The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service


The post below contains several wonderful insights about Japanese 気配り(Kikubari), which is sometimes translated as ‘sensitivity’ and made up of two component parts: ‘気(ki), energy’ and ‘配り(kubari), distribute/deliver.  Tying the two concepts together, you can imagine the strength of one’s sensitivity coming from them spreading their energy around to all the folks in their social network. Having said that, don’t get too caught up in the etymology of the words— one of my Japanese profs once cautioned me that “we don’t think like that” when I enthusiastically presented my analysis of a particular word.

Back to the article—getting these two words straight in my head helped me to see the positive side of kikubari, which is a common intercultural tripping point for foreigners working with Japanese folks.  To understand why, and to benefit from the insights of an American who lived in Japan for a long time, give the article a read. (bonus: the author starts the story with a wonderful anecdote on the occasional role of private English teachers as therapist).

Originally posted on Intercultural Twilight Zone:

Back in my Japan university days I eked out a living teaching English conversation part time. Made just enough money to support a weekend gallivanting habit too. It was a hand-to-mouth bachelor existence, and I was having the time of my life.

But no gallivanting for me on Thursday evenings, when I’d rush off campus in Mitaka Tokyo, jump on the bus to Kichijoji Station where I’d take the Inokashira line to Shimokitazawa, then ride the Odakyu Express out to the Japanese boonies on the outskirts of Atsugi City. In all it took me two hours door to door.

My Thursday student was a Japanese doctor. Unlike my other doctor students whom I taught at the local hospital, Dr. Thursday wanted private lessons at his home, where we conspired every week to fake our way through an English lesson, sessions in which I mostly listened to his troubles and regrets…

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Good-bye 寺倉先生

I received some very sad news today—an old classmate called me late in the afternoon to let me know that one of our Japanese professors had recently passed away.  Professor Terakura was a wonderful teacher and mentor during a truly legendary time in the Japanese language teaching department at the University of Alberta.  I consider myself lucky to have had her as a professor.

On the walk home from work, all sorts of little moments and conversations with Terakura-sensei floated through my thoughts— each of our Japanese teachers seemed to have a specialty (i.e. our grammar teacher was a Japanese native speaker with a Masters degree in English Grammar) .  Terakura-sensei’s specialty, on the other hand, was definitely the subtle nuances of Japanese conversation, and she truly enjoyed talking with all of us.

Because classroom conversations would range into all kinds of topics, we would always inevitably digress into interesting tangents— I always appreciated how she could let the class guide the conversation, but still provide the structure to keep the class robust. 

hiroko terakura_

I’ll always be grateful for the support and encouragement that she offered before I went on my academic exchange to Japan; that support continued when I came home and had to negotiating transfer credit with my home university (not as straightforward as you might imagine!)

Even after retiring, she continued to host Japanese conversation circles in her home; when I returned to Canada after living in Japan and China, she took my wife and I out for dinner to share our enthusiasm for our then unborn son. I really can’t say enough about this wonderful woman and her giving heart.

Many of my blog posts have a strong theme of “do-it-yourself” language learning; indeed, with all of the media, resources and communication tools available today, it’s never been easier to be an independent language learner.  Having said that, if you’re going to make significant progress with a language, you’re going to need to be able to have a chance to have some sustained interaction with someone who is prepared to be a cultural ambassador to help you dive a little deeper into the language.  These people don’t necessarily need to stay with you for the whole journey, but if you’re lucky, they’ll walk with you for awhile and help you to create the circumstances for the next mentor to help you further along the way… and on it goes….

Terakura-sensei was one of those people for me.  I’m sure she was a positive force for countless students, and she will definitely be missed.

‘Hobbema’ no more— welcome to Maskwacis, AB!

A few days ago, I noticed an article in my local paper (The Edmonton Journal), saying that a place not to far from me is going to have a new name; as of today, the area I grew up calling ‘Hobbema’ will now be known as Maskwacis, AB.  This week, the story is being featured in news across the country (CBC TV, Globe and MailNational Post, etc.)

The name comes from the Cree word for “Bear Hills”–according to the article, “at one time, the area was covered in blueberry bushes that attracted a large bear population.” Evidently, the old name “Hobbema” came from…….the name of a Dutch painter?  who knew…

How do you write Maskwacis in Cree?

The language geek in me just had to ask this question, so I googled a cree syllabics converter in order to make the flashcard below.  Evidently, ᒪᐢᑲᐧᒋᐢ can also be written as ‘maskwachis‘— I wonder if someone, somewhere had an opinion about whether the new name should end in ‘cis’ or ‘chis’?  Alas, I know very little about Cree, so I can’t really comment. It’s a really a pity– I live in the middle of treaty six territory…. I wish I knew more about the language.

This story reminded me of the renaming of Haida Gwaii a few years ago–there are probably so many stories like this across Canada.  [edit: excerpt from a good essay here, entitled "Reclaiming ourselves one name at a time"]

maskwacis AB

Documentary film – Blue Eyes, Twenty One Days Of China 蓝眼睛,中国二十一天


The last 6 minutes of Ji Yida’s “Blue Eyes, Twenty One Days of China” perfectly encapsulates the experiences of a surprisingly large percentage of travellers that I have seen; here, I mean to include folks crossing the Pacific Ocean from both sides of the east-west paradigm.

If you want to skip to the spot I’m mentioning, this link starts at the 14:00 mark: http://youtu.be/6fjoNZG1Kzw?t=14m

The American in the film is from a community of 60,000 people and the videographer is his Chinese friend who went to High School in that community. They took a trip to China together over one of their summer breaks.

Luke, the subject of the film, is a pretty introverted guy–the videographer describes him as “the most non-American-American-I-know”. Some of his comments in the scene linked above reminded me of the time when I came to the conclusion that my Canadian manners were getting me nowhere in many situations in China that really required me to be a little pushy; it was initially hard to make the adjustment and not feel like I was being rude— and also let go of the judgement that others (i.e. the Chinese people around me) were being rude.

and so it goes….

Contrary to the opinion that many folks often express, I have always thought that cross-cultural experiences (especially longer sojourns) ultimately offer you the opportunity to learn more about *you* and your own culture. It’s not a guarantee though– for non-reflective personalities, the process seems to work in reverse and you sometimes see cynical expats who have lived somewhere for years in seeming misery.

again, this has been true on both ends of my Asian-Canadian experience.

Chinese news: Protests in Brazil

Chinese media coverage of the protests in Brazil:

Sentence below is taken from Sohu news: 巴西遭遇最大规模抗议浪潮 街头示威人数过百万 “The Rising Tide of Brazil’s Largest Protest: More than One Million Demonstrators Fill Streets”

Brasil in Chinese news
“In Sao Paolo, the tide of protest has grown since June 6th–at that time, 2000 people were protesting the price increase for public bus, subway and train tickets.  Four days prior to the start of protests (June 2nd), the price increased from 3 R$ (Reals) to 3.20 R$ (The bus ticket increase measured 6.7%, and the Consumer Price Index is 15.5%).”

UN Security Council permanent member– # of peacekeepers.


“(current UN Secretary-General) Ban Ki Moon expressed his gratitude on behalf of the United Nations and said that China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is fully committed to undertaking its international responsibilities: indeed, among the five permanent members of the Security Council, China is the country that deploys the most peacekeepers”

Reading this article (link above), I was surprised by this little piece of trivia.  As it happens, it turns out to be quite true; however, looking into some of the available UN stats, I was dumbfounded by the disproportionately large number of peacekeepers that are deployed from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Ethiopa.

I had to scan pretty far down the list to find Canada, and that made me sad:(