Category Archives: Adaptation


A walk through my old neighborhood in the area around Ebisu revealed:

The bakery and cafe that I used to go to at least once a week was no longer the same place – it was renovated. It is still a bakery, but has too much furniture, and the inside has become darker. What used to be seating space with floor-to-ceiling windows has become a serving counter, with reduced seating, and doesn’t feel as open.

The curry place that I used to go to is no longer in business. It was run by an art dealer who had books and parts of his wares on display. Even the door is a wooden door from Morocco.

It was a weekday afternoon. Office hours, but there were still a lot of people on the street. I remembered what my roommate from Australia said at the hostel – there are so many people just walking around, alone. They do not look like they are on the way someplace. They do not look like they are buying anything. They are just walking around, and they are not smiling. They don’t look happy.

“Go to the country-side.” I told him. “Tokyo is its own thing. The countryside is different.”

Sunset in Ebisu garden place, I stood on the second-floor terrace looking west to the sun, bright orange against a cloudless sky. I became aware of someone standing behind me. It was a man of about 60 in an Ebisu garden place uniform. he was sweeping, but had stopeed to look at the sunset, too. In a sea of buildings wrought by man, the sun is a reminder of the vastness of space and time.

I went to the top of the Ebisu Garden Place Tower, and found that the chairs that were on the 38th floor, where one could sit, read, or take a nap, are gone. One less place to take repose. But, I had my view of the city to the west, and of the sunset.


Feeling the Traffic

A long-time Japanese expatriate friend of mine once told me, when I first moved to Taiwan “the traffic culture is not like in Japan. You have to stay aware of your surroundings, otherwise you might get hit. But, after you get used to it, it’s kind of fun.”

I understand now. I started commuting by bicycle a few months ago. I live a 20-minute bike ride away from the office, and I have made my bike commutes more frequent.

When I first got to Taiwan, it seemed to me very dangerous. I saw people almost getting hit, and almost got hit myself.

I can attribute to both parties almost involved not paying attention, and the latter to my lack of understanding of the driving culture in Taiwan. But now, when I bike to work, I am both paying attention and also have a grasp of driving culture.

Gradually getting used to the environment and what to pay attention to, I no longer had any issues.

When riding in a taxi with a visitor from the States, he said to me “it’s scary how the scooters weave in and out of traffic suddenly.” I knew then than I was adapting, because it no longer seemed to me that they were so sudden. I could anticipate what they were trying to to, and their movements no longer seemed sudden, but seemed to flow.

Now, I flow. I know that the motorcyclists can’t hear me on my bicycle, so I yell if they get too close. I know that cars do not expect me to be riding so fast, so I am cautious when cars are about to turn in. Before I change my line, I look to see if there is someone approaching from behind, and often this action is enough to signal my intent, and the traffic opens for me. I use hand signals to point where I want to go, and traffic opens for me. I can accelerate out of a light faster than the motorcycles for a couple dozen meters, so that by the time the motorcyclists try to pass me, we are already going 20kph.

I avoid stupid stuff like competing for the inside line against a car that is about to make a right turn, or trying to take a curbside line against a bus that is ahead of me about to make a stop, though I often see motorcyclists taking these risks. In dense traffic, I can move faster than cars. In gridlocked traffic, I can slip into spaced that the motorcycles can’t. In Japan, they would call this 車の間を縫って行く, which is “sewing a line through traffic”

The road is so crowded, but there is plenty of space to move, just like fabric is solid, but there is plenty of room for the needle to pass through.

And sometimes, if I haven’t ridden my bike to the office, I’ll rent one of the bright yellow-orange uBikes that are maintained by the city, and take a leisurely ride home. The traffic expects be to be slow, so they give me wide berth when passing. I used to hate the traffic, but I’ve discovered a certain set of rules that make sense.

Road rage is so rare – I’ve only seen a man get out of his car once, and it was to say something, and he got back in. Somehow, people are generally interacting with each other as people even on the road, and generally driving with awareness.

I saw a man cross the street today, and a car slowed to make a right turn where he was crossing. Pedestrians don’t necessarily have right of way in this case. If the two had continued, they would have collided. The pedestrian stepped back. The car stopped. The pedestrian bent a little to look into the car, made eye contact with the driver, nodded thanks, and crossed the street.

Today, I was going against the traffic on a one-way road. A cyclist unlocked his bike, and was about to turn into traffic. I slowed in case he didn’t see me. Before turning into traffic, through, he did look my way and see me. He yielded. “Thanks!” I said. “But careful – your kickstand is down.” He looked. “Oh, thanks!” he said.

But, accidents are frequent. I saw a burned-out taxi at the intersection of Tunhua and Keelung not two months ago, and a week ago I saw a motorcyclist sitting on the curbside at the exit of a parking lot in Sikkho Technology Park with an ambulance close by. There is an ambiguous traffic light arrangement there, and I have seen a couple near-misses there. Traffic lights are for reference. They might be ignored or misinterpreted. One still has to be careful.

In Japan, the intersection would have been designed better, or someone would have reported the danger to the city, and it may have been fixed. But there are limits to making things safe. It is possible to make things too safe, such that people lose awareness of their surroundings and become more prone to certain accidents. For example, the sidewalks in Taiwan are uneven, but people adapt to walking on them. The sidewalks in Japan are very even, but people adapt to them, too. The wife of a friend (who is in her mid-eighties) was walking recently where she could not see well, there was an unevenness of pavement that in Taiwan people wouldn’t even notice. She mis-stepped and sprained her ankle.

The author 内田樹 in 修業論 describes the necessity for cleanliness in the dojo as a means for increasing one’s awareness of thing. There being reduced of stimulus in the environment, one can attuned more to fine variations in the stimulus that is present during practice. One can increase ones sensitivity. But, in a way, sensitivity is also fragility. By reducing variation in the environment, the people living in that environment become more prone to injury when there is a change in the environment. Whereas Taiwan, because of high variability, trains people to take uneven pavement into stride, both figuratively and actually so.











Facial Tone

I must be succeeding at maintaining facial tone, as yesterday, stepping out of an elevator together, my colleague A told me “You must be having fun.”

“What?” I asked.

“You must be having fun, because everytime I see you, you’re smiling.”

“It’s something I work at.” I smiled.

Colleague K asked me “Do you have any accounts in Asia Pacific that are designing with our PCIe switches?”

I think. “Yes. In New Zealand, we have a customer working on a compute server.”

“New Zealand.” He pauses.

“Does this call for a business trip?” I asked.

For office humor, this is funny, and there are laughs around the conference table.

Customer meeting with an ODM today, who said. “The customer is asking for a Windows utility for what I think you would agree is very basic functionality. Don’t you think it’s a big problem if your company were unable to provide this basic functionality?” He let his words sink in. There is an awkward pause.

I smiled. “It ain’t like we don’t provide this functionality. We provide the source code! Only that it’s optimized for Linux, and the customer wants a Windows port.”

For customer humor, this is funny, and there are laughs around the conference table.





























With a co-worker, he was explaining theory. I wanted to know about application. I had been trying to ask a question, initiating with body language and verbal grunts. “Does that mean…” “um…” “hey…” “well…” with increased frustration, until I said to him firmly. “I have a question – do you want to hear it?” And he said “No.”

“You don’t want to hear my question.” I said, stating it more than asking it.
“No.” He shook his head.
And this was a bit of a relief. He had helped me understand the theory, which I had not done on my own, but he was not interested in understanding its application. I’ll take what I can get, I reasoned, and find the rest somewhere else.

I recalled Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Huit Clos” in which the characters involved make each other miserable because of their personalities. Compromise is not possible because they cannot set their self-image aside. I recalled James Nalepka’s “Capsized,” where three crew a boat that capsizes in a storm, and they drift, surviving on fishing, gathering rain, and food stores until they hit land again. Their personalities bump against each other because there is no way off of the boat, but they are united by their common goal.

The latter is how I like to think of my company – united by a common goal.

The boat has been weathering a storm recently, but letting go of the urge to protect myself has enabled me to see more clearly.

Two weeks ago we were in a meeting. My boss called in. We hit a rough spot. My boss panicked, jumped in, and took control of the meeting. A few days later, my boss told me that I was being taken off the customer. I was upset, but agreed. We made plans to transfer the customer to my boss, and I offered to remain as backup help, internally working with our engineers to get answers. I viewed it as nothing personal – just a judgement of my ability to culturally handle this customer. The next day I was reinstated to the account. I now have a co-worker (not my boss) playing the role of cultural intermediary. He’s a top gun, switching in and out of dialect and talking the exact style with the exact phrasing that the customer wants to hear. We can say exactly the same thing in terms of content and get two very different reactions from the customer. They love him, which is fine. All I have to do is get him what he needs to answer questions.

I have been working overtime to get those answers from our engineers. They have been working overtime, too. Everyone is under pressure due to the product launch, but I handle it by being unattached to the outcome at this customer. Maybe we win, maybe we lose – I’ll give it my best shot.

That’s what Japanese warriors would tell themselves. They would train for life and death encounters, try to avoid conflict if at all possible, until for reasons beyond their control – shifts in balance of power of the land that led to war – they had to face off with an opponent who had also trained similarly. They would train to face this with equanimity. Maybe he’d lose, maybe he’d live, but he’d give it his best shot.

Giving it one’s best shot is all that matters. Accepting where you are. For example, not being ashamed of your current capabilities. I have a friend getting married in Japan to an accomplished martial artist. She practices, too, but has not yet attained a high level of training. To celebrate the occasion, their teachers will be present. With teachers and students all counted, there will be some seven black-belt Aikido practitioners, four of which are 4th-degree black belt or higher, and there will be a martial arts demonstration as part of the festivities. We were talking about this, and finding this really funny – “It will be less a reception than… ‘Sensei presents – team Aikido!'” My friend has asked me to be the “uke” – the “follow” – so to speak for her fiancé as he performs. Why not you? I asked. She’s afraid that she’s not good enough – and wants someone more skilled and better matched to her fiancé’s level. I told her that that was the wrong reason – that we are the sum of our training, and that for the amount she has trained, she has nothing to be ashamed of. I would do it to help her celebrate, but not because I have trained more. This leads me to another thought – why we do something does not have to be for the same reason that someone believes we should do it. The action is the same, but the narrative that we assign to it can be different. Maybe I’ll write more on this later.

Accepting where you are includes being in the present moment. Fear or striving both bring us out of the present moment. Anything that takes us out of the now leads to poorer results. Dancing makes this very clear. If I am dancing, and trying to play it safe, it’s boring. If I am trying to impress, I’m forcing it, which leads to loss of harmony.

The ego is the source of the should-bes and might-have-beens that cloud our judgement and separate us from the reality at hand. Strength is not in the rocks that can stand against the river. It is the river itself – water that flows, finding the easiest way moment by moment, and in time, wearing down the rock. This is a prayer that we might be less like the rock, and more like the river. At moments of conflict, or more frequently, let us let go of the ego which projects us where we think we should be. Let us see ourselves and others where we are. Only then, relaxed and with power, can we give it our best shot.

Kreativverlust der Identität

Ich lese noch einmal wieder die Jason Bourne Spionageromane, von Robert Ludlum, in denen ein Mann sein Gedächtnis verloren hat, der trotzdem hat alle die Geschicklichkeite eines Geheimagents. Ein zentrales Thema ist die Natur seiner Identität. Es gibt eine Identität als Attentäter, die er geschaffen hat, und auch als Geheimagent, die er war, der Schöpfer der Identität des Attentäters. Die zwei Identitäten entstehen sich allmälich, während er seine Vergangenheit untersucht, und überleben versucht, angesichts derer die ihn tod wollen. Bei der Amnesia und seelische Belastung gibt es kaum eine Linie zwischen den ursprünglichen und erstellten Egos. Um zu überleben, mußte er die Identität, die er geschaffen hatte, übernehmen, und sonst noch neue Rolle spielen.

Ich weiß schon daß es Bereiche gibt, in deren ich kämpfe, weil meine Gewohnheiten und Reaktionen sind im Gegensatz zu der Kultur der Taiwan. Diese Bereiche umfassen Strategien, die ich in meinem vorherigen Leben in Japan und den Vereinigten Staaten gerlernt habe. Viele Strategien laufen aber nicht hier. In Taiwan unterscheiden sich die Arbeitsweise. Zum Beispiel denkt man nicht besser, weniger, sicherer, klassischer, sondern billiger, mehr, schneller, neuer. Was früher für mich um etwas zu erreichen genug war, ist hier nicht mehr genug. Was früher jedoch notwendig war, ist hier nicht mehr notwendig. Hier zählt man Aufmerksamkeit auf andere Dinge. Ich muß nicht nur einfach eine neue Arbeitsweise lernen, sondern eine ganz neue Reihe von emotionalen Reaktionen verinnerlichen, neue Instinkte entwickeln. Ich muß eine neue Indentität übernehmen.

Deshalb habe ich wohl von unterbewußte Wissen vorige Woche die Bourne Spionageromane wieder aufgenommen. Beim Kreativverlust und Lernen wird die Linie zwischen dem Selbst und dem erstellten Ego verwischen, sogar verschwinden. Es wird eine Zeit kommen, wenn der Selbst ist weg, aber der neue
Ego noch nicht klar. Darauf habe ich angst. Darüber hat Jason Bourne auch abgemüht.

Ich muß ein Chamäleon sein: er wird alles und ist immer noch selbst.

Hearing the Music

Once, I was dancing salsa with someone who suddenly stopped mid-song.

“Are you dancing with the rock-step on one or on two?”
“On one, generally, but I’m not too concerned about it.”
We danced for a little more, and then she stopped again, and said “One.”

Generally, I dance with the rock-step on one because that’s where the clave falls, and not stepping there feels odd. However, certain moves or certain songs or phrases have a strong syncopation, making stepping on two feel more natural. On-one and on-two are merely teaching constructs that don’t exist in real life. In real life, you follow the music and do what feels natural. The pedagogical construct is not the reality.

One of my friends introduced me to a Kizomba teacher whom I have fallen in love with (as a student) and unprompted from me she mentioned this very aspect of some schools – that some schools teach people to count in their heads, thinking about the form, but not really hearing the music.

One reason I love Aikido is that the objective reality of right or wrong can be imposed on someone when they are resisting flow. When they are not hearing the music, so to speak. Once at Honbu Dojo I was feeling contrary, and kept resisting my partner’s technique.
“You’re resisting.” he laughed.
“Do you want me not to resist?” I asked.
“No, it’s okay. It’ll just be more painful for you! Hahaha!”
What followed was one of the most satisfying practices I have ever had. His technique was either so clean that resistance was futile, or so adaptable that he utilized my resistance.

In Aikido people of all levels can practice together because we practice forms, but yet we can also achieve flow and response, much like dance.

Another time, I went to a new dojo and practiced with another black belt. The technique was nikyo from two-handed grab. My entry was imperfect, and left my partner an opening. My partner resisted, and although I could muscle through, I decided not to. Then, my partner made a smug “hah!” sound. If she had been a white belt, I would have left it at that.

But she was a black belt.

I reversed the force that I had been applying to do the nikyo lock, blended into the direction of her resistance, executing a kotaegaeshi throw. This happened in an instant. No sooner had she laughed than she was falling, and no sooner had she made a face of terror mid-fall that and she was on her back looking up. Her face turned from terror, to confusion, to anger.

We went again. I was still trying to see just how little force I can use. Because my entry was still imperfect, she was again able to resist the nikyo. I blended into kotegaeshi again, but she anticipated this. I reverted back into a nikyo lock and pinned her to the ground. All of this without force, but with speed. Faster, in fact, because I was using her own resistance.

We went again. Same nikyo, to kotegaeshi, to nikyo as before, only this time she expected the return to nikyo, and resisted. I blended with her force again and transitioned to kokyunage. Again, she was on her back.

We stood and faced each other again. She blinked in rapid succession. Her eyes are wild, looking at the ground, at my left shoulder, my right shoulder, at the ground, my hands. I took a step back and sat seiza to wait for her to calm down.

It’s not that I don’t like advice. It’s that I hate nitpicking about forms. Nitpicking that stops action and flow. The pedagogical construct is not the reality.

Once I took Japanese in college, and skipped two semesters after studying intensely over spring break. My Japanese teacher told me I should be more humble and that I was still making mistakes. She advised against skipping two semesters. I decided to skip anyway, then skipped another four semesters when I got back to school after half a year of study in Japan, then got a sales job in Japan. My range of expression and mobility would have been severely constrained if I had preoccupied with grammar mistakes.

What matters is whether you’re stepping or dancing.

The Third Arrow

The Japanese government messed up. Low interest rates and high currency were not a problem. Low interest rates are a consequence of high competition for capital. After all the low-hanging fruit has been picked, what’s left is the opportunities that offer lower rates of return. Low rates are a natural occurrence in a developed market. Even negative rates are not that unusual – the Swiss just issued their first negative-rate government bond. The Euro is so volatile that people are willing to pay the Swiss to keep their money safe. The same status had formerly been accorded to the yen as a reserve currency. Higher inflation rates in Asian economies lead people and governments to be willing to pay in the form of negative interest rates to have their money safe.

Reducing the value of the yen by 50% puts money on the balance sheets of exporters and big companies that already have high overseas sales, but hinders companies from making overseas investments. The economy previously grew through exporting, and the Japanese government is trying to promote growth by promoting exports. This is an inefficient way of promoting export, at that, since all production inputs that must be imported end up costing more. Yet, by simply doing nothing, the high yen would have encouraged foreign investment, as foreign assets looked cheap and banks and companies sought a higher rate of return.

Companies in Japan were dependent on domestic consumption, failed to generate enough demand for products overseas, and failed to invest in production capacity overseas. Companies like HGST, Sony, or Toyota that invested in overseas sales and production capacity continued to do well through the period of high yen and low interest rates. Companies like NTT, dependent on a declining domestic market, have not done well. The effect of inflating the currency has been to benefit those companies who were already doing well, while at the same time to discourage foreign investment by making foreign assets more expensive.

Politically, as China is expanding its soft power with its launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Japan is decreasing its ability to lend or invest abroad by devaluing its currency.

With domestic consumption saturated, no amount of domestic investment will create a larger rate of return. Japan has an excess of capital. It is squandering it by devaluing the currency. Stop. The government should not be concerned with trying to grow the domestic economy, which is already saturated. People already throw away expensive items like large screen TVs in order to make room for new ones. How many more TVs can they use? Instead of playing with numbers and destroying capital with QE, the government should be concerned with enabling the profitable employment of capital.

MNCs get higher return on capital by outsourcing production in developing economies and investing in production capacity there. Think Intel, Apple, Toyota. Allowing the yen to remain high would continue to encourage companies to invest overseas.

Domestically, the government could improve the way capital is employed.

  1. It should be made easier to fire people (companies are ever-hesitant to hire people because it’s hard to get rid of them).
  2. Bankruptcy law should be reformed so that entrepreneurs have true limited-liability. Wide experimentation necessarily leads to a few successes and many failures, as Silicon Valley can attest to.
  3. Retirement age should be raised in order to relieve strain on the pension system. It is currently 60.
  4. Labor practices should be reformed so that it is easier to be a parent, including making it easier to take paternity leave and making it easier for women to rejoin the work-force if they take time off to raise children.
  5. There is a shortage of daycare centers. Access to daycare should be improved by allowing the easier conversion of defunct elementary schools to publicly-subsidized daycare centers.
  6. The cost of raising a child should be reduced by making high-school free. Why spend billions in QE when the same billions can be spent to improve education?

It’s time to learn new tricks. What got Japan here was domestic consumption and domestic investment. Forget about the numbers. What’s important is to keep things interesting for young people. Otherwise, who’s going to have children? I met a college graduate recently who decided to take a job as a hotel concierge. That’s what it’s come to. The system is so locked, there is so little opportunity for experimentation and growth, there are so few positions in society open for people who are coming of age, that college graduates are deciding to take jobs as hotel concierges. The government must make structural reforms to remove obstacles toward the natural redeployment of capital, instead of caffeinating the economy to continue to run in the way of the past.

As for young people with a college education, I would say: leave and get experience elsewhere. A concierge job is fine, if it’s what you want to do, but it was definitely not what the guy I met was hoping for. Why fight in a little world with other college-educated people for a little job that is entirely confined to Shinjuku, doesn’t require a college education, and doesn’t teach you to be anything else? Leave. Is it better to be a concierge in Japan business development manager overseas? You get to choose: comfort or experience? Directly apply to the overseas branch and get some experience at a job that you actually want to do. There are so few people doing this sort of thing that you will actually face no competition.

And after you have gotten foreign language and cultural experience, the long-term demographic trend in Japan will still not have changed. The domestic market will still be shrinking. The excess of Japanese capital will still be looking for higher returns. Companies will be looking for linguistically and culturally competent people to be their face to the outside. You will have new ideas and ways of thinking that you would not have learned if you had stayed behind. It will be hard, but you will have a greater appreciation for what is good and bad about Japan after spending some time on the outside. You will be ready. There will be no competition.