I’ve lived in Yokohama a good number of years — long enough to observe a tectonic transformation. I arrived in Japan at a time when office and factory workers placed their work above family life. They devoted their lives to the company. Their common purpose was to strengthen Japan and restore her back to her pre-war status. Ah, yes, that was forty -fifty years ago. Fast forward to today. Japan, Japanese society, and individual Japanese have undergone a transformation. Japanese place a greater emphasis on family and private life. No longer willing to devote their lives to the company, they join companies with the idea that in three years or so they will move on to different or even greater opportunities. The focus of their efforts have moved from the company to themselves In many ways, they are better equipped to cope with transitions than their elders.
This is the first of the short stories I wrote about Japanese caught in the wake of the bursting of the bubble and faced with the spectre of foreign management taking control of their company. When Carlos Ghosn took control of the management of Nissan Motors, a wave of resentment swept through the entrenched Japanese business community. The old ways of operating business in Japan was coming to an end. The changes were leaving individual workers in a daze. One such person was the character Kosaka in Absurdity.
Takeshi cut two thinly sliced pieces from the block of tuna. With deft hands he rolled rice into oblong shapes, and then he placed the sliced tuna over them.
“Absurd!” Kosaka repeated. “It’s absolutely absurd.”
Takeshi shook his head as he placed the sushi on the wooden tray in front of Kosaka. It was after closing time but he let Kosaka stay. Kosaka had been a regular customer for nearly 15 years. The shop, located in an out of the way spot near a subway station, provided Kosaka with a trysting place for his colleagues and other companions. But the events in the economy and in Kosaka’s life had taken a turn for the worse, and he stopped coming. Then tonight, like a prodigal son, Kosaka showed up. He had looked older and grayer than a man of 40 should look.
“It’s absurd!” Kosaka lifted one tuna sushi with his chopsticks and stared at it, as though he were searching for solutions to his problems. Then he stuffed the entire sushi into his mouth.
Takeshi wiped the wood cutting board with a towel. “What’s absurd?”
Kosaka answered in incomprehensible grunts, the sushi muffling the words in his mouth.
Takeshi laughed. What a sight Kosaka made tonight! Worried brown eyes propped over darkening semicircles, a hairline receding relentlessly toward the middle of his head, and his mouth stuffed full of sushi. Some rice spilled from his mouth and added another stain to his necktie.
Kosaka drank an entire of cup of sake to wash down the sushi. “Everything’s absurd. My life. Everything. I worked hard for that company. And now?”
How things change, Takeshi thought. Kosaka first came into Takeshi’s sushi shop at the height of the bubble economy. Brash, young and foolish, Kosaka announced to Takeshi that he worked for Nakamura Motors, Japan’s second largest auto manufacturer and presented him with a business card. Like many of his generation of recently graduated university students in the bubble period, Kosaka could practically insist on the salary and the working conditions he wanted before he consented to work for the company. Nakamura Motors competed fiercely with other major Japanese companies for new recruits. Nakamura was expanding operations, building new plants, establishing new offices and setting up new dealerships with the aim of increasing market share in overseas markets. Naturally, the company made every effort to entice Kosaka to work for them.
The bubble years gave newly recruited employees a cockiness that irritated older employees. “They think the world owes them a living,” Takeshi’s older customers groused.
Kosaka was first assigned to work in one of Nakamura’s manufacturing plants in the outskirts of Tokyo. “Got to start from the ground up,” he informed Takeshi. “That way I’ll have a shot at a management position in two or three years. And then? Who knows? I might make department head by the time I’m thirty.”
The months passed and Takeshi observed Kosaka evolving into a Nakamura Motors man. He wore tailored blue suits, expensive ties and a gold wristwatch. “Bought a new Nakamura Sports Car!” He even started dating an office lady that worked in the same section.
“This is Sueko. We’re getting married.” Takeshi still could recall watching Kosaka dote over Sueko as they sat eating their sushi. “Best sushi in Japan,” Kosaka boasted. “Ate sushi in Miyasaki, Aomori, and Niigata. But Takeshi’s is the best.” Sueko merely nodded her head and responded, “Really? That’s nice.”
Sueko had all the prerequisites of a good Nakamura wife. Having graduated from a junior college, she immediately found work at the company. During her off hours, she studied flower arrangement and practiced playing the koto. She was an ideal catch for any Nakamura salaried man on the way up the corporate ladder. In fact, Kosaka’s section chief encouraged the match.
“So she comes with good recommendations, huh?” Takeshi said shortly before Kosaka got married.
Kosaka appeared pensive. “Yeah, I guess.”
Takeshi saw doubt written in Kosaka’s expression.
Kosaka finished off the sake in two gulps. “She does have a kind heart,” he remarked in a sake-induced flush of sentiment.
Kosaka invited Takeshi to their wedding reception. A year later, he showed Takeshi pictures of their newly born son. “Named him after my uncle. Hiroshi. Looks like me, huh?” Kosaka beamed. Before long Kosaka was showing pictures of his newly born daughter. “Michiko! She’ll make someone a great wife.”
Married life seemed to agree with him. Takeshi noticed he was putting on weight around the middle. “All that home cooking,” Kosaka joked, patting his paunch.
At Nakamura, he seemed firmly ensconced on the upward escalator to management. He was made the section chief of the parts purchasing section. His job was to liaise with smaller manufacturers that produced car batteries for Nakamura’s family line of cars. The promotion to section chief before he was thirty signaled a rapid rise to the next level. However, he revised his prediction about becoming division chief. “Maybe by 35. That’s more like it. I need more experience in other divisions.”
Takeshi nodded his head in agreement. “Yes, experience counts for a lot.”
“Yeah, especially in later years when I get into an executive position.”
Takeshi laughed. Kosaka still possessed that same cockiness he had as a newly recruited employee. But he had to agree. Kosaka might very well reach the rarified executive levels.
However, by the time Kosaka celebrated his 32nd birthday, the bubble burst. Nakamura Motors began cutting back on new hiring and offering older workers in their fifties early retirement packages.
“They put a freeze on promotions!” Kosaka said. “They’re even getting rid of managerial positions.”
Takeshi saw the disappointment and disbelief in Kosaka’s face. He had joined the company when everyone believed the good times would go on forever. Now, he and his cohort of employees faced the prospect of losing their jobs.
Kosaka felt confident that Nakamura would not restructure him out of a job. “Naw, they’re letting older employees go first. Of course if Nakamura goes under . . .”
“No worry about that. Nakamura’s too big a company to go bust.” Takeshi said to allay Kosaka’s unspoken fear.
“Yeah, that’s right. Nakamura’s too big to go under.”
Kosaka came to Takeshi’s shop less frequently after that encounter. “Got to work longer hours!” Takeshi noticed that the jauntiness had gone out of Kosaka and that his conversations centered on company losses and future cutbacks. “But the company will survive!” Kosaka said with an optimism bolstered by copious cups of sake. He was confident that the banks would continue lending money to help the company stay afloat until the economy improved.
As far as Kosaka’s private life was concerned, however, Takeshi suspected that Kosaka’s marriage was heading toward a breakup. Whenever the topic of his family came up, he would grow sullen. “Sueko and I have nothing in common. She’s got no idea of what I’m going through at work. All she talks about is needing more money for the kids. Extra lessons. She wants the kids to study English, and they’re not even in junior high school yet.”
Then one summer night Kosaka came to the shop with a young girl who wore a T-shirt tucked into a black mini-skirt. The T-shirt had a message printed on it. “Take me!” Obviously, Kosaka was taking the message literally.
“Mieko, this is Takeshi!” Some of Kosaka’s jauntiness had returned. “He serves the most delicious sushi in town.” Mieko could not have been older than 20 years. “She works in a little pub in Shinjuku. Mixes the best gin and tonics!”
Takeshi kept his comments polite but guarded. He averted his eyes as Kosaka’s hand stroked Mieko’s exposed thigh. “Takeshi, this beautiful creature is wise beyond her years.” Mieko giggled and lit a king-sized cigarette. “She understands what I’m going through at the office. I can tell her all my problems. She’s a good listener. Isn’t that right?”
Mieko blew out a stream of cigarette smoke and said. “Yeah.”
Kosaka’s affair with the understanding Mieko ended two weeks later. It turned out, Kosaka informed Takeshi, that Mieko had grown tired of being wise beyond her years and ran off with a high school dropout. Together, they took off on his motorcycle and to parts unknown. “A punk on a motorcycle. What could she see in him?” a visibly saddened and perplexed Kosaka asked.
Takeshi merely shrugged. “Who knows about the young people today?” He saw that Kosaka’s face had grown pudgier – the result of a steady alcoholic intake. “Looks like you’ve been working overtime. Better go home and get some rest.”
Kosaka looked over at Takeshi with blurry eyes. “Home?” he asked and his face turned hard and cold. “Oh, yeah. Home.” He got up and threw down some money. Then he stormed out the door before Takeshi could count out the change. Takeshi put the change in an envelope and wrote Kosaka’s name on it. For two years, Takeshi waited for Kosaka to come and collect his change, but he eventually forgot about Kosaka and the envelope gathering dust in a drawer.
Times were growing worse. Takeshi’s regular customers stopped by less frequently and ordered fewer drinks. To entice customers, he began offering customers set lunches and dinners at prices that barely covered his overhead. The set meals attracted a different type of clientele – single working people and young married couples living in the neighborhood. Foreign customers also came to enjoy the ambience of a Japanese sushi shop. None of them on company expense accounts, however.
One customer, an attractive French woman in her late twenties whose name was Marie, told him that she would like to open a sushi shop in Paris.
“You mean, you want to make sushi?”
“Sure, why not?” the French woman replied in heavily accented Japanese.
Takeshi pointed out that Japanese women could never make sushi. “It’s a man’s profession.”
“But I’m a French woman.”
Takeshi could not argue that point.
“Will you teach me? All about sushi? And about the sushi business?”
Takeshi replied that he would think about it.
“I shall come here until you say yes,” Marie said.
One night, a group of employees from Nakamura Motors dropped in for drinks and conversation. Takeshi learned from one harried middle-aged employee that Kosaka had gotten a divorce and was living alone in a small apartment somewhere in Tokyo.
“How’s he doing?” Takeshi asked.
“How’s anybody doing?” the harried employee snapped back. “You heard the latest?”
Takeshi shook his head.
“Three banks went belly up!”
Takeshi had read about the bankruptcies. They had come on the heels on the bankruptcy of Japan’s third largest securities company. “The banks are in deep trouble all right. Too much red ink.”
“If banks go under, then companies like Nakamura will be next.”
“Nakamura’s too big to take a fall,” Takeshi said, but he saw that his words failed to convince the harried employee.
Takeshi doubted Nakamura could reduce the huge debt it was accumulating, which was totaling into the billions. The total amount of debt staggered Takeshi’s imagination. It was the size of the debt of a small country. No business, he knew only too well, could continue operating at a loss year after year. Something drastic had to take place.
Takeshi, however, had little time to worry about Nakamura’s financial woes.
“I’ve got to do something drastic!” he told Marie, who came to eat and to observe Takeshi’s technique as often as she could.
“Hire me and I guarantee you that you will build up your business.”
Takeshi pooh-poohed the idea. “I’d lose all of my customers.”
Marie was insistent. “You tell people that I am your apprentice and that I am opening a shop in Paris.”
Takeshi finally gave in and took Marie on as an apprentice.
At first customers were put off by seeing a gaijin woman standing behind the counter. But her charming personality added a cosmopolitan atmosphere to the shop and customers grew accustomed to watching her make the sushi under the watchful eyes of her sensei.
Marie added little European touches to the standard sushi dishes. Deviled tuna spread for appetizers, and a selection of French wines. She decorated the shop with paintings and posters that gave it a quasi-French appearance.
Customers learned by word of mouth about the foreign sushi apprentice. Soon the word reached the editor of New Trends Magazine. The magazine targeted the hip young generation of Japanese looking to keep on top of current fashions and lifestyles. The editor sent a reporter and photographer to do a feature story on Takeshi’s restaurant.
“Foreigner charms way into the sushi world!” read the headline on the front cover featuring Marie and Takeshi. The headline and feature story drew customers in from all over Tokyo. On weekends, Takeshi had to turn customers away.
Many older Japanese shook their heads in dismay. “Foreigners making sushi!” Marie represented one more example of how foreigners were diluting Japanese culture and values. “What next?” They saw the world crowding around Japan, like Hannibal with his army of barbarians at the gates of Rome ready to destroy Japanese culture and institutions.
Two months after Takeshi’s shop made the news, an event so devastating hit Japan with the impact of a gigantic typhoon. Apollonius Motors, Italy’s largest auto manufacturer bought a controlling interest in Nakamura Motors. That news alone was enough to send staunchly conservative Japanese into fits of shock and anger. “We’re being invaded! The Black Ships are being deployed in Edo Bay!” The barbarians indeed have crashed through the gates.
“Looks like we going to get another General MacArthur,” Takeshi remarked to Marie. They were both working in the kitchen getting food prepared for the lunchtime customers. News of the Apollonius-Nakamura Alliance streamed from the portable TV Takeshi had placed on the refrigerator.
Marie was cubing the potatoes for the sushi and potato salad dish she had created for the lunchtime service. “MacArthur? Who is this MacArthur?”
Takeshi shook his head. Young people today, he thought. They have no concept of history.”
“Apollonius is sending its Executive Vice President to take over the management of Nakamura.” Takeshi turned the volume down on the TV.
“You mean they are sending the slasher!” Marie responded. “Uh la la.”
“He is known as the slasher in my village.” Marie started washing the mayonnaise and potato from her hands under the kitchen faucet. “His name is Antonio Benedicio Aiello.”
The name sounded like a mouthful of syllables in Takeshi’s ears.
“He was responsible for closing down the Apollonius factory. My father and other villagers lost their jobs. Shops closed down because there was no more business. That slasher has ice water running through his veins.”
At that moment, the TV news showed a close-up photograph of Antonio Benedicio Aiello. The photograph revealed a demoniacally determined foreigner with close-set piercing brown eyes under one black eyebrow that stretched across both eyes like a prickly caterpillar.
The piercing eyes glared down at Takeshi. Thank goodness he was not working for Nakamura, Takeshi thought and cut the head from a fish. Then the cocky face of Kosaka as a new recruit appeared in his mind.
“Poor Kosaka-san! I wonder how he is doing?”