Mr. Wake

Are you understand?

Location: Kamakura, Kanagawa, Japan

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Bank Party

I went to a "bank party" on Friday. As far as unenticing descriptions of fun events go, "bank party" is up there with "eel fair", a promotion I saw at a Japanese grocery in New York. Don`t want too many people to come to your party? Bill it as a Bank Party.

This was a Start of Year gathering put on by a bank for its biggest customers. Pappa-san, and , the shacho, were invited. They both thought it would be smashing to have me come along to meet and greet and highlight the international nature of their company.

The first hour and a half was a lecture. There were about 300 attendees, all middle-aged men in suits. The speaker wore a jacket and turtleneck, marking him as an intellectual and most likely a university professor. I don`t know for sure what he talked about. But based on the slides and the liberal sprinkling of English loan words, I can make a guess: Everyone knows that Japan is a bunch of losers on the international scene (contrary to what the international scene frequently says about the Japanese, a lot of Japanese actually seem to think this). But look at these numbers. The GNP of Japan is much higher than that of most European countries. The GNP of Tokyo alone is about equal to France`s and twice that of Canada (which everyone knows are awesome international countries). Japan needs to wake up and get its act together to compete on the international stage (what the hell have they been doing?!). To do this we need to adopt certain American business tactics. "Innovation","Vision", and "Close Functional Teams" were all English words he used to describe the business techniques from the US of A. At my old company these words would be replaced with "Multiprise", "XML", "Laser focus", and "ROI". And of course it would be completely unsurprising to go to an American bank party and find the lecturer lauding the business strategies of the clever Japanese.

After the lecture there was a smoke break. Many had cancer sticks in their mouths before they left the lecture hall, and half blazed up in the lobby. No need to take it outside. Next, with the "bank" taken care of, we could get to the "party". Doors to another ballroom were opened (they`re still called ballrooms. 100 years from now no one outside of New Orleans will know why). Pretty girls in gowns and scarves made out of the same silky material flanked the doors and bowed in unison as people entered, saying irashaimase, welcome. If they had been replaced with robots no one would have noticed. Everyone had a letter on their name tags that indicated which section they were to stand in. Little tables were arranged with bottles of beer and glasses in each section. A series of buffet tables ran down the center of the room. After some brief spechifying, the girls in silky gowns flowed out to each little table, and we were treated with the rare but unmistakable sound of 100 forty-ounce beers being popped open. Tngk-fssss. Everyone poured everyone else`s beer, a long toast was made, and kampai. Time to get to work. I was introduced to a the president of the bank, the president of the company that makes 80% of the wrenches in Japan, the lecturer in the turtleneck and jacket (a Harvard professor, no less), and one guy my bosses didn`t know, but introduced himself to me to see what the hell I was about. I did turn a few heads. Shacho said that it looked like he and I were Pappa-san`s bodyguards. The introductions took about 40 minutes and two whiskeys.

I just so happen to notice that the silky girls kept busy. In a fascinating roll reversal they would mill around and just stand next to a cluster of business men to see if anyone needed drinkor food. If someone looked bored and alone, a silky would smile, and chat with them, and laugh at their jokes. Several times one would approach me and a president of something being introduced, wait a tasteful about of time for a nod or a look, and when none came she would move on.

Party was done at 7:00. At 6:50 a tap on the mike indicated some closing words. The words lasted 5 minutes. The room was clear by 6:59, silkies back into robot mode bowing and bidding arigato gozaimasu.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Are you understand?

On my desk the following day was this note:

It was attached to a piece of paper that looked like a can of Japanese had been shaken up and sprayed on it.

Am I understand?

No I'm not.

Before I had a chance to delve too deeply in my new "assignment" the tour guide from yesterday gave me a stack of xeroxed pages that I now take to be the training manual. I'm as understand of this as I was of the other thing. My lack of understanding was compounded by the fact that some pages of this document were copies of copies of faxes of copies. Think it's tricky making out all those little Japanese characters when they're clear? Tour Guide was nice enough to write out the pronunciation for the pertinent ones. This makes it much easier to bang them into my little electronic dictionary and get some of that sweet, sweet English in return. It was a testing checklist for a typical part. Minimum thickness after processing. Hole size +- 0.2mm. I spent another hour on that first page that was left on my desk and called it a day.

The next day had me doing some actual work. I put on my blue cap and went to the quality check room. There a guy whose name sounds like Hogarth showed me the ropes. I can't say I understood what was said, but checking a part's quality consists mostly of measuring thiknesses and widths with a little miracle device called a micrometer . This seemed easy enough, but I was started on even more basic stuff. A bin of little doohickies came in. For the first round I was to forego the micrometer and just make sure that each part had two holes, two nuts, and a bolt. I'm sorry, but that's what it was. And guess what, they all did.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Working man

I have about a week of work under my belt now. Except for five other people I think I had the wierdest first day of work ever. Wife and papa-san picked me up at the Y after my Japanese class to have lunch and go to the factory. The factory is in two main parts: The Factory and The Office, which I like to think of as The Bridge. My work day started at 2:00 with everyone on the bridge stopping work and standing for a speech by the company president. He introduced his sister (my wife) and me. I made a speech in which I apologized for interrupting their day and taking up their time, apologized in Japanese for not being able to speak Japanese (I`m going to be one of those guys), and told everyone that I would work hard. They applauded to a degree that indicated polite acceptance without indicating a level of understanding. I was issued a grey desk, uniform, and a blue company ball cap. One can remove the cap on the bridge, but off the bridge everyone pretty much wears it. Women who work on the bridge wear jackets and skirts a few shades off of Century 21. And blue caps.
Factory tour. I`ve had these before, but they are always awesome. If you had told me when I was 14 that I would be working with gigantic Japanese robots that shoot lasers I would have blown a gasket.
The tour included an office where Chan-san was lecturing five Chinese guys. When me, wife, and president entered they all jumped to their feet. Judging from their reaction at the time, their less than subtle glances afterward, and what I would hear about their history, I was probably the first white person they`d ever met. I shook their hands, which is an action I reserve for when I want to lather on an extra dose of America. I even threw in a round of nice-to-meet-yous. The responses ranged from soft mumbles to drill instructor .
What I would later learn about these guys is that they all come from families of poor farmers. Their houses in China lack running water among other things. Of 30 people the company interviewed in China, these guys were chosen to come to Japan and work for three years. Their three year tour stared three days ago.
After the tour wife left, president went off to do stuff, and I was left at my desk. My desk is one of four in a little cluster on the bridge. The guy next to me and the woman across filled their day with flipping, stamping, and filing onion skin paper forms and invoices. The woman has a shoe box full of little stamps. The other guy next to me has a cash box he must have obtained by robbing the 5:15 bound for El Paso. It says "Cash Box" on the side. He`s got a label maker that stamps out checks, and he does his math on a freakin abacus.

I studied Japanese for about an hour until the day was over. When ever anyone got up to leave the bridge they put their hat on. President wears a suit instead of a grey uniform, but he does not leave his hat behind.

That night was cause for celebration. 6 new employees and all of them foreigners. So President, Wife, 5 Chinese guys, their Chinese boss and interpreter, and myself went to Sun Mario to tie one on. Later on another company worker joined us who Wife says has been working for the company for as long as she can remember and has not changed at all. In semi formal situations Chinese will not take a sip of alcohol unless everyone else does at the same time. For about an hour these guys aged 20-23 sat with open beer cans in front of them and only touched them when President would make a short speech, stand up, and yell "kampai!" Then each one downed about half a can. Food arrived which was a Sun Mario greatest hits list. Chicken wings, tuna sashimi salad, fried rice, garlic fries, and pizza. The 5 Chinese Brothers had never had pizza before and they ate their slices with chopsticks. Every particle of meat, grizzle, and skin was devoured from the chicken wings, reducing them to white bone. We moved on to vodka shots. After one does a shot in China (which is does after a short speech and at the same time as everyone else) one shows the bottom of the empty glass to one`s fellow revellers. The guys were asked what countries they wanted to live in eventually. Singapore, Japan (smartest answer of the bunch), America, Australia, and Las Vegas. Johnny was the one who voted for Las Vegas (every Chinese person I`ve met has had a western name they use with us). Johnny had a funky hairstyle and I think for this reason alone was made to drink more than the rest of us. We moved on to tequila. Enough empty glasses had been shown before the tray of salt and limes arrived, and an explanation as to their purpose seemed moot. Before long the other company guy explained that one salts the lime, then sucks the juice, and it has nothing to do with drinking tequila.

I`m glad the Chinese guys are there. Selfishly, I`m not the lowest guy on the totem pole. Also, 10 years ago I came to Japan without knowing a hambaga from a borupen, and I envy the experience they have in front of them.

The night was all that late and the following morning wasn`t all that bad. I got up and continued my new daily routine.