What is Kikubari?

“I’m writing slowly because I know you can’t read fast.”–Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly (M*A*S*H*)

Remember the character “Radar” in the TV series M*A*S*H*? For the younger folks who didn’t grow up watching it, the series was a dark comedy set in the Korean War that grew out of a hit movie with the same name (an acronym for “Mobile Army Surgical Hospital”). Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly, the company clerk played by Gary Burghoff, was the character who was always anticipating, always a step ahead of everyone else. He was able to stay a step ahead because his “radar” was perpetually on. He was paying attention.

Radar’s powers of anticipation bordered on the supernatural: he had the uncanny ability to appear out of nowhere just before he was called; he finished people’s sentences; submitted his reports before the Colonel could get the request out of his mouth; heard the helicopters when the world was quiet to everyone else; and was always first to take action to prepare for incoming wounded.

Radar didn’t just observe, he put himself in the shoes of others and anticipated their needs. And even from the humorous quote above we see Radar attempting, in his goofy, illogical way, to accommodate the slow reading pace of his reader by writing his letter slowly. (Hey, it’s the thought that counts!) Radar’s 6th sense never failed to spur him to action to fulfill the unarticulated needs of others.

In this sense, the Radar character was the embodiment of  Japanese “kikubari” (pronounced “key-koo-BAH-ree”), because his proactive caring of others made the lives of those around him easier.

What is Kikubari?

The simple answer is that kikubari is the Japanese fine art of anticipation. But the word is infused with much more culture and meaning.

Kikubari is an interesting byproduct of a high-context, collectivist culture that places great value on social harmony.

It’s not surprising that a collectivist culture like Japan would organize the world around the group. Indeed this is how Japanese companies organize and allocate their work: they focus on the vision of the company and how various departmental “groups” can contribute to pursuing that vision, a cultural reality that renders individual roles and responsibilities fuzzy at best.

The downside is that the ambiguity of individual roles can hinder efficiency in the Japanese workplace; the upside is that Japan’s rich cultural context makes it crystal clear that every individual is expected to focus on the needs of teammates rather than self, always staying vigilant for opportunities to proactively pitch in.

In concrete terms this means that Japanese employees don’t have individual job descriptions, just a big, fuzzy “group job description” that seems to always be evolving. In such a system without clear, individual roles and a strong cultural aversion to explicit verbal communication, the pressure is on the individual to figure out what needs to be done without being told, then take initiative and practice kikubari accordingly.

The expectation of anticipation applies outside of work as well. If you happen to be drinking beer with your Japanese friends, it means you are expected to be on the lookout for half-empty glasses to fill, but you’re not allowed to pour your own beer. (Don’t worry, they’ll do it for you.)

The point of describing Japanese group dynamics is that in the context of Japanese culture, the Radar character is not exceptional, but rather the norm. Hanging out with a group of Japanese friends is kind of like being surrounded by an army of Radar characters, dangerous when you’re drinking beer. It’s tough to out-anticipate these guys. I do my best.

Zen and the Art of Kikubari

To grasp the essence of kikubari, it helps to examine the literal translation, written with two Chinese pictograph characters.

Ki” (気) is defined as “spirit,” “mind” or “heart.”

Kubari” (配り) means “distribution” or “delivery.” It’s also the verb used to mean “deal,” as in “dealing a deck of cards.”

Hence, the literal translation is “distribution of your spirit.” But I like to call it sharing your spirit.

At first glance the raw definition sounds a bit esoteric, almost Zen-like. One could argue there’s a little of Zen in everything the Japanese do. But kikubari is not esoteric at all. It’s a practice that is observable in very concrete ways.

The notion of kikubari is concerned with cultivating a heightened sense of awareness of others’ needs, processing that information, then taking initiative to proactively fulfill those needs without being asked to do so. (Yes, all that meaning packed into one word.) Even more amazing is that the whole kikubari process happens in a fraction of a second for the Japanese. That’s because kikubari is part of daily life in Japan, an expected behavior instilled from childhood. For this reason the Japanese have a distinct kikubari advantage over the rest of us: it’s woven into their cultural DNA.

No surprise then that Japanese customer service sets the standard in the world. The good news is kikubari works in every culture. The challenge is weaving it into one’s organizational DNA.  It requires the will of leadership, core values to support it, and motivated workers willing to embrace it. Much easier said than done. Yet I know of some great American organizations that have figured it out, proof that while it’s not easy it’s certainly possible.

It’s possible because kikubari is a universal concept. At its core it’s about proactively showing kindness towards others. That’s it. And in a perfect world that proactive kindness is reciprocated back and forth on an ongoing basis, a process that nurtures and deepens human bonds.

Imagine creating such a world! Imagine being surrounded by “Radar-like” characters, who routinely anticipate each others’ needs.

Imagine how you’d feel sitting in the lobby of a Japanese hotel waiting for your boss to show up, when the check-in clerk brings you a cup of iced barley tea and a cold oshibori towel because she was perceptive enough–even from behind the check-in counter–to notice you were sweating when you walked in the lobby door.

Imagine a hotel valet attendant who, upon noticing your car’s front right tire is low on air, takes it upon himself to locate a gauge and pump, then measures and fills all your tires to their appropriate pressure.

Imagine having your beer glass perpetually filled by your Japanese table-mates, a social dining custom in Japan that makes it impossible to keep track of alcohol consumption (an experience that once inspired an inebriated American friend to proclaim in slurred tones, “I had 53 half-glasses of beer!”)

Imagine a small town on the northeast Japan coast where the inhabitants are encouraged to seek out elderly neighbors in the event of an earthquake to help get them to higher ground in a timely manner; imagine 371 people–98% of the town’s population (many of whom are elderly)–successfully evacuating within a 20-minute window before a monster tsunami flattened their town.

Imagine a Japanese Supermarket owner giving away food to neighbors in the aftermath of the disaster with no regard for compensation.

None of the above scenarios was imagined. I’ve seen, heard about, read about, and been on the receiving end of countless kind acts of kikubari in my lifetime. Indeed I lived it during my ten-year residence in Japan.

These stories are real. And there are lots more to tell. That’s what this blog is about: real stories about real people, practicing and receiving kikubari, and in the process raising their quality of life, and the value they bring to everyone around them.

But the real power of kikubari is its vast potential to connect cultures from around the world. All you need are at least two people with the will to put it into practice. You’ll see by reading the stories that follow, that kikubari can connect anyone and be applied anywhere, anytime: at home, at work, at social gatherings, in public places, during good times and bad.

With warm aloha from Pahoa Hawaii,


7 Responses to What is Kikubari?

  1. Hans Bassing says:

    Aloha Tim, I love your story on kikubari. Especially when you give examples starting with ‘Imagine…’ Yes, wouldn’t that be great!
    The big challenge is how to stimulate people to have the guts to do so. In many relationships (marriage, friendship, teams, etc…) there’s so much fear to be the first to act differently. Our relationships are so much based upon performance, status, etc… because our cultural design is all about individuality. I’m talking about the western part of the world! The transition to do things for other people and feel good about that is a hard one. Still, my experience is that it is a rewarding one.
    What helped me to develop myself in this field, was something a learned from a kahuna on Hawai’i: Everything there is, is in me. And I’m in everything. I feel responsible for everything that happens in my life. If I want the world to change, this starts in me. So… Imagine a world and start living that way.
    My advice to everyone to whom kikubari appeals: Imagine a world in which kikubari is the standard and START living like that. Step by step you will see it happen. And then: enjoy that you were the initiator of this! Live aloha!

    • Tim Sullivan says:

      Hans, mahalo for your thoughtful comments. (Why is it that everyone I meet from the Netherlands is culturally astute and easy to connect with?) You got me thinking about what motivated me to practice kikubari in the first place. The answer is it felt so good being on the receiving end (for the last 34 years and counting), and early on made me want to reciprocate. It also turned out to be a great way to improve human relationships, which in turn dramatically improves teamwork.

      Wish I could lay claim to being a Master at kikubari, but I’m just your average kikubari guy 😉 My Japanese father-in-law is the reigning Master, so stay tuned for a future post.

      For this Westerner it’s an ongoing challenge to stay alert for kikubari opportunities, a mountain I’m still climbing. Lots of folks–I imagine nearly the whole Japanese race–still do it better than me. For as hard as I try, I still can’t “out-kikubari” my Japanese wife, family and friends. They’re just too good! But it’s forced me to “raise my game” as a human being so that’s a good thing. I take solace in the knowledge that they had a big head start on me, and are not burdened with a low-context culture structured around the individual. 🙂

  2. Iliahi says:

    Aloha and Mahalo Tim for sharing this:)

    • Tim Sullivan says:

      Iliahi, thanks for commenting. We occasionally head over to your neck of the woods to catch the dolphins in morning at Kehena. Beautiful place you have–love the Bali Cottage! (Never stayed, just looked at the pictures.) And we love the vibes in your area, great place to live. Sure hope our paths cross one day 🙂

  3. Pixie Garnaut says:

    Brilliantly observant of you to be able to come up with that description of kikubari. I am often perplexed as to how to explain it to Foreigner’s and sometimes young Japanese alike. I am not sure that it is as culturally imbedded as you imply; in the younger generation. Great writing. Thank you.

    • Tim Sullivan says:

      Aloha Pixie san!

      Appreciate your kind words and feedback. Sure hope all is well up in your neck of the woods! (I checked out your profile on linkedin.)

      Can’t argue about the younger generation in Japan losing some of that kikubari DNA. What I can say is that relative to MY culture, Japan still has lots more kikubari mojo going for them. But admittedly, that’s kind of like being the tallest midget. 🙂

      I concede that younger folks who practice kikubari are getting rarer and rarer these days. In any culture values tend to get diluted with each ensuing generation, this being a case in point. That said, we still encounter young Japanese students who impress us with their civility, poise and kikubari–so we still have hope!

      Thanks for taking time to comment.


  4. I just came back to Canada after a very brief trip to Tokyo. I found it difficult to put into words what I observed: the careful attention to detail, the elegance, the polite care of people, the care for beauty. So thank you for this description.

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