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The Art of NOT Making Meiwaku
Written By: Daniel J. Stone, MBA
As a newcomer to Japan, the last thing that you ought to be when interacting with the Japanese people is a burden known as "meiwaku." In approaching your relationship with others while in Japan, I will tell my story to explain how to avoid mismanaging their expectations. In short, one should not overcommit oneself forcing less than one's best. Next, one should plan on arriving at functions 15 minutes early. Finally, one should devote oneself for the entire time that the services are to last.
Situation #1- Overcommitting is Never Good, Especially in Japan
Through my quest to get the most out of Japan, I met the owner of an English conversation lounge. She would have native English speakers volunteer and facilitate English conversation for her paying customers on Sunday mornings. I could have readily volunteered every Sunday due to the positive relationship that I had established with the school's owner. However, I would limit this to once a month since time is the only resource that we cannot replace, and I had obligations elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the owner would frantically call me on some Sunday mornings, asking me if it were possible to come to her school since one of the other native English speakers canceled at the last minute or was a no-show. Causing this burden did not sit well with the paying customers whom she was serving. They were expecting their English teacher to facilitate the weekly discussions, not sitting at the table staring at each other and twiddling their thumbs.
One particular time, it was my turn to volunteer at the school. I woke up and felt awful. I realized the timing and told myself that if I didn't make the appointment, even though I had a legitimate reason, I would be causing all sorts of problems. I soldiered on and made the 10-minute walk my local station and waited for the Omiya-bound train from Tokyo. I rode 20 minutes north to the Omiya Station, then walked another 10 minutes to the English conversation lounge. In a heavy sweat, I sat at a table with the smallest number of students to prevent spreading any illness. Of course, everyone was pleased that I arrived, but I spent most of the time reassuring them that I was OK and not hungover. The bad behavior of the other native English speakers had preceded the earnest efforts that I was attempting to make. Afterward, I was able to return home, and with rest and medication, I was ready for work the following day. The lesson learned was if you say you are going to do something while in Japan, you are being counted on doing it. It doesn't matter that you are sick. Get it done and see to it that you are honoring your word. They expect this from each other, and you are no different.
Situation #2- Arriving at Functions Early in Japan is "On Time."
Nearly every Tuesday and Friday while living in Saitama, I would make the commute to the language class at the nearby university after working all day. This trek required two train station transfers, a short walk to another station, and a slightly longer walk from the last station to the university.
Fellow English teachers who lived a lot closer to the university than I did would, in some cases, come late to class. Our teachers were upperclassmen at the university and were learning how to manage a classroom and present the language to non-native learners. There were those student teachers who would be thrown off when a student came to class late. Some student teachers were rigorous and rigid when it came to punctuality, and it was evident that they were bothered by the burden that the tardy student was causing. The lesson learned from this was the importance of budgeting a 15-minute window when arriving at an appointment.
Consequently, by doing this, you will not be causing an inconvenience to the others who you are meeting. Continually arriving 15 minutes before all appointments might seem over the top; however, you are expected to arrive on time while in Japan. By arriving 15 minutes early, you will ensure that everyone's expectations are being met.
Situation #3- Devotion in Japan is Paramount
Lastly, when it comes to Japanese culture, devotion is paramount. At one particular two-day conference in Japan, I was a new teacher and felt that, due to my newness, it was imperative that I was engaged and focused at these crucial meetings for which my employer was paying. To my surprise, other teachers, who had been in the organization a few years longer than I, would sit in on training sessions and instead of paying attention to the presenter, they would peck away on their laptops as if to say that what the host was presenting wasn't important. As you can imagine, this sent the wrong message to those newer and more impressionable teachers who were in their company. Unfortunately, when the newcomer to Japan brings a lack of team spirit, it is done to the host's dismay. Engaged with what is taking place on your smartphone, taking extended restroom breaks, and "not being yourself" due to recovering from a hangover are some examples I witnessed when my peers checked out early from meetings, training sessions, and functions while teaching in Japan.
On the one hand, your local support group may not make themselves as readily available to you as they did before because of the burden you are unknowingly causing. On the other hand, the hiring organization that has you under a contract may eventually be unable to see the need to have a relationship with those that cause so much inconvenience and will seek other ways to fill the void that you are currently filling. In short, execute proper time management with your commitments, arrive 15 minutes early, and keep your actions and words consistent with each other by staying committed until the very end. You will be doing your best with your interactions while in Japan.