Enlightened Rules: Lessons on Creativity, Honor and Customer Service from the Land of the Rising Sun

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto. Photo by Dr. Mussaad M. Al-Razouki

Much has been written about the Japanese way of doing business, their rich 2,700 years of history, and the Bushido way of their most famous warrior class - the samurai.

I had previously read much about this ancient culture and many of my MBA professors loved to use both Japanese businesses and leaders as examples in their courses. This was my first visit to the Land of the Rising Sun and my first experience in person. You see, people from my region, the GCC or Gulf Cooperation Council, have endearingly and bewilderingly nicknamed the country Kawkab Al Yaban or Planet Nippon, since their legendary work ethic, efficacy and efficiency is so far from the norm of our own countries – the Japanese might as well be aliens from a different galaxy, far, far away.

The short ten-day trip was absolutely beyond my expectations and resonated true to my efficiency-seeking core. What really struck me the most was how the Japanese culture was uniquely positioned to thrive in a country with a shrinking birth rate and very little in terms of national resources (and even landmass). The following are three main kernels or rules of Japanese wisdom I would like to share:

It’s hard to stand out in a city of 20 million (Tokyo) and a country of 130 million, especially with a culture that stretches back centuries. Japan is the 10th most populous country in the world (but remember its shrinking) with its capital Tokyo as one of the largest and most dense cities in the world in terms of population. Perhaps that is why the Japanese are among the most creative human beings on earth. You have to be creative in order to matter. It might be the only way to truly stick out.

In fact, so many of our childhood heroes here in the GCC come from Planet Nippon - Godzilla, Grendizer, Mazinger, the Transformers Pantheon, Super Mario, and of course Captain Majid née Tsubasa and for my millennials reading this - Ash, the Power Rangers, and Muka Muka.

Even the creative genius of George Lucas was inspired by samurai culture - think Darth Vader’s helmet and Jedi lightsabers not to mention the creative genius and the perfection-obsessiveness of Steve Jobs (see Steve Jobs in Japan) who was perhaps the most famous Japanese Zen Buddhist in the corporate world.

Another very important outlet of Japanese creativity that has spread globally is Manga. Since the 1950s, manga has steadily risen to be a major part of the Japanese publishing industry, representing a ¥500 billion market in Japan in 2007 (approximately $4.5 billion). Manga has also gained a significant worldwide audience. In Europe and the Middle East, the market was worth $250 million in 2012.

A final spring of Japanese creativity is the traditional theatre or Kabuki which literally translates to "the art of singing and dancing." Originally an all-female affair, Kabuki is today (and has been for the past ~400 years) only performed by male actors. Historically, even the warring Samurai would take a break at night from fighting and put on spectacular shows. It was a great chance for escape from the trials and tribulations of medieval life and stage actors were encouraged to be as creative and as outlandish as possible. In fact, performances were so ribald that audiences frequently became excessively rowdy with brawls occasionally breaking out...more on Kabuki later. For the craziest (and in my opinion, most creative) experience in Tokyo, you have to look no further than the famous Robot Restaurant. It’s incredibly hard to put into words, but it was certainly well worth the trip!

2. Honor

The Japanese word for honor is 名誉 or meiyo and is considered the central tenant of Bushido.

As promised, let us quickly jump back to Kabuki. My wife and I had the pleasure of attending a show at the breathtaking 128-year-old Kabuki-za Theatre in Tokyo. Even though the theatre can comfortably seat close to 2,000 spectators, we ended up in the standing area, since all seats had been fully booked weeks in advance - Kuwaitis in Planet Nippon. Kuwait 0...Japan 1.

Kabuki-Za Theatre, Tokyo

While reading the English subtitles on our handheld monitors (don’t you just love it when the old and the new combine) we learned that artisans in ancient Japan would be eventually rewarded with a Professional Name or Shūmei (襲名) after performing a notable feat. In our play, the protagonist earns his shūmei as an artist by painting away from a life-like representation of a tiger that has scared the village farmers into a maddened frenzy. Professional names came with patronage and more importantly, helped elevate artists from simple commoners to the realm of the elite classes within Japanese culture. Traditionally, only artists with professional names were allowed to mix with both the royalty and the nobility. It was the highest honor.

Today, Japanese workers find honor in every line of work. Perhaps the most striking to me was watching one of their metro conductors perform her somewhat mundane task again and again with the utmost precision and dedication. Again, it was an experience that was hard to transcribe, but thankfully I managed to get most of it on video:

https://youtu.be/fSu1GtuSdxo

Amazing!

3. Customer service

The next important kernel of Japanese wisdom I would like to share is their world-renowned customer service known as Omotenashi, loosely defined as the art of selfless hospitality. Case in point, my wife and I were doing some quick shopping in the historic Ginza district of Tokyo. I bought a pair of equestrian cufflinks that had caught my eye and was surprised to see the saleswoman bow, not once, not twice, but a total of three times. Once inside the store after she handed me my cuffs, second as I was walking out and the third time, she followed me out of the store, onto the street, and bowed a final time. The epitome of the phrase “the customer is king.”

Another great example of Japanese customer service happened later on that evening. Google Maps had failed us once again and we were walking around in circles trying to find our award-winning sushi restaurant in the same Ginza district. I decided to give the restaurant a call to ask them for more coherent directions the old-fashioned way since the digital way had so far failed to point us in the right direction. In her broken English, the maître d’ waiting patiently with me on the phone while she sent a sous chef racing, out the restaurant, in flip flops and an umbrella to find us. Where else in the world would you find this red carpet treatment from a restaurant that is certainly in no need of customers…their waiting list is three months long. Apparently, we had passed by the restaurant many times while navigating Google Maps. This Michelin star sushi restaurant was in a basement.

Can you see a restaurant here? Anywhere?
Dekiagari! (Voila!) — Sushi Kanesaka

Another culinary expedition provided us with our third amazing story of customer service. Again, Google was to blame as we finally found our Halal Shabu Shabu restaurant after an amazing tour in Akihabara. This time, it wasn’t a problem with the location, rather, it was a problem with the timing. Google correctly mentioned that the restaurant was open until 230pm, but it seems the last order was only at 2 pm. Now, Japanese are sticklers for rules and timing, (Planet Nippon remember) but as I pleaded my case to the owner and mentioned that we hadn’t had beef or chicken in almost a week and fish and noodles were coming out of our ears and eyeballs, he decided to make an exception and treated us to some of the best Wagyu Tokyo had to offer. Kuwait 1...Japan 1.

One final story of customer service happened right before our trip to the airport. As we got into one of Tokyo’s famously funky and retro taxi cabs the hotel doorman raced towards us. I imagined we had left something, but its turns out that he had one simple question:

“Sir...Ma’am...did you enjoy your stay with us?”

Immediately my mind shifted to the rapid yet smooth check-in process, the gifts we were presented with upon checkout, the special room key that selects your floor for you as soon as you walk in the elevator, the special Godzilla suite, the amazing view of Shinjuku and the magical city of Tokyo surrounding it, the Maglev ‘bullet’ train that took us from Kyoto to Tokyo at 375 miles per hour (that’s over 600 km/hr, which is 2/3rds the speed of a Boeing 747 jet airplane) without a single bump. My mouth watered at the thought of scrumptious sushi and tasty yakisoba street noodles. I found myself for one last time, surrounded by cherry blossoms, Shinjo shrines and the most respectful and honor-bound people on earth. Yes, I replied, of course.

The doorman handed me his business card and bowed in approval.

— END

PS: Title is a play on the meaning of the word Meiji - "Meiji" means "Enlightened Rule."

The Meiji Restoration (明治維新), also known as the Meiji Ishin, Renovation, Revolution, Reform, or Renewal, was an event that restored practical imperial rule to Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji. Although there were Emperors before the Meiji Restoration, the events restored practical abilities and consolidated the political system under the Emperor of Japan.

The goals of the restored government were expressed by the new emperor in the Charter Oath. The Restoration led to enormous changes in Japan's political and social structure and spanned both the late Edo period (often called the Late Tokugawa shogunate) and the beginning of the Meiji period.

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