Dave’s Personal Notes: My Very First Business Trip: Tea and Taboo in Tokyo

August 13, 2021

Recently, I was having a cocktail on the backyard deck with my
youngest of three boys, Michael. I had just picked him up from
Queen’s University in Kingston where he finished his B.A. with a major
in psychology. Michael (I still call him “Little Mikey” even though he is
21 and stands six feet tall, give or take), as mostly everyone knows,
came up with the moniker Breakfast with Dave more than twelve
years ago. He also has a bartending certificate and has proven to be
very adept at using the blender. I already told him I would be his client
twice-over — first as his prime customer for Dark and Stormies, Old
Fashioneds, and Manhattans; and second as his patient to discuss
my drinking problems.

All kidding aside (though not really far off the truth), the two of us were
sitting outside on the backyard deck the other day (there’s nowhere
else to go right now in locked-down Toronto) and Mikey said, “Dad,
have you ever been to Japan?” To which I replied, “Many times.” He
then asked, “Did you like it?” I said, “Domo! Let’s just say I loved it!”
He said, “Good, because once we can travel again, that’s my first
destination” (I didn’t ask “On whose yen?” because I already know
the answer to that!).

“Dad, can you tell me about your first trip there?”
Well, if truth be told, I have only been to Japan on business, and I
have only visited Tokyo.
That said, I went into detail about that initial trip I made to Japan back
in 1996, when I was toiling for the economics department at BMO
Nesbitt Burns. What turned out for me to be a bit of an
embarrassment, which 25 years later I don’t mind sharing with
everyone, also became a valuable learning lesson.
This was my first big marketing trip as a young and enterprising
economist, and I was scheduled to visit all the major banks, insurance
companies and mutual funds in Tokyo.
Before my trip, the heads of sales and trading in the fixed income and
equity departments in Toronto sat down with me and went over and
over all the appropriate protocols and gave me lessons on Japanese
culture. Nobody seemed to care if I had the right macro or market
view — only that I did not bungle things when it came to how to
conduct myself at the meetings.
“Be sure to bow your head when you meet the executives”; “When
they give you their business cards, be sure to stare at them for 20
seconds”; “When you give your talk, don’t go into the markets right
away; instead, tell them how honored you are to be at the meeting
and how much you appreciate Japanese culture and how wonderful
the experience has been thus far”; and “Dave, speak slowly” (for me,
always a challenge).
There were countless other pieces of advice to memorize outside of
the client meetings themselves, too, such as “don’t count the change
when you make a transaction” (like buying a train ticket — big insult);
“Don’t open the door to the taxi cabs; the driver does that for you”
(they could have added “don’t laugh at the white gloves”). I practiced
how to enunciate “ohayo gozaimasu” and “sumimasen ga” in front of
the mirror like a high school valedictorian (not that I would know). My
superiors in Toronto went to such lengths to teach me what to do and
what not to do that they took me out for sushi several times for
tutorials on how to use my chopsticks correctly. Because of my love
for Japanese food, I requested several classes — and it worked!
When I arrived at my hotel (the old Imperial) in Tokyo on day-one, I
knew I could have used a few more teach-ins. I was near the front of
a packed elevator going down, packed with about ten males and one
female standing beside me. When the elevator door opened, I
motioned for the woman to leave in front of me — she just stood there,
and all the men just glared at me as they walked out first. Then she
basically pushed me out and followed me and as she passed me in
the lobby she gave me a bit of glare, too. Oh well — so much for my
Canadian upbringing!
But the real sparks flew at my very first meeting with Japan’s largest
life insurance company. Before the meeting, the BMO Nesbitt Tokyobased salesperson took me out for a quick breakfast. I remember him
asking me, “So the team in Toronto went through how to act in the
Japanese culture?” He knew I was a rookie. I told him all about
training camp. And he seemed pleased. On the way, he emphasized
to “stare at their cards, don’t shake hands but bow your head, and
when you start to talk, please don’t go into your pitch on bonds,
stocks, the currency and economy — spend the first ten minutes on
how great your stay has been and what an honor it is to be in Japan.”
Yes, yes, I get it.
I did everything that everyone asked. Cards. Bowing. Niceties.
We were in a large and beautifully decorated room adjacent to the
CIO’s office, about ten of us in total sitting on very small chairs around
this long rectangular table. About ten minutes into my spiel, a woman
walks in with a tray of ornate teacups, places them in front of us,
pours some hot liquid in each and leaves. I am in the zone and
pontificating like it’s nobody’s business over the “house” view on
everything macro and market. At some point, maybe ten or fifteen
minutes later, I notice my sales guy just staring at me with a scowl.
Ten minutes later he is sending darts at me with his eyes. I have no
clue what’s happening, but I know he is p.o.’d. I finish up, take
questions, and I honestly thought he was going to jump across the
table and give me a karate chop.
The meeting ends and I say goodbye, most respectfully. I practiced
my “sayonara” back home to a “tea.” And that turned into my major
faux pas — tea.
Let me explain.
On the way down the elevator, the salesperson says, rather furiously,
“What is wrong with you?” I responded, “Why are you so angry with
me? You don’t agree with my forecasts?” He said, “Didn’t they teach
you everything over there at headquarters?” I replied, “To the point
where I feel like a Samurai.” He says this: “Did you not notice that
nobody at the table touched their green tea, not even a sip??” I
responded, “Come to think of it, you’re right.” He screams “Do you
know why??” I gulped. He yelled (good thing we were alone in the
elevator) — “Because the hosts can only have their sip of tea once the
guest does!! Because of you, they couldn’t drink their tea!!”
I shouldn’t have come back with “I don’t even like green tea.”
I don’t think he spoke to me for the rest of the trip. I kept on asking
myself afterwards, “Did I just blow the Bank’s century-long
relationship with this life insurance company?”
When I arrived home, the only feedback I got from the senior brass at
my firm was “I heard about the tea incident.” Good grief. I didn’t have
a chance to say “gomen-nasai” to our hosts because I had no clue it
was all on me to take the first sip of green tea. Why didn’t anyone tell
me that when they took me out for sushi (maybe because we were all
drinking Sapporo)?
Lesson learned. Always make sure you have done ALL your
homework. Leave no stone unturned. And be sure to read the room
— the body language, that is — because I found out later that everyone
in the room was sending darts my way (at the same time, I did learn
ahead of time that “tofugo,” or making eye contact for too long, can
be seen as rude in Japanese culture — so in this case, it was a no-win
situation for me!).
As for “Little Mikey,” I told him that Japan is a terrific choice for his
first post-pandemic trip. My only recommendation is this: keep it a
personal trip and don’t spend time in a boardroom!
As an aside, since that episode some 25 years ago, I have developed
a love for green tea.

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