Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Apologies to friends who use Plaxo, but I'm opting out of Plaxo since it has become a source of spam for me and I feel like I'm doing all the work. Anyone who wants to find my contact info can just Google me or find it on my wiki page.

via Dan Gillmor

I am hosting a gathering here in Tokyo starting tomorrow. It's a somewhat academic meeting to talk about social science issues and technological issues around mobility and microcontent. Participants include a small group of academics, technologists and business people. I'll let you know if we come up with anything interesting. Some of the other participants will probably be blogging as well.

This is the first time that I've ever worked together with my sister to organize something so that's been fun. It's also been great working with the team at the Insight & Foresight unit at Nokia who are supporting the event. BTW, "Kizuna" is a Japanese word that means a kind of mental linkage between people. "Friendship" and "family tie" are probably close counterparts in English.

A lot of people ask me about Japanese customs. They learn the formal way to hand business cards, they bow deeply when they meet Japanese and they call me "Ito-san." Stop that. It's silly. To some Japanese, the awkward foreigners trying to please their hosts by acting Japanese may look cute, but more likely than not, you'll get a A for effort but you'll be forever the silly foreigner in their minds. It's only the extremely intolerant xenophobe who would really want a foreigner to really act Japanese and you don't want to be hanging out with those anyway. Keep an eye out for indicators of discomfort but bring the flair of your own culture with you.

Rather than trying to act Japanese, I suggest that people visiting Japan be sensitive and aware of the nuances in the interactions. It is more about timing, loudness, space and smiles than it is about how your hold your business card or calling people "Ito-san." When in doubt, shut up and listen. When smiled at, smile back. If you're freaking someone out, back off instead of continuing your interrogation. All of which I believe is not unique to being a foreigner in Japan. The more important Japan specific social behaviors involve cleanliness like taking off your shoes in homes and washing your body before and not taking your towel when entering the bath and not being stinky.

Caveat: If you're meeting someone for the first time, in a very formal setting, and you only have one shot, doing the step-by-step from the "How to Impress Japanese" book is probably a good idea. My comments above apply mostly to normal social situations.

UPDATE: I think many people were offended by this post. ;-) Please read the comments for an interesting discussion.

I just finished watching The Last Samurai. I'm not going to comment on the acting or the historical accuracy, but rather on this notion of a code of honor. Several people told me to watch it because they were impressed with the code of honor in the film. I think there is something comforting about codes of honor and people get goose bumps when they see movies where heros die for honor. Some people identify with the heros as they reflect on the unfairness and loneliness in their own lives. A friend of mine manages the rights to Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, which is one of Japan's most famous heros. He used to get calls almost every year from CEOs of companies wanting to make the film because they realized that THEY were Musashi.

The most honorable person I've ever known is my mom. She didn't talk about or whine about honor. She was just honorable. In my experience, the more people talk about honor, the less they know about it and are either using it as a way to try to convince you to trust them or trying to convince themselves or something. Some of the stupidest mistakes I've made in friendship and business have been when I have assumed that people spouting off about codes of honor would actually adhere to them. "Don't you trust me?" "Just trust me." Bah.


So I'm quite skeptical about Japanese honor. Sure, I bet there were a lot of honorable people though the history of the Samurai, but I see honor every day and they don't make movies about it. So stop making movies about Japanese honor or we might start believing it.

I'm not bashing the notion of codes of honor in organizations since I think it's often necessary to try to aspire to and enforce higher level conduct in these organizations, but having a code doesn't mean everyone will adhere to it and such codes probably cause these organizations to be more trusted than they should.