Saturday, August 22, 2009

What’s the point? Electronic Money and Point Systems in Japan

This blog post has been written in response to a request for tips on how to live frugally in Japan. Those of you who don’t live in Japan may wish to skip the “What you can do” sections.

When I was a wee boy, I was given a wallet as a present. It was my first wallet and I immediately wanted to fill it up so I could feel more grown up. I received about 10 pounds a week for delivering newspapers and that went inside. Any pocket money I was given also went in. There was one thing that bugged me though. Since I had no credit cards or cash cards, I had nothing to put in the slots dedicated to them. I remember that I was delighted when I was given a library card and put that in.

Oh, how times have changed. I now have the opposite problem. I have so many cards that my wallet is full to bursting and I have another card holder just for containing the overflow. I’m sure that many people experience this problem but in Japan, it’s even worse and I’ll explain why.

Those of you in Japan may not realise this but the price of goods that you see in shops isn’t the lowest price that you can pay for them. Just about everyone in Japan is participating in a game that allows you to pay less. Welcome to the Japanese world of loyalty cards.

In Japan, loyalty cards are often called point cards. If you’ve seriously looked into mileage cards for airlines, you won’t be surprised to hear that this is an insanely complicated subject. Japanese magazines frequently publish articles explaining which point cards offer the best value and how they work. Loyalty systems such as these also tie in with credit cards, mileage cards, electronic money* (see explanation below) and public transport commuter cards like Suica and Pasmo. The magazine Nikkei Trendy has a 47 page extravaganza in the edition that is out right now.

What you can do: the basics

The easiest thing you can do is get yourself something to hold a large number of credit cards and start filling it up with loyalty cards for every shop you go to. I was very concerned with spam when I started doing this because in order to get these cards, you often have to fill out a form giving your address and phone number. I’m happy to report that I’ve never been called by marketing teams. We get a lot of spam mail in the post, but I think that the vast majority of this is for local services and everyone in the building gets it. What I often do when filling out applications for point cards is to pretend I don’t have an email address and I miss out a crucial part of the postal address, like my apartment number.

Whenever you go shopping and make a purchase, hand over your loyalty card and get the points. Usually points are accepted in lieu of cash when making your next purchase. A few days ago at the supermarket, I didn’t want to mess around with small change, so I paid 4000 yen in cash and paid the rest using my points.

Point cards have alliances like airlines do with mileage cards. So you only need one card for many shops. One of the biggest, that you see all over the place, is the T-point system started by Tsutaya, the video rental store. There are a large number of shops in this alliance. Some of them only allow you to collect points (貯める) and some of them allow you to pay with points too (使う). You can use T-points to pay for things and you can also exchange them back and forth (交換できる) with other point systems like mileage at ANA.

What you can do: becoming a point ninja

If you really want to go to town with points, the best thing to do is pick up a magazine where the writers have done the research for you. Nikkei Trendy has published quite a few articles and probably contains the most detail.

The trick is to combine points with credit cards, electronic money and public transport cards. Credit card companies will often team up with point systems and offer deals to make their cards more attractive. Beware though. These deal sweeteners are usually combined with more punitive interest rates so don’t get one of these credit cards if you’re not planning on paying the bill in full every month. If you can pay in full, you have nothing to worry about and it won’t cost you anything.

There are three circumstances where you can collect points:
  1. When you charge your electronic money card or public transport card using your credit card.
  2. When you purchase items
  3. When you ride the train or bus
Ideally, you want to cover all three bases. Here are some tips:
  • When you charge your Suica/Pasmo, don’t use cash at the machine. Instead, set up auto-recharge, which will bill your credit card and refill the balance on your card when it drops below a certain level. You get points for every recharge. You can use these points to pay for subsequent charges of your Suica.
  • Don’t buy stuff directly from Amazon or Rakuten or other online retailers. Instead, access these stores through a points mall, which will multiply the number of points you receive. In some cases by up to 17 times:
    Oki Doki ランド






    and many others..
    Only the first three can be used to access and those three all let you exchange the points for JAL air miles. 
  • Don’t pay for stuff with cash in convenience stores. You could use your credit card, but the quickest way is electronic money. Each chain of convenience stores supports a different player in the electronic money space:
Edy: the dominant player, supported at all convenience stores
Waon: the new kid on the block, supported at Family Mart and Ministop. Growing rapidly.
Nanaco: Seven Eleven
Suica/Pasmo: Most stores
  • If you haven’t done so already, set up air miles accounts with an airline in each of the three global alliances. That way, whenever you fly, no matter which airline you use, you collect air miles using the relevant account. If you’re living in Japan, at least one of these air miles accounts should be JAL or ANA. JAL are part of the One World alliance and ANA are part of Star Alliance. There are credit cards connected to both JAL and ANA. Get one or both and get air miles each time you use it. You can also transfer points from other schemes to air miles.
Those are some general tips and avenues of investigation. Here’s what I’ve done:
  • I already had an air miles account with BMI, who are part of Star Alliance. I therefore chose JAL instead of ANA. I got this credit card (the one on the left), which credits my JAL air miles account with air miles every time I use it. I also get miles when I use it to recharge my electronic money cards.
  • The credit card I bought comes with a WAON card. Every time I use it at the convenience store, I get 15 miles. If I use other electronic money cards, like Edy, I get 10 miles.
  • I have applied for the Tokyo Metro To Me Credit Card that offers an auto-recharge facility for PASMO. Every time it auto-recharges, every time I use it to ride public transport and every time I buy a new commuter pass, I get points. These points can be used to make subsequent purchases. You can also exchange these points for ANA air miles.
  • I live on a subway line where I have to use PASMO to get my commuter pass, I can’t use SUICA. SUICA is generally far better than PASMO with wider acceptance and better deals on credit cards and points. This card gets good reviews, although it is JCB, which is useless abroad.
  • I plan to also apply for an Edy card for the convenience stores that don’t accept WAON. I’m just trying to figure out the best one. A list of the different options is here.
Hopefully the above will give you some ideas if you’re a permanent resident of Japan. There are so many different options and I’m not sure if I have the best combination.

Why are loyalty systems so huge in Japan? Are they good for the economy?

I’m sure that the reaction of many readers will be, “What a hassle, I couldn’t be bothered with that”. It’s different here though - diligence is definitely a Japanese character trait. Of course, there are lazy Japanese people, but I’d say the majority always carefully do their duties and chores. Public facilities are always clean and efficient because of this quality.

It’s easy to see how point systems appeal in Japan. Effort and diligence are rewarded. It’s as simple as that. I try explaining to people that companies budget for these loyalty schemes by raising the basic price level to accommodate the discounts. If they didn’t bother, we could all pay less and save time too. Despite these attempts, the general attitude is that getting the best deal is a game and that point schemes make this interesting. It’s all very popular.

I’ve been wondering recently about the effect that the point systems have on the Japanese economy. As long as loyalty schemes are small scale and cover individual companies as they generally do in the west, I’m sure the effect is small. However, when you have enormous schemes like T-point, whose participating companies must account for an enormous amount of revenue in total, the effect may be much larger. How do you measure inflation when people are paying prices that are lower than those reported by the companies? Japan’s deflationary problem is well documented. Could it actually be worse than reports suggest due to points systems? Maybe I’m taking things too far but I really can’t emphasize how huge this is.

* Electronic money (電子マネー) is the Japanese term for IC chips inserted into cards and mobile phones, allowing you to tap contact areas and have the money taken from the chip wirelessly. In most other countries, this technology is restricted to public transport cards like Oyster in London and Octopus in Hong Kong. In Japan, the equivalents in Tokyo are called SUICA, for Japan Rail and PASMO, for the metro. These are now integrated so you can use either anywhere and you can use them on the bus too. There are lots of other equivalent cards in different areas of Japan like ICOCA and PiTaPa in the Kansai area and Kitaca and SAPICA in Hokkaido. Public transport isn’t the only area where you can use electronic money, you can take your SUICA card and use it in shops and with vending machines too. There are also other electronic money service vendors, like Edy, who offer the same service, but you can’t use these cards on public transport.

Photographs taken by (in order of appearance)

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Eternal Boy Band

Imagine, if you will, the boy bands that were popular in the early 90s. For those of you in the UK, that would probably be Take That. For those of you in the US, perhaps New Kids on the Block? Backstreet Boys? For those of you elsewhere, I have no idea.

Now imagine that these bands are still popular now, making music on a regular basis.

I know. The horror.

Don’t stop there though. Imagine further that members of the band star in dramas on TV every year. Imagine that they turn up as the lead actor in many movies too. Imagine that the band has its own variety show on TV every week that lasts for several hours, where they cook dinner for Hollywood celebrities, do comedy sketches and perform their music. Imagine that now, after almost 20 years, a double chinned and slightly portly Gary Barlow or New Kid is on countless billboards and television advertisements.

Nooooooooooooooooo! Pleeeeeaaase!

In Japan, this is a reality. Allow me to introduce, if you haven’t heard of them already, the band called SMAP.

Masahiro Nakai, Takuya Kimura, Shingo Katori, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Goro Inagaki

In typical Japanese English that makes little sense, SMAP stands for “Sports Music Assemble People”. The group consists of five members, each of whom Japanese people know very well. As I’ve discussed previously, social rank is very important in Japan and your age is a big part of determining this. Therefore, it is interesting that most Japanese people know the age ordering of the members and they definitely know which SMAP member is the oldest and which is the youngest. The eldest is Masahiro Nakai, who is the leader and is 36! (Incidentally, he is absolutely terrible at singing. Simon Cowell would destroy this man.) The youngest is Shingo Katori, 32, who is the clown of the group.

By far and away the most popular member is Takuya Kimura, or Kimutaku for short. When I studied Japanese in a language school in Tokyo, all of the female students from the Asia region (and some from outside Asia) loved this guy. He is Japan’s Brad Pitt. Disgustingly talented: he acts well, sings reasonably well, plays sports well and generally does everything pretty well.

SMAP are making waves again with a new series of advertisements and commercials for mobile phone network operator Softbank. Softbank bought Vodafone Japan a few years ago and are the smallest of the three main operators in Japan. They have been launching a number of very aggressive advertising and marketing campaigns in the last few years. Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt have featured in many of their television commercials but now they’ve brought out the big guns: SMAP.

On the 1st of August, at 18:59, a television commercial lasting an incredible 60 seconds, unusually featuring the entire group, was broadcast simultaneously on 124 channels to the whole of Japan. The blog Naked Tokyo commented, “Pass the crackpipe”. Here it is:

I shudder to think of how much that cost Softbank. Let’s hope that they’re not leveraging themselves too hard with all of this marketing. So how can a boy band be so popular for such a long time? I think there are three important factors.

One is that Japanese pop stars tend to age well. Takuya Kimura still looks like he’s in his 20s to me. The other more important factor is the working culture. Japanese workers traditionally have the same job for life. The entertainment industry is influenced by this and there are many comedians and performers who have been in the business for a LONG time.

A good example is the comedian Tamori, who is 63 and appears on television every day on live variety programs. Due to a problem with one of  his eyes, he always wears sunglasses and they have become his trademark. Hilariously, he has even worn them when he has appeared in samurai dramas, set in times when sunglasses didn’t exist. Legend has it that he hasn’t taken a substantial holiday since 1984! He’s really entertaining to watch and like all Japanese comedians, comes across as a really nice guy.

The third factor is the company that holds SMAP and all idol groups on a leash: Johnny & Associates. Johnny Kitagawa and his talent agency recruits and trains male idols in Japan. They have enormous power in the entertainment industry due to their monopolization of male talent for the last 40 years. If you want male performers to appear on your show, you need to go through Johnny, who owns all of them. It’s obvious that SMAP are still a huge money spinner for Johnny and I reckon that his company drives them to continue working hard, despite the fact that any of them could retire right now. I know that if I had their money, and I was working as hard as they do, I would.

Johnny and Associates has been mired in controversy for a long time. In the 90s, a book was published by a male idol accusing Johnny of sexually abusing the young boys that he recruits. Subsequent to that, about a dozen other idols came forward to one newspaper, Shukan Bunshun, and on condition of anonymity contributed to a 10 part series detailing more accusations of abuse. Johnny sued the newspaper for libel and in 2002 won the case and was awarded 8.8 million yen (a relatively small amount). No other newspaper or media agency joined Shukan Bunshun in accusation. As one entertainment reporter put it in a New York times article:

"If you're a television station and you don't comply with Johnny's Jimusho's wishes then all the popular stars will be withdrawn from your programs, your variety shows will not get any interviews with celebrities, and your ratings will plummet," said Masaru Nashimoto, an entertainment reporter. "The same thing goes for publications," he added.
Despite these upsetting stories, and my joking earlier, I must give credit where it’s due and admit that SMAP are entertaining. I must confess to watching many of their TV programs and not switching the channel when I could. They do have personalities that make you watch.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

More Difficulties in Claiming Overtime

In a previous post, I wrote about the work ethic in Japan and how it can be difficult to go home early and take holiday. Today, I’ve made some surprising discoveries about how my company operates.

Every month, I fill out an overtime sheet, writing down the hours that I’ve worked each day. Today, my boss came over and asked me what I was doing in the second week of last month. My overtime sheet stated that I had worked extra hours during those days. I told him that I had no idea and that I couldn’t remember. When I leave the office, I make a note of the time I leave. I don’t make a note of what I’m doing.

It turns out that my boss has been filling out his own excel spreadsheet for the past year that I have been working with him. For every day that I claim overtime, he has to write the reason why I’m working overtime. Every manager in the company has to do this. I couldn’t believe it, he’s been doing this for a year, and this is the first that I know about it! No wonder he gave me a funny look the first time I handed in my overtime sheet. Compared to other people who work the same hours as me or longer, I think I must be claiming much more.

On first inspection, there might be an argument that this is a good thing. If managers are told to report the reason for overtime, they might encourage their workers to go home when there’s nothing to report, and think carefully about why their workers are still in the office.

In reality, managers are just going to pass this responsibility on to the workers. This has happened to me. Every day, I’m going to write down exactly why I’m still in the office. I think that my colleagues, and the typical Japanese worker, will find it more difficult to claim overtime if they have to say why every time. If they’re still in the office simply because their boss hasn’t gone home yet, they definitely won’t claim. They will also worry about their manager coming over and saying, “Why were you here until 10pm working on this? Why didn’t you finish earlier?”

If Japan is going to address the working hours issue, the first thing that must be done is to face up to the facts. Working hours should be logged impartially by a third party. Making a worker log them himself/herself is bad enough. Making the workers write down why is even worse.

(Photo taken by inoc)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Applause for the New Employee

I've posted before on how hard Japanese people work, and how you find yourself in an environment where you are encouraged and supported to do so. It all starts on the first day, when you are fully indoctrinated into the company...

As you can imagine, I was quite nervous on my first day at this company last year. It started with a private chat with one of the more senior members of the company. He and I sat opposite each other in the middle of one of the large meeting rooms. It was the first time that my company had hired a westerner and he was very curious about me. He asked me all of the questions that I had already answered at the interviews – “Why did you come to Japan?”, “Why did you apply to this company?” etc. I must have given some good answers because he has been very friendly to me ever since. Whenever he passes my area of the office, he comes by and asks me how it’s going, how I am, and says “Gambatte!” with a big grin and slaps me on the shoulders.

After this informal chat, I was given a tour of the office and introduced to each department. Two new employees joined today and the same thing happened to them. A member of HR guides you round and introduces each department and its boss. Everyone in that department will stop what they are doing, stand up straight and face the new employee. The new employee then says, “My name is …. I have been recruited to the …. department. Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu.” He then bows and everyone bows in response.

I hadn’t anticipated the tour, but when it happened it was similar to normal introductions in Japan; a bow instead of a handshake and a few standard words and phrases. What I hadn’t anticipated, was the applause that followed! I found it flattering and embarrassing. In my arrogance, I suspected that it might be due to my nationality. I immediately said thank you and put up my hands to petition them to stop! I have since discovered, after the arrival of many new employees, that it had nothing to do with my nationality. Everyone gets applause and this happened today too. I should have just smiled and accepted the welcome.

After the tour of the departments, I was taken into the palatial section of the office that houses the executives. There are five executives in the company and their offices occupy the same floor space as 100 normal workers. They enjoy a lot of privileges and exercise complete and absolute control over the company. Almost nothing is done without their approval or design. The conversations that I had with each of them went well since I knew what they wanted to hear. Every employee I met that day wanted to hear the same thing: an introduction and a promise to work very hard for the company. They wanted to hear that I would join the team and be part of the collective.

Friday, July 10, 2009

手締め Tejime

At the end of the nomikai in my last post, the evening was brought to a close with an activity called tejime. The Japanese encyclopedia describes tejime as a celebratory rhythmic clapping of hands that is done to mark the successful closing of an event.

I first came to Japan in 2003. I’ve spent a lot of time visiting and I studied in Tokyo for a year and a half. However, it wasn’t until I started doing business in Japan last year when I encountered the tejime. You can imagine my bafflement as everyone around me commenced the ritual. Take a look:

This example shows the tejime closing the end of a festival in Japan. It can happen after various events such as weddings, business parties and of course, company nights out.

I was confused though. The tejime seemed to have several different forms and different names. This is Japan; there must be rules for these things. So I asked my colleagues and even they weren’t too sure. We found this site though, which cleared things up.

The tejime usually starts with a small speech, where the leader thanks everyone for coming and says the appropriate words. He is then supposed to say the following:

「それでは皆さん、お手を拝借」 Everyone, please ready your hands.

He then says, “Yoh~ !”, which you can see in the video, and everyone claps a certain rhythm. There are a few of these rhythms though.

We’ll start with 三本締め(“Sanbonjime”). This is what you saw in the video above. The rhythm is like this:

and those two bars are repeated three times.

The next is 一本締め(“Ipponjime”). For those of you who can’t read Japanese, you may still notice that the only difference is that 三 has turned into 一. Sure enough, instead of doing the above rhythm three times, you only do it once.

Some of you who live in Japan may be thinking, “Hang on, I’ve done this before, and we did one where we only clap once”. It’s name is 一丁締め(“Iccho-jime”). However, in the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo, it is also called Ipponjime. This leads to some confusion for people like the author of the website I linked to. He has been left on his own when everyone else claps once and he continues the rhythm. In order to avoid the confusion, it can also be called Kanto Ipponjime. Here it is:

The pattern of Ipponjime is 3, 3, 3, 1. The set of threes add up to 9. The number nine has the following character: 九. If you add one more pen stroke (or clap), you get 丸, which is the character for a circle. Therefore, clapping ten times like this is supposed to form a circle and complete the harmony.

九 ⇒ 丸

How do you tell which pattern is appropriate? My colleagues didn’t know the answer to this. The website states that Ipponjime is the standard and this means that everyone is thankful and pays their respects. Doing this three times for Sanbonjime simply means that these feelings are tripled! Sanbonjime is therefore used on those extra special occasions where people want to celebrate the most. The Iccho-jime is perhaps the most frequent in Tokyo and is the least formal.

Incidentally, for those studying Japanese, the “Yoh~” that you always here before the clapping was originally 祝おう, meaning “Let us celebrate”.

I really like this little ritual and it’s easy to see it’s appeal. It’s comforting to know that the event is officially over and there’s no milling around with people saying, “OK, I’ll take off now”, and people leaving in dribs and drabs.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Doh is for DONUTS!

During my time at my present employer, I have of course been drinking with my colleagues on quite a few occasions. It’s always fun and we have a laugh. Last Tuesday was different...

With the arrival of the hot weather in Japan, the office has gone into “cool biz” mode. The temperature gauge has been turned up and the ties are off. The Summer is also the time for an event called 暑気払い(“shokibarai”). This phrase literally means “to beat the heat away” and it’s an opportunity to let out all of the pent up heat and the stress of work. Tuesday was the first time that I had participated in such an event.

Just like any other nomikai, the first thing to do is to assign a person to the role of kanji (幹事). The kanji must organize everything and co-ordinate the entire event. It’s a real pain and naturally the job usually rotates between the more junior members, of which I am one. For this reason, I was surprised when my boss took the responsibility.

The first thing the kanji must do is establish the date for the event. This usually works by passing a calendar round the office. Each person takes their hanko and stamps all of the dates that they are unavailable. The calendar is passed to the highest ranking person first and it works its way down.

After that, the kanji sent the following email, which gave me an indication that this was not the usual nomikai:

営業部暑気払いの開催日が6月30日(火)に決まりましたので、 取り急ぎご連絡申し上げます。

お店は丸の内界隈のお店を予定しておりますが、追ってご連絡いた します。


This to quickly inform you that the date for the marketing department’s shokibarai has been set to the 30th of June (Tuesday). We are planning on choosing a venue in the marunouchi area.

I would like to request that each participant prepares one performance, with the exception of Mr. ___ who must prepare two (the consensus was that 1 was insufficient).

“Performance? What the *$#?”, I thought to myself. This was the first time that such a request had been made.

Next, came the following email:




日時:6月30日(火) 19時スタート


個室、カラオケ機器、ダーツ ゲーム付です。(ダーツはワンゲーム100円の課金) なお、飲み放題2時間限定(!)、でありますので、遅刻などなきよう、この日ばか りは仕事を割り切って、18時30分頃に、みんなで揃って、こっそり退社と致したく、ご協力宜しくお願いいたします。


With the Summer heat near at hand, in order to drive away the overcast and rainy skies, we are holding a party for the whole marketing department.

I would like to invite everyone, without exception, for active participation in the event.

Day/Time: June 30 (Tue) 19:00 Start

Place: Paseo, Ginza (Karaoke Izakaya)

It’s a private room, with a karaoke machine and darts. (A darts game costs 100 yen). We also have an all-you-can-drink deal for 2 hours(!) so lets all finish our work on time and be sure that we’re not late. It would be very much appreciated if we could meet at 6:30 and quietly exit the office.

Sure enough, on the day, we had the unusual pleasure of everyone finishing on time and we quietly met on the first floor of the building as instructed. The karaoke room was quite large and the seats were arranged in a U shape, with a flatscreen TV and karaoke machine at the other end. Our deputy director, who likes to drink, had been looking forward to this event for quite a while and it was reportedly his idea to go for karaoke. As soon as the first round arrived, he enthusiastically stood up and kicked the evening off with a speech and a hearty “Kampai!”.

I think this is the room we were in

We then spent two and a half hours singing and drinking a lot. We were also served a course meal, which was very good, but lacking in quantity. Obviously everyone got fairly hammered and after Japanese pop, came some Enka singing from the older participants. Once one person was finished singing, the deputy director that I mentioned earlier started a trend where the singer’s name was chanted, and people clapped in time as the individual was forced to down his/her drink. I’ve been drinking several times with my department and this was the first time that this had happened.

One peculiarity of going out in Japan is that there are some people who can’t drink. When I say “can’t drink”, I don’t mean that these people can drink less than other people, I mean that they literally can’t drink. There is one guy in our marketing department who never drinks a drop. He says that if he has one beer, it will take him out of the game for the rest of the evening. He is a legend in the office for being a really funny guy and he’s also reasonably bulky (in a good way!). You would expect him to be able to drink substantial amounts. He spent the evening drinking ginger ales and cokes and acquitted himself admirably with a few renditions of Japanese pop songs where he was hilarious in each.

Things progressed to the next level, where a new song was introduced. It goes something like this: (to the tune of “Do Re Mi” from a Sound of Music)







Doh is for DONUTS!

Reh is for Rehmon!

Mi is for Minna!

Fa is for Faito!

So is the so from Aozora!

Rehmon = Lemon, Minna = Everyone, Faito = Fight, Aozora = Blue sky

Before singing the song, the victim had several drinks lined up in front of him, with the next drink being of a smaller quantity than the previous. This made the line up look like a xylophone. Everyone sang “Doh is for DONUTS!” and the person had to down the first drink. Then everyone sings “Reh is for Remon!” and the second drink is consumed etc.

I managed to avoid that one but the non-drinker in our group wasn’t as fortunate. Instead of beers, he got a ginger ale, a coke, a bowl of salad and a mango mouse pudding.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

My signature is atrocious. Anyone who takes a moment to look at my hasty scribble will surely snicker at the childlike mess of pen strokes that are somehow supposed to suffice as evidence of my identity. I’ve tried to improve it and to craft something a little more… distinctive. Something with a bit more aesthetic appeal than the scrawl I produce. But to no avail. Even Japanese people scoff.

Luckily, in Japan, in the land where the writing is complex, where the characters are beautiful and where calligraphy is an art form, a signature is not necessary. Instead, the Japanese use a seal to stamp official documents. This seal is called an “inkan” or a “hanko”. There are many different kinds but they are all stamps that print a name in red ink on a white background.

When I started working here, I didn’t have a seal and my colleagues decided to give me one as a gift. It’s an absolutely essential piece of office equipment and I use it many times every day to stamp internal documents. For seals used in the office, Japanese people have their surname engraved in a circular seal that is about a centimeter in diameter. Japanese surnames almost always have two characters, sometimes one and rarely three. Western people have several choices when creating their own seal.

  1. Write your name in katakana and put this in the seal. Katakana is a phonetic syllabary that is used to spell out the pronunciation of foreign words. Foreigners almost always write their names in katakana. In converting to katakana, Japanese syllables must be chosen so as to approximate the original pronunciation as closely as possible. If you choose katakana for your hanko, you will probably only be able to squeeze in 3 characters on two lines. My name is アンドリュー, which is 6 characters and just fits. It is pronounced, “an-doh-ryew”.
  2. Choose kanji for your name and put this in the seal. Kanji are characters imported from China that have meaning and can have multiple pronunciations in Japanese. For example 川 is river and 木 is tree. 木 can be pronounced “ki” or “moku”. Since there are various characters for a given pronunciation, foreigners have many choices when attaching kanji to their names. My friends attached the following kanji to my name: 安藤龍. Approximate meanings are 安: tranquil, 藤: wisteria tree, 龍: dragon.
  3. Write your name normally in the alphabet and put this in the seal. I was told that you can have up to two lines with up to 6 characters on each line. My surname and first name both have six characters. Perfect.

I went for option 3 and this incurred a surprising amount of fascination from my colleagues. They had never seen a seal with English characters before. Here it is:

Hanko Stand

Hanko Stand Close-up

If you choose option 1 or 2 then you’ll also have to choose a font and style. To illustrate the choice available, I found some samples where the name 徳川 (Tokugawa) is used. Tokugawa Ieyasu is a famous character from Japanese history.

認め印/篆書体 認め印/太枠篆書 認め印/吉相体 認め印/古印体 認め印/隷書体
篆書体 太枠篆書体 吉相体 古印体 隷書体
ていしょたい ふとわくてんしょ きっそうたい こいんたい れいしょたい

If you’re like me, you’ll find some of these hard to identify with the original characters. In the office, some of my colleagues use seals with styles that are difficult to read. Documents are passed round and once you’ve read the document, you're supposed to stamp it. When I started out, it was difficult for me to tell who had read the document and who hadn’t. I therefore couldn’t work out who to pass it on to. I’m used to it now but it was a challenge. I’ll do another post in the future on how this document stamping exercise works.

Most people will have several seals. One or two for the office, one to keep at home by the door to sign for deliveries, one official version which you use for important documents and maybe more. Your official seal will be used for things like renting an apartment, buying a vehicle or getting married. The official seal is called a “jitsu-in” and these are closely regulated by law. The size, shape, design and font are all specified to be within certain limits. There is also a “ginko-in”, which is the seal used for opening a bank account.

Carving seals is an old profession in Japan and most people go to a specialist to get their jitsu-in and ginko-in. If you have a common name, then you can buy a seal to put by the door from your local miscellaneous goods store:

Hanko Stand  
Hanko Stand Close-up

These days, seals can also be ordered online but a specialist will be able to design something unique to you. This provides security, especially important with the bank seal. It’s important to keep your official seal in a safe place since it is proof of your identity. It’s easy to forge a signature but it’s easier to stamp a seal if you’ve got it to hand. In my company, the important seals are kept in a safe.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Are Spiders and Octopuses Lucky in China?

After Singapore, we flew to Hong Kong and stayed there for a couple of days. There’s something about Hong Kong that I really like. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is but it definitely has a character that I find appealing. San Francisco, Kyoto and Edinburgh are all the same.

I’m not the only one that likes Hong Kong. Paul Krugman was there at the same time, and he talks about how futuristic the place looks because the city has grown vertically rather than horizontally. (Incidentally, it appears he followed me back to Japan too. Paul, if you’re looking for advice on the economy and want to get in touch, just leave a comment below) Unlike Japan, Hong Kong is blessed with an absence of earthquakes, which allows for the construction of closely packed skyscrapers. With the dense greenery cloaking the Kowloon mountains behind, it makes for an incredible sight. (Click for full screen)

The majority of our meetings were in the loftier section of one of the skyscrapers and we had plenty of opportunities to admire the view. One of our clients joked that he has the best economic indicator right outside his window. He just monitors the number of tankers and haulers making their way in out of the bay and assesses the economic health of the region. One thing I did notice is that there are is no 4th floor in any of the skyscrapers. There’s no 24th floor either. I think that probably extends to 34, 44 and the rest. In both China and Japan, the number 4 is unlucky. The concept of “luck” is a western one and perhaps “unlucky” is a poor description. The reason for the negative association in both countries is that the number has the same pronunciation as the word for death. The character for 4 is 四. The character for death is 死. In Japanese, both words are pronounced し (shi). In order to avoid the association, the Japanese even go so far as to provide an alternative pronunciation for the number 4. You can also pronounce it よん (“yon”). The practice of excluding the 4th floor in a building is similar to that of excluding the 13th row in an aircraft. I’ve always wondered if anyone on the 5th floor gets upset. After all, if you’re on the 5th floor, you’re actually on the 4th floor and to add insult to injury, you’re being lied to.

On the opposite side of the fence, it turns out that two wrongs do make a right because when you double 4, you get 8, which is a very lucky number in both Japan and China. When I was in Hong Kong, I noticed that the number 8 appeared in a lot of advertisements, prices, signs etc. A quick search on Wikipedia, reveals the following trivia:

A telephone number with all digits being eights was sold for USD$270,723 in Chengdu, China.
A man in Hangzhou offered to sell his license plate reading A88888 for RMB 1.12 million (roughly $164,000 USD).

And I’m sure you will remember:

The opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing began on 8/8/08 at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 pm (local time)

Interestingly, the reason for the positive association with the number 8 is different in Japan and China. My friend from Hong Kong tells me, and Wikipedia confirms, that the Chinese pronunciation for 8 is similar to the pronunciation for “prosperity” and “fortune”. In Japan, the shape of the character used to represent the number is more important. The Japanese say 末広がり, which means to “broaden towards the end” and can be used to describe increasing prosperity as time goes on. The character broadens towards the bottom and represents this idea.

I wonder if things associated with the number 8, like octopuses or arachnids, inherit the association of good fortune?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


If you like puzzles and you haven’t seen my post on Singapore where I shared a puzzle that some clients gave me, please take a look and read no further!

For those of you who have already been thinking about it, here’s the solution:

There are 30 coins in front of the blind man. 18 have heads facing up, 12 have tails facing up. His aim is to separate the coins into two groups such that there is an equal number of coins with heads facing up in both groups.

The blind man takes 18 of the coins and puts them in a group to his left. He takes the remaining 12 and puts them in a group to his right. He doesn’t flip any coins over yet. The trouble is that he doesn’t know how many coins on the left have heads facing up. It could be all 18, it could be 12, and it could be a minimum of 6. What he does know is that the heads that don’t go to the left pile, must be in the right pile. So if there are 18 heads on the left, there are zero on the right. If there are 12 heads on the left, there are 6 on the right etc. To insert some letters: if there are x heads on the left, then there are 18-x heads on the right.

The blind man then flips over all the coins in the left pile. Problem solved. If there were 18 heads on the left then they all turn to tails. If there were 12 heads on the left, then those 12 turn to tails and the remaining 6 turn to heads. To use letters again, if there were x heads on the left, then after flipping all of the coins on the left, there are now 18-x heads on the left. This is the same number as the number of heads on the right.

I like puzzles and I thought that was a good ‘un. Hope you had fun thinking about it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Singapore – Storms, English and a Puzzle

I spent the past week in Hong Kong and Singapore on business and I thought I'd write a little bit about these trips.

Arriving in Singapore on the Sunday evening, I was dreading the tropical heat that I knew would greet me. Running around town attending 6 meetings every day in temperatures of up to 36 degrees is a challenge for a Scotsman. I politely suggested to my 部長 (director), that perhaps we could attend the meetings in the same fashion as our clients – with no jacket or tie. I got a firm rebuttal. Fortunately, I had made the wise decision of investing in a summer suit and short sleeved shirts in preparation for the similarly unpleasant heat during Tokyo’s summer.

I had anticipated the heat, but what I hadn’t anticipated were the tropical storms. We were in a meeting on the 15th floor of a central building when quite suddenly, the sky darkened and the heavens opened. We’re not talking about the typical Tokyo drizzle, we’re talking about seriously heavy rain crashing against the windows. Thunder and lightning then began their assault on our exposed position and interrupted my presentation. My listeners were completely unperturbed though and asked me to continue, saying that it would be over soon. Sure enough, after about an hour, the skies cleared. Talking to locals, I was told that these storms occur almost daily so I resolved to carry around an umbrella for the remaining two days. Of course, carrying the umbrella with my heavy bag full of presentation material ensured that the rain didn’t return.

Singapore is slowly becoming the dominant financial centre in Asia and it becomes quickly obvious that one of the main reasons for this is the prevalence of English. Although the vast majority of the population is of Chinese, Malay or Indian descent, English is the official language and is spoken by everyone. If you get in a taxi in Singapore, you can have a good conversation with the driver. If you get in a taxi in Japan or Hong Kong, you end up stabbing a map with your finger. The street signs look identical to those in the States, with white writing on a green background. It’s no wonder that so many American firms choose to set up their Asian hub in Singapore.

Singapore is similar to Japan in quite a few ways. There’s no tipping and you get great service. Everyone smiles, talks to you politely and calls you sir. It felt very safe too.

On the last evening, we were having some drinks with clients and one of them gave me a puzzle. I love puzzles and this is a good one. It took me about 20 minutes to figure it out. Continuing with the theme of Michael’s post last month, I thought I’d share it with you.

A blind man has 30 coins in front of him on a table. 18 of those coins have heads facing up. The remaining 12 have tails facing up. The blind man has to separate the coins into two groups such that the number of heads facing up is the same in both groups. How does he do it?

I can tell you that there are no trick answers to this puzzle. The coins are all perfectly smooth so the blind man can’t feel the pattern of heads or tails using his fingers. Balancing the coins on their edges doesn’t solve the problem either. It’s pretty straight forward when you’ve got the answer but figuring it out takes time.

Answers in the comments or by email!

Monday, May 11, 2009


You don't tip in Japan. Despite this, I wouldn't be surprised if it's the best service in the world. I've heard a few stories of foreigners who leave a tip on the restaurant table and the owner comes running down the street to give it back to them. 

This story takes the cake though.

At the weekend, we went to the supermarket and picked up a few things. One of them was a small pizza that cost around 200 yen. We got a call today from the supermarket telling us that they'd overcharged us by 30 yen. 30 yen is about 20 pence or 30 cents. They apologized profusely and wanted to come to our apartment to give us the money. Of course, we told them not to bother but they insisted on putting it aside at the shop and told us to give our name and pick it up the next time we're there.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Elevator Etiquette

There are many unwritten rules of behaviour in any culture and Japan probably has more than most. Something that you've got to be mindful of is your rank compared to those around you. The surest indicator of where you are is your age. When meeting new people, you'll find that one of the first things they want to know about you is how old you are. You might consider this impolite, especially if you're female, but it's important for Japanese people to know whether you rank above them or below them. The language they use with you and the way they treat you will change significantly depending on this.

You might be thinking: "Yeah, it's better not to swear in front of your elders" or "That's true, I speak more casually with people my own age". It's much more than this though. In Japanese, every single verb, the terms of address and the sentence structure in general will change drastically based on the difference of a few years. It's not just age that can determine your social rank: being a teacher or being a guest will also raise your status.

When in the company of those above you, it's not just your language that has to change. In many social situations there are proper procedures that should be followed. One of these concerns the proper conduct in that cramped and awkward space: the elevator.

Luckily, a quick search on google reveals a website explaining it all. It starts by showing a comic strip, illustrating the problem:
In Japan, comic strips start in the top right and finish in the bottom left. The company director is about to get on the elevator, when all of a sudden, the young and overly keen worker shouts, "Wait!" and charges onto the elevator, bowling him over.
Tsk Tsk. Kids these days. No doubt she's part of the graduate intake.
Needless to say, this is not the proper etiquette.
Never fear though. A kindly old man is ready to explain things to the troubled young lady.

"Since there are already people on the elevator, you should let your seniors get on first, and you should get on last. If you're a new employee, you should stand next to the controls."

"Ah, I see. What should I do if there weren't people already on the elevator?"

"You should hold the door open, say "dozo", and allow your seniors to enter the elevator. It's then best if you stand next to the controls and operate the "close" and "open" buttons appropriately. You should try to avoid turning your back towards the people in the elevator. Instead, try to turn your back towards the wall."

Ahh. Don't you feel comforted now that you know exactly what you're supposed to do?

Hold-your-hand guidance like this is quite common. I've seen it a lot. Using one's own initiative isn't a typical trait of the Japanese worker. They like to be told exactly what's appropriate.
In general, whether it be an elevator, a meeting room, or a private room at a restaurant, the further towards the back you are, the higher your status. Yakuza bosses are always as far away from the door as possible - it's the safest place.
In the case of the elevator, the proper positioning depending on your social rank can be seen here: The door is on the right and the controls are at the bottom right. The highest ranking person goes in position 1 and the lowest ranking person goes in position 9. The rest arrange themselves as shown.
A few shops employ people to stand at the controls of the elevators and operate them for customers. I remember that one of the most famous bookshops in Tokyo, 紀伊国屋, has a particularly cramped elevator and a lady squeezes herself right up against the control panel, taking customers up and down all day. The trip is punctuated by her commentary: "going up", "going down", "this is the third floor", "please be careful, I'm closing the doors" etc. It would drive me mad to have a job like that.

I may do another post at some point on the proper positioning for when you're in a business meeting in Japan. Could be useful for those of you who come on business trips.

[If you are receiving this post via email, click on "Deep Japan Report" below in order to leave comments and view previous posts.]

Monday, April 13, 2009

Takeaway Dinners and the Low Crime Rate in Japan

Takeaway dinners. Busy work schedules demand them but my wallet and my palette usually aren’t that keen. I’m guilty of ordering a pizza once every couple of weeks when I get home late and I’m on my own. It comes from a nearby restaurant that is quite famous in the area. When the pizza comes fresh out of the clay oven that they have, the dough is crispy on the outside and soft in the middle and it tastes very nice indeed. By the time it gets to my door, it’s a different story. The juice from the tomatoes has completely permeated the centre of the pizza, making the pointed end of a slice pretty floppy. Still good but probably not worth the money.

In Japan, the takeaway selection isn’t the same as the Indian, Chinese and Fish-and-chippy deep-fry-fest that I get back home. Pizza is a common option but I think that’s where it ends. I had sushi once, but I’m never that keen on something cold for dinner. Last month I ordered Chinese noodles. When I opened the door, the delivery guy said a cheery greeting then plonked the bowl of noodles on the floor, got out his kettle and poured the soup in front of me. That way the noodles don't go squishy while he's making the delivery.

Last night, there was the rare occasion of both of us being too busy and deciding to get a takeaway together. This time, we went for something different. I had the menu shoved in front of me while I was on the phone and after a cursory glance, I jabbed my finger at the bowl of rice with teriyaki chicken in it. I didn’t realize that it also came with a soup that you can pour into the chicken rice if you wish. I open the door and the chap is carrying this:

A tray full of food and a kettle. He hands me the (rather heavy) tray and I stand there, wondering if he’s going to pour some of the soup like the Chinese noodle guy. He stands there holding the kettle and doesn't do anything so I ask him,

“What am I supposed to do with that?”

“You pour it in”, he tells me.


“Then what?”

“Then you eat it.”

OK. Poor communication skills from me here. It was a late night. I was perplexed by the fact that he appeared to be offering me a decent looking kettle. Not only that, the chicken rice was contained in some very nice wooden steam pots. Didn’t he know that pizza places get away with cardboard boxes? How much was he going to charge me? Did he want me to pour the soup and then give him back the kettle? If so, what about these pots? All of these questions were bouncing around my fuzzy brain and I was trying to work out which of them I should ask first.

Luckily, my better half appeared at this point. She began carrying all of it into the house, allowing me to pay the guy, and then said something to him that made the penny drop:

“When we’re finished with this, where should we leave it?”

“There’s a shelf next to the entrance to the car park. Please put it there.”

After you’ve finished eating your meal, you leave all of the pots and pans outside and they come and pick it up the next morning.

There is no doubt in my mind that had I left this stuff on the street in some of the neighbourhoods that I’ve previously lived in, it would have been gone in short order. Japan has such a low crime rate that businesses can operate this way.

If you’re wondering about the interior of those pots, take a look.

Chicken Teriyaki rice for me. Eel for her. Both on a bed of rice.

In addition to the chicken rice mixture, there are also three containers of nori, wasabi and spring onions. There are also pickles to give some flavour to the rice. You put some of the chicken rice in the bowl next to the kettle, add some nori or wasabi or whatever you like, then add some soup. Quite tasty. You can of course mix and match as you please.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Thoughts on the work ethic in Japan

My friend Michael writes a great article on the work-life balance problem in Japan. According to the article, Michael is about to graduate and is understandably quite concerned about whether he’ll be able to achieve a good balance if he starts working in Japan. I’ve been working for a few years now and I’m just about to finish my first year in Japan. I thought I’d write a little bit about my take on the subject.

Why this is an issue

More than anything else, the Japanese work ethic has been the hardest thing for me to adjust to in Japan. This is not just in relation to my job and career but also in relation to the working habits of my loved ones and friends in Japan. The following examples may shock some of you but they will hopefully illustrate why I find myself getting angry with the whole situation.

  • I met one of my friends recently who works for the government and serves politicians. He currently works on preparing answers that the politicians will have to give to questions posed to them. He says that, on average, he goes home at 4:30am everyday. He then has to return to the office at 9am, in time for the politician’s questions. He has a two year old son that he hasn’t seen in quite a while. I was stunned that he found the time to meet with me at the weekend. Another friend who was there and having coffee with us works as a lawyer. She says she never goes home before midnight.
  • One of my colleagues was particularly busy last year and he says that he was going home after midnight (at the earliest) everyday. He was also working weekends. Things are a lot better now but he says that last year, he thought that he was going to have to stop working for an extended period due to the severe deterioration of his health. He is approaching thirty and still lives with his parents, who cook his dinner and probably help him out at home.
  • A story that I heard, and that I believe, comes from a colleague who used to work at one of the large technology companies famous for brutal overtime work practices. He says that one of his former colleagues walked into the office one day to find a team member slumped over his desk. He gave him a nudge to wake him up and discovered that his body was cold. An example of karoshi – death by overwork. I find myself aghast and disgusted by the utter irresponsibility and cowardice of the person in question and of management that would allow something like this to happen. This is surely the ultimate example of why Japan has a serious problem on its hands. The story made me sick with revulsion.
These stories are not typical and the average situation is very different but there is no mistake in saying that in Tokyo people work long hours. Many of my friends and contacts tell me that they regularly miss the last train home (after midnight).

My Company

I work in a very traditional Japanese company of just under 100 employees. Contractually, we are obliged to be in the office from 8:45am to 5:15pm. Everyone arrives on time in the mornings but very few people leave the office at 5:15pm. Some people leave quite early – between 6pm and 7pm – and these people are typically women who work in administrative roles. The latest that people regularly stay in the office is probably about midnight. Everyone else is somewhere in between. I would guess that the average is about 8:30pm. Factors that increase the probability of staying late in the office are: being male, being young, recently joining the company and having a strict boss. I can’t be sure but I think that most people only claim a small portion of the pay attributable to the overtime that they work.

As for me, I decided early on that I would leave the office between 7pm and 8pm everyday unless there is important work to do. I’ve generally stuck to that rule. On busy periods I’ve worked until about 10pm, but days like those are rare. I’m usually about the third person in my department to leave the office. I almost always go home before my boss, who usually stays quite late. I worried about leaving earlier than average but now I don’t worry so much. I’ve never received a word of complaint or been asked to work longer.

People’s attitudes

Mike seems to have been getting some pretty harsh feedback from his enquiries into these issues. It’s all been “doom and gloom” and the impression he got was “suck it up and stop whining or work in another country”. Maybe Mike was asking the wrong questions. Before you get a job, if you ask people whether you’ll be able to go home at a reasonable hour every day in Japan then it’s not surprising that they will want to manage expectations and warn you about how tough it will be. It is tough to maintain a good balance and compete with other workers and build a good career for yourself, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Since I’m already working, I haven’t been asking about what it’s like, since I know what it’s like. Instead, I’ve been asking my Japanese colleagues why they’re in the office so long. The answer I always get is that they don’t want to work late and that they wish they could go home early. Without exception, they agree with me when I put forward arguments such as:
  • If you work too hard then you get ill and end up taking time off anyway (I’ve seen this so much it makes me want to scream)
  • Happy workers are more effective workers
  • Workers that have time to go home, eat good food, rest and exercise are more effective workers
  • Staying in the office because your boss hasn’t gone home yet, even though you’ve got nothing to do, is idiotic
  • Blah blah blah, I could go on all day
I went to visit a friend for lunch recently who has been working in a large Japanese trading company for the last thirty years. We talked about these issues and he sighed at me saying, “I wonder when this country will change. Twenty years ago I watched as we started to take more notice of western thinking and practices and I hoped that outside influence might instigate a change for the better. However, significant improvement still seems far away.”

After talking to Japanese people in this fashion and challenging them on why they work this way, you might think that there’s a real, latent desire for change. I believe that people do want to change but there’s a deeper problem with the Japanese mindset, which makes it difficult.

Japanese people like working hard. More than that, they want to be acknowledged as a hard worker amongst their peers. One of the most common phrases that you’ll here in the office is, “お疲れ様です”, which translates literally as, “You must be tired” or more accurately as, “You’ve been working hard, thank you”. It’s the first thing you say whenever you start talking to a colleague. When you leave the office, it’s appropriate to say, “お先に失礼します”, which translates as “Excuse me for leaving before you”. Acknowledgment of other people’s hard work is a huge part of Japanese working culture. When I meet friends and ask how their job is going, it’s common for them to tell me stories about how difficult it’s been, how hard they’ve been working and of course, the appropriate response is to be sympathetic and compliment the other person on their efforts. Those people that tell me horror stories of endless late nights have a slight hint of pride in their voices and are usually looking for a response of, “Wow, you’ve been working hard”, rather than what I’m thinking, which is “Are you nuts? Go home early or change your job and stop tormenting your family.” Easier said than done in the current environment though.

There’s always a choice

Human beings are herd animals and this has been demonstrated to devastating effect with the expansion and inevitable collapse of countless economic bubbles. Japanese people are perhaps even more so. It’s certainly true that it’s difficult to go home early if everyone is working late, but it’s not impossible. I’ve been going home an hour or two earlier than average and I haven’t had any complaints. In fact, I’ve noticed that people around me are actually starting to go home earlier as well. I try to participate as much as I can in the social scene at work – I participate in regular soccer games, recent cherry blossom viewing trips and of course, nomikais. These events are only once a week and I’d much rather go home late after socializing rather than go home late after sitting at my desk all day. Building good relationships in the workplace helps a lot with 1. not feeling guilty when you go home and 2. convincing other people that they should go home early too!

I only believe people half of the time when they tell me that they have to work late every day because of their huge burden of work. Work never ends and if I wanted to, and had the energy, I could make up countless projects to do that would keep me at the office 24 hours a day. You have to prioritize the important stuff and Japanese people are really bad at that. OK, that’s not quite accurate, they’re not bad at prioritizing, they’re bad at leaving low priority stuff for the next day. Many of my colleagues won’t leave the office until they’ve finished everything, even if it’s late. Conscientious is the word. To the point of absurdity.

What companies should do

I looked at some data regarding overtime in Japan. Here are some links:

None of it is pretty. However, the problem with the data is that it relies on the accuracy of the accounts of those who are working. As I mentioned previously, most of my colleagues don’t claim a decent portion of their overtime. I also mentioned the “aren’t I working hard” mentality, so it’s hard to assess how accurately questionnaires would be filled out. I think it should be compulsory for overtime to be measured in an objective way. For example, if there’s security in the building, workers should sign out with security staff and the time they leave the office should be logged. This would be a good idea for security reasons as well. If there’s no security staff, as with my company, then the electronic keycards that we have should be used to monitor the time we leave the building. There are various laws relating to wages for overtime work and these should provide incentives for management to look after their employees. The senior managing director at my company told me that he wants people to go home early because overtime pay costs the company money. I suspect the problem is that these laws can’t be implemented effectively because no one is telling the truth about how long they’re working. Applying measures like the ones I’ve suggested, especially against the larger companies where people work the most overtime, would make a difference.

Update: It turns out that claiming overtime isn't as easy as it should be: see post

Friday, April 3, 2009

Figuring out the system... more examples

Continuing with the theme from my last post, my confusion in the local bookshop isn't the only example where I've found it challenging to figure out what on earth is going on. Here are a few more examples of me blundering my way through the Japanese systems.

Paying for the bus

I was very confused when I discovered I'd been queuing in the wrong place. In many cases in Japan, especially in the suburbs, you get on the bus from the rear. As you walk on, you take a small ticket with a number on it. I stared at this ticket, wondering why I'd been given a ticket when I hadn't paid for anything. I then sat down and noticed at the front of the bus, next to the driver's rear view mirror the following:

It took me way too long to work out what all these numbers were about. As the bus continued its journey, the numbers kept changing as well, which confused me even more. It's actually pretty simple and makes a lot of sense. If you pick up ticket number 8, then getting off at the next stop will cost you 180 yen. If you keep going, that price will increase and prices will appear under numbers 9, 10, 11 etc. You then pay when you get off. Genius. Why aren't all buses like that?

Finding places using an address

This still challenges me to this day. In Japan, streets don't have names and houses aren't numbered according to their position on the street. Instead, an area of land will be divided into sections and those sections will be divided into subsections and then those subsections will have buildings numbered within them. So my address is 2-1-41, which means that I'm at house number 41 within subsection 1, which is within section 2. This makes it a nightmare to find anything. Being in subsection 1 means that subsection 2 is probably nearby but you have no idea which direction to go.

Swimming pools

You'd think that going swimming at your local pool would be a simple exercise but there are things that tripped me up here as well. For instance, there are often pretty strict rules like: no watches or jewellery, and no swimming without a swimming cap. I was once asked to take my (waterproof) watch back to the changing room.

I think these are pretty good rules and I have no objections. What bewildered me was this: half an hour after I had started swimming, the lifeguards all stood up in their chairs and blew their whistles. Everyone then got out of the pool, including a rather confused foreigner. What had happened? Nothing serious, I hoped.

The pool was completely empty and the lifeguards went through a well rehearsed ritual of rotating their positions. Everyone else was sat dripping on benches near the pool or within the heated resting rooms. This procedure occurs regularly, perhaps once an hour, and is an obligatory resting period that lasts 10 minutes. Everyone has to get out of the pool and rest. Incredible.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Figuring out the system

Sometimes it’s not just the language barrier that causes me problems in Japan, it’s also the difference in thinking. Even though I can read the signs and the labels in front of me, it often takes me a while to figure out why they’ve been put there and how the system works.

As an example, I was browsing through a bookstore yesterday, searching for three different novels. I had the authors' names and the title of each novel. I noticed that the books were ordered alphabetically by the author's name. What was strange was that the books would go from A to Z* on one shelf and then go from A to Z on the next shelf, then A to Z again etc. They weren't different categories of books, they were all novels and it took me a while to work out why the A to Z ordering was repeated so many times, instead of just grouping them all together into one big order.

The reason was because the novels are grouped together by publisher. Each shelf had the publisher's name on it, but because I wasn't familiar with publishers' names, it hadn't registered. Plus, the sheer inconvenience of this arrangement meant that I hadn't considered it. In order to find a book, you have to be able to tell who published it. Authors tend to use different publishers for different books so I had to check several different shelves in order to find the books I was looking for.

Why is it done this way? Perhaps this is because book shops view publishers as important clients and they fail to realize that the readers are the more important end customers. Perhaps readers have significant preferences between publishers. I mentioned it to my friend and he suggests that Japan has many more publishers than other countries. Maybe all of the above.

By the way, for those that are interested, I was searching for the short stories that appear in this book: Read real Japanese. I wanted versions without furigana so I went looking for the actual books. I bought the first three stories, which are:

川上弘美 神様
乙一 むかし夕日の公園で
いしいしんじ 白の鳥と黒の鳥

*It's obviously not A to Z in Japan. It's あ to ん.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

It's hard work at a Japanese company...

Before accepting the job offer from my current employer, I was given a short tour of the office. I found this a little uncomfortable since everyone was staring at the foreigner who hadn't made up his mind about whether to join or not. One of the areas that my HR tour guide was particularly keen on showing me was the 休憩室, literally translated as the "resting room".

Our offices are on the top floor of a twelve story building and this room is very pleasant - it's spacious and located in the corner of the building with large windows looking north and east over the Tokyo skyline. It has large tables where people eat their bento at lunchtime and comfortable arm chairs in front of a television. Quite a few people, notably only men, take a nap in these arm chairs after finishing their lunch. Everyone gets an hour for lunch.

Coming back to the tour that I mentioned - my guide made a point of saying, "Look! We also have a massage chair." These contraptions are popular in Japan and the ones located outside the changing rooms at onsens can be very pleasant. It's great to sit back and have your warm, hotspring-soaked muscles massaged after coming out. However, at work, it's not my cup of tea at all. Some of my colleagues love it but I'm in work mode at the office and I'm also in a suit. I gave it a try a couple of times but it doesn't push my buttons (although it certainly tries). If you get the settings wrong on one of these chairs, or if your body is tense, it can be pretty painful as it batters you and squeezes your flesh.

I thought that it was interesting that the company had spent a considerable sum of money installing this chair but what really caught my interest was the machine next to it (see right).

"What the hell is that?", I hear you ask. It's a machine that measures your blood pressure and I know what you're thinking.


I've got a few theories. Japanese companies like to look after their employees. We can apply for free medicine at regular intervals and everyone gets a health check once a year. At first glance, this seems like another addition to this caring service. But I think there's more to it, and I'll get to that in a minute. First, let's continue the tour.

Next to the blood pressure machine, is the pull-up machine.

If you feel the need to do some pull-ups in the office to keep yourself in shape, this is for you. I have never seen anyone use it.

Other items in the resting room include:

A book shelf full of magazines, newspapers and books. No one ever seems to read any of them.

Two vending machines, full of hot and cold drinks. Canned tea and coffee, bottled green tea, fruit juice, corn soup, strawberry milk and water can all be yours for between 80 and 100 yen. I use this machine way too much and almost always have a 500ml bottle of cold green tea or water beside me while I work. The prices are cheaper than the vending machines outside the office, no doubt because vandalism insurance costs less.

Microwave, fridge, and green tea/coffee dispenser.

So, this resting room has everything that you could hope for. That's great, right? Well, I think there's a subtler and slightly more sinister side to this. Japanese people work hard and they're expected to work hard by their bosses. Having a blood pressure machine and a massage chair in the office seems to imply an expectation that people will need them because they're working so hard. So the hidden message that I am suspicious of is, "You're going to work hard at this company and you'll need these machines to keep you going." But it's more than that, Japanese people like working hard. The presence of these facilities might on some level imply an acknowledgement of their hard efforts. Acknowledgement of hard work and effort is an important part of working culture in Japan and I might write a post on that at some point.

Anyway, I've been working especially hard today, I'd better go and check my blood pressure...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Funny Story

My father in law is a retired teacher and leads a research group looking at new ways to teach kids how to enjoy reading. He has written a few books himself and gave some to his friends and other contacts. Whilst browsing through a second hand book shop, he was unfortunate enough to find one of his own books. Hopefully the person who sold it to the second hand book shop had read it first. The thing is – the book was signed and addressed to the previous owner. Ouch. My father in law bought the book and hasn’t mentioned it to the person he originally gave it to.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


For those of you who aren’t able to read Japanese, the character in the title of this post is pronounced “neh” and the squiggly line afterwards extends the sound to make it more like “neeeh”. 

It seems to me that a significant part of the Japanese character is reflected in this… character. It’s frequently added to the end of sentences in order to solicit or confirm agreement. You can take any sentence and add “neh” to the end of it and you will be asking the listener to agree with you. If the listener agrees then they will usually respond with an emphatic “neh”.

Agreeing with each other is something that Japanese people do very well. At least in Tokyo. My colleague from Osaka tells me that western Japan is very different and I haven’t spent enough time there to comment. However, I can describe some of my own experiences here in Tokyo.

When propositioned for agreement by someone telling me something and sticking “neh” on the end, I often think that what the person has said to me is exaggerated, not quite correct, or isn’t my opinion at all. For example, someone might say to me, “It’s really cold, isn’t it?”. They forget that I’m from Scotland and that to me, it’s pretty warm for February. My default reaction used to be to tell the truth and say, “Well, actually…”. The typical result of a minor disagreement such as this can be quite extraordinary. The person talking to me will look deflated, like the wind has been taken out of their sails. They were in the flow of conversation and suddenly they are lost, unsure of the next course to take. If we are in a group, then there’s a slight feeling of unease that slowly spreads as the volume of conversation goes down and the general reply to my, “Well, actually…” is “Oh. You don’t think so. I see.”

The result of experiences like this has taught me to only disagree in non-trivial circumstances, where agreement will have consequences that I definitely don’t want. For example, “These chicken feet are delicious aren’t they? More?”.

The Japanese urge for collective consensus can lead to some exasperating situations as well. At work, I frequently find myself in meetings where discussion goes round and round in circles, with no agreement in sight. Managers are unwilling to exert authority and make hard choices. I have become famous (or perhaps notorious?) in the company for saying things like, “What exactly are we doing here?”, “What are we trying to decide?”, “Why don’t you make the decision here boss, we’ve heard everyone’s opinion.” Internal meetings can drag on for hours if I don’t say anything.

You may be thinking that this post is a rant about how Japanese people have to agree with each other. It’s not. This is because I can feel the warm fuzziness that comes when someone agrees with me. When talking with someone I respect, I put forward an opinion, explain it and attach the “neh” at the end, asking for agreement. When this person gives a large nod and says, “Neeeeh!”, it feels like, “Yes! You’re totally right! I think in exactly the same way!”. This sympathy and unity of opinion warms the heart.

Although the time taken to reach decisions can sometimes try my patience, the care and effort taken to reach consensus usually means that they turn out to be good ones. They are usually the product of a great deal of research into all available options and their respective merits. The result is actions that are well thought out.

All interesting stuff. ね~