Saturday, March 28, 2009

Japanese Solutions

If I receive enough feedback and responses from readers, this should be a useful and continuing segment on KPIJ. If not, we’ll let it rest here.

Let me propose situations in which foreigners are living and working in Japan, and come up against a roadblock. Naturally, we will want to overcome these problems. But in the Japanese world, this can sometimes be far from simple. What’s the best method of reaching a solution by saving face to those involved, not disrespecting anyone, and above all, minimizing inconvenience?

Scenario #1
This comes from Japan blogosphere’s own Lea Jacobson, former Tokyo hostess and author of Bar Flower.

You’re working in Japan at an English conversation school (I know, it stretches the imagination, but try to picture yourself there). You commute by car. You have already established a fairly good rapport with your coworkers, and have not felt excluded from anything in the workplace. One morning, the brakes on your car start making a horrible grinding noise. Fortunately you make it to work safely, but the brakes no longer function.

As this is a company-owed car, you feel it is inappropriate for you to take the vehicle in for repairs yourself (Japanese and automotive skills aside). Anticipating that you will merely have to report the situation to achieve a favorable result – the brakes being fixed – you inform your immediate superior, who agrees with your assessment: the brakes are shot. Your superior informs the boss, who decides to drive the car himself to see if there is a problem. He returns to the office, and declares nothing is wrong; the brakes are working fine; there is no noise. Your superior declares “shoganai”.
End scenario

What Lea did in this case was have a fit. I can hardly blame her from a western perspective; after all, she thought she was being asked to risk her life for the company. So she yelled, and eventually the brakes were repaired. However, she did permanently disrupt wa (group harmony) in the workplace and mark herself as the angry, unstable foreigner. Heat of the moment, and all.

What should she have done? What’s the “Japanese solution” to this problem? Hard to say; it always is. It’s easier to look back on this with a certain detachment, simply because I wasn’t involved at the time. I suppose I would have thanked my superior for the help, apologized to the boss for taking up his time with a problem that didn’t exist, and finished out the rest of the day normally. The next day, however, I’d move the car slightly out of my designated parking space at my apartment – say, just down the street – and take the train, taxi, or whatever is most convenient to reach work… late.

Yes, late. I’d walk in late, and explain that I tried to drive this morning, but there was something wrong with the car. I would NOT say the brakes were faulty, because it has already been established by the company that they are fine. Instead, some other problem caused me to pull the car over and find alternative transportation. I might even park the car in a tow-away or ticketed zone.

At this point, someone may volunteer to drive me home after work, and deflect any towing or parking ticket charges. He or she will want to inspect the car, naturally, and, depending on how stubborn the company wants to be, may declare the car is in perfect working order. I’d keep up this pattern of showing up late and blaming it on a different mechanical problem each time until someone finally cracks and takes the brakes in to be fixed. In this way, I suppose, I’m not yelling at the company, and in doing so, calling them liars, nor I am causing my immediate superior to lose face by forcing him to return to the boss to take the blame himself for a misbehaved foreign worker. I have not lost my temper, just calmly explained a different problem every morning that caused me to be late. Oh, and I apologized for the inconvenience of being late, and not taking care of monitoring my car more closely.

I’m honestly not sure if this is a feasible solution, but it is what first comes to mind if something like that happened to me: face is saved, respect is given, and wa is maintained.

What would you do?


Anonymous said...

You should know from your experience of working in Japan that unpunctuality is never tolerated, because it is disruptive and rude. The serial unpunctuality that you recommend, whatever lame excuses were advanced, would be seen for what it was, and would probably result in dismissal.
Return the car and commute by train; only a lunatic would commute by car in the first place.

Turner said...

Like I said, it’s just my first thought. I know the Japanese standards on tardiness, but I’m trying to determine a solution to a problem; in this case, I think the ends justify the means. If you have an alternative solution and a name, I’d love to hear them.

Anonymous said...

The whole Wa thing is really all about everyone feeling cozy and warm and safe. It can lead to serious discontentment and a loss of a person's identity in my opinion. It can be a safe cover for incompetent bosses too. I think losing your temper is bad for your health in the long run but saying nothing is far worse. The best thing to do in Japan is just be a persistent, slightly odd, odiferous type of character that doesn't ignite but doesn't go away either. People will take you seriously and feel safe enough around you though not particularly like you (at first). Whether they like you or not is irrelevant though. Your creativity is great Turner but in the end you'll be considered unreliable not the car. If Lea really felt unsafe she didn't have to drive the car. I feel her outburst wasn't solely caused by the brake situation or the bosses reaction. More likely the culmination of repeated rancid regurgitations by the boss man. I would have got the car looked at by the local garage and satisfied myself as to the actual mechanical condition before pursuing the matter further. Explaining to the boss that an accident would be far more expensive than just fixing the car would probably strike a chord too. Cheapskates think about money not lives.
Hope I have helped.