A gift from Imabari

An encounter with an old woman in a small Japanese port city taught me a lesson about giving and receiving gifts, and what the word contribution can mean.

I was with my good friend Greg on our annual trip to some of the most wondrous parts of Japan. After several stops in Shikoku, we were heading to the Seto Islands and needed to catch a ferry in Imabari, a place famous for towels of all things. Imabari no taoru would be appreciated by our relatives in Kobe and Tokyo, and we bought some in a small store dedicated to this source of local pride.

Greg purchased our tickets. He’s fluent in Japanese and can navigate the complex timetables and transportation options whereas I’m limited to basic transactions like ordering food. We waited by ourselves near the water.

After a few minutes, an old woman with a cane and several bags approached us and started talking. She was at least 80 years old, perhaps much older. I couldn’t understand her and my first instinct was that she wanted something from us. But Greg explained she was just making small talk. Then she fished inside her purse, pulled out a small wooden carving, and handed it Greg.

The Gift from Imabari

She told us that her husband carved them and she liked to hand them out to people who would be traveling or living abroad. Her husband liked knowing that his small creations were spreading around the world, and she was pleased that I was from New York. So she looked for another one to give to me. After a fruitless search in her large bag (“I always carry more with me,” she said, disappointedly) she unstrapped the one from her mobile phone and handed it to me.

We thanked her but felt compelled to offer her something in return. Greg asked if we could pay for them. She looked at him soberly, “If you give me money, I can’t let you have them.”

We quickly recovered from our blunder and talked a bit more about the carvings before the ferry came. The boat filled with schoolchildren as we made stops at several islands, and I marveled at the gorgeous scenery and at a life where people commuted this way.

A different way to commute

Our destination was a small island called Yuge. As we exited the boat, I saw the old woman, by herself, carrying her bags and her cane and heading up the steep ramp. I ran up to her calling “Sumimasen!”  (“Excuse me!”), and carried her things. At the top of the ramp, we smiled, bowed towards each other, and said goodbye.

Now, I carry that little wooden carving wherever I go. It reminds me of the gifts available to me every day, and that I can experience connections and other beautiful moments if only I’m open to accepting them.

Yuge

I like to think we gave her a different kind of gift, our own small contribution. I imagine her coming home, relating a story about the two foreigners she met at the Imabari ferry, and telling her husband that two of his creations would be going on a journey soon.

A weekend with a 7000 year old tree

The Jomon Sugi

The Jomon Sugi

The Jomon Sugi, “cedar tree from the Jomon era”, is on Yakushima, a small island in Japan. When it first started to grow, human beings were still in the Stone Age.

Pictures of the forests seemed other-worldly to me. So, thanks to gracious, meticulous planning by my wife, I set off to meet a friend and hike through a magical place.

In addition to observing natural beauty, I experienced elements of a culture I’d like to see inside more corporations.

Respect for time

Before dawn & our first hike

Before dawn & our first hike

My trip from Kobe to the Yakushima mountains and back involved trains, buses, vans, planes, and a ferry. Every single one was on time – to the minute. And it wasn’t just the vehicles, but the people in them. Though we had to leave our hotel at 4am, our guide was on time as were the 2 other hikers in our tour as was every one of the 50+ people who had reserved a seat on our bus.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but things are less rushed, less stressful, when everyone and everything is on time. And when you don’t waste your time waiting for things, both your mood and and your productivity improves.

Respect for the environment

Mindful of where you've been & where you're going

Being mindful of where you are

After our first meal, I asked our guide “Where do we put our garbage?” “Motte kite,” he said. “You bring it with you.” The idea was to leave the mountain as untouched as possible. Extra miso soup? Drink it or carry it. Need to use a toilet after you’ve past the last one? Bag it and bring it back down. It’s why the small island is so pristine despite  300,000 visitors a year.

We showed respect for the inside environment, too, by removing our shoes and putting on slippers before we entered the hotel or onsen. Even before using a toilet, we’d remove our slippers and put on yet another pair of shoes.

Besides the hygienic benefits, these simple actions made you more mindful about where you are and where you’ve been.

Respect for people

Polite, respectful..."Konnichiwa!"

Polite, respectful…”Konnichiwa!”

Throughout the trip, I noticed how everyone was so polite and helpful, mindful of how their actions might affect others. We never once worried about our things being safe. There was never jostling in line to get a ticket or to take a photo at a particularly beautiful spot.

One sign of respect I found particularly charming was how hikers acknowledged each other up and down the trail. I must have heard and said “Konnichiwa” a thousand times. A smile, eye contact, and that simple verbal handshake contributed to an atmosphere of good will, reminding us of our shared purpose and shared humanity.

Leading with generosity

Our guide for our 2nd hike

Our guide for our 2nd hike

There isn’t any tipping in Japan. We paid the listed price for the tour and didn’t have to think about money for the rest of the trip.

So when a guide offered us snacks (like the surprisingly delicious salted seaweed “shio kombu”) I was able to accept them more readily. When they provided advice on things to wear or other trekking options, I wasn’t wondering “Is she trying to sell me something?” Since extra money wasn’t a motivation, I was able to appreciate and respect their contributions all the more.

Planning for good fortune

Deer in a clearing

Deer in a clearing

After about 7 hours of walking, our guide asked us, “Are you up for taking a different route that’s a bit longer and more difficult?” The honest answer was “No.” But each of us was a bit too embarrassed to say so, and we agreed to take the other path.

Off the main trail, there were no other hikers and the forest seemed even more mysterious. After a steep climb, we entered a small clearing where some deer were grazing. Everything was so quiet. We sat with them for fifteen minutes or so, hushed, simply enjoying being present, being happy.

It wasn’t just luck, of course. The guide knew the spot well. And everyone in our group was in good shape and, aside from me, well-equipped. (Thankfully, my friend made up for my unpreparedness.) I noticed how the planning and preparation wasn’t just for efficiency, it was for agility, allowing us to take advantage of opportunities we’d have otherwise missed.

Constancy of purpose

A once-cleared forest is alive again

A once-cleared forest is alive again

The forest is rich in cedar trees, ideal for making shingles. For hundreds of years, logging was the primary economic activity and whole areas were cleared. But in the late 1960s, around the time they re-discovered the Jomon-sugi, they stopped logging and began reforesting and reseeding the mountains.

Now, almost 50 years later, the once-cleared valley in this photo is full of trees. Now, a sizable part of the mountains is a World Heritage Site, and tourism comprises 50% of the economic activity on the island.

Could your corporate culture be like this?

How does everyone seem to share these values? There weren’t posters at the elevator telling you to have respect for time and for people. Instead, those behaviors were embedded and reinforced by how people spoke to each other. By actions large and small like when they showed up on time. By visual cues and shared rituals, like the slippers at your door, reminding you. And by social support, like having parents, teachers, and guides who share their knowledge and traditions.

Now, think about where you work.

Do people meet their commitments, including being on time for meetings? 

What’s the condition of the pantry, restrooms, and other shared spaces?

Do people greet each other and smile in the elevator?

Do you question people’s motivations for even simple gestures?

Does all your planning result in bureaucracy or allow you to be opportunistic?

Is all the work focused on just the next 6 or 12 months?

What struck me over this weekend in Yakushima was how simple and universal the positive cultural elements seemed to be. And how difficult it was to achieve anything nearly so positive inside big firms even when they had more resources.

If you have a corporate culture program at work, are you relying on just words to change things? Or are you doing much, much more to shape behavior in a positive way?

Hope in action: The story of the Makenaizou

After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, many people lost their homes and their livelihoods. Thousands would sit in shelters with nothing to do but wait and hope. Relief agencies, in addition to raising funds, also needed to help people get through each day.

So a local group decided to do something different. They started the “makenaizou” (pronounced MAH-KEN-EYE-ZOH) project, a creative way for people to help themselves while spreading a message of hope around the world.

The “Never Give Up Elephant”

The makenaizou are small handicrafts – little elephants made from ordinary hand towels. (“Makenai zou” means “we’ll never give up!” in Japanese. And since “zou” also means elephant, the towel is known as the “never give up elephant.”)

The idea is simple. People affected by the quake turn something readily available into small mementos and sell them. Each one sells for 400 yen (about $5.20). 100 yen goes to the person who makes the towel and the other 300 yen goes to general relief efforts.

Making the towels gives displaced people something to do.

“This is the first time for me to be tired nicely since the earthquake happened, because we have had no work to do after evacuation.”

“Although we have been suffering from the bad memory of tsunami since Mar. 11, we could forget about it while making Makenai-zou together.”

And the people who buy them get much more than a towel. They get a story. And a physical reminder that the person who made what they were holding was affected by a tragedy – and won’t give up.

Each time an earthquake has struck Japan, the small relief agency got towels and taught people how to make makenaizou. Each time, they gave people something to do while giving them hope that others would know and care about their plight.

Will it make a difference?

It’s easy to dismiss efforts like the makenaizou project. Will 100 yen really make a difference to someone in Fukushima?

It’s easier to do nothing, and hope that someone else comes up with a bigger, grander solution.

Yet, whenever I think that way, I’m reminded of a story I heard as a child:

A man is walking along a beach filled with thousands of stranded starfish when he comes across a young boy who’s picking them up one-by-one and tossing them back into the sea.

“Young boy,” says the man, “there are too many starfish here. Surely you can’t help them all.”

“Maybe,” said the boy, as he smiled and returned another starfish to the water.

“But I just helped this one.”

Hope. And action.

It’s true that you may not be able to help everyone. But you can do more than hope. You can act. You can make a small difference and spread the story. And by doing so you can inspire others to contribute and make a difference.

Whatever your cause, whether it’s changing yourself, changing your firm, or changing the world, remember the “never give up elephant” and don’t give up.

Hope and action are a very powerful combination.