Deciding the decided

Let me tell you about meetings in Japan. Wait, they’re not as boring as you think! Actually, like everywhere else, they generally are, but they’re different in a rather interesting way.

My view as a Westerner is that a meeting is where a bunch of people pile into a room, hear about something someone wants to do, then shout a lot at each other until someone gets bored and the other person gets their way.

That’s not how it works in Japan.

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Photo: how meetings do not work in Japan

In Japan, there’s a system known as nemawashi. Nemawashi is a decision-making process discreetly carried out before the decision-making meeting itself. The meeting largely just approves what’s already been decided upon.

The person suggesting a new idea quietly works their way up the seniority tree, ensuring that everyone understands and will comply with the proposal before anyone steps foot in a meeting room. Even though everyone knows what the meeting outcome will be, during the meeting all the appropriate questions get asked, and all the correct and already-known answers are supplied. With the ritual complete, the decision can be approved.

So, why have the meeting at all? Well, the decision makers still need to be formally presented with the idea, and everyone needs to be on board. Having unexpected and severe opposition to an idea in the meeting itself would destroy the wa (harmony). Rejected ideas can be quietly discarded as they find resistance during the nemawashi process with no loss of face.

I’ve seen nemawashi first hand, too. In a large teleconference, there was the opportunity to ask questions. Phone muted, one of the junior staff members declared “I’m going to ask them if we can do x”. No sooner than he had pressed the unmute button, his superior snapped his hand out to mute the call again. He hissed “You want to ask about x!? We haven’t even discussed x with them yet! You’re forgetting nemawashi!”.

This makes decision making a fairly slow, but harmonious process. I make it sound like there’s a black and white divide between Western and Japanese meetings, but naturally, that’s not true. There are Japanese meetings that exchange untested ideas and are a bit lively.  Likewise, I’m sure you’ve sought out people’s opinions before a meeting, making sure your thinking is straight before you presented it to a larger audience. Now you’ve just got a word for it – nemawashi.

discreetly

The only word of French they knew was petite

Hmm, not much around the hotel in Nara for breakfast – might duck into the cheap-but-filling family restaurant next door (Japanese: fami-resu) to get some grub (Japanese: food).

Hmm, this french toast looks okay – it seems like a nice serving size , but is suspiciously cheap:

And then:

Very sneaky, graphic designer and photographer.  Apparently, I mistranslated the bit which said: “French Toast (scale: 1:2)”.  If I had known I was ordering a hobby kit rather than breakfast, I would have brought along my PVA glue.

1000 Bar Mitzvahs

My little brother (who’s taller than me) was in town a while back, so we decided to go out and find some tradition outside of the neon jungle of Tokyo.  We settled on Nara, which is a forty minute train ride from Kyoto.  Nara is like Kyoto, focusing on history, but is a little more low-key and very slightly less touristy than its bigger neighbour.

What’s amazing is that this year, Nara is celebrating their 1300th anniversary, complete with a special commemorative Kirin beer to celebrate (the coloured band along the bottom is the special edition part):

It’s mainly famous for impressive places like this and the ant-like people who visit them:

This is Todai Temple, the largest wooden building in the world.  It’s difficult to fathom the scale when you’re standing in front of it. It’s build to house this massive statue of the Buddha, one of the biggest in Japan:

How’s this for some history?  The temple was built in 752 AD.  In 855, the Buddha’s head fell off after an earthquake.  Shortly after they fixed it, the whole building was burned down in a war.  Then they rebuilt it.  Then it got burned down again in another war in 1180.  They they rebuilt it.  Then in 1567, it got burned out in another war.  Then they rebuilt it.  In 1610 it collapsed in gale-force winds.  Since 1709, the current building has endured.

For a life of 1258 years, I guess that’s a pretty good track record, but I can’t help but think of another famous building:

His Super Commuter Power is over one million!

The trains in Tokyo are crowded.  Can’t-move-your-arms-to-scratch-your-nose crowded.  Ride in Tokyo rush hour, and you have the exciting chance to be part of a can of spam, seasoned with business suits and briefcases.

It would seem sane to try to ride outside of the worst of peak hour.  Thanks to a flexible workplace policy, this is what I do.  However, many Japanese offices have rigid starting times.  If you are not in the door by 9am, heaven help you.  Additionally, working overtime is highly regarded, but getting to work early… not so much.  So of course, the rational thing to do would be to step foot in the office at the stroke of 9am.

Perhaps you can see where the problem lies: waves and waves of packed trains with people aiming to arrive at the same place at the same time.  So, how do you change those super-peaks of commuters into a more even distribution across time?

Points!

Everyone loves loyalty card schemes in Japan.  Lots of restaurants and shops will give you a stamp card  to get some kind of modest freebie down the track, and happily, they don’t seek to mine your personal information like some schemes I could name (or link to).

So, someone had An Idea.  People like points, they reasoned.  If we offered points for commuters moving their travel outside the normal peak hour, could we change commuter behaviour and alleviate the worst of it?

Enter the “East-West Line Waking-Up-Early Campaign”:

Just touch your commuter pass to the glowing hexagon to rack up points:

To give you an idea of the rewards, the best case has 10 weeks of consistently travelling before 7am netting you a $35 gift card:

Anticipated result: happiness (on a spiritual level, I’m assuming):

So, how did that go, then?

Not so well, at a guess.

The machines got taken away some time ago, never to be seen again.  By most accounts, peak hour is still unbearable as ever.

Nice try, behavioural economists, but it seems you’re going to have to work a little harder to manipulate the citizenry.  Still, why people need to be manipulated to avoid getting treated in a way that would make cattle stand up and complain is a mystery.

No candy until you finish your booze

We’ve all enjoyed or made fun of wine in a box, but have you ever seen its more petite Japanese cousin?

Yes, these cheap and possibly nasty boxes of booze come in the same form as juices for kids.  Of course, that includes a straw.  The perfect size for lunchboxes, and compact enough to still leave room for loose cigarettes for contraband deals in the playground.

Just for the record, these wouldn’t be sold to kids, but obviously I’m not the only one who finds this mis-mash of adult drinks in kid-size portions disorienting.  The purple label beneath the shelf warns “THIS IS ALCOHOL”, suggesting this has caused problems in the past.

Stormy with a chance of swears

“But… it’s Arashi! How could you not know Arashi!”

This is the likely response in Japan if you make the grave mistake of not knowing who Arashi (tr: storm) are.  They are by far and away the boy band with the most momentum in Japan, and there are plenty vying for that mantle.  In Japan, they’re bigger than the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and Take That put together at their respective peaks.  Incidentally, feel free to replace my examples with bands that are actually popular now.  What I’d like you to take away is that they’re really quite big.

To only call them a boy band really wouldn’t be doing them justice, though.  “Pop culture factory” would perhaps be more fitting.  As well as putting out music, each of the band members are also capable actors, doing various solo projects.  Most likely to be familiar to Westerners is Nino (in the purple below), who appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima as one of the main Japanese soldiers.  So, you can think of Arashi as ‘N Sync where every member is Justin Timberlake.

As well as singing and acting, the group pimps out just about every product under the sun, from beer to ecologically-friendly appliances to tissues to women’s beauty products.  Their latest pitch has been for Wii Party (recommended, by the way).

With all their acquired loot, their prodigious output suggests they’ve bought an extra day in the week.  Along with all of the above, they also have a weekly TV show called Arashi Shiagare (which I’m going to take a stab at translating as “Let’s do it, Arashi!”). Every week the group tries their hand at a new skill as instructed by a visiting expert.  A few weeks ago was attempting to beat the world record for table cloths whipped out from under a place setting, and before that, sumo wrestling.

Their universal appeal is that they’re squeaky-clean-cut.  Everyone from the kids to grandma can enjoy the non-offensive, clean fun of it all.

So imagine the shock of the admittedly few foreigners watching the nationally-broadcast Arashi Shiagare a few weeks ago:

Vulgarity aside, we have to at least entertain the high likelihood that it’s an accurate t-shirt.

Drunk in space

This is the water cooler at my work.  The label reads:

“Daiohs ‘Pure Water’ is produced by the reverse osmosis process, the same technology used by NASA of the United States.  You will enjoy the clear taste as chilled water, or as hot water for coffee and tea.”

There’s two things I like about this label:

1. There’s something charming about “NASA of the United States”.
2. I’m fascinated by marketing that uses loose associations to build respect.  You have to admit that attempting to connect your filtered water to NASA is a lot punchier than “We use the reverse osmosis system: the same as everyone else.”

I one day hope to see: “Eat cheese, as infallibly consumed by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI”.