City Guide: Tokyo
When you fly into Tokyo and catch sight of Mt. Fuji floating over the skyscrapers as you descend, it can feel like you’re entering a fantasy world. One of the planet’s largest metropolises isolated itself for 250 years when the shogun held sway, but now Tokyo welcomes visitors, often with pronounced curiosity. Even so, this doesn’t mean Japan’s insular business culture is a cakewalk.
The Japanese capital is a shape-changing riot of designer boutiques, sleazy cabarets and novelty in the form of everything from schoolgirl fashions to the latest instant noodle. The architecture explodes in rainbow neon, raw concrete and high-rise buildings wedged into lots the size of a parking space. Endless waves of commuters flood the trains and subways; at times, the platforms can’t be seen for all the bodies. But somehow the national tenets of ganbaru (doing one’s best) and gaman (having patience) make the whole place function with rare harmony and order.
The keys to enjoying your Tokyo experience are a lot of observation and a little submission. The city and its citizens may seem quite westernized at first glance, but the more you explore, the more you realize they are profoundly not. Surrendering to the flow, whether you’re standing in the long lineup for the Yamanote loop line train or trying to understand someone’s needs without having to make them explicit, is the best way to understand the wavelength of wa (harmony). It may sound like corny Zen philosophy, but it will stand you in good stead.
Japan has the world’s third-largest economy, even though it’s been struggling with two decades of on-again, off-again recovery, deflation and limp consumption. The country’s corporations, sometimes hobbled by old-school practices, are trying to remain relevant as rivals in developing economies peck at their market share. More than ever, Japan is eager to consider strategic deals with foreign partners.
That said, it’s still essential to study best practices when dealing with the Japanese. Be sure to carry an ample supply of business cards—they’re always exchanged when you meet someone new. Accept someone’s card with a little reverence, holding it with both hands, and treat it as you would your new friend. Japanese people will usually be impressed if you can utter even a smattering of their language. Yoroshiku onegai-shimasu doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but it’s a vital introductory platitude that essentially means “Please be nice to me.”
Another thing to keep in mind: Turn your personal volume down. When I shuttle between Japan and North America, I’m often struck by how self-effacing the Japanese can be. The group still takes precedence over the individual, so try not to broadcast yourself at a million kilohertz.
“Talk less and listen more” is the most important advice that Rochelle Kopp, founder of Japan Intercultural Consulting, gives clients. “We have a very verbal culture and are used to expressing ourselves. Japanese tend to be overwhelmed by our torrent of words and withdraw when faced with a lot of verbiage. Rather than talking, it’s more important to take the time to really listen to what Japanese are saying.” Remember that “yes” doesn’t necessarily mean agreement—it can signify a number of responses, including refusal. Having a completely bilingual speaker on your team can save you from such pitfalls.
When you do speak, be as precise as possible and give your partners the information they need. But be tactful, and don’t be overly direct. “Often Americans are too blunt and cause Japanese to lose face, which damages relationships,” says Kopp. “It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it, so be careful to cushion difficult messages.”
Above all, be patient, keep smiling and don’t expect deals to be in the bag before you go home. “Remember that it takes Japanese people about five times longer to answer, and they are 10 times more comfortable with pregnant silence,” says Thomas Nevins, founder of Tokyo executive-search firm TMT. “In Japan, if delay is not the ultimate form of denial, it is a great way for smart Japanese negotiators to win concessions and suck you dry.”
Outside the conference room, your Japanese hosts may offer to wine and dine you. Be careful to keep it balanced, returning the favor when possible, and to avoid excess. Stay away from invitations involving “soap lands” (massage parlors) and escorts, as well as clubs in the neighborhoods of Ginza and Roppongi, cautions Nevins.
What to do
If you have some leisure time while in Tokyo, go exploring. Rather than a collection of landmarks, Tokyo is a city of atmospheres. Take a stroll through Shibuya, preferably in the early evening, when the giant video screens and neon signs are at their best, to see the oceans of überhip youth flow across the intersection like high tide. If you’re intrigued by Japanese trends, book a personalized tour with Bespoke Tokyo (bespoketokyo.jp), an exclusive service offering discovery experiences in fashion, architecture, nightlife and other areas.
Tokyo was the seat of the shogun rulers during the Edo period (1603–1868), and martial traditions live on at the sumo wrestling tournaments at Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium (sumo.or.jp/eng), also known as Sumo Hall, held in January, May and September. The bouts are fast-paced, and the ring-entering ceremony by the yokozuna (grand champions) is an impressively choreographed rite imbued with Shinto traditions. Shinto is Japan’s native religion—if you have only an hour of free time, head to Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shibuya. The city’s most revered sanctuary sits in a tranquil forest accessed through towering torii (gates).
If you have two days to spare, take a bullet train to Kyoto. Aside from its many World Heritage temples and shrines, the old capital is a network of charming old neighborhoods, such as Gion and Miyagawa, where you might spot geisha clip-clopping in their clogs and kimonos toward a teahouse. Spending the night in a traditional ryokan (inn), such as Gion’s Tamahan (tamahan.jp), is an essential Japanese experience.
TIM HORNYAK lived in Tokyo for nine years and has written on Japanese culture, technology and history for such publications as CNET News, Scientific American and Far Eastern Economic Review.