I came to Japan out of Taiwan for a six month stay, twenty years ago now, and rode the last waves of the economic bubble into the “lost decade” of economic depression. It was a simple and joyful time. Everyone who wanted a job could get one and the “Izakaya” drinking and eating business was booming. I arrived on a Saturday, found a cheap “Gaijin House”, a guest house for foreigners, and got up early on Monday morning to get a copy of the Japan times and the jobs section. I was hoping to work in the mountains of Nagano but since I only had about 400 dollars, I took the first job offer I got and dove into my future as a part time English teacher in the Ibaraki town of Tsuchiura, about 70 minutes northeast of Tokyo.
It was the perfect life. Work 4 hours a day, go out after work, make friends with all the happy bubble era people, ride a scooter, learn how to play Japanese songs on my guitar, sleep till noon, rinse and repeat. I was 25 and glad to be alive in Japan.
It was during this time that I learned something very interesting about Japanese communication and communication in general. I had a meeting with my Japanese boss one afternoon. I told him that since I was teaching the entire time I was at the school that I didn’t have any time to prepare for my classes and I thought that the school should pay for my prep time as well. He thought for a moment, look me in the eyes and said “I think you should get paid for your prep time as well.”
So, I thought it was settled. I would come in early to work, punch my time card and get paid for my preparation time. So I did. Seemed reasonable to me until pay day came around and I didn’t get paid for my over time work. I asked my boss about it and he said, “I said I thought you should get paid for your over time work, that doesn’t mean that you would get paid for it”. “So, you aren’t going to pay me for all the time that I spent working and preparing for class?” I replied, starting to feel cheated and taken advantage of. He said that he would have to talk to the owner and get back to me. After a number of extended discussions, it was decided that I would get paid for my time but that I would not be paid for prep time in the future.
I have always wondered about how something, that seemed so clear to both sides, could actually be a shared misunderstanding. It was clear to me that I would get paid and clear to him that he felt I should get paid, but was not going to pay me.
Many years later, after learning Japanese, I came to a realization. The word in Japanese for think is omoimasu. It generally means think but it is used in a special way in Japanese to soften what you are saying or to say something without conviction. In many ways, it is just a way to finish your sentence. Kind of like a spoken period.
My understanding of the world at 25 was if my boss thinks I should get paid for my time, that I would get paid for my time. His understanding was that think was just a filler word, not a word to express clear intent.
On a deeper cultural, even philosophical level, in the highly stylized and formalized Japanese culture, words are not always a direct expression of personal beliefs. In fact, speaking the truth is secondary to maintaining the status quo. In my western upbringing, words are truths that directly express what we think and believe and are to be cherished and fought for. So, even though my boss was speaking to me in English, he brought his cultural understanding of the concept “to think” while I brought mine. I think, therefore I am misunderstood.