a law firm in Tokyo. It's been a few weeks, and you're starting to become friendly with your co-workers, your manager, and learning to be comfortable with your work environment. Today, instead of arriving to work early, as you usually do, you stop for a leisurely cup of coffee and enjoy people watching on the streets of Tokyo - definitely entertaining.
You had come into work early on previous occasions to make a good first impression with your manager, but today, after a few weeks, you feel as though you should get into a comfortable, relaxed routine and start conforming to the standard 9-5 hours.
You arrive at 8:59, and your manager is waiting for you at the door. He looks furious.
"Why are you late, Turner-san?"
What just happened? Should you feel guilty? I prefer to think of working in Japan as working as an actor in Los Angeles. Three basic rules:
If you're early, you're on time.
If you're on time, you're late.
If you're late, you're fired.
The Japanese are notoriously strict on time management, especially when dealing with workers. Although this might hardly be a surprise to anyone, as most people, including Americans, understand they should come in a few minutes early, the solution is not quite as obvious.
A simple apology works wonders, but the conditions must be right. You cannot simple utter a quick "gomen nasai" or "I'm sorry" and hurry along to your desk. No, this is a performance, a show your manager observes with all of his senses. Maintain eye contact. Tell him you are truly sorry for the inconvenience, and it will never happen again. Bow slightly. Lower your eyes. Do whatever you believe is necessary to humble yourself in your superior's eyes. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. Your manager doesn't want to be angry at you, believe it or not - he just wants your reassurance, and the problem of lateness fixed. If he asks why you were late, tell only the truth, as a lie will just make the situation worse. You're allowed to smile or laugh slightly after the apology; this action tells Japanese managers that you are ready to put this situation behind you and get back to genki workplace behavior.
This situation, among others, is the principal reason Americans have trouble working in Japan. By Japanese standards, westerners, especially Americans, are among the most arrogant, conceited people on Earth. It's not something we do knowingly; we were just raised according to a different code of conduct. We believe apologies are necessary at times, but many people see them as lowering yourself. Japanese people are willing to do this. Americans may, but probably won't be as happy about it. Humbleness, Keigo, considering others' time as infinitely more important than your own (stress on infinitely)... we weren't brought up with these ideas.
You're definitely a stereotypical westerner in Japan if:
1. You don't apologize often
2. You don't present omiyage (gifts) as an apology or returned favor
3. You believe your way is the best, and refuse to consider other options
4. Your comments are considered too direct (e.g. instead of asking "should I...?" or "shouldn't I...?" you simply make your case, and invite others to contradict you - not the Japanese way)
5. You refuse to clean the office. In Japan, very few small companies or schools have complete maintainance service. Employees and students are often asked to stay late to clean carpets, bathrooms, whiteboards, dust, etc. It's quite common.