An interesting scenario played out several weeks ago in the president's office at Kyorin University in Mitaka, Tokyo. Robin Sakamoto, the recently appointed dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies, was sitting with the president and a few members of staff. Enter the secretary to serve tea.

"Of course she served the president first," Sakamoto recalls, "and then she turned to serve another man in the room. Yet she suddenly stopped dead in her tracks, returned to the tray for a different tea cup, and then served me second instead."

There can be a lot going on in Japan with one cup of tea. Despite being the second-highest in seniority in the room, Sakamoto is also a foreigner — an American — and a woman, so she understands fully the dilemma, undercurrents and significance of the secretary's quiet decision.