July 28, 2015
I wrote these few lines one year after I left Japan:
It’s been about a year since I left Japan. I lived in Osaka for two years, but the feeling that binds me to Japan is much older than that. I was nineteen when I visited Japan the first time. Quite immediately I fell in love with the whole country, and I spent the following 10 years travelling to Japan every year, until I finally moved there in 2010. Since the first time Japan influenced also my personal life and important choices.
As is difficult to describe a beautifully complicated country such as Japan, it’s also hard to explain what I miss about Japan now. I miss the atmosphere that you can feel there, and only there. Walking into a silent shrine, surrounded by beautiful gardens, or in the noisy, coloured, and blinking Shinsaibashi, surrounded by city lights, people, and shops. I miss the daylight in Japan, that has different colour, different nuances. Brighter, colder, beautiful. I miss the contradictions of Japan. Japan is the place where the opposite sides of everything live together without exploding in the mixture. Japan is the eternal balance of two antithetic points, with uncountable different realities.
Japan is also the decline of a model, a lifestyle, that probably keeps going on just because it hasn’t realised that it cannot exist anymore. Japan is to think about what could have been and was not. Japan is an island, also culturally speaking. This is its greatest beauty and its biggest limit. This is what I miss about Japan.
I still find myself feeling the same things after more years since I left. Because really Japan is a place that can enter inside your heart and never leave. You might think it’s a kind of perfect country where everything works and where it’s cool to live and stay. In a certain way it is like that, but indeed once you start living and working there it feels different, of course. In particular working in Japan is an experience totally, completely different from our Western conceptions. I was in Osaka, and even if one may say that Tokyo is different I think that in Japanese companies certain methods and culture are still common in the whole country.
I worked for two different companies, both Japanese ones. The first was design agency called adAchieve, while the second one was a big IT company, TransCosmos. I have experienced intriguing and odd situations in both of them.
I didn’t have these kinds of meetings in Italy, before going to Japan. A Choure is an every morning stand-up meeting where you explain what you have been doing to the rest of the team. It was common also in Triposo, but we are talking about Japan now, and that’s where things can really get weird. Everyday a different person drives the meeting, stands up at 9:45 am and say 朝礼おねがいします (Meeting, please), then everyone stands up and collects together. The person in charge starts repeating a script that is always the same for everyone. The script is something like this:
ファイトー！(Screaming Fight! Yes. Screaming Fight! Faito in the Japanese pronunciation. If the Fight! wasn’t enough impressive then the person had to repeat it.)
オー！ (The team replied Ohh!)
社長からのご挨拶。(Just on Mondays, the message from the president)
キョシュボール (A ball passed to each person’s hands, while saying something good about that day. Something like Today is sunny and warm)
共通連絡事項の確認。(Asking if there are general communications)
常識＋ (The person in charge had to tell a story or an interesting news or fact)
外出来客予定の確認 (Asking the schedule of the day about meeting with customers)
共通連絡事項の再確認 (Asking again if there are general communications)
元気よく「今日も一日宜しくお願いします」(To say with energy: Also today is a day, please/thank you)
１０分間の掃除 (Cleaning the office for 10 minutes)
After the cleaning we could start working.
After several months of choure we also started exercise in the morning, before the stand-up meeting. All together, following exercise that Japanese people do since the elementary school. Curious? You can see what I’m talking about here:
As soon as that music started everyone knew that it was the — sad — time to exercise. Then the choure, and then — finally — work. Everyone, not just me as a foreigner, disliked both the choure and the exercise. But they were Japanese, they could complain about it, but they couldn’t avoid it. And me either. Because if you want to integrate yourself in a foreigner society, of course you have to behave like them.
Manner in Japan is probably the most important matter. It starts from the language. There are differences in the way you talk to elderly people, or young ones, like for most of languages. In Japanese though these differences are way deeper and changes the language itself dramatically. Layers and levels of honorary. The prefix “お” (O) to make words more gentle and respectful. There are words for women, and words for men. Women will say わたし (Watashi, I), while man will usually say ぼく(Boku, I) most of times or おれ (Ore, I — not elegant). I kept using わたし and I guess it sounded strange most of times, but I didn’t feel comfortable in using less respectful Japanese.
I could continue for pages with talking about the culture of the Japanese manner, but of course also on the workplace the manner is absolutely important. There are the 先輩 (Senpai, Seniors), and the general hierarchy is very strong and fixed. There are sentences that can explain a lot about this kind of culture. When you leave the office before the other persons you generally say お先に失礼します (I leave earlier, sorry, but literally something like Earlier discourtesy I do) and everyone will reply お疲れ様です (cheers for the good work, but literally sounds a bit like Tired person is).
残業 (ZANGYOU, OVERTIME)
I cannot avoid mentioning the overtime. We do have this image of Japanese people working for hours, until late at night. The reality is not much different from this idea, but what I could understand is that this does not mean to be more productive or effective. On the contrary, I think quite the opposite. In order to stay at the office until 11 pm or even later most of people diluting the day work, slow it down, and keep going longer in time. We do know that time is money, and also in this case I see this behaviour as a waste of time, life, and money. It doesn’t bring anything to the company, it doesn’t add any value, it’s a matter of culture. In my career it happened everywhere to work until late at night, even 3 am or straight till the morning, but for a reason. Deadlines, final rush, whatever, it was the exception. In Japan zangyou is common. And as for all the common things in Japan, if you don’t follow the common sense then you are wrong.
I had colleagues falling asleep in front of the monitors in the morning, and other colleagues say that he worked a lot the day before. It was a positive thing. I can just imagine in Japan during the 80's, where the zangyou was surely more real than the present one, where hierarchy was much more suffocating. People in Japan still die for stress and overwork, so I think this matter is still quite real at the present time, but from what I could see directly the culture bit is very, very strong in this matter, too.
Design in Japan
I was well considered in Japan, as an Italian designer I could get several positive stereotypes that helped me with a good attitude from the beginning. The fact that I had worked on brands also famous in Japan such as Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Ferrero or Lavazza was a good start.
Design in Japan is of course very different. Japanese people are masters in graphic design, they have a kind of inner skill for balance, elegance and amazing compositions. The most beautiful and polished design comes from Japan. The story is very different when we look at the web design. It’s a matter that has been discussed many times around the web. If you are interested you can read several good articles, for instance: Why Japanese Web Design Is So… Different and my comment to that article here.
There are aspects that are very difficult to understand for people who don’t know about Japanese culture and language. For example about balance with text in Japanese design. I sometimes hear that they don’t have italic, bold, and styles in their text. They have much more than this. They have 3 ways to write, Katakana (phonetic, mainly used to write foreigner words), Hiragana (phonetic), and Chinese Kanji characters. And they mix all these ways of writing also for emphasis. They have strong feeling for this, they use all the 3 writings to find the right balance. To be more kind and gentle, they can display the text with more Hiragana, for instance. Official texts and documents have more Kanji, while Katakana is also used for Japanese words, not just foreigner ones as one could believe, still pretty much just for balance purpose, highlight, typography matters.
Japan took quite a lot of my life in terms of time and feelings. I have to thank Japan for the most important things in my life, directly or indirectly, Japan has always been there as a main part. It moved my feelings, inspired me, given me love, and even educated me. In Japan I also experienced one of the most difficult and intense periods of my life, and I went through it.
Originally published at www.claudiogomboli.com.