Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mottainai

There's a great new walking bridge that just finished construction near my office.



Every time I see it I'm impressed. It's really quite beautiful when it's lit up at night. As an engineer, I think it's a pretty impressive structure as well. The tilted arch counterbalanced by the cantilevered walkway is very interesting. It was installed as a link between two parks that are very near each other, but separated by a major road.

My boss (ok...my boss' boss) has a very different opinion though. Every time we've driven by it on the way to lunch, he sort of grunts and shakes his head in disapproval. Then he mutters, "Over designed."

I was surprised by his reaction, so I asked him why he thought that way. "So much steel. There's no need for all of that steel. So wasteful.", was his response. "It's not about the steel," I said. "It's nice to look at. Isn't that worth the steel?"

"No. It's wasteful. A simple bridge would do."

Well, he couldn't be any clearer than that.

We're both engineers, yet we had entirely different reactions to the design. Aside from many decades of experience, the other main difference between he and I is that he is Japanese and I am American.

I mentioned this to a great Japanese engineer who works for me. His reaction was immediate.

"Ah...mottainai."

Um..what was that again?

"Mottainai." he says, "It's a word for an old Japanese concept. Don't waste. Don't take any more than you need."

I looked it up. It's defined on Wikipedia as "a sense of regret concerning waste when the intrinsic value of an object or resource is not properly utilized." Could a definition be any more Japanese? And we thought we Americans invented "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." The Japanese have had a better catch word for thousands of years.

Coming here from Texas has been a culture shock in many ways, but one of the issues that sneaks up on you is the way that most things here (except for bridges apparently) are designed so much more efficiently. Home air conditioning for example. My house in Texas has one big central AC unit that blows cool air throughout my house. I set the temp, the AC turns on and off trying to regulate the temp of the entire house at once. In my condo here, there is a different AC unit for each room of the house. Each independently powered and controlled. If you know you won't be in a room for hours, just turn off that unit. You go back in there, just push a button and it cools off in 5 minutes. HUGE power savings over time.

Another example. The cleaning lady comes into my office every morning to empty the trash. She then picks through my garbage to make sure there isn't any paper in it that can be recycled. Most people here are pretty good about putting used paper in the recycle bins, but every day after cleaning the whole floor, she's got a trash bag full of paper that she dumps into the recycle bin. I'm sure this woman doesn't get paid squat. I'm sure someone cleaning trash bins in Houston for $6.25/hr wouldn't bother. But this old lady does it with a big old smile on her face.

Don't worry. I'm not about to get all preachy on you. I'm just thinking that my family and I will be learning a lot from all of these little cultural differences over the coming years. Hopefully some of the better things we learn will stick.

I still think it's a beautiful bridge though.

2 comments:

Liza said...

Will you give a lecture to all of my employees about mottainai? Please.

Andy said...

Is there really a bridge? Or is it simply a metaphor for the fostering of a relationship betwixt your different cultures?

I support mottainai; a simpler bridge could have provided more steel for pachinko machines.

Awesome Blog!