A Geek in Japan | 2011 April
Adventures of a geek living in Japan
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Hansei – 反省

Hansei (反省) is one of the concepts of Japanese culture that has been the hardest for me to fathom, and I believe that I still have a lot to understand and live within Japanese society to understand the concept like a Japanese person. Han (反) means “change”, “to turn something over”, “to see something from a different perspective”, and Sei (省) means “to review”, “to examine yourself”. The typical translation of the whole word hansei (反省) is usually “introspection” or “reflection”. All human beings practice hansei to a greater or lesser extent; let’s see how hansei is applied throughout Japanese society.

The first time that I was conscious about the existence of this word was when our boss summoned us for a hansei-kai, a meeting “to do hansei”. I looked in the dictionary the word hansei, but with the literal meaning I really didn’t understand what was the meeting about and what you were supposed to do in a meeting of “introspection”.

The meeting started with long faces. The boss scolded us and told us that the mistake we committed two days ago was very serious and that it could not happen again under any circumstances. I was beginning to understand what the “reflection” and “introspection” of the hansei was. The thing is that my “Spanish/European” mentality made me think: “We all know it was an irresponsibility of Tanaka-san what made all the production systems go down, he is the one that has to reflect on what happened, not us”. I simply thought about it but I didn’t say anything, most likely everybody else thought the same and also didn’t say anything.

Tanaka-san was sitting on the corner of the table looking down, also in silence and listening to the boss rant. When he finished, the boss asked each one of us why we thought something had gone wrong and what could we do so it would never happen again. We all answered without mentioning Tanaka-san, talking about the changes we could introduce in the processes to improve the quality control. When Tanaka-san had to speak, he briefly apologized with a simple “sumimasen”, assuming his responsibility and then he explained what he had done wrong and what he would do so it would never happen again. At the end of the meeting, the boss summarized all the lessons learned in a whiteboard and told us that he would send an e-mail with all the conclusions and changes to be introduced in the group work routine. Afterwards, the boss explained what had happened to the president, he assumed all the responsibility about the mistake of our team (without mentioning Tanaka-san at all). Tanaka-san never made the same mistake again and neither any of us, thanks to the hansei-introspection-reflection meeting we made our team better.

I learned something more about the hansei concept. The purpose of the meeting was not for Tanaka-san to apologize, neither to blame Tanaka-san for what he had done, the main purpose of the meeting was to improve the team, to make kaizen. In a similar situation, people with a western mentality would most likely point at Tanaka-san and maybe Tanaka-san would blame something else. Most likely the tension between the members of the group would increase until everybody forgets about what happened, and maybe in the future the same situation will happen again.

In our cultures, influenced by christian tradition, the ideas of guilt and sin have been instilled since childhood in our minds. When we do something wrong, when we commit a mistake, the guilt kills us, sometimes we don’t want to accept it. On the other hand, Japan is a society where the most feared is not guilt, but embarrassment. Tanaka-san felt embarrassment for having failed the team, we as a team also felt embarrassment for having failed the boss, and our boss felt embarrassment for having failed us and having failed the company.

All of us, humans, commit mistakes but depending on our personality and the culture we have been raised in, our first reaction is different. The first reaction of Japanese people is a deep feeling of embarrassment. This initial embarrassment feeling is next channeled through hansei, through reflection, through introspection about what has happened, by being fully aware of what has happened and by sharing the mistake with the group (collectivist society). In our cultures the first that we think of is our guilt and next we try to make everything possible to hide our mistake, so that the least possible amount of people knows about it; we try to “hide our shit”, maybe it’s ours or maybe it’s from our team, or sometimes we even try to blame our shit on somebody else.

At the beginning I still didn’t understand the whole meaning of hansei, I just thought that it consisted only in assuming your responsibility and reflecting about what had happened looking at it from different perspectives. But the truth is that it is much more than reflection, it is closer to an introspection, to the “knowledge of oneself” (self-awareness, a Buddhist concept). To be able to “know oneself better”, after feeling embarrassment, the hansei process could consist of three steps:

  • 1.- Reflection, introspection, and assuming your responsibility
  • 2.- Recognizing that there is a problem. Identifying the origin of the difference between what you tried to achieve and the real outcome.
  • 3.- Compromising yourself to a series of changes in order to improve

These steps can be applied at an individual level as well as a team. When Japanese children do something wrong, they are scolded and are told: hansei shinasai “反省しなさい” (Do hansei!). Just by being told this, the children know in their subconscious that they have to assume the responsibility, recognize and explain the problem, and have to change in the future to not make the same mistake again. It is not a question of scolding the child so that he feels guilty, it is a question of making him see that nobody is perfect and that we can all improve as individuals when we are decided to do it.

Little by little I have started to understand that hansei is always present, even when we haven’t made any mistake. I feel like my boss is not always completely happy, he is always expecting more from us as a team, he is always expecting more from me. When he praises me, the next thing he does is to “criticize me constructively”. He tells me something like this: “Héctor, good job, thanks for your effort over the last weeks. But, could you try to do it better next time?”. He is not angry, he just wants us to improve, to be better individuals, to form a better team, to be a better Japan. Doesn’t it remind you to some samurai movies and manga like Naruto or Dragon Ball where the senpai-sensei-master is always expecting more from his disciples, even when they have surpassed him?

Most likely, at the beginning, when I was still with a 100% western mindset, it annoyed me that nobody was completely happy even when things were going exceptionally well. Now, I think I am already used to it, I know that my bosses are happy but they keep it to themselves, they tell me what they have to tell me just because they want more from me and my colleagues.

Even though we have performed our duties, even though we have surpassed everyone’s expectations, most likely we could have done our work even better. In the working world in Japan I feel like people is never satisfied enough; the behavior of the people is quite similar when things go well and when things go bad. We are in a continuous process of improvement. In an American company when a project has been successfully accomplished maybe it will be celebrated with a bottle of champagne; in a Japanese company it will also be celebrated but in many occasions there will be meeting afterwards to see what could have been done to make it even better. Toyota is one of the most rigorous companies when it comes to applying hansei. They are always doing hansei-kai meetings, when things go smooth, as well as when things go bad. They are continuously reflecting about their processes and trying to analyze how could they make them better; in Toyota they say: “To not have problems is a problem”.

In the western world we like to brag about how well we have done something. In Japan, even though achievements are celebrated, people try not to stand out too much and to be humble. In the west we expect to get a reward when we do a good work; in Japan you expect that somebody will tell you or ask you how can you do it better next time.

Experience is the best teacher, if we don’t learn about our experiences we are advancing in vain. The hansei process helps you to improve, to learn, to get the best out of your experience. I have learned many things about hansei, and I have applied them to my professional life as well as to my personal life. However, I think that I still have a long way to go to understand the whole concept; for example, even though I don’t know if it’s important or not, I still feel more guilt than embarrassment when I am the one who is responsible for our team not meeting expectations.

The final objective of hansei is to improve through a process of introspection, to learn about oneself, to learn to be better individuals and a better society. Right now, after the earthquake of last month, Japan is living a hansei process at a national level: government, construction companies, architects, TEPCO and all the citizens in general. Japan is living the largest hansei since the end of World War II.

I’m not saying that the way Japanese handle hansei is good or bad, it is just different on how we handle it in other cultures.

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Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso is an American artist that lives in Tokyo. Because of his style I always thought he was Japanese, but it turns out he is not. He is a painter and a movie director; as well as a great photographer, whose photos I love. I have been following his blog Tokyo Undressed for a while. What do you think of his photos?

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

Rikki Kasso

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Akira – The Manga – アキラ

I had seen the movie Akira, but I still hadn’t read the manga until recently. My colleague Inata lent me six volumes of the last Japanese edition by Kodansha; in United States they were published by Dark Horse.

In comparison to the movie, the manga delves more deeply into the political situation after the 3rd World War, the state of Neo-Tokyo and the development of the personality of the main characters. In Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 the city is destroyed by an earthquake; in Akira, Tokyo is reduced to ashes by a new type of bomb (in clear reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki) starting the 3rd World War.

Reading the manga more carefully I have noticed some questions that Otomo Katsuhiro deals with that I didn’t notice in the movie:

Corrupt government, slow in taking decisions and inefficient in general
The Japanese government is heavily criticized for its bureaucracy, by its slowness when taking critical decisions and for its corruption. There’s usually not many corruption scandals in Japan, they are very good at hiding them, but the citizens are always suspicious. The movie Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa addresses in depth the Japanese bureaucracy problems. In Akira the government plays a puppet role, they talk and talk about the crisis situation but are not able to take any correct decisions, they are not able to control the crisis in any moment at all; they even make it worse. Nowadays, in the real world, Japan is also in a situation of reconstruction and the government is being criticized for its slowness when executing, mostly on all the matters concerning Fukushima nuclear power plant. All the communications infrastructure in the affected areas by the tsunami has been almost completely reestablished and 5,000 new houses have been built. Even so, those affected (there are more than 100,000 people living in shelters) demand much more speed to the government.

Cults
Another important topic in Akira are the cults and their networks that extend throughout all the government. Until I have developed enough my Japanese language skills, it is something that I was not really aware of, as to really understand the topic you have to get deep into conversations with Japanese people, mostly when you ask them about the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. In Japan there’s much more cults than you would think. Some of them are quite powerful and control publishing companies and other media. One of the main topics of 1q84 by Haruki Murakami is cults and their influence on Japanese society.

Reconstruction
The reconstruction of the country after the war and the economic revival is another key topic in Akira. The area where old Tokyo was located, is useless after the 3rd World Ward, and the new Tokyo called “Neo-Tokyo” is constructed in Tokyo bay, gaining land to the sea. Katsuhiro Otomo criticizes the problems of a rushed and ill-considered reconstruction, showing a modern and futurist Neo-Tokyo but at the same time dystopic, overpopulated, completely controlled by the authorities like in Orwell’s 1984, and invaded by gangs. Akira also shows scenes inside schools and high schools putting in evidence the deficiencies of the Japanese education system.

These are some of the social questions that I have noticed in this masterpiece, that on the surface it looks like a simple action work but in reality it is much more, it is a mirror of the concerns of today’s Japanese society. Have you read the manga? Only the movie? What did you think about it? What did you learn about Japan?

Akira 第1巻, volume 1

Akira 第2巻、Thanks @inata_hazuki

Other articles about Akira:

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Earthquake documentary by National Geographic

Witness: Disaster in Japan is a documentary produced by National Geographic that shows us a compilation of videos of what happened on the 11th of March. It shows images from the less affected areas like Tokyo or Saitama, as well as images from the most affected areas, devastated by the tsunami, like Miyagi and Fukushima. The documentary is edited so that is shows what happened in a chronological way, since the earthquake strikes until the tsunami hits 20-30 minutes after, depending on the area.

Source: Ajapon

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Fresh eggs vending machine

Eggs Vending Machine
Another weird vending machine coming from Japan, this time “fresh” (?) eggs are on sale.

Other posts about vending machines in Japan:

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Tokyo Magnitude 8.0

I have almost finished watching Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, a 11 episode anime series released in 2009. It is a fiction series based in what could happen in Tokyo if there was a magnitude 8.0 earthquake in Tokyo bay.

The main characters of the series are two siblings that are enjoying a free day in Odaiba visiting a robots exhibition in Miraikan museum. When they go out of the museum the little brother goes to the bathroom, and his sister waits outside. That moment is when the magnitude 8.0 earthquake hits Tokyo bay. From that moment, a long way to walk back home awaits them to re-encounter with their parents (if they are alive).

The plot of the series is quite repetitive, sometimes even boring, but it is quite interesting to notice the similarities in a fiction series compared to what happened last month in Tokyo under a magnitude 9.0 earthquake (but with the epicenter very far away).

Some things that happen in the anime that also happened in Tokyo on the 11th of March:

  • People go back home walking after the earthquake (a third of the people in Tokyo came back home walking on the 11th of March)
  • Many people can’t get home before the night falls (a fifth of the people in Tokyo couldn’t get back home on the 11th of March)
  • Mobile phone networks stop working (in the series, the networks in Tokyo don’t work for several days because the magnitude of the earthquake is much greater. On the 11th of March we were around 10-15 hours without cell phone coverage)
  • Those affected use 1seg television on their cell phones to get information. Digital television for Japanese cell phones works even though there is no cell phone coverage. (On the 11th of March my colleagues and I got the news that there was a tsunami alert thanks to 1seg television on a cell phone)
  • People get together in assigned areas for shelter. (On the 11th of March, in Tokyo some of us were waiting for hours in “secure” areas to avoid the strongest aftershocks, others spent the night in shelters, schools and stadiums. In Tohoku area, a month and a half after the earthquake and tsunami there are still 100,000 people living in areas prepared by the government)
  • Neverending aftershocks (after a month and a half we are still experiencing many aftershocks)

Some things that were different in the anime Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 from the “real earthquake”

Tower similar to Tokyo Sky Tree in a 19th century woodblock print

In this ukiyo-e woodblock print by Kuniyoshi Utagawa a mysterious structure can be seen in the horizon whose silhouette is very similar to the Tokyo Sky Tree, which is currently under construction.

Tokyo Sky Tree Kuniyoshi Utagawa
Woodblock print created by Kuniyoshi Utagawa in 1831.

Finished Tokyo Sky Tree
Tokyo Sky Tree as it will look when its construction is finished at the end of this year. It will be 634 meters tall, being the second highest man-made structure in the world.

Several historians believe that the tower portrayed in the woodblock print by Kuniyoshi Utagawa didn’t really exist, it was a creative product of the artist imagination. It turns out that in that time it was forbidden to build any structure taller than Edo castle; moreover this woodblock print is the only proof of the “supposed existence” of that tower.

Did Kuniyoshi Utagawa predict the construction of Tokyo Sky Tree almost 200 years ago?

Source: Mainichi.

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