Service Spirit

Food for Thought

In Japanese culture, there is a concept called “service spirit” which can be readily observed. Some foreign visitors may suspect that the helpfulness is motivated by their desire to look good to the outside world, but service spirit is, in fact, more pronounced among each other. Perhaps it is better translated as “team spirit” even though they use the English word “service.”

As a young Japanese man, I saw it as a sign of weakness; people are eager to help each other because someday they, too, might need help. Since my parents have always stressed the importance of independence, I figured service spirit was for those who failed to be self-reliant.

In business, too, I’ve felt the products should speak for themselves, and anyone who strove to please their clients was being deceitful. I judged myself not based on how happy my clients were but on the products’ quality. If the clients couldn’t appreciate it, it’s their own fault.

Perhaps we could call this “substance spirit”; Steve Jobs epitomized it, and New York City encourages it. You don’t make it here by charming others and stroking their egos. You compete on merit, and everyone around you is a potential competitor.

While staying in Japan for two months, I watched three sitcoms. The central theme for all was family, not necessarily biological, but any group of people treated as such—sort of like “Friends” but with shared goals. The shows made me want to be part of such families, not because I’d feel secure having a support system but because it looked like a lot of fun.

In one show, the family lost the election, and everyone moved on separately but fondly recalled how much fun it was. Their ultimate goal was to have fun, even though the ostensible one was to win the election. That is the distinction I couldn’t make as a young man. The motivation for being part of a community wasn’t fear but fun. The goal was the path, not the destination.

The Wikipedia entry for “service spirit” explains the primary motive is to be happy yourself by seeing others happy. When you are determined to prove yourself to the world, it’s hard to admit how much you actually enjoy that feeling.