Saturday 9 March 2013

Dumbing up business

I never dreamt I would start a business in Japan. Or actually anywhere for that matter! I always thought that people who started their own businesses were so motivated, so street-smart, so up for anything. So not me.

I like the worker-bee mentality in Japan, although I would definitely strive to be one of the slightly senior bees, I was quite happy to work for the man, punch in and out, get paid and live happily ever-after until I was 60.

Of course then I became a housewife and spent the most boring, unfulfilled year of my life stewing in my own unfulfilled, bitter juice. The thought that I could be a housewife/stay at home mother for any longer actually made me really anxious. So I was faced with the dilemma, go back to worker-bee mode but juggle kids and a house with it (much harder), or to start something of my own, on my terms. And thank God I did. Starting my own business has been one of the best experiences of my life. I can take pride in something I built, that I am almost solely responsible for, and something that even if it fails, means I had a good hard crack at least!

Now I've never started a business anywhere else, and I imagine some aspects are international, but doing business in Japan has really been a cultural eye-opener. And by eye-opener, I mean like when they do lasik surgery and clamp your eyes open and shoot lasers in there kinda eye-opening! There were so many aspects that side-swiped me, no matter how many business books I read or how much I planned, I just had to learn about it by doing it and making mistakes.

I got lots of advice when I started: "Work hard!" "Do your best!" "Speak Japanese!" "Don't speak Japanese!" and loads more that I just let wash over me because I was actually so clueless that my brain didn't know which compartment to file all the advice and just kind of blocked it out. But there was one piece of advice I got from a (Japanese) friend of mine who also ran her own business, and it was:

 "Don't try to be too Japanese, you'll have a much better business if you act like a 'dumb' foreigner."

Now I had no idea what she meant at the time, and she said it in a really nice way so it wasn't at all offensive to me, and I've realised, after 3 years that this was possibly the best advice I got.

But now it brings the question of, why??

And all I have to do is turn the TV on to get my answer. The foreigners on Japanese TV aren't the ones fluent in Japanese language and culture, they're the 'stupid' ones who make mistakes and cultural blunders all over the place. Bobby, Laura, the girl on the washing powder advertisement, the guy in the McDonald's commercial a few years ago, they all have a 'dumb foreigner' character that they play, and play very well. But what is that doing for the vast majority of us who CAN speak Japanese, who CAN be culturally sensitive?

Not that I really care that much, I may get on my moral high horse but really I just want to run a successful business, so I find myself stressing less about my perfect telephone manner, about the whole other 'polite language' that is so crucial when speaking to a customer, and hey if making exclamations of amazement when being told that Japan has 4 seasons and the best rice means good business, then I can handle that!

I think the fact that dumbing myself down is a good business practice should somewhat annoy me more than it does, but at the end of the day I don't think I can change Japan, I can change my own life to make a success for my family, and that is the only thing that matters to me. Selfish? Yes. Can it be helped? No.

So I will continue to make mistakes, because it can only be good for me! (and it takes all that pressure off too!)


  1. Some people seem to want to reform the Japanese. I figure if you are teaching English, you are teaching English not how to be a Westerner or how to be culturally sensitive. You can tell people what they are saying wouldn't be appropriate in a Western business setting but if someone is talking shit in a perfect English, do you correct them?

    I'd hate someone trying to tell me to think like a Japanese person in Japanese class. Hell, I strugged with keigo on account of it being unAustralian.

  2. I have just "my way or the highway'ed" myself to a tough but doable schedule for the next year. I played who blinks 1st with the mothers of 2 excellent students but I'm not shifting 6 kids schedule because 1 has a new Juku schedule. Fix your shit or see you later. The both will be doing what I told them from the beginning was the ONLY way. My way.

    Once you get about 110 students it's gonna be it's own snowball racing down hill and you can politely decline/ignore shit you don't absolutely feel comfortable with. I have been doing it since day 1 but from a practical financial point just over 100 is a monster that feeds itself through your efforts. I haven't had an add in 5 years. I got too many students to even handle.

    This is a tough economy but not for English teachers.

  3. I like to call it the panda syndrome.

    I suppose think of it this way: lets say you wanted to learn Italian for example in Australia. You look up a teacher and go for your first lesson, but the first sentence you are greeted with is dinky-di occa English, with an occa accent to boot. So then you go to another teacher, who stumbles around a bit with English, but not too much to impede communication. There is a certain innocence to him and you suddenly don't feel so embarrassed and bad about not being able to speak Italian well.

    Maybe that's the level you need to aim at? Maybe you can act the panda, but behind the scenes know enough to stop you getting fucked over. I think some people fall for the panda trap because it is the most well received, but then are screwed one day as they have to rely on someone to do lots of things for them.

    The maccas ads and all that are bollocks. The variety gang are all made to look the fool, so I don't know if it is just special treatment for the foreigners. I reckon the shows where they basically are stroking Japan's cock the whole time are worse than these people making fools of themselves.

    I don't think you are selfish in looking after your family. From another perspective it would be very selfish to forsake your family's wellbeing for some ideals of your own.

  4. The moral highhorse is an expensive place to be, for those of us who need to keep a roof over our head, it's an expense we can't afford. Although I have banned my students from giving having 4 seasons as a reason why Japan is special, I make them explain about the way to celebrate seasons, it just bugged me too much! My Japanese gets laughed at when I need to explain stuff, so I stick to English as much as I can.
    For some reason, the Bold ad really irritates me, but I like the smell, so I buy it. The whole "ooh look, other countries are sooo strange" thing drives me insane, so I just stopped wathcing TV. With real life people, I'm far too wimpy to actually argue.

  5. Nothing to really add here that hasn't already been said with regard to the post. Other than maybe be good to yourself. And make sure people pay you on time. Or else.

    As far as the worker bee mentality is concerned, I've seen a lot of the hive-mind (a seasonal thing - four of them) but not so much of the working mentality when it comes to getting jobs done efficiently. 'No Pain, No Gain' is a great motto... unfortunately, sometimes folks here mistake pain for gain without realizing there's a bit more to the equation than just beating oneself up. Which can get a little kinky in terms of going just a little beyond conventional practices. But what do I know about bondage. My wife will say I know absolutely nothing. And make me pay on time. Or else.

    Getting paid for being dumb is one heck of an idea.

  6. That is very interesting. I know I couldn't do it though. I am just one of those people who has to stay true to myself or I will be extremely unhappy. I was interviewed on TV once and asked to "sound more foreign" which was irritating. But I learned that I don't have to allow everybody else to pull the strings just because they were born here and I was not. I hope you learn that you really DON'T have to dumb yourself down to be a success. Because it simply isn't true. There is always a way. You just have to be creative not destructive (yes I DO believe dumbing ones self down IS self destructive).