Thursday, September 26, 2013

Will Miss #525 - Mt. Takao

I wish I had taken a walking stick or ski pole. Older ladies like these were out-climbing me left and right. 

Mt. Takao is the lesser-loved child of the Japanese mountain family. Every would-be tourist knows Mt. Fuji and many are drawn to it like a magnet. It's a point of pride for visitors and natives alike to say they've scaled "Fuji-san", but Mt. Takao is really where the climbing action is at in my opinion.

Takao is closer to Tokyo and easier to climb than Fuji. It's also less riddled with litter and tourists. Incidentally, don't mistake "easier" for "easy" as I did. There are 9 different trails of varying difficulties and I arrogantly chose the hardest one. It's supposed to take a little under two hours to scale it, but I huffed and puffed my way for nearly four hours because it was so steep that I needed to stop and rest. Of course, I was 47 years old and have a bad back and a bum knee, but, still...

Takao is beautiful, offers varied climbing experiences, and a lot of interesting sites along the way (temples, nature, etc.) as well as enough vending machines to keep you hydrated. I wish I had had a chance to climb it again and again, and I miss not having that opportunity. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Random Memories #49

This is part of an ongoing series that I've been doing about my memories of working at the same place for 12 years. This is a continuing series talking about the time I spent working in a Japanese office. The other parts are here: 123456, 7.

Last week, I wrote about one of the three foreign instructors with whom I worked at my former job at a Japanese company. I should note that, as I was writing that sentence, I "censored" myself from saying "teachers". There are two reasons for this. The first is that we did not actually "teach" as we worked by distance with our students and the capacity to do real instruction was quite limited. The second was that the company would not allow us to be graced with the title of "teacher". That would mean we'd have to be addressed as "name+sensei" and we didn't warrant that sort of respect around the office. We were always called "name+san".

Getting back to the point, which is the trio that I began working with in late 1992, the second most senior employee - after Jolene- was a man named John who had been there for a little under a year. John was from Michigan and 26 years old. He dressed relatively well for an office job in which one had no contact with clients. He generally wore long-sleeved, button-down shirts and dress slacks. Only the manager dressed more formally than John as he wore both a tie and jacket as well, though it should be noted that sometimes John came in wearing the same clothes that he did the previous day and looked a bit worse for wear.

John looked an awful lot like Bruce Willis in terms of his facial features. He even had a similar receding hairline which matched Willis's at that time. This was long before Bruce became entirely bald, or chose to become so, because shaving your head looks cooler than male pattern baldness. The main different between John and Bruce was that the former could play the latter's "mini me" in a movie. I don't know exactly how tall John was, but he was a bit shorter than me and I'm 5' 4". My best guess is that he was 5' 2". While I was dead average in height for an American woman, he was very short for a fellow countryman of the opposite sex.

Besides the obvious advantage of the potential to act as a "charisma man", John also had a higher chance of finding girls who were shorter than he was in Japan. I'm sure that, with his small stature, he had had at least a few problems attracting women back home. Most women prefer a man who is taller than them. That was rather easier to accomplish in Tokyo. It turned out that finding girls was something John excelled at during his stay in Japan.

It would be unfair to assert that John was a "charisma man" because the truth was that he was charming in his own right. Among my coworkers, he was the person who I bonded with and got along with the best and the fastest. On those occasions in which we had the time and opportunity to talk, I found that he had a great wit and a keen mind. That being said, one thing about John became rather obvious quickly; he did not respect the job he was doing one little bit.

Many people may feel that the job of English instructor is not one that one should respect, but it has always been my feeling that all jobs should be respected both by the people who are paid to perform them and those who are paying to receive the fruits of the labor. If a job is unappealing to you in some way, you should not do it - especially when you have a choice in the matter. John wasn't a single mother trying to support a family and therefore forced to do work he hated to fulfill his economic responsibilities. He was a middle-class white guy with a college degree and some Japanese capability. He needed the Japanese, of course, to pick up girls more effectively.

When we sat around the big table we used for correcting the four-page reports that our students sent in, one of the instructors said that we were "teachers". To this, John said that we were not "teachers", but rather we were "graders". What he meant was that we were correcting and scoring the paperwork and performing no real valuable function.

He saw the work as repetitive and mindless. The truth was that, it certainly could be so. We corrected between 10-40 reports a day. On my better days, I could get that number up to a whopping 80, but that was just me and I had to practically kill myself throughout the day to do that. It was repetitive, but that was only one aspect of the work, albeit an important one.

Beyond the reports, we also did the five-minute telephone lessons. The lessons had structured content so the students had to prepare meticulously for them. It was more of a test of their learning than a lesson, but it served as a motivation to do the textbook material and as a chance to give feedback. The scores we gave the students were reported to their companies and they used that information to make decisions about who to invest in further training for in some cases and who to send abroad in others. It was work of value to the companies who bought it, but John saw all that we did as pointless busy work.

During some of the phone lessons, I was stationed in the cubicle next to John's. Invariably, one person would get blocks of time in which a student would forget to call or choose not to because he or she had not prepared for the call's content. At such times, one could not help but clearly overhear what was going on in one's neighbor's call. On multiple occasions, I heard John say things to female students which were inappropriate such as calling them "honey" or making mildly suggestive and snarky remarks. There is no way that the students understood what he was saying so they weren't insult. They were probably just confused by English they didn't comprehend. His behavior, however, was a reflection of his complete contempt for the job and his lack of respect for the students, particularly the female ones.

Despite his bad attitude, John did appear to have a pretty good work ethic. He and I were the fastest and most efficient with the reports. This was extremely important since the loads at times could be very heavy and the company was always pressuring us to offer "same day" service. They promised companies that they'd have their reports back in three days. That was one day for it to reach us, one day to correct, and another day for the postal service to get it back. It was a tough promise to keep, and it surely helped to have a couple of correction powerhouses who could get the work done, particularly when you considered that there were slugs like Jolene on the job. Someone had to make up for their lackluster performance.

Though John was smart and fun to talk to, his adventures with Japanese young women were troubling. He didn't exactly brag about his prowess with the ladies, but he also didn't mind letting us know that he was dating a small bevy of what he believed were beauties. I never saw a picture, so I could only take his word for how desirable they would be to an audience that wasn't a short guy from Chicago.

During one of these talks about John's exploits, one of my other coworkers, Doug, asked him about "protection" during these escapades and he said that he used none. Like many men, he said he couldn't feel anything if he wore a condom. He rather favored the "pull out" method to ensure there was no pregnancy.

While I cautioned him that this method is hardly 100% foolproof, Doug was flabbergasted that John was not worried about the potential for disease. If John could persuade these girls to leap in the sack with him, then there was a chance they had been with other partners. He wasn't exactly "Mr. Commitment" so they surely weren't thinking this was a long-term relationship situation. Monogamy wasn't likely on the table for them just as it was not for John. Even if John was certain he was originally disease-free, he couldn't know for sure that the girls were not and that he might not be spreading diseases around. John brushed aside Doug's concerns by saying that he "only dated nice, clean girls." When we questioned how he measured their supposed "cleanliness", he waved off our concerns by saying that he "could tell."

This idiocy was part of an increasing pile of evidence that John thought with his loins, not his brain. He loved the illusion that he was a player and, even further, that he was so good that the girls who chose to play with him only "played" with him. He seemed to feel that it was only his incredible charm that persuaded them to part their knees. They wouldn't offer themselves for anyone else.

These sorts of situations did dampen my notions that John was intelligent, though I still liked him in general as a person. I thought he was certainly stupid about some things, but definitely not a moron. I'd met dumber people than him in Japan - quite a few actually.

One day, the evening shift (Doug, Jolene, and John) were sitting at the correction table doing their work while the morning shift (myself and 4 other temporary workers) were on the phones. We split off into two shifts in order to stagger in the phone time with half the number of cubicles. Usually, I was in the booth doing calls until 3:00 pm. John expected I wouldn't be around until the end of the schedule was completed, but I had about a half hour of free time at the end, so I headed out to the correction table to do that work instead.

As I approached the table, I heard my name. John was talking about me to the other two and what he was saying was crude and cruel. He was analyzing what he thought it would be like to have sex with me and it was extremely judgmental of my body. If you read my former post, you know that the fact that I was happily married in a manner which I did not keep a secret was part of why Jolene came to loathe me. John knew I had no interest in him as anything other than a friend, but he was nonetheless speculating on having intercourse with me.

This talk shocked and disgusted me. The derogatory and disrespectful manner in which he spoke of me when he'd treated me not only as a friend, but as a welcome presence in the office, felt like an incredible betrayal. He had been entirely nice and friendly to my face. In fact, there was no reason to believe that he felt anything but enjoyment while speaking to me as he often initiated conversations. What I realized was that John was incapable of seeing women as anything but objects that would or would not fulfill his sexual desires. In the end, we were all just cuts of meat to him.

I did not try to hide my approach, and when it was clear that I was there, John pretended he'd said nothing. I called him a back-stabber and told him he was two-faced as he feigned ignorance of what I was saying. When I didn't let up, Doug suggested that John give up the act and take his medicine. That was the end of any friendly feelings I had toward John. I continued to be civil to him, even appropriately cordial, but I did not trust him or converse with him beyond whatever was necessary for the job again.

John's attitude about the work was not lost on the manager, D., nor was my attitude and work ethic. Though John believed he put on a good enough act that no one could detect what he was doing or how he felt about the work, D. knew better. John felt he could charm everyone while still getting away with being an asshole behind their backs. He did it to me and he thought he could also do it with D.because his desk was about 12 feet away from our work table. Just as John slipped and I overheard the ugly things he had said about me, he must have slipped and D. had learned a few things about what was going on with John and the job. He was smooth and charming, but careless.

The busy season ended in late March for most workers, but I was asked to stay on for a couple more weeks when the huge influx of reports came in from deadbeat students who sent their work in at the last second. I was to leave around the middle of April, but D. sat me down and asked me if I'd like to stay. John's first year and his initial contract were going to expire some time in June. In an act of what certainly felt like poetic justice, D. fired John and hired me in his place. (to be continued)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Won't Miss #34 - Japanese politicians (reflection)

I used to read the news for Japan several times a week when I lived there. Now, I'm lucky if I remember to have a peak at "Japan Today" a couple of times a month. That means that I'm not privy to what "those darn politicians" are saying these days unless whatever is offered is so egregious that it crosses the ocean and taps on the American media's shoulders. Usually, that means I get a head's up when the Japanese say something really rude about another country (as happened not too long before this post when the governor of Tokyo insulted Istanbul when the bids to be the Olympic host were still in play).

The truth is that, while I don't miss Japanese political shenanigans, and especially  the "foot in mouth" disease, I'm no happier with the game-playing that you see among American politicians and it's equally hard to ignore.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Shameless Non-Self, well, Minimal Self-Promotion

Loco's book is currently available as an e-Book for the low price of $2.99. I heartily endorse it, as you'll see if you're patient enough to get through most of my inane prattle. 

Quite some time ago, I read a book called “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes. No, don't go look it up. You're not going to want to read it. It's heady stuff and of interest mainly to people who enjoy talk about historical texts and the analysis of language in order to extrapolate something about the psychology of our ancestors. I will just say that the general idea of the book is that humans didn't always possess a conscious mind as we do now.

When I speak of our current consciousness, I mean the way in which we talk to ourselves in our own heads. You see a couple on the street and the woman looks angry and the man is touching her arm and talking softly to her. You wonder if they just had a fight and he made her mad and is trying to calm her down or make amends. That “wondering” is you talking to yourself.

In Jaynes's book, he makes a case for our minds not always working in this fashion. He postulates that we used to actually have conversations like a schizophrenic has audio hallucinations. That is, humans in the past used to hear a voice that does not sound like theirs and that they interpreted as being not their own. He felt that this was interpreted by those with such “bicameral” (two-sided) minds as the voice of God. Our own personal deity was instructing, advising, and interpreting for us according to his theory. Instead of you wondering to yourself whether or not that buy pissed off his girlfriend, your own personal god was saying, "Hey, that guy is mad," and you would say, "I see. Thanks God! I couldn't have figured it out without you, man."

It's a fascinating postulation, and it cannot be proven in any way. However, it would explain why many cultures had a lot of different gods in their religions. With so many minds hearing so many different unique voices, there would have to be more than one god to encompass the perspectives and individual experiences of reality that each person was having. Creating a god of love, of peace, of war, of hedonism, etc. would allow for a way to understand the reality and represent the thought processes of each person or groups of "like-minded" people.

Inhabiting the reality of other people is a tricky business, and we do not tend to operate in a world in which we have a bunch of gods to represent various perspectives anymore. Each “inner voice” which is a part of an individual's consciousness is relatively private. The only way that we can come to understand to some extent the reality that another person operates in is through their relating of their unique stories, feelings, and opinions. For me, the beauty of writing has always been that it allows me an opportunity to help others see what it is like to live in my skin and live with the particular “voice” in my head. The beauty of reading is that it permits me to gain a window into reality as others experience it.

The reason that humans have a rich tradition of story-telling throughout history – a tradition which predates writing and started with handing down stories orally – is that most of us value this sort of perspective broadening. Though we often want to negate the experiences of others when they do not synchronize with ours, I believe on some level that we are seeking to know their reality. We want to know what secrets go on behind the eyes of other people because they will confirm something about what goes on behind ours.

If you ever wondered why people in Japan read Japan blogs when they already have firsthand experience, and, indeed, some who believe they have seen and know it all read most vociferously (and argue), it's because somewhere in their smug complacency, they know someone has had some unique experiences that they have not. They want to know them, even while saying they don't need to. I feel that we all need to be open to reading about the experiences of others, especially when they come from someone who lives in a “skin” which is very different from our own. You can't fully understand what it is to be another person or to do the work they do with the people they do it with, but you can at least get a taste.

To that end, I want to talk about Baye McNeil's second book. It's a book that I've already read twice. In fact, I edited his book for him because I respect his talent and story-telling ability so much that I wanted to be a part of his growing career as a writer. If you read his first book, you know that he is an energetic, entertaining, and humanistic wordsmith who has lived a life in Japan which few of mainstream Japan bloggers have lived – and that none have written about so well. There are bloggers and there are writers and, as I've said before, Baye is a writer.

Baye's second book is rather different from his first in that it is focused more upon the people of Yokohama and his anecdotes from his time with them. It contains multiple slices of his life that come together to form a tasty “cake” with delicious nuggets that sometimes shock and often delight. You'll be reading along and you'll bite into a chapter and be surprised at that spicy little tidbit hidden in the fluffy content. You'll find something bitter that shocks you, or something super sweet which warms your heart.

I lived in Japan for 23 years, and had a lot of experiences during that time. You might think that I saw and lived it all, but there is very little overlap between Baye's life there and mine. In terms of the types of people he has met, the relationships he has had with them, the places he has been, and the things that he has done, we have little in common aside from our sensitivity, astute observational skills, and desire to analyze and understand and to grow from our experiences.

The only thing we have in common in terms of our Japan experiences is a general experience with prejudice, and even then, beyond the oh-so-common “empty seat”, there is a marked difference in how each of us encountered bigotry in Japan. This book was engaging to me despite my vast base of knowledge and experience because, I did not work where he has worked and certainly did not have the experiences with (frankly, somewhat scary) children that he has had. And, rather obviously, I'm not a black man. That does make quite a difference in how you are related to by the Japanese. If his stories are “cake”, then mine are “pie”. They're both sweet, but the texture and substance are quite different.

Comparing his book to a confection is actually somewhat inaccurate as it may imply that it lacks weight or heft. I will say that it is not nearly as much about self-revelation as his first book, but that would be impossible given how personal it was. His second effort is as much or more about Japan and the Japanese people than about Baye, but it is a perspective on them that only Baye possesses. It is his inner voice, or "personal god" if you like, and the only way you can also hear it is through his stories. It's a voice worth hearing, and I hope that my readers will consider listening.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Will Miss #33 - weird KitKat flavors (reflection)

Ramune and lemon vinegar flavors.

Around the time that I left Japan, Nestle Japan seemed to be changing their marketing strategy. The days when they regularly (and somewhat frequently) released bizarre one-off flavors seem to be over. There is still the occasional freaky flavor as well as the regional offerings, but the treadmill of weirdness has stopped.

That doesn't mean that I don't miss these strange flavors. What it means is that I'd miss them to some extent even if I was still in Japan!

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)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

About comments lately

I'd like to apologize to my readers for not getting to comments on my blogs as of late. My husband and I were doing apartment hunting and then moving (our 6th move since returning to the U.S. in March 2012) and it has been extremely difficult. I read every comment and appreciate them (on both blogs!), but haven't had time to craft replies. Rest assured that they are at least read!

Also, there is a bug with Blogger which will not allow me to automatically turn comments on for each new post. I have to manually set each and every post to allow for comments since I cannot do it universally. Sometimes, I forget to change this setting. If you can't comment on a particular post, it's not because I don't want comments, but because I simply forgot to click that particular option on one post or another. If you really want to comment and can't, let me know that a post is locked out and I'll go back and make the fix.

Thanks for your patience and understanding!

Won't Miss #525 - aural anarchy in shops

One thing which I hated in stores in Tokyo was the high level of noise. It wasn't just the normal playing of music in shops that you get in the U.S., but a near constant stream of announcements or advertising. When I walked through the local supermarket, Inageya, they'd constantly be playing their jingles over the loudspeaker and they stationed cassette players (yes, cassette players) around the store that blared out sales pitches. On top of that, you'd have people yammering over the loud speaker all of the time. I'm not talking about the occasional "please man checkout 3" sort of thing, but just constant chatter about whatever.

This sort of sound chaos was not rare or uncommon. What was rare or uncommon was to walk into a store and just find mellow music calmly and tastefully playing in the background. I won't miss the onslaught of noise that often accompanied shopping in Japan.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Will Miss #524 - Ebisu Garden Place

There is a certain ebb and flow to life in Tokyo that I have not found since returning home. It's possible that New York City carries the same vibe, but I somehow doubt it. The way it works is that there is the rush and crush of life centered around the stations. The closer you are to one, the more people there are and there is an enormous concentration of shops. As you move out, you discover that there are more unique places - offbeat little shops and restaurants, often along the shopping streets or shotengai.

As you move still further out, probably in the range of 15-30 minutes from a major station, you find oases of larger space and tranquility. Some of them are new and refined and others are old and traditional. In Ebisu, one of the nicest of these spaces is the Ebisu Garden Place area. It's unusual in that it has vast open areas that you can stroll through and it is far enough from Ebisu station not to attract enormous crowds of casual shoppers. Most people will go there because it's their destination, not because they stumbled across it.

The area is amazingly clean and almost breathtakingly vast in the feel of its spaces. It also has a European feel to it while still retaining an essential Japanese quality. There's a mix of the posh and the pedestrian in terms of the shops and restaurants. There's a Burger King and a Krispy Kreme as well as the insanely expensive Joel Robuchon restaurant. I miss having access to this little oasis in the city.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Random Memories #47

This is a continuing series talking about the time I spent working in a Japanese office. The other parts are here: 1234, 5

The image most foreign folks have of Japanese workers is one of people who are hard-working, respectful, and loyal. It wouldn't be too far fetched to say that many employees start out that way, but you can say that of a lot of new employees. No one is happier and more diligent than when he or she gets a job and wants to make a good impression. It's only as time goes by and the indignities and disrespect pile up that the bloom goes off the rosy outlook on employment.

As I mentioned in my last post, as the years went by, the company I worked out started to list like a ship in a choppy ocean. It was also taking on water at a scary pace. As this happened, the president, who like many Japanese employers talked about how the company was like a "family" started to give some of his lesser children up for adoption. We had around 8 salesmen during our peak, but when sales started to drop, he would call one into his office and "persuade" them to quit.

I can't say for certain how this process works as I was never in the room when it occurred, but the scuttlebutt that I heard lead me to believe that it essentially was the president saying that he'd have to cut the salary down to an intolerable level if that person remained based on their performance. I think that, in some cases, it also may have been a case of him saying the equivalent of, "This really isn't a good place for you anymore, is it? Perhaps it would be better for you to find a place that was more suitable for you." No Japanese staff person was ever actually fired. They always "decided" to quit.

As sales grew worse, more sales people were put on the chopping block and the full-time foreign staff was reduced through attrition. Besides my Aussie boss and I, most people didn't remain long. When I started, there were 3 full-time foreign teachers and the manager (the aforementioned boss). When I left, it was just the two of us. During my last 7 years or so with the company, we were the core of the operation from the viewpoint of teaching and text-making.

There was the revolving door of temporary teachers that included my husband for some of my years there, but not all. It was a colorful parade which I want to talk about, but that will be for a later post. For now, I want to talk about how the atmosphere and staff changed as our sales dwindled.

The respect that the Japanese staff showed the president was somewhat proportional to how generous he was with them. They tended to be more deferential and put on a happy face more often for him before he started pruning the underperforming staff and getting crabbier with them because they didn't keep up the previous bubble-economy-level of sales figures. They also spend more time sniping about him behind his back and spilling his secrets.

The office manager, who was a quiet, relatively gentle and even-tempered person, became surprisingly confrontational with the president over time. One day, the president's meddling with the Japanese office lady (O.L.)  in charge of the layout of the texts at the time caused her to become so upset that she cried. The gossip machine whispered that the office manager was diddling this particular O.L. on the side (he was married and had a daughter) and he took particular umbrage to what had happened. He charged into the president's office and yelled at him, saying that the big cheese didn't know how to handle people and didn't know what he was doing.

You'd think that would have ended with a sacking of the office manager, but it did not. Part of the reason for that may have been that that particular man was working on a Chinese language program for the company and, with China looking like a big up and comer economically at the time, it was promising to be a new cash cow for the company. It could also be that the president knew that the entire company was starting to slip through his fingers and he didn't want to start shaking the trees at that point in time.

To "manage" the situation at the company, the president started to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic in the hopes that it wouldn't sink. I don't know if this is well-known, but it's common for salespeople to be in charge of a large company or a number of companies as their steady clients. The idea is to make sure that such big cash cows get steady and reliable attention from someone who knows their needs well. The salesperson builds a relationship with the company by regularly visiting, sometimes just to say "hi" and bring gifts, as a means of keeping the wheels well-lubricated and the company's business with ones own company.

Our salespeople had certain companies that they'd had for years. Most of them hadn't even made the original sale to them, but inherited them from someone who'd already left the company. A senior salesman would often get a bunch of big clients handed to him on a silver platter and he'd just kick back and effortlessly milk the cow someone else had worked very hard to lure into his pasture. In fact, the senior salesman who I spent the longest time there during my tenure spent most of his days wandering around the office, reading the paper, making tea, hitting on the office ladies, or chatting with people while incessantly patting their shoulders for the duration. Sometimes, he'd even nap in his chair. He rarely worked late. Actually, he rarely "worked" at all.

At any rate, when times got bad, the president started to madly shuffle the client lists around to different salesmen. A junior employee would bust his buns to get a client only to have it handed over to someone else. This behavior only hastened the economic downfall of the company as salespeople started to leave. The domino effect of this was that companies didn't have relationships with the same person and therefore found it easier to shop on price rather than show loyalty to a company they had a long-standing situation with.

Every year, my boss and I would be told how poorly the company was doing and every year, it kept on going. One day, the president was showing some men around the office and my boss said that he thought the president might be trying to sell the company. It had been his baby for more than 25 years. In fact, it seemed to be his whole reason to live. I could not fathom that he would sell it off to another company, but, one day, we were told that was exactly what he had done. From there, things changed dramatically for us, particularly since the company that had bought us was a subsidiary of my first employer in Japan, the dreaded conversation school, Nova.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Won't Miss #33 - PET bottles, everywhere (reflection)

When I was still living in Tokyo, I never researched the reason why people put PET bottles full of water all over their property. This eyesore was to stop cats from doing things, especially peeing on the property. I was told that they were placed there for that reason by many of my students and acquaintances and never looked any deeper.

However, it has been suggested to me that there are other possibilities. One was that it was a way of storing emergency drinking water or water for strangers to drink when they walk by. While these would be reasonable theories, they are not in keeping with Japanese thinking. No Japanese person would touch a drop of water that had been stored outside of their home, particularly in an unsealed bottle that anyone could come by and contaminate. Most of the people I spoke to were too suspicious to eat a free sample given away on the street, even a sealed one. There was a great deal of squeamishness about safety.

Also, it was not likely that they'd put water out there because it allowed them to store their earthquake supplies. Even if they wanted to use if as washing, cleaning, or toilet flushing water, they wouldn't store it in public. It is simply not done that way in Japan. It's not even done that way in most areas of the U.S., particularly not in suburbs. The desire to put on a "nice" front could only, apparently, be overridden by the scourge that is stray cats. I finally did do some research, and these bottles were put there because of cats. A Japanese T.V. show tested the theory because the habit is so common

I don't miss seeing these bottles all over the place as I'm not a fan of people lining up trash in front of their homes in any country. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Will Miss #32 - such nice, clean people (reflection)

As I mentioned in the "won't miss" portion of this two-part post, Japanese people aren't necessarily as clean as their reputation would lead one to believe. People litter, and there aren't as strict laws in place to punish them for doing so in Japan like there are in the U.S. More than one student would complain to me that people would throw their trash bags out their car windows on the highway and there was either no law to stop them, it was not enforced, or the punishment wasn't severe enough to cause people to dispose of the trash properly. 

The main difference between Japanese folks and Americans on this front is that the Japanese were meticulous about keeping the spaces around their businesses or homes clean. They'd take matters in hand and pick up after others. This kept areas looking nice. Here in the U.S., there is often trash in the streets in front of stores, and it can remain there for a long time because no one picks up after passersby who litter. 

I still miss the fact that Japanese people had an ethic which said that it didn't matter who created the problem when it came to litter or dirt. Regardless of who messed it up, someone would clean it up.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Random Memories #46

This is part of an ongoing series in which I talk about my experiences working for a Japanese company for 12 years. The other parts are here: 123, 4

In the previous post, I talked about some of the reasons that I stayed at my former company despite being treated unfairly and being at the mercy of an idiosyncratic and sometimes mercurial president. The biggest reason, however, is that it afforded me one opportunity that I almost certainly would not have had elsewhere. It allowed me to work side by side with my husband.

After about 6 years of working at a language school, my husband was having persistent health problems that would not improve. He had been the manager of one of the schools for a few years and later stepped down to be a co-manager. Finally, he decided he'd prefer to just be a teacher.

While the idea of managing may sound great because there's no actual teaching involved, the truth was that dealing with Japanese management was a cryptic and difficult experience. His Japanese superior was a mumbly, incoherent man who even the Japanese office ladies could not understand when they were all communicating in the same native language. He expected his subordinates to magically intuit what he wanted to have done and when my husband didn't do this, he'd blame him for any misunderstandings.

It was always my opinion that this sort of indirectness, especially come from the top, was their way of making sure that they never had to be responsible for anything. If they were unclear and you were responsible for guessing at what was wanted and things went badly, you could be held accountable. Of course, it could simply be that this guy and others like him really simply couldn't make themselves understood because they were raised in a culture in which indirectness was seen as a virtue.

As the economy tanked and his company down-sized, he got shuffled to a branch that remodeled in such a way as to place a smoking area right next to the teacher's prep area. Since a part of my husband's health issues was that he had developed asthma and throat problems, this was intolerable and his (gaijin) supervisor was indifferent to his problems. People had to be able to smoke and they couldn't smoke near anyone except the lowest employees on the totem pole. That would be, of course, the foreigners.

I encouraged my husband to quit and rest so he could get well. He did so and focused on going to school to study Japanese for about a year when it occurred to both of us that he could work as a temp during the busy season at my company if they'd take him. My Australian boss didn't want him to work there because he was afraid that he'd be replaced with someone who would work at a lower salary. He was very agitated and told me this outright after my husband mentioned his interest in working there to the president, but my husband had no interest in displacing my boss at any salary. He and I just wanted to have extra income and work together.

For about 9 years, my husband and I were able to work together for between 5-8 months of the year. This may not sound great to many people, but we are unusually attached to one another and this was very important for us. The single biggest reason that I stayed at my job for as long as I did was that we could commute together, sit in our cubicles together, and have lunch together. Despite all of the disadvantages of the job, this one thing kept me there. I only entertained quitting when business tanked so badly that hiring a full-time temporary teacher looked extremely unlikely and we knew that our days of working together were over.

The truth is that it was extremely unusual for a couple to be allowed to work together as we did. My husband's former school, the one at which he'd been a manager, would only employ couples if they worked for separate branches and it is Japanese custom for Japanese employees who married after meeting in their company to be moved apart after the wedding. While the president of our company was a childish, interfering, and unfair employer, he did give me one thing that I was unlikely to get anywhere else - the chance to work with my husband.

The end of our time working together felt like it was the end of the company coming up on us, but the president managed to pull a rabbit out of his battered old hat, and that's what I'll get to next time.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Won't Miss #524 - lots of deadly halitosis

The Japanese labor under the idea that foreigners stink more than they do. Deodorant is sometimes advertised as helping people who have the body odor issues of a non-Japanese and many supremely stinky people live their daily lives offending others because they've bought into the idea that all Japanese people don't have the same glands as foreigners and therefore never need some antiperspirant.

It may or may not be true that Japanese people don't have B.O. as often as gaijin ("outsiders"), but one thing which does appear to be the case is that Japanese people have their own issues and I'm talking about halitosis. I was subjected to more than my share of people, especially men, who could kill small creatures with their toxic breath. I don't know if this was caused by a lack of oral hygiene (though I did note most women were meticulous about tooth-brushing), diet, or health issues, but I do not miss the frequency with which I encountered people who had obnoxious and highly potent bad breath, especially when teaching them in a cubicle.