Crash Course in Japanese Culture

The 15+ hour flight across the Pacific pond proved to be far more than just the business trip I initially set out to take.  Of course from a professional standpoint, the opportunity to finally meet with a client I’ve been working with virtually for more than eight years was incredible.  In just a few short days our Tokyo colleagues taught us so much about their cultural norms and business practices.  But it wasn’t just those I interacted with directly that taught me something.   It was also those I didn’t meet – those walking down the street on the way to work, those that gave up their seat on the bus so that an older person could sit down.

I walked away from this trip with a greater appreciation for those I know and those I don’t.  There is so much we can learn from a culture that is based upon principles of kindness, politeness and respect.

Listen before you speak.  While the word “Hai” can easily be confused with someone profusely greeting those around them to someone unfamiliar with the language, it actually means yes and it’s a word used very often in Japanese culture.  But just because the word is spoken does not mean it’s a commitment like it is here.  A word that’s not so common? No.  It’s not a phrase you’re likely to hear regularly when conducting business, or even a causal conversation, with someone from Japan.  It can be considered impolite to use a negative word such as “no.”  Contradictory to our impulsive society here in the US where the word is quickly tossed out in response to thoughts and ideas, the Japanese listen and often consult with their teams privately, before making a decision.

Lend a hand to strangers.  Although a major metropolitan area, the streets of Tokyo are not filled with floods of Westerners.  The tourists and business travelers alike were easy to spot.  The natives seemed to keep an eye out for those that were from out of town and in need of guidance.  During our short stays in Tokyo and Kyoto, more than a handful of people stopped what they were doing to approach us with an offer for help and literally guided us to where we wanted to go.  It’s one thing to share directions but these kind souls took time out of their day to walk us to our destination to ensure we safely found our way.  Our colleagues were also quick to educate us on their cultural norms – such as always keeping an eye of the beverages of those you’re with, making sure their drink is never empty – so that we were more comfortable and understanding of the meaning behind their actions.

Don’t stand in the way of others.  Another basic observation that has far more meaning than meets the eye.  Upon exiting the subway or train station (something we did a lot of us the trip), you’ll notice that everyone stands to the side.  Everyone.  In a straight file.  This lets those that need to get through quickly do so without interference.  To me this is symbolic of a culture that is so focused on collectivism and teamwork.  Everyone moves together, instead of individually.  Furthermore, the Japanese recognize that decisions can take time to make and need not be rushed, but there is also great value in innovation and sometimes they must step aside to make way for those that are aiming to move forward faster.

Learn from your elders.  This principle often seems long forgotten here in America.  The Japanese are raised with the understanding that elders are sources of great knowledge and should be honored.  Employees respect their superiors.  Teenagers give up their seats on the bus so that the elderly can have a place to rest.  Though these acts are apparent in the US, they are surely not embedded into and practiced by the young generations.

During our sightseeing trip to the historic city of Kyoto (ranked by Travel and Leisure as the number one city in the world), I learned a lot about the country’s rich history and traditions, but the greatest lessons I learned were from observing the kind people of this extraordinary island nation.

City scape

Night Life

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The Nearly-Wed for Fifty Years Game

One of my favorite bridal games is the take on “Newly Weds,” where a couple is asked a set of questions about themselves/their partners and then that expert knowledge is put to the test.  We played it recently at my best friend’s bridal shower and after nearly 10 years, it turns out the bride-to-be and her future husband know each other pretty well!

So, in honor of my parents’ upcoming anniversary this month, I thought it would be fun to see if they’ve learned a thing of two about each other after nearly half a century.

What’s the first thing you noticed about mom?

Dad: She was sitting at the bar, enjoying a drink (note: my mom didn’t drink).  And, she was cute.  I knew I had a shot because I had on a nice coat and my fancy pipe.  Her first words were I’d never go out with you.

What’s the first thing dad said he noticed about you?

Mom: That I was cute.  The first thing I noticed about him was his stupid fancy pipe sticking out of his jacket.  He thought he was something else but I showed him, told him I’d never go out with him! (46 years later…she sure showed him).

***

If you had a super power, what would it be?

Dad: I may be a superhero.  I could actually be Superman and no one could disprove me because they’ve never seen us in the same place at the same time.

Me: The question was super power, not super hero.

Dad: Then I’d be a Viking warrior.  Tap into my heritage (clearly, we were not understanding the question so it was time to move on).

If dad had a super power, what would it be?

Mom: He already has one…bullsh*t.  It’s his hidden talent.

***

If you were stranded on an island, what’s the one thing you’d bring?

Dad: A boat.

If dad were stranded on an island, what’s the one thing he’d bring?

Mom: Rum and cigarettes.

***

If you were to cook one meal for mom, what would she want it to be?

Dad: Steak on the grill.

If dad were to cook you one meal, what would you want it to be?

Mom: Steak on the grill.  Anything else would be my last meal on earth.

***

If you were a dog, which breed would you be? 

Dad: I’d be a German Shepard; they’re smart, loyal, and tough.  Your mom would be a Cocker Spaniel because everyone loves Cocker Spaniels.

If dad were a dog, which breed would he say he was? 

Mom: Oh, he would definitely say he was a German Shepard because he thinks he’s smart, rough and tough and strong and that people are afraid of him.

***

Who wears the pants in the relationship?

Dad: I do.  But your mom will tell you differently.

Mom: Your dad.  I wear skirts and dresses.  Except one time he accidently wore MY pants to the gym so I don’t know what that says about him.  Dad (who pipes in from down the hall): Yeah, but they fit me so I don’t know what that says about you!

***

What would mom say is your most annoying habit?  What’s hers?

Dad: She’d say smoking.  For her it’s talking.

Mom: Smoking.  He’d say mine is griping about his smoking.

***

If mom could get rid of one thing of yours, what would it be?  What item that belongs to her would you want to get rid of?

Dad:  She would say my trains.  And for her, I’d want to eliminate her phone.

Me: But the phone is yours, too.

Dad:  No it’s not.  You think I ever get to use it living with her?

If you could get rid of one thing of dad’s, what would it be?  What item that belongs to you would he want to get rid of?

Mom: I would toss out his accordion!  He certainly would not say to get rid of “my boat,” the one he “bought for me” that I never use and he uses all the time.

***

Which one of you takes the longest to get ready?

Dad: Do I ever need to answer that?

Mom: Oh, that’s me.  He does not care if he has stripes, circles, polka dots, checks, plaids, stains or nothing!

***

Describe grandma and grandpa’s (mom’s parents) first impression of your using one of these cereal brands: a) Lucky Charms b) Wheaties c) Fruit Loop

Dad: It would be Cheerios.

Me: That’s not an option.

Dad: Oh.  Well it works best because I can sometimes be cheery.  But if I’m limited, I’ll have to go with Lucky Charms.

Describe grandma and grandpa’s first impression of dad using one of these cereal brands: a) Lucky Charms b) Wheaties c) Fruit Loop

Mom: It was definitely NOT Lucky Charms.

***

What is your favorite thing about mom after all these years?

Dad: I’d have to say her personality.

What would dad say his favorite thing about you is after all these years?

Mom: Probably that I keep his clothes clean.

Me: But earlier you said he doesn’t care if he has stains on his shirt.

Mom:  Ah, you’re right.  Then it’s because I give him food to eat.

This blushing bride of 46 years doesn’t even know how much her husband still adores her after all this time.  While it may not be apparent to some, the love is in the answers above.  Theirs is not a relationship that’s served as an inspiration to a Nicholas Sparks novel, but it is built upon mutual respect, admiration, protectiveness and most importantly, laughter.

Happy anniversary guys, I love you!

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