Letter from Tokyo - A reflection from Warren Reed

  We’re so excited to have announced pre-orders for author and former ASIS agent Warren Reed’s newest book ‘An Elephant On Your Nose’. Here, Warren writes about some of the background to the book. You can order your copy now by clicking here

COVER FINAL-An ELephant on Your NoseQuite some time back I was a researcher for three years in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University. Everything was in Japanese, so it was quite a challenge at first, but well worth the effort – the sort of effort you can only make in your twenties.

Once a week, a discussion group of Japanese researchers and a handful of foreigners got together to analyse international events. A researcher would be given a topic to work on for weeks ahead and on the designated day would make a presentation for an hour followed by a Q & A session. The meeting was often chaired by the dean (who’s like God in Japan). Thankfully, he was a considerate man who understood the effort we foreigners had to make to perform in this way.

Japan’s prime minister had then recently been on a visit to Asian capitals and violent anti-Japanese riots had taken place in each city. Demonstrators didn’t just carry placards in the street; they were pushing huge neon signs advertising Japanese products off the tops of buildings and burning Japanese-made cars. I’d seen it on TV in Tokyo and was amazed at the virulence displayed. The dean allocated the topic to me for a month or so ahead. The question I had to address was, “What are we Japanese doing wrong?” I was told I could be brutally frank; they wanted the raw truth, as seen through the eyes of an Australian. I set about this task with gusto. I already had friends in the Asian student community in Tokyo and they helped get me in to interview ambassadors and a wide range of Asian business people living there. They were all quite candid and some extraordinary stories emerged about Japanese habits overseas. There was little that was downright bad. Rather, there was a cultural insensitivity towards the local staff in a variety of contexts. In say, a Japanese-run manufacturing plant in Indonesia or the Philippines, Japanese managers would take lunch together in their own canteen, quite separate from the locals, some of whom were highly qualified engineers. No locals were ever invited to play golf with their Japanese managers, or go drinking after work.

All of this went into my presentation, which was not to be a written speech read aloud. One was expected to speak from bullet points but nothing more. I used a polite form of the Japanese language to relate what I’d learnt. Everybody listened quietly, with erudite nods here and there. When I finished, the dean asked for questions. Hardly anyone said anything and a drawn out silence followed that was agonising. I was trying to work out what I might have unwittingly said that had mortified everyone. The dean, by the grace of God, eventually changed the subject and we moved on to discuss something else. At the end of the meeting, the dean invited me to drop by his study for a chat, which suggested I’d put the wrong inflexion on a word I’d over-used and which had a horrific meaning to the Japanese. I was about to find out.

The dean welcomed me and asked me to relax. He congratulated me on my presentation and the effort I’d put into preparing it, adding that he would have hated having to do the same in English.

“Where you went wrong,” he said, “is that you attached yourself inextricably to each and every insight and opinion you conveyed. We Japanese tend not to ask questions in such circumstance, because we don’t want to challenge you directly and cause you to lose face. What you should have done is what we do: the stronger the view the more you distance yourself from it. You can always say that, “On the bus this morning two people behind me were dreadfully outspoken on such-and-such an issue. I was quite taken aback, though naturally I didn’t show it. I suppose there might be food for thought in some of the points they were making.”

“So,” the dean said. “That’s all you need to know. You may well wish to adopt our Japanese approach. It keeps one out of a lot of trouble, I can assure you.”

“Next week,” he added, “I’ll raise the issue myself and mention that we’ve had a chat. So prepare yourself for a heady session, one that we’ll all enjoy. None of us could have elicited the views you did from all the people you interviewed. Never!”

I took the dean’s words to heart and they’ve served me well ever since. At the time, I put all of this in a letter to my parents back home. My father sent photocopies to everyone else in the family.

(Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar at Tokyo University at a time when Japan’s economy was starting to boom).