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~