What did you expect? Welcome Sonny!? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter?
You've got to remember these are just simple farmers.
These are people of the land, the common clay of the new west.
. . . You know, . . . morons!
- From Blazing Saddles
I have few specific memories of the following weeks, they must have been comparatively uneventful. The first weekend saw the company sports day, which was surprising in that several events involved drinking beer before the physical activity. For the first month, afternoons were spent going to Head Office for our Japanese lessons. Since the English guys with us did not have the benefit of the six week course in Dublin, they were having a harder time of it than us three. After a mere nine days, I received my first pay packet, which was a full month's pay since my contract was dated the first of the month. With my new found wealth I bought such items as a walkman, a hair dryer, an iron (which turned out to be too small and fairly useless), and an alarm clock, and later a camera. It would eventually take me two months, upon receiving my first bonus, until I bought a video and TV. One of the other first uses of my pay packet was a trip to Roppongi, the all night drinking and dancing zone of Tokyo popular with foreigners to the extent that it was referred to as "Gaijin Gulch". A lot of foreign males came here looking for Japanese females, mainly for the purposes of sex. The Japanese women who came there also came looking for foreign men, but generally as fashion accessories to show of to their friends, and they were a bit more selective. Gerry recounted to me how he and Dave approached two Japanese girls, who initially appeared keen. They asked where the boys were from, and when Dave said "England" he got an "Oooh" of approval, but when Gerry mentioned he was from Ireland the other girl turned and walked away without saying anything. Obviously Ireland wasn't cool enough back then! Even in this metropolis, some of the more seedy establishments in Tokyo refuse to serve foreigners. I remember one night myself and Tim were in the Shibuya district, and on entering a particular bar the standard welcome call of "Irasshaimase!" was abruptly aborted when the floor manager saw our faces. He moved towards the door to block our entry, gave the crossed arms "Dame" signal and said "Japanese Only" as he herded us out the door. I have never received such treatment since.
I received several books as presents at my birthday party, including a guide book to Japan, and spent most of my evenings reading these, since I could rarely understand the television, and in the vicinity of the dormitory there was little in the way of nightlife.
One book I received was "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac, and while reading this I identified a lot with the main character in his travels across America. It filled me with a great sense of expectation for the adventure I had begun. Having flown the nest, leaving the safety of the home that I had known all my life and never been away from for more than a week at a time, I had now come to a place as geographically and emotionally far away from the Dublin I grew up in as it could be, and I realised I was not afraid, but was looking forward to what was to come. I realised that I had made the right choice, and an important one, in coming here. I had always had the same small group of friends all through my childhood, had spent four years getting the same bus every day to go to college, and it would most likely be the same bus I would get every day to go to work had I stayed in Dublin. The potential tedium of that scared me. The small voice in my subconscious mind that told me I wanted to try for the FAS scheme in the first place was really telling me I needed a new challenge. Much like the central character of Kerouac’s novel, I was setting off on a journey, on which I did not know where I would end up or how I would get there, but the real goal, the prize of this journey was the freedom and adventure I would feel along the way. I began to realise that I had a freedom I had never known before. I could come and go at a moment's notice without clearing it with parents or teachers first, or justifying myself to anyone afterwards, and I could spend my money as I pleased. (Indeed, for it was the first time I had money to spend!) This freedom manifested itself, among other things, in all night drinking sessions, since anytime the Irish graduates group would meet up for a drink, it would happen in central or southern Tokyo, mainly around Shibuya. This invariably meant that I would miss my last train home, and would either spend the night on the floor of somebody else's apartment or dormitory room, or would go with others to the all night drinking area that is Roppongi. This usually meant that most of the following day, be it Saturday or Sunday, would be wasted getting home and sleeping it off.
The most extreme case of this was the following February, when I arrived home from a Saturday night party on Monday morning with time enough only to change my clothes before going to work. I am not saying that I went suddenly wild, or that my parents were overly strict, but my sudden independence took a little getting used to. One event which went a long way towards reining in my heels was the night in November when I fell asleep on the last train home, and ended up at a station called Ogawa, about 15 kilometres beyond Kawagoe, with no trains going back and not enough money for a taxi. I began to walk towards Kawagoe, following road signs. At one point I was at a crossroads, with no signposts I could recognise, so I had nothing but my instinct to rely on when I chose the road I did, and nothing but my instinct to blame when I found myself back at Ogawa station two hours after I had left it. I started off again, and eventually made it about three quarters of the way home before giving up and seeking shelter and a few hours of sleep in a photo booth before catching the first train home. I must have walked about 30km that night.
Work itself was a rewarding experience. Compared to many of the FAS graduates, I was lucky that I was assigned a job I found interesting and challenging. With most new recruits in Japanese companies, training consists of learning by rote, or by repeating endless experiments or measurements until the content of the work has been understood mostly by figuring it out for oneself and learning from mistakes. This often proved tedious for many of my fellow graduates, since the Japanese recruits are assumed to not be so well trained in their particular field of work when they enter the company, as little if any attention is paid to the speciality studied at university. (And, by most accounts, university itself is one long vacation.)
Engineers are considered to be engineers, whether they be mechanical, electrical or software specialists, and among the engineers in the software development department to which I was assigned were microwave, structural and electrical engineers, many of whom had never programmed a computer before joining the department. The fact that I had studied microprocessors and computers specifically, and worked on a project in college involving the programming of microcontrollers, and had spent the summer writing software in a small company in Dublin meant that I had a reasonable advantage in understanding the operation of microprocessors, and was able to exceed the expectations that were held by those around me, which were artificially low anyway due to the language barrier. People were expecting me to have a hard time understanding what they would be teaching me whereas in reality I already knew most of it. They had gone to the trouble of getting the manufacturer of the microcomputer we were using to create English versions of their user manuals, which in those days was probably a tall order, judging from the amateurish way they were done. I set about the first project they assigned me which was the design of a small board that would read in an analog value from a variable resistor and control some LEDs to indicate the level of the resistor. This took me three days to program and two to build the hardware, and I got the impression that they expected me to take a lot longer. I was then assigned to build a simple calculator, which took another two weeks to code and one week to build. By now it was Christmas. I began the following year by writing a report, in English and very simple Japanese, on the design of the calculator. The calculator was originally coded in assembly language, and when I had finished the report I was asked to re-code it in GENE, a language not unlike C. By the time I had finished this it was February, and I had pretty much caught up in my training with the Japanese new recruits who started 6 months ahead of me.
Throughout all this I was watched over by my junior leader, Komata, who proved to be a patient teacher. All the circulars and other documents that came across my desk were explained, as well as the announcements made at the daily meeting. On Christmas day he informed me that my Japanese was sufficient now that I didn't need him to translate everything for me, and I thought this was high praise indeed until I found out that all the junior leaders of foreign staff stopped speaking English to their assignees on that day, every year, as mandated by the personnel department.
There was a welcome party held in my honour some weeks after I arrived. It had to wait until I finished the daily language lessons at head office. When we dismounted the bus in front of the station, we met Rusty, an American who was over on business at our factory, and he was immediately asked to join us. When we arrived at the restaurant which had been booked in advance, arrangements were hurriedly made for an extra seat for Rusty. For the next two hours, much beer was consumed as one by one, my increasingly red faced colleagues came over in ones and twos to introduce themselves, mainly by just saying their names and then falling into an embarrassed silence, with the more adventurous among them proffering a hobby or some other detail about themselves, such as where they were born. One chap happily informed me that he "liked to play sex with girl". During work, however, without the benefit of Dutch Courage, most of my co-workers were reluctant to talk to me, more so because of language difficulties than any kind of stand-offishness, and partially due to the nature of the work, where everybody basically stared down a computer screen all day. One thing that happened to help break the ice was the arrival of a special offer, posted to all the FAS graduates, selling Irish whiskey. Irish whiskey was at the time rare and practically unknown in Japan, where scotch and bourbon ranked alongside domestic whiskey as the popular choice. (The situation is a little improved today, Irish whiskey is more available, but still not so well known, which leaves all the more for me!) I decided to use this as an opportunity to ingratiate myself with my fellow workers. Adding an explanatory note in my minimal Japanese, I passed the letter around my section inviting people to buy and try the whiskeys for themselves. About ten people decided to try it, and in the days after the whiskey arrived I received warm smiles from people telling me they had enjoyed a new found taste. I was beginning to make friends!
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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