In November of 2017, I traveled with China Gorman and Gerry Crispin on a Nanda Journeys continuing education experience to Japan. This is a random collection of thoughts and opinions seeing Tokyo and the surrounding areas with a group of loosely related HR executives. Most of the group have travelled together on prior HR journeys with the Nanda Journeys team, to such areas as Cuba, India, China and other locations. The focus was to experience the people, culture, education, business and labor environment in real time as well as to participate in the “farm to table” agricultural life.
This journey, like the ones before, provided an unforgettable experience. Learning about world cultures and people is an awesome privilege. A special thanks to all that made this possible from the team at Miles LeHane for their support; our clients; Nanda Journeys; the participants and of course all of the people in Japan who made sure that we had an educational, safe environment and an enjoyable learning 9-day experience.
Impression 1 – The People
Day to day life is played out in a very small geographical area with 13 million people in and around Tokyo. Think lots of people in a total space about half the size we would be used to in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Yes, physically they are smaller in stature and size (I should be that slender!) but are amongst the most courteous and helpful when engaged. Some are shy, but culturally it is not appropriate to stand out and or make excessive noise or talk loudly. While this may seem unnaturally quiet it is a norm you soon learn to appreciate. In fact, you start adopting this approach when in a group setting, always mindful about others in a crowded space.
Impression 2 – The Environment
We may talk about common problems such as trash and litter. The people in Japan live a life that is in my opinion very respectful of the environment. For example, trash and litter are basically nonexistent. There are no public trash cans except in food locations. You are expected to carry your trash until you locate a receptacle. It is the cleanest city, roads, highways and public areas I have ever witnessed. While they do clean the public areas, they do this during the middle of the night to be efficient. We even witnessed the cleaning of a bullet train of 9 cars to include “reversing each seats direction” in under 10 minutes by a crew of just a few workers. Homes, public spaces and businesses all follow a very strict level of cleanliness.
Impression 3 – Structure and Procedures
Much of Japan follows a culture of compliance and structure as compared to the US. While on the surface this may seem negative to some, it certainly has advantages when integrated across all areas. For example, education is very structured and provides a solid foundation that has universal meaning. Employment is also structured in that ALL college graduates are offered equal starting salaries when graduating. Literally all hiring is done over a few weeks. For example, it is expected that when a family decides to have children that the mother will take years off to raise their children. In addition, the adult children will care for aging parents.
Impression 4 – Life on the privately held farm
Food and dietary are much simpler in Japan. Fresh food and an emphasis on fish from the surrounding waters of the country with a staple of a few starches such as sweet potatoes, other root vegetables, a variety of greens and of course rice; provide the basics at all meals. Japan prides itself on a high level of self-sufficiency in feeding the population. Given the environment-mountainous from volcanoes-think Mount Fuji- and being surrounded by ocean water, most items when served in balance provide an extremely nutritious diet. Preparation, natural flavors and using some seasonings, provides a variety but healthful food culture. Yes, there are fast food restaurants and other processed food items, but from a cost and diet perspective the people prefer to “eat healthy” and more natural.
Our journey included 2 nights and 3 days living with a “farm” family in their home and practicing traditional life style. This was quite an eye opener experience. First, sleeping on a floor with the traditional tatami mats is a concept I do not plan to adopt (I enjoy my Marriott plush foam 10” mattress too much). Eating at a low table on a cushion –no shoes of course- is something that I also will not adopt. The simple life of minimal creature comforts along with the work of running a farm, is something I am pleased to have experienced but am glad to be back into my normal routine. Believe me, they work hard and steady from sun up until the end of daylight. I must admit that the meals were some of the freshest I have ever eaten.
Impression 5 – Trains, Planes, Automobiles and other
With so many people in a smaller geography, transportation is a key focus area. It is amazing to view the highways (what we would call interstate roads) from a macro perspective. As you fly into Narita airport (90 minutes from downtown Tokyo) you are immediately focused on the number of waterways throughout the entire coastal area. In conjunction with staying in harmony with the land, the major roads are created as elevated roadways along the “river” waterways therefore allowing the land for buildings. Fortunately, snow is not common in Tokyo but the temperatures do drop below freezing. These elevated roads connect with a series of bridges and tunnels that rival no other location I have visited. The underground main tunnels through certain segments of the city make the Boston “big dig” look small. As expected the tunnels were clean, did not leak or have pot holes, and appeared as accident free as you would hope. A polite society also carries over to polite drivers. Impressive!
The cars were mostly those that are produced by Japan. Yes, a few luxury imports but mostly Japanese cars. Also, the government supports hybrid and other alternative fuel vehicles which are abundant. Since Japan has very limited natural energy sources, pure electric cars are at this time not very common. With a population of approximately half of the United States and people clustered in key areas, public transportation is the lifeblood of most workers. We rode a bullet train, which some utilize on a daily basis, at speeds of 140 plus miles per hour. These trains then connect with other more local train s and rail options. While buses are available they are not a primary source of transportation as many streets are narrow. A surprising number of bicycles and moped supplement public transportation.
Impression 6 -Traditions
Everywhere you go in Japan has a long history and values tradition. From the appropriate and respectful “nod” or “bow” to the presenting of your business card, is all done with respect for others. What is more important is that the people do care about the meaning of these traditions and learn them from both the family and the education system. The joy of greeting and saying goodbye is equally important. Taking time for these little gestures builds a feeling of respect amongst all. We also had to opportunity to visit a couple of Temples and Shrines and observe 6 or more weddings. Again, these sacred places are open for Weddings, Religious services, tourists and locals to enjoy all. Most are free of charge to everyone except for Wedding Ceremonies. Families come together from the youngest to the oldest.
Having formal tea is also a tradition with strong religious overtones. Many of the pottery cups and tea pots have significant design implications. For example, we were served in special reserved cups that were made for the 1964 Olympics. Note 2020 will bring the Olympics back to Tokyo. The brewing processes, the tea leaves, and the small treat candy is all important to the gathering for Tea. Respecting the past-celebrating the present-and hope for the future is all embedded in the ceremonies.
Impression 7 – Language-Kimonos-Calligraphy
As expected, language barriers are always difficult to navigate. While living with our “farm family” the four of us and our hosts utilized simple body gestures and hand movements to attempt to communicate. This proved both interesting and somewhat amusing. In the end it all worked well. For all business meetings an interpreter was provided by our host. While many government and professionals understand other languages, all speak Japanese on a daily basis. Fortunately, with a little effort we were able to navigate.
One of our opportunities was to learn calligraphy, an art form in Japan. This was to say the least, difficult for me. But I did gain an appreciation of Japanese letters (3 styles over the centuries). In addition, we also made decorative paper notes and were fitted with a Kimono for a Tea Ceremony by the Buddhist Priest. My thought -t hank goodness for word processes that make perfect Japanese letters!
Like prior journeys this will always be remembered. A smaller group of 14 allowed for more time to share and process our experiences. I will continue to mentally draw parallels and differences between prior trips. What stands out most is the genuine “care” embedded in day to day life and relationships. Yes, they really do care about you and your needs as a person. The sincerity of how they interact, learn from you and share their knowledge is encouraging. A highly successful culture that has endured for centuries looks forward to the future. Yes, they too have issues: a declining birth rate of less than 1.4 / couple. An aging population putting social programs under stress. A shortage of talent in the work force and of course the ongoing global disruptors that we face also. But in summary the people of Japan are up for and open to the challenge. It was a personal honor to have this experience which they made possible.