In a conversation over dinner, a new acquaintance said something like, “There are so many rules here you don’t need to think”. It was my second evening in Japan, and it’s a phrase that’s stuck with me these last few weeks. Not think about what exactly? How can I unpack that? How does this relate to my experiences and opinions of my Japanese contacts so far?
As a visitor, I have definitely picked up on a lot of rules. There is the expected way to greet someone, where to stand or walk in the transit system, when and where to eat or not eat, when to take off your shoes and how to exchange money. All this etiquette makes things feel formal, but it’s also highly efficient – not sweating about a 1 minute train connection efficient. This has made me be very aware of my surroundings. I’ve had to slow down. If anything, as a foreigner I’ve had to think more, so what was this acquaintance really getting at?
For locals and expats, this etiquette is second nature. It’s muscle memory. There is a sort of understanding about it. In fact, ‘wa’ is a Japanese word meaning harmony and it’s often used in relation to social spaces. Generally, any topic that has the potential to disrupt the cohesive group environment is avoided, such as provocative politics or personal details about one’s love life. This applies to the workplace as well, further enhancing group dynamics, and slowly building trust and connections between coworkers. Relationships are highly valued.
Almost every conversation about the traditional workplace leads back hierarchy – a hierarchy of power and a system of interactions. Hierarchy can make it easy to see whose responsibilities lie where, which saves time. Though when there is no hierarchy or a company is restructured in a way to give each voice more equal weight, what happens to the harmony? Perhaps it takes longer to hear everyone’s ideas and opinions, and people will be uncomfortable. Is that what this “thinking” is about, creating new spaces or challenging how things “should” be done? These dynamics are incredibly complicated, and I’ll certainly be continuing to try to understand them and their value in the workplace and in the broader community.
By Megan Katz
On a one-way ticket, Megan is taking time to follow her curiosity literally. Fortunate enough to be on unfamiliar soil, she is keeping her senses clear and her wit sharp. As a maker, dancer and enthusiastic conversationalist, she is seeking meaningful ways to move through new spaces. Endlessly fascinated by human behaviour, local food and cultural norms, stay tuned as Megan shares her thoughts navigating newfound perceptions and impressions