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Tales of the Unexpected

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Even after 14 years on and off living in Japan there are still occasions when I do double takes. A shrine to ginger? A “casual massage”? Both seen yesterday while out and about in Tokyo.

Smoking is another puzzle. There’s no smoking ban in operation here, and although it’s only a few years since we introduced one in the UK, already it seems barbaric to find people smoking in a bar or restaurant. On the other hand, some parts of Tokyo have imposed a ban on smoking outside on the streets. More than one foreign smoker has been caught out by assuming that ducking outside for a quick smoke is the correct thing to do. Very confusing to be told that actually he needs to go back indoors.

Maybe there’s some link with the Japanese cultural notion of setting clear boundaries between the external and internal. In physical terms that means taking your shoes off on going indoors – or when stepping onto the picnic groundsheet. In behavioural terms it means being civil and correct, and perhaps a little reserved in dealing with people outside your group, while having really close and supportive relationships with those inside it. Or, going down to the individual level, keeping your true feelings to yourself, subliminating your personal desires and frustrations for the greater good of social harmony and cohesion. One of the interesting things about doing business in Japan is in digging beneath the tatemae (surface messages) to understand the honne (true feelings). The (smoke-filled) bar after work is often the best place to uncover the latter!

Use of apparently familiar English vocabulary is something else that offers endless head-scratching potential. If a waitress brings you an appetiser and tells you that it is “saabisu” (by which she means “service”) it doesn’t mean she’s angling for a tip – it means it’s free. That says a lot about the Japanese expectation of service standards – they’re part of the deal, not an optional or costly extra. I was also baffled for a while to be accosted by people standing on the streets outside stations with posters depicting animal cruelty or famine victims and asking me to “volunteer”. Volunteer to be cruel to a cat? To join an aid mission? No, what they meant was that they were collecting money for charity and wanted me to donate. I suppose donating is indeed voluntary, but it took me a while to make the connection.

If everyday life is full of little surprises it goes without saying that business throws up some unexpected moments too. It could be the endless string of incredibly detailed questions that your would-be customer fires at you, or the apparent ease of Japanese people with quite long periods of silence in meetings while everyone absorbs and processes what others have said. Or one of any number of other subtle cultural differences. Some people worry that they’ll cause embarrassment (or embarrass themselves) by not understanding all the nuances. Certainly it helps if you can read the mood music. But for the most part, provided you are courteous, thoughtful and humble, willing to listen and learn, then you won’t go too far wrong.

If you feel you need  a bit more support there are lots of tips in the “Understand Japan” part of the Export to Japan website. Or you might like to think about joining a trade mission alongside other companies, some of whom will already have experience of doing business here and be only too glad to pass on some tips. The East of England and North-West of England are running cross-sector missions to Japan and Korea next spring – you can find out more by attending their preview briefings in the last week of October (see the events calendar on Export to Japan for details). Or look out for one of the many sector-specific missions and trade fairs we’re running over the next few months.

Above all though, enjoy discovering the differences and idiosyncracies of Japanese life, of which there are many. While I was writing this the TV news was featuring an obstacle race that took place in the north of Japan today – so far, so normal. Except that this one was a course that took two hours to negotiate, and the competitors were all riding on office chairs. Maybe it was for chair-ity…..

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