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Friday, Dec. 8, 2000


Sweating blood and tears to get the business

When the Japanese say bijinesu (business), they don't always mean business, at least not in the sound, healthy, Western sense of the word. Bijinesu is often the modern way of saying akinai (trade) or shobai (buying and selling) which, strangely enough, are not the same things.

Even for the Japanese, this is cause for confusion and stress. For the Western businessperson just out from the home office, it could be downright nerve-racking. So here's a little guide to help you distinguish between "business" and "shobai." If this should leave you feeling angry, depressed or desperate to leave the country, this writer will not be held responsible.

First off, you must learn that where business is dry, logical and nowadays even virtual, shobai is wet and emotional. Sticking to the contract or job description won't get you far because in shobai, there are a lot of unwritten, unspecified rules and commitments. If one desires shobai success, one finds out what these are and honors them faithfully. That is the Way. (And will most likely leave you talking like a yakuza movie.)

Consider the example of a famed real estate agency president, who changed her name from Masako to Chiho when she started her company. The kanji for Chiho means "a thousand heads of rice grain," which she felt described her position more accurately than her given name. She knew that as a shobainin (shobai person), her head would always be bent in a deep bow, like a thousand grain heads in the wind. This is the kind of story that goes straight to the heart of the o-kyaku-sama (revered customer) and wins golden opinions.

While businesspeople wear Brooks Brothers or Donna Karan and go to Harvard class reunions, shobainin are almost always tatakiage (self-made). Matsushita Konosuke of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. got his start by cleaning light bulbs. Wada Kazuo of Yaohan Department Stores peddled vegetables off a yoke on his shoulders. The CEO of Daiso (the biggest chain of 100 yen shops in the country) pushed his wares on a cart. A true shobainin always has some tale of kuro (suffering through hard work) to impart to future employees as part and parcel of moneymaking. "Kuro wa katte demo shiro (Even if you have to pay to suffer, it's an invaluable experience)" is one of the commonest shobainin dicta, and new employees at the largest corporations are forced to hear it an average of 100 times during their first year.

A businessperson keeps up with the times and knows the value of trends and sophistication, but a shobainin believes that the time-worn methods are always the best. This is why the Japanese shotengai (shopping arcades) continue to put up such tacky but lovable slogans as supaakuringu seeru (sparkling sale) and kansha ouridashi (great appreciation sale). My personal favorite is shukketsu daisaabisu (bloody great service) -- meaning that the shop clerks are ready to shed blood in order to give the o-kyaku-sama a better deal.

Red is the color of luck and prosperity. Akamaru (red circle) and akafuda (red tag) mean good deals and discount prices, but every shobainin would like to avoid the akaji (red blood/figures, or "in the red") and are fond of saying: "Shobainin no chi wa kuroi (Shobai people have black blood)" -- get it? Speaking of which, the strip theater in my neighborhood always puts up posters saying "Hanaji daihosho (We guarantee nose-bleeds)" (the hallmark of Japanese sexual excitement) and distributes tissue packets at the gate. Passersby are intrigued and buy their tickets but I've never heard of anyone who actually came out with a bloody nose.

The other thing about shobainin is that they don't hold with originality. If something works the first time, it's okay to repeat that over and over and to hell with intellectual property rights. For instance, back in the '60s someone wittily named their restaurant Tokyo de Nibanme ni Mazui Mise (The Second Worst Restaurant in Tokyo). Within the decade, thousands of eating houses followed suit, putting in minor variations like Tokyo de Sanbanme ni Mazui Mise (The Third Worst Restaurant in Tokyo) or Tokyo de Nibanme ni Oishii Mise (The Second Best Restaurant in Tokyo). I vowed that the day they got around to number 10 would be the day I packed up and left the city.

The shobainin, however, are a dying breed. The shotengai is making way for giant supermarkets, and little shops are sucked into the big outlets and convenience stores. Hopefully, the language will remain -- after all, it's something to know that when you go shopping, there's a clerk out there somewhere who's ready to spill blood in the name of great service.

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