Lost in Translation


I don’t think I am the first person to ever say this, but Japan is a strange country. It’s been 17 years since my first visit and I continue to find things about the place that puzzle, and fascinate me. I’ll be going about my day, minding my own business, and then I will see something that makes me feel like Alice after she fell down the Rabbit Hole. Japan is an enigma, hidden inside of a paradox, wrapped in a riddle, and served with a side of sticky rice.

For this trip I’m spending the whole week, in and around the various suburbs of Tokyo. I’m staying at a hotel near our Tachikawa office, and using it as a base for daily visits to different Japanese customers. My Japanese colleagues and I have known each other for 5+ years, and have travelled together in Asia, Europe and the U.S., so they make me feel completely at home by treating me normally. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that they don’t make a fuss when I visit. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that one of them spent 3 years in Minnesota, and the other is from Osaka, and people in the Kansai area are known for being very un-Japanese. They laugh, they talk loud, they tell funny stories, exactly the kind of thing that is frowned upon in Tokyo.

The citizens of Tokyo have mastered the peculiar art form of sleeping while standing up. Ride any subway or train, and you will see them standing perfectly still inside of a moving train, or sitting with perfect posture on one of the seats, eyes closed, and chin resting on their chest. It’s amazing. I don’t know how they do it without falling down, or at the very least missing their station. But there they are like audio-animatronic robots that have just powered down for a few minutes to recharge their batteries.

We ride the trains for about 4 hours a day, punctuated only by short half hour meetings with customers where we sit around the table and smile at each other, while everyone speaks Japanese. I assume that they are discussing business, but I have a secret suspicion they are just commiserating with each other about having to entertain another round eyed devil. I have no idea if these visits do any good at all, but I do know that in Japanese businesses, nothing is ever accomplished or decided during a meeting. It is purely a formality, where information may be exchanged, but the meeting usually ends with no apparent progress towards anything. Only weeks later do you learn if some good has come of it. That’s the nature of a society where losing face is the worst thing that can happen to a person, and business decisions are always collectively agreed upon. To an impatient American like myself, business happens at a glacial pace.

Books about doing business in Japan are great at pointing out lots of little etiquettes that are supposed to be followed, and during my first few years of coming here I used to stress about these sort of details. Things like the proper way to introduce yourself, where to sit at a table, or in a cab, depending upon your status and rank. How to serve each other beer, and the proper way to eat with sticks. But after 17 years I’ve kind of stopped caring. Some of it I’ve figured out, and the rest I just look to my Japanese friends to point me in the right direction. I have found that making a fool of yourself, and being able to laugh about it is the surest way to connect with people from any culture.

In contrast to the buttoned up formality of a business meeting, going out to dinner is like hanging with a completely different crowd. Beers are downed, and food is ordered, and over the course of the evening they proceed to get drunk and loosen up. This is when I am at my smart alecky best, as the Japanese tradition is that what happens at the bar, stays at the bar. Subordinates are allowed to get plowed, and make fun of the boss to his face. In the morning it will all be forgotten. The key to surviving one of these nights is to politely let them out drink you. I long ago stopped trying to keep up with them once they start drinking. I decided that it was more entertaining, and healthier for my liver, to keep up for the first few drinks, but back off once their faces turn red, and they start getting buzzed. entertainment. So I am as fresh as a spring chicken this morning, while my colleagues are looking cadaverous in the fluorescent light of the office. A couple of cups of coffee inside of me, and I am ready to take on another day of cultural exchange.

One down, four to go.

10 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

      • Well that’s good then!
        Also helps the guys are more easy-breezy with you. My guy just deals with formality and rigidity and it’s very unenjoyable for him.

        Those dark corporate overlords – do they fly you in economy, or treat you to business class?

  1. And here I was worried about the possibility of cultural differences if I traveled to Oklahoma on business this year…

    That said, do you at least get some free time to take in the sights?

    • Never underestimate the otherworldliness of Oklahoma.

      No free time this trip, but in the past I’ve had chances to spend a day wandering Tokyo sightseeing. And if you can call sitting in a train looking out the window for 3 hours a day sightseeing, I guess I’ve done that too.

  2. Jealous of your opportunity to visit and experience life with our
    Asian neighbors. I agree that it’s more fun to watch a drunk than to be one.

  3. awesome post. i traveled on business in japan for years and was looking for the japanese word for “im sorry…for calling you an ass Mr Big Boss during our nightly drinking” when i came across your post. my translator and colleague told me there is a word for that (which makes sense because there are a hundred words for “im sorry” the way eskimos have 100 words for snow). i used to get many cultural politeness cues wrong which my colleague would instruct me later. i would tell him “tell them that i am ‘gaijin’ – dumb foreigner”. he would laugh and say “i did when we walked in the room”. one such incident was at a very nice tokyo restaurant, the meal was 15 courses, all the size of a thimble and served on tiny Barbie-sized dishes. one course was disagreeable to me and i only ate half of it. after the waiter, then the maitre’d, then the chef, and finally my translator begged me to tell them what could they bring instead, they gave up (i was already 3 courses further on, so who cares?). my colleague told me after (jokingly) “you have brought shame and dishonor to your family. the restaurant lost face by you not eating their course, and then you refused to let them save face!”

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