Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Boyd Wilson considers himself a Japanese businessman. However, there is more to success in Japanese business than carrying a plentiful supply of business cards and bowing.

The Japanese economic boom of the 1980’s sparked an increased interest in Japanese business practices and culture in the American business market. While that interest has waned to some degree, there is still a degree of fascination with the regimented and formal world of Japanese business among Americans.

Naohiro Takita, who plays the role of Mr. Fujii in “Big Dreams Little Tokyo” has spent his entire career going back and forth between Japanese and American managed companies. He offers his insight into the differences between Japanese and American business practices.

1. What are some of the traditional rules of etiquette in Japanese business? Are there rules behind the tradition of bowing? When is it appropriate or inappropriate to bow? What about business cards?


Japanese companies traditionally only make deals with company that promise a long lasting and profitable relationship.

To promote a possibility of entering business, companies initiate seasonal gift giving. Offering substantial monetary gifts, companies often seek a proper introduction to the targeting company. Unlike their American counterparts, Japanese businesses do not usually initiate a successful meeting through “cold-calling” a company; the ritual of gift giving and priming must be observed.

Once having established a relationship, they nourish it until they can trust each other in starting a solid business. Then, entering a business relationship, they cherish it. Mutually giving special business privileges, they start building a business bond. They provide tailored service to make each others’ jobs easier. They enter a seasonal gift giving relationship. They mutually try to generate additional profits; they first try to find a new solution to the business among themselves. They sometimes help each other financially to keep this relationship.

Needless to say, establishing such a relationship is a difficult, time consuming task.

This trust begins with “respect”. Punctuality to meetings and delivery of services, speedy response to problems, and quality of services that extend an amicable delivery enhance the degree of “respect”.


Though Japanese may shake hands with a Westerner to make you feel comfortable, when establishing rapport with a potential Japanese partner, you can bow to show your “respect”.

The depth of the bow depends on the recipient’s rank and status. When bowing to the person of the superior rank, you bow a little lower than the recipient. You do the same if you don’t know the status of the person that you are facing. With a person of your equivalent status, you bow at the same height as recipient. With a person of lower rank, you nod with dignified smile. To avoid confusion, you may just shake hands with everyone after a simple nod, or do the same with everyone except the superior. You may bow to the superior to deepen the degree of your “respect”.

You can also show your “respect” when you exchange business cards with Japanese to establish credentials in business. Bring a plentiful supply of professionally prepared business cards with you so that you can meet Japanese counterparts’ demand.

Present or receive a business card using both hands to hold onto the corner as the card is exchanged. Examine it carefully for a moment. This is also a proper time to ask questions regarding what is written on it. Place business cards face up on the table in front of you and refer to it as necessary, or place it in your card case. Writing on a business card or just dropping it into a pocket is considered disrespectful.

2. I am an American businessman heading to a business meeting in Japan. What could I expect during my stay there?

A possible scenario in Japan for a well prepared American visitor:

Unless you are in the middle of Tokyo, people will be staring at you. You arrive at a meeting on time. You are welcomed with a barrage of bowings and business card exchanging rituals.

During the meeting, you witness some Japanese gestures such as scratching of the head for confusion or folded arms expressing deep thought. Though you have done everything you have planned to do, you are not sure of the result since everyone is so quiet during your presentation and especially during negotiations. Above all, you do not feel you’re your Japanese colleagues have given any straight answers to your proposals.

The meeting concludes without any visible progress. In desperation, you invite them to a rather expensive American restaurant for lunch.
Apologizing that you take them there (You apologize as Japanese would do in these situations), you introduce some fun parts of American culture and talk about it during the meal to establish rapport and personal relationships with them.

Surprisingly you are invited to a dinner including some entertainment and drinking in traditional style Japanese inn restaurant. You take your shoes off with confidence. Having packed a supply of clean and conservative socks for this trip, you put on a new pair before you arrive at the restaurant. You sit cross-legged around a low table with Japanese host and his colleagues.

In a restaurant, your host orders for you. Though you have practiced using chopsticks before the trip and have no problem eating meals using chopsticks, you allow your host to teach you how to use them. Thanking him for his teaching, you show your eagerness to learn Japanese culture. You use as many Japanese sentences as you can and bow often, when appropriate.

You realize that Japanese drink a lot; even as much as American college students often do in their parties. They keep pouring your glass with liquor unless previously informed that you do not drink. Everyone seems to have enjoyed the feast and your presence. After plenty of entertainment provided by the host, some gifts are exchanged.

Your host has already arranged a taxi to your hotel. You just show your hotel’s business card that you picked at your hotel’s front desk when you check in to the taxi driver. Without realizing it, you have already taken your first big steps in Japanese business.


3. How does working in Japanese business compare to working in American business? Is it an easy transition between the two?

Because Japanese companies evaluate their employees through their processes of completing tasks rather than by their results, Japanese work differently than American workers do. Japanese workers will spend many hours with many meetings to ensure that everything is done properly as planned. In each meeting, making their tasks unanimously acceptable and complete, workers feel that each of them is responsible for the project. Then, knowing their expectations and limits of respective responsibilities, workers finish their own tasks.

Because of this team work oriented mentality, Japanese feel obligated to stay late in order to help others with unfinished works. Similarly, it makes Japanese uncomfortable to use up their full vacation time.

Both American and Japanese work hard in different ways and with different goals. As long as you understand these differences, you can make an easy transition between Japanese and American businesses.

4. What kind of relationship do workers have with their superiors within the company?

Japanese superiors, rather than taking the role of “cheer leader”, induce a unanimous decision from subordinates to complete a task. They try to create a feeling of success for each participant within the group.

In general, Japanese superiors are somewhat titular heads. They usually do not make their decisions alone. They do not fire subordinates, nor have substantial power to alter their subordinates’ income. Their power resides in their relationships. Superiors, like mothers or masters in martial arts seen in movies, are expected to protect, nurture and promote welfare and success of their subordinates.

In return, subordinates pay their respect to their superiors. They keep their commitments made. To save face of their superiors, they acquiesce to their superiors. Their spouses also pay similar respect to superiors’ spouses in their daily lives. They send seasonally gifts as a token of their respect and gratitude to their superiors. (These gifts are not considered as bribes in Japan.) They feel that they are indebted to their superiors for their life-time.

5. How important is company loyalty when working in a Japanese company?

An employee who switches companies is considered disloyal, untrustworthy and incompetent; consequently, Japanese try to work for one company for life: Japanese companies also avoid hiring those who worked for many companies unless they have cogent reasons.

Once Japanese are hired, they devote themselves to the company. Company duty often takes precedence over even needs of their own family. Not only employees themselves but also members of employees’ families consider themselves a part of the company and promote the welfare of the company.

6. How many hours is the standard Japanese work-week?

From Monday through Saturday, the official standard Japanese work-week consists of 48 hours though large firms have initiated a five-day week of 40 hours.

However, being expected to help their team with unfinished works, Japanese stay late. (They consider this to be a part of their team work.)

On the other hand, executives are expected to leave their offices earlier than others for building business relationships with other companies or for avoiding unnecessary pressure on their subordinates.


7. What are the qualities that Japanese companies seek in potential employees? How important is a college degree?

Japanese companies seek a team-player with good working ethics and attitude; because they train a tractable promising individual to mold into their own model of success, they avoid a Maverick even though he or she may currently have the best skills in the market.

Japanese companies prefer graduates from prestigious institutions. They hire graduates from the nation’s top ranking universities with any majors over graduates of other universities with suitable degrees. Companies in small cities sometimes prefer to hire high school graduates from prestigious institutions over college graduates from third class ranking institutions to make companies’ inexpensive royal Myrmidons.

Due to recent bad economy, a college degree is a must for a proper full-time employment. College degrees alone without special skills will not get a decent job in big cities in Japan.

8. Are there any wardrobe rules when working in Japan?

Unless a company requires employees to wear its own uniforms, Japanese expect business people dress in conservatively-dark suits, ties and white shirts for men and conservative professional outfits -similar to ones worn by the most American professional women- for women. (American business men with suits and ties can wear other type of shirts used in a normal American business without any negative impact.)
9. The 1980s saw an enormous rise in the number of American students studying Japanese. These days, how valuable is proficiency in Japanese for a business career?

First, a company will evaluate Americans with qualified skills with College degree. Then they will see your Japanese skill as an additional asset. Your Japanese will be undeniably appreciated since many companies are still trying to increase their diversity, and only a few employees speak other than Japanese in their companies in Japan.

My successful American friends in Japan have some professional graduate degrees. They started their career in U.S. headquarters and their companies sent them to Japan. Though they have excellent Japanese, none of them use it in their Japanese office. On the other hand, my friends who started their work in Japanese headquarters seem to use their Japanese quite often, but unfortunately they have limited promotion within their company.

10. What habits or tics of American businessmen are amusing for their Japanese colleagues?

Calling their bosses by their first names, winking and any kind of gesticulation will amuse Japanese. Sitting on a desk, blowing their noses with their handkerchiefs and making frequent jokes during important meetings also surprise Japanese. Direct refusals, showing negative emotions or not taking a hint and trying to get straight answers from Japanese not only surprise Japanese but also make them uncomfortable.

Lastly, I don’t know if this is called habits, but American business men’s individual energy, stamina and persistency toward their agendas along with their proactive autonomous existence often surprise and impress Japanese colleagues.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Andrew Freund is the director of the California Sumo Association. He consults on a lot of big films (like doing the sumo scenes for "Memoirs of a Geisha"). He helped a lot with our film, providing us with Jerome (Sakebono)'s "SUMO BELT" and answering all the questions we had about the sport. In the lazy tradition of The Dude Lebowski (who never actually rolls a bowling ball) Sakebono never actually sees any sumo action during "Big Dreams Little Tokyo."

To make up for what you will NOT learn about sumo in the film, here are some FAQs answered by Mr. Freund.

(1) What is the origin of sumo?

Sumo dates back over 1,500 years, with roots in Japanese harvest rites, as well as in legends of Japanese deities. Over the centuries, sumo developed into a martial regimen, and eventually into exclusive entertainment for the royal court. In the modern era, sumo has become Japan's “kokugi”, or national sport. Professional sumo includes not only athletic aspects, but also carries tremendous cultural and historical weight, in that it preserves martial traditions and rituals, refined over hundreds of years.

(2) What are the rules of a sumo match?

The rules of sumo are quite simple. From a crouching stance, the two combatants start simultaneously, and endeavor to force their opponent either out of the ring or to the ground. If any part of the body touches the ground out of the ring, or if any part (besides the soles of the feet) touches the ground in the ring, the wrestler loses.

Punching and kicking are forbidden, but slapping or tripping are legal. Grabbing the opponent's “mawashi” (sumo belt) is one way to gain leverage and maneuver the adversary.

While the basic rules are extremely simple, the technical details are very complex, as sumo has over 80 “kimarite” (winning techniques). There is also extensive ritual involved before and after every sumo match.

(3) Why do sumo wrestlers throw salt?

The pre-bout salt-throwing is done to symbolically purify the ring, so that the match will be fair and honorable. This is just one of many pre- and post-bout ceremonies imbued with cultural significance in Japanese sumo.

(4) What is the etiquette of the audience in pro sumo?

During the pre-bout ceremonies, the audience members often call out and cheer for their favorites, spurring them on and wishing them good luck in the impending match. As the wrestlers crouch down after several minutes of psyching up and ceremony, the crowd becomes quiet, and then erupts in cheers and encouragement as the combatants charge.

An interesting feature of pro sumo is that when a “yokozuna” (grand champion) is defeated, the audience members grab their “zabuton” (seat cushions), and hurl them into the ring at the defeated yokozuna. This behavior is not officially sanctioned, but as a long-standing tradition, it is tolerated by pro sumo.

(5) What are typical injuries sustained by sumo wrestlers?

Sumo wrestlers suffer many kinds of injuries, including bruises, sprains, fractures, and more. Considering the extreme nature of sumo, it is surprising that there are not more injuries. The athletes often tumble through the air from the elevated stage, but thanks to years of training, they know how to fall properly to avoid injury. Of course, in a contact sport, there is always a risk of injury.

(6) What do sumo wrestlers wear?

“Rikishi” (professional sumo wrestlers) wear only the mawashi in competition. The mawashi is a long strip of canvas or silk (depending on rank) which is wrapped like a loin cloth and tied in the back. This garment resembles the traditional attire of workers in ancient Japan, and the relative nakedness is a symbol of bravery and self-reliance, i.e. the lack of clothing reveals that the warrior is not carrying hidden weapons or other accoutrements, but must rely on his own physical and mental strength to win.

Not only is the mawashi a vital part of sumo culture and symbolism, but it also serves an important function in the sumo match. Sumo wrestlers struggle for strategic belt grips, in order to get an advantage over their opponents. Thus, the mawashi serves a practical purpose, as well.

For opening ceremonies in professional sumo, the very highest-ranked rikishi wear ceremonial skirt-like “kesho-mawashi” to perform a series of rituals. These colorful brocades are full of the rikishi's personal symbols and colors.

(7) How does one become a rikishi?

There are several minimal requirements to join pro sumo. In addition to completing junior high school, getting his parents' permission, and passing a physical. the aspiring rikishi must be between the ages of 15 and 22 (up to 25 years old for collegiate sumo athletes). The young man must be at least 173 cm tall (about 5'7”) and weigh at least 75 kg (about 165 lbs).

(8) Describe the daily training regimen of sumo wrestlers.

Professional rikishi begin the day in the early morning with intense training, soon after completing morning chores. The lower-ranked rikishi must get up earlier, do more chores, and complete their training before their seniors begin. They must also run errands, prepare meals, and serve the higher-ranked wrestlers. The first enormous meal of the day is lunch (after morning training). After eating, an afternoon nap is almost mandatory, followed by a second (and final) meal in the evening. The physical training is extremely intense, even brutal, and may last for hours every day, which necessitates the consumption of up to 20,000 calories in order to gain weight.

The training itself consists of stretching, warm-up exercises, strength training, and plenty of matches. All pro sumo wrestlers are extremely flexible and are forced to do full splits (like ballerinas), even if it means ripping the tendons.

(9) How long is the career of pro sumo wrestlers?

Less than half of those who enter pro sumo make it through the first year. Even those who survive the harsh conditions often struggle to move up the ranks for years with little success, and eventually drop out. Many succumb to injuries. Others get stuck in the middle ranks, so high attrition is common even for those who make it past early hurdles. For the very strong rikishi who persevere without major injuries, a ten-year career in pro sumo is exceptional, and very few ever continue much past the age of 30.

So, the majority of active pro sumo wrestlers are in their late teens and early 20's, while the highest divisions is filled with rikishi in their 20's and early 30's. The average age, factoring in the hordes of lower-ranked newcomers, is probably around 20 years old.

(10) What kind of social status do sumo wrestlers enjoy in Japan?

In general, sumo wrestlers are treated with respect, but only those in the top two division are considered elite. There are about 70 rikishi in the top two divisions who can wear the kesho-mawashi, and who are served by the lower-rankers. Even among these 70, though, most are not recognized or well-know by the public. A relative handful of the very best are well-known, and those few receive tremendous attention and acclaim.

(11) How many professional sumo wrestlers are there?

There are less than 1,000 pro sumo wrestlers, and they all live in Japan, although a few come from other countries. Several Americans from Hawaii have been successful, and the current batch of foreign stars includes many Mongolians, and some Russians and Eastern Europeans.

In Japan, tens of thousands practice amateur sumo, and thousands of people in other countries worldwide compete in sumo as an amateur sport. Amateur sumo participation does not require the rigorous regimentation that the pros go through.

(12) How does one try amateur sumo?

Sumo is just beginning to develop in popularity as an amateur sport worldwide. Many local, regional, and national clubs are springing up. To participate, one simply needs to find a club and try a class. Sumo is easy to learn, and requires only a mawashi and a “dohyo” (sumo ring). Check for more basic information.