I have been living and working in Japan for twenty years now. ‘Japan? Cool!’ said a good friend whom I hadn’t seen in all that time when we caught up.
‘Well, erm’, I wanted to say, but was far too polite. I don’t think the reality of Work Japan matches the cachet.
But how would I describe the experience to anyone who had not been here? And why would I describe the experience to anyone who had?
The other night, I had a dream that captured something very real about the experience of working here and this will serve as my explanation — or my memento mori. By way of background, I have been labouring most of this time for one Japanese owned and managed company that employs a number of native English speakers as teachers. Some of the characters in this dream are people in the real world —others are not literally, but may as well be.
Now, close your eyes … you are feeling very sleepy.
I have to get to a meeting with the native teachers, the westerners, I supervise. I am running late.
The office is big, open plan, and grey. On every surface, files, books and papers are piled in a chaos of conspicuous effort. The staff scowl and study every window on the computer screen, every sheaf of printed paper as if it is the most important workthing ever, and the company, if not the world, will end if they are not seen to be scowling importantly at all times, at all things. Workers shout across the room at each other so that everyone else knows they are doing something important with the maximum effort. Workers run in a mad panic to retrieve from the printer the email they have just printed out which they then send by fax to the person who sent it originally to demonstrate they have received it and make it official.
I thread my way through this thinking life would be more cheerful in a leper colony.
F-san is chairing a meeting. F-san — whose extravagant compensation-for-middle-age hair-do makes his already over-large head look even bigger, like a big ball peen hammer on a chop stick — is chairing a meeting. We know F-san is important because he admonishes his colleagues loudly and publicly, and when he does so, he rolls his Rs like a junior gangster. In this country, you intimidate people by making a noise like a kid imitating a motorbike. F-san is good at it but this meeting is a very pally affair with his peers, his nearest and direst, all uniformly dressed in official drab and whose faces express the gravest official gravitas.
As I pass the enclave, F-san turns to me smiles smugly and says, ‘This is how we do meetings without Americans.’ This winds me up. ‘Americans’ is a term used by any small-minded individual to mean ‘westerner’.
I mutter ‘Arseholes’ in response, and I think to myself, well, that ‘arseholes’ was probably a bit loud, a bit audible to F-san, but whatever, if there are consequences, I’ll deal with them. In fact, do me a favour and fire me. Indeed a significant pause seemed to have barged its way into F-san’s meeting.
I hurry on to my own appointment, which is held in a big playing field-cum-park adjacent to HQ because we’re not permitted a real meeting room.
I greet the droogs, and say that I have a feeling there’s about to be a big hullaballoo, at which point the hullaballoo goes up. F-san in his ire has fetched the king, has set the monarch on me. And when the king comes cantering on his big white charger over the crest of the hill and into the playing field, I see that he in turn has set his entourage on me. Not only his pages and his squires, but his princes and princelings too, and they are all cantering on white chargers only slightly less splendid than the king’s, and behind them, pell-mell on foot down the hill come F-san and his un-merry men, flailing at the effort with grey jackets and barcodes a-flap.
The king locates me without any hesitation. He is the king after all. His skin, like that of every member of his entourage, is grey and metallic, and suggesting very much that they are cyborgs. They wear dinky medieval crowns in the European mode, and puffy florid clothes.
‘F-san tells me you told him to “Fuck off”.’ His speech is as foppish and effete as his dress.
I relax and sigh with relief, because I can say with absolute honesty that I didn’t.
‘F-san!’ bellows the king.
The king interrogates. F-san has been thrown into a tizzy of palaver. He is in awe of the king and he is tongue tied and wit-twisted.
Did this man say ‘Fuck off’?
Now F-san is not so sure. I am very confident in my denial and the king wants unexpected verification. F-san had accused me of a ‘fuck off’, because that’s what all Americans say, don’t they? Don’t they? He has no answer.
Panic erupts among les eminences très gris. S-san runs for it and has to be fetched back.
So the king has been summoned to hear an allegation that has been denied but not pursued. Not only was he summoned, but in turn he summoned his whole court. We can’t all go back to what we were doing before, and we definitely can’t say sorry. And the king must be seen to take the side of F-san because, well, he’s management. He cannot be seen to punish the Americans excessively because he is a merciful monarch, and well … he may well be wrong. But he must be seen to do something.
He issues orders to his aides, wheels his steed about and canters back up the hill whence he came followed by the entourage who are followed by F-san and his crew all in the manner of their arrival.
I find myself in the custody of a western guy I have not met before, but who seems to be one of the king’s men. He is courteous but way too cool for his own shirt. He leads me away into town, to a hidden location to meet my fate, which turns out to be temporary incarceration in a cake shop. The cake shop is run by jovial westerners and it seems I am required to watch them make cakes. To the king, it is a wise compromise.
As is mandatory on these occasions, I wake in a cold sweat, kicking my bedding across the room. And then I realise it was a bad dream and subside onto my pillow. And then I realise I have to get up and go to work and the real nightmare is about to begin.