Saturday, September 30, 2006

Welcome to the World of Gray

"Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent."

Eleanor Roosevelt

Let me give this another shot. The Japanese world - intimidating to your average foreigner. Most of us come over here with little-to-no idea of what is in store. All we have is a company name, a city, a contact. And just like with any new experience, be it a new boyfriend/girlfriend, a new car, or something as complex as working in a foreign country, there is a "honeymoon period" - a time when you can only see the positives to living in Japan, ignoring any small problems in the face of a great experience.

There's nothing wrong with this; in fact, it's unavoidable. But once you do "come down" and start to be objective about your work environment, you might notice some remarkable differences. Some cultural, some personal. After talking to several eikaiwa teachers, I have come to a few conclusions regarding expected behavior in the Japanese workplace - now, whether this is true from the highest corporate ladder in Tokyo to the smallest bank in Matsuyama, I'm not sure. All I do is report my observations and hope that others will benefit and learn from the example.

I believe genkiness in the workplace is two-faced coin. As my fellow foreigners are no doubt aware, the business environment is Japan is remarkably different from anywhere else in the world; co-workers, managers, and janitors alike are expected to behave according to a certain code. In Japanese terms, they are expected to be genki while in the workplace.

What is genki? Genki is the term in Japan associated with energy, being upbeat, even downright happy to the point of psychotic. If you wake up late, don't get the chance to exercise, skip breakfast, get caught in the rain, and lose your wallet on the way to work, you think you can let it show through? Guess what, you can't. You have to be genki to be considered a model worker.

For the most part, I can understand this phenomenon in Japan. It's not by nature good or bad for workers, just a different code of standards on behavior. However, I believe that under some circumstances, especially with Japanese higher-ups dealing with foreign workers, genkiness is not only rude, but downright condescending. For example - consider the banks in Japan. Unlike in America, where you might expect a bank teller to have a low-energy persona while on the job and save their strength for their off-hours, Japan doesn't operate that way. To customers, you have to give off an extremely high level of energy and enthusiasm, regardless of how dismal your job or the task at hand might be.

Now, I can understand this, and even recognize the importance of it in the workplace - as far as customers are concerned; you should "advertise" that you enjoy their business, and appreciate the money they bring in. But what about interactions among fellow employees, or the employee-manager relationship? Surely genkiness isn't expected, since after hours or behind the scenes, no customers are in sight?

Yet this is precisely what happens. Managers relay some trivial information to employees (e.g. "We had two new accounts today! We raised ¥403!"), and they are expected to react with cheering, clapping, smiling over results they really had no or little influence over. Are employees supposed to be excited at all hours during the workday? What do they care if the business raises this much money, or this little money? How does it affect them? It won't affect salaries, it won't affect hours... The only thing extra work does is put more money into the corporation. I don't see how anyone could exactly get a thrill from that. But that's genkiness for you - the other employees may not care either, but they are expected to react with energy and enthusiasm over insignificant figures.

This is even more pronouced when you introduce a foreign worker into the mix - American, Canadian, Korean, or whatnot - and try to enforce the same code of behavior on him. We foreigners aren't prepared for that; we don't understand it, and we may never understand it. But what really strikes me like a slap in the face, and makes me realize I'm never going to entirely fit in, even in something as familiar as the eikaiwa environment, is someone exhibiting the façade of genkiness instead of their true personality.

Case in point - you decide to take a day off during a busy time of the year for your business, something you are entirely within your right to do. And although your manager might grant this request, you sense that he is holding some resentment back, keeping his honne to himself rather that just explaining that he doesn't appreciate your request at this time. But this doesn't happen in the workplace - managers maintain the façade and act completely upbeat, completely genki, even though they are a little resentful.

I know this may be standard behavior in the Japanese workplace, but for me, showing genkiness rather than a genuine reaction is no better than shouting a lie right into my face - it's insulting, and above all, it's condescending; it says to me, "you don't have the intelligence to understand the true reason behind my feelings, so here, enjoy this genki persona. Leave the serious emotions and work to us Japanese, ok, little gaijin boy?"

If you have anger, show it! Let it out of your heart! I get a feeling that working in Japan is like being around a girlfriend after you do something stupid: she may say "everything's ok," (and act genki, of course) but we both know that she's hiding her true feelings. Such is the case here. I would give anything just to get an honest reaction from some people, instead of this veiled, confusing, misinterpreting genkiness.

Proof - Genkiness Required for Jobs:

Gaijinpot Job #1
Gaijinpot Job #2

There's so much carnage in the world right now I'm not going to even broach it... then again, does it ever really let up? I will say this regarding everything that's going on in schools lately (well, the past ten years). I'm not in high school, nor have I been for six years (wow, that sounded weird to say). I believed back then that school was more stressful than work because there is no barrier between your school life and your home life - homework always beats you into submission. That opinion at the time came from a place of ignorance, as I wasn't in the working world. Well, now I am, and I still believe this to be true. Stress in schools just builds higher and higher, and that's to say nothing of the social pressure, which is probably the worst you will ever encounter in your life. People underestimate just how thin the line is between despair, loneliness, anger, and lashing out. Try to understand. I know where these feelings come from - I can't condone their actions, but I think I understand that kind of desperation.


Completely unrelated: I'll be doing an excursion into Diamond City just east of Hiroshima on Monday to explore the shopping district. Should be a fun afternoon. If you're heading out to the Sake Matsuri, Deo Deo in Hiroshima sells cheaper ¥1000 tickets, rather than the ¥1500 you have to pay at the gate.

Tired of buying phone cards? Check this site out for international calling.

If you feel like some mindless promotion of my website, check this out.

Scarlett Johansson - I liked you before Esquire, and my friend should have given you my number at that club in Chicago. Meet me in Tokyo, foreigner-to-foreigner. Your beauty is eclipsed only by your intelligence.

I'll make it there someday...


Jay (Jakanden) said...

I suppose it is just one of those things you just have to accept if you move there, but it doesn't make it any more enjoyable or tolerable.

Anonymous said...

I think that you're confusing "genkiness" with professionalism. The biggest difference between the social behavior of adults and children is that adults have some level of control over their emotions. Or, at least, over the emotions they choose to make known. Why should the extremely American viewpoint of "I am free, therefore, I can do whatever I want, wherever I want, whenever I want" apply in a country that has been quite successful with a totally different philosophy? Bringing your mood swings into the office will only make it harder to work with you. I'd call it unprofessional and childish before blaming it on a lack of genkiness.

ターナー said...

Well, I admit that genkiness and professionalism go hand-in-hand to a certain degree. But this is dealing with more than simply a work ethic - it's a major cultural difference that many foreigners have trouble dealing with.

Regardless of how customers or management might react to your behavior, you are essentially free to be down-to-earth, mellow, or simply courteous in another country... no one is asking you to put on such a display as you see from workers in Japan, being hyper-excited and overly attentive.

As an American, I attribute this to the fact that we really don't want that kind of behavior from workers dealing with the public, we just want to go about our business without having to deal with a "genki" persona.

I'm not saying we should refuse to do this behavior at all. On the contrary, I believe it's necessary if you want to work in Japan. I'm just pointing out it can be rather difficult for those with "American viewpoints", as you say.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I should have explained myself from the point of the service industry. If you're in the business of serving customers (with the exeption of the disgruntled 15 year-olds at McD's) you will definitely get in some shit with your manager if you're not cheerful enough. Just look at the insane grin a server has on their face when they come to your table. Do you think they really give a shit how "everyone" is today, or if they "can get anyone anything"? I'll agree with you that there are some pretty lofty standards in Japan as far as service go, but what would you rather see as a customer. a restaurant I'd like to just eat in peace, but every foreigner that comes to Japan leaves the convenience store with a smile on their face the first time they realize that "irrasshaimase!" is a call to welcome them to the store. When I went home to the states, I was appalled at the lukewarm reception I received despite being a loyal paying customer. It can take everything you have on a Monday morning at 9:00 am to greet someone with a smile or to do the menial task that you're given with "genkiness", but look at the alternative...You're forced to be full of shit at work and at home in America, and you run the risk of being shot repeatedly in the face on your way to the office. Wouldn't THAT morning suck?

ターナー said...

Ummm... I don't know what you mean by that last comment. As for the other, I guess I'm just different. I really don't want salespeople to be super-excited, overly attentive, and following me to see if I need help. I like to handle things myself, very lowbrow, and only call for help if needed. I never feel bad about the lack of energy in convenience stores or shopping areas in America. In fact, it's kind of preferable.

By the way, why are you posting anonymously?

xazuru said...


Anonymous said...

I've seen the genki thing, but I've also seen managers that are really mean and abusive. I'll take genki over that any day. And seriously, holding a Japanese person to their word, on something controversial, at first try? You admitted you sensed hesitation when you asked for time off. That was your CUE to say, "oh, nevermind, it was rude of me to ask at such a busy time." You need to have the manager INSIST, at least three times, before taking the time off. Instead you put the manager in an awkward position. He didn't want to say no and be un-American, not able to handle foreign staff. But he failed to convince staff to forgo vacation, which is bad for the company. Only way to save face is conclude you are a foreigner. At any rate, you purposely ignored the cue and should accept the consequences. I know it's frustrating but open your heart and you will hear what is being communicated without it being said. You can negotiate from there...

mechmouse said...

"I know it's frustrating but open your heart and you will hear what is being communicated without it being said."

If they would just spit it out instead there wouldn't be a problem at all. It shouldn't be left up to me to make the connection that their hesitation means I'm putting them in an awkward position...after all I could just as well assume that they're pausing because they have gas or something. How am I supposed to know if they don't say it? Not all of us are good at subtle social skills (particularly those of us from America) and if this guy deals with foreigners regularly he should know that and facilitate a smooth communication process by adopting a slightly different attitude when dealing with foreign employees. This doesn't mean he should for go his own heritage and culture but it's not exactly rude to say "At this time the vacation requested makes things difficult..." (or is impossible, etc) sure it's a little more blunt than then Japanese are used to, but when you're in a cross-cultural environment everyone has to be willing to be flexible in order to have their needs met.