Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Musings of a Gaijin in Japan

Twenty years ago I boarded a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Tokyo.  I was not overly excited at the prospect of spending 12 days in the “Far East”.  I  told my employer I wanted to get involved in “international business” and had been enjoying increasingly frequent trips to Europe and South America. The order to “visit Asia” seemed like a price that had to be paid to enable me to keep traveling.

Armed with a narrow world view and almost complete ignorance of Asia, I stumbled out of Tokyo’s Narita Airport and somehow managed to get to my hotel to meet the “mentor” who had arrived the day before and was supposed to teach me about the most populous continent on the planet. It took me a full six or seven minutes to realize my “culture guide” was almost as clueless as I was.

After a run and a shower I was ready to get my Asia business started so I could go home. Twenty years to the day later, I am staring out at the Osaka night from my perch in the Ritz Carlton reflecting on the love I have for my “second home”.  In 1995, I could not have imagined that my young daughters would attend school in Japan, graduate high school in Shanghai and that I would spend more time in Asia in the ensuing two decades than I spent in the US.

The local business partner my former employer had in Japan in 1995 was used to a steady stream of “clueless gaijin”. I was initially treated with what seemed to me to be a cool, condescending respect. In reality I was just another body in a long line of people that they had to babysit. Guests from the alleged superpower across the Pacific who were functionally illiterate and culturally ignorant when in Dai Nippon. 

The jet lag induced 1 am stroll I took through the Akasaka entertainment district on my first night was the beginning of my fascination with Japan. That bleary eyed walk through the neon lights and abject difference from anything I had ever experienced whet my appetite to learn more about the strange place I had only experienced via bad US WW2 movies.

When I got back to the North Carolina after my first trip I bought language tapes, read books on Japanese culture and prepared for my second trip which was only a few weeks later.  The bar was pretty low to outshine my colleagues with our Japanese partner.  I returned to Japan with a 20 word vocabulary which essentially enabled me to order green tea ice cream and beer with fluency unknown among my peers. I learned to enjoy small wins like not getting  lost on ten mile runs and being able to get a cab driver to take me back to my hotel without help – like I said low bar and small victories.  Our Japanese partners were well aware that Americans often fell in love with Japan in the short term but often did not have staying power. I soon lost interest in going to Europe. The business I was in was growing in Asia and I gradually became determined to see if I could become functional in a very different world.

After over 40 trips to Japan in five years, I was asked to move my family there and focus on growing the business in Asia. My wife was prescient enough to realize moving to Japan would be good for the family so we embarked on a three year assignment that lasted eleven years.  I knew our Japanese partners respected my efforts to learn the nuances of their culture but, the dark side was they also saw me as a potential threat and asked my employer to keep me in the US. After their request was rejected they welcomed me on an arm’s length basis  because they had no choice. I made the best of the situation.

Time and words are inadequate to explain how much our time in Japan meant to my family. Like any middle aged gaijin moving to Japan, my struggles and frustrations were frequent .  Despite my best efforts my language skills were at best “functionally fluent” which yields a lot of benefits in Japan but also left me feeling like a failure on most days when the meaning of so many of the words hanging in the air escaped me.

Our more than five years in Japan passed quickly. Suddenly we were living Shanghai – a new country, new experiences and new frustrations.  Many days found me longing to be in Japan but I rarely missed the US. Due to the nature of my business and proximity of Japan, I traveled there more than 70 times in the five years we lived in Shanghai. I never doubted my status as a gaijin but always felt at home in a way that never happened in China. I mean no disrespect to China as we also had a great experience there and the team we assembled in Shanghai is still the high point of my business life.  Finally, after an eleven year sojourn, we returned to the US.

After growing my business profits ten fold  in little more than a decade, my reward was getting fired less than two years after returning to the US. I took little solace in the fact my former employer lost 30% of their sales in Asia after I was fired. My victory was being bailed out of a tough spot by my Asian friends who quickly ensured my fledging advisory company more than replaced my prior income.

As I look at the late night traffic jam 28 floors below me and think about the last 20 years, I know I was fortunate to  be given the chance to live here and feel some measure of pride that I took advantage of the opportunity.