The company’s new Japanese owners had plucked me from my cosy position as Sales Manager and made me Director of Operations. I hadn’t even made my first trip to Japan but the management were convinced I was the one to lead their acquisition into a bright new future. Fueled by ambition and an element of greed I accepted the position. I was to maintain my office in UK, but my new empire was worldwide. I was summonsed to Head Office in Japan for indoctrination. My first day went a bit like this:
I found myself at a hotel in a small town somewhere near Hiroshima. It wasn’t a luxurious hotel by any means but it was okay. There was a convivial bar and that’s where I’d been these last couple of hours. Earlier in the evening I’d been out to find dinner. There were several restaurants to choose from in the town centre. To attract custom, the restaurant owners put photographs of their dishes in their window. This may be an effective ploy when your customer demographic is Japanese but to me it looked unappealing: There was a plate of rice served with a handful of caterpillars and other slimy tubular things. Then one that looked like dog shit alongside a boiled egg and the egg contrived to look less appetising than the dog shit. Another offering looked like bits left over after a heart transplant operation. Feeling queasy, I returned to the hotel for a beer.
There were a few small dishes on the bar and they weren’t bad. This would be dinner. The man beside me asked in broken English if I was American. I told him I was English but we’d exhausted his linguistic skills a sentence after we’d exhausted mine. We smiled, nodded a lot and sipped our beers.
I’d arrived the day before at Hiroshima. There was a modern and pleasant-seeming hotel at the airport but this one is close to the company headquarters, so I was here. This morning I’d walked to the factory, arriving in time for morning exercises. I was led to a group of workers lined up two abreast alongside several other phalanxes and Fukawori-san, my minder, told me these were my workers, they were assigned to me, I should join in. Recognising this as another test I strode to the head of the group and led them in their calisthenics. Actually, my men were following the instructions blaring from the loudspeakers located around the quadrangle and I was following my men.
At the end of the exercise period Fukawori leaned in to me and suggested I address my new team with inspirational words. I did this in English with fanatical intensity, the way I’d seen it done in a documentary on Japanese work practices. Loud, spitting phlegm, red faced. They roared their appreciation when I’d finished, waving their fists in the air, having understood not a word but knowing full well upon which side their sukiyaki was buttered.
I went on to work for the company for another six years. Then I left to sail my boat around the Caribbean for a couple of years to restore a somewhat battered mind and body.