Japan 'Global Eyes' - Intercultural Business Insights
Pocket Diary Festival Time - How Japan Embraces Analog Culture, and the Interesting Global Gap This Creates
Passing through Nihonbashi Maruzen on the way to my business school yesterday, it felt like the whole floor of the shop was filling up with piles of desk diaries and planners for next year, covering all the shelves and tables and threatening to overflow out into the station. I was shocked by the variety and quantity of these items, and it was still mid October. What was going on? Even in the magazine section, covers of Associe, Nikkei Woman and Trendy and many others had special reports on which (pocket diary) to buy.
In my home country of England, in the digital age this would be impossible to imagine. In early January we might pick up a diary from the local newsagent's, or get one of the few famous high end brands of scheduler for Christmas in December, but most people seem to be moving to Google Calendar or their company's shared IT platform such as Outlook or Salesforce, so this purchase wouldn't feel like an urgent need. Paper notebooks in business seem so 20th century, like vinyl records or black and white TV, and we don't even have a common word for 'techo'. The word 'diary' is clear in the USA, but seems more like a personal biographical journal in the UK. Gwendolen in Oscar Wilde's wonder comic play "The Importance of Being Earnest" says: "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train." Similarly 'notebook' sounds like a schoolboy item, 'desk planner' implies something too bulky to carry, and 'schedule' or 'scheduler' seems like a timetable - and probably referring to something digital and shared with a team. Americans also say 'agenda' (suggesting a meeting timetable in the UK) and 'day-planner.' In comparison, in Japan everyone carries a simple 'techo', understood by all. And at this time of year, it seems people start to go a little 'techo' crazy. I wanted to find out more about this cultural phenomenon.
It seems to me that at least three cultural factors may be different between Japan and the West, to ensure the paper diary's survival and continued primacy here: First, paper-craft culture; second, trusting people not systems; and third, custom solutions for customers.
1. Paper-Craft Culture
First let's consider how Japan remains a land of craftspeople, admired for making the highest quality and longest lasting products. Japan made the best swords a thousand years ago, and makes the highest quality and longest lasting cars and equipment today.
Developing its 'mono-tsukuri' (craftmanship) culture in a crowded volcanic land where stone buildings could not survive earthquakes, and with few resources except trees, it seems natural that Japan made it an art form to fashion all kinds of everyday living items from this material, from wooden temples to paper walls. Japan has become famous worldwide for its precision stationery, artistic handwriting and love of making everything from paper - be it origami decorations, shoji doors or Muji cardboard furniture. It's maybe not surprising then that Japan may have the biggest market per capita for paper diaries and pocket planners.
While the rest of the world has moved towards electronic contact exchanges on email, LinkedIn or Facebook, Japan still embraces the ritual of exchange of paper business cards, which emotionally represent the person and should not be scribbled on, folded or placed in a pocket disrespectfully.
2. Trusting People not Systems
Diverse business culture can cause mutual frustration. When I first started as a sales manager for a media company in the music business in Tokyo twenty years ago, my young staff Maki (not her real name) had the chance to be a sales superstar: she was diligent, attractive and knowledgeable about music. The record companies loved her, and she could have sold double the amount of advertising, but she refused to schedule more than three appointments per day, when other staff averaged five or more. And her refusal to share the reason clearly with me was baffling. My Japanese wasn't too good either, and in each 1-1 sales coaching meeting when I asked her, she just seemed to just reply with vague reasons such as "sono yoyu ga nai" (I don't have the time/space for that).
Then one day traveling on the train back from a client meeting together we had a breakthrough. She pulled out her diary and tried to write in a follow-up date and I saw her spend minutes squinting and peering intensely at the densely packed writing there. The problem became clear. Her diary was tiny - smaller than the palm of her hand. "Can you only schedule 3 appointments per day because there's no room to write any more?" I asked her, struggling to suspend my disbelief. "Yes" she replied simply. As a sales manager, my follow up question was obvious. I said. "If I buy you a bigger diary, can you schedule more appointments per day?" Again she said "Yes." Happy days! Maki's sales doubled within a few months, and this helped our small company survive another year. Clearly, your choice of 'techo' (diary) really can change your life.
Trust in Japan comes partly from being on time and being considerate to others. 'On time' means 'ten minutes early' for customers, which is great for prompt business meeting starts. But this practice is terrible for attending home parties of foreigners, since at that time, the house isn't vacuumed yet and the hostess is still taking a shower. (Go half an hour late to British people's home parties please, Japanese people! This is also known as being 'fashionably late' ) In business though, Germans and Brits want to arrive at all appointments exactly on time, and if a train is late, or traffic is jammed, they'll be late, and in a 'low context' culture it is polite to make an excuse for lateness. (Saying nothing means you were late for no reason.) It is quite the opposite in Japan, where personal responsibility must be taken in full - and the only true polite apology is 'moshi wake arimasen' (There is no excuse).
Thankfully digital schedulers make it easy to keep track of time. I love creating things, and easily get wrapped up in thinking (such as mind-mapping projects on my phone) so I often forget my next task. I thank the heavens every day for Google Maps telling me journey times, and for my iPhone and Apple watch buzzing and 'tapping' me to move me onto the next stage of my day. I can't imagine how paper diary users cope without such reminders. Do they miss their train stops and miss appointments by the 'Zen'-like process of keeping their brains clear of thoughts - or is it because the Japanese are such talented multi-taskers - always seemingly happy to be interrupted in their tasks anytime to answer a colleague's question, or to offer a helpful piece of information when they hear a colleague stuck nearby in conversation with a customer on a phone. Somehow it seems moving to digital systems is not trusted in Japan.
Similarly in the office, when teamwork can be so close, with long exhausting working hours, many Japanese seem to want to keep their private life private. This can be hard when putting diaries on a desk together to coordinate next meetings. One of my school students - a pretty, single woman in her thirties, has a great coded system to protect the secrets of her love life from prying colleagues. She uses different shades of ever lighter ink to hide progressively secret appointments: business meetings in red, personal activities in pink, and romantic appointments in barely legible light peach color. She also swears by the Frixion pen - a bargain at only 200yen which puts down solid ink but can be erased in an instant. It makes it easy to change appointments flexibly - and presumably to remove past encounters that didn't work out, from your life.