Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Art of Waiting in Japan

If I had a dime for every minute I have waited on a Japanese train platform, I'd be a rich man. - Rorschach (the blogger, not the shrink)
When you're selected to go on your first business trip in Japan, there is the excitement of going to a foreign country, seeing a different culture, and honing your skills in international business. This is all true, but there is one thing that veterans of Japanese travel forget to mention: it takes a long time to get anywhere over here and you end up doing a lot of waiting.

Let's take yesterday. I met my local sales guy/guide/interpreter at our Tokyo sales office at 8am and we returned to the same area for dinner around 7pm. In those 11 hours I had one meeting with one customer that lasted 2 hours. The other 9 hours were spent in every form of ground transportation available in Japan: subways, Shinkansen (bullet train), taxis, and of course, walking. And there was a lot of waiting in one spot for each of those. There may be exceptions to this rule, but since I started doing business in Japan in 1998, this has been pretty standard, and other people who have done sales and meetings here tell me the same thing.

Just arriving here takes waiting. You get off a 12 hour flight and are through customs and just want to get to your Tokyo hotel and get some sleep. Guess what? Taking a "limousine bassu" or Narita Express (fast train) to downtown Tokyo will add at least 1.5-2 hours to your trip.

So, what do you do? You do the same things the locals do while they're waiting, and here is what I observe, by order of frequency:
Sleep - By far the number one thing Japanese do while they are traveling and waiting. They sleep on subways, trains, in waiting areas, in coffee shops, sitting down, standing up, I have seen it all.

Read - You see a few novels, but you see a lot of comic books. Not the kid action hero ones you remember from your youth, but 3-4 thick tomes that usually have a lot of violence and sometimes sexually explicit material (called manga). Actually, seeing men reading "real" pornographic material in public isn't uncommon, and at those times you just have to remember that cultures are different.

Wireless Internet - It is frowned upon to talk on a cellphone in a train or subway, but you will see a large number of people clicking away on their cellphones, using the internet. When cellphone internet usage exploded in Japan, U.S. vendors got excited about this service. What they forgot is that a majority of Americans aren't stuck on trains and platforms for hours at a time with nothing to do, so the penetration rates in the U.S. never even remotely approached usage in Japan.

Work - In the world's second largest economy that has a reputation of breeding workaholics, you would expect to see a lot of working, but it is actually rare. If you do see it, it is usually pen and paper, and rarely to you see someone on the Shinkansen whip out a notebook computer and go to work.

Strike up a Conversation - Extremely rare. An Eastern European friend told me about being on a plane that was grounded for a few hours in Poland and within 30 minutes everyone on the plane was talking, arguing politics, and telling stories to the total strangers next to them. This is definitely a cultural thing and not common in Japan
As for myself, I always have a novel handy when I leave my hotel for meetings in Tokyo and always bring several with me so I don't run out of material.

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