Japan is definitely a foreign country. To be effective in business in Japan, you also have to feel a little at home in the country. If you are merely going to be a visitor to Japan, however frequently, you will be unlikely to fit into the fabric of daily life in the way that a resident can do, and there is no doubt that even staying in a plush western hotel in Tokyo, you can feel entirely alien. Just watch the 2003 film Lost In Translation for a wry look at being a foreigner in today’s Tokyo. But that should not prevent even a first time visitor from trying to get to know the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of Japan, to learn a little of what interests and excites the Japanese, and what just does not happen there.
HARMONY AND THE GROUP
In trying to analyse the essence of Japan (if there is such a thing: even in such a homogenous society, there is no ‘typical’ Japanese), we always come back to the idea of the group and the relationship between people. Japanese society is a long search for wa, a desire to find harmony in everything and in every action. Bowing to the needs of the group before satisfying one’s own desires makes for a very different way of going about one’s daily life, and it shows in the way that Japanese society works.
To take a simple example, the way that Japanese people like to spend their leisure time is almost as regulated as the way they spend their time at work. There are times when it is appropriate to go to the beach and times when it is not. This may have nothing to do with the weather, just with custom. In the same way that schoolchildren all change from winter to summer clothing on the same day, regardless of the outside temperature, so the beaches all empty at the beginning of September, because September is not part of the sea bathing season in Japan. Early September may enjoy some of the hottest days of the summer, but the beaches will be empty. Japan works because in general everybody knows what behaviour is appropriate under different circumstances. If you try to go against the grain too much, you will remain soto.
All this can create huge pressures on the individual. As people who have to suppress their true feelings practically all the time, their leisure time is carefully guarded. Leisure time does not include time spent with the family, as it would in the West. Free time spent by a working father at weekends with the family is known as ‘family service’, which has overtones of community service and shows how eagerly the average Japanese Dad takes part in family activities such as shopping or weekend outings. Any moments that can be spent outside the bounds of social obligations are gratefully snatched. In a society where the interests of the group are paramount, the most popular leisure activities are solitary ones. They can be divided into two main sections: sports and alcohol.
In Japan, the most popular spectator sports are baseball and horseracing. The Japanese are inveterate gamblers, not to the extent of the Chinese perhaps, but they enjoy a bet. Japanese betting is, however, far better regulated than in many societies, and although they bet heavily on the horses, on speedboat racing and cycle racing among others, they tend to watch team sports such as baseball without having the urge to bet on every pitch and every inning.
One of the most popular gambling pastimes is the pinball game pachinko. Pachinko parlours (the name is onomatopoeic, imitating the sound of the metal ball as it clunks around the machine) are everywhere in Japan, and they consume a surprisingly large percentage of the entire GDP of Japan. You will see pachinko halls in every neighbourhood, full of housewives, businessmen in dark suits, labourers who have just left a building site, and even junior gangsters in sharp three piece suits and pointed leather shoes. Everybody plays pachinko. They stand there entranced, staring at the machine while they feed the balls in with one hand and flip the flipper with the other. No other muscle moves.
It is not officially somewhere you can gamble: you buy a tray of metal balls and play them until they are all used up, or until you decide to cash in your remaining pachinko balls. The machines themselves do not give out money or prizes, only more metal balls, and you cannot cash in your balls for money, only for prizes. However, there are shops down the street which specialise in buying back pachinko prizes, so a lucky winner can take his cigarettes, dried noodles or travelling alarm clock to one of these establishments and sell them for cash. It is a complicated way to get round a law, but it keeps a lot of people in work.
Most people, especially those who play pachinko only rarely, use the parlours as a cheap way of passing an hour or two, but there are pachinko professionals who make a living out of playing the game. These are the people who play all day every day, and quickly learn which machines are paying out more than others (every pachinko parlour has a machine or two that is more generous than others, to keep the punters interested, and the position of these machines is changed very regularly). By monopolising one of these big paying machines, they can make a bit of money.
Pachinko does not, as far as I know, have championships or a national champion, because it is a purely individual pastime. Pachinko players can switch off from the world around them, and find a little personal space within an overcrowded city.
Team sports, such as baseball, football and rugby, are very popular in Japan (as the 2002 Football World Cup in Japan and Korea proved), but in participation terms they fall a long way behind activities like golf, fishing and the martial arts such as judo and kendo. Tennis, cycling and walking are other popular pastimes, and the link between all of these activities is that they are not essentially communal sports.
You may play golf with other people, or compete against somebody else in judo, but the essence of all these activities, especially the native Japanese sports, is that they pit the participant against themselves, not against another person. Judo, kendo and even sumo wrestling are about inner strength, inner concentration and the perfection of technique. The opponent is irrelevant. Golf is a battle between the individual and the golf course, while fishing gives every angler the chance to sit alone and in silence by a river or a canal, probably hoping that no fish will actually be so foolish as to accept the bait on the end of his hook. The Japanese angler has found peace without obligation, which is possibly the main reason why it is such a popular pastime.
There are two ways of shaking off the shackles of social obligation. The first way is to shake off the rest of society, by going fishing or becoming a judoka. The second way is to ignore the shackles themselves, to find a way of ignoring the rules of Japanese society. The most obvious way of doing this is to get drunk.
DRINKING TO FORGET
The role of alcohol in Japanese society is unusual.
Sake ( = rice wine) has been a part of Japanese society since at least the eighth century AD. It is a clear liquid distilled from rice, with an alcoholic strength of between 16% and 18%, traditionally drunk warm in small porcelain cups called sakazuki. These days it is also marketed as a chilled drink, drunk with ice in the same way that sherry has been rebranded as a modern drink if you drop a couple of ice cubes in the glass.
Sake is not the only alcoholic drink available in Japan, and these days is not even the most widely consumed. Beer is hugely popular, with three major brands, Kirin, Asahi and Sapporo, dominating the local market and nowadays proving very successful in many overseas markets. They are mainly of a lager type, although darker beers are also popular.
Whisky is also a very popular drink, with local brands Suntory and Nikka holding the biggest market shares. Scotch whisky still has a tremendous cachet, commanding far higher prices than the local whisky, as do American brands such as Jack Daniels. Scotch whisky, which is still one of Britain’s major exports to Japan, used to be the subject of heated negotiations during the 1960s and 1970s when there was a fixed import quota on Scotch whisky, aimed at protecting the local industry. Suntory is now deemed to be strong enough to look after itself, and there are no longer any import quotas in place for Scotch or any other alcoholic drink.
Losing your inhibitions
The reason why alcohol is so much a part of the fabric of Japanese life, apart from the obvious personal reasons of taste and its after effects which apply in any culture, is that it has always been Japanese custom to ignore anything that a person does under the influence of drink. All behaviour can be excused if one has had too much to drink. So the Japanese love to get drunk. It is said that there is something in the Japanese metabolism that makes them more prone to the effects of alcohol than Europeans. Certainly the fact that until recently the average Japanese was smaller than the average Westerner meant that a smaller amount of alcohol would produce an equally devastating effect, but all the same it is surprising to see Japanese businessmen going red in the face after only a glass or two of beer and suddenly throwing off their inhibitions.
But if you lived in a society where every move, every thought, every emotion was governed by the need to fit in with others, you would also be looking for ways to shake off this burden of unbearable harmony every now and again. Alcohol affords this release. I have known junior business people get drunk in a bar and insult their superiors, I have seen people throwing up over their office colleagues as they leave a bar late at night, but providing that the offenders turn up sober and bright-eyed at work the next morning, all will be forgotten. He was drunk, so his behaviour did not count.
It was even the case in the early post-war years that drink driving was not a crime: indeed, a driver could use as his defence the fact that he was drunk at the time and therefore not responsible for his own actions. Those days, incidentally, are long gone. The legal maximum permitted for alcohol in the blood of a driver today is 0 ppm. Under no circumstances in Japan contemplate drinking and driving.
When the Japanese drink, they also enjoy karaoke. There seem to be two types of karaoke performer in Japan – the extraordinarily brilliant and the truly awful. There is no middle ground. However, karaoke is something that everybody takes part in, and the only crime in Japan is not being willing to join in and sing. It does not matter how bad a singer you are, you can guarantee not only that there will be somebody even worse than you performing before the night is out, but also that your efforts will be rewarded with a huge round of applause from everybody in the bar. So go ahead and do it.
Nobody you care about need hear your version of ‘My Way’. Neither Bjorn or Benny from Abba are likely to be listening to your version of ‘Mamma Mia’. But there will be plenty of Japanese wanting you to have a go, and the worst insult you can give them is to refuse to join in. I remember an Australian visitor who claimed in a karaoke bar not even to know the words to ‘Waltzing Matilda’. While the rest of the people in the bar – Japanese, Brits, Chinese, Greeks and Brazilians – all gathered around the machine singing about billabongs and jumbucks, the Australian sat on his chair staring stonily into his beer. The result was that the Japanese thereafter did not give a XXXX for that particular Australian, and all chances were gone of his doing business with anybody who had seen him that night.
THE JAPANESE WAY
In Japan there are no hard and fast rules. Equally one can say that there is no great secret about the way that the Japanese do business, or the way they manage their staff. It is all a matter of common sense. If you treat your employees as human beings, as an integral part of the relationships that make up a company, then they are more likely to work well and stick around longer. It is the difference between the analogue and the digital, between the team and the individual. The Japanese would claim that their approach gives each individual respect, and that the western approach treats people like machines. In Japan, respect is granted to the team player, while in the West it is bestowed for individual achievement.
One western executive on the board of a joint venture in Japan said that his Japanese partners had said to them, ‘You need to walk into the mist.’ In his view, that meant that the partners had to have faith in each other, and not to worry about what could go wrong. If there is that basic trust within the relationship, the Japanese believe it will work. Faith and trust are two things that anybody can provide: you do not have to be a specialist in Japan to have trust in your business partners.
Behind the mask
If you are sensitive to the Japanese way of doing business, and if you take an interest in the Japanese way of life, you will be accepted. If the business model is workable, you will succeed. If you can begin to accept the Japanese mask as an alternative reality, and that what is behind the Japanese mask is just as unreal as the mask itself, then you have started to understand that Japan is probably incomprehensible.
The masks used by the actors in the traditional Japanese Noh dramas can appear happy or sad, depending on how you look at them. In different lights a Noh mask expresses comedy or tragedy, and the actors are experts in exploiting the light to give the impression they want. As one American put it, ‘The question “Is she a beautiful woman or not?” depends on the opinion of who is looking at her. Is all Japan a conspiracy? It depends on how you look at it.’
DON’T BE SURPRISED
When I first came to work in Japan, I arrived armed with one piece of advice. My father, who spent many years working in Japan and the Far East in the first 20 years after the war, said to me just before I flew out of Heathrow, ‘When you get to Japan, just remember one thing.’ He paused and I thought that this was a pivotal moment in our relationship: my dad was handing on the wisdom of his generation to the young pretender. ‘Just one thing. Don’t be surprised.’
I have to say that as wisdoms of generations go, this did not seem to me to be from the top drawer. Was that all there was to it? Don’t be surprised? But as time passed and I tried to come to terms with Japan and its business and culture, I began to understand that Dad was not such a fool after all. Surprise is the gap between what we expect and what we get. If we are expecting a handshake and we get a custard pie in the face, we are surprised. If we are expecting the custard pie, there is no surprise.
What my father was saying to me was that in a culture where you do not know the rules, you will always be surprised if you persist in assuming that the way you are used to things being done is the only way things ought to happen. If, however, you drop all the preconceived ideas, if you take things purely at face value, then you will not be surprised. You will have a chance to judge the things you see and the things that happen to you on their own merit, and not in western terms. You will not be able to change things to any extent, so why try? Understand how the Japanese do things, even if you do not always understand why.
If you refuse to be surprised, then everything becomes logical on its own terms. It’s like using a pocket calculator (incidentally one of the inventions that did surprise me when Casio brought out the first tiny calculator in the early 1970s). Before you start a new calculation, you have to press the Memory Clear button, or else you are in danger of getting the wrong answer. If you do not press the Memory Clear button in your mind, if you prejudge Japan by what you have experienced elsewhere, you will too often come up with the wrong answers. Press the Memory Clear button in your mind, and you might not always understand the answer, but with any luck you won’t be surprised.