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Insider’s Perspective – Japan

Konnichiwa (greetings from Japan)! Japan- “Land of the Rising Sun” is a country where the past (ancient temples and shrines) meets the future (advanced technology and modern cities).
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You may be using words like “kaizen” and “keiretsu” in your discussions. But following are some things you don’t usually hear about Japan (or read even in the footnotes of HBS cases based in Japan).

History
Traditions in Japan date back centuries. In the ancient capital city of Kyoto (founded in year 794 AD), you call something “new” if it is less than a hundred years old. You call something “has been around for a while” if it has been around for about 300 years. You are only allowed to say something is “old” if it is older than 1000 years.

Food
Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks. Curry rice and fried rice are eaten with a spoon. Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering it takes a while. Japanese cuisine offers a wide variety of healthy dishes. A lot of fresh ingredients and fish are used. Sushi comes in various forms, but the kind of sushi you may already know (with names of various animals or crustacean and with adjectives like “crunchy” and “spicy”) do not exist nor are recognized as real sushi in Japan. Do not miss out on local specialties like fresh sashimi in Hokkaido, Okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza) in Hiroshima and Takoyaki (deep fried octopus ball) in Osaka.ÿ

Kobe beef may be expensive, but the top premium Wagyu (Japanese beef) are the ones from Tajima, Yonezawa or Matsuzaka. If you want to impress your date at dinner, say something like “oh, it’s a shame they don’t have Tajima and only the usual Kobe”, but avoid actually ordering a Tajima unless you already have secured a way to pay back your student loan.

The number of Michelin stars (Tokyo has the most in the world) may be one indicator, but the quality of food is simply spectacular at every level and range. You can find the best of all things ranging from Ramen noodles to Kaiseki full course dinners. You can also surprise yourself by going to an Italian or French restaurant in Japan too.

Drinks
Calpico (Japan’s favorite soft drink made from fermented milk) was originally named Calpis and is still the case in Japan. The name was changed from Calpis to Calpico for exports because it sounded too close to “cow p*** (urine)”. Unlike the name, it is very pleasant and can be drunk hot or cold, with or without alcohol. Try a “Calpis sour” (Calpico with tonic water and Japanese vodka) when you’re in Japan.

Culture & Greetings
In Japan, politeness is an important part of the culture which is displayed in following ways:
– Don’t walk on a tatami mat wearing shoes or even slippers.
– Don’t blow your nose in public, even discreetly. This is considered extremely boorish.
– Don’t leave your chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice. This is how rice is offered to the dead.

The honne/tatemae divide is considered to be of paramount importance in Japanese culture. Honne refers to a person’s true feelings and desires. These may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one’s position and circumstances; and they are often kept hidden, except with one’s closest friends. Tatemae, literally “fa‡ade,” is the behavior and opinions one displays in public in accordance with society’s expectations for the status and circumstances of the person. These may or may not match one’s honne.

Unlike how Major League players greet their Japanese team mates, Japanese do not place palms together (in a praying fashion) to greet each other. That is only done at religious rituals or when you are praying to your ancestors. If you are not a Buddhist priest, you should refrain from greeting Japanese with palms together, and just follow the simple rule of bowing.
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Rule of bowing
– A light nod: To your co-workers or your section mates
– 15 degrees angle: To your immediate boss or professor from class
– 30 degrees angle: To your boss’s boss or the course head
– 45 degrees angle: To your boss’s boss’s boss or Dean Nohria
– 90 degrees angle: To your CEO or whoever paying your student loan
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Religion
Shintoism is the original religion that existed before Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century. Both Buddhism and Shintoism are followed by most of the Japanese people. It is quite common to see Shintoist shrines and Buddhist temples co-exist in the same compounds of many religious establishments. This dual existence of two religions may have influenced the open-mindedness of Japanese.
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Festivals
During summer, there are lots of festivals involving fireworks which are held throughout the country. The fireworks in Japan are quite spectacular and worth watching. Many people wear traditional Japanese clothes (yukata) to the festivals. In April, there is the flower-viewing (cherry blossom) festival, which is an outdoor picnic and drunken revelry in parks, cleverly disguised as cherry blossom viewing.
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Hot-springs
Hot-springs are the pinnacle of the Japanese bathing experience. There are more than 3000 of them in the country, more than anywhere else on earth. Try to find a hot spring located outside with views of the surrounding natural scenery for a very relaxing indulgence. In Japan, you are not supposed to wear anything, not even a swimsuit in hot-springs. You have to wash yourself and rinse off all foam before entering the bath. The water in the tub (usually free-flowing) is shared by guests. The Japanese consider it disgusting to soak in someone else’s dirt. Basically, wash up as well as you hope the person previous to you should have done.
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Accommodation
You can find broad kinds of uniquely Japanese accommodation, ranging from rarefied ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) to strictly functional capsule hotels (the ultimate in space-efficient sleeping) to business hotels. Ryokan could be the highlight of the trip to Japan for many foreigners. There are two types of Ryokan: the small traditional-style with wooden buildings, long verandahs, and gardens; and the more modern high-rise sort that are like luxury hotels with fancy public baths.
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Transportation, Security & Infrastructure
ÿFamous for its extensive, well-organized and efficient transportation network, Japan trains strictly adhered to schedule and late or cancelled services are almost unheard of. All this convenience comes at a price, however, and you’d be well advised to look into money-saving deals whenever possible. If you want to travel quite a bit in Japan using the notorious high-speed trains you should get Japan Rail Pass, which is a discounted bullet train pass for foreigners. The length of Japan’s railways is 14,708 miles, more than half of which is electrified. Japan also features a very extensive and modern road network. English signs are quite abundant but not always the case. With two dozen subway lines and train stations at every two blocks in Tokyo, it is better to have someone guide you on your first visit.

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. In Tokyo, women can walk alone even at 2am. If possible avoid going to isolated places at night.

Japan has a very advanced and well-maintained infrastructure, which undergoes regular upgrade and expansion. Both the private and public sectors undertake various infrastructural projects and operate their respective services.
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Work
If you are coming to work in Japan, most chances are that you’ll end up in Tokyo. If you have worked in Manhattan, it would be easy for you to adjust working in Tokyo. And of course, knowing some Japanese will make it easier to make friends in myriad of clubs and bars. Although Japanese is a language with several distinct dialects, standard Japanese based on the Tokyo dialect is understood everywhere.
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Living in Japan
Cost of living may be the highest in the world. But if your employer takes care of the expensive rent and pay you in Yen, you will be able to enjoy all the amenities of Japan and still be rich when you exchange the remaining cash back to dollars.
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Agriculture
You may imagine Japan as the tech-center of the world, but it is actually rich in terms of agriculture. Three-fourth of the land is forests. With abundant rain and fertile soil, agriculture is quite extensive. Try some Yubari melons, Sato-nishiki cherries, Kosui pears and you’ll see why Japanese complain about fruits tasting bland in the US.
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“_Do” or The Way
What do Judo, Kendo, Sado and Kado have in common? The word Do (pronounced: doh) means “road” or a “way (of life)”. Japanese tend to pursue something into such levels that they turn it into an art or a way of life. Sports are a common way (Judo, Kendo, Kyudo, Aikido etc). Yakyuu (baseball) is sometimes called Yakyuu-do and distinguished from baseball in the US. The discipline of Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners) is a good example of what the Japanese expect from top athletes or people who are leaders of a “way”. But be mindful that you will be disrespected as much if you lose “the way” like the former Yokozuna (Sumo champ) Asashoryu who was ostracized from the Sumo world after punching and injuring a civilian (after drinking too much).
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Shopping
Japan is heaven for shopaholics. Quality is very good and you can buy lots of things from $1 in one-dollar (100Yen) shops to $10,000 for kimono (traditional Japanese dress).
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Lol but It’s true
Yes, Japan is the world’s leader in toilet technology. Over half of Japan’s homes are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets, which incorporate all sorts of handy features like seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny robotic arms that squirt water. The device is operated via a control panel and may incorporate over 30 buttons (all labeled in Japanese). At first glance, it bears more resemblance to a Space Shuttle navigation panel.
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Authors’ Biography
Smita Pranav Kothari, a proud Indian, is an EC partner. She likes to help new partners adjust to life at the B-school as the HBS International Partners Club Co-chair. She is taking Journalism classes at the Harvard Extension School. Besides learning about different cultures and learning international languages; she loves traveling, cooking, dancing and watching movies.

Mari Akashi: Give her exquisite food, pristine beaches and hot onsen (Japanese hot-springs), and Mari will forgo a chance to go to heaven. Born & brought up in rustic Ashiya city in Japan, she is a partner Aatif (OA), whom she has been trying (with little success) to convert to the Japanese “-Do”. An avid traveler (the only continent she has not travelled to is Antarctica), she also enjoys cooking, dancing hip-hop and sailing.

Ken Kachi (OD): Ken spent the last11 years working at Toyota Motor Corporation before coming to HBS. He is probably the oldest HBS student on campus, enabling him to just nod lightly to the rest of his classmates while everyone else must greet him with the 15 degree angle bow and call him “Kachi-san” instead of just “Ken”. He is happily married to his wife Kanako to whom he always greets with a 90 degree angle bow.

Median-age: 44 years
Number of prefecture: 47
GDP Per Capita: $39,573
Recommended Visiting Period: April-May (spring) & October-November (autumn)
National bird: pheasant
Form of Government: Democracy: Constitutional monarchy with Parliamentary democracy
Average 5-star hotel room tariff: $300-$500

October 25, 2010
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