Bring up weird countries and it seems like Japan is right on the top of everybody's list. There's a laundry list of things people commonly bring up about our distant neighbors to the far east: Adult videos featuring tentacles, vending machines for everything, rampant groping on public transportation, game shows that defy description, but the things that are the most weird are the little differences.
In reality, the Japanese aren't all that much different than anyone else. We all want the same things. We all desire security, happiness and prosperity. We wake up, go to work, come home, watch TV, spend time with our family and go to sleep in order to do it again the next day. Except when the Japanese go to work, they might just sleep while they're there. And when they go home it might not be for a couple of days. When they go out to an after business meeting, they very well might get absolutely hammered on expensive whiskey at a hostess bar.
If you've never done any business in Japan, how they approach it might surprise you. There's a very strict formality that must be adhered to. A system of rank and courtesy that cannot be broken without serious consequences. And when that formality is let go and it's time to relax, they party just as hard as they conduct business.
The day to day conducting of business in Japan will seem quite odd to the typical gaijin. Here's a list of five of the things that would strike a westerner as the weirdest if they were to find themselves transported to a Japanese office. Enjoy!
5 5: Technological Iconoclasm
Most westerners have a view of Japan as being a hotbed of digital and mechanical innovation where super-advanced robots are being created to perform every task. And they're right. Hell, Japan even has entirely digital celebrities. They're called Idoru. It's creepy. It's a strange contradiction then that if you want to send business commerce in Japan you're very likely going to have to use a fax machine. A real, honest-to-god, paper-spitting fax machine.
Japan's traditional-mindedness may be due to the fact that it has one of the oldest and most rapidly aging populations in the world, with a huge proportion of the population being over the age of 65. They're not a country to quickly throw working methods for new ones, no matter how much of an improvement it might be. They're careful, observant and thoughtful – even to the point of many offices still having dot matrix printers and rotary phones.
4 4: Office Flowers
The term 'office flower' does not refer to plants. No, it refers to ornamentation of a more interactive sort. Shokuba no hana, literally flower of the office is a female worker in what can only accurately be described as a very patriarchal workplace. These lady's jobs range from such tasks as looking attractive, finding a husband and serving tea. There's no chance they can make a career of this and they are expected to retire at a suitable marriage age.
Office flowers became so popular after World War 2 that the government eventually – very eventually, as in 1986 – created a law to benefit them and offer equal opportunity. A law that has done essentially nothing to change discriminatory business practices. If it sounds a little like doing business in Japan is a bit like the 1950s, you may be surprised at the next page.
3 3: Cat Nap (Imemuri) To Recharge
Another misconception that westerners have about the Japanese is just how hard they work. It is true that they are expected to work very long hours and spend a great deal of time with their team, but it's not a work til you drop sort of environment – that is only the public face.
Imemuri is basically a power nap that only the high- and low-ranking workers in a company are allowed – even expected – to engage in. By sleeping at work it shows that you are so dedicated to your job that you do not sleep enough at home. Some workers, to show how hard they work, even fake sleeping on the job.
To engage in imemuri you must perform the following steps: Start working. Pause working. Sleep, sitting up. Answer anyone who should make a request of you. Get back to work.
NASA has discovered that this sort of cat nap actually improves working memory, and a 15 minute nap is as subjectively refreshing as three hours of deep sleep. The next time your boss tells you that you're slacking off, make sure to catch some Zs in front of him.
2 2: Binge Drinking
The next time you are invited to a company picnic or team building exercise, ask yourself – will it be in Japan? If so, plan some time the next morning to recover. You will be needing it. A Japanese business party is very often a special sort of drinking occasion known as Nomikai. Nomikai is a business party where etiquette is suspended and people can be frank with one another. The excuse for this frankness, which will never be seen between superiors and subordinates outside such an occasion, is alcohol. Lots of it.
Drinking is not compulsory at Nomikai but, you know, peer pressure. The longer a man has been working the more of a tolerance he's built and the younger salary men will try to keep up with their more seasoned compatriots. Turning down alcohol isn't an insult, but everything in Japanese business culture is about fitting in and being a good member of the team. You do as your colleagues do. If they're drinking and you are not it will be just plain awkward.
Compulsory napping? Mandatory drinking? Whatever could be next...
1 1: Business Card Worship
Ah, the business card. That most disposable of workplace detritus. That litter of the wallet. That absolutely necessary and incredibly revered monolith of Japanese business. To the Japanese businessman a business card is an extension of himself and an emblem of his station and you must treat it with the same respect you will treat him. As such, there is ritual involved in the exchange of business cards.
Most importantly you will accept the business card with both hands. This shows you take it seriously and do not wish to drop it. You will read the business card, you will remember the title and if you are not sitting down you will put it in your wallet or business card case with care. Never write on it, never fold it.
When you hand over your business card also do so with both hands. Make sure the Japanese-language side is face up. What, you don't have a Japanese side on your business cards? Well, you just committed an unforgivable sin and will be forever remembered as disrespectful barbarian. But they already knew that. You never sleep on the job and probably can't even operate a fax machine.