Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Random Memories #42

If the internet is any reflection of what people think about Japan, it would seem that, when most foreigners conceptualize Japanese men, they seem to embrace one of two stereotypes. The first is the wacky-weirdo-otaku (geek) who dresses funny, plays with toys, watches anime, or does some such man-boy activities. These are the guys whose pictures show up in various photo memes demonstrating how freak flags are flying from every mast in Japan.

The second stereotype is the boring, stoic, "salaryman". This is the guy who spends all day at the office, grunts in response to questions, wears a suit that makes him look like every other guy, and plays golf on weekends. He supports his family, but knows little about them and he and his wife live largely separate lives.

Neither of these images is especially nuanced or even true. They are superficial and reductionist. Real people are diversely strange and lead far more interesting lives than is demonstrated by the cursory glances you get of them from mass media. Those boring salarymen might be lying to their wives and blowing their kids college income at pachinko or their business trips to Thailand may include visits to every bizarre sex show and prostitute in Bangkok. The wearing of diapers may also be involved. Those geeks may be pretty boring when they're not putting on maid uniforms and walking around Akihabara. You just never know.

Well, I know, since I worked in a Japanese office for 12 years and got to know a wide range of people. Some of them were superficially suited to the stereotype, but, as time went by when you scratched the surface, they took on far more depth and texture. Yes, Japanese are people, too.

The company I used to work in was located in an area of Tokyo called Nishi-Shinjuku for the vast majority of my twelve years with them. It was a fair trek from the far better known Shinjuku station. Shinjuku is one of the biggest urban centers in terms of nightlife and shopping in Tokyo. It was also my favorite area because it had more variety packed into one somewhat expansive area than any other district that I experienced. People don't tend to talk about it as a monolithic entity, but rather focus on Shinjuku-ni-chome for the shopping, Kabuki-cho as a night club and red-light district, and Nishi-shinjuku as an outskirt area in which less affluent businesses can rent some office space while still retaining a prestigious Shinjuku address. I always thought of Shinjuku as the Manhatten of Tokyo. That perception is mine alone, of course.

My former place of work, as I've mentioned on many occasions, was a correspondence lessons company. It was started by a man who once considered becoming a Buddhist priest. That probably conjures up thoughts of a bald, robe-wearing, zen man who was seeking enlightenment and attempting to be one with the universe, but you have to keep in mind that Japan isn't a religious country. Getting into religion is a business there. People run their own temples and make money at it. It's a job, not a calling. I'm sure there are some deeply spiritual people in Japan. I'm just not sure they're aspiring to be running their own temples, and the former president was definitely not the sort who was seeking enlightenment.

In fact, this man was an opportunist. Instead of becoming a priest, he decided to marry a woman who, in that time frame, was considered too tainted to be taken by another man. She had lived abroad in England in the 60's and spoke English well. By the time she came back to Japan, she not only was too influenced by foreign culture to be acceptable to most men, but she was well past her sell-by date. Keep in mind that as late as the early 90's, the idea of "Christmas cake" (women who were "no good after 25") was still alive. No one wanted to marry a woman who was not painfully young and naive back when those two were "courting".

The truth was that their union was a classic "omai" (arranged marriage) one in which a few go-betweens put them together. Ultimately, the former president was paid a large sum of money to marry this woman who'd become fairly unacceptable in the eyes of most men in Japanese society. After spending some time as a salesman for Time-Life company in Japan and learning the ropes for sales, he eventually quit his job and used the bribe money to start the company I worked at.

The president was a lucky man in one particular regard. He started the company at the beginning of Japan's economic bubble. This was a time when people were throwing cash at gold statues and snapping up high profile real estate abroad. It was the build-up to fears that Japan would take over the world and companies were throwing money willy-nilly at anything and everything. It was the equivalent of lighting cigars with twenty-dollar bills.

In this environment, the president started a company in which he and his wife ran a two-person business. He sold textbooks that she wrote and they self-published. These lesson packages included correction by hand of homework essays as well as telephone call "lessons". She did the correction and calls from a tiny little office until the business expanded and they hired a native speaker to start doing this work.

The fact of the matter was that, while she was an excellent English speaker, she still was not perfect. Her English, as is the case with many people who lived abroad and returned, was frozen at a point and level at which she learned it. She made mistakes and often used antiquated English. Sometimes, working with her reminded me of the way Mr. Burns spoke on "The Simpsons" when he used phrases like "so-called iced cream" and "pretzeled bread". The dialect of the time had passed him by and he didn't know the rest of us called these things "ice cream" and "pretzels". Mrs. O, as I will refer to this lady from now on, was frozen in the language of the time as well as her preconceived notions of grammar.

(to be continued)


  1. I very much loved Shinjuku too, for the reasons you mention.

  2. Looking forward to the next installment!

  3. You are painting a horrible picture of Japanese society. Thanks for bringing out the truth behind the "polite" facade. I like your style of just describing.


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