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Japanese influence

Dernière mise à jour : 6 août 2022

How come someone I used to work with but does not speak French would order not just one but four copies of my book? There is only one answer, because he is Japanese, and very faithful to the bond cemented when we worked together in Japan.

I suspect he is also quite curious about one character in the book, Ken Ustumi, second in command in the trip to explore Terra Nova, and leader of the reconnaissance team that will reach the surface.

The coincidence stops here. The commander in the book is not me, but freely inspired by another French guy who is much more experienced than me to conduct activities in space (all resemblance with someone existing is purely fortuitous…).

I did not choose fictional Ken by chance to be one of the main characters in the book. The real Ken had a big impact in my professional life, and ultimately in my personal one. Having someone in mind helps to build characters we can relate to, and Ken happens to be very relatable.

As a context, I had the privilege to become the CEO (shacho) of a French bank based in Japan in 2012, one year after the trauma of the 2011 earthquake and the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. I landed this great position because I had a decent track record of successfully tackling tricky situations during my career. At the same time, I had no experience of Japan which was a sort of a Terra Incognita to me.

I believe in first-time luck, but I was fortunate enough to be seconded by someone I could rely on 100%. No surprise if I disclose it was the real Ken who was our Chief Operating Officer. It’s fair to say I received a tremendous support from the whole team, with a particular credit to our Head of Communication and to our Chief Risk Officer to be fair to them.

Why did it matter so much for me?

Living and working in a country like Japan can be a bit intimidating at the beginning.

It’s no secrets there are many codes in this country, some obvious (taking off our shoes) or some peculiar (offering a gift back, with a value of half the one you got). Japanese people have lower expectations with foreigners than for themselves, but they appreciate our efforts to get as close as possible to the appropriate standards, which I recommend doing to avoid blunders. It can be small details, but they all count on how we are perceived. I remember one colleague telling me that I should not wear a coat (nor a briefcase) when visiting clients, even amid winter (which meant we had to take a car even for short distances...).

But there can be more serious consequences when messing with practices that permeate the work life, like the way to reach consensus before making important decisions (nemawashi). To be honest I decided not to follow them all, because a bit of French system D (let me know if you do not know what D stands for!) sometimes helps to move things forward. Often time, Ken came to my office to tell me when pushing the envelope would surely be counterproductive. He explained to me what was not negotiable (quite a lot indeed), and I am very grateful to him for that, since I clearly avoided making some basic mistakes which did not prevent us to achieve our objectives.

Thanks to him, I realized for instance how important it is to respect clients and the art of apologies (each time we messed up, which unfortunately happens). I could not believe it at the beginning, before realizing what difference a genuine apology can make. For those who are interested by this topic, I can only recommend you to watch a movie called 謝罪の王様 which I know under the title of the King of Apology. In a nutshell, it is the story of an expert who advises his clients on how to properly apologise. It’s hilarious, but also extremely revealing of the Japanese culture. Cutting corners and not understanding what really matters for Japanese people does not work at all, in the movie, and in real life or on an exoplanet.

In the book Les Noviens, I enjoyed the idea of confronting my Japanese character with very unexpected situations or people, because some Japanese people like to stay in their comfort zone and are creatures of habits. On the new world the small team of explorers discover, Ken is forced to navigate unchartered territories and to adapt to unprecedented challenges.

You will see in the book how he copes with it, but keep in mind the bar is high which is why he feels helpless at times.

As a matter of fact, the Japanese have a form of respect towards each other’s. They are very keen not to offend their visitors, even if it implies for them to refrain from saying what they really think (honne), and to express only thoughts that would not hurt their interlocutors (tatemae). It has some benefits in terms of keeping channels of communication open, but also some drawbacks, in the form of potential misunderstanding (even more if communication is made more complex like in the book Novians).

With that in mind and to illustrate it concretely, you must be careful when asking genuine feedbacks to a Japanese colleague who is not used to work in an international firm for instance. The best-case scenario is that he will give it after having shared a few nama biru with you after work. The worst-case one is that he will have an internal conflict and will feel bad, until you tell them that you understand he might not be so comfortable about it.

It is well known that Japan has a strong culture of politeness and respect. Japanese people are required to care about each other and would never do anything to someone they would not want someone to do to them.

relationship with foreigners / gaikujin (gaijin) is complex, partly because we struggle with the hoops or often time behave awkwardly in their eyes. They can give the impression to their visitors to be distant, and / or a bit clumsy with people they meet for the first time. I imagine this is because they hesitate on the attitude to adopt and, at the same time, are a little bit afraid to misjudge situations and people. They give us the benefit of the doubt and the time we need to adapt (with some encouragements, and sometimes clear instructions in case we don’t get it…).

If we fail in meeting their expectations or when they feel their fundamental values are at stake, they can take a hard-line. It then becomes almost impossible to overcome the huge distance that the breach of trust has generated. Having been around Japanese people for four years, I became aware they feel bad about it when it happens, because there are no winners in a tensed relationship, and they fear they hold some responsibilities in the deadlock.

Am I still talking about the Japanese as I got to know and appreciate them, or are those comments about someone else in a fictional story?

You never know…

Without spoiling the book, what inspired me above all, are questions around the meaning of life, the sense of purpose, how we develop as individuals and the impact we have. In Japan, it revolves around one word, ikigaï. There are many illustrations of it, but what about people working all their life perfecting an art, a technique, or a trade to achieve an ideal? What about sumo wrestling which requires an unbelievable commitment to get through the ranks? What about the making of sake to obtain the most subtle flavours from plain rice?

I’ll stop there, but for those interested to discover what it refer to, I recommend the following:

To read (after my book of course): The Little Book of Ikigaï by Ken Mogi

To watch: The Birth of Saké by Erik Shirai and Shinbô by Jill Coulon

To conclude, I can’t say enough how I much I enjoyed living in Japan with my family. It had a huge impact on our lives and on ourselves at the personal level.

To tell you how deep it was, I could barely speak to my colleagues when I was saying goodbye on my last day with a lump in my throat, fighting tears.

Therefore, I was keen to leave a trace of all the influences I received and reflect some back in the book I wrote.

Don’t hesitate to leave me comments about your own experiences and the impacts they had on you.

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