As an event and communications agency that serves clients around the world, One Smooth Stone is constantly on the road. As we travel, we take time to appreciate the cities and cultures we visit. A recent trip to Tokyo undertaken by Associate Producer Jonathan Williams is a case in point. While producing an event for a client in May, Jonathan got a taste of Tokyo’s different sides, ranging from its fast-paced entertainment to quieter moments steeped in tradition. In the following Q&A, Jonathan shares his impressions of a most captivating city. For more information about Jonathan, visit our website. Happy travels!
What was the nature of your work in Tokyo?
We do four shows a year for an international industry association in the Americas, Asia, Europe and Latin America. For this client, we’ve done the Asia program in Hong Kong and Singapore, and this year in Tokyo. The event was attended by about 700 people and included panel discussions, speeches and networking. I was the producer for this year’s show.
What did you do to prepare?
I needed to prepare on a few levels: professionally and personally.
On the professional level we needed to make sure we found a local team that could manage the differences in our languages. Communication is one of the most important aspects of my job; without it we’re dead in the water.
We also needed to work around the 14-hour time difference between Chicago and Tokyo as we planned remotely. Doing so meant managing a lot of pre-production communication after hours and being willing to wait overnight for answers to questions that arise with any planning. We managed against the time zone differences by making communications especially clear and straightforward to ensure as few follow-up communications as possible were needed.
Personally, I needed to prepare for getting accustomed to a different sleeping cycle. The night before my flight, I stayed up all night, and when I arrived in Tokyo, I started getting into the local eating schedule straight off, which forces your body to adjust to the local schedule. Arriving a day ahead of time gave my body a chance to adjust, too.
What were your first impressions of Japan?
Rice fields as far as the eye can see. They were like fields of green boxed off into rectangles and swimming in water. I could see a lot of green, but water was on top of it. I could see there was an obvious pattern to the fields, but they were different from what you see with U.S. farm fields.
After landing at the airport, I traveled to downtown Tokyo. At first blush, the streets, the buildings, the trees, and the birds looked like something you’d see in any city. But when I looked closely, I started to see the differences, like the leaves of the trees with unexpected shapes, building signs running vertically up the sides of the businesses, or the sight of a shrine nestled between skyscrapers:
As I became more familiar with Tokyo, I noticed two different sides of the city: a flashier side that I think westerners expect, and a quieter, more graceful side.
A good example of the westernized side of Tokyo was the Robot Restaurant, which is an over-stimulating light and sound experience that leaves you confused and wanting more, which sounds contradictory, but that’s how the experience feels. The Robot Restaurant is not really a restaurant. It’s a combination of singing, performance and LED lightning. One moment, you might see a griffin shooting sparks, and the next moment, a zebra comes out onstage riding the back of a horse. Or a woman comes out on stage riding a spider that shoots a web while another woman wearing a cape fashioned after an American flag rides a mechanical horse. At one point, there was a loose story about a battle between robots on one side of the room, and various mythological characters of the sea and sky on the other. The whole experience was like a surreal Power Rangers episode in a subterranean stage.
I also played in a massive arcade. The first floor of the place was all claw machines. Other floors were dedicated to different video games. I won a lucky cat.
For many westerners those colorful experiences define Tokyo, and the high energy certainly makes an impression. But I also observed a side of Tokyo that seemed steeped in tradition. For instance, on my first day, I went to a sumo wrestling match. The sport of sumo is a ceremony that evolved into a sport. But sumo still retains ceremonial steps, such as the players squatting to squash out evil spirits, throwing salt into the ring to purify it, and a clapping their arms to show their opponent that they are unarmed.
I noticed, as well, a culture based on honor and service. People take pride in the work they do whether they are a hotel manager or a bellhop. There is a lot of respect for others, with a lot of bowing and ceremony.
The society is service oriented. Tips are considered offensive; the price you see for something is expected to be the only price you pay. The people serving you expect nothing more. I have to say, not tipping is something I had to get used to. You go to any American city, if someone holds the door open for you at a hotel, they expect a tip. In Japan, when someone shows you to your hotel room and helps you get settled in, they do it because they want you to feel at home, not because they are trying for a little something extra.
There is also a distinct rhythm to Tokyo. One night I noticed a calming, soothing pattern to the street traffic. Every single car going in the left (slow) lane was going the exact same speed, and the cars were the same distance apart. And the same thing was going on in the fast lanes. Every car kept an equal space from each other. No one was dodging in and out of lanes. The scene, which I witnessed from a restaurant window, was almost hypnotic.
How was the show?
The event went really well and the client was very happy. Executing in a non-English speaking environment was the twist for this show, and one we’ve had experience managing many times before at other shows. Doing so required even more forethought than usual. I always manage several steps ahead when I’m working a show, examining the schedule and flow of content ahead of time. When you work with a crew composed of many non-English speaking professionals, you have to manage even more moves ahead because it takes longer to react to something unexpected when you need to communicate a correction through a translator.
Managing any event well requires strong planning. But no matter how effective you are as a planner, to prepare for an overseas event you need to budget more preparation time to account for slower communications owing to time zone differences.
What other take-aways would you like to share?
Patience and respect are crucial. Just because someone does not speak your language, it doesn’t mean they are bad at their jobs. It means you simply have to find another way to communicate your point. I found it very important to respect the people I was working with and not confuse the language barrier for a sign of one’s aptitude.
It’s also important to do research to understand the culture of the place you are visiting. I was glad, for example, that I had read about tipping customs in Tokyo before I went. Researching the place you are visiting goes hand in hand with respecting the people. You are a guest in their country, and it is important to be a gracious guest.
Image source: Jonathan Williams
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