Usually I do not make any recommendation on books in regard to Japan, but it is time to make an exception. What impressed me most about both books I am going to recommend is that they have been written quite a while ago, but are still so true in 2012. Although I hear daily in the media about Japanese society changing, becoming more transparent and open, Japanese companies embracing global business styles…at the end I wonder how much has really changed. Based on my personal experience for more than 10 years living and working here, apart from the March 11 event with the Fukushima disaster, it is difficult to see noteworthy changes, which is good from my perspective. Otherwise if Japan had become globalized and easily understood from the outside, there would be no reason for me to continue this blog Japan is still a mystery for a big part of the world.
The first book I would like to focus on is “Freakonomics”, which was first published in the U.S. in 2005 and based on the Freakonomics website went on to sell more than 4 million copies around the world, in 35 languages. The authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner bring interesting moral and economic issues to the light. Most likely it will redefine the way you view the modern world, or at least it did for me. One of the covered topics is in regard to sumo wrestlers and yaocho (yaocho is the Japanese word for match-fixing). For those who have not read the book or not seen the movie, have a look at this link:
The Numbers in Sumo Cheating: Freakonomics Movie
The second book worth reading is “Beating Japan” from Francis McInerney, Sean White. The book was written 1993 during the time when the US feared that Japan might take over a big part of the global business. The essence of the book is that the world has not to be so worried, unless Japan starts to radically change and overcome some economic limitations. Quote from the book:
“The Japanese are in a tough spot: they need the loyalty of foreign customers, but have firm hold on them. To get closer to their customer, they must overcome significant cultural differences. At the same time, the Japanese economic engine is running out of steam: the industries that powered its postwar recovery are mature or in decline. New competition is emerging elsewhere in Asia eager to imitate the Japanese and gobble up the markets they fought so hard to win. A breakthrough source of export energy is needed to keep the engine in high gear. Japan has not found that source.”
In my daily life I come across many Japanese, who yearn for change, but at the same time are looking for someone who can create a path for them and guide them. Only in very few cases I have come across people here, who bravely dash forward into the unknown. I guess the fear of the unknown is still much higher than the pain of the present. Personally I see this behavior as positive, because for me the mystery of Japan is still ongoing. Maybe one day I understand Japan a bit better
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Posted in book, Japan on May 29, 2011 |
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During the recent weeks news abroad in regard to Japan were full about tragic, sad and dramatic events related to Japan. Time has come for some funny episodes about Japan. I was lucky to have the opportunity to read “Japan, Funny Side Up”, which was for me especially a joyful experience, because I had always liked Amy Chavez articles in the Japan Times. I had read parts of the book before the earthquake and had now finished it in the last few days. What I liked about Amy Chaves approach in “Japan, Funny Side Up” is that she challenges the reader about the common perception about Japan in a truly funny way. It worked for me well, because I found myself laughing out loud many times. Additionally I was happy to read the same concerns or questions that I still have myself after more than 9 years in Japan. For example I am still getting annoyed many times outside in public to see Japanese adults dragging their feet. After reading Amy’s book I have shifted my perception. Instead of getting annoyed every time and screaming inside of me “can’t you walk?”, I guess I should learn to do it myself with Amy’s instruction:
“The proper way to drag your feet is to lean back on your heels and point your toes out. You should hear a definite scraping sound with each step so you effectively wear down the rubber on the soles.”
I guess after having purchased for the first time in my life last week a yukata and fitting geta (Japanese style sandals) it is the prefect timing for me to learn how to walk the Japanese way. So far learning to walk at home was not too effective as I tend to wabble on the geta.
Another example which felt close to my heart: Japanese letters. I have to confess I am a rather impatient person and Amy’s description about the pain of receiving a Japanese letter is just wonderful. Opening a Japanese letter is truly a painful task, because no matter what you will do, you cannot get a Japanese letter open the way you are used to do it abroad:
“Round one: Try to open the letter by sticking a thumbnail under the corners of the flap. Try again, this time using the thumb and index finger to start peeling the flap off. Defeated!
Round two: Letter opener poised, attempt to insert the very tip of it under the corner of the flap. Dig and pry, dig and pry. Curse. Try again, this time using a sashimi knife. Defeated!
Round three: Fetch a pair of scissors to cut open the end of the envelope. When you realize you’re cutting the letter because Japanese stationary fits so tightly, it leaves no extra room in the envelope, curse again. Defeated!
Round four: Go ahead, get the sledgehammer.”
I think I had ripped up countless Japanese letters, simply because I could not open them properly. For sure her comments about Japanese culture, business and everyday life let me laugh out loud many times with her unique description of Japan which are so true: “Japan: A nation ruled by cartoon characters”, the immensely colorful clothing style of children or then the explanation of employees at a bank in terms of ants. Furthermore at the end of the book I enjoyed the Gaijin quiz, which was funny and reflects reality the way I perceive it too. For Japan beginners the glossary is very helpful.
If you care about Japan and want to have a good laugh, “Japan, Funny Side Up” is the book I recommend.
Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤)
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One of my favorite weekend activities is browsing through Nikkei Shimbun not only with the viewpoint on what news are available, but much more what is presented and how. What kind of market reviews or ads are popular? Are there changes over time, or is the difference just seasonal based? Overall the marketing style does not change much considering the rather fixed given readership.
Another highlight from the marketing perspective: As Nikkei Shimbun is a business related newspaper the number of potential rip off ads is rather low, but still existing. I truly admire the marketing genius of the many low-cost manufactured products promoted over time. Of course there is always the chance that I cannot value the uniqueness of all these products and they might be actually really a great bargain as promoted.
Last weekend my focus while browsing through the newspaper: What kind of books can get larger ad space? As advertising space is not cheap only books that allow the biggest potential success are shown, consequently these books must then be the present trend. Two books got my attention, while I had to smile about the first one, contrary with the second one, I am concerned that insecurity and fear are used to push sales.
On the left hand side, you might notice a book about “The Japanese Way of Sitting”. Personally sitting the Japanese way is for me a painful exercise, that gets rapidly truly painful and can only be compared to torture. Either my legs or my pain level is not made for Japanese style sitting. Over the years I have asked many people on how they avoid this horrendous pain, but no one could give me useful advice. Potentially not only me, but many younger Japanese cannot handle long time seiza style sitting anymore and this book might be the solution.
The next book on the bottom right is addressing the increasing fears that are felt inside of Japan caused by the economical challenges locally, potential decreasing market size all combined increased competition from abroad. The rough translation is “The day has come when the weak are dropped”. For years now Japanese business/society has been working hard to get out of the business slump, but so far no success. It seems that step by step other regions have found a way for improvement, plus now as a final eye opener China’s financial influence can be felt in daily life. All of the sudden Ginza is full of Chinese tourists that spend much more on shopping that the locals. In order for the locals to increase their sales, more and more companies are forced to make the decision whether to stay local or go global. For sure financial pressure pushes many professionals to rethink their business approach. What can actually a Japanese company do to keep their market share or is there no choice but to go abroad for survival? As an employee with limited English and international exposure how is it possible stay with the present job with increased global competition? Many are caught up in the increasing tougher rat race and are wondering what could be done. The book by Camel Yamamoto seems to have the solution for the main concerns.
What can you do if you need to learn to think global, but you cannot go abroad? I believe this is a challenge that most Japanese professionals are facing now.
How can you become an equal partner in global negotiations? Due to the general Japanese insecurity of their English skills, international negotiations become very difficult to handle and I had seen very seldom a negotiation in English that was actually a partner level negotiation.
How come that the “technological strength of Galapagos” is not understood and adapted abroad? In telecommunication, electronics or measuring standards, most of the time a Japanese standard exist, that might be even developed before other regions in the world, but at the end the global standard does not reflect the Japan standard.
How do you deal with foreign coworkers or even boss? Although the numbers are not yet high, compared to the past more multilingual foreigners are employed at Japanese companies. Apart from being fluent in Japanese, having the right professional background combined with international business experience, I believe it is not surprising when fear pops up. I think it is natural that every society or group that has to accommodate “outsiders” shows some reactions to the “newcomer” so these concerns are understandable.
Another challenge: Limited knowledge of global legal systems, finance procedure and HR practices.
Personally I wish I had the time now to read and review the books from Camel Yamamoto as he seems to have published several along the topic of globalizing Japanese people. In case if you had read one, do keep us informed!
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Paulo from Portugal contacted me through LinkedIN with the request whether I could share with him my preferred English based news websites worthwhile to visit in regard to Japan (“not in a highly deep level but more to know of relevant things that are happening in Japan”). As I am always very happy to be contacted through comments here directly on the blog, twitter or LinkedIN, I think the question raised by Paulo is worthwhile to create an article. Of course there are many sites, books and movies to recommend, so I will focus only on those sites I visit for sure several times a week, book content that stayed with me and movies that I have seen at least twice.
My every day lighter news source is Japan Probe. I get my daily updates by email through subscription of what topics are popular on TV. For serious deeper level news update, I prefer Wall Street Journal (Japan Real Time). Although most of the news are written from a Western Perspective, unlike other news sources I perceive Japan Real Time from a less US based viewpoint than others. Otherwise from a Japanese perspective either the English version of Asahi Shimbun or Yomiuri Shimbun works for me.
There are many books written in regard to Japan, but a lot are outdated and do not reflect the present Japanese culture or business style. If you like to have a good laugh while reading about Japan, check out Amy Chavez “Japan, Sunny Side Up”. When time finally allows, I will be reviewing the book on this blog too. If you are interested in the heart of business dealings of the Japanese companies with foreign companies, a great eye opener is “Saving the Sun: A Wall Street Gamble to Rescue Japan from its Trillion-Dollar Meltdown” by Gillian Tett. It is the true story on how Shinsei Bank came into being. Another page turner about the darker sides of Tokyo is written by Jake Adelstein “Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan”.
If you want to see a heart warming movie about the Showa Period, check out “Always: Sunset on Third Street” (ALWAYS 三丁目の夕日). Actually there are two parts of this movie and no matter which you see, I can guarantee you a couple of heartful, teary moments. Although the story is based on a manga from the past, the strength of the story is to remember how small town once Tokyo was. In order to observe more about Japanese culture I recommend Departures (おくりびと, Okuribito). Although death plays an important role in this movie, for me personally it is an optimistic, respectful movie. Let’s say you are interested to know what it actually means for some Japanese salarymen to work for a larger Japanese company, do watch: Sun Never Sets (太陽は沈まない). Although it is a very long movie, I have heard a lot from the original book was cut, but still I am deeply impressed by this movie.
Enjoy all the above sources and do remember, if you have any questions or comments, just add it here or contact me under LinkedIN or then twitter (sibylleito).
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For me Japan is the country I hope to spend the rest of my life and therefore care a lot. By chance I came across the book “Lost Japan” by Alex Kerr again and I was wondering whether the content is still applicable after more than 14 years after first publication. Like his other book “Dogs and Demons” he shows the actual Japan and is not solely praising Japan like as if seen trough pink glasses. Seeing the reviews on Amazon, some even argue that Alex Kerr’s viewpoint is cheap Japanese journalism and that he has apparently gone native. Personally I believe in many cases he has an interesting viewpoint and his arguments make sense to me. Let me share some aspects of the book that still are very much true for me.
The importance of an official opinion instead of speaking one’s mind:
“Why did stagecraft develop to such a level in Japan? At the risk of oversimplification, I would say it was because Japan is a country where the exterior is more valued over the interior. One may see the negative effects of this in many aspects of Japanese life. For instance, the fruits and vegetables in a Japanese supermarket are all flawless in color and shape as if made from wax, but they are flavorless. The importance of the exterior may be seen in the conflict between tatemae (officially stated position) and honne (real intent), which is a stable of books written about Japan. Listening to the debates in Japan’s Diet, it is abundantly clear that tatemae is given preference over honne. Nevertheless, this emphasis on the surface is not without its positive side, for Kabuki’s unparalleled stagecraft is a direct result of such prizing of the outward.”
I often heard the same comments about the difficulty to make friends as Japanese:
“There are the people you know in high school who remain bosom buddies for life. Everyone you meet after that cannot be trusted.”
Although the attraction of Japan compared to China does not apply to me – at least I think so – still there is some truth in it. Personally I think living in Japan is more comfortable than anywhere else I had experienced:
“I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds…..China will never allow you to sit back and think, “all is perfect.” Japan, on the other hand, with its social pattern designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is much more comfortable to live in. Well-established rhythms and politeness shield you from most unpleasantness.”
As for the last quote, I see some truth in it and now I am still wondering whether truly education could be the origin for the commonly complained lack of creativity and originality. At the same time from Japanese perspective my drive and desire for constant improvement could be my disadvantage for finding truly happiness as being average:
“It has often been pointed out that the Japanese educational system aims to produce a high average level of achievement for all, rather than an excellence for a few. Students in school are not encouraged to stand out and ask questions, with the result that the Japanese become conditioned to a life of the average…Americans are taught from childhood to show creativity. If you do not “become a unique person”, then you are led to believe you have something wrong with you… I sometimes think that the requirement to “be interesting” inculturated by American education might be a very cruel thing. Since most of us lead a commonplace lives, it is a foregone conclusion that we will be disappointed. But in Japan, people are conditioned to be satisfied with average, so they can’t fail but to be happy with their lots.”
Basically I think the message of Alex Kerr is still correct that a lot of cultural knowledge and goods are lost in Japan, but I need to say that this is not only a Japanese phenomenon. Although time has passed, I still recommend “Lost Japan” as a book with great insights for foreigners and a wake up call for Japanese.
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