"What do you think of Japan?"
"Well it certainly isn't Kansas!"
- Exchange between Japan Old-Hand and newly arrived visitor
The flight was uneventful. My only real memory of it was that the seat was very narrow and the food bad. We landed in Narita at about eight in the morning. Lining up at the immigration counter, I was struck with a sudden sense of panic - what would happen if they didn't let me in? I still get it sometimes when I go to a country for the first time. Anyway, the immigration official concluded that I was acceptable and passed me through. Jim, Gerry and I retrieved our luggage, passed through customs, then changed into suits and shaved in the gent's toilet. We were originally to be met by someone from the company but at the last moment we were told to make our own way to the Tokyo City Air Terminal in the city centre. We found the ticket stand and bought our tickets one by one. Gerry bought his first and then proceeded outside. By the time myself and Jim got outside, Gerry was already on the bus. We brought our bags over to where the attendant was standing, but instead of loading them on the bus he shut the luggage bay doors and told us to "Please wait". Gerry looked out in amazement from the bus as Jim and I watched it drive off. We had learned our first lesson about living in Japan - buses leave on time!
Jim and myself got the next bus about twenty minutes later. Riding into Tokyo, I was struck by the endless urban sprawl, and the number of high rise buildings that reminded me of the old Ballymun flats, a group of seven apartment blocks that made up the only high rise development in Dublin at the time. I was also surprised it could be this hot in October! We got off the bus at the TCAT, and were met by a middle aged man smiling incessantly, who had already met Gerry and who introduced himself as Tsuzuki, emphasising the `T` so we wouldn't confuse him with a motorbike. Leaving the building to get a taxi, it was weird to step outside and see the entrance faced out onto what in Ireland would have passed for a motorway. We were taken to a hotel beside the company headquarters and left our luggage there. We then went into the headquarters and were introduced to the top people in personnel and the members of the Overseas Personnel Group who would "look after" us. We then went to lunch. On the way from head office to the restaurant, we passed a shop selling dried fish, and I wondered would I be able to live in a country that smelled this bad! I also remember thinking it ironic that after all the warnings we had been given on the Japanese course about adjusting to Japanese food, my first meal in Japan was spaghetti! After that we were allowed to return to the hotel because we were "probably tired". My room was on the seventh floor, and it struck me that I had never been that high in a building before. I crashed out at about 4 o clock, and when I awoke, at precisely 6:20 the following morning, my bed was shaking from side to side. Having heard about love hotels (hotels that cater specifically to couples who want to have sex) during the Japanese course in Dublin, I first assumed this was a service provided by the hotel. By the time I noticed that the curtains were also moving, my first earthquake was over.
The next day was a Saturday, and Gerry's friend Eamonn met up with us that evening to show us around and have a few drinks with a few other Irish friends. It amazed me somewhat that having just travelled half way round the world, Saturday night was a few drinks with the lads, business as usual. The following evening also, we met with Ronan and Tim, who worked in the factory I would be going to. Ronan, also from Dublin, had been here one year, and Tim had just arrived from America. On the Sunday morning, Jim expressed an interest in finding a church, which Gerry and I did not share. We walked around for a while, and I was cautious to look out for landmarks, and wary of going too far from the hotel in case we got lost. This may sound wimpish, but we were in an environment where nothing was signposted in a language we could understand. Even if we met someone who could give us directions we could understand, we could not rely on instructions such as "turn left at the post office" because we could not tell a post office from a butcher's shop! Realising how vulnerable that made us was an eye opener. We were no more capable of finding our way around than a five year old!
Monday was the orientation session at head office, where we were told about the company history, and given the rules to the company dormitory in which we would be staying. Reading these gave the impression of a convent - curfew of 9:30, and the necessity to live a "happy and pleasant life". One of the employees kept telling us how "taihen" (difficult) it was to translate the company rules and regulations into English for us and that under no circumstances should we show them to anyone else. At first they refused to even give us a copy, but Gerry was insistent and we got one. We found out later that the secrecy was because the pay and benefits we were getting were slightly better than the Japanese staff, and they did not want the worker's union to find out.
That evening was our welcoming party, at which we met the whole of the overseas personnel department and pretty much all of the foreign employees in the company. It was here that I met the remaining two Kawagoe co-workers, Niall and Alex. I had found the Niall Berkery who had been referred to in the restaurant in Dublin 5 days before! He was surprised to find out I already knew about him. Alex, therefore, was the first non-Irish, non-Japanese I had met at the company, and I initially had some difficulty understanding his English. His grammar was very good, but his accent was almost unintelligible. Alex was from Newcastle.
The fact that I had already met two people in the same company, Eamonn and Niall, who had both done the same course in college as I, and who both lived relatively near our home, gave me a cushion to overcome any homesickness I might have had, since I was definitely not feeling alone here.
On Tuesday, we moved out of the hotel to the dormitories. The company provided cars for the two other guys and people to go with them, but I was left to take the train out to Kawagoe with Tim. There was some confusion when we checked out, because when I reached the factory, although I had checked that my luggage would be sent out to the dormitory, there was already a message from the hotel wondering why my luggage was still there. Tim brought me into the general affairs department, where I met a man called Nakamura. A small, quiet type who seemingly could not make even the most trivial decision without first smoking a cigarette, (when I declared my intention six months later to leave the company dorm and move into an apartment, it took nearly half a pack before he acquiesced.) He took me out to the dormitory to unload my briefcase, be shown around the facilities and go to a nearby convenience store to buy necessities such as bathing utensils, and then back to the factory to meet my bosses. After meeting the factory manager, I was brought to the software engineering department, and one engineer named Komata was assigned as my translator and mentor, what they called a "junior leader". With him in tow, I was taken into a meeting room to meet the head of that department, who asked me in a very schoolmasterly tone why I wanted to join the software engineering department. I was a bit taken aback by this, because this was the first I had heard of it! Desperately trying to remember if I had said anything about liking software at the interview in Dublin ten months previously, I bluffed my way through an answer. I was then shown to my desk, and introduced to the members of the team I would be working with. After this I was given some English manuals on the microprocessor for which we would be designing the software, and told to read them. My career had begun!
Work finished at 5:10, and I got the bus and train home, guided by Tim since I still had not remembered the way. Since my luggage didn't arrive for two days, I had nothing to do so I went down to the lobby to watch TV. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Japanese television shows American movies with two audio tracks, dubbed Japanese and the original English, so I had some form of entertainment to sustain myself. The room, and the dormitory itself were new and thus quite clean. The room was about 4m by 2.5m with a desk and chair, a bed, a wardrobe and a wall mounted heater, with a shoe cupboard by the door.
When time came to take a bath, it was my first attempt at communal bathing since secondary school, where all the boys took quick showers after gym class. I was surprisingly unbothered by it, simply being careful to ensure my gaze did not stray anywhere untoward, and my facial expression give any misleading impressions that I was anything less than perfectly cool with the situation. The bathroom had a small changing room outside with plastic baskets for people’s clothes. I stripped and went into the bathing area, with my bowl and bar of soap which I had bought that day strategically placed in front of my groin, and sat by one of the shower heads around the 3 walls to wash myself before getting into the large aluminium tub against the fourth wall. Having heard so much about the importance of bathing etiquette to the Japanese, I was surprised to see some of the dormitory residents simply splash some water over their backs before getting in the tub, and washing themselves more thoroughly after they got out. I spent a few minutes in the hot tub, having a very simple conversation with one other resident, then got out, dried off and got dressed again before going back to my room. (Normally, I would have changed into sweat pants, but they were in my suitcase.) I went to bed reasonably pleased with the way I was handling these new surroundings, and all the traumas that the course in Dublin had built me up to face. I was now actually "living" in Japan!
For the first couple of weeks, all the foreign employees hired that year (three Irish, three English and one American) had Japanese lessons in head office from 2PM till 5:30PM. This necessitated leaving work just around noon, having lunch in McDonalds by the station, and riding into Meguro in downtown Tokyo every day. The first day this happened was Wednesday. As we rode the bus from the factory to the station, I rehearsed what I would say in the MacDonalds. I was eager to ensure there would be no widespread panic caused by me failing to remember all those well practiced phrases from the course in Glasnevin. This, after all, was my first real attempt at shopping in Japanese. My pulse raced as I stepped up to the counter, but the young girl behind it said in near perfect Californian accented English, "May I take your order?"
When we met up in head office in the afternoon, we compared impressions about the dormitories and workplaces. The other guys were fairly negative, and by all accounts I had landed in the best dormitory of the three. This was probably because it was the newest, having been built only one or two years previously. Gerry's dorm was over ten years old, with smaller rooms than mine, and he said the first time he stepped into the corridor leading to his room and saw all the doors to individual rooms on one side, he felt like he was going into a prison. When I saw his dorm some weeks later, I knew what he meant. They were only small differences between his room and mine, like the tiled floor instead of a carpeted one, the smaller size of the room and, most strikingly, the chest height small window compared to the floor-to-ceiling window I had but it did make the place seem very depressing by comparison. I later found out that the rooms in that dormitory were meant for two people, but for the foreigners they conceded to remove the upper bunk bed.
The following morning I went to apply for my alien registration card. Mr. Nakamura took myself and Tim to the city hall. Much ado had been made during the orientation course in Dublin about the objection to fingerprinting, but it really didn't bother me at the time. I remember being much more distracted by the fact that the official who was trying to take my fingerprint made me give a sample three times, and seemed to be very worried that he was down to his last piece of fingerprint paper. After my first attempt he tried to show me how to give a useable print by tapping his own finger very quickly, so I thought he wanted me to press harder. It turned out he wanted it softer. The third time seemed to satisfy him. We were told the card would be ready in a few weeks.
We returned to work, and I was brought back to my desk. I was only now beginning to remember where it was without getting lost. I was surprised to find they had already prepared business cards for me based on one of Niall's, since we conveniently had the same middle name which they insisted should be included. Later that same morning I would get to put them to use as I was asked to join a meeting with some sales engineers from NEC. After exchanging business cards, I sat down and listened to my first real dose of professionally polite Japanese. This was about three times faster than, and took ten times longer sentences to say the same thing as any normal Japanese I had heard. This is due, I have observed since, to the fact that it consists of honorific verbs which could have anything up to ten syllables, and the expression of any undocumented fact usually required the verbal equivalent of a disclaimer that it is only the very humbly held opinion of an uninformed person who would gladly defer to anybody who cared to disagree. Obviously, I didn't understand a word. They could have been talking about bananas for all I knew. Anyway, the exchange of business cards was the end of my involvement in the meeting. When the time came for me to catch the bus to go to head office for my Japanese lesson, my junior leader turned round to me and said "you can go", so I did. That, for what it was worth, was my first experience of a Japanese business meeting.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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