A Geek in Japan | 2009 November
Adventures of a geek living in Japan
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Structure of Japanese companies – Part 2

I will now continue writing about the innards of traditional Japanese enterprises. If you want to properly understand this text, you should have read the previous post.

In Japanese culture there is a huge difference between people who is inside the group (those inside – 内), and people who is outside the group (those outside – 外). Japanese people behave very differently depending if the person they interact with is “one of them” or not.

In Japan, the social position of a person depends enormously on the group they belong to. For example, when you introduce yourself for the first time, you first say your name and then the name of the company you work for.

This concept may apply to many levels: in relationships among companies, in relationships among departments within the company, in relationships among groups within a certain department, etc.

The rule of thumb when interacting with people within the job environment is as follows: you may exchange opinions, information, etc. with people in your group, but in order to communicate with people from other groups, you need to follow protocol. The protocol consists of filling forms that you hand in to your boss and then your boss hands in to the other department/group’s boss to see if your request is appropriate. This process is slow, very slow, specially when the form has to go up several levels and then go back down. This may be one of the reasons why Japanese enterprises are slow but safe.

The philosophy dictates that in traditional Japanese enterprises there is always a right way to do things, to follow the method. The idea is to minimize friction between groups and to keep everybody posted about what is happening. Besides, if something goes wrong or right, there is always written evidence of everything that happened.

Let’s now move on to how a new graduate starts working in a company. As soon as a new worker (Kohai) arrives, a “Senpai” (mentor) is assigned to him. The Senpai is in charge of mentoring the Kohai during his first few months. That is the basic learning mechanism in all enterprises in Japan.

Another kind of relationship is the one between boss and subordinate (Joushi-Buka). After the training period, the subordinate knows his boss well enough and he should know what the boss wants without any explicit requests. This is a very common Japanese way of communication, which consists of “understanding 10 when you’re being told 1″. With that I mean that if the boss says “we could do A”, the subordinate does A, B and C. You need to know your boss really well in order to do that. Something that is also very typical in this kind of relationship is going for beers with the boss, which is the most appropriate time to openly complain about this or that. If everything goes well, after some time your boss will go up a level and you’ll go up with him. This system is usually very rigid and you go up levels only depending on seniority. There’s never the danger of someone “very smart” coming and stealing your job.

These two types of relationship are vertical, but there are also horizontal relationships, they are called “Doki” (from the same period). The term Doki is used to refer to all employees that arrive in the company the same year. All of them will go for drinks (Nomikai) together and will exchange opinions, will talk about other coworkers, will rant about the boss, etc. One’s true opinion (Honne – 本音) is what they’ll exchange during Nomikai (meeting at a bar to drink and chat). At work there’s usually no exchange of strong opinions to avoid ruining the harmony among groups. Those kind of meetings between Doki cause a huge flow of non-official communication among departments.

Let’s see an example of how Doki can help to speed up things. Let’s imagine you are a researcher in the R&D department in Toyota. Let’s say you’ve found a way to improve production time for the part X and you want to ask someone in the production plant whether it’d be possible to make changes Y and Z in the production chain. The right way would be to fill up a Rishingo (official form) which would go up to the upper levels of the department. Then that would be sent through the rest of departments to the production plant where the form would travel back down several levels until reaching the supervisor in the production chain. That form must be read and signed by every person in the process. It might take more than a month just to get to the hands of the supervisor in the production chain, and then one more month to travel back with the answer. If it’s negative, you’ll have wasted two months waiting. How can we get the information quickly and avoid waiting for two months for nothing? The most intelligent way is to talk to some Doki that works in the production plant during a Nomikai. “Your” Doki will comment about it with people in his department and will ask if changes Y and Z are possible. If the answer is yes, then you know you’re not going to waste your time sending the Rishingo (form). Yes!! You still need to fill out the freaking form. The unofficial technique is only used to check if you’ll be wasting your time filling out paperwork just to get a negative answer.

To sum up, in Japanese society everything must be done in writing; to evolve within the company you must go for drinks (Nomikai) with your coworkers and your boss; the way to proceed within the company is very, very strict.

There is a system in Japan, a way to proceed after finishing your degree. There are huge companies that hire hundreds of new employees every year and keep teaching them for years until they become essential elements for the company. In other societies there isn’t a defined system, everything is more chaotic; when you start working at the end of your college education, you don’t know where will you be in 20 years. Japanese people know.

But this system also has its flaws which are reflected, for example, in some bad results in traditional Japanese enterprises, such as Mitsubishi. Therefore, some enterprises are starting to look for a balance and they’re adopting certain models based on American (Toyota) or European (Nissan) philosophies.

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Weird tower

German photographer Juergen Specht found this weird tower in the outskirts of Osaka. It looks small but it is more than 180 meters high! It turns out that its name is “PL Peace Tower” and it is the main tower-church of a sect called “Perfect Liberty”. The final objective of this sect, according to its Japanese founder, is to achieve global peace.

The tower was built in 1970 and it is dedicated to the memory of all the people that died in all the wars in the history of humankind. According to Juergen Specht, if a great earthquake affected the Osaka region the tower would be bent 45 degrees without crumbling down, because of its special structure.

Weird Tower

Weird Tower

Weird Tower

Weird Tower

Weird Tower

Pictures by Juergen Specht

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Solar bags and backpacks

The other day I was strolling around Tokyu Hands and these bags and backpacks with built-in solar cells grabbed my attention. The biggest backpack is able to produce 15W in ideal conditions, the small ones only 4W. The interesting thing is that they also include a battery so even when there’s not a laptop, cellphone or iPod plugged to the backpack, if you are walking in sunlight the battery will recharge so that you can plug any gadget later on to recharge it. It looks like a great idea to me, the problem is that the prices are around 300~500 euro, depending on the model.

Solar backpack and solar bag

The company that produces these bags and backpacks is not Japanese but American. If you are interested you can buy them online in their website.

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Structure of Japanese companies – Part 1

The structure of the Japanese enterprises is very rigid. There is a standard system that applies to all levels in most Japanese enterprises.

Some analysts say this system is too rigid and it causes changes to develop very slowly. For example, in order to decide about issue A, forms B, C and D must be filled out, there needs to be meetings with person E, F and G, and blah, blah, blah. Besides, let’s remember that in Japanese society the consensus between all parts without confrontation is always sought after. That way, if someone says that he doesn’t agree with this or that, even if it’s one against 20 people, they’ll pay attention to him and they’ll try to find a solution that satisfies everyone. This, sometimes, may become very annoying and slow.

The good thing about having a system so slow is that when, having to think about something over and over again, having to be seen by a thousand people, etc., the end decision is usually very good.

Let’s take a look at the standard structure of Japanese enterprises:

Shachou (社長): is the president of the company. According to a coworker, his responsibility is to attend dinner after dinner and play golf with other “Shachou”.

Buchou (部長): are the chiefs of every department (Human Resources, Sales, R&D, etc.). “Shocho” (directors of one of the company’s factories) and “Shitencho” (directors of one of the company’s head offices) also belong to this category.

Kachou (課長): are just below Buchou and they’re the chiefs of every subsection within departments. In order to become a Kachou, you usually need 15 years or more of dedication to the company.

Kakarichou (係長): are the supervisors in charge of assigning specific tasks to the lower-level employees. They usually are in charge of groups of 5 to 10 people.

Kaishain (会社員): the lowest level in a company.

In Japan when you finish college you are usually recruited as a “Kaishain”. The company expects you to spend all your life with them; meaning that as soon as you finish college, you have a job for the rest of your life.

That is very different to the Spanish system I was used to, consisting of looking for poor souls who have just finished studying, hire them for a few months as apprentices so they can do all the dirty work, and then find the next graduate to continue the work of the previous one.

After years of hard work and dedication, employees are promoted from level Kaishain to Kakarichou, then to Buchou and finally, and hopefully, to Kachou when you are 50 years old. If you are a master of golf you could even become a Shachou (president).

That is to say, Japanese enterprises take really good care of their employees, and their employees love their enterprises because they are their life.

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Married to a video game character

Last weekend, a Japanese man named Sal9000 got married to a video game character that appears in a video game published by Konami on the Nintendo DS. It is the first time that a real person marries a virtual character in Japan. In this ItMedia article there are some pictures of Sal9000 enjoying a relaxing day in Disnay Land with his wife.

Vía Boing Boing.

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Tuttuki Bako

Bandai’s Tuttuki Bako is one of the coolest gadgets that I have seen lately. The “Tuttuki Bako” has a cubic shape, a monochrome screen and five minigames that you play by putting a finger inside it. You can buy it anywhere in the world through Amazon but it is kind of expensive; if you go to Kiddy Land in Omotesando (Tokyo) you can buy it for only 2,500 yen (19 euro).

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Zen Meditation

My first year in Japan (2004) my Vulcanus programme mates and I went to a temple and a monk taught us some Zen meditation techniques. First, he gave us a brief theoretical introduction to the Buddhist origins of Zen meditation. And then we moved on to a 35 minute practical session where we tried to free our minds from everything. Meaning that the goal of meditation is to “not think about anything”, as those of you who have read books on the subject already know. The thing is that we had to sit in a very uncomfortable position without moving a muscle for more than half an hour. If you twitch one bit, the monk comes with a stick and hits you between the shoulder and the neck. I didn’t receive any hits, but our friend Vasco got a pretty hard one for losing his concentration.

Here is a Zen short story:

A long time ago, a student was trying every day to understand the true meaning of Zen, and as all his efforts were in vain, his master hit him with a stick all the time. One day the student decided to leave and travel to try and learn what Zen was. A few years later, he came back to see his master. He asked him, “Do you know now what is Zen?”. And the student said, “Yes, this is Zen”, while picking up the stick and hitting his master.

At the end of the session we took some pictures:

meditación Zen
Carlos and I “meditating”

meditación Zen
Albert, Javi and Arnaud “meditating”

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73 year old Japanese porn star

Shigeo Tokuda worked all his life for a travel agency until he retired when he was 60 years old. When he retired he realized that he had too much free time and decided to become an actor for the adult film industry. Being 73 years old he has appeared in more than 350 porn movies, starring along with porn actresses ranging from 20 years old to 70 years old.
One in every five people in Japan is older than 60 years; porn with actors and actresses older than 60 years is now more popular than ever. There are even producing companies specialized in this kind of pornography because the market keeps on growing. Shigeo Tokuda is very popular in Japan, and even CNN made a report about him:

Japanese porn star

Japanese porn star

Japanese porn star
Pictures by Daylife.

You can read more about Shigeo here

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Shodo

Shodo

Shodo literally means “The way (second kanji character in the image above) of the writing (first kanji in the image above)”. It is the art of writing with a brush and ink on a special paper. It is taught in Japanese schools as a part of the Japanese language curriculum. Either way, it is not very common nowadays, although it is still used on New Year’s cards, in special occasions when money is handed out in envelopes, etc. There are also true artists who practice Shodo professionally. To become really good, it is said that you need several years of very hard training.

During the Vulcanus in Japan programme some years ago, we had a few Shodo lessons. One of the most important things is to always keep the brush perpendicular to the surface and to follow the proper order of the strokes.

Shodo

Fude: brush made out of bamboo and horse hairs.
Sumi: ink you pour into the stone container (Suzuri)
Hanshi: special paper for ink writing.
Shitajiki: protection you need to place underneath the paper.
Bunchin: weight to hold the paper in place.

Shodo

Shodo
Practicing

Shodo
Presenting the results

For those interested, you can buy Shodo kits with all you need from 3,000 Yen in specialized Japanese stationery stores.

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