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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Always Apologise

Shorly after arriving to live in Japan, a few years ago, I received an advice from a work colleague. That advice turned out to be very sound when doing business in Japan (or generally for social relationships in Japan). The advice was: "always apologise". He told me that at every meeting I should open with some apology, even if there is nothing to apologise for. Apologise for them having to take time off their busy schedule to meet you, or for the offer for a drink. Anything.

I was reminded of this piece of advice this morning, during a flight from Tokyo to Singapore. Across the aisle from me sat a middle-aged Japanese man (the infamous oji-san, literally "uncle" but generally a term used for that ubiquitous, fastidious "salaryman" that is constantly irritable and could not care less about others). Even before we took off he managed to get into some argument with one of the Singaporean flight attendants; I'm not sure what it was about, but I'm pretty sure it was over some minor point. A few minutes after that argument, a Japanese flight attendant appeared, together with the Singaporean one, and what followed was a classic example of the "always apologise" rule.

First, the Japanese flight attendant went down on her knees. Why? Because this way he would be talking down to her instead of looking up to her. Second, the Japanese flight attendant opened by a lengthy apology, even before asking him what happened. She then listend intently to the man, constantly nodding her head in apology and understanding. When she translated for the benefit of her colleague, the Singaporean flight attendant tried to offer her own explanation (in English, standing up), but the Japanese flight attendant quickly put a hand on her arm as if to say: "please don't make things worse by interfering; just shut up and let me handle this". She proceeded to apologise again and allowed the man to continue to vent his anger. After a couple of minutes he was out of steam and she concluded by apologising again. The man gruffily accepted the apology and life went on.

What the Japanese flight attendant did was something I've witnessed countless times in Japan. I have no doubt the flight attendants had a good answer to the man's complaint and quite possibly they were also completely in the right and his complaint was baseless. But that was not the point. The Japanese flight attendant understood that in order to prevent escalation she needed to save this oji-san's face. After making the complaint he could not simply accept any explanation; his "status" as a passenger (and, yes, as a man) was such that he needed to be offered a way to climb down from the tree. She offered him that way not by addressing his complaint but by aplogising for him having to make a complaint in the first place!

This is a tactic that us Westerners (and Israelis in particular) find very had to adopt. Many times I insisted on proving the other side wrong, making absolutely sure what my position was. A much more successful tactic would have been, on many of those occasions, to obfuscate the point, apologise, and offer the other side the chance to step down without having to admit defeat. What I saw this morning was a classic example of such behaviour. I don't believe the Singaporean flight attendant realised exactly what had transpired.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Oedo Monogatari Onsen, Tokyo

The Japanese love hot water. Actually, "love" is an understatement. From times immemorial, immersing oneself in hot water is a favourite pastime in Japan, whether it be at home (in those small but deep baths), in the neighbourhood ofuro (public bath) or in that ultimate hot-water experience: the revered onsen.

In fact, hot water has such standing in Japanese culture that there is a special word for "hot water" in Japanese: yu. Here is the Japanese character (kanji) for yu, which appears on virtually every ofuro in the country:

During my last trip to Tokyo I visited the onsen in Odaiba (an artificial island in Tokyo bay): the Oedo Monogatari Onsen. This complex opened in 2003 and is more than just a hot bath. It was constructed in the ancient Oedo style (Oedo was the old name of Tokyo) and contains more than 20 hot baths, massage parlours and other attractions. It also boasts a mutltitude of restaurants and shops situated along a roofed street, which is modelled as a hirokouji street of the Edo period. Apparently, the water is brought up to the baths from 1,400 metres below ground. Aside from the indoor baths there are a couple of outdoor baths with simulated landscaping, and if it were not for the planes overhead landing at 2-minute intervals in nearby Haneda airport, one could almost imagine this was a genuine countryside onsen.

When you arrive at the onsen you put your shoes in a locker then proceed to pay and get your yukata (the traditional Japenese robe). You can choose from ten or so different yukata designs (who said Japanese were not individualistic people?). Then you proceed to the changing rooms where you get rid of your clothes and don the yukata; everybody walks around barefoot in their yukata throughout the onsen complex. The baths are separated but there is an outdoor foot-bath area which is mixed. I went on a Sunday and many families were there for the day.

One particularly interesting attraction at the Oedo Monogatari is the "fish doctor" treatment. These are tiny fish, 1-1.5cm in length and very thin, that live in hot water, where regular fish cannot survive. As a result, these fish live off dead matter. Someone discovered that the fish can be used to eat off the dead skin from your body. You immerse your hands or feet in the bath and theses small fish gather around and nibble off the dry skin off your extremities. It's quite ticklish at first but after a couple of minutes it becomes quite enjoyable, a kind of "mini massage" feeling.

The Oedo Monogatari Onsen is not the typical Japanese onsen. Far from it. It is a tourist attraction and it flaunts that rather shamelessly. But if one is in Tokyo and has no time to visit Japan's countryside for a "real" onsen then this is certainly a worthwhile experience.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Long Journey Home

A while ago, I quoted an article about the difference between trains in Israel and trains in Japan. This evening I had the misfortune of getting a taste of this difference. And what a bitter taste it turned out to be.

My wife drove me to work this morning as she needed the car. At the end of the day she called to propose to come and pick me up, but I declined and told her I'm going to check out the train for the first time. I knew that getting from the office to the train station and then from the train station to my home would be problematic (no convenient public transport), but I thought that once I would get on the train, things would roll nicely. After all, I had one stop to travel, change to another train, and then two stops. How bad could 3 stops possibly be?

How bad? Well, you judge. Here is what I went through:

17:55 Left office, walked to train station.

18:10 Arrived at train station, purchased ticket.

18:25 Train left train station.

18:30 Train arrived at next station, got off to change trains.

18:35 Standing on platform 3, waiting for next train (due in 10 minutes).

18:40 Announcement: "All northbound and southbound trains will be approximately 10 minutes late".

18:45 Announcement: "The train that was supposed to depart from platform 3 will depart from platform 1. Please change platforms". Had to rush to platform 1.

18:54 Train arrives and departs.

18:58 Train arrives at next station. One more station to go!

18:59 Announcement: "This train will be delayed in leaving the station due to congestion"

19:05 Train leaves station.

19:09 Train arrives at destination. Mission (almost) accomplished.

19:15 Wife picks me up in car from train station, we head home.

19:35 Arrived home (through rush-hour traffic).

In summary, total travel time door-to-door was 1.5 hours, of which 13 minutes were spent in a moving train. Even with the worst rush-hour traffic it never takes me more than 45-50 minutes to get home from work. Is it a wonder people, unless they have to, don't use public transportation in Israel?

And don't get me going about the state of the toilets on the train, the fact that all announcements are in Hebrew only (I guess Israel has given up on tourism), the absence of taxis and/or buses at both train stations, etc. etc. I guess I expect too much; after all, this is the middle east...