Japan’s perfectionism and lessons we can learn from lean startups

I am not sure if you are familiar with Japanese culture let alone the way Japanese people (or rather Japanese society) think. However I believe you can at least grasp its obsessive perfectionism from our products and services and, most importantly, how we behave.


Obsessive perfectionism and social pressure

Photograph: Kyodo/Reuters

We join a queue and wait for our turn even if it’s after one of the most disastrous earthquakes happened. A conductor of a national railway company apologises fanatically when a train is delayed for only 5 min. Ladies who cannot go outside without makes-ups.

When you visit a bookstore in Japan (and if you understand a bit of Japanese) you would be amazed how many books are about how-tos. “How to ride a motorcycle”, “How to master English” okay fair enough, but what about “How to make your life beautiful”, “How to hate people”, “How to use the word ‘bitch’”?

Various how-to books

Looking at all those books, I can’t stop wondering we are too afraid of making mistakes and trying to acquire as much knowledge as possible before we even give it a actual try.

I first realised this obsessive perfectionism and the social pressure comes with it when I was in my junior high school. During my time, normally English education started at the age of 12 or 13 (1st year of junior high school).

In the class we were asked to repeat a sentence the teacher read firstly everyone together and then individually. When one of my classmates tried to read the sentence trying his best to make it sound like “proper” English and some of the classmates started laughing. For them, the boy seemed to appear as a half-ass trying his best, though they were at the exact same level as he was. After the incident the boy started reading sentences with intentional Japanese accent so that he wouldn’t stand out.

I don’t lie here, I did the same as soon as I realised what happened but I couldn’t erase the question popped up in my mind: Why does he have to be laughed at only because he is trying what he can’t do?

This post actually is the first ever post I wrote in English though I’ve lived outside Japan for the last 3.5 years, from which you might be able to tell that the stigma has remained so deeply.

I’ve thought about writing a post in English before but the things came to my mind were “What if someone points out typos or errors in my post?” and “My English is not good enough to write anything in public”. And I’ve seen so many people do the same no matter what they were trying to do.

Although the perfectionism does help Japan create something we can proud of, it is also killing our will to “try”

Concept of lean-startup

As many of you may know, “lean startup” is a method for developing businesses and products. The philosophy was first developed in the tech industry in the US and now it’s applied to many others.

Similar to the precepts of lean management, Ries’ lean startup philosophy seeks to eliminate wasteful practices and increase value-producing practices during the product development phase so that startups can have a better chance of success without requiring large amounts of outside funding, elaborate business plans, or the perfect product. (From Wikipedia. By the way, there is no Japanese version of the page about lean startup on Wikipedia.)

When we try to learn something new, we don’t know what the perfect form would be. And more than often such “perfect form” doesn’t exist at all. So there is no point looking for one.

However, at least from what I saw around myself, there are many people in Japan who hide what they are trying because they are not perfect (or good enough) yet, while there are also many people who criticise those not-good-enoughs.

The danger here is you never feel good enough because there is nothing perfect in a sense those people dream about.

No matter how hard and how long you try, there will be tons of others who are better at what you are doing. Therefore unless you can praise yourself for what you have achieved even if it’s a baby step, you’ll never reach the points of good-enough. And finding someone else who pursues the same goal cheers you up, whom you will never find if you lock yourself up in the shell.

So I want to say to all my fellow citizens just try and make mistakes like I did here and learn from them, and accept others making mistakes to learn from each other. The perfectionism takes you nowhere.