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.

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.


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?


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.

A most orderly bedlam

Everything they say about Tokyo is true.  Well, true in terms of the rail system being brilliant, at least.  During peak hour, trains arrive every two minutes.  The longest time I can remember waiting for a train Tokyo is about seven minutes.  After about three minutes, I was tapping my foot with impatience.

As well as being frequent, the trains run with military precision.  In peak hour, you walk up to the platform, and the electronic signboard announces that the next train will arrive at 8:27am.  Precisely as the clock ticks over to the appointed minute, the train appears from around the bend without fail, as if it had just materialized, summoned by the signboard itself.

Except for that one time in one hundred when it doesn’t.  I commute on one of the bigger train lines in Tokyo, and any fault on the line creates absolute commuter havoc.

There are a few different causes for this, usually.  Strong winds.  A freakishly large amount of snow.  Someone deciding to avail themselves of the rail system to end their life: interestingly, while the status message in Japanese flashing on the station screens shows it was due to a suicide, the English version shows something nice and euphemistic, like “personal injury”.

You know there’s been a problem on the line when you get to the station and there are about one thousand people anxiously mingling in front of it.

Because the trains are so freakishly precise and everyone is expected to be in the office at 9am on the dot, everyone immediately whips out their mobile phones and start calling and emailing bosses and co-workers that it’s terribly unfortunate and unforgivable, but they could possibly be up to TEN minutes late.

Actually, on the morning of this particular incident, the trains turned out to more like two HOURS late.  People who were desperate to get to work took the scenic route on buses.  With no buses to fall back on (that I knew of), I went home to monitor the situation on the Internet.

One thing doesn’t vary, though, whether the train is on time or late: prepare for some train moshing on your daily commute.

On the fast track to the exit ramp

As far as I know, a window seat is an undisputed perk in a Western workplace.  Not only do you get to admire the gleam of your perfectly polished wingtips, but you also get to observe the passage of  time as the sun gracefully wends from bright morning light, filled with the potential of a new day, to the satisfying, warm glow of a sunset signaling the winding down of a day full of achievement.

Window-less, lesser employees, however, must desperately try to photosynthesise energy beneath soulless, white fluorescent lighting, unaware of the passage of each of the days that they remain trapped in a battleship-grey, cubicle hellhole ergonomically designed to wring the last drop of their creativity and will to live.

So, windows are nice.

Or so I thought until last week.

I discovered that in Japan, a window seat is a bad thing.  It’s a signal, a warning indicating that you’re on the way out.  If you’re lazy on the job or are just over the hill, and find yourself moved to a window seat, management is trying to tell you, “Really, it’s going to be more productive for all of us if you just sit there all day and watch the clouds passing by.  When you get tired of that, well, you know where the door is.”

And to think that when I got my window seat, I thought it was all going so well. Luckily, as of today, someone put a cubicle wall between my desk and the window, Office Space style.  With these kinds of mixed messages, I’m not sure what to think.

So, to summarise, if you can see this from your desk in a Japanese work place:

Trees, rivers and ducks (respectively).

…start polishing off your resume.