Of cabbage salad and the importance of attention to detail

Friday nights are usually the most educating and illuminating times in Tokyo, for people keen on developing their cultural understanding. After stoically and methodically dispensing off with one’s duties through the whole working week (Japanese are the world’s hardest working with only 33% of employees availing all their allotted paid holidays – Ipsos/Reuters survey) most people put their briefcases down and have a good go at the Izakayas or (m)any such watering holes dotting the landscape in and around work places. Wisdom flows and no premium does justification to the wealth of information or insights one can be privy to, while partaking in such cheerful classrooms.

I was privileged to be part of one such session not so long ago. Over the usual cries of Campai, conversation meandered from the sublime (What is Hair Make? Why do most of the hair salons have that in their boards?) to the mundane (What could Japan do to boost its economy? Does closing Pachinko parlors for few hours/days every week do the trick?). Along the way, as is the wont during bacchanalias, the topic of food cropped up.

For starters, a minor difference of opinion amongst those present regarding the pre-eminence of Tokyo as the world’s gastronomical capital was settled quickly by bringing few facts to the table:

Quantity – Tokyo is home to over 160,000 restaurants
Quality – Most number of Michelin stars awarded. 197 to Tokyo compared to 96 for Paris and 56 for NY

Served next was the choice of places to eat. Given that most of us are salaried persons, Michelin ratings definitely acts as a good filter on deciding which choices we could steer clear of, if only to save the burden of a tidy bill on a tiny pocket. Names of eateries were tossed in and their menus and relative merits were being discussed at length and in juicy details. Shimada-san, sipping on his Shochu silently till then, stepped into the discussion and announced in a deadpan voice “Before you decide, look at the cabbage salad”.

Shorn of bells and whistles, this is what he said – “A place which takes lot of care to choose, chop and serve the salad well is the one which will ensure there is top-notch taste in every dish that it prepares, presents and places in front of you. At places that do not take pride in what is served on the side, quality is a matter of chance. They may get it right few times, but that is not by design.”

That was something to chew on. This same philosophy attention to detail in every facet of work, which otherwise get relegated to the back-burner in the typical 80:20 world, is what sets Japanese goods and services apart. Kaizen may be well known on the manufacturing side, but beyond that in every walk of life and everyday work, presenting things with every chink ironed out is so integral that it takes a while for a person from an alien culture to appreciate the seemingly undue emphasis that countrymen, clients and colleagues place on being prim and proper. Once you start understanding that, you will savor doing business in this part of the world. That, to me, is some food for thought.

(First published in my blog “Jottings from Japan” in http://blog.campaignasia.com/author/arun-vemuri/ in March 2011)

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