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    Understanding Japan Through The Karate Kid Cultural understanding through inspirational films

    Today’s guest post comes from everybody’s favorite Kiwi, the awesome Hikosaemon. He’s an incredibly prolific video blogger living in Tokyo, and his post today is about coming to understand Japanese values. Enjoy!

    About five years ago now, I sat in a meeting room being interviewed by a very senior woman executive of the American company I eventually joined. I had made the decision that after a total of 11 years working in Japanese companies for Japanese people, it was time to make the jump into a gaishi-kei (a foreign company).

    She looked at my rather unusual resume, noting that I had spent my entire working life in Japanese companies, working for Japanese people and speaking Japanese. She turned to me and asked me a question which caught me off-guard.

    “After all this time working in Japanese companies, what would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned?”

    That’s a tough question. I hesitated, wondering how I was supposed to answer such an open ended question. But after a few seconds, a phrase popped into my head that really best summarized the sum of what I had learned through all those years of learning to cope and survive with the Japanese work ethic.

    I responded: “little things are big things.”

    Uh Ohhh…

    Talking about “culture” is always a bit of a trap. Political correctness tells us not to generalize about large groups of people, and makes us very aware of the many exceptions to every general principle we may be tempted to observe.

    It’s a Trap meme

    At the same time however, there are broad differences in how people interact within different national cultures, that transcend simple individual differences, that are influenced by the history and customs of the location they originate from.

    Such generalizations don’t work in every context, but after long resisting the idea of using them, I finally came to realize that a couple of general insights about Japanese culture really helped give me a context to understand many of the attitudes and work practices that I simply could not otherwise wrap my head around.

    Boiled down to its very essence, the unifying realization that I came to is that just about every aspect of life in Japan, from all kinds of businesses, to clubs, to sports, to hobbies and recreation has the mentality of the Japanese artisan infused into it to some degree.

    Understand Your Own Values In Order To Understand Others

    The only way to begin to understand any culture in context, is to first have some objective understanding of your own culture, and to break through the presumption that “norms” of your own culture are not the “universal truths” that we often believe them to be.

    Screenshot from Little House on the Prarie with the main characters standing for a family photo

    Working for Japanese, as a New Zealander, I found many aspects of “common sense” from my own culture, frankly, completely lacking in the way that Japanese work and play. The, admittedly very WASP values that many New Zealanders carry with them through the world include concepts such as:

    • Family first
    • You work to live – you work in order to be able to go home and spend time with your family while providing for them
    • The primary goal of work is efficiency and productivity, finding better ways to get things done is a constant goal
    • The primary purpose of out of work personal activities is enjoyment and relaxation

    These aren’t all of them, but these are the values I had which I found most conflicted when trying to adapt to working conditions here.

    Wax On, Wax Off

    One of my first introductions to Japanese culture that did not involve WWII or Ninja Turtles, was the movie Karate Kid. I must have been about 10 when it came out, and remember watching it, being a bit puzzled, as I’m sure many other kids are, by the unusual training that Mr. Miyagi (for some reason “Mr. Miyaji” in the Japanese dubbed version) put Daniel san through, painting fences, waxing cars and sanding floors. It didn’t make any sense. Mr. Miyagi looked simply like a bully using Daniel as a servant.

    Mr. Miyagi speaking to Daniel from the Karate Kid

    As we all know, forcing Daniel san to do all those crappy jobs was an indirect way for Mr. Miyagi to build Daniel’s character, and train him without jumping straight to the super sweet ninja death grips that every kid wants to learn in karate on day one. Over time, it’s something I came to recognize as the artisan work ethic that can be seen to different degrees in most aspects of life in Japan.

    The only difference is that unlike the movie where Daniel san is only tormented for a few weeks, in real life, you often end up waxing on and waxing off for decades.

    Not Getting It

    My own experiences often synced with those of others like me who felt frustration and exasperation working in Japanese workplaces. Getting dressed down for things like using the wrong colour pen, or there being a single spelling mistake on an 80 page document I created, or worse still, being accused of being lazy when finding quicker more efficient ways of performing certain tasks.

    Man smashing his face into a book with the caption: Facebook, you’re doing it wrong

    From part-time jobs to rugby clubs to different types of companies, this kind of obsession with superfluous detail is something that drives many people – Japanese and non Japanese – nuts when living and working in Japan. The problem that I had was that while I could understand that different people work differently in any country or culture, in New Zealand at least, I could usually understand the mentality of people, even if I disliked or disagreed with how they worked. In Japan, working weekends and late nights in ways that made no rational sense to me was something that I struggled with.

    Over time, I have seen the most committed hardcore Japanophiles throw their hands up in exasperation, call BS, and leave situations like this. My problem was that coming from NZ as a university graduate, I had promised myself that come Hell or high water, I was going to stay in my first job here for at least 3 years; so I searched desperately to find a handle I could use to at least understand why I was working late into the night and throughout my weekends doing what often seemed like menial unnecessary tasks.

    One Night Taichi Sakaiya and Baigan Ishida Saved My Life

    The epiphany hit me after about a year being in Japan. Having done a lot of reading of books on Japanese culture and society preparing to come to Japan, and finding all of that preparation of very little help when I was here, one day I flashed back to a passage in a book about Japanese society by former METI bureaucrat Taichi Sakaiya called “What is Japan.”

    A Japanese man in a suit with glasses against a stylized Beijing skyline background

    When I first read it before coming to Japan, I didn’t really like the book. It was extremely broad and general, attempting to explain all of Japanese culture with sweeping generalizations, based on chains of logic that jumped all over the place through Japanese history, culture and tradition. It was very unlike western academic writing that I was used to and had pretty much ended up disregarding most of what the book had to say upon first reading.

    However, what brought me back to the book was his outline of what he sees as the origins and nature of the Japanese work ethic.

    Sakaiya explains that Japanese leaders around 400 years ago faced problems of economic instability caused by a large, industrious population living in a country that was resource-poor, and unable to sustain prolonged consumerist economic booms.

    Cover for a book called 'What is Japan?'

    Rulers of the time found a useful solution to this problem in the philosophy of a school of Zen Buddhism set up by Baigan Ishida, based on the precept that “all work is the pursuit of knowledge”, whereby work is seen primarily as a means of building character, and only secondarily as being productive. By making a virtue out of hard work and frugality at the same time, the philosophy emphasized the showing of dedication to detail in work, rather than production.

    The shogunate adopted and spread this philosophy throughout Japan for the “cooling” effect it had on Japan’s boom/bust economies of the time.

    Traditional painting of a man in aristocratic Japanese robes
    Blame this guy for everything.

    Sakaiya cites this philosophy as lying at the root of the obsession of many Japanese with attention to detail, even where such detail is unimportant. He cites examples of imported products failing in Japan, not because of poor value or function, but because of people being dissatisfied with more superficial aspects of the build and finishing of such products.

    If you go online nowadays and look at restaurant and product review forums on site like Kakaku.com and Yahoo Gourmet, you’ll see that many of the sternest reviews often obsess more over aspects of presentation and packaging more than the product or meal itself.

    People have a way of judging performance not by how core functions are performed, but rather on the dedication to working hard shown by the person being judged, and their attention to unimportant detail. The sign of an artisan is someone who spent years or decades as an apprentice, tediously being forced to learn to perfect every aspect, important and unimportant, of what they do.

    This philosophy remains, in my experience, deeply embedded in the culture, be it in school, clubs, sports, hobbies, service industries, or manufacturing. For me, understanding this at least allowed me to for the first time understand why I was getting in trouble for finding more efficient ways to be productive, why my superiors would never simply give me answers to questions I asked about how certain things are done, why everyone would badmouth people who left work at a reasonable hour, and why such emphasis is placed on demonstrating dedication through long hours spent on relatively menial tasks.


    The first Japanese comedy skit I ever laughed at was “Oyassan” by a comedy troupe led by the duo Downtown. It’s the same scenario played out in various old-town settings of an old artisan mercilessly bullying a young apprentice first with verbal, and then escalating physical abuse.

    Having been mystified trying to keep up with other Japanese comedy skits up until first watching this, I laughed until I cried, simply because I recognized the scenario from being sternly dressed down at my part time job at a souvenir shop in Auckland for similar transgressions, such as placing a price tag on the lower right instead of lower left of the reverse of a box, or using a blue pen instead of a black pen for credit card forms.

    It’s never as bad or extreme as it is shown in the Oyassan skit, but it does illustrate in a vivid way the kind of Karate Kid training that apprentices in Japan go through in contexts that go beyond the artisan setting from which such practices originated. Young rugby players are forced to hand wash the jerseys of senior team players (and dressed down for missing spots). Apprentice chefs can spend years simply cleaning and chopping before being allowed to cook.

    In office environments, I have worked in different companies where high level responsibilities such as being allowed to act as a note-taker in a meeting, or to pick up the phone and talk to clients, are privileges that can take years to earn. Staff within manufacturing companies being groomed for senior management are forced to work on all the production lines and business areas of the company over years and years, so that when they become senior managers, they understand every aspect of the companies they manage and the products they make (something that gives me huge respect for the senior managers of Japanese companies I have met).

    The idea is that the people in the senior role in all these scenarios must first foster and shape the character of the apprentice through hard work and perfectionism.

    But Just Remember…

    In my early years in Japan, I saw many foreign workers like myself come and go: Japanese-speaking, bright-eyed, with big dreams of making an impact working in Japan, leaving after just a couple of years exasperated at the BS that people have to put up with.

    Indeed, this same culture is what also drives many Japanese to live and work abroad. Japan’s high rates of burnout and stress related illness are testament to the negative side effects.

    As a foreigner here, what killed me was that I couldn’t anchor myself with any kind of philosophy to understand WHY people were behaving as they were, for me to process and put in context what was expected of me and how I was supposed to succeed by the standards of those judging me.

    Two men in very small red and blue bathing suits

    Understanding the philosophy also helped me to recognize the positives of this ethic. It is behind the reputation for high quality of manufactured goods from Japan, and the many humble hard working engineers, chefs and artists from Japan who have become world leaders simply through their dedication to perfection of their chosen crafts.

    An explanation very similar to the one above was given to me by a Nikkei American coworker. The need to show dedication to working, and the need to not be seen to be letting the team early by leaving when your work is done when others are still busy. It felt liberating to be able to understand it. But then my friend, who is an American with Japanese parents, added the kicker:

    “Just remember, it’s all bullshit…”

    The aim of this is not to discourage people from coming to Japan. On the contrary, I want more foreigners to come to Japan, and for Japanese people to have greater exposure to global influences.

    The point is however, that the philosophy outlined above pervades most aspects of life in Japan, and based on the values that I brought with me to Japan, it was completely incomprehensible. Understanding expectations and following them is an important part of living life here.

    But at the same time, never forget or let go of your own values. Having the ability to analyze situations accurately and in detail through multiple cultural prisms is a valuable tool that few people have – even those who are able to proficiently speak foreign languages.

    Mr. Miyagi looking upset with the caption: That car better sparkle, son. Mr. Miyagi doesn’t play.

    For me, understanding the Japanese artisan work ethic was one of those magic “keys” that made a lot of aspects of living in Japan that I was struggling with make sense. It doesn’t make living here any easier, but it gives a context through which you can understand many of the unsaid aspects of things going on around you, that often based on pure objective logic will not make any sense whatsoever. So try to bear the above in mind whenever dealing with Japanese culture, keep an open mind, and go and wax 50 cars for me. Now.