What Makes Japan, Japan?
When I saw this ARTICLE about kick-ass questions asked in job interviews by Japanese HR Managers, I was reminded of the questions lingering in my mind about what Japan must really be like.
Are they as serious as they seem? Are they as brilliant as they obviously are? Is life there so organized and ‘planned out’ for everyone? Is everyone a workaholic? Does everyone there live to be 90 and older?
I can swear that when I was a kid, I would watch a documentary about Japan’s advanced technology and right away confirm that they were aliens.
I mean, how could a 6 year old be able to assemble a radio? At that time, I could only assemble together those cheap street dolls, save for the glued-on hair which would have already been ripped off by my little sister; But there I was, supposedly on the same planet as someone, a kid my age, who could put together electronics?
I have had Japanese friends over the years and apart from their ‘shy’ demeanor, out-of-this-world kindness and the oh-so-cute accent, I hardly got 100% of my questions about Japan answered. So I figured that the best way for me to be satisfied, second to actually going there myself (definitely on my bucket list), would be to ask a Kenyan friend who had been there long enough.
What makes Japan, Japan- a Kenyan perspective by a curious human being and Mutembei Kariuki.
Mutembei, a fellow AIESEC alumnus, was the unfortunate recipient of my many questions. He was in Japan a year ago on one of the famous AIESEC EXCHANGE PROGRAMS, similar to the one that dropped me in Czech Republic some two years back.
Here’s how our conversation went:
Akumu Fiona: I am interested in knowing what makes Japan, Japan. How long were you there for?
Mutembei Kariuki: 3 months, in 2012
I was there on an Internship organised by AIESEC Tokyo with a Waste Management Company called SHIRAI GROUP CO. doing Marketing, CSR & External Relations learning how Japanese Technology manages Waste and turns it into a resource.
Akumu Fiona: So, what do you think makes Japan so unique?
Mutembei Kariuki: Well Japan has always been referred to as the far East; So one reason it may be so unique is its Isolation. The fact that it is almost a totally Homogenous Island that isolated itself and kept away outside interest to develop its culture alone is one way it is so unique. This makes it have very distinct cultures that are completely Japanese…and they have a way of putting a bit of Japan in everything.
That’s the way I see it.
Akumu Fiona: What is the most distinct thing about Japanese people that you noticed in your first month?
Mutembei Kariuki: Well I have to say one of the 1st things is how there is so much homogenity with the society. Everyone conforms to a certain norm, even dress code. The guys all wear black suits and the ladies dress the same especially professional people.
Time is also really structured and conversation is usually hierarchical and formal. There is a time for everything; Everything with its place. After work is when the mask per-say comes off and people open up.
Akumu Fiona: Do you think that is what makes them so successful? Or what does?
I am using the word successful here to mean: Leaders in innovation.
Mutembei Kariuki: Yes…to a large extent this was something that was kind of a social programming done by previous intellectuals probably in the Meiji era of Japan mixing Buddhist and Samurai discipline and getting everyone to conform…this translated into everyone taking part in the industrial revolution and committing to the idea of everything having its place, time and way.
This helped in the Industrial age of Mass production and Manufacturing and made them successful in applying innovation; but now, Innovation is more disruptive and not process-oriented like the efficient processes that brought lower cost and high quality electronics and cars to the market( Toyota and Panasonic). Japan mastered KAIZEN “continuous improvement” but now the world is much more disruptive and this may be a challenge for Japan in the short term.
Akumu Fiona: Hmm…so social programming makes them conformists…does that translate to every part of their lives? Strict following of rules, mantras, elders etc?
Mutembei Kariuki: It was quite the eye opener about how Social Systems can be managed…collectiveness and community was so engrained that before Japan opened itself up they had no word for ‘I’ as a Japanese friend of mine, who studied Philosophy at The University of Tokyo, mentioned to me. The culture has always been about ‘Wa’ which is Harmony.
The Japanese will always do their best to have harmony even to the extent of ignoring things. It translates to all parts of life. You’ve heard of the loyalty they had for the Emperor before the constitution was changed. People would die for the emperor. But, western philosophy will be confused when looking at such an Eastern culture.
To my knowledge, the individual doesn’t exist outside the society; so the reason for people to conform is that the society is the highest approving and identity-giving structure. Shame is the utmost thing to avoid. An example is the AKB48 GIRL (though it’s not representative of most people’s tastes in music); it shows how people respect the community so much that even a celebrity will ask for public forgiveness in such a manner. This whole idea is one of the amazing things about their culture that connects the people.
Akumu Fiona: What makes it different from the (traditional) African culture of collectiveness?
Mutembei Kariuki: Well I’ll assume you are asking why the collectivism in Africa has not made us as prosperous and having as high a standard of living as Japan.
Akumu Fiona: Haha…yes..partly.
Mutembei Kariuki: From what I saw, my take it this: Japan is different in that it is Homogenous with one common language across the Island. Different from the vast land of Africa with many complex dialects. So what about in smaller communities you may ask? Well Japan, if I was to compare it to Kenya, is about 1/2 the size with almost no natural resources except for water, rock, fish, trees…oh and people. So we start from a scarcity point where you need to innovate to survive and thrive.
It is interesting that just recently TOYOTA REGAINED NO.1 in the Automobile Sales and production ranking yet no single part is made from raw material found in Japan. In Africa, even if there has been collectivism, there has also been abundance. Nature sheltered people from harsh weather and scarcity of food for the longest time. Hence, the need to survive and bring order was not too huge.
Akumu Fiona: So you are saying necessity made them who they are…interesting.
Mutembei Kariuki: I think the island survival complex can explain the way collectivism has worked for them…look at Britain, an Island, and the Empire they amassed. I mean- the whole world has to learn English now!
In the same way, Japan wanted to and almost dominated the Pacific. Their collectivism was driven by the need to thrive as a civilization at all costs. Nature had pushed them to innovation and survival.
Akumu Fiona: Okay. And how are they socially? Is it true that they do not smile so easily? I know it is almost a silly question. It is because I saw a feature on smiling classes in Japan a while back. I had to ask :p
Mutembei Kariuki: Haha! No, that is not true…Japanese people smile a lot…….they are some of the most smiley people I know But as I said everything has its time and place. One sad thing that may have resulted in the smiling classes is how the structure of the Industrial economy has overworked so many people such that they are so tired- they don’t have time to find something to smile about.
It is normal to have a 12 hour work day and most people work 14 or even 18 hrs a day- so you can see how smiling can become a problem.
Ironically productivity is low for these amount of hours since the nature of economies has shifted from Industrial production to Information and services. The latter is not so much about hours spent producing more units but about differentiation, creativity and other things that need people rested; With this, productivity is not driven by time spent but by ideas. When they switch to this, then hopefully more people will be smiling like I remember them doing at off peak hours in the Izakayas.
Akumu Fiona: haha! What are Izakayas?
Mutembei Kariuki: Hahaha that’s the name for the Pubs in Japan. They are awesome. After work you go in and you have a private table in a sort of dug out, you hang your coat and order some fried seafood to go with you beer.
Oh another reason why Japanese are naturally smiley people is their love for “Kawaii or cute” things.
Kawaii is one of those only-in-Japan things. KAWAII means Cute. Anything that is adorable and makes you smile at its quirkiness and/or prettiness.
Akumu Fiona: Okay
Despite such working schedules- they still find a way to outlive most of the rest of the world. The life expectancy there is quite high, right?
Mutembei Kariuki: Yes the life expectancy is super high: No. 1 or 2 in the world. The long life is a mix of the food they eat, the discipline of exercise and excellent healthcare they have. The diet is mostly seafood which is low in fat. Something like seaweed is a natural agent of burning fat in the body (Honestly, very few japanese have mid-section fat).
They love exercising. Once at 6am while jogging in the park, I found a bunch of older Japanese men and women already in the park doing their morning exercise.
They also always do health check-ups at least once a year which is almost mandatory by company directive. By the way, government institutions do morning exercise every day before work.
The healthcare system is great especially for the elderly.
In school, they are taught about nutrition in detail and most of them know exactly how many calories what kind of food has and its composition.
The Island of Okinawa has the most 100 yr olds in the world.
Most of the crazy hours are clocked in the big city like Tokyo but people from smaller cities and the majority of Japanese always try to maintain a balance between work and life, especially with family. The current generation may however have a problem in the future.
Akumu Fiona: Wow. We have a lot to learn from them huh?
Okay, last questions:
How curious were they about an African such as yourself? What were the top 3 questions they asked you?
What are the top things you think you learnt from Japan and their culture?
Mutembei Kariuki: The Top 3 Questions:
They asked if I run
How come I speak English so well
How often I see animals
Akumu Fiona: Hahaha! A Kenyan’s usual I-have-been-asked-that-before questions:
Mutembei Kariuki: 3 things from their Culture:
1. Hard work and Discipline is the hallmark of any progress (They have a saying: If they do their level best and leave anything they have tried and cannot do to God, everything else they prepare for 100%)
2. Individuality is sometimes overrated if it is impeding progress
3. Waste nothing (there is a word Mottainai which means no waste- Six Sigma has it origin here with what Toyota was doing before Motorola developed Six Sigma); make the most of every opportunity for efficiency and effectiveness and remove all the waste of either time, energy, space and always have sustainability in mind.
Akumu Fiona: Great! Thank you very much Now that’s a country I must visit : D
Mutembei Kariuki is a Traveler Soul both in interests and actual places from working with Children’s Rights at the UN in New York to Participating in reality TV in Mozambique, Working in Social Entrepreneurship in India and Brazil to Managing Talent in Europe and now, interested in Sustainability Science plus other business endeavors. Some of his thoughts can be found on his blog HTTP://MUTEMBEZI.WORDPRESS.COM/