Found in Translation – My Experiences in Japan, Part 1

Remember that movie “Lost in Translation”? It was a romantic comedy starring Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson. Bill Murray plays an American movie star (Bob Harris), in the autumn of his career, who reluctantly takes his first trip to Japan. He makes the trip in an attempt to revive his celebrity, and his bank account under a lucrative product endorsement contract with a Japanese liquor company. While staying in a posh Tokyo hotel he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a newlywed who is stuck in the hotel while her husband completes an assignment as a celebrity photographer. The movie portrays the complex relationship formed by these two lonely, jet-lagged, travelers and what they learned about life and themselves as they encountered and experienced Japan. That idea of learning about oneself through simple, but meaningful experiences in another country is what inspired this blog, and another that will follow in a couple weeks.

When the movie came out in 2003, it really interested me, because I’d just completed a five year job assignment requiring a significant amount of travel to Japan. During my travels, I had the good fortune to have many learning experiences resulting from my interactions with the people and culture of Japan. This blog is a collection of some those experiences. Some are funny, and some poignant, but all were learning moments. What I learned, or”Found in Translation” from those experiences gave me new insight into myself and immense respect and appreciation for the wonderful people and culture of Japan.

In the late 1990’s my work in the aerospace industry provided me an opportunity to lead an international engineering project in collaboration with a team from a major Japanese conglomerate or “keiretsu”. During that five year assignment, I travelled to Japan 3 to 4 times a year and hosted visitors from Japan to our business in the California at least as many times.

Here are a few things I “Found in Translation”…

A Fish Story. Nagoya is a large city about 200 miles south-west of Tokyo. Typically I’d fly into Narita Airport just outside Tokyo. Have business meetings in Tokyo and then take the bullet train or “Shinkansen” to Nagoya, where the Japanese company we worked with, had a large engineering and manufacturing facility. My team members and I always stayed at the Nagoya Hilton hotel in the center of the city, and we would take a taxi to the business facility in an industrial area of the city for our meetings. On one of my first trips to Japan, I woke up at about 4:30AM and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I decided to get up and go for a walk. During my walk I discovered, just a few blocks from the hotel, the central fish market which took up an area of several square blocks and was accessed through several surrounding gates.

Walking from the quiet pre-dawn streets of Nagoya through the fish market gate, I entered into what at first seemed a scene of pure chaos. People and small vehicles moving in every direction, carrying the ocean fare of the day. After a few moments of adjustment I realized that rather than chaos, it was more like I’d stepped into the middle of a well-choreographed dance and I needed to be careful not to disrupt the performance. It was clear that the people working in the market weren’t used to having tourists around. I got a few questioning glances from merchants, and probably a few under-the-breath grumbles from the drivers of the small trucks I was dodging, but generally they were quite tolerant of my intrusion, and very polite when I got in the way.

The narrow lanes which divided the market were lined, on either side, by stalls displaying all manner of things from the sea, many of which were still flopping or squirming around in, or trying to climb out of, the various containers in which they were being displayed. During my roaming around, I came across a stall in which a young man wielding a large, five foot knife, was in the process of carving up a very large, probably more than 300 pound, tuna and turning it into sashimi for delivery to the restaurants around the city. I’d been watching him for a few moments, when he stopped and looked up at me and said with a big smile, “Good Morning”, in English. Since he seemed interested in test driving his English skills, and was kind enough to greet me, I thought I’d return the favor by trying out my meager knowledge of Japanese with him. I said “Ohayo Gozaimus” (good morning in Japanese) in response to his greeting. To my surprise, he smiled and said “hello, what do you think of this fish?” Ah, I thought, he speaks English better than I speak Japanese, so the pressure was off and I could reply in English. I then said “Hello, that is a beautiful fish. Is it from the Sea of Japan?” His response floored me when he said, “no, fish is from Boston”. Instantly I recalled seeing a documentary describing how Japanese companies bought up the best tuna brought in by U.S. fishing boats and shipped them in specially configured Boeing 747’s, overnight to Japan. This must be one of those tunas. By now I’m Thinking that this young man’s English skills are quite good, so I decide it’s time to try a bit of humor. I said, “Wow, from Boston…that’s a long swim.” Unfortunately, with that joke I either discovered the limits of his English skills, or the fallibility of my humor, because all I got in response was a confused smile and awkward silence. Both of us then realized that our interaction moment was over. We wished each-other a good day and I moved on.

On Being Different. I had a very sobering and humbling experience during a trip to Aomori, a city at the very northern tip of the main island of Japan. It’s an area that isn’t visited frequently by westerners. Walking through the small airport I passed a young Japanese woman with a toddler. When the young boy saw me, he pointed at me, and obviously scared at the sight of this strange looking person, he started crying hysterically and clung to his mothers’ leg. All through my life I’d lived in places where most people looked like I did and generally exhibited the same kind of behaviors as I did. For the first time in my life I could begin to understand, even in this small way, how it feels like to be feared or rejected because you seem to be different than everyone else. It brought tears to my eyes then, and it still does when I recall the experience today. I won’t ever forget it.

Shopping for an Ego Boost. One morning in Nagoya, a friend and I went shopping for souvenirs at a large downtown department store. The store didn’t open until 10:00AM, and we were a little early, so we waited outside the main entrance. Precisely at 10:00AM, the doors were opened and my friend and I and our fellow shoppers entered the store. As we walked in, and down the main aisle of the store, I was surprised to see uniformed store employees lined up on either side of the aisle. All were smiling, greeting us and thanking us for shopping at their store. As we passed by each employee, they also bowed to us, showing their respect. I found out later this was a common practice at the larger Japanese stores and even some of the smaller stores and restaurants. Because the store employees were smiling and positive, it made me smile and feel positive. Wow, I thought, even if I didn’t need to buy anything I’d come back here just to get an ego boost!


About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as a Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise are in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning in a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. I'm an Aerospace Industry Consultant. I serve my community as a Rotarian. My hobby is playing as a jazz keyboard.
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2 Responses to Found in Translation – My Experiences in Japan, Part 1

  1. Don,

    Quite thoughtful reflections about Japan. Apart from the hostile and xenophobic (at least directed towards those coming from poorer Asian countries like mine) immigration officials, Japan is a very polite society the farther away it is from Tokyo, the farther away from the garish lights. I think people from Kyoto, the neighboring Nara and the faraway Ryukyu islands, Okinawa (the last never wanting to mainstream with Japan) which many centuries back was the seat of aristocracy still retains such mild, admirable manner about them. Except of course for the xenophobia reserved for people from poorer countries. I just had to say it again. Sorry, I can’t help it, the immigration officials were that mean!


  2. Rob Mawer says:

    Don – a lot of lessons to be learned here. Looking forward to parts 2, 3, ……

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