Thoughts on Shrimp, Aikido and Facilitating Conflict Resolution

by Gaku Homma

I created a new phrase the other day, “Hinso Kaiketsu” in Japanese. For me it describes the heart of the challenge of facilitating true conflict resolution. I will go into more depth on the meaning of Hinso Kaiketsu, but first I would like to tell you about some of my other experiences and how they relate to Aikido and facilitating conflict resolution.

Nippon Kan Headquarters in Denver houses the dojo, but it also houses my Japanese Country Foods Restaurant, and when I am not teaching Aikido, I usually can be found in the kitchen. The restaurant has a Japanese patio garden where customers dine during the summer. When the patio is open, the total capacity of indoor and outdoor dining at the restaurant is over two hundred.

When I first came to the United States, it was never a goal of mine to open a Japanese restaurant and when we opened, I had absolutely no experience working in a restaurant of any kind, either in Japan or the United States. The idea for a restaurant only came to me one day as I thought, “A restaurant would be a good way to attract people to the dojo to observe Aikido practice. This would be a great way to help introduce Aikido to the Denver community”.

What started as a simple idea became Domo Restaurant. I chose the word Domo (meaning thank you in Japanese) because it is a familiar word to most Americans, and it is an intriguing name and concept for a restaurant.

There are over 150 Japanese restaurants in the greater metro Denver area, and yet Domo has been named the Best Japanese Restaurant in Denver by a popular local newspaper for the past 13 years. Domo has also received recognition nationally by standards in the industry, named “One of the Best Japanese Restaurants in Colorado”, one of the “Top Restaurants in America”, and “#1 in décor in the USA”. What started as a simple marketing idea for the dojo has turned into a very busy restaurant indeed.

I can cook fairly well, but American customer service is definitely something that I have had to learn by trial and error. I have been a martial art instructor for over 37 years in the United States, so making the adjustment from “Sensei” to dealing with restaurant customers has been a difficult challenge for me. I try to be patient and remind myself that there are lessons to be learned in everything we do. For for the last 13 years, it has been my turn to learn about customer service.

Being in the restaurant business has taught me many things. “Hobo kore dojo”- “Your life is your dojo” has been a highly applicable phrase to sum up the experience. I have learned well the meaning of this phrase and also the phrase, “Anywhere, anytime, anyplace and from anything” to describe where we can find lessons about life. I find it interesting that what I have learned about dealing with people at Domo has helped me tremendously in learning how to build relationships with people all over the world through our international humanitarian program, AHAN (The Aikido Humanitarian Active Network). I have learned many techniques for “facilitating” good dining experiences by serving all of our Domo’s customers, but I have learned the most from dealing with the few disgruntled customers any restaurant owner has to deal with when dealing with the public. Domo has been my real-life training ground for learning how to facilitate conflict resolution.

*****

Domo employs many high school and college students during the summer months, and because of their youthfulness and inexperience, they of course sometimes make mistakes. One year we had a high school student that was working part time as a bus-boy, and one of his responsibilities was to take water to the customers when they were seated. One day, the boy accidentally knocked over a full glass of water on his tray and a little of the water spilled over the edge of the tray onto the jacket sleeve of a gentleman customer. The boy apologized immediately of course, but the gentleman became quite angry and called for a manager to register his complaint. The manager also apologized profusely and offered to dry the sleeve of the jacket; an offer that was ignored by the customer. Instead the customer removed his jacket and hung it obtrusively from one of the antiques decorating the wall of the restaurant. He continued to complain until it was finally time for the party to leave. Before they left, another gentleman from the party quietly approached the manager/reception station. He apologized for the behavior of the man who had water splashed onto his sleeve and told the manager that he would never dine with that person again. He apologized again for his rudeness before the party left the restaurant.

It was not even a week after this incident, that the same bus-boy accidentally dumped a glass of iced cola on a customer’s jacket again! I rushed over to the table to assist the customer who had removed his jacket and sat calmly sipping his sake. I apologized for my staff’s mistake and the lady at the table spoke “it’s okay, anyway, my boyfriend is always hot” she said with a smile and a wink! The customer sitting with cola running down his sleeve just smiled and shrugged off the obvious mistake in a light hearted manner. I of course “comped” (removed the charge) the entire dinner of the twosome and brought them another round of sake.

As I left the table I thought about how different the customer’s reactions and attitudes had been in these two incidents, and how differently this had affected the outcomes of the situation. In the long run, I mused, the lives of these two parties would be very different, all predicated in the difference in their attitudes and subsequent behavior.

On one Saturday night before Labor Day, Domo was extremely busy and there was a 2 hour wait to be seated. When we had finally finished serving the last waiting customers, I heard we had a complaint. The complaint came from a woman who sat at her table after finishing her meal; the plate before her completely clean. She complained that she had ordered one of the combinations and that a tempura shrimp had been missing from her meal. The manager on duty checked in the kitchen and found out that the customer had been correct; with such a busy night, the chefs simply overlooked the shrimp and forgot it on her order.

We apologized of course, and offered to comp her dinner. We were not prepared however for the huge problem this simple mistake seemed to be for this customer. She began to lecture the staff, “If I had not said anything, you would have tried to cheat me out of that shrimp”. On and on she complained until finally she left, but this was not the end of the story. She called the restaurant the next day, starting again with her complaint about the missing shrimp. Ten days after that, she called to complain AGAIN. This time I answered her call. “What do you want?” I asked. “I can give you one hundred shrimp if that is what you want, our staff made a simple and innocent mistake. Do you want me to kiss your foot? I think that next time; you should try a different Japanese restaurant that might be able to make you happy. Please do not come back here.” I said and hung up the phone. It is very rare that I would ever a tone like that with a customer, but I have learned that with a few people in this world, it is better to end a conversation firmly, or it will go on forever…

Most of the time, Domo’s customers are wonderful and there are many more examples of exceptionally good behavior than exceptionally bad, but it is always the few bad experiences that remain memorable.

Domo is a very busy restaurant, and once in a great while food orders get mixed up and a dish might be brought to the wrong table. Once a customer has started to enjoy the meal, it is difficult to tell them that what they are eating is not what they ordered, but we must, to be totally forthcoming.

One particular customer, I remember, when informed that there had been a mistake made in the delivery of his order just smiled and said, “Because of this mix-up, I have had the opportunity to try another of your menu items that I would not have known to order. You have given me a great opportunity!” Not only did we comp this gentleman’s meal, but also prepared his original order for him to take home!

These stories highlight two kinds of customers; one with a closed mind and poor heart, the other with a rich heart and an open, positive and flexible mind. Their reactions influence me differently, which in turn colors the response they receive back from me. In a microcosm, interaction with Domo customers reflects our human experience all over the world.

One more example

Domo used to offer gift certificates as most restaurants do. Two years ago I decided to stop selling gift certificates. Some question the sanity of this decision as gift certificates can be a quite lucrative business but I had my reasons.

We had so many problems with customers and their gift certificates! We had customers attempting to redeem expired gift certificates, proclaiming loudly that “these certificates have already had been paid for, so what was the big deal?” We had customers that tried to redeem gift certificates that had been expired for over a year, customers that tried to make copies of gift certificates and use them or try to change the expiration dates themselves. One woman marched into my personal office demanding to be able to use her expired gift certificate, and there have been more than enough customers that just stood at the reception desk complaining loudly, hoping that if they made enough of a scene that we would grant them permission to use their expired lots. The “straw that broke the camel’s back” was the customer who told us he was a lawyer and “knew people”, threatening to write bad things on internet blogs and newspapers. Even though the rules of exchange were printed clearly on the back of each certificate, the percentage of problems made me rethink about offering them at all.

As an owner, and for management’s sake, giving into these kind of threats means that our house rules and policies have no meaning. There need to be rules of operation that staff must follow, but there are exceptions to these rules.

We DO sometimes allow our customers to use expired gift certificates; it all depends on the attitude and approach of the customer. We want to please our customers of course, and there is no financial downside to accepting even expired gift certificates, it is the attitude and approach of the customer that decides the final outcome. Those who inquire politely and calmly and acknowledge that the dates on their certificates had expired are usually granted permission to use them. Those that talk down to the staff, threaten, bully and try to force their will on the staff, invoke the opposite reaction. In these cases, the staff is more motivated by fear than generosity and stick to the rules of the house. The moral of this story is, if you want to use expired gift certificates, ask nicely and respectfully. You will receive a more responsive answer that way.

Tyranny, oppression, superiority are not qualities that facilitate communication or resolution, whether in a matter as small as a gift certificate or over borders disputes between nations. Approaching any kind of exchange or negotiations with these characteristics in tow soon obliterates the original purpose. The gift certificate in this case is forgotten as the exchange turns into a struggle for dominance; with only for winning and claiming superiority as the goal. This kind of struggle ensues unconsciously unless awareness prevails.

*****

I have traveled to over 40 different countries to help teach wellness through Aikido seminars or simply help in the implementation of overseas AHAN projects. I spend about six months a year traveling which means that for six months of the year I am not at Nippon Kan General Headquarters in Denver. All of Nippon Kan and AHAN activities are based on my philosophy of “Engaged Budoism” which I have written about in the article “Engaged Budoism”.

I have visited many countries that suffer from wide spread poverty and civil unrest, interestingly, it has been my experience dealing with Domo customers that has helped me develop the skills to communicate and contribute positively in these communities so far from my home. I have spent time in many countries that are labeled “dangerous” in the West and I have learned to keep an eye on my own biases and understand what they are based on. I have spent time talking with local militants in Mindanao and strict Muslim leaders in Bangladesh, and have been able to establish good and positive communication with these people. To do this I try to first discard my own negative judgments and find what is common, important, and relevant between us. To build these relationships, I concentrate on what we can learn and accomplish together positively, leaving areas of disagreement or contention alone. There is so little time, and time is best spent working toward common goals instead of condemning differences.

These are the building blocks of trust and we are building positive, productive relationships in countries across the globe through Aikido and AHAN. With all of my training as a martial artist, it amuses me to discover that my on-the-job training as a restaurant owner has lent so much learning to my life experience. What I have learned around the world and at my restaurant in Denver would all be less meaningful if I did not take these experiences and reflect inward at my own behavior; my own self. This self reflection is critical to the process of facilitating communication and resolution; it is paramount in importance to see my own behavior and understand my own reactions. Only after understanding our selves can we earn the trust of others.

*****

In our world, the definition of peace and happiness is not the same for everyone. Most of the conflict and misunderstanding I believe between peoples of the world arise from one group trying to force another into conforming to what they believe is valuable (and consequently beneficial to them).

Lamb chops and mint sauce, prime rib and horse radish, apple pie and ice cream, all make wonderful taste combinations; so do sushi and wasabi and broiled fish and ground daikon radish for the Japanese. These foods taste the best together when the individual tastes can mingled together in your mouth to creat a new taste; a taste that is different and better than the two individual tastes separately. If you put each pair into a blender the resulting taste would not be the same; the individuality of the components are gone.

Today, a concept of peace and happiness dominates our world that is more “made in a blender” than concepts of peace that allow for individual values, ideas and heritages. If you study history, peace in our world has been more in “pieces”, and consideration for individuality has manly lost in a battle with dominant popularist control.

In my opinion, world powers today tend not to consider the various lifestyles, values and heritage of people in the world, thinking more about how to mandate conformity to their own ideas than to incorporate different points of view or sense of values. Countries force their rule on others, and the goals of peace seems to be to only to further personal benefit and profit rather than to consider the point of view and needs of others.

Economic sanctions, media propaganda and even weapons are used to mobilize countries into supporting one idea of peace, ultimately a peace for profit; forcing more vulnerable countries to comply through domination.

Whether interaction in conflict is on a global scale or individual (like the customer in my restaurant trying to bend the will of a staff member to get his own way), a struggle with forceful dominance is the same. I have visited people in countries embroiled in the same kind of conflict only their struggles are colored by their own particular circumstances. It is easier for me to recognize the essence of their conflicts because I am an outsider not involved in their particulars. During these travels and experiences so far from home, I remember the experiences I have had at Domo and they help me to understand that conflict involving dominance is the same no matter what the circumstances.

Funso and Hinso

In Japanese, a term for conflict is funso. Funso can be the conflict between individuals, collective groups or countries; conflict at all levels is called funso.

Solutions to facilitating conflict resolution begin with hinso. In Japanese, hin means in this case, ones own weaknesses and so means to challenge or to fight. The concept of hinso, or facilitating conflict resolution is not based on dominating or forcing one’s will on others to solve conflict or to gain the material possession or wealth of others, it is the challenge of understand the frailty and weakness inside of ourselves as the starting point for resolution.

To seek, find and understand the weakness and darkness inside ourselves that manifests as hatred, discord and conflict is the way to facilitate conflict resolution with others. If we do not understand and make peace within ourselves first, we cannot settle dispute and conflict with the people around us on any scale. Communication and resolution with others begins by understanding the hinso or inner struggle on both sides of a conflict. The first step is to begin to understand the misunderstandings and bias within that bring us to conflict with each other.

My new term hinso kaiketsu (resolution) describes this solution to conflict by looking inward first. If hinso is understood, ultimately the dispute or funso will come to a resolution naturally. Trying to mandate resolution by forcing one’s will or ideas on others will not result in true peace or understanding. Hinso kaiketsu or facilitation from within is the focus of this article.

In my travels, I have been to places and witnessed living conditions that were difficult to look at much less have to live in, and will continue to do so. I try very hard not to judge or label the people I am able to meet. People that I used to label as poverty stricken and miserable I have discovered have riches that many of the wealthiest people on earth do not possess. I have discovered in countries labeled poor or third world, people who understand the importance of family, loyalty, having a sense of belonging, pride in their country, strong religious convictions and a connection to their history and heritage.

To condescendingly mandate the life style of others without consideration of these factors on a global scale is not much different than a customer trying to get his own way in a restaurant on an individual scale. Both harbor the same attitude of sowing seeds of discord.

I find it interesting that a few really bad customers have been the ones that have helped me understand the most about myself and others in the world. Through interaction with them I have learned techniques for understanding self and forming true relationships all over the world! For this I say thank you!

The restaurant has had countless wonderful, understanding and tolerant customers who ultimately outshine the few that are not. It would be my wish that the tolerant and understanding take more of a role as world peace facilitators! It would reflect well on the image of their countries.

*****

In the past recent years I have traveled the world teaching Aikido. My theme is always, “Facilitating conflict resolution through Aikido”. At these seminars I teach Aikido technique with a detailed explanation of this concept. I believe that the physical execution of Aikido training is a perfect vehicle for instituting the facilitation of conflict resolution.

I just returned from a visit to Abu Dhabi where I did a demonstration for members of the Ministry of the Interior. Below is an excerpt from the introduction in this presentation.

Aikido has one unique characteristic that distinguishes it from other martial arts; there are no tournaments in Aikido. Practice consists of partners taking turns throwing each other and in turn taking falls. There may be a difference in the level of experience of those practicing, but the practice itself is 50-50; each partner with an equal chance.

A characteristic movement in Aikido is a tenkan, which allows a partner to turn and see in the other direction. Ultimately a partner has the opportunity to see the situation from the direction of their partner and all other angles by continuing to tenkan in a circular manner.

Aikido does not rely on force. Instead Aikido is a physical practice of blending with your partner’s direction and intention; moving, changing, adjusting and using body movement to communicate with flexibility until a solution is reached and the conflict is brought to a conclusion. This practice is done without injury or damage to a partner, physically or mentally, in the safest and most effective way.

In Aikido, kicking and punching are not used to neutralize an aggressor. The approach to resolution might take a little bit longer, but in the practice of Aikido minimum damage is realized with maximum power.

In Aikido we do not learn how to hit, resist, or interfere with a partner’s technique, for winning and losing is not the focus. Two partners work together to execute one technique together, creating movement greater than the sum of its parts.

Practicing this art daily, repeating the movements and working with partners, offers physical mastery of the techniques but also a great change in attitude. Practicing this kind of physical conflict resolution leads ultimately to understanding and facilitating conflict resolution in other realms of our life experience.

Incorporating Aikido into training for supervisors, and even in military leadership training I find beneficial on a number of levels.

If you are more interested in learning how to do the Aikido techniques like you have seen in some Hollywood movies, you might not be interested in my approach, but I don’t believe you will be able to understand the true meaning of the philosophy of Aikido either!”

As an Aikido Instructor, I have gone to areas that are involved in local conflict, and I can see as an outsider, that the origin of the dispute goes beyond any object of contention. The dispute might be over a plot of land or a pot of gold, but on a deeper level the dispute resides in a lack of understanding and emotional control on both sides. There will always be more fertile ground, more food, more oil or more rich minerals in the earth. It is not what people have or have not that causes the disputes as it is the human weakness of seeking dominance and control. It is much the same as the lady persistently asking for her missing shrimp; the dispute originates in the heart. This is why I believe that hinso kaiketsu is the key to solving these kinds of problems.

Teaching Aikido with this important philosophy, in areas of the world involved in conflict, is my way of trying to facilitate conflict resolution. If I can teach people on both sides of a dispute to practice Aikido together, it can be one step towards hinso kaiketsu; realization and resolution.

This might sound a bit lofty or self glorifying, but I truly believe that Aikido or any martial art taught without this philosophy is as dangerous as giving people knives and not teaching them how to use them respectfully. It will have the opposite effect of any conflict resolution.

I am not the only Aikido instructor that knows this truth, there are many Aikido instructors that work daily on the front lines, with extensive experience “in the field” that also understand and teach Aikido facilitation of conflict resolution.

Funso Kaiketsu
conflict resolution
IS
Hinso Kaiketsu
resolution through understanding our own frailties, vulnerabilities and biases.

In our world weapons are used more often than not to try to solve conflicts and disputes. Hinso Kaiketsu requires not a baton, or a gun or any weapon at all. It does require time, but time well spent challenging and changing the frailties of our own minds and hearts. One technique for approaching this inner challenge I have found in Aikido. Aikido is the facilitation of conflict resolution and its practice can be a step towards the resolution of conflict in our world.

Aikido Nippon Kan General Headquarters is a place of study dedicated to the development of conflict resolution and Engaged Budoism through the integration of Aikido philosophy. We learn by doing, and we are doing by learning through AHAN projects and activities throughout the world.

Thank you for your continued support of our activities.

Nippon Kan General Headquarters Founder
Gaku Homma Nippon Kan Kancho.
August 15, 2009