The Art of Not Making Meiwaku
(A philosophy for interaction while in Japan)
Written By: Daniel J. Stone, MBA
Monday, September 24th, 2018
Written By: Daniel J. Stone, MBA
Updated on Friday, January 11th, 2019
As a visitor or newcomer to Japan, the last thing that you ought to be when interacting with the Japanese people is a burden known as “meiwaku.” In approaching your relationship with others while in Japan, I will use three primary situations to explain how to avoid mismanaging their expectations. First, one should not overcommit oneself in other areas forcing less than one’s best. Next, one should plan on arriving at functions 15 minutes early. Finally, one should devote oneself for the entire time that the services are to last.
Situation #1- Overcommitting is Never Good, Especially in Japan
One of the things that I learned about myself the second time to Japan was the importance of time management. It was something that I felt that I did better than many of my peers, albeit a good ten years my junior. I credit military service in Japan for my abilities in this area. For example, through my quest to get the most out of Japan the second time around, I met the owner of an English conversation lounge in nearby Omiya. She would have native English speakers like me volunteer and facilitate English conversation for her paying customers on Sunday mornings. I could have easily volunteered every Sunday at the English conversation lounge due to the positive relationship that I had established with the school’s owner. However, I would limit this to one Sunday a month since time is the only resource that we cannot replace, and I had family obligations with my in-laws in Tokyo.
Unfortunately, the owner of the English conversation lounge would frantically call me on some Sunday mornings asking me if it were possible to come to her school since one of the other native English speakers canceled at the last minute or was a no-show. Causing this burden did not sit well with the paying customers whom she was serving. They were expecting a native English teacher to facilitate their weekly discussions; not sitting at the table staring at each other and twiddling their thumbs.
One particular time, it was my turn to volunteer at the school. I woke up and felt awful. It was flu-like symptoms that had me under the weather. I realized the timing and told myself that if I didn’t make the appointment, even though I had a legitimate reason, I would be causing all sorts of problems. I soldiered on and made the 10-minute walk to the Warabi Station and waited for the Omiya-bound train from Tokyo. On the Keihin-Tohoku Line, I rode 20 minutes north to the Omiya Station, then walked another 10 minutes to the Café Lamp Restaurant and reported to the owner of the English conversation lounge. In a heavy sweat, I sat at a table with the smallest number of students to prevent spreading the illness. Of course, everyone was pleased that I arrived, but I spent most of the time reassuring them that I was OK and not hungover. The bad behavior of the other native English speakers had preceded the earnest efforts that I was attempting to make. In the end, the owner was appreciative. After I completed that obligation, I was able to return home, took medication, slept the rest of the day, and was ready for work at the junior high school the following day. The lesson learned was if you say you are going to do something while in Japan, you are being counted on doing it. It doesn’t matter that you are sick. Get it done and see to it that you are honoring your word. They expect this from each other and you are no different. Japan may be one of the last places on earth which still holds this expectation near and dear to its heart.
Situation #2- Arriving at Functions Early in Japan is "On Time"
On a separate occasion, I saw a different kind of meiwaku which is entirely controllable 99% of the time. The importance of being punctual was the one thing that I learned the hard way my first time to Japan and on military service. Nearly every Tuesday and Friday while living in Saitama, I would make the commute to the language class at the nearby university after working all day. This trek required two train station transfers, a short walk to another station, and a slightly longer walk from the last station to the university. Saitama Prefecture is one of those places in Japan that having a car wasn’t necessary unless you started to go farther and farther from Central Tokyo. Going to the outskirts of Saitama to a university located in Koshigaya City was the trade-off for my classes at the university.
On most days, I was able to arrive to class on time. Fellow English teachers who lived a lot closer to the university than I did would, in many cases, come late to class. Our teachers were upperclassmen at the university and were learning how to manage a classroom and present the language to non-native learners. Sometimes the instruction was spotty, but those like me were appreciative for the opportunity to learn the language in a structured setting. However, there were those student teachers who would be thrown off when a student came to class late. Some student teachers were rigorous and rigid when it came to punctuality, and it was evident that they were bothered by the burden that the tardy student was causing. The lesson learned from this was the importance of budgeting a 15-minute window when arriving at an appointment.
Consequently, by doing this, you will not be causing an inconvenience to the others who you are meeting. Continually arriving 15 minutes before all appointments might seem over the top; however, you are expected to arrive on time while in Japan. By arriving 15 minutes early, you will ensure that everyone’s expectations are being met.
Situation #3- Devotion in Japan is Paramount
Lastly, when it comes to the culture, devotion is paramount. With social media, it is so easy to indicate that you will be going to an event that will take place weeks from now. The event’s organizers will perceive that you will be there, pay the fee to rent the room, place the order for the food and beverages, hire the keynote speaker, and so on. In many cases in Japan, such as day-long seminars or “lunch and learn” meetings, the organizers of the event will ensure the best use of one’s time and will have a lunch box provided.
Imagine that you are the newcomer in Japan who consistently arrives late to functions, that is when you are not canceling at the last minute, and today, you want to skip out early for some reason or another. As the old saying goes, “Perception is Reality.”
Furthermore, “being there” doesn’t always mean that you are “present.” For example, at one particular two-day conference in Japan, I was a new teacher and felt that, due to my newness, it was imperative that I was engaged and focused at these crucial meetings for which my employer was paying. To my surprise, other teachers, who had been in the organization a few years longer than I, would sit in on training sessions and instead of paying attention to the presenter, they would peck away on their laptops as if to say that what the host was presenting wasn't important. As you can imagine, this sent the wrong message to those newer and more impressionable teachers who were in their company.
Unfortunately, when the newcomer to Japan brings a lack of team spirit, it is done to the host’s dismay. Engaged with what is taking place on your smartphone, taking extended restroom breaks, and “not being yourself” due to recovering from a hangover are some examples I witnessed when my peers checked out early from meetings, training sessions, and functions while teaching in Japan.
In conclusion, it is in the mindset of newcomers to Japan where one’s youth or newness, combined with the crutch of thinking “I’m a foreigner and don’t know any better.” Is used. The "not knowing any better" may give you a “pass” and be the justification needed to continue conducting yourself in this burdensome manner. Your host will have made all sorts of special arrangements for your participation in the event, and they will most assuredly not see things in the same light. Management of expectations on both sides will go a long way in this regard.
On the lighter side, your local support group may not make themselves readily available to you as they did before. On the heavier side, your hiring organization that has you under contract may eventually be unable to see the need to have a relationship with those that cause so much inconvenience and will seek other ways to fill the void that you are currently filling. In short, execute proper time management with your commitments, arrive 15 minutes early, and keep your actions and words consistent with each other by staying committed until the very end, and you will be doing your best with your interactions while in Japan.
Copyright © 2019 Daniel J. Stone / Two Birds One Stone Learning, LLC / www.onestonelearning.com
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Daniel J. Stone is the principal consultant and trainer of Two Birds One Stone Learning, (www.onestonelearning.com) a tutor dispatching firm based in Columbus, Ohio that caters to the expat community of the area. For five years, Daniel has lived and worked in Japan. Two of those years were at Fleet Activities-Yokosuka, onboard the aircraft carrier, USS Independence (CV-62) and three additional years were gained with the Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Program in Saitama Prefecture, due north of Tokyo. Daniel has written for publications on Japan and Japanese culture such as the Japanese Consulate, the Japan National Tourism Organization, Sushi & Tofu Magazine, and the Saitama MemoRandom. His selected published works can be found at https://works.bepress.com/daniel-stone/.