Learning a new culture: listen to the words of children

Back in Tokyo!

After nearly two months back in the United States to visit family and friends, and for work purposes such as coaching and learning, I arrived back in Japan two weeks ago. After a week of jet-lagged children (mine are 1.5 years old and 4.5 years old), we are back in the swing of Tokyo life and I’ve jumped back into professional connecting and learning experiences.

Advice about learning cultural values

I had dinner last week with a retired Japanese businessman who worked for a large Japanese company for his entire career – eight years of which were spent in the United States. We talked about many things – from Lean in Japanese healthcare, to Tokyo restaurants, to business leadership.

One story he shared really resonated with me about understanding culture.

Listen to the words of children

Japanese school girlsWhen he moved to the United States, his children were in early grade school. The children didn’t know much English before moving the the U.S., but they picked up the language quickly. He said that he paid attention to what words his kids used frequently to gain insights into cultural values in the U.S.

Two sayings that stuck out for him were: “fair” (as in “that’s not fair”) and “copycat”. This gave him clues about how to succeed as a business leader in the U.S.

Don’t copy

He learned that Americans value innovation. He was determined not to be a copycat in his actions or leadership.

Be fair

And he learned that Americans value equity and fairness. He vowed to always be fair to listening and then communicating his actions and decisions.

What words would children learn in Japan?

Japanese nursery children out for a walk. This is a frequent sight in Tokyo.
Japanese nursery children out for a walk. This is a frequent sight in Tokyo.

I thought that this approach to learning cultural values an insightful one.

Although my children are in international preschools where the main language is English, I am interested in talking with my friends whose children are in Japanese school about what words their children have picked up from the Japanese playground to gain insights into Japanese culture.

Stay tuned for a follow up post when I learn more.

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Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 128 Articles

Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.

  • Michael Bremer

    A very perceptive approach by your Japanese businessman contact. Very insightful! Most people miss such subtle signals…in my 20’s I most certainly would have missed them. An interesting way to quickly pick up on what’s important in a new culture. I look forward to learning your insights based on the conversations of Japanese children.

  • Karl M Hoover

    Katie, Thanks for the reflection – through the eyes of children! They have the wonderful advantage of uncluttered perspectives. – Karl

  • Thanks for the comments Karl and Michael. I too was struck by how insightful these subtle clues from children’s language are. In addition to finding out what Japanese words children learn at school, I am going to bring more intention to listening to the English words my kids are picking up at school (well, at least the 4 year old, as the 1 year old’s words are fairly limited) to understand what cultural norms they are learning.

  • Charles Intrieri

    Hi Katie:

    I wish I could have met you while you were back in the USA. I live in the Central Coast of CA: Paso Robles. I’m sure you have family & dear friends here, I am only an acquaintance.
    I pay it forward and mentor young entrepreneurs at Cal Poly: http://www.slohothouse.com/
    The photo of the children in your post remind me of my trips to Japan for The Schwinn Bicycle Company in Chicago, IL.
    I stayed overnight in a Japanese Supplier’s home. He had a family, and children: what a marvelous experience..
    A Lean implementation is all about cultural transformation. Since Lean is a new way of doing business, people’s habits, ways of working and beliefs have to change.
    It is a paradigm shift. If this change does not occur, Lean will fail, in my opinion. Lean tools are not the answer, per se. the culture enables Lean to be effective.
    I believe this is why Lean is only a façade in many companies: they have the green, yellow and red lights, the “bells and whistles, but no cultural change.
    Great post, Katie.

  • Thanks for the comments Chuck! I always appreciate your insights from your past experiences in Japan and your current work. I’m a big proponent of paying it forward as well and have made a point of mentoring and coaching students and more junior professionals throughout my career. The coaching and mentoring I’ve received (formally and informally) has been invaluable in shaping my experiences. I look forward to meeting one day.

  • Mike Conroy

    Very perceptive on his part! Even in an organization or culture where we’ve spent a lot of time, really listening should provide deeper understanding.

  • Thanks for the comment, Mike! I agree that the art of listening is often lost – particularly when we know a culture deeply. Sometimes the power of an outsider’s perspective is that cultural norms or practices (be they national culture or organizational culture) stick out. I’ve found this to be true about my experiences in Japan too and is part of what I just wrote about in the Lean Post: http://www.lean.org/LeanPost/Posting.cfm?LeanPostId=477

  • David Rasmusson

    Thanks for the post, Katie.
    It reminded me of when, as an expat living in the Netherlands, my 5 year old related at the dinner table that she had learned a new Dutch song. Encouraging her, my wife and I asked her to sing it. With a perfect Dutch accent, yet in English, she sang Happy Birthday To You.
    Children are extremely capable mimickers.

  • Thanks for sharing that story, Dave! I’m continually impressed by how good kids are at mimicking things too – and how perceptive they can be on things we might not even be aware that they are paying attention to.

  • David Rasmusson

    Just interested, Katie: is the Nishikori vs Djokovic Japan Open tennis final the hottest ticket in town?

  • David Rasmusson

    Sorry, it was Nishikori vs Paired in the semifinal. I’ve since learned that, sadly, Nishikori lost.

  • I have been traveling outside of Japan a lot the past few weeks and hadn’t been following the tennis. If I’m here next year, I’ll have to get tickets! I went to the Australian Open when I lived in Australia many years ago and it was a great event!

  • Yesterday at the park I thought of your comment about kids being great mimics! On the play structure with a play/toy microphone, my 4.5 year old son said “Eigo ga wakarimasu ka?” several times perfectly! I asked him how he knew that phrase and he said that it is something I say on the phone a lot. This is true as it means “Do you understand English?”. I can muddle through dinner reservations but it is easier when the person on the other line speaks English! He also can recite our address perfectly in Japanese as he hears us say it to taxi drivers often. At least I know that if he gets lost he’ll be able to have an adult help get him home. And in Japan I am not worried about his safety!

  • David Rasmusson

    It’s a wonder, and it’s adorable.

  • Michael Thuresson

    Just discovered your very interesting blog Katie. I’m an American, and my 5-year old is in a regular Japanese kindergarten here in Tokyo. Two hugely important words that are repeatedly on his mind I noticed – Its more like Japanese public school creed really – are “motainai” (“wasteful”) and “katazuke” (“cleaning up”). It’s very instructive to the cultural importance here of being ecological and efficient, and obedient. I also notice those kindergarten lessons paying dividends later in life for my Japanese colleagues at my VERY traditional Japanese company, as I wrote about in my blog: http://www.themannermode.com/immaculate-receptions/

  • Hi Michael – Thanks for your comments and for reading my blog! How did you find it?

    I appreciate you sharing the words that your kindergartener is picking up. “Wasteful” (or making sure not to be wasteful) and “cleaning up” (and orderliness) are two traits that I too observe in daily life here. I also see these as two cultural traits that are enablers to “Lean”/Toyota management practices.

    Thanks for also sharing your blog about your experiences working in a Japanese company! I don’t encounter quite as much pressure to conform to “katazuke” on a daily basis, but even in daily life the social norms are there.

    Did you see the recent video of kids being instructed in cleaning up as part of daily school life: https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/637822146359296/

    I see this come alive even into retirement age in Japan. At our local park, every morning seniors are donning special volunteer garb and are found sweeping and raking the pathways.

    Tokyo is the cleanest city I’ve ever been to!

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