Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Japanese Meetings

The following entry, like everything else in this blog, is a work of pure fiction. The incidents and opinions do not refer to the author’s employer or any other actual Japanese company, and all sentiments herein are the compiled result of heresay and careful research. Any implied connection between modern corporate Japan and Showa-era aggression policies is also purely imaginary.

One of my students is a college professor at the local university. On this particular Friday evening he came into class with his head down and shoulders slumped after what he described as an egregiously boring meeting. Having that afternoon suffered through an hour-long meeting rife with excessive Head Office managerial control, I empathized.

“Are American meetings,” he said, thinking over each word before he spoke, “similar to Japanese meetings?”

The time it took for me to respond in the negative was approximately equal to the time it takes a beam of florescent light to travel from the Teacher’s Room ceiling to the hastily pinned up copies of this month’s Self Study Achievement Ratios. We had a good laugh over this.

“My image,” he continued, again choosing his words carefully, “is that Western meetings have some...purpose.”

Yeah, that sums it up pretty well.

It is difficult to describe the stiff, uncomfortable atmosphere of a Japanese meeting; particularly on the days when some unseen committee at the Head Office has contrived some elaborate procedure for classroom management and passed it on to the Branch Managers, who’ve passed it on to the Head Teachers, who are holding a meeting to pass it on to the foreign teachers, who will promptly ignore it as soon as the meeting is over. All decisions of any importance have already been made before the meeting starts, and the actual meeting is merely an assembly to formally pass on these orders to subordinates like yours truly. We sit in a semi-circle around the Head Teacher as she reads from neatly typed Head Office documents (which often contain simple English mistakes that I take great pleasure in circling with my blue pen) and nod robotically, mumbling the occasional hai, wakarimashita, or “I understand.” Breaks for questions are followed by brief silences where we stare uncomfortably at the floor; for to ask a question would be seen as admitting one’s weakness in not understanding orders; or worse: an attempt to oppose the Head Office’s wishes.

Orders from a superior have a kind of sanctity in Japan. For teachers to question an order from the Head Office, no matter how much it adds to their workload or how nonsensical it appears, would be unheard of. Other decisions made by Branch Managers, School Mangers, or Head Teachers carry similar weight; and should any employee be daring enough to point out some flaw in the plan or justify an alternate method, their argument would be immediately dismissed as going against the established order. In corporate Japan, your opinion does not matter.

It is no wonder then that I was so surprised upon coming here and seeing people nod mindlessly at their boss without so much as a stray comment; behavior that would be interpreted by most Americans as blatantly not listening. It disappoints me to see them accepting orders without critical thought, questioning whether the order is feasible, or attempting to understand the intentions behind it. Don’t even think about refusing, for that would be unheard of (people would look at you strangely). Theirs is a culture of obeying; often expressed in English by bosses with that ubiquitous phrase we need you to:

We need you to wear a suit to work every day.
We need you to talk to students in the lobby between every class, even if you’re busy.
We need you to schedule a counseling session with all students, whether they want it or not.
We need you to use the daily pronunciation practice sheet at the beginning of every lesson, no matter how good the students’ pronunciation already is.
We need you to finish these measurements by tomorrow morning, even if you have to work all night without sleep to do so.
We need you to go on a business trip to Seoul this weekend. We know you had vacation plans, but you’ll have to reschedule.
We need you to work six days a week until after ten PM. We know that you have a wife and children who you want to spend time with, but we’re very busy now and the work must be finished.
We need you to transfer to Osaka next month. We know that your friends, family, and your entire life are here, but we’re closing your branch and you have to go.
We need you to crash this special kamikaze plane into the foreign battleship, killing all of the enemy onboard and yourself. We know that you really wanted to live past age nineteen, but it’s imperative to our success in the war.

Shikatta ga nai. In Japan, these things happen.

1 comment:

Danicus said...

This alone says more about why i would never thrive in Japan better than I could ever have explained it.