Stories from an American Female Japanese Salaryman: Shinsotsu Tales – Be silent, be golden.

(Previous stories in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Silence is the true friend that never betrays or tries to borrow money.

Silence is the true friend that never betrays or tries to borrow money.

Welcome to the wonderful and sometimes paradoxical world of Japanese business meetings.

So you started your life as a shakaijin (社会人, working member of society), and you want to tag along to a sales meeting and get your feet wet? Great! Look at you with all your go-get-’em spirit. There are just a couple of things you have to remember before getting started, newbie. Don’t want to be making any egregious faux pas, right?

The first rule of sales meetings is: you do not talk during the meeting. The second rule of the business meeting is: you DO NOT talk during the meeting!

Third rule of sales meetings: if someone meekly mentions “That it is almost time for their next meeting.”, face goes blank, or says that they “have to think about it”, the meeting is over.

Fourth rule: only one guy gets to speak from your group.

Fifth rule: quit with the small talk, fellas.

Sixth rule: meetings mean print outs for everyone. No sharing papers, no iPads, no forgetting your business card back at your desk.

Seventh rule: meetings will go on as long as they have to, but that is usually exactly 55 minutes.

And the eighth and final rule: if this is your first time at a meeting, you better stay quiet.

It really depends on your boss and industry, but your main role in the first few months of working as a new grad is to basically exist and absorb what is going on around you. You will not be actively participating until deemed ready, and not a minute sooner. If you are a chatty person, huge blocks of meetings are probably the same as facing time in the gulag.

My thoughts after coming back from Europe for the first time: 5 little reasons why living in Tokyo is awesome.

Long time no update! It has been a very busy last few weeks, partly because I was traveling across Europe. I actually went outside, lived life, and didn’t touch a computer or watch TV the whole time. I’m basically a whole new Johanna.

It's the little things in life.

It’s the little things in life.

Anyway, spending time outside of Japan is always good for reminding you of the reasons why you like living here despite it’s various foibles. I’m feeling pretty refreshed, so here is my quick list of why Tokyo is an awesome place to call home.

1. Trains are on time and easy to understand. (Germany, I’m looking at you when I’m writing this.) Most places in Tokyo will have coloured AND numbered diagrams for the subway and train lines, so figuring out how to get from A to B is not a huge ordeal. There are also usually station employees around to ask questions, and they will probably give you the right answer. (Again, Germany I’m looking at you.) If a train is cancelled, then expect to be showered in apologies. (Hi Germany, remember me?)


The red face in distress needs to have a more exasperated look in order to be more accurate, in my humble opinion.

2. 24 hour convince stores. Want 200 mL of milk at 2am, BAM. No big deal. Need to withdraw cash, buy a specific flavour of green tea, then pay your water bill? DONE. The more places I go to, the more I realise how unique these 24 hour beacons of convenience truly are.

写真 5

Not a Family Mart for miles. Sure, maintaining several hundred years of beauty is fine and all, but can you truly call that living?!

3. FREE toilets. I was prepared to pay for the bathrooms, but you have to drop .50 to 1.00 euro to use the facilities even in department stores and some bars (and that is just asking for trouble.) The toilets in Japan still reign an unwavering first place in my heart.

Toilets are one of the main reasons we can have civilization people.

Toilets are one of the main reasons we can have civilization people.

4. Very specific portion sizes. We tried to cook at home a few times when we were traveling, but it is hard to buy groceries for just 1 meal. Japanese supermarkets usually sell 食べ切り (tabekiri, eat up in one go) size selections of cheese, vegetables, meat, etc, so I was faced with figuring out how to deal with leftovers. I cannot eat 300 grams of cheese in one sitting. Total first world problem, but if you are just cooking for 2 people who only eat at home half of the time, excess food tends to go to waste more often than not. **Nerd Alert** I understand that the unit price will increase with the purchase of smaller portions, but I really hate wasting food and am willing to pay a “premium” just for the portion I need in most circumstances.

If you have excess cheese then you should pair it with excess wine.

If you have excess cheese then you should pair it with excess wine.

5. Your stuff will almost never be outright stolen, and lost items are highly likely to be returned in the condition it was found.

Everyone and everyTHING is apparently out to get your wallet. Stay on your toes.

Outside of Japan everyONE and everyTHING is apparently out to get your wallet. Stay on your toes.

Japanese commericals: oh to be a fly on the wall during those creative meetings

I make it a point to regularly watch Japanese digital and broadcast advertisements, but there are still times after all these years where commercials come completely out of left field, and I can only sit there in awe wondering, “Who came up with that? Did that really just happen?”

When I visit the US I’m always a bit surprised watching regular cable TV because the commercial breaks are so incredibly different. US commercials tend to use a short story format that builds an either a serious emotional connection to the brand or will lead to a joke. This, however, is not something that you would see as much in Japanese advertisements. Commercials and their surrounding branding strategies are just fundamentally designed differently.

The first difference is that Japanese companies love to use “talent” (タレント, variety TV stars) or idols to sell products. It would not be unusual to have an ad campaign (and possibly product!) actually designed around the talent, rather than having a talent just be a spokesperson as an afterthought. The more I understand this aspect of the industry, the more I realise this is probably why talent/idols/famous people etc. are forced to follow relatively strict rules regarding their private life. Many of them are tied to a product in someway, and if they do anything inappropriate it can potentially upset several brands or ad campaigns.

Second is they tend to use several people dancing to a jingle on the screen for the entirety of the commercial. There really is no story aspect or build-up. This song and dance pattern is actually a relatively new trend corresponding to the change in TV format. I have read from a few sources that some ad executives insist that the wider screen “needs to be filled up”, so their go-to option is a simple dance number. I think it is also probably an easy format to work with in a short shooting schedule, which might further contribute to its popularity.

The third is that Japanese companies love to use mascots and cute characters for a wide variety of products that aren’t even marketed towards children. People of all ages have a built-in affinity towards cuteness, so a character is often used to appeal to consumers and increase brand awareness.

Sometimes the play on words for these character names are pretty amazing. Epson’s mascot is a small shark called Chisame (ちいサメ). Chisame can mean “on the small side”, but the end word same that means shark. Thus, tiny shark, a suiting name for character that sells a small-sized home photo printer. He also has a friend called Eisan (エイさん) which is a play on words for manta ray and the standard paper size, A3 (pronounced eisan in Japanese).

This character actually has been around WAY BEFORE the Left Shark. Hmm Katy Perry?

This character actually has been around WAY BEFORE the Left Shark. Hmm Katy Perry? Hmm?

Here is a fabulous commercial I saw this morning for the product Colac (コーラック), a “gentle” laxative marketed towards women. I will explain this in another post, but women and men usually talk way more openly about their bathroom habits than someone in America would be comfortable talking about. This commercial is kind of cute and completely inoffensive, but it would never fly in America. Ever. I think the internet would blow-up if it aired during regular broadcast hours.

Stories from an American Female Japanese Salary Man: Shinsotsu tales – the lightbulb moment I had with business manners.

(Previous stories in this series: Part 1, Part 2)

The shinsotsu (新卒) , or new graduate, system in Japan is a great topic to use to clearly illustrate some of the core differences between how Japanese and American businesses are structured and operated, and I’d like to share a bit about my personal experiences. I don’t think many Americans have ever entered a company as a true blue shinsotsu, so it’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while.

Japanese companies usually have the same start date for the fiscal year, and all new graduates start will official enter the company on the that day. This all usually falls right on April 1st, and usually companies have a small ceremony to welcome the new people.

Because of how people start working at the same time, the senpai-kohai (先輩・後輩senior/junior) relationships are clearly established within a company. Your group of shinsotsu will be your douki(同期 coworkers from the same year ), and you will go through the same experiences together as you get your footing transitioning from student to full-time employee.

I entered my first company as a new grad right after finishing my degree, so I went through the whole shinsotsu experience from start to finish. It’s like breaking in a pair of new shoes- it will be uncomfortable at first, but in time it will feel normal.

One of the first things you will probably be assigned to do as a shinsotsu is to greet guests or visitors to your company and show them to the conference rooms. It kind of feels like being a host or hostess at a restaurant but it’s a good chance to get used to the flow if everything in the office and practice your manners.

I have fond memories of being incredibly nervous for they first month or so after completing my manners lessons and being assigned that task.

I was overly concerned about being “taken seriously” at one point since I am not Japanese, so I became pretty diligent about following exact procedure when talking to people outside my company. I studied manners and business keigo (polite Japanese) with my Japanese peers, but when it came to showtime I still felt incredibly tense. It was something that was hard for my American brain to wrap itself around.

Well, it turns out that as long as you use common sense and don’t do anything weird, people will more or less be totally cool with you.

Greeting visitors has little to no variation to the pattern below:

1. Greet them in person at the reception area. Tell them you are sorry for making them wait, even if you came within 15 seconds after they buzzed you from the phone in the front area.

2. Lead them to the conference room. Guide them to the side of the table that is farthest AND facing the door.

3. Tell them you will bring them a drink and have them be seated. Prepare tea or coffee. (This depends on the weather. Scalding hot tea during the summer is a no-no! This is one of those common sense things.) While you are getting the tea, check to see if the person they are meeting is on time.

4. When you enter the room, be sure to knock meekly before opening the door and apologize for entering. Place their drinks in front of them and tell them the person they are meeting will be with them shortly.

Easy peasy, right? Japanese people normally don’t do small talk, so you don’t really have to be great at conversation to give a good impression either. Just make sure they are in their seats and have their drinks.

"Am I doing this right? What if I spill everywhere? Did I insult her existence in any way?!"

“Am I doing this right? What if I spill everywhere? Did I insult her existence in any way?! Wait did I really just say that?”

However, newbie Johanna went through about 4 weeks of intense daily critical self-evaluation. After talking with a close sempai, I received this wonderful advice that I keep with me even to this day  “When in doubt just apologize. Put a sorry in the beginning and end, and you will have your bases covered. You basically can’t say sorry too many times. For good measure sorry again if you aren’t sure.”

If you worked in Japan, I'm positive you have asked yourself this question before.

If you worked in Japan, I’m positive you have asked yourself this question before.

When I finally realized I was NOT messing up every time, I felt like I could take on the world! It was amazing!

I think people outside of Japan put Japanese manners on some sort of alter. “It is the most polite place ever!” I think rather than saying everyone is very polite (not to say they are not polite), Japan just has a very clear set of rules that you have to remember. It really is a different sense of “polite” than what you would encounter in the US.  In the business setting Japanese people just want to feel comfortable and generally don’t want to deal with anything out of the blue or deviate from the norm (i.e. small talk!). I’ve been in hundreds of Japanese meetings in the last few years, and they really do all follow the same pattern.

However, just like anywhere else, smiling and having a good attitude counts, and even if your keigo is not perfect as a non-Japanese person, I don’t think most people will jump down your throat. If you make a consorted effort to learn Japanese business manners, people will actually be very complimentary. It was probably the hardest hurdle I had to overcome when I started my job.

Remember, sempai says that when in doubt just lower your head and say you are sorry. It’s like the social version of a get out of jail free card for slip-ups.*

*not a guarantee