Time and Cultural Differences

One of the differences between Japanese and Americans is how time plays a role in life. Japanese people in general are very punctual and typically show up a few minutes early for appointments, parties, meetings, etc.. Here in the U.S., there are punctual people (German descents?), but it’s not unusual to meet people who are always late.

One of the most shocking experiences I have had since I moved here happened when I was going to the University of Washington. I was invited for a dinner by a couple, friends of mine from college. They told me to come over around 5:00pm. I didn’t want to be late and made sure I arrived there a few minutes before 5:00. But, when I got there they weren’t there. I waited outside their apartment for more than 30 minutes, and my friends finally showed up. They said they went shopping. I didn’t get upset and it was kind of funny to me, but I couldn’t imagine how this would happen in Japan. Either one of them stays home, or they would let me know somehow they might not be back on time. This American friend was probably exceptional, since he was late just about every single time we got together. I remember the worst was when I invited him over for dinner; he was 4 hours late. Just about every Japanese person feels “I shouldn’t make the other party wait,” but here in America, since most people seem to think being late for a few minutes is no big deal, it is no big deal as a result.

I also learned quickly the starting time for a party is very much fluid in this country. In Japan, if the invitation says it starts at 6:00pm, most people would show up 5-10 minutes before 6:00, thinking being late is rude. But here, if you show up to a party exactly on time, you are most likely to be the first guest, and it’s rather, a kind of embarrassing. I don’t know if people still use the expression, “fashionably late,” and I’m not sure if it is more of a West Coast phenomenon, but partygoers in Seattle most typically start showing up at least 15 to 30 minutes after the invitation indicates. Some parties back in my college years didn’t really start until 8:00 or 9:00, even though the invitation said 5:00pm. What’s tricky is some potlucks. I don’t want to be the first to arrive and get there like an hour late, but sometimes I discover most good food is gone by then.

Speaking of time expectations in the business environment, I have routinely experienced the visitors from Japan and I have to wait for the person we made an appointment to show up at least for a few minutes. Of all the instances, the worst case happened in Los Angeles 15 or so years ago. I was bringing an executive from Tokyo, visiting the director of the LA office of the affiliate company; he made us wait for more than 30 minutes. My client told me this guy had made him wait every single time. If it were in Japan, when guests from overseas were visiting, I would imagine the host would be ready a few minutes before the appointment time and would be waiting for them, not the other way around. If the host were late for a few minutes, they would apologize profusely.

When I exchange emails, both personal and business, I receive responses much faster when writing to friends or business associates in Japan. They normally apologize when writing back after more than a day. Communications in Japan are much denser and quicker; relationships and connections are much more valued and emphasized. Here in the U.S., each person is more like an island and one seems to value his/her own time much more than other people’s—writing back sooner than later is not as important as whatever activity he/she is engaged at that time. “The other party can wait,” everyone is thinking that way. When that is the norm, you don’t judge people using the other standard. In Japan, if you make other people wait (for an appointment or email, returning a phone call), you risk getting criticized because the norm and standard are different.

After living in the U.S. for decades, I’m a bit schizophrenic. I used to be totally punctual, showing up to an appointment always 5-10 minutes earlier. In more recent years, I went through several years finding myself habitually late in social situations, while still making sure I get there early for business appointments. I don’t write back emails as fast as my Japanese friends do, but I reply to texts much more quickly than most American friends. I hate being late, especially the rushing part, and I think it’s better to be prompt for communications both for social and business. This is one area I feel it’s better to tap into my “Japanese” in me more than “American” part of my identity.