More is less – Over communicating in Japan


The writing is on the wall. On the floor. On the pillar. Hanging overhead. And then there were arrows to point the way. Long (165 meters) and broad (1 foot). Color-coded. 7 pointers within 10 feet of each other. All directing me to Mita line platform.

Signage at Jimbocho Station
Signage at Jimbocho Station
None barring me bothered to look at these signs. They didn’t have to as it is the only corridor that leads to the platform.

Later in the evening when I met Shimada-san, that venerable veteran of bar banter; I mentioned what I saw in passing.

“Happy hours make me sick and sad”, he said, drawing deep from the chilled draught placed in front of him. Sometimes, when sober, he is tangential.

I knitted my brow and looked at him enquiringly while wiping the froth off my upper lip. “Sick I understand; by overreaching ourselves during the short and merry window the happy hours offer us. But, sad!?”

“You miss my point. Count the number of Happy Hour mentions in this establishment” said Shimada-san.

My eyes swept the establishment, all 10X10 of it. “Six” I said. “Nine”, he shot back. “You left the two placed at the entrance and the one in the restroom”. “And I will tell you why I am unhappy”, he continued in the same breath.

“I don’t need to be told 9 times when the happy hours are. More importantly I don’t want to be reminded that they are going to end. It is not only insulting to my intelligence but also being insensitive to my feelings.”

“Mmm.. you have got a point there”, I conceded.

A typical crossing with pedestrian and cyclist stop signs
A typical crossing with pedestrian and cyclist stop signs
“Ofcourse I do! And it is not just the happy hours that I am miffed with. Every waking hour of my existence, I am bombarded with such inanity across every walk of life. Speaking of walk, see this”. He thrust his smart phone in my face and showed a snap. “Every 20 meters you have a crossing, whether on the main road or the by-lanes. And at every crossing you have a stop sign for the pedestrian and the cyclist; and as many as there are the paths branching out from there. There are a zillion announcements at sub-way stations, in trains, in buses, on where to sit, when to get up, which side to get off, what to watch out for…” He paused to take a big swig.

“May be they are trying to be helpful? Or considerate about those that cannot help themselves and need?” I proffered an explanation.

““I thought about it many times, including the platform signs you mentioned; but couldn’t fathom what the reasons are. At best it is what you said; but I think they are plain saving their…skin. Sort of “we told you so many times” in case something untoward happens. This way the responsibility is not theirs anymore”, Shimada-san sputtered. “Still, it is not the government/quasi-government/utility companies that I am most shaken by. It is when I see ads that start resembling a tin of sardines split wide open or a webpage that looks like a much stirred colony of ants”

No-smoking floor stickers – 1 each for people walking in opp. direction
No-smoking floor stickers – 1 each for people walking in opp. direction
Raising the fourth pint to his quivering lips, with a tinge of sadness he added “Japan is known for high context culture where amongst other things the communication is seen as an art form – a way of engaging someone and where the message is indirect (as opposed to that of a low context – where the message is direct & things are spelt out exactly the way they should be followed)” And it is sad to see, most communication experts ignoring that aspect and continuing with their peripheral observations with little or no empirical evidence that shows one needs to be spoon-fed.”

The happy hours are nearing an end, and the conversation has taken a slightly somber note. “This is serious”, I interjected, knowing not what else to say in the face of such impenetrable verbiage.

“”Japanese want more information compared to other countries” they say” continued Shimada-san, as if speaking to himself. “And add:

* people will not take the next step until everything is clarified

* they lack confidence and need clear instructions before they can act”

“I don’t think so, and I can’t say what else either. But my gut-feel is that the over abundant communication hits a blind spot amongst a good many who know what they need to do and carry on with not even a fleeting glance. And a few others, like me, notice such over-abundance and feel annoyed, as I see it as an affront to my intelligence. Not good

Those two words sounded more ominous than the bell that rang, heralding the end of happy hours.

(First published in my blog “Jottings from Japan” in on 25th June 2011)


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