Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Random Memories #59

This is the enormous butt of a duck in stuffed toy form. Given what I mention in this post, the reason for showing something's tail end will become clear. FYI, this is in Sugamo, Tokyo. And, no, I don't get it either. 

This is part of an ongoing series that I've been doing about my memories of working at the same place for 12 years. The other parts are here: 
12345678910111213141516, 17.

While Steve was the foreigner half of the materials development "team" that was brought in when our company was acquired - if two people can even be called such - Mr. Hagihara was the Japanese half. From the start, he was a strange entity. We weren't even sure of what to call him because sometimes he wrote his name in roman letters as "Hagiwara" and sometimes as "Hagihara". While the Chinese characters for his name could be read either way, surely he had a way that he was generally addressed in Japanese and that was the reading his family followed. It seemed as if he couldn't even make up his mind about who he was or wanted to present himself to be at the most basic level.

A superficial examination would lead one to conclude that Hagihara was a slightly mod version of the average Japanese businessman. He wore his hair a little long in the front and had a habit of theatrically tossing a lock back with a snap of his head when it fell in his eyes. He wore suits and ties, but his pants were stove-pipe cuts that resembled the early Beatles' attire. On one occasion, he came in with a fuzzy tail pinned to the back of his pants. It was a fashion choice that I hadn't seen since my high school days in the early 80's and seemed extremely bizarre on a Japanese businessman in the 2000's, especially as a choice for wearing in a conventional office environment.

When he first assumed his position, my boss, D. (who is from Australia) was uncertain of the command structure and was rather deferential to Hagihara. He didn't know if they were at the same level or if this strange creature was his boss. To that end, he tried to accommodate him as best he could. At one point, someone had left a cup of hot water with a tea bag in the break room and this apparently offended Hagihara's delicate sensibilities. D. asked me if it was my cup and I said that it was not. When I queried about why this was a cause for concern, he said that Hagihara wanted the offending item removed from the kitchen as he felt it was "starting to stink." That was the first and last time that I ever heard anyone object to the aroma of an over-steeped teabag.

As time went by, D.'s initial regard for Hagihara degraded as we learned that he was very poor at the job he was supposed to be doing. When he did the work, it was barely adequate English teaching material. More often than not, he seemed to get very little done at all and presented us with far too little far too late more often than not.

D. was in a bit of a bind not only due to the confusion about the hierarchy, but also the fact that our new boss/president, Mr. G., seemed to be friends with Hagihara. It was difficult for him to lodge a complaint about the slipshod work that was being done when he was under the impression that he would be narcing on the president's buddy. All of us who were from the original company were wary of our status compared to those brought in from our acquirer's company. D. kept mum, and time eventually solved the problem.

Hagihara was never great at the job, but he did initially show up for work. As time went on, he started to miss days and, when he did show up, he appeared increasingly bedraggled in appearance. Frequently, there were no calls to the office to say that he would be absent. When someone tried to reach him at home, there would be no reply. As time went by, he didn't seem to be shaving or showering every day. His clothes were sometimes rumpled or the same ones that he wore the previous day. Days on which he looked groomed and appropriate were becoming rarer and rarer. 

His absences became so common that it took over a month of missing work for us to wonder if he was not coming back. D. and I worked around him when finally word came down that Mr. G. was giving up on him entirely. For several months, there was not a peep from Hagihara about why he was gone or for how long. When D. finally made an enquiry, he learned the sorts of truths that rarely reach foreign ears when working in Japanese companies.

After talking to Mr. G., D. learned that the president and Hagihara were never buddies despite what the latter lead D. to believe. They had worked together at the parent company, sure, but they weren't in any way closer than most employees. Mr. G. believed that Hagihara was deeply in debt to loan sharks and that his absences were related both to the reason for those debts and his attempts to avoid his creditors. Chances were that his disheveled appearance on so many occasions was the result of not being able to go home to wash and dress for fear of running into whatever goons were chasing after him for money. 

It took about eight months of this sort of behavior and Hagihara's seemingly permanent disappearance before the company decided that he was finished working for them. They tolerated his erratic behavior, poor work product, and unaccounced absences. This may surprise those who see Japanese workers as cogs in well-oiled machines, but Hagihara was not the first Japanese person whose unprofessional behavior was tolerated nor was Mr. G. the only top boss who put up with it. One thing I certainly learned during my years in Japan was that the Japanese can be incredibly patient and tolerant when they want to be, or at least they are with employees who are not foreign. (to be continued)

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