When you step off the plane into a country for the first time, your senses are assaulted with stimuli previously unbeknownst to you. Signs in a language you don’t understand fill your vision, indistinguishable scents waft past your nose, your skin prickles from the touch of a new climate. For many, myself included, the first week or two in a new country leave you in a state of perpetual overwhelm, where your senses are in such rapid motion that your brain doesn’t have time to catch up.
This has been my first three weeks in Japan. Now, as I attempt to part the mist of sensory overload, a multitude of new insights have begun to take shape. Emerging from the mist, one such insight has captured my attention more than any other. It’s present every day, in every aspect of life, and is often overlooked.It’s this: attention to detail. The meticulous care taken in craftsmanship, design, and service.
There is a word for this in Japanese: kodawari. Kodawari has been translated as “the uncompromising and relentless pursuit of perfection”. It means that there are no shortcuts taken in crafting the best possible experience. It means the absence of superfluity and wastefulness. It means quality first, always.
In my first two weeks I have seen kodawari manifested in a wide range of encounters. At the end of our first week we had the privilege of being hosted for the day by Naoko Sugiyama for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The sunlight that filtered through the paper shade into the room cast light upon an array of objects, each one integral to the process of the ceremony. As she guided us through the contents of her room, she nudged our attention towards the script on the wall, and outlined her process in choosing it for the day. Instead of choosing her favourite scroll, or the most aesthetically pleasing one, she chose one that she thought would be important to us. The one she chose reflected “different oceans, same wind”, a nod to how we may come from different places but we ride a similar wind. The script on the wall was not a result of convenience or carelessness, rather it was the process of thoughtful deliberation intended to achieve a certain standard of quality. Upon hearing this explanation, we sat back with a certain degree of awe, and rightly so.
If anyone has seen the popular documentary ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ they can see the intensity with which many Japanese people value this adherence to the highest standard. In the film, we learn about one of the greatest sushi chefs in Japan, 91 year old, Jiro Ono. He has been working on perfecting his craft since he was seven to get as close to mastery as he possibly can. Just as Mrs. Sugiyama deliberates to ensure the best possible experience for her guests, Jiro practices and practices to craft an unparalleled culinary experience.
This is kodawari, the relentless pursuit of perfection.
Perhaps the reason why I have paid so much attention to this aspect of Japanese culture is the stark contrast it offers from the ideals often lauded in the Western world. In the West, efficiency, output, and scale, run wild, with economies often dominated by those that can deliver products and services faster and in greater supply than their competitors. The world of the mass-produced and the on-demand. The world where no-one notices if someone has spent 10% more time on making something the best possible version of itself. The world where kodawari is not ubiquitous.
I think there is a lot to learn from the concept of kodawari in Japan. It doesn’t just alter our decision making framework, it displaces it entirely. Instead of asking ourselves, how can we get this done most efficiently, we could ask, how can we get this done to the highest possible standard? What would a product designed with nothing but thoughtfulness and care look like?
Far beyond the world of business, I think kodawari offers deep insight which we can apply in our everyday lives. Take the act of making dinner, for example. How many times have you cooked something simply because it was fast, and then eaten it in five minutes while responding to emails, listening to music, and checking your Instagram. Sure, you may have “saved” yourself ten minutes, but to what end? Instead, try taking an extra ten minutes to cook something you will love. Instead of eating while doing something, just eat. Sit down without your phone or laptop, and enjoy the experience of taste, one of the simplest pleasures in life. There is infinite value in paying attention to detail and avoiding shortcuts in search of quality.
One of my favourite writers, and aptly, one of Japan’s foremost literary powerhouses, Haruki Murakami, expressed this idea simply in his memoir of sorts ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’. In describing his philosophy of running, he notes, “Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself”. In other words, chasing efficiency and rankings is not where we find quality, rather it is paying attention to the details and being aware of the process itself that is essential.
So, three weeks into living in Tokyo, I’m trying to reflect on my day not with the lens of how much did I get done today, but instead, what was the quality of the time I spent? Did I pay attention to my day, was I thoughtful and deliberate, did I craft a day of quality or quantity? I only need to look up to be reminded of exactly what this means.