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Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011

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Uncovering your hidden ninja


If you're wondering where all the ninja are these days, I can tell you. They're hiding within the bodies of people you'd never suspect, such as your next door neighbor.

Our island has a very high concentration of modern ninja, whom I will define as people who do things the ninjutsu way: by stealth. The value of stealth is something I've learned only since I moved to this small island. I encourage you to uncover your inner ninja too.

My education in island ninjutsu started when my husband bought a third boat, a 44-foot sailboat. While our other two boats are moored in the small port in front of our house, this bigger boat needed a bigger port. The island happens to have such a port, very underutilized, which was budgeted for during the bubble era and was finally built 17 years later, after the island no longer needed it. The port, now called the "new port," only has a few boats in it.

My husband and I had this wild idea that we should do things properly by getting permission from the island Fisherman's Union to leave the boat there. The new port falls under the jurisdiction of the fishermen, since the port was originally intended to be for their boats, back when the fishing population on the island was much larger.

But our neighbors said, "No, don't ask them. They'll never give you permission. Just park the boat there and don't say anything. If anyone asks about it, just tell them you're leaving it there temporarily." We followed their instructions.

Six years later, the boat is still there. Temporarily, of course.

A year or so after that, my husband had another wild idea, an answer to the complicated fishermen's system of parking boats by pointing their bows into the concrete pier (rather than alongside it). This is the way they tie up boats on almost every waterway system in Japan that isn't a proper marina. It's a very efficient way to park a lot of boats in a small area. The problem is getting onto your boat. The boats are tethered by a system of anchors, pulleys and ropes under the water. You have to pull your boat in via the rope every time you want to board it. If you live on an island, this can be several times a day if you use your boat a lot like we do.

So our crazy idea was to build a floating wooden platform between the concrete pier and the bow of the boat. A small pontoon, about 2 x 5 meters, we reasoned, would allow us to walk straight onto the boat without having to pull it in each time. We'd just be making better use of the empty space between the bow and the pier. It worked so well, that soon all our friends wanted one for their boats too. "Sure," said my husband, "I'll build more."

"Ah, but no," they said, "wait a few weeks before you build the next one."

The first 2 x 5 structure attracted attention from everyone living on the port. People came over, scrutinized it, cocked their heads and sucked in air through their teeth. "What is it?" others asked. "Did you get permission to build it?" asked my next door neighbor. "You'll need to get rid of it," said some fishermen. But, it's just a small wooden structure, we pointed out. It's much easier and safer to get on and off the boat, and it's not in anyone's way.

Within a few weeks, the problem had gone away. Despite all the sucking through teeth and provoking comments, people turned a blind eye to our harmless piece of flotsam floating in a previously unoccupied space between the concrete pier and the boat.

The next platform went in smoothly and no one said anything. And the next, and the next.

This is the Japanese way. You don't go in all at once with your big ideas expecting everyone else to accept them. Instead, you implement your ideas gradually, by stealth.

But remember that you can easily become a victim of your friends' inborn stealth tactics too. Seven years ago we opened a bar on the beach with these same locals. This year, one of their sons said he wanted to do something on the beach, so we encouraged him to rent out beach umbrellas and shade structures. He decided to set up further down the beach so as not to be competitive with others who were doing something similar.

Things seemed to be going well for him at the beginning of the summer. A few weeks later, however, we noticed he had started selling draft beer. I fully expect that next year he'll expand his operation to be a full bar just like ours, renting out parasols and shade structures on the side.

I suppose this is harnessing the power of harmony. Harmony is cultivated over time by people being careful not to be too bold or offensive, and willing to take the time to gauge the reactions of others before committing wholly to something. Furthermore, it protects the individual who, if through such stealth tactics attempts something that turns out to be ill-favored by the majority, can safely return to the status quo.

So the next time you want to change something, do it the Japanese way: by stealth!



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