A Global Triangle

How do you reconcile an upbringing in Europe and the United States with life in Japan?

October 20, 2000

How do you reconcile an upbringing in Europe and the United States with life in Japan?

Born in Tokyo, reared partly in Germany and educated at universities in the United States, he is remarkably at home in three cultures, fluent in the language of each and quite adept at caling forth literary and historical allusions from the respective traditions to bolster his own observations.

A global hybrid, he refuses to pit one location against another. “I’ve decided to say, for simplicity’s sake, that where I live and work, at any point in time, is who I am,” he says.

His father, a trader, brought him as a child to Düsseldorf in the early 1970s. On weekends, he often would go for walks in the woods with a German boy and his family. “We would spend days strolling,” he recalls.

After several years back in Tokyo, the time came for him to attend a high school. His father encouraged him to choose one in the United States. He then stayed in America for a university degree.

In one of the many oddities that mark his life, J.S. served as the president of his high school’s German club in Charlotte, North Carolina. After graduation, he got a job with one of Japan’s biggest companies. Work has brought him back to the United States and Germany.

J.S.’s character has been shaped by his diverse experience. He has expertise in finance and information technology, but he’s essentially a cultural broker, mediating among the Germans, Americans and Japanese at his company, which has major units in the three countries.

His perspective on diversity is worth reciting. “What is America?” he asks. “it’s not a melting pot. It’s more of a salad or a pizza. But even that confuses people. America isn’t even a place anymore. It’s an understanding about life that unites Americans, not a location.”

Successful diversity, he adds, requires that “people become more insensitive to cultural differences. Whereas if you’re in Germany, you’d better speak German. And in Japan, you’d better be Japanese. Not only that, your grandfather better be Japanese, too.”

J.S. realizes that the Japanese way falls short. “You win with diversity now. It’s so basic it’s almost a technology. Mixing is a kind of engineering. The Japanese are good engineers, yet human engineering…” His voice trails off and he looks away, momentarily embarrassed.

J.S. reminds me that Japan’s separateness is considered the basis for its virtues. “The reason Toyota was so successful was that it wasn’t diverse. The Japanese notion of unity, single-mindedness — diversity would have upset this.”

The intense focus on internal resources contrasts sharply with Germany’s outward bent. “If you read Goethe,” Germany’s most beloved writer, “he really becomes a European on his trip to Italy,” J.S. says. “The whole notion of a voyage of discovery is so un-Japanese. This urge to overcome your parochialism is one of the most attractive of German attitudes.”

The point makes J.S. recall his father’s advice to him about identity: “‘Son,’ he told me, ‘you should be proud of your Japanese heritage, but you should also overcome it. You can learn to accept other cultures and even strive to find common element between them.'” J.S. took his father’s advice and never regretted it.

Adapted from "The Global Me" by G. Pascal Zachary. Copyright © 2000 by G. Pascal Zachary. Used by permission of the author.