Two Japanese Life Skills You Must Master

November 16th, 2012By Category: Culture

If you want to be a success in Japan, there are only two things you really need to nail. The unfortunate small problem is, they’re opposites. But perhaps a colorful story will help to illustrate.

So I was in a “standing bar” a couple of weeks ago, which is like a normal bar, or really a restaurant because they serve food too, only without any seats. It’s just about the worst invention the Japanese ever came up with. Like, who wants to have drinks and food standing up? Would it kill you to put in some barstools? But anyway, so I’m standing there having a conversation with this rather attractive Japanese lady and I order some fish in a can on toast. And things are going pretty well between us, you know, until suddenly her husband shows up. So that was a little disappointing. But whatever, he turned out to be a really nice guy and bought me a beer and I bought them a can of fish too. Like, the cook just opens the can, which is some kind of sardines or something, and puts it on the grill, until it gets red hot, and then serves it up, can and all, with toast. Maybe you got to eat it to understand just how good it is. Anyway, about the time I have a big, steaming mouthful of fish, my phone rings.

Now, I don’t get a lot of phone calls in Japan. It’s just not the nation where everybody’s walking around talking on the phone everywhere, like in the U.S. So I answer and it’s Ishimoto-san from this language company I’ve worked for before. He’s like, I’ve got a job for you. And I’m like, Great, but I’m in a bar right now, can we talk later? But no, he’s got to tell me about it right away. It’s some Business English class at some company somewhere, so I listen and drink my beer and say “uh huh” a lot, up to the point where he says, “and it starts tomorrow.” Then I’m like, Dude what? I got plans. Like, I already made a reservation with my futon until noon, and after that the staff at Starbucks is expecting my arrival. By the way, how much money we talking about?

And on the other end of the line I hear, “How about fifty-five bucks an hour plus transportation expenses?” But actually, he says it in yen, which is even more money.

“How many hours is the class?” I ask.


“Ishimoto-san,” I say, “I’m your man.”

Okay, here’s the part where the two life skills come into play. See if you can catch it.

So the next day I get a haircut and go to the station in my suit and tie. I get there at a quarter to five, because Ishimoto-san said to meet at five, and there’s no way I’m going to be late. But then the bastard doesn’t show up until five-ten. And I’m a little concerned because he’s supposed to bring the textbook, the lesson plan, and brief me on who’s in the class and what I’m supposed to be doing in front of these fools for three hours.

Ishimoto-san comes running up the stairs and he looks terrible. He’s all sweaty and red, and he first thing he says is, “We didn’t have time to make a lesson plan.” The second thing he says is, “Sorry I’m late.”

“Textbook?” I ask.

“We’ll have to get it there,” he says. “Would you mind if we run?”

And then Ishimoto-san and I are running through the streets of Tokyo in our suits. And I’m thinking, Okay, the class starts in 45 minutes. I’ve never seen the textbook, don’t know who’s going to be in the class or what on earth I’m going to say for three hours. Well anyway, I figure that at least I’ll be in an izakaya by nine-thirty.

And that’s pretty much how it went down. I walked into class, got everybody up and shaking hands with each other while I looked through the textbook and tried to make up some shit to say. Then everybody sat down and stared at me. I stared back, took my hands out of my pockets, and in a clear, confident voice said, “Okay, now open your books to, uh, hmm, well, let’s see what’s on page fifty two . . .”

Went off without a hitch, just like always.

So here are the two life skills for Japan. One, you got to have your wig screwed on tight. Get to every job early, shoes and teeth polished to a high gleam, ready to work yourself into a lather. Your Japanese boss says “jump,” and you don’t say “how high?” You just jump as high as possible, and keep jumping until you have to run and catch that last train.

But the second skill is–you can’t give two shits about anything. No classroom? Sure, we can just have class in the hall. No CD? Hey, I’ll just sing. Got no textbooks? No problem, we’ll just use our powerful imaginations. Somehow, Australians seem to excel at this. Just hand them a beer the size of an oil can and they’re prepared for any contingency. Sorry, maybe that’s a cultural stereotype. Then again, Nah. Australians.

The need for these two diametrically opposed life skills arises from two Japanese traits, which themselves are at odds: kodawaru and ganbaru.

Kodawaru is that focused attention to detail you see when a sushi chef is arranging teeny-tiny fish eggs on a thinly-sliced piece of fish he’s balanced atop the perfect amount of rice. In English, we call that “anal retentive,” but kodawaru makes it sound a lot better.

Ganbaru, on the other hand, is the Japanese determination to do everything to death. Why work eight hours when you could work eighteen? If it takes two salesmen to manage twenty customers, then according to Japanese math, one salesman can manage forty customers. Discussions, planning—no time for that! We just gotta do something, somewhere, right now!

Fifty things all have to be done immediately and perfectly, but without any planning. If that sounds like an impossible conundrum, take solace in knowing that the Japanese have also engineered the perfect solution.

Booze. After class, Ishihara-san and I pounded down a mess of beer and potato shochu. We spent no time reflecting on the past, and less time thinking about the future. We just ate our canned fish on toast and talked to the Japanese office ladies next to us. And every time we yelled out an order, the staff came running. God, it’s a good country to be a customer in.

Author of this article

Ken Seeroi

I'm that guy who writes JapaneseRuleof7, bringing knowledge to your brain straight from Japan. My writings are mostly humor mixed with social commentary, plus an occasional foray into language education.

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  • so freaking true! がんばろう! ha!

  • leslie nguyen says:

    Ahahaha – I just have to say your articles are never lame for me! But $55/hour for that position? Oh boy! The two life skills you illustrate relate to the term “improvise” in my opinion. I guess that term is still better than “nothing.”

  • Dan Nakagawa says:

    To that, I would add just one more life skill: GAMAN…its like ‘grin and bear it’ on steroids…Japanese are extremely good at GAMAN…How else do you think a country with half the population of the USA can live together on a land mass less than the state of California?

  • pepi says:

    nice post!! though want some article request if you don’t mind…why Asian (or me Indonesian) are so hard to find regular jobs in here…I mean, yes I’m not blonde, I don’t have blue eyes and everything..but sure I have knowledge and ability to do the same as non-Asian? yet, they always told me..”so sorry, what we need is American or British, or anything besides Asians…” is it just me, or “there” is some profiling working hard here in Tokyo??

  • jajajajaja!!! “he says it in yen, which is even more money.” LOL! And “according to Japanese math” XDD maaaannn

  • Many Spanish bars are standing (in Spain), a bar being the equivalent for the English “pub”.

  • Tjoepoe says:

    nice post! keep it come!!

  • Emma says:

    Extremely interesting! I totally get it! And I find it fascinating! Im hoping to teach with Interac here soon and I think this site is going to be extremely helpful! 🙂