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Smile! You're the Example: What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Japanese Business

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Skydiving in Japan and Business

If you haven’t already, please see What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Japanese Business - 1 for some background.

Summer of 1976 was muggy and scorching.  The air was so thick it was stifling just to breathe sitting down.  But if you want membership in an exclusive club in Japan, you’d better be prepared to go through hell first.

It’s no coincidence that Japanese high school students go through what is literally called “examination hell” – a week or more of grueling exams – to get into first-rate universities.  And it’s no coincidence that a Japanese self defense forces jumpmaster would consider skydiving an elite club, gaining membership into which would require demonstration of absolute commitment.

Eventually I was grateful for how his sadistic, boot-camp-style training prepared me be able to walk away from potential disasters unscathed.  But that was later.

During the grueling training, as if the heat and arduous workout weren’t enough, I seemed to be singled out for scathing criticism.

Thus my second lesson Japanese business lesson.

Lesson 2: Learn from copying models and especially what the boss criticizes about them

Already sweating in our jumpsuits, our training days would start with a warm up (not warm enough already, right?) by running a mile.  This was followed by stretches and exercises to warm us up more (?!?). But the bulk of the day was spent jumping off a six foot platform and doing parachute landing falls (PLFs).  

A PLF is designed to minimize the occurrence of broken bones when landing, which was a real hazard during WWII, as well as with the still-primitive gear we had (that was before parachutes went from round to square – in essence working like a “wing” to give lift on landing, so being routinely pounded into the ground is a thing of the past).

The idea was to land with your legs and feet tightly clamped together, like one double-strong appendage, and then roll along your right leg, across your back up to a standing position, dispersing the landing shock in the process. With just six feet to execute the locked-feet landing, you just barely had time to slam your legs together, thus additionally providing you with charming multicolored bruises on the inside of your knees from doing 50-100 PLFs a day.

Are you ready to quit yet? Yeah, any sane person would be. All I can say is I had my mind set on it.

So there I was, determined, dedicated, working really hard, the only foreigner ever to take the course, the only female in the group (did I mention I was not quite 5’ tall and not quite 100 pounds) working my tail off as much as anyone else, learning new Japanese words on the fly (like parachute apex), feeling I was doing ok – not perfect, but not that bad.

Nevertheless, over and over the jumpmaster would scream at me, marking my footprints on the mat with his chalk and yelling “There’s that much space between your feet!” while holding his thumb and index finger about an inch apart.  “Do it again!” and the line of a dozen guys would make way for me to ascend the stairs over and over.

I’d climb the stairs drenched in sweat (ok ladies, glowing intensely), and slam my knees and feet together as I jumped again.  And again.  And again.   Always humble, apologetic, and compliant like a good Japanese student should be, I couldn’t understand why he had it in for me.

This is a scenario we hear, not infrequently, from non-Japanese participants in our cross-cultural programs.  Some have nice, mentoring Japanese bosses, some have a boss that screams at everyone, but sometimes, someone will have a boss who singles out one person for repeated public humiliation time after time until the person leaves or grows to understand the purpose.

I, however, was still in the dark.

At the end of the day, we students would seek out the traditional Japanese antidote to hard work – beers and laughter.  After several days of this we were pretty good pals, so when the subject of the jumpmaster came up, I said, “What I don’t get is why he always picks on me.”

Now this brought really raucous laughter.  “You don’t know?” giggled Sato-san, the most jovial of the group. “At the end of the day he rates everyone and you’re the only one going through with top scores.  We’re all almost failing,” he chortled.

Now I was really confused.

Seeing my bewilderment, Kobayashi-san explained, “You’re the model. We’re all watching you.  What good would it do to criticize us?  No one would learn anything from that.  We can all see what others are doing wrong. Because you look almost perfect, he’s trying to inspire real perfection in all of us.”

“And besides,” chimed in Yamaguchi-san, “he thinks you have potential so he’s trying to bring out the best in you.”

I was dumbfounded. Not only would it never occur to me to see myself as the “model,” I had also never heard an encouraging word. I was both humiliated and embarred. “But why does he scream at me?” I asked meekly.

“Well,” replied Sato-san with a smile, “in order not to divide up the group. The group wouldn’t think it was fair for one person to be talented and get compliments too! That would probably make others resent you. And resent the jumpmaster. And then we might perform worse just out of spite.”

Another Japanese logicism that had escaped me.

So if you find yourself being singled out for public humiliation, before you assume your boss is just a jerk (although he may be), take stock of all the dynamics first. If you’re not sure your output is what he expects, ask for examples. A Japanese analysis, for example, is very comprehensive including even mildly influencing factors.

 If, on the other hand, you’re doing your job well according to his examples, and supporting others, chances are this is an “I want you to be all that you can be” type of tough love and an example for the others.

It may be the strangest compliment you’ve ever received, but if you understand that there’s a good probability is a compliment, you can take a deep breath. Be humble, but instead of being humiliated you can be proud you qualified to be the model (or the sacrificial lamb).  Either way, keep knocking yourself out – it builds character and slowly, but probably surely, it will pay off as you rise in the company.

Taking your business lessons from different activities in a culture, make memorable stories. What are some of yours?

By Diana K. Rowland


Please also see Part 3: What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Japanese Business: It's the Ritual Stupid!

and Part 1: What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Japanese Business: Frontload to Offset Risk

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