Week 5

This week we shook things up a bit and headed out to work in a small town called Tatebayashi. Since everyone at the Tokyo headquarters is extra busy preparing for a shareholders meeting, they sent Michael and I up here to spend this past week at the company’s Research and Development Center (R&D) and next week at the Kanto Production Plant. The structure of the workdays at R&D involved similar things as our first few weeks in Tokyo: informational tours/presentations, free discussions, the occasional field trip, interviews, and transcribing.

 

Also similarly as at headquarters, the people at R&D went above and beyond treating us very nicely. We mainly had one supervisor, Mr. Y, as well as three tutors, Ms. K, Ms. S, and Mr. U, guide us throughout the week. The tutors were a bit closer to our age, so Michael and I especially enjoyed getting to know them. One of the higher-ups, Ms. M, also took the time to show us around and make us feel welcome- like one time she prepared a custom vegan bento box lunch for me! Even beyond the few mentioned here, people throughout R&D really touched me with their kindness.

 

Another aspect of social consideration that has continually made me marvel is Japanese greetings, especially here in Tatebayashi. It seems like a simple thing that would be easy to get used to, but people bow. all. the. time. Not only when meeting somebody, but also when saying goodbye, expressing thanks, apologizing, walking past each other, and so on. And what really surprised me is that it can happen not only at the start and end of a conversation, but also many times in between. For example, the reason that the rice paddy field trip happened was to build a good relationship between our company and a local rice supplier, so at the end, everybody stood in a circle and several people from both sides made feel-good thank you speeches. During the course of these speeches, the entire group of over a dozen people bowed to each other at least twenty or thirty times!

 

Something else that seemed strange to me at first was greeting the bosses at R&D at the start and end of each day. Our tutors instructed us that we should walk up to the top few people in charge of the whole R&D center, say a few brief phrases like “good morning, please treat us kindly” or “thank you for your hard work,” and then return to our desks and carry on. It felt weird to me to be honest – why would they want lowly interns like us to bother the big bosses by saying the same few niceties every day? Normally I wouldn’t want to waste important people’s time by speaking to them without being summoned or having a concrete reason. But now I think I understand – the greetings gave us a chance to see each other’s faces, actively build/maintain friendly relationships, and acknowledge how much the bosses were doing by hosting us at R&D and express our gratitude for that. At the headquarters in Tokyo we didn’t do daily greetings to the bosses like that, but I heard a story about a company building where the top boss would stand at the entrance and individually greet hundreds of employees as they came in each morning. Maybe these are just two unusual instances, but it seems like such connections across levels of the hierarchy, even if just brief greetings, might be more important in Japan.

 

It’s hard to believe that our time at R&D is already over, but it felt really special. The atmosphere here seemed different from at headquarters – probably due to a combination of the center’s more experimental pursuits, the building’s recent construction and spacious layout, and the countryside surroundings. Things just felt more open, both literally and figuratively. For example, in the mornings, everyone stands up and does calisthenic exercises to cheerful music broadcast over the PA system – it’s somehow hard to imagine that happening in the headquarters building. We also got to experience some small-town charms that you couldn’t find in Tokyo, like going out and hand-planting a rice paddy! I’ll look back at this time warmly, and I’m looking forward to spending next week at the Kanto Plant.

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The view of Tatebayashi from my hotel room

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Geared up to plant rice!

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