Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The beauty of the cosmos

I was walking with my friend Mai the other day when we passed by a field of cosmos flowers.

"Did you know that you can see stars inside the cosmos?" she asked.

I told her I had no idea what she was talking about.

If you look deep inside a cosmos flower, she explained, you will see lots of little stars. So I pulled a cosmos close to my face and was struck by what I saw: there were stars inside the cosmos! The universe never ceases to amaze me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Learning how to bow

A degree from Kyoto University is a golden ticket to a good job in Japan. As a result, the school feels more like an incubator for salarymen than a place for higher learning. Which is why a compulsory class on Japanese business manners is part of the curriculum.

I wasn't too happy about being forced to take a class geared toward future salarymen when I wasn't planning to work in Japan after graduation. Equally annoying was the syllabus, which explained that we would learn "how to make/receive phone calls" and "how to send/receive emails." The implication was that we somehow hadn't acquired these skills before entering grad school. I love Japan but I hate the hierarchical social structure that makes it acceptable to treat grown adults like 12 year olds.

I went into the business manners class thinking it would be a waste of time. But I was wrong: it turned out to be one of the most fascinating classes I've ever taken. It was both absurd and illuminating. Absurd in the sense that we learned looking cute was more important than being competent, and illuminating in the sense that we learned why looking cute is part of Japanese business culture in the first place.

The university had contracted the class out to Smart-i, a company that specializes in teaching new recruits how to fall in line with corporate culture. Our instructor was an impeccably groomed woman by the name of Akiko Sakamoto. It was her job to teach us how to dress, how to hand out business cards, how to bow, how to smile, and how to sit in a car. It was like boot camp for businessmen.

Learning how to dress

We were told to come to class wearing business attire. All of the Japanese students showed up in identical black suits and white shirts. Most of the foreign students showed up in suits as well, but with a dash of style -- a flashy pink tie or a purple blouse. After the introductory remarks, the first lesson was about appearance. Ms. Sakamoto geared her talk toward appropriate interview attire. She told us to stand up while she walked around the room and inspected our outfits.

She praised the Japanese students and scolded the foreign students. The way the Japanese students were dressed showed they valued the group, while the way the foreign students were dressed showed they valued their individuality. Generally speaking, interviewers in Japan are looking to see how well you conform to the group, while interviewers in the west are looking to see what sets you apart from the group.

When it was my turn to be inspected, Ms. Sakamoto was blunt. My blue silk blouse was offensive ("bright colours cause a feeling of strangeness"). My flared black skirt was too showy. My red nailpolish was inappropriate (nails should be clipped short and left unpainted). My earrings had to go (absolutely no accessories). My open-toed heels were wrong (plain, black low-heeled pumps covering the whole foot were best). My bare legs were scandalous (hose is a must). The only compliment she gave me was on my hair, which was pulled back in a bun ("avoid loud-coloured hair, it can make people uncomfortable").

According to Ms. Sakamoto, the most important thing is to look "clean" and wearing white shirt (presumably one without stains) is the best way to do that. A white shirt and a black suit creates a good first impression. Almost every Japanese job seeker will wear the white shirt/black suit uniform to an interview (they call it their "recruit suit"). Wearing something other than the recruit suit implies that you are not a team player. A good employee follows the rules and doesn't make waves. It's better to blend in rather than to stand out (therefore, no earrings, no jewelry, no nailpolish, no hair out of place). Of course, these rules are for the interview process, not the job itself. We were told the rules loosen up after you've been hired.

Learning how to give and receive business cards

Next on the agenda was the art of giving and receiving business cards. In Japan, the business card (or "meishi") is considered an extension of the individual. Exchanging business cards is a formal activity; therefore, the card must be treated with respect.

You give your business card with your right hand and you receive a business card with both hands. It sounds simple in theory but it's more complicated in practice. Technically, you're supposed to put both hands on your business card holder and hold your arms out in front of you when you receive a card, while saying "choudaishimasu" ("I will accept it"). Then you have to read the other person's card out loud, acknowledging their name and title. If you receive the card during a meeting, you put the card on the table in front of you and leave it there throughout the duration of the meeting. If you exchange cards in a place where there aren't any tables, you are supposed to put it in your card holder. Shoving someone's business card in your pocket or your wallet is considered rude. Ms. Sakamoto had us practice in groups of two and four.

The foreign students weren't the only ones fumbling around. The Japanese students were also having trouble remembering all the rules. My friend Abe-chan leaned across the table and said, "Don't worry. It's difficult for us Japanese too."

Learning how to bow

There are three different kinds of bows: eshaku; keirei; and saikeirei. Deciding what bow to use depends on the level of politeness required in a particular situation.

The eshaku bow is reserved for a light greeting, such as when you say hello to someone when you pass them in the office. The keirei bow is used for general greetings, such as when you welcome a customer into a store. The saikeirei bow, a deep bow from the waist, is the most polite bow of the three. It is used when you want to express a feeling of gratitude or apology. A prolonged saikeirei bow -- often lasting longer than 30 seconds -- is reserved for extreme contrition. It's the one you see on TV when a tearful company president takes responsibility for something horrible (a nuclear meltdown, for example) and bows so deeply he almost bends in half.

Ms. Sakamoto then had us stand up and practice the saikeirei bow. First we had to stand with our hands placed in front of us, with the left hand on top of the right hand. The reason for covering the right hand with the left hand is that (in olden days) you would pull out a sword with your right hand so covering up your right hand shows you won't give any harm. Then we learned how to bow down quickly and come up slowly. We were taught to come up slowly to prevent us from coming up earlier than the other person. Coming up more slowly than the other person is a sign of respect. It was highly entertaining watching two people bowing quickly at the waist and then trying to come up more slowly than the other. Competitive bowing. It could be an Olympic sport.

Learning how to behave

Smile, smile, smile. This was Ms. Sakamoto's main message when it came to proper behaviour. Judging by the smile plastered on her face throughout the entire class, it was a lesson she clearly took to heart.

Smiling, she explained, creates an impression of cuteness. Being cute makes you seem friendly and nonthreatening. Direct confrontation is a sign of poor manners so if you are cute, you are showing respect to other people (Ms. Sakamoto's words, not mine).

She also told us that "beautiful posture" would take us far in the business world. She barked out orders like a drill sergeant. Don't sit cross-legged ("it's bad for your back and bad for manners")! Don't cross your arms! Stand up straight with your hands at your side! The line dividing business manners and military training is a thin one in Japan.

Learning how to sit

Learning how to sit falls under the broader umbrella of "order of precedence." In Japan, there is an order of precedence in terms of where you should sit in a business meeting or where you should sit in a car. The order of precedence for seating arrangements follows a set of rules called sekiji. Customers, supervisors, or people older than you should have the best seats. Such seats are called kamiza.

For example, three co-workers sharing a taxi to a meeting downtown have to follow a strict seating arrangement. Where each of these employees sits in the taxi depends on their rank in the company. The most important person sits in the back, directly behind the driver. This is the most honourable seat because it is the safest seat. The next person down the ladder also sits in the back seat. The lowest ranking employee sits up front beside the driver. This is the least honourable seat because it is the least safe seat. So if there's an accident, it's better to sacrifice the 22-year-old intern than the 60-year-old boss.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rules. Consider, for example, the case of four employees taking a taxi. Suppose three of the employees are equally important, with one lower ranking female employee. Technically, the three important employees should sit in the back and the unimportant female employee should sit in the front. But if the three important employees are all large men, then the female employee should offer to take the middle back seat so that the important male employees are more comfortable. The lowest ranking female's comfort and safety are irrelevant (again, Ms. Sakamoto's words, not mine).

All the rules get thrown out the window, however, if the company president is the one driving the car. In that case, the intern gets booted to the back seat and the second-in-command takes the seat beside the driver. The least safe seat mysteriously becomes the best seat. Don't ask me how this works. It defies logic. The whole thing made me feel as if we had been transported back to the 1950s.

Learning how to speak

After being drilled on how to answer the phone and send emails, the last lesson of the day was on how to speak super polite Japanese ("keigo").

Keigo includes teinei-go (polite form), sonkei-go (honorific form) and kenjo-go (humble form). Deciding what form to use depends on the relationship between the two speakers. But it's not just who you're talking to that determines the form, it's also who you're talking about. For example, when talking with the boss in the office, the speaker uses the honorific form. But when taking with a client about the boss, the speaker uses the humble form.

It's confusing. Let's leave it at that.

Overall, it was a fascinating class. I fully endorse the general goal: respect, manners, and politeness are all wonderful things. The western world could use a few lessons from Japan on how to cultivate group harmony.

But I think Japan takes the repression of individuality a bit too far. It can't be healthy to hide your true emotions all of the time. The class reinforced so many of the little things that I'm not entirely comfortable with here. Like making myself small and submissive. Or blindly conforming to the group. Or putting in 12-hour days for the sake of company loyalty. Or putting everyone else's needs ahead of my own. Or simply not being able to call out, "shotgun!" when I'm sharing a ride with my colleagues.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Hot off the press

One of the things I've been working on at Kyoto University is figuring out how to talk about environmental issues in a way that resonates with the public. After all, what good is scientific research if you can't communicate it?

There's a lot of interesting work going on at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies. But no one knows about it because very few of us bring our stories beyond the conference circuit. Professor Tracey Gannon wants to rectify this. So she created a newsletter to highlight some of the work being done by faculty and students in our graduate school. I helped her edit the newsletter and wrote an article on the future of nuclear power in Japan. The inaugural issue is now online.

The first issue focuses on the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and what faculty and students are doing to help the country rebuild. One article explains how the engineering department created an eco-friendly toilet for evacuees who were staying in shelters where there was often only one toilet for 500 people. Another article looks at the work of the disaster management lab, which is researching the role of social media during the Tohoku disaster. My friend Melina wrote about her experience volunteering in the disaster-affected area. Another student wrote about Kobe's Maiko High School, which is the only school in Japan that teaches a special course on environment and disaster mitigation.

The newsletter is stripped of academic jargon in order to tell our stories in a clear and compelling way. It's not the New Yorker and it won't win any design awards but it's a much-needed bridge between scientists and the public.