Friday, April 29, 2011

Does the Japanese Education and Job Search Process Stifle Personal Ambitions?

As the news of my imminent departure from Japan and Rakuten continues to spread like a wildfire within the company, the compilation of reactions is certainly becoming a tool for me to further understand what it means to be a salary-men. The stability-seeking middle class backbone of Japanese corporate world, so loyal to their companies and so diligent in fulfilling top-down orders day in and day out, becomes something very interesting when even they become disillusioned with reality within the current work environment.

But before talking about disillusion and all, it is important to note just how "stability-oriented" Japanese education and job-search processes really are. Because of continued tendency for mass hiring, job posts are generally specified for new grads, nor are job posts really open to selection by the new grads themselves. Unless the new grad in question have seriously strong skill in one aspect, he or she will simply be placed, along with most others, in some sort of new grad position generally used to determine who has the toughness to grind it out and who will simply quit.

The funny thing is that the filter for new grads, for most companies, is sales. It is an additional role played by sales in Japanese society. In fact, observing the sales potential of a new grad began even before the new grad enters the company. During job interviews, the new grads are judged by their ability to "sell" themselves to the interviewer by keeping a good conversation while not sounding too self-righteous.

Of course, "selling" yourself well is necessary to succeed for job interviews in any country, but only in Japan does that act of "selling" yourself becomes so well-connected to the actual job assigned after entering the company. And precisely because most new grads know that they have to be tested by the filter anyway (no matter what Japanese company they enter), they have no reason or incentive to really think about and decide on what they really want to do for a career during their college years.

Now, with this sort of background cleared up, it is easily explained why people will feel confused (and outraged, in many cases) when a salary-man seeks to quit a company in such a short period of time. For one thing, the new grad is obviously not showing any gratitude for the company instilling toughness into him. But more importantly, it just makes no sense that the new grad is leaving before the "filter" (in this case, sales) can effectively measure whether he or she is a good fit in the company.

Amid the confusion, the reaction can be in two directions. One is the standard "guilt" passage. No congratulations, no goodbyes, just the standard "why are you quitting when we invested so much in you?!" grilling. The griller in question seeks to drag back the new grad from the edge of quitting by making him feel that he cannot leave until his responsibility is fulfilled (something that will obviously take years and years, given that Japanese job-training program is designed based on the assumption that salary-men are expected to work pretty much their entire lifetimes within a particular company)

The other is the "acceptance and encouragement" passage. There is hearing on the background, logic, and rationale for the new grad's choice without any excess negative opposition. The boss seeks to keep a good image with the new grad by showing that the company supports the new grad's decision and always welcome the new grad to reapply. The new grad leave the company with a good impression of the company as an open, accepting place that he can always seek to reapply.

Especially in my case, in which the reporting occurred after the choice is made, accepting my choice become a required presumption for any discussion on my leaving. Making me feel guilty about leaving is not going to change the fact that I am leaving. If anything, making me feel guilty that I am wasting the company's money can only do so much as to make me realize that I should help the company by leaving the company earlier than I originally scheduled.

The non-specific filter-infused Japanese way of hiring new grads make the new grads less likely to think about their futures other than what their companies hand over to them. The company is confused and angered by the occasional rebels who show up with their own ideas of future careers incompatible with the company vision. Sometimes the company manage to force the rebels into accepting their fates in the company, and sometimes they fail and complete drive away the rebels...really makes one wonder, is the Japanese system of turning students into productive members of society a good one?

Voicing the Role of Sales in Japanese Society

With the end of the last call yesterday, my sales experience in Japan has officially topped two and a half months. Even though I am still without a single success to my belt, it feels as if, at least from a socio-cultural standpoint, I am starting to see what exactly is the role of a salesman here in Japan. In an IT company whose success is largely defined by aggressive sales rather than technical innovation, understanding the place of sales and its practitioners in Japanese society would be not only necessary but fundamental.

In a previous post, I already established that sales skills are obviously not a cookie-cutter ability applicable in the same way to every country out there. But I am coming to realize that what is more important for the difference in sales across countries is social status and function rather than sheer approach and methodology. People would tend to listen to salesmen if the salesmen are perceived to carry more of a social significance, rather than just someone aggressively pushing for some product or service for which there is no demand.

Yet, what really is interesting is that the Japanese general public is actually very open to having salesmen convince them that they do indeed need something. While in the US, people who want certain things simply go get it because they want that thing, it seems that the Japanese are waiting for someone to show them enough respect and deference before buying. It is as if the Japanese customers are saying, "alright, the salesman did great job making me feel good, so I will buy this thing from him as a reward."

In other words, the salesman is mainly selling an attitude that pleases the client, and the act of the client buying the product is just a display of success is showing the attitude. So, as long as the salesman is not selling something ridiculously expensive or unnecessary, the so-called "sales skills" demanded from a Japanese salesman is indeed easily applicable in any company at a short period of time. As a colleague mentioned over a dinner the other day, "salesmen in Japan are like mercenary soldiers, capable of applying their skills in any company." Indeed.

And the main tool that allows the salesman to "sell a good attitude" is their speaking voice. Especially in a company where sales is primarily done through phone conversation, appearing "attractive" (from a personal standpoint) just by projecting a over-the-phone voice becomes the difference maker between a good and bad salesman. And given that, it is hardly surprising to see our sales people trying their best to "sound cute" when speaking on the phone, in ways completely different from their normal ways of talking.

And to be honest (just a personal opinion, but), the more successful people in sales seem to be have a common trend toward "creepiness" when doing sales-talk. For both girls and guys, "innocence" need to be seeping through their voices when apologizing and demanding an audience. They sound like elementary school kids begging their teachers for forgiveness yet at the same time pretending that its not their fault...Apologize early and apologize often, but filling the apologies with obviously fake sincerities to appease the other side and get them to listen...

But at the same time, the successful salespeople are also highly "patronizing," if thats the correct descriptive word. Whenever they explain something to the interested audience, they do so in the way the elementary school teacher does to the dumbest student in the class. All details, however minor and obvious, are repeated and reworded several times, lacing the conversation with frequent (condescending, if you ask me) checks for understanding.

So, what I am saying here is that, while the Japanese salespeople fulfill a social role of making the laymen feel good about themselves (and they are culturally expected to do so), they must do so in a way that is, well, highly annoying and illogical for the laymen. The above mentioned methodology for successful over-the-phone sales obviously would face refusal (and revulsion) among any newbie suddenly forced to do so. After analyzing all this, I feel like my respect has grown significantly for all those who systematically put aside their own pride and became very good at sales.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Personal Ambitions and Nonexistent “Congrats” from the Company

"I have decided to graduate from Rakuten and go become a teacher at Uganda!" The tone from an outgoing coworker cannot have sounded more optimistic and forward-looking to a globetrotter like me. A sudden message indeed, and no doubt caught most of the people on the recipient mailing list with great surprise. While I am reading and feeling absolutely jealous and in complete respect for the courage of making such a risky move, I at the same time wonder how others are feeling about the same announcement.

One of the issues I discussed with the couple of high school students back in that Nagano MacDonald's was the highly entrenched tendency for the Japanese to seek stability in the process of job search. Especially for a place like Rakuten, where initial new grad pay is higher than most other Japanese companies’, many applicants seek stable lifetime employment despite repeated public announcement by the Boss himself of the company’s “venture” identity.

And thanks to superb efforts by our Recruiting staff, it seems that we have weeded out most of the obviously stability-seeking candidates during the hiring process. But since the Japanese population is stability-seeking in general, we have to say that even those who are employed here are not without their own plans to last their entire working lives in the company…And unfortunately, the thoughts of making Rakuten a lifetime employer is becoming more and more pronounced among the staff.

The case is especially true in sales, where generated contents and acquired knowledge of the staff are highly specialized for Rakuten. Even with superb sales skills, they would find a hard time learning the ropes again doing sales in another company. From such an environment, it is obvious that they would react with anxiety (if not hostility) toward anyone departing the company, especially if the departing person leaves in short time and without substantial achievement.

In fact, as a personal example, I have to say that since I have gradually made public my decision to head to LSE for grad school, I have not received a single word of positive feedback from the sales staff. Sure, most staff not having enough knowledge about schools outside Japan may explain the silence, but a bigger reason may simply be utter incomprehension on why I would depart a company that pays so well and provide such a “good environment for personal growth.”

I am not saying their incomprehension is illogical or unfounded. In fact, for someone without foreign experiences and do not wish to have any, the uncertainty associated with leaving Rakuten is indeed just too big to worth the risk. But to believe that every person should and must believe in the same reasoning (based on some elusive concept of “gratitude” toward the company) is simply close-minded to the utmost.

The courage of teaching in remote Africa, just as getting accepted into one of the most competitive grad schools in the world, is an act worthy of warm and genuine congratulations. To be quietly disapproving (not to mention open expression of being “wasteful” for the company) is truly disrespectful of the individual’s right to choose and open siding with the individuality-suppressing system worthy of derision.

And finally, as the person in question this time is Japanese, I also wish the instance can be used to reduce a sense of “foreigners’ exceptionalism” with regard to individuality. Just as a head of Rakuten Ichiba mentioned when he became the first person from sales side who congratulated me, “I would like to keep you, but I understand that this is a step up and ahead…I wish the best of luck and hope you can come back in the future.” Only with such open attitudes can we expect highly educated people to remain in the company...

Chasing Sunshine, on the Skin and in the Heart

Waking up in an Internet café in Nagano after a hasty overnight stay to avoid the downpours, I was refreshed in excitement as I went back onto the streets at 6am. The clear blue sky offered not a trace of clouds, and the empty morning streets were completely devoid of any moistness. Breathing in the crisp (and cold…I can see my breath!) morning air, the traveler would not have known that incessant rain made the town as bleak as it can possibly be just a few hours ago.

An adventurous traveler can be offered nothing more exciting than fine weather. As long as the weather does not slow him down, the traveler seems to have the entire world to his own. As the sun introduced a bit of warmness to the chilly morning air, passions and energy are reignited, and the traveler just cannot wait to run through the streets, putting his full-packed day of travel planning into execution mode.

It is just too unfortunate that everyone who wants to travel has to suppress the urge to do so during weekdays. Building up both the financial capital and the yearning for hitting the road after sitting monotonously in the office for days in a row, the traveler has to let it come out on the weekend. Eagerly leaving behind the concrete jungle filled with bad memories of work and social awkwardness, he temporarily leaves behind his regular life and for once, just become an observer to the daily lives of everyone else in a faraway land.

Surely, I must not be the only one to have that urge of getting away from it all, even if it can only be for a short while. Of course, hitting the road on a slow train to nowhere may not be the favorite activity of everyone out there, but everyone can find a way to create an alternate life to their monotonous working self (especially true for all the salary-men), to make themselves feel much more worthy than just another grunt selling their souls for social status and economic stability.

For instance, I have been rather surprised to meet a few salary-men in Tokyo who are DJ-ing as a hobby outside of work. The individualistic “putting your own style out there for the public” attitude so essential for a successful DJ cannot be any further away from the “shut up and unquestioningly follow the orders from above” attitude demanded from a successful salary-men on the way up in big corporations.

No matter how the existing system tries to suppress it, individuality is something inherently held by every human being. If the individuality cannot be displayed at work, it has to be shown elsewhere. For me, it is widely displayed for the public in my blog as the others chose to show uniqueness for the general public through DJ-ing. Individuality is like a guerrilla fighter successfully battling against the overwhelming system of mass organizational conformity: it can run and hide, but cannot be sought out and taken out.

Moreover, the individual will tolerate his or her individuality to be ruthlessly suppressed and trampled upon by the conformist system only when the socio-economic benefits of doing so outweighs the mental costs of limiting the individuality to an absolute minority of occasions in this workaholic society. When the system can no longer provide incentives for the individuals to feign conformity, the individuals will gladly and immediately break free from the control of the system.

Deep down in our hearts, we are all waiting for that moment, at some point in our lives. For some, the process may have came a bit too quickly, while for others the end results may not be the most happy of outcomes. But either way, what is necessary for each one of us is to be always reminded of our individualities, the moments that we feel free, eager, and excited to be ourselves, doing what we most loved to do.

For me, the joy of individuality now is sitting in this train, typing away on my PC as the incoming sunshine warm me both inside and outside the body. Yet, do realize that the sunshine can just as likely be metaphorical and mental as it is physical, happening on a rainy day or middle of the night as it is in the midst of a cloudless sunny day. What is important to find it, remember it, and chase it no matter how little time you have. It is that personal sunshine that will always be there, in whatever adverse situation, to cheer you up and reignite you with the energy to live...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Finding Japan's Political Future in a MacDonald's

Night has fallen as the slow train pulled into its final destination in Nagano. Even though it is a prefectural capital and host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, amid the unending heavy rain, its bleak darkness could not have been less welcoming. Watching people rush past to avoid the downpours, I chewed on a burger in the MacDonald's in front of the main train station.

"But I ask, what really is good about the democratic system?" I suddenly heard a young but confident voice amid the noisy banters in the fast food joint. The determined (and highly uncharacteristic and out-of-place) conversation continued, "before Pearl Harbor, America was anti-war in its entirety, so the presidential candidates, knowing that war was about to happen, still played the pro-peace card!"

No doubt, I was thoroughly surprised. Nowhere in Japan have I ever heard such confident and bold talks of politics, and nowhere in the world have I heard such talks in a fast food joint. In a population generally indifferent to all things political, finding such voices is a rarity of rarities, especially in a MacDonald's in front of a rural prefectural capital.

I turned around to check out the source of the voice, and was in for a bigger surprise. Two high school students, still their conservative school uniforms, were chatting away fierily, in languages of sophistication and maturity I do not even find from my managers at Rakuten. The level of discussion and details were just abnormally high, and the level of logic displayed truly impressive.

I had to approach them. Initially a bit ambivalent, they quickly opened up and went back to their confident selves after I offered them my business cards and told them a bit about my background. Their self-introductions were just as ambitious as mine: hoping to be at the best universities for sure, they plan to start up their own companies during their collegiate years.

Their questions and opinions were also equally pointed. Knowledgeable about every topic of international relations, their talkativeness led to a two-hour-long conversation that jumped in content from Yale's secret societies, American politics, North Korean succession issues, China's GDP, and visits to the UN office in Geneva. While impressed with my background, they did not at all find themselves at a loss for any any particular issue of discussion. Sharp in their responses, they forced me to think deeply and analytically about my long-held views before countering their comments.

For these bright guys to start up businesses would certainly be wonderful, but I cannot help but think how necessary it is for Japan to inspire more of these smart youngsters to reform her politically. It is certainly true that her dysfunctional political system (just as the high schoolers questioned) would cause anyone to lose confidence, but if only the mediocre enters politics, how can it be LESS dysfunctional over time?

Japan already has her elites in business. The best of the best starts successful companies like Rakuten (hats off to the Boss) or runs industrial conglomerates and trading giants. Yet, by any international standard, her political clout on the global stage is not even close to being proportional with her economic power. In comparison, even an impoverished North Korea can fire up global mass media and diplomatic experts with every move, whether it be real or simply speculative.

Good businesses with great products can certainly change the world, but it is politics that revolutionizes the globe. Ambitious business leaders can gain respect of the global pubic for the time-being, but it is always the famous (or the infamous) political leaders that remain forever in the history books of human civilization. I, sitting in that MacDonald's listening to the enthusiastic political views of the two young men, can only wonder (with great pleasure) what it would be like for them to take their views and settle it out at the National Diet in Tokyo...

English as a Destructor of Social Hierarchy?

I have always believed (and probably always will) believe that language is a tool of expressing culture. Language detached from culture can never be truly considered a true language as it is then effectively detached from all cultural nuances essential for generating deep conversations. Thus, a person without cultural knowledge associated with a particular language can never be considered fluent in that particular language no matter how effortlessly the person can speak it.

The above logic is the fundamental reason I am against all efforts to introduce English (or any other language, for that matter) as the working language for a non-English-speaking environment. Because English, as known by her native speakers, ignores all socio-cultural customs of the non-English-speaking locality…this is especially true in Japan, where the various unwritten social rules of embarrassment and isolation so commonly used is practically unknown in the Western world where English originates.

However, at the same time, I, as someone who lived in the West, believe in the importance of NOT having social hierarchy as the precondition for advancing new ideas and encouraging innovation. So, I am beginning to increasingly think that, perhaps English should be introduced forcefully against the will of every non-English speaker, at least in Japan, in order to break down certain excessive social barriers.

With that thought in mind, I actually attempted to use English’s lack of social hierarchy to my advantage at times. At good times, the use of English allowed me to speak much more freely to people much older than me (without caring about the honorific terms so commonly fidgeted about in Japanese, of course). And at bad times, the use of English allowed me to, well, speak freely to people much older than me, largely to their dismay (not mentioned incomprehension).

Here is a recent instance that is perhaps worth mentioning. I was walking around the crowded company canteen around noon looking for seats for myself and my friends. Four older coworkers (much older, perhaps late 30s) were sitting at a table, chatting away even though their lunches are completely finished. I (honestly, with a bit of hesitation…hats off to my sensitivity for Japanese culture) approached them and plainly said, “Are you finished? Would you let us use the table?” (Exact words)

The guy at the table was obviously displeased (I can see it on his face), yet not he or his female companion can comprehend what I was saying. The woman simply pointed at the table and puzzling look, prompting me to give a plain “yes” in reply. The group of four vanished from the table in an instant. No words are exchanged, but the emotional tensions were quite obvious in the situation.

Yet, reflecting back on the situation, I am becoming ever more doubtful than English, as is the case now, is actually being implemented in a hierarchy-reducing way. In this particular situation, we can assume that if the man at the table actually spoke English (or knew I spoke Japanese), he probably would have said something along the lines of “you foreign new grads need to know your place.” Because he cannot communicate his anger, he simply had to suppress it in that situation.

In other words, I, in that situation, am not enforcing English’s socially equalizing quality, but instead simply implied to the Japanese that I do not understand the nuances of Japanese social hierarchy. I was making the Japanese understand the positive social intentions behind using English, but simply used “speaking English only” as an unfair leverage to prevent lengthy interaction on social values.

And certain enough, those lengthy interactions on social values will definitely become more necessary and inevitable over time. Forcing others to do something against their will, whether it is learning the language or the culture behind it, can only lead to lowered motivation and outright opposition. And looking back, what I did there (really condescendingly) at the cafeteria should be considered as something that would definitely push the whole English-nization project toward “against the will” for most Japanese.

Social Hierarchy, “the Air,” and Following the Law

The rain gets stronger, the wooded mountains more isolating, and the journey on the slow local train continues into the rural areas as night falls on the flatlands of central Japan. Every time the train stops and temporarily shuts down her engine, the only noise that can be heard is the sound of the rain showering the ground. There are no longer any malls, or even any stores and houses, outside the passing landscape, and seeing pedestrians of any sort is quickly becoming more and more of a rarity.

Yet, even in such environments, the traveler is surprised to find stations for the train to make brief stops…well, if they can be called stations at all. These train stops are now just combinations of a short platform, a marker displaying the name of the place, and set of stairs leading the alighting passengers from the platform to what seems the middle of nowhere. There is no ticket office, or even any railroad personnel, in sight.

At the same time (who knows when), the train acquired a special new member, and its collection of sounds became more diverse. A female railway personnel, walking around the shortened (now only with 3 carriages instead of 6) train, started peddling, eh, tickets for the very train that we are riding. Obviously, with more and more people boarding at tiny stops without ticketing functions, such a person becomes a necessity.

The law-abiding nature of the Japanese people surprised me again as the female personnel made her round on the carriages. Young high school students and old ladies alike searched for and stopped the personnel immediately after seeing her go about, asking to purchase tickets. Most of these people did so immediately after boarding the train, without any prompting or coercion from other passengers or the ticket-selling woman.

This traveler, so accustomed to committing petty crimes across the world, cannot understand the logic of these eager passengers. Nobody knows where they got on the train, and there is no penalty for not purchasing their tickets right after getting on the train. In other words, they can get off the train at their destinations and purchase cheaper ticket there by pretending to got on the train much later (thus traveling shorter distance) than they actually have.

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, the underlying social forces behind a hierarchy responsible for Japan’s uncomfortably strict and patronizing relationship between people of different social statuses is also responsible for such a phenomenon. The passengers in question would no doubt fill highly embarrassed and worthy of social isolation if they were somehow noticed by others to be cheating on tickets.

In a country where crime is so rare, even those with the pettiest criminal mind is worthy of quiet public opposition. And that opposition is much more serious and hurtful than any financial penalty levied. In Japan, “going quiet” on another person is much more likely to be a sign of “quiet disapproval” than a “quiet approval,” a trend true in both the everyday, as on this train, and in the workplace.

And as I realized the existence of such a social pressure did I start to notice that “air” (空気) even on this train running in a remote unpopulated part of the country. In what the Chinese would call being 自覚 (roughly “self-conscious”), the passengers would just not be able to bear that “heavy air” (i.e. KY, “not being able to read the air”) on them if they refuse to buy the ticket with the correct cost. Of course, in mainstream Japanese society, there should be absolutely nothing worse than being KY…

A Slow Train to Nowhere

Outside the windows, the mountains seemed to rise out of nowhere. Heading out of each tunnel, the traveler is suddenly blinded by the bright colors on the slopes. With not a single piece of dirt, the golden yellow and the bight green leaves of well-preserved old growth is dotted by the occasional pink blossoms and uncharacteristically fiery red. The concentrated eyes of the traveler are forced to refocus to find these dissidents of nature amid the equally beautiful majority.

And as the traveler continues to glance through the rising landscape, the insignificantly little yet respectably resilient human habitation comes into his eyes. The old wooden houses with black tiles are seemingly decorated by the movements of the hardy (aging) farmers picking through the nearby fields. If it were not for the well-worn little trucks taking the produce to the faraway markets, no one would be able to tell that this is no longer feudal Japan…

Inside the warm and nearly empty trains, children spoke heartily about these aging frontiersmen. Some bantered about the delicious cooking of their grandmas, and some reminisced about childhood spent trekking through the mountainous woods. The pouring rains wetting the windows only made their conversations sound more homey and enviable. Anticipation and expectations grow in their voices as the noisy machine clunked into another little station surrounded by fields and nature.

The train continues to move forward at a comfortable speed, allowing the onlookers to soak in every detail, but also producing a movement not so different from a baby’s rocking bed. The middle-aged salary-man, stiff in expression and a conservative suit, put up his feet and slowly drifted off into the land of dreams. His lips flapped like a child’s, and the rhythmic noises of the train drowned out his deep-toned snoring.

With every announcement of the next stop, a little town suddenly popped out the mountain, bringing schools, shrines, and stores into views. Children and adults alike suddenly stopped their chatters and looked out the windows, eyes big as if glaring into a New World. Even the stiffest of the passengers dropped their “social manners” and gasped in joy as a river gorge cut through the mountains, adding sounds of the rushing river to an already-ample orchestra played out by Men and Nature.

Interestingly enough, the train is by no means one for tourists. A local train slowly covering the countryside west of the world’s most populated metropolis, it is perhaps only used by busy Tokyoites heading for an occasional visit to their ancestral hometowns. Destined for the castle town of Matsumoto at the foot of the Japanese Alps, the slow train takes three hours from Tokyo when an express can be done in one.

But I, without the slightest hesitation, chose the slow train. In a country where modernity has always been equated with speed with efficiency, there is just no other way to better observe the contrast between that modern urban state with her laid-back and largely untouched rural heartland. There is no doubt that physical modernity, with its cars and electronics, have reached these remote corners, but the spirit of tradition here does not seem to be washed away by the materialism.

Nowhere was this contrast more obvious than configuring a train full of urban passengers in this natural landscape. A youngster from the youth culture capital of Akihabara had never looked so comically unnatural when he got off the train at a tiny wooden station in god-know-where. Without a doubt, I, like all those ogling the views around me, would stick out like a sore thumb if left in the environment surrounding the trains.

But this little 6-car local train is in itself a window that is helping us to cope with the unfamiliar surroundings. As slowly the train itself moves, we the urbanites are also slowly moving ahead in our understandings of the country’s other side. For the traveler, each journey is a learning process, and for this particular traveler, a journey is not about the destination but the journey itself. To truly learn, then, how minimal is the cost of a little extra time on the road?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Japan's Peculiar Free Press: a Propagandistic Tool against Social Change?

Recently, I watched a lecture on increasing realization of civil rights in China and the media's role in the realization. The lecturer made a strong point that the increasingly unstoppable dissent by journalists in officially sanctioned press, combined with spread of the info through SNS, is forcefully breaking down the propaganda apparatus maintained by the Communist Party (cited by the lecturer as "the most sophisticated in human history").

He notes with optimism that the media, backed by intellectuals, is institutionalizing dissent and slowly eroding the established cultural attitudes of the Chinese people. Foreign ideas, passed on through the media and SNS, is infusing foreign ideas rapidly into the Chinese mind...All very clichéd arguments that have been made by "Chinese experts" for years now. But a little side-note I picked up in his argument (and I want to discuss a bit) is that he notes the same thing did not happen with Japan's "free press with cultural peculiarities."

Interesting, he further goes to compare the road to egalitarianism in Korea and Japan. In 1970s Korea, like in China today, the press played a chief role in spreading news of right breaches by the government, allowing labor movements to capitalize on the info as core ideological foundations of labor movements that forced government policy toward economic egalitarianism. But at the same time in Japan, the movement toward egalitarianism was largely driven by the government itself, with little actions by the press or labor movements.

In so many words, the lecturer implies that the Japanese media essentially does not serve as an anti-government conduit of info, both during the early days of post-war developments and today. The media did not and still does not serve a channel for foreign ideas to enter and take hold in Japan, especially if the ideas conflict directly with the existing policies of the government. And indeed, Japan's media rarely (actually, never, as far as I see) speaks of Japan's need to learn from other countries, instead stressing Japan's socio-economic "uniqueness."

The lecturer's underlying point about Japan instantly reminded me of a TV show I saw the other day. Titled "the US, China, and Russia You Never Knew," the show made a sensational explanation, again, in so many words, America's violent obsession with guns, China's socially destabilizing economic inequality, and Russia's prevalent politically motivated assassinations. While there are no lies told, the show did take the liberty to focus exclusively on the negative sides of all three countries.

At the end of the three-hour show, a female celebrity guest happily exclaims, "I am glad that I live in Japan." Her comment captures the entire point of the show and the audience's expected reaction from watching it. Th show reflects the common sentiment here that the existing Japanese system, although no longer proficient for economic growth, is the generator of a level of economic equality and physical safety not found in even other highly developed countries. The Japanese people should be thankful that the current system is maintained.

And even more, Japanese media these days have been going through a boom of showing the past glory of Japan. Past celebrities, TV shows, music, comedy are oh-so frequently sampled in various shows to help the public relive their "golden days." In an age of cultural dominance in Asia by the "Korean Wave," these shows of nostalgia can be seen as a deliberate effort to sustain Japan's position (well, at least in the minds of the Japanese themselves) that Japan is a preeminent cultural power...all thanks to the existing system and cultural values so uninterruptedly held for the past decades.

The reality shows that the Japanese media and press, far from introducing new foreign ideas to the country and help social innovation, has been the major factor working against it. While it is difficult for us, the ordinary people, to know whether government effort is behind all this, but it is obvious to say that Japan's "free press" has not and cannot be a leading force, or even a factor, in bringing significant changes to the existing socio-economic and political arrangements.

Lastly, we can see an even more worrying trend of Japanese media toward avoiding serious topics in favor of pure entertainment. While not having good entertainment programs will cause most people to stop following the media, the excessive abundance of it inherently suppresses a free press' original role: to keep a constant check on the accountability of the policy makers. Considering the only sensationalizing political rant in Japan happens in tabloid magazines (accompanied by sex, a lot of it), I just do not how anyone can still take the local media seriously even when they choose to cover serious topics...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Respect vs Deference: Defining "Social Equality" Japanese-style

In a previous post, I argued that the lack of social openness in Japanese society nullifies many of the redeeming qualities associated with her abundant political freedoms as a relatively mature democracy. As a continuation of that thought, I have to further examine the underlying social force that results in that lack of social openness. I ask: what exactly causes a nation so full of technical innovation to not show a slightest hint of it on the socio-political aspect? Why is the country so conservatively exclusive in social behavior despite having been interacting with the most modern philosophies for the past couple of centuries?

The answer, I believe, lies within the steadfast hold on a sense of stability through hierarchy so central to any Confucian society. Those with seniority are supposed to supply the young ones with wisdom and money, while the youth will pay back by absolute obedience to the orders from the elders. Rebellion by the youth is considered the main cause of society's demise, so every little dissent that can potentially drive a rebellion ideologically must be suppressed and the originator of the dissent be socially isolated.

A small example is sufficient to illustrate how pervasive such hierarchical thinking is even in daily life. Just the other afternoon at work, the floor was getting dark and a older coworker of ours went to turn on the light. Perfectly normal behavior, right? No. A few minutes later, an email from another coworker passed around the new grads mailing list, criticizing the new grads for lacking the "proper manners" to "take over the task" of turning on the lights when they saw the older coworker doing it.

So, the Confucian hierarchy says, even if it is more convenient for one to complete a mundane action like turning on the lights oneself, the young ones must not allow the older coworker to go through with the action. Proper manner calls for the young ones to do every other task so that the elders can exclusively concentrate on using and sharing their "wisdoms." In other words, the young ones must be able to read every desire of the elders so that the desires are fulfilled before the elders even have the chance to issue an order for their completions.

In every society, the youth is supposed to respect the older members of society. Using respectful languages and helping out the elders with certain tasks are indeed considered good manners in every society. However, the Japanese hierarchic demands have surpassed "respect" to become "deference." The youth is expected to adhere to every command of the elders, no matter how trivial and doable, and always consider the actions of the elders to correct and thus worthy of imitations.

Whats scarier is that for many Japanese, the hierarchic principle has even been applied among nations, with elders=rich countries, and youth=developing ones. Of course, since the youth is supposed to submit to the elders, Japan literally shows no respect for developing countries and their peoples as long as people of developing countries are not there to listen to the harsh comments. Such a tendency can explain the difference in status between Chinese and Americans in Japan.

Again, a simple example illustrates this point. Speaking of new-found wealth in China, a Japanese man coming back from China remarked, "the girls from China today have beautiful make-ups while 5 or 6 years I cannot bear to look at them." The condescension in the statement is obvious. Only make-up that is considered good by Japanese terms is a sign of wealth. It completely ignores the different perceptions of beauty across cultures and also ignores the fact that Japanese pop-culture may be temporarily perceived as "cool," something that should not last as China becomes wealthier and begins to develop her own cultural styles.

Whether it be at work or across countries, the institutionalization of social inequality, as reflected in everyday thoughts of the common people, depresses Japan's potential as a social renovator. The excessive trust in traditional values and the ways of the seniors as absolutely correct and infallible are perhaps the fundamental reasons why no worthy philosophical values ever came independently out of Japan. And as the world's ideologies are constantly revised through conflicts of interests, we wonder where Japan and her thoughts will fit into the bigger picture...

Debating My Last Months in Japan: Is Sales Skills truly Trans-National?

As my planned departure from Japan getting final approval from the company, the last days of my (current period of) working life in Japan has truly become a matter of question. Amid my lack of motivation and the company's lack of incentive to give me any significant work, I wonder if staying here until I truly must depart for England is in any way a wise decision....unfortunately, so far, the answer to the question has been mostly a big, absolute "No."

Here is the current situation. After informing my superiors that LSE will start for at the end of September, I was frankly told that my stay in sales position will last until the day I physically leave the company. The rationale is that, rather than transferring me to another department (even if one where I can immediately be put to use), I should master the "art of sales" so that next time I look for a job anywhere in the world, I can immediately put my "negotiation and speaking" skills to effective use.

Beautifully and logically flawless, it seems..."suffer now and be rewarded later." But, looking at the statement more carefully, it actually rests on a premise that we cannot help but doubt the truthfulness: the border-less nature of sales skills. Sure, it would make sense that sales learned at Rakuten can be transferred to any other Japanese company, because often the same Japanese people are targeted.

But, if I am to seek a job outside of Japan in the future (much more likely than coming back to Japan), does being a good salesman in Japan actually a usable asset? With different language and different cultures, it is hard to believe that a good salesman in Japan can automatically become equally so in a non-Japanese environment. I mean, for any non-Japanese who looks at my resume with "Salesman in Japan" on top, the only positive thing they can probably say is, well, I have a pretty good command of the Japanese language.

Also, come to think of it, I did have a full-time summer job as a salesman back in high school. It is true that i was not a good salesman back then (as I am now), but either way, the intensive sales training I received back in San Diego seemed to have absolutely no usefulness when I started sales in Rakuten. And just as American sales culture is not applicable to Japan, Japanese sales culture will not be successful outside of the islands without some fundamental localization.

And with proliferation of foreign-language call centers (English ones in India, Japanese ones in China, etc), we can further ask, why hasn't all sales in developed countries like Japan and the USA be exclusively outsourced to these low-wage states? With their absolute linguistic fluency, intensive sales training, and higher motivation for work, these young white collars in developing countries would have easily made the concept of "sales associate" disappear in rich states.

Culture is the element that stopped globalization of sales. The localization of sales, in my opinion, has little to do with sales expertise per se, but much more with understanding local culture. It is not something that a foreign national can do in a short period of time, simply because the cultural nuance is so deeply ingrained in the shared cultural memories of the local people. In other words, since culture is not globally uniform, sales skills cannot be expected to be so.

Yes, business analysis and operations can be outsourced to any country, as the effective way of cost-cutting and revenue generation can easily be tweaked in each locality by adjusting some numbers. But for sales, the cross-sharing of knowledge on a global scale cannot be relied on a bit of number-crunching. To let foreigners experience Japanese sales is certainly good for toughening them up mentally, but to ask to apply the skills in Japan to their native countries, well, will have to be thought out more carefully...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

SNS for Enterprise: “Business” more than “Entertainment”?

Only a few years ago, people speculated the possibility of Facebook and Twitter succeeding in Japan. With strong domestic competitors such as Mixi and other social platforms (such as online forums) in a country already highly literate and connected to the cyberspace, people doubted that “Western” SNS can take roots here. Additionally, the strong Japanese, and indeed East Asian, obsession with “cyber-anonymity” largely conflicts with an equally strong obsession for the opposite shown by the likes of Facebook.

Then, in what seems like a quick flash of time, the potential dominance of both Facebook and Twitter has become a foregone conclusion. While domestic social platforms still lead in absolute numbers of visitors, the what-used-to-be “foreign novelties” from Silicon Valley have become household names. Their growth rates in the country have become the envy of all other dot-com firms in Japan, both foreign and Japanese in origin.

Yet, a closer observation shows that the increasingly narrowing gap between Facebook, Twitter, and their Japanese counterparts can be attributed to a source unlikely to be considered equally important in other national markets. As domestic students and entertainment-seeking youth continue to show loyalty for strictly domestic platforms, the growth of foreign SNS cannot ignore the boosting effects of businessmen and enterprises joining them in hopes of enlarging channels for commerce.

The logic is easily comprehensible. The major strength of Facebook and Twitter outside the American market is their global presence. Joining Western SNS gives members opportunities to meet anyone from any corner of the globe. Certainly, this would have little appeal for the domestic student in Japan, as everyone they know is already on Japanese social networks. And as long as they do not stay outside Japan for extended period of time, there is little incentive for the Japanese to switch away from the likes of Mixi.

But the deep and well-established penetration of the Western SNS among the American, and increasingly, the entire European and Anglophone student communities, has attracted an increasingly significant portion of Western firms, both IT and otherwise, to turn to the SNS as an effective advertising platform. For the Japanese firm seeking to expand abroad, building business connections in unknown countries seem to have gotten much easier with the advent of these foreign SNS in Japan.

It is not an overstatement to say that such a sudden “commercialization” of SNS platforms offers perhaps the biggest-ever challenge to their fundamental direction, and in turn, long-term survivability. Looking back at the (rather short, in human terms), history of SNS, we can see it being a continual effort to enhance “social entertainment” on an individual, grassroots level. The widely opposed (at least at the time) decision by Facebook to open itself to the non-student public is but a small part of this still-ongoing process.

But as enterprises and businessmen begin to dominate SNS despite their complete indifference, or even disregard, for the entire concept of “social entertainment,” will this process of improving the platforms for the fun-loving commoner be seriously, or forever, disrupted? And with their economic and social influences unthinkable and unmatchable for the commoners, will the corporations force SNS, for the sake of mutual economic gains, to change their entertainment-centered developments?

Certainly, while SNS platforms designed for corporate use, such Linkedin and Yammer, are increasingly making their presences felt (not the least within my own company), the fundamental possibility of SNS as a tool for business remains to be evaluated. For many of the student-turned-employees among these SNS-enthused enterprises, ambivalence mixes with duty and economic interest. We ask: can the SNS really transcend the workplace and the private home to truly dominate every part of our increasingly online-focused social lives?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Real Taste of Liberty: Valuing Social Openness over Political Freedom

"Freedom," now more than ever, has become the standard buzzword in the political literature of all countries. Whether it be promoting pro-Western democratic revolutions in the Middle East, or subverted rebellion against established regimes, the single word "freedom" somehow represents all concentrated anger of dissatisfied populations and suppressed ambitions of disenfranchised activists. It is a word that arose passions of millions and fears of all political censors.

Generally when the word "freedom" is touched upon in the media and government announcement, it is almost always representative of political freedom, an ability of individuals to express their opinions and views without fear of persecution. Certainly, all democratic regimes (and several non-democratic ones) have actually enforced laws to guarantee freedom of expressions. No matter how marginal and violent the views are, as long as the views are not hurtful to other segments of society, their rights to express the views are protected by the law.

Yet, on the other hand, there is absolutely no law in any country that guarantee that every view expressed openly (to influence public opinions, as they are meant to be) are guaranteed to be influential. It is perfectly legal for all people to only stick to one opinion even though a thousand others have been expressed in opposition. And even in a democratically-elected government with perfect protection of political freedom, if it sees the vast majority of people following only one opinion, it can easily shove all the other ideas under the carpet.

Most people will think that such a situation is absurd and impossible. After all, in even the smallest, most isolated, and most homogeneous community, constituents will have to come from (slightly, if need be) different backgrounds, upbringings, beliefs, and income levels. All these factors will make sure that their honest opinions on any matter, no matter how mundane and generally agreed upon, be slightly different and contradicting.

However, having lived in a democratic yet highly collectivist society that is Japan, the situation does not seem that far-fetched. Note how I just used the word "honest opinions." People can certainly utter their opinions freely, but that may not guarantee that they will deliberate go out and shout out their opposition to the prevalent opinion on any issue. Sure, the loud rebel will not be punished by being arrested, but the pen presence of someone who opines against the established value certainly makes the majority feel "uncomfortable."

And making others feel "uncomfortable" is just the beginning of a long-lasting (and perhaps never-ending) social punishment for the rebel. He will be openly avoided by society, whether at the level of casual friendships or (in the long-term) crucial domestic business relationships. Dissent can only lead to poverty, both at the social and (indirectly) financial aspect. Sure, the rebel felt good for a second blurting his thoughts in public, but given the cost of alienating everyone while getting absolutely no followers in a highly conservative, uniformed society, it is highly doubtful whether the initial act is even really worth it.

The Japanese proverb goes, "any nails that sticks out with be hammered in." To create that "smooth wooden board" that is this peaceful, socially ordered Japan, I wonder how many of these dissenters were quietly sacrificed by being "hammered in"? The fear of social retribution can only force the Japanese dissidents into self-censorship (i.e. not to project any "honest opinions") or turn to escapism after realizing the unchangeable nature of social reality.

And this is exactly the lack of "social openness" that need to be destroyed in the process of creating a vibrant, innovative, and multi-polar society. In Japan and every other collectivist society, political scientists should not just hold on to their naive beliefs that political openness can automatically lead to a forum of diverse ideas. The tendency of social seclusion and affinity to the status quo (no matter how stagnant it has become) must first be eliminated for political freedom to have any positive effect on society.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

When Did BS-ing "Research" Become an Integral Part of Academia?!

These days, I just cannot stop thinking about all the factors that go into a successful departure for England. Continuing to worry about the money to pay for LSE and the career afterwards, my weekend "to-do" list is filled with determined thoughts of looking for scholarships, grants, jobs (part-time at school and full-time after graduation)...yet, somehow, my mind keeps getting distracted by other things (such as, well, writing this blog post).

A friend and coworker with previous degree recently informed of the difficulties she confronted as she wrote up her dissertation for honors in her political science degree. This 163-page monster, filled with well-researched data and citations, was indeed well-written, and no doubt time-consuming...and scary enough, this was for an UNDERGRAD political science degree. Now, a masters student has to surpass this, right? Deeper in research and more in volume is probably something for which I should be mentally prepared.

Funny thing how the longest paper I wrote at Yale could not amount to more than 25 pages double-spaced (and with perhaps less than 20 citations). In fact, the longest thing I have ever written is actually this blog, something I am doing with a complete different purpose in mind. Honestly, I think my problem is that I can spend pages and pages blurting out my own thoughts and opinions regarding every issue in the social sciences, based on some ambiguous views held by some ambiguous personality I vaguely heard about recently...but to force me to opine BASED ON the opinions of others, well, is a totally different story.

But seriously, what is the "purpose" of writing research papers in social sciences? Subjects like politics and international relations are not "hard sciences," i.e. no matter how much of a "trend" in certain thoughts and values can be confirmed by quantitative data, there is absolutely no definite, constant ideas that can used to measure what is "routine" and "expected" in the behaviors of politicians and diplomats.

Isn't this the fundamental principle that separates "hard" sciences like physics and chemistry with the "soft sciences." As long as the structures of matter does not go through sudden revolutionary changes (and as supra-human identities, they certainly won't), so discoveries of today are easily applicable in the natural environment for millennia to come. But the best political scientists, who only centuries ago spoke of democracy's unrealistic idealism and communism's ultimate triumph while failing to notice the global rise of Islamic fundamentalism, cannot possibly predict the political environments of the next decades, not to mention centuries and generations.

Looking back at one of the longest international relations-themed pieces I wrote a few years ago, I am utterly surprised how prevalent attitudes of the time are no longer valid, and trends of yesteryears have completely dissipated today. And as the ideas put forth in these social sciences papers become outdated so fast in today's fast-changing international environment, what is even the point of quoting them for future papers as if they are the truthful assumptions from which future ideas must originate?

And this sort of uncertainty about what is the unchanging "truth" is also spreading into the "hard" sciences. For instance, as recent media reports suggest the rapidly rising number of science publications from China, rumors (and occasionally, their confirmations) are also heard about the data-fudging and plagiarism that occurs in the new papers. The lack of moral integrity aside, we really wonder what percentage of these so-believed public presentations of newly discovered scientific truths can actually be trusted.

In all sciences, hard and soft, publishing written "research" is increasingly becoming the main, if not the only, way of showing the "researcher's weight" in the academic field. But as these words of discovery become more and more data-, citation-, and jargon-littered, they can easily become some highly sophisticated-sounding pieces of BS to impress the public filled with its simply minded and easily-wowed laymen.

Especially in the social sciences, perhaps greater focuses should be on publicizing straightforward and implementable ideas comprehensible for everyone. After all, reflecting and channeling the voices of the people is the ultimate purpose of social sciences. If the common people cannot mentally access the increasing volumes of published "research," then aren't the social scientists losing access to the very element needed to verify whether their ideas and "research" are actually valid?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Beating post-Quake "Self-Restraint" with Political Propaganda

"We are going to see the cherry blossoms!" My Chinese coworker told me rather joyfully as we randomly met up on the road back home. Now that is one sentence I have not heard for a look time. April is here and the cherry blossoms ("sakura") are in full bloom. Every year, these symbolic flowers of Japan attract millions of people to head out to the parks, picnicking after the endless pink trees in annual tradition of "flower-watching" ("hanami" or 花見).

Yet, this year, the parks were empty. Even as the cherry blossoms lining the streets create tunnels of natural pink, there are only a few people sitting under them, their conversations without any of the drunkenness and boisterousness of the past years, and their whole "picnic" seeming to last no more than a casual business lunch of a Japanese salary-man. Pedestrians passing by the picnickers can even sense embarrassment, and even guilt, in their eyes, even as they cautiously sip away their canned beers.

Yes, three weeks passed by the big Quake, and the nation is still in the "mourning (and aftershock) mode." The struggle to regain mental normalcy has only led to an increased acceptance of the notion that "people should not be entertaining themselves while others are still suffering." The thought is certainly noble (and I was and still am a proponent of it), but as the Japanese refused to entertain themselves, they refused to spend money, and an economy dependent on its picky consumers is quickly shutting itself down...

The so-called "self-restraint" (自粛, or "jishuku") is causing much more extensive and longer lasting economic damage than the Quake and the tsunami. Businesses, already squeezed by uncertainty in electricity and logistics, are finding whatever customers they manage to keep during the turbulent times walk out the door. And, the reason being entirely "moral" rather than economic, the businesses can do absolutely nothing to get them back.

Lets think about the origin of what is now this nation-wide phenomenon of 自粛. No matter how "morally upright" the Japanese are, being so used to a lifestyle of sheer materialism, forcing "self-restraint" happen at such a massive and deep-rooted scale cannot possibly be voluntary on the part of the citizens themselves. Clearly, there has to be some sort of top-down outside influence that specifically implied that not showing any "self-restraint" economically is indeed "wrong" and "inappropriate" at this point in time.

And reflecting on the newspapers and television programming a week after the Quake, I can see clearly where that "outside influence" came from. As the government launched week-long "ads" to discourage hoarding of supplies and excess usage of electricity, somehow the message translated into (at least understood by the public as) a government directive, a "shaming" campaign to bring self-indulgence under control...

But if 自粛 was created by a "government campaign," can't it also be reversed by a similarly well-timed string of political propaganda? For this, the success of American consumerism after 9/11 can be emulated. Even as the White House made little revisions to its political actions abroad that caused 9/11 in the first place, after the attacks, President Bush wasted no time in telling the American people to go out and shop. He wanted Americans to use consumerism as a sign that the American spirit is not crushed by terrorism.

His words worked like a charm. American consumption did not suffer beyond those directly related to businesses in WTC, and America, both economically and mentally, did not sink into a depression BECAUSE of 9/11. This marks a sharp contrast to Japan, where the public seem to agree that only the petty and the marginal seems to be carelessly entertaining themselves in what is considered Heaven's punishment against the Japanese people and nation.

The conclusion is a simple one. To reverse the collateral economic damages Japan suffers from post-Quake "self-restraint," a political propaganda machine must be activated. While difficult in a nation of complete political indifference, the government must come out and directly tell the people that now, more than ever, consuming copious amounts of all products, especially those from Quake-stricken Tohoku area, is not only okay but "highly patriotic" and morally upstanding. Proper tribute to the dead and the missing should be paid in the market stalls and the restaurants...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Longevity as a White Collar Professional: Perseverance amid Constant Doubts

"I found this place is more Japanese than global." Meeting around 40-50 new employees in my company, doubtful comments such as this was sprinkled throughout the otherwise joyful conversations. Unfortunately, they were not joking. The smell of exaggerated promises seeping through the Tower has already been scented and picked up by many a few too many noses. Predictions are already abound about what percentage of the Class will remain in a few months time.

"What do they know? They have only been here for one day!" Our 10-year veterans can surely dismiss the sentiments as "inexperienced sentiments of juvenile energy," bound to be extinguished as the new graduates mature into professionals. Perhaps so, some of the group will definitely grow into their jobs (as have some of my own class), but if their independent thoughts stay vigilant, the odds are that their growing "quietness" sources itself from self-suppression rather than satisfaction.

Let me clarify that by mentioning this, I am in no way persuading anyone to think otherwise from joining the company, or dissuading anyone from attempting to work here. I am just pointing out a worrisome situation that, since it is so gloomy, can only head toward the better. In fact, let me switch gears a little bit here to tell you a story a personally encountered story that made me realize one again, just how important it actually is to stick to something for a long time.

Yesterday, I had the great honor of meeting a friend of a friend, a foreigner who is in her 10th year here in Japan. Arriving here in as a fresh new grad coming out of a foreign college little know here in Japan, she joined a venture company with 6 people (as the only foreigner). 10 years later, as her company grow into a 200-people enterprise, her stock options, her investments, and other independent business activities have made more than just financial stable for her now-blossoming married life in Japan.

Of course, all "rags-to-riches" stories (to term it in a rather exaggerated fashion) mesmerize the listeners by only stating the enormous contrast between the very beginning and now. My story here, even in the original form told to me verbally, skip over 3650 days of toil, worries, and certainly many personal doubts about current direction. Just thinking about what is like for only foreigner in a Japanese venture company (which is still very much Japanese) should make me feel lucky to be in an ostentatiously globalization one, despite continued schism between foreigners and the Japanese employees.

But perhaps the biggest backside of her notedly amazing and highly respectable persistence as a professional businesswoman in Japan is, well, her persistence. By choosing to remain in one company in one country for the most professionally flexible ten years of her life, her pretty much hammered in the nails to the coffin of any plan to experience work life in other countries and industries. And because she is so established both economically and romantically here in Japan, any attempt to change the status quo would incur a cost too much to burden.

As I always say, "life is about experience." Because a person only get one lifetime here on Earth (sorry, an extreme atheist right here), a year spent in one place automatically equals a year closer to death and a year not able to explore elsewhere. The world is simply too big and humanity too complex for any layperson to grasp it all, and living on tiny islands like Japan only make the person feel more closed off to the world. But I would like to try; try to see the world, one step, one profession, and one place at a time...

So I give you two choices: the "specialist" one going for success and wealth based on experiences built in one field and one country, or the "nomadic" one observing and experiencing, yet with blatant disregard for, all rules of social and economic order everywhere. I, as the ever-lasting idealist refusing to give in to the everyday routine, has chosen the less-chosen latter. But what about you? As you start or continue with you profession and life, which will you choose?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Superstition in Japan: Source of Social Sensitivity or Mental Strength?

Turn on any Japanese morning news show, the horoscopes of the day is just as routinely reported as the weather. Just as knowing the weather gives the audience ideas on what to wear and bring physically, the horoscopes play exactly the same role "mentally." That is, knowing one's "fortunes" before the day starts may somehow give one the ability to avoid the social "traps" that may bring the person very much socially-based and highly personal "disasters," whether it be demotion, break-ups, or public embarrassment.

The nature of the negative consequences of "bad luck" reported on these televised horoscopes goes a long way to imply just how much Japanese people care about their "public images." In a country where for women going to local convenience store without make-up on is widely considered not socially acceptable (and Go forbid, if women actually try that one at work...), hearing "today, you have high possibility of screwing up in front of your boss" must be a real shocker.

And of course, the "fortunes" do not just stop at the superficial and the ambiguous. Both the printed media, and more popularly, websites (even Yahoo! Japan has a large designated fortune-telling page) has divided a person's fortune into very detailed and specific categories, allowing a person to go through a complete Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) Analysis on him or herself before going out to face the big, bad world.

But perhaps whats more ridiculous than the told fortunes themselves are the remedies subscribed to counter the bad ones. Examples include write down your thoughts in a blue notebook to avoid conflicts with coworkers (emphasis on the "blue" of course) and carry around red pens to avoid train delays (again, emphasis on the "red"). Somehow, all of these randomly-generated (or at least, thats how they sound) "remedies" find serious and loyal following among a large audience (as evidenced by females discussing their horoscopes even at work).

No doubt, the sensitivity of the Japanese to social effects of "bad luck" is at the same time a sign of desire to obtain a certain degree of mental ease with which they can tackle everyday uncertainties. Being surrounded by the serenity of a Shinto shrine (ironically, a good remedy for "bad luck" in Western horoscopes here in Japan), whether or not an effective remedy, does indeed bring about inner reflection and a peace of mind amid predicted social and mental "chaos."

And perhaps this is one reason why the Japanese showed so much calm, both at the personal and collective level, after the Quake. Because they are so used to hearing exaggeratedly bad predictions of personal "fortunes," but always absorbed the shocks (as if nothing) after using whatever "remedies," they can use the exact same mentality when the "bad luck" becomes very real and damaging. Surely, they would be "remedies" for potential nuclear meltdowns...not a matter of worry for the Japanese carrying whatever luck-boosting knick-knacks.

Superstition is not a Japanese phenomenon, but a global one. People everywhere feel uncertain about their futures and would like to prevent "the bad" from occurring. Horoscope sites abound in America, and people in China buy up and carry around whatever lucky-sounding goods they can find. But only in Japan, where superstition of all forms and all origins seem to find enormous popularity, that superstition somehow become an integral part of both the traditional and the modern popular culture.

And it is this border-less all-inclusive superstitious nature of the Japanese that is perhaps helping the nation through the biggest crisis since World War II. As threats of power cuts and nuclear radiations continue disrupt everyday life, the Japanese, with their blue notebooks and red pens in hand, have so far overpowered the natural human tendency to panic and have continued to earn the respect of the world with their unusual inner peace. Maybe it is time we stop looking at "superstition" with mere negative connotation.