Two Japanese Life Skills You Must Master

If you want to be a success in Japan, there are only two things you really need to nail.  The unfortunate small problem is, they’re opposites.  But perhaps a colorful story will help to illustrate.

So I was in a “standing bar” a couple of weeks ago, which is like a normal bar, or really a restaurant because they serve food too, only without any seats.  It’s just about the worst invention the Japanese ever came up with.  Like, who wants to have drinks and food standing up?  Would it kill you to put in some barstools?  But anyway, so I’m standing there having a conversation with this rather attractive Japanese lady and I order some fish in a can on toast.   And things are going pretty well between us, you know, until suddenly her husband shows up.  So that was a little disappointing.  But whatever, he turned out to be a really nice guy and bought me a beer and I bought them a can of fish too.  Like, the cook just opens the can, which is some kind of sardines or something, and puts it on the grill, until it gets red hot, and then serves it up, can and all, with toast.  Maybe you got to eat it to understand just how good it is.  Anyway, about the time I have a big, steaming mouthful of fish, my phone rings.

Now, I don’t get a lot of phone calls in Japan.  It’s just not the nation where everybody’s walking around talking on the phone everywhere, like in the U.S.   So I answer and it’s Ishimoto-san from this language company I’ve worked for before.  He’s like, I’ve got a job for you.  And I’m like, Great, but I’m in a bar right now, can we talk later?  But no, he’s got to tell me about it right away.  It’s some Business English class at some company somewhere, so I listen and drink my beer and say “uh huh” a lot, up to the point where he says, “and it starts tomorrow.”  Then I’m like, Dude what?  I got plans.  Like, I already made a reservation with my futon until noon, and after that the staff at Starbucks is expecting my arrival.  By the way, how much money we talking about?

And on the other end of the line I hear, “How about fifty-five bucks an hour plus transportation expenses?”  But actually, he says it in yen, which is even more money.

“How many hours is the class?” I ask.


“Ishimoto-san,” I say, “I’m your man.”

Okay, here’s the part where the two life skills come into play.  See if you can catch it.

So the next day I get a haircut and go to the station in my suit and tie.  I get there at a quarter to five, because Ishimoto-san said to meet at five, and there’s no way I’m going to be late.  But then the bastard doesn’t show up until five-ten.  And I’m a little concerned because he’s supposed to bring the textbook, the lesson plan, and brief me on who’s in the class and what I’m supposed to be doing in front of these fools for three hours.

Ishimoto-san comes running up the stairs and he looks terrible.  He’s all sweaty and red, and he first thing he says is, “We didn’t have time to make a lesson plan.”  The second thing he says is, “Sorry I’m late.”

“Textbook?” I ask.

“We’ll have to get it there,” he says. “Would you mind if we run?”

And then Ishimoto-san and I are running through the streets of Tokyo in our suits.  And I’m thinking, Okay, the class starts in 45 minutes.  I’ve never seen the textbook, don’t know who’s going to be in the class or what on earth I’m going to say for three hours.  Well anyway, I figure that at least I’ll be in an izakaya by nine-thirty.

And that’s pretty much how it went down.  I walked into class, got everybody up and shaking hands with each other while I looked through the textbook and tried to make up some shit to say.  Then everybody sat down and stared at me.  I stared back, took my hands out of my pockets, and in a clear, confident voice said, “Okay, now open your books to, uh, hmm, well, let’s see what’s on page fifty two . . .”

Went off without a hitch, just like always.

So here are the two life skills for Japan.  One, you got to have your wig screwed on tight.  Get to every job early, shoes and teeth polished to a high gleam, ready to work yourself into a lather.  Your Japanese boss says “jump,” and you don’t say “how high?”  You just jump as high as possible, and keep jumping until you have to run and catch that last train.

But the second skill is–you can’t give two shits about anything.  No classroom?  Sure, we can just have class in the hall.  No CD?  Hey, I’ll just sing.  Got no textbooks?  No problem, we’ll just use our powerful imaginations.  Somehow, Australians seem to excel at this.  Just hand them a beer the size of an oil can and they’re prepared for any contingency.  Sorry, maybe that’s a cultural stereotype.  Then again, Nah.  Australians.

The need for these two diametrically opposed life skills arises from two Japanese traits, which themselves are at odds:  kodawaru and ganbaru.

Kodawaru is that focused attention to detail you see when a sushi chef is arranging teeny-tiny fish eggs on a thinly-sliced piece of fish he’s balanced atop the perfect amount of rice.  In English, we call that “anal retentive,” but kodawaru makes it sound a lot better.

Ganbaru, on the other hand, is the Japanese determination to do everything to death.  Why work eight hours when you could work eighteen?  If it takes two salesmen to manage twenty customers, then according to Japanese math, one salesman can manage forty customers.  Discussions, planning—no time for that!  We just gotta do something, somewhere, right now!

Fifty things all have to be done immediately and perfectly, but without any planning.  If that sounds like an impossible conundrum, take solace in knowing that the Japanese have also engineered the perfect solution.

Booze.  After class, Ishihara-san and I pounded down a mess of beer and potato shochu.  We spent no time reflecting on the past, and less time thinking about the future.  We just ate our canned fish on toast and talked to the Japanese office ladies next to us.  And every time we yelled out an order, the staff came running.  God, it’s a good country to be a customer in.


27 Replies to “Two Japanese Life Skills You Must Master”

  1. ahahah very interesting, keep it up!

    50 dollars an hr, sounds pretty damn good. Seems you love bars, do you frequent the same one all the time? Man, you make me really wanna be in Japan.

    Seems like your class went very well, making things up for three hrs

    1. Yeah, classes like that are good work when you can get them.

      True, being in Japan has its awesome moments. And yeah, I seem to find myself in a lot of bars and izakaya. But then, I didn’t come to Japan just to sit in my freezing little apartment and eat cups of noodles. Okay, maybe I did, but at least a couple of times a week I do make an effort to get out, eat some decent food, and connect with the people of this country I chose to live in.

      To answer your question, I do try out new izakaya now and then (including last night), but mostly go to this really down-home place near me. It’s kind of like my living room, like spending a couple of hours with my family. In the evenings I hang out, play go, and drink shochu with all the old men. Good times.

      1. So, I’m living in Kobe in a typical one-person apartment, but I was wondering, Seeroi Ken, if you go to these bars Izakayas alone (I always feel it would be really awkward to go in alone) , and if these people just walk up to you and start talking?

        1. that used to be like that, at least in smaller places, so i would give it a try, its the way i found most of my friends (similar interests and being nice sure helped, too)… now with foreigners everywhere it seems like many japanese just lost interest…that someone just talks to me usually only happens when i get introduced (happens a lot) and only when people realise that i speak japanese…
          so maybe yo wont be successful the first time, but just try, or even better, go to places where you could meet people with the same interests…

        2. My first thought is, How comfortable are you eating by yourself anywhere? Like in the U.S., I used to feel weird when I went on business trips and ended up eating in restaurants by myself. But after traveling a bit more, both domestically and abroad, I eventually got used to it. So as long as you’re not self-conscious about being by yourself, you should be fine.

          Japan’s actually well set up for single males to eat out. (Women do so too, but it’s less common.) What you want is a fairly small izakaya with a counter, which most places have.

          I’d start out by going to a local, medium-sized place that’s not super crowded. And some place that you can see into a bit from the outside, which isn’t always possible in this country. Also, you should try to ascertain before going in what type of a place it is: does it specialize in yaki-tori, horumon, teishoku? You can usually tell by looking at the restaurant name, paper lanterns, or perhaps a menu outside. Kushiage (串揚げ)—fried stuff on sticks—is pretty common in Kobe, and that would be one of my first choices.

          You’re going to need to manage the menu, but there are some tricks to doing that. One is to simply memorize the kanji for a limited number of things. (Bear in mind that menus are often hand-written and thus borderline illegible.) Alternately, you could simply ask for things that are common, such as tamago-yaki or sashimi moriawase. A general-purpose izakaya will almost certainly have those. Or just go with edamame and beer. That works in both English and Japanese.

          In terms of conversation, well I’m sure you’ve noticed that Japanese folks don’t mingle like Westerners—so it’s unlikely that anyone would actually walk up to you. On the other hand, if you’re at the counter, often the proprietor of a small place will engage you in conversation. After all, it’s part of their job. If you can manage some Japanese, it wouldn’t be unusual at all for the people sitting near you to start asking questions. Of course, they’ll be the exact same questions year in and year out, but at least the first hundred times you’ll appreciate them. You can increase the likelihood of conversation by selecting places near the station where drunk salarymen congregate on their way home from work. I seem to recall a number of places under the train tracks in Kobe with these sort of small places. You’ll have a good time. Just remember that you’re no different that anyone else out for a meal. Everyone’s gotta eat.

  2. Ah definitely , imagine getting at least 5 hrs a day. Good money XD Is it common to get these type or rare?

    Haha yeh definitely. It’s nice going out and connectign with the people of this country. Rather than just bunch up and hang out with other fellow gaijins lol (not that it is a bad thing)

    Ah awesome, would love to go to one in the future. Haha that must be awesome, having a place that feels like home.

    PS: I’ve decided to stop blogging but will keep in contact with this blog

    1. Yeah, gigs like that are pretty great. The trick is to line up enough of them to keep sushi on the table, without spending hours riding packed trains from one job to the other, especially if you’re in Tokyo. It’s not uncommon to spend two hours commuting to and from a 90-minute class. So even if you could line up 5 hours a day, you might spend 4 hours riding around Tokyo to do it, not to mention the hours killing time between classes, which means you have to wait somewhere. Sometimes I swear I spend as much money waiting in Starbucks as I make in class. Of course if you can find a park you can hang out with the homeless old men, and sit there in your suit and drink canned coffee and wonder what the hell you’re doing with your life. That’s fun too. As for money, 3000 yen/hour is probably closer to the standard pay rate.

      I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, so keep in touch and let me know how you’re progressing with your Japanese studies!

  3. Hi Ken, From a female Canadian living here for several years…I’ve really enjoyed your blog so far.!! Keep on writing~ please!
    Did you know that your blog was distributed through expat blog’s newsletter? Anyways, that’s how I found out about it.
    I totally agree with your post…although there are several more you could mention such as self-deprecation and being humble for show. When people give me a compliment all I wanna say is “baby, I know” just to see their reaction. But of course I don’t…just a iie iie instead.
    Well..about your post on bowing I must say you do see a lot of nods of acknowledgement in the cases where bowing isn’t necessary. Also, I guess I’m pretty lucky to have a truly polite husband and friends as a simple arigatou with the end ‘ou’ drawn out a bit is a standard/minimum polite thing to say to people serving us in restaurants etc. Do you live in Kanto? I think it might be a bit different there than here in Kansai. But there are rude people anywhere of course!!
    By the way, that wasn’t a criticism whatsoever, just my observations 🙂
    Anyways keep it up please~ I don’t write a blog myself…but I’ll be one to tune in to yours regularly!!

    1. Hey Kris,

      I looked out my window early this morning and I was like, Oh man, snow, dag. But then I read your comment, had a coffee, and felt way better. So thanks.

      Yeah, Japanese politeness is kind of a phenomenon. Like particle physics or something. The closer you look at it, the stranger it gets. There certainly are plenty of nice people in Japan, though I’m starting to suspect they all live in Kansai. Yeah, I do live on the east side. Every time I go west, I have a good time.

      I wouldn’t say that it’s rudeness exactly that I find remarkable in Japan. Rather it’s the gap between the person on the top of the power equation and the person on the bottom. The way a clerk will bow 90 degrees in front of a customer, who just breezes out the door without even blinking. That’s interesting. Although I’ve been to Kansai many times, I haven’t really spend much time hanging out at stores watching how people interact. So go down to 7-11 and spy on the customers while pretending to read magazines, then let me know if it’s really different. But I also hear you guys have invented a better version of monjayaki, called, What? okono-something-or-other. I find that hard to believe though, since I don’t see how anyone could improve on something that looks like the cook just vomited on the grill.

      But I digress. As for feigned humility, I once complimented a student on how good his English was, and his answer was, “I know.” I was like, Wait, what? Aren’t you supposed to say, “Oh no, no, not really”? Since then, I’ve heard that response a few more times, and I’ve come to adopt it. Think my Japanese is jozu? You bet it is. If nothing else, you’ll get a laugh.

  4. Flexibility would be my advice for anyone coming to teach in Japan. Things change and even at regular schools, where you’re a “regular” teacher, things can get dropped on you last minute. Japanese teachers are so busy (they are at once teacher, social worker, subject teacher, administrator, janitor, etc) that they might just say “oh, yea there’s a class now, lets go.” I’m a planner… but if you plan on teaching in Japan, learn to wing it.

    1. Yeah, planning seems to be a double-edged sword in Japan. How many times have you had a completely thought-out lesson plan, and at the last minute somebody asks you to do something entirely different? Maybe your luck is better than mine, but that’s happened to me a lot. It’s sort of like, I want to plan, but not too much. It’s a crazy place.

  5. I’m curious about the can of fish. I thought Japan was supposed to be a gourmet foodie’s haven. I mean, we have cans of fish here in the States. And what’s up with bland Japanese beer? Haven’t they discovered micro brewing yet?

    1. I know. I’m pretty much of the opinion that anything that comes in a can should stay in a can, with the notable exception of beer, which should be set free. Fly little beer, fly!

      Moving on. Yeah, I know you’re thinking it’s like a can of sardines in the States, right. No man, it’s mackerel in habanero sauce. Just think of it! They take this mackerel and they stuff his little fish body into this can and then they pour fiery habanero sauce all over him until he tastes fantastic. Okay, maybe you shouldn’t think of it. All I’m saying is the guy who came up with it is a genius. It tastes like freaking heaven on toast.

      As for beer, there are a few microbrews, but they’re rare. The Japanese seem pretty content to drink Sapporo, Kirin, and Malts, which all taste, uh, exactly the same. American beer, and food in general, tends to be a bit sweet for Japanese tastes. Anyway, that’s my theory, but who knows? The Japanese like trendy things, so maybe the time is right for Samuel Adams-san.

  6. Don’t know if you’re still monitoring these old posts for comments but I’d just like to add that work in Japan sounds so much like the US Army where I spent seven years of my life. Show up early with shined boots, pressed uniform, and a good haircut and be prepared to do anything. Do it as best you can even if you fail and you will get ahead just by being there. Then after last formation drink a lot of beer. I could have been Sergeant Major Of the Army if I had just stuck with these simple rules. Well maybe not but if I had to do it all over again I would have drunk lots more beer.

    1. I’ve never been in the army, so it’s probably different than I imagine, just like real life in Japan differs from people’s idealized notions of it. That being said, what I can tell you is that Japanese people place a high value on appearance, especially looking busy for long hours. Meanwhile, what’s really lacking is a clear goal. Nobody wants to look like they’re slacking, so things like planning, thinking, reflection, and goal-setting—which don’t appear very impressive—are swept aside. Why work smart when you can work hard?

      A good, and oft-cited example, is the 6-12 years of English education which all Japanese people receive. Since this results in them being utterly unable to use English in any practical manner, you might think that someone would say, Hey, let’s try a different approach, but eff that. We do it this way because, well, no one knows, but let’s try doing it faster. How will students use English in the future? No time for questions, we’ve gotta teach them something.

      So same program, same results. Dig a hole and fill it in. But that’s life, huh. If God placed us with Sisyphus behind the rock, at least He was kind enough to give us booze.

  7. Hey Ken

    I’m seriously lovin’ this blog – your sense of humour is exactly my cup o’ tea. And as an Australian, I’d like to thank you for your comment about our ingenuity. Stereotypes always contain a sliver of truth – in fact, I’m MacGyvering karuta cards out of paperclips as I speak/ type.

    1. Ah, you Australians. How I love your giant knives and UGG boots. So many contributions to world society coming from one small nation.

      Thanks for liking the site. Playing karuta with metal objects sounds painful, but I guess it’s all part of the learning process. I guess anything that keeps them awake is valid.

  8. Hi Ken
    I didn’t know which post best to comment on but I choose this one because the two traits are what’s driving me crazy. I don’t work in Japan but I do work for a (very big) Japanese company and recently I’ve been transferred to an office where the Japanese way is more prevalent than my former environment where non Japanese dominates.
    I find it so exhausting now because I’ve been working long hours but nothing seems to be actually get done. First time I encountered this, it made doubt myself and my work ethic and more dramatically as a person, because how can the Japanese with its efficient city and electronics and machinery and stuff don’t seem to have a game plan? Why would you work long hours and suffer so much stoically? It didn’t make sense to me and I was going crazy trying to find the answers.
    So thank you for highlighting those two traits , I was so relieved that at least some other people felt like me. I don’t think there’s a solution or I change anything in the company because what happens in Japan apparently just doesn’t stay in Japan.
    Anyway Merry Christmas and keep the posts coming, you’re a very good writer!

    1. “Polite,” “shy,” “respectful”—those are words tourists associate with Japanese people. Folks who live here are more likely to go with “frustrating,” “controlling” or “rude as shit.” Until you get used to it, a bow and a smile can mask a lot of bad behavior.

      Working in a Japanese company is an exercise in absurdity, as you’re surrounded by people almost pathologically adverse to actually getting anything done. But maybe this will make some sense of it:

      In Japan, if you don’t work too hard, but just show up on time and keep your mouth shut, everybody will be okay with you. You’re not a threat to anyone, and you’ll keep your job. Mediocrity is a coveted trait.

      If you work really hard and implement new ideas, you may well be seen a rocking the boat and operating outside of the power hierarchy. Even if you achieve spectacular results, you won’t get a salary increase, and might even be let go at the end of your contract.

      In other words, there is no upside for working hard and taking initiative, only downside. You’ll see it in meetings, where everyone tries hard to appear enthusiastic, while assuming as little risk as possible, maneuvering so that others bear the risk. Here, as a good friend of mine is fond of saying, “your only job is to keep your job.”

      1. Hi Ken, I’m interested in your point of view with japanese worklife. I’m still a student now, so I can’t speak for my experience, but my foreigner senpai also said similar things like you said.

        But I wonder is that only happen in traditional japanese companies? Do you have any idea whether multinational company with mix workforce between japanese and foreigner also have similar culture?

        1. I’ve worked at three multinational companies here in Japan, so yeah, okay, here goes.

          What I’ve seen is that the “Japanese” staff do their thing, and the “foreign” staff do something almost entirely different. Sometimes it feels like two separate companies that just happen to occupy the same office space. The Japanese folks get to work fifteen minutes early, and sit quietly on their hands waiting for the work-day to start. Once it does, they type like mad and try to look busy while glancing sideways to see what everybody else is doing. At the stroke of noon, everybody pulls out a bento and silently eats at their desks.

          Meanwhile, the foreign staff comes in on time, hungover, looking like they just slept in their suits. They’ll move the mouse a few times, then take a coffee break, then head to Burger King for lunch. Most of the time, they’re utterly oblivious to what’s going on around them in the “Japanese” office—all the little power plays, subtle verbal slights, in-grouping and out-grouping…they’re not subjected to it or aware of it. If you have a Japanese girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse at the same company, you might be shocked to hear about what’s going on all around you, right under your nose.

          At the end of the day, the “foreign” people usually do some unpaid overtime, or not, then go home. The “Japanese” people just stay, and stay, either because they feel obligated or because they really have nothing better to do anyway.

          So if you’re worried about how things will go for you working in Japan, I’d say this: make sure you’re clearly on the “foreign” side of the company. This is where speaking English (and not Japanese) can actually work in your favor. You do not want to ganbatte; not like that.

          1. Ken,
            I nearly died reading this comment. I can totally see that happen in my mind. Gotta love the foreign dudes and their freedom. By multinational companies, do you mean foreign-led or japanese-led? Would be interesting to know how those in power see the foreign behaviour and their reaction to it (firing, warning, etc).

            1. Actually, I mean both. I’ve worked for companies led by foreigners, and those led by Japanese.

              And yet, “led” is a poor word choice, as well as the source of the problem. I’ve come to believe that leadership is one of Japan’s biggest weaknesses. In that, there really isn’t any. In its place, there’s bossiness.

              I’ve often read that Japanese people arrive at decisions through consensus, and from the outside, it might appear to be the case. Everybody checks incessantly to ensure that everybody else is okay, spending months reaching simple decisions. Great, now we can finally order a pizza. But what they’re really doing is trying to avoid responsibility. Basically, they’re scared shitless, because if they make the wrong choice, they’ll be blamed forever. Fear’s a huge component of the Japanese psyche.

              But if there’s a Japanese boss, then he or she just makes the call. We’re having pepperoni and onions. And everybody’s pleased as hell with it, because you’d rather eat a pizza you don’t want than lose your job or be ostracized from society.

              If there’s a foreign boss, he or she spends the first few months trying to build consensus and privately complaining about how “the Japanese are so shy” because nobody offers any input. The foreign boss is utterly clueless to the fact that the Japanese people are afraid for their jobs, except for Miss Takeda, who went to high school in the U.S. and speaks her mind. The boss thinks she’s the only one with an opinion; the Japanese folks all hate her and stab her in the back whenever opportunity arises.

              The foreign boss comes in with grand hopes of building a team built upon trust, where everyone contributes to the greater good, but is eventually stymied as the company sleepwalks into a typical Japanese model. Everybody just comes in, blankly does their job, does their overtime out of fear, then goes home. Foreigners quickly realize that they can either rock the boat, trying to drag people into participation and new ways of operating, or just cruise along, and everyone’s happy. They talk about what a harmonious place Japan is.

              Either way, there’s little firing, etc., because that takes decision-making, and involves responsibility. Instead, the Japanese have implemented a system, as they always do. All employees are on a contract. So at the end of one or two years, the contract is simply not re-signed by either party, and the employee quietly drifts off into the ether.

              And that’s how companies operate in Japan, I’d say.

          2. Do japanese co workers always react in that hostile way, if you try to actually work and do something about problems and take responsibility? To be honest, that should be like that anywhere in the world.
            When I started at my current company in Germany, I obviously knew jackshit. The department head & and his 4 subordinates (who were above me in hierachy but under the head) were constantly mocking me and making fun of me when I asked for information and help (which I think you said at some point they also do that in Japan). They also tried to always hinder me at practicing setting up machine plants and other processes. I didn’t give one fuck and did it anyway and mostly learn how do the job (and even the stuff the subordinates do) by myself. Luckily, the head appreciated my efforts and acquired knowledge, and after 2 years I already have the same job (with my own 2 kōhai) as the other subordinates, who by now also respect me and sometimes even ask me fo help.
            Long story short, what I would like to know is, do japanese bosses and co workers appreciate your efforts, as in “rocking the boat”? Have you ever seen personally the consequences if not? What does it take to climb up the ladder? I really hope fucking overtime is not one of the things.

            1. Well, Japanese folks don’t do “hostile.” It’s not a Japanese thing. Passive aggressive—okay, now that’s a Japanese thing. Just wanted to clear that up.

              Let me try to answer your questions, but bear in mind that I’m only talking about my experiences, which are naturally limited. On top of that, I’m speaking in generalities, based upon things I’ve seen and heard about over the years. So this clearly won’t describe every company.

              No, I’ve never seen any evidence that bosses and coworkers appreciate efforts to improve things. Consider the situation—it’s like MacDonald’s. They’ve got a working system that everybody’s cool with, and now some new, foreign dude steps in the middle and says “hey, how ’bout we make Big Macs with four buns?” Your co-workers are not likely to stand up and applaud.

              Yes, I have seen talented, good-hearted people fired, forced out, and essentially banished to Siberia for trying to make changes. Never forget there is one and only one way to write kanji.

              Finally, what does it take to climb the ladder? Uh, there is no ladder. At best, there’s a teeny-tiny step ladder. If you stayed with a Japanese company a long time, you might advance one rung, so that instead of a desk in the middle of the room, you had a desk in the corner. But it’s likely to take years, and involve massive overtime. Bear in mind, too, that you’re not the only one gunning for the corner desk, and that nepotism is almost a Japanese virtue.

              But as I said, I’m sure there are some good companies in Japan. I just haven’t found one myself. Perhaps somebody else can tell that story.

          3. Unbelievable…

            I wonder how long can they go on like this. Don’t they ever wonder why their economic power doesn’t rise at all? I think I might have read somewhere on the Japan Times that the companies actually have a good amount of corporate cash but they don’t take risks to increase that money, and that some economy scientists are pointing that out. Well, it’s a start I guess?
            Thanks for the answer.

      2. My contribution to the contradictory values. It’s a culture that prioritizes consensus to make decisions. The only drawback is the not speaking and communicating part and cliquey divisions makes it hard to build way for organization unity to move forward. I kind of see why Japan’s economy has been stuck forever.

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