Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Random Memories #48

This is a continuing series talking about the time I spent working in a Japanese office. The other parts are here: 12345, 6.

Before I get to what I expect to be the final part of this series of memories about working for a Japanese company for 12 years, I'd like to turn to talking about the parade of coworkers I had over the years (which may take a few parts because it was a lot). It's easy to talk about "those darn Japanese" and their quirks and issues, but it would be unfair to represent the foreigners as being without their own issues as well.

A lot of people feel that the people who choose to work in Japan have issues of their own. The notion is that they are there because they can't cut it back home, have some personality problems, or are just too strange to fit in in their native culture. My experience tells me that the oddness of foreigners in Japan is something being there tends to breed in some of them, not something that most of them come off the boat with. Well... actually, they may be odd ducks off the boat, but they are not odder than the fowls back home.

Everyone is a little strange to those who don't know them or share their "family culture" or their local area culture. I think we just tend to notice quirks and personality issues more when there are fewer people around and the dominant culture is there as a strong contrast. So, in Japan, we would notice other foreigners' behavior more strongly, or perhaps they just don't hide it so well because they feel freer in a culture which already regards them as peculiar.

With that in mind, I'll talk about my experiences with coworkers. I provide the aforementioned context because I don't want there to be a misunderstanding. I'm not saying these people would not behave as they did in their home cultures. I merely am talking about my experience and the people who were a part of it. I actually worked with equally notable people at my first job in the U.S., but this is about my memories of Japan.

As I mentioned before, my company sold English to corporations, not individuals. Companies in Japan recruit large numbers of new employees from university and those people enter the company in the fall usually. Because of this influx of newcomers, the company would see a surge in business around October and a drop-off around the beginning of April. They needed to often double the staff during those months, so each year there were new temporary teachers and I, as I may have mentioned before, started there as a temp.

In my initial "busy season", I was hired as a latecomer and started in December 1991. At that time, my Australian boss, D. was the manager and there were three other full-time employees. They were John, Doug, and Jolene. Jolene had been there the longest at a little over 2 years and Doug the shortest at less than a year.

Jolene was a midwesterner who did everything with the speed of a cow chewing its cud. She spent any downtime she had reading the English version of Newsweek that the company subscribed to or books that she brought in or writing letters to folks back home. If you've ever seen a T.V. show in which a secretary lets the phone ring eight times while she keeps filing her nails and answers at her leisure, you'll get some idea of her approach to the tasks at hand. She generally did her share, sometimes a bit less, but she was in absolutely no hurry to do more than she felt like doing at any given time. She knew that getting on top of things meant she'd have to help those who were slower, and she had no interest in that unhappy business.

Jolene was married to a Japanese man who worked in some sort of dull company job and she absolutely hated being in Japan, but she felt trapped there because she had no earning potential to speak of back home and her husband's work could only be done in his native country. Every day, the energy she brought to the office reflected the fact that she didn't want to not only be there, but on Japanese soil. The only time she exuded any positive feelings or smiled was when she talked to D. She sucked up to him any time he came over to see how we were doing.

In terms of chatting, Jolene favored speaking with male coworkers, especially the younger and more attractive ones. She was about 8 years older than me, in her mid-thirties, and seemingly not entirely thrilled with her marriage. She remarked at times on the laziness of men and how they expected women to do everything for them. One day Doug talked about liking apples quite a lot when we were given some as a gift, and Jolene snidely remarked that he probably only liked them when someone else peeled and cut them up for him.

One truth about me is that I have always been head over heels in love with my husband. I adore him. I enjoy being with him as much as possible, even after 26 years of togetherness. You know how women sometimes complain about their mates to their girlfriends? I have never done that. It's not that my husband is "perfect", but rather that when he does something which is a problem (or I do), we talk about it together and it gets resolved between us. I've never felt the need to carp about him to other people. I've also never had that feeling that some women talk about in which they say, "we all want to kill our significant others sometimes." I've never felt that type of anger or frustration - not because we're perfect people  but because we don't have any emotional baggage weighing us down. We unload it as we accumulate it and it keeps the slate clear.

The thing about being so joyously happy with your partner is that it pisses off people who are not experiencing the same level of happiness in their marriage. Jolene took offense to whatever I said which didn't jive with her worldview on how married people should be dissatisfied. It's not like I argued with her, but rather I did talk about how happy I was to spend time with my husband, especially when our schedules for some period of time were such that we only had one day off a week together. That dislike initially manifested as being snarky and cold with me at times and later turned into a complete silent treatment.

Jolene's attitude toward the job and overall laziness was not lost on the president. At one point in the summer, when things were pretty slack, she wanted to take a month off to go back home and escape the horrors of life in Tokyo. The president, as you may know from my posts before about how he illegally limited the time off that foreign employees could take, found this utterly unacceptable. Though he wouldn't have to pay her, the idea that he'd permit a lowly contract employee to take such a lavishly long vacation while the Japanese rarely took more than 5 days in a row just couldn't be done.

Despite the fact that she was married to a Japanese person and had lived in Japan for around 3-5 years at that point in time, Jolene did not "get" the part of Japanese culture which says you don't get more than everyone else. She looked at it from the American viewpoint and that was that they didn't need her during those months - and they didn't, people often sat around doing nothing for all but about one hour of the day during such dead times - and it would actually benefit the company not to have to pay her salary for that time period. To the president, the money was not the issue. The point was precedent and power and the two of them squabbled over this point.

In the end, Jolene became even more embittered after the president turned her down. He also had called the foreign staff together at one point and asked what people did in their down time. He pointedly asked Jolene to which she awkwardly said, "like everyone else, I read or write letters or do something personal." She didn't understand it, but he wasn't asking the question to embarrass her. It was his unsophisticated way of introducing the idea that the teachers from now on should use their time to do projects for the company like help write textbooks or create materials.

Though I later came to do that work for about half of my working time, it was not something that was being done by anyone but D. up until that point. I had entered the company about six months before this change came into play, so it seemed like a reasonable request to me. I hadn't had several years of twiddling my thumbs and doing whatever I wanted to do behind me. No one was taking something away from me.

Jolene, on the other hand, was very agitated at the prospect of having to do the things the president expected. In particular, she was utterly intimidated by the idea that she'd have to learn to use the computer systems the company had to type and write materials. When I dove in and learned the command-line interfaces on their antique PCs and started busting my ass to produce content for them, she hated me all the more. I didn't do what I did to embarrass her, but she took it as a way of showing her up. If all of us slacked, she wouldn't look like she was being as uncooperative as she was. My work broke any hope of solidarity about not assuming these new responsibilities.

It was this last change that was the straw that broke the camel's back for Jolene. Faced with the prospect of not being permitted to take a very extended holiday and having to learn new skills which she was afraid to even try, she quit. Frankly, I was glad to see her go considering her animosity toward me.

Jolene was my first encounter with a breed of foreign woman that I was to see again in Japan. That is, she was married to a Japanese man, but didn't want to actually live in Japan anymore. Such women had little recourse but totough it out if their husband's had no marketable skills abroad and did not want to give up their careers. They were especially "trapped" by circumstances if they couldn't step up to the plate and make a decent living back home while their husband kept the home fires burning - not that many Japanese men would agree to such an arrangement.

In no way am I saying that all foreign women with Japanese husbands feel this way. In fact, I think more of them find ways to acclimate and be happy with their lives in Japan than not, but there is a certain minority who were in Jolene's rickety marital boat and most of them hated me for the luxury yacht I live in. I not only didn't hate living in Japan (though I didn't always love it either), but my husband and I were free to go at any time. I didn't have to face a choice between my husband or my country. (to be continued)


  1. Thank you for this series. It's a great insight into the company politics of a mid-size Japanese "kaisha", and confirms many preconceptions I had about these kind of enterprises.

    Japan, in general, does attract a special breed of Westeners. I wouldn't go as far as to call them "losers at home", like many Japanese do, but there are a lot of people here who for whatever reason feel that they have to do such an extreme thing (i.e. move to Japan) to get ahead in life. This goes hand in hand with the problems Japan faces in attracting "elite" people from abroad. I have met a couple of bright people back home who went on to become "elite", i.e. get scholarships at Ivy League universities or leading positions in corporations, and not one of them ever voiced much interest in Japan at all, and would never have considered living there. It's just not on the menu of the intelligentsia. They seem to have a good instinct that they wouldn't be able to reach their full potential in a society like Japan's.

    Therefore it could be said for most Westerners who try to live in Japan (like me), is that they either lack this instinct and don't understand the reality of Japan before they live here, or they are in fact so much worse off back home that Japan means an improvement to them.

    Even thought I have not a lot of sympathy for people like Jolene who maneuver themselves into a corner - unhappy marriage and living in a place she hates - I feel empathy for her situation, because she seems so weak and is prone to end up severely depressed as it's unlikely that she'll muster up the courage to get a divorce and leave Japan.
    I can't even begin to imagine how somebody who hates Japan but isn't free to leave must feel. That's the way "gaikokujin-hikikomori" are born.
    As much as I love my wife, if she ever insisted on living in Japan or else get a divorce, I wouldn't even need to think about it - I've made my mind up a long time ago and being trapped in this society is not an option.
    Was anyone in the office trying to help Jolene, i.e. have a long conversation with her to get through the point that it's high times she corrected her mistake and got out of Japan?

  2. Admittedly I lived in Japan many years ago. But I saw a wide range of attitudes in foreigners living there: from intense disdain bordering on hatred to great affection and respect for the culture and its people. A few 'gai-jin' I knew wanted to become as 'Japanese' as possible...not really possible. I took that to be a reflection of their sense of alienation from who they were and what culture they came from.

    I look forward to more on this in future posts.

  3. Thanks for an interesting post. I lived in Japan from 1969 to 1971.....a long time ago! But I knew people like Jolene as well. It was sad to see someone doing so little, if anything, to make the best of their life circumstances. I must admit, though, that I tried to have little to do with such people because I did not want their negativity to contaminate my own experiences there.


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