I have just visited Tokyo for the first time. For being such a heavy traveler throughout my life, I have come to discover this incredible city relatively late, but – as people say – better late than never.
The first thing that strikes you about Tokyo, as you arrive from the airport, is its incredible road system. Highways cut across the city at an height between three and 10 floors high, giving you the impression of flying (although sometimes very slowly) between and above buildings. Beneath the highways there are streets and sidewalks, almost a parallel world that one joins when exiting the highway, to often discover tunnels beneath the street level. Roads in Tokyo are the closer urban analogy I’ve ever seen to blood vessels. While there are other cities, like Bangkok, where high-rise highways segregate the faster traffic from local jams, there is greater sense of harmony and seamless integration here than anywhere else, as if highways were a most natural part of the landscape.
The second thing that strikes you is its sheer size. I have been in large cities, like LA or New York or Seoul or KL or Bangkok, but Tokyo beats them all. Even from the tallest building it looks endless, its borders fading at the horizon, even when you are lucky enough to have a clear sky.
As a consequence, the third impression concerns people, how many there are and how orderly and calmly they face the ordeal of moving together on sidewalks, at crossroads, in stations or malls. There is a form of kindness and untold social bonding among these thousands of people who move to and from work, or shop or just have fun, and while I am clearly different, it is easy to feel part of that flow.
I was also impressed with how many young people there were. Although I was staying in Shibuya that is indeed a center for entertainment, still I was not expecting so many nice young people around, in a country with constantly declining population.
One of my worries before arriving was language. I knew that not many Japanese speak a fluent English and I had been forewarned that this may create some personal as well as professional difficulty. Indeed on the bus from and to the airport the driver spoke only Japanese, but a recorded voice would help me get the basics in English.
All colleagues spoke decent English and a few clients too, but I spent two days with an excellent interpreter who would sequentially translate both ways. Incidentally, I seriously doubt that average government officials in Italy, France or Spain speak a better English than Japanese ones. I have found myself a few times appealing to our common Latin roots to make a conversation sensible (mostly in Spain, luckily enough I can understand French and Italian is my mother tongues): I can hardly imagine how tough it must be for US colleagues to rely exclusively on the help provided by local sales colleagues in South Europe, who sometimes are not terribly fluent in English either.
In Tokyo things went far smoother. The translation did not disrupt the flow of discussion, and I learned how to speak English more slowly, using shorter sentences and providing more information with fewer words, quite a tough exercise for Italians who are used to talk a lot. I also had to control my typical hand-waving, as when clients were getting the meaning associated to my gesture, I had long stopped talking.
I was also favorably impressed with how clients are willing to engage, to be challenged and to challenge your statements. While this always happens in a very polite manner, I found this more intense and entertaining than what I experienced in some other countries.
The nicest surprise was to debunk a myth that many colleagues of mine have convinced me of, i.e. that Japanese audiences do not get jokes. An old line that I’ve heard from countless analysts is that during a presentation where an American speaker tells a joke, people will laugh only because the interpreter says “The American told a joke, please laugh”. While I do not really understand why, since Japanese people have many things in common with Americans (such as baseball), I had the counterproof myself. As I was using my jokes about Italians who have invisible and untaxed incomes and how tax authorities are getting smart at catching them using web 2.0 technology, those who understood English laughed instantly and other later, but in both cases laughs were genuine and I could see some people laughing at each other, which gave me a good feeling of connecting to them.
On my final evening, my colleagues – who always took care of me wonderfully – took me for dinner in a traditional Japanese restaurant, one of those where you have to take off your shoes and sit on the floor. I have to confess that I’ve always been suspicious of the Japanese cuisine. The main reason was the sudden success of sushi restaurants in Italy and the number of friends and colleagues who seem to have fallen victim of this new fashion, which – similarly to jogging, another recent Italian fad – tries to combine fashion-consciousness with dietary requirements. Not being fond of raw seafood, the idea of raw fish was a bit alien to my tastes.
My colleagues started making me taste exquisite cooked food, like tofu, soba noodles with wasabi, tempura and an excellent juicy Japanese beef that I had never tried before. Then came the sushi. Surprisingly, the sight of these well prepared small portions was intriguing and, as a thank you to my colleagues who had been so kind to me, I tried one. To my own astonishment, I found it delicious, and did not have a second one just to make that moment most memorable and preserve the memory of that single bite, which is probably going to broaden my cuisine preferences forever.
So far it looks like everything about Japan is wonderful and I am just looking forward to my next visit (assuming I didn’t piss off too many clients) to discover and learn more.
On the other hand, there seem to be certain aspects of the Japanese culture which are rather far from my European roots. One is workaholism. Despite coming from the South of Europe, where there is a more relaxed attitude toward work-life balance, I have to say that I have always met very hard workers in my part of the world as well and I think I am one too. However when my colleagues made me look through the restaurant’s windows to office buildings nearby, where many people were at work after 9 pm, and they told me that Japanese managers expect their reports to read and respond to emails late at night, I balked.
We went deeper into the conversation, exploring what this implies for social lives. I discovered that Japanese people do not have much of a family life during the working week. Hanging out in bars with friends, sometimes as a break during late working hours or as a way to cool off after a long day, is quite typical. A colleague told me that when he was a kid he would wave goodbye to his dad on Sunday evening asking “Please come back” as he would not see him until the following weekend. If you add long commuting times, sleeping three to four hours at night and not seeing much of your family becomes the norm.
I will share some reflections on all this from a social media perspective in my next post.
All in all, a wonderful experience and a great opportunity to have a short immersion in a different culture that, like mine, is suffering from striking contrast between tradition and modernity.
By the way, could I please get a phone that works in Japan? As I realized that my brand new Blackberry was not working (and it is so odd to feel disconnected these days), I enquired and found out that you do not only need a UMTS phone, but also one that is quad-band. Speaking of which, I was impressed with the sheer numbers of iPhones and iPads that I saw around and at all meetings I attended: Japanese people seem even more excited with Jobs’ products than we are in the West.