The Art of Not Making Meiwaku
(A philosophy for interacting with the Japanese)
Written By: Daniel J. Stone, MBA
Edited By: Theresa Hennis
Sunday, September 16th, 2018
As a non-Japanese person, the last thing that you ought to be when interacting with the Japanese is a burden known as “Meiwaku” in Japanese. In approaching your relationship with the Japanese, I will use three primary situations to explain how to avoid mismanaging the expectations of the Japanese. 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 U.S. carrier life 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 Japanese 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 Japanese 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 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 Japanese 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, the Japanese are counting on you to do it. It doesn’t matter that you are sick. Get it done and see to it that you honor your word. The Japanese expect this from each other and you are no different.
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 on the USS Independence. Nearly every Tuesday and Friday while living in Saitama, I would make the commute to Japanese 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 Japanese university located in Koshigaya City was the trade-off for my Japanese 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 Japanese to language learners. Sometimes the instruction was spotty, but those like me were appreciative for the opportunity to learn Japanese 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, the Japanese are expecting you to arrive on time. By arriving 15 minutes early, you will ensure that their expectations are being met.
Situation #3- Devotion in Japan is Paramount
Lastly, when it comes to the Japanese, 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 non-Japanese 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, I was a new teacher in Japan and felt that, due to my newness and unique status, that 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 Japanese 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 non-Japanese bring the lack of team spirit to Japan, it is done to the dismay of the Japanese. 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 in Saitama.
In conclusion, it is in the non-Japanese mindset 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. However, your Japanese 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 “Japanese friends” may not make themselves readily available to you as they did before. On the heavier side, your Japanese 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 while in Japan, 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 when interacting with your Japanese counterparts.