In early April 2012, the last stage of a long relocation effort was nearing completion. For a variety of personal and professional reasons, I had decided some time previously to relocate from my hometown in California to Tokyo, Japan.
Never mind why exactly; that’s a subject for another time. Suffice it to say that after a lengthy job search and the difficult process of bidding farewell to my friends and family and almost everything I owned, I boarded a flight from San Francisco International to Tokyo Narita Airport. Mission accomplished.
After a brief delay, during which I was diverted to Osaka’s Kansai Airport for 24 hours by a typhoon, I made it to Tokyo and settled in to my new digs. Then two weeks later, I reported for duty at the Japanese real estate company where I had been fortunate enough to secure employment. I was completely prepared for a new and exciting experience working for Marunouchi Fudosan, Inc. (1)
Or so I thought.
See, the thing about me is that I had spent most — some would say all — of my life as a pretty boring person. There are those who would argue I do the same to this day, but never mind. The point is that, aside from one college semester spent studying in the wilds of the United Kingdom, I had lived my entire life within about a 50-mile radius, between San Francisco and California’s Central Valley, which isn’t exactly the most exciting place in the world.
Among other things, this implied that my work history was entirely California-based, and if there’s anything the average person knows about working in California, it’s that it’s a pretty laid back affair. That is definitely not the case at a Japanese company, however. At least, not at the kind of old fashioned, traditional Japanese company where I now found myself.
Before moving to Japan, I had spent the past ten years working in an investment office in California. We had a portfolio of about $200 billion of assets under management, and I wore a suit to the office maybe half a dozen times a year. Business travel was another matter, of course, but on our home turf we put the “casual” in “business casual”.
And casual Fridays? We didn’t invent them, but we perfected them. I mean sure, a latex gimp suit or a cape-and-diaper combo might be pushing it. But jeans and a hockey jersey? No problem at all.
Now, I’m not a complete idiot. I had been to Japan enough times to know that wasn’t gonna fly here. But it wasn’t until I was accepting my new job over the phone and hearing about The Rules that I got a solid glimpse of the sartorial differences separating East and West.
Some of these rules I already fully expected. For example, of course I would need to wear a suit every day in our office in central Tokyo. I mean, isn’t that pretty much the stereotype of the Japanese salaryman? But it wasn’t until the final negotiations of my employment that I learned that, along with the suit (dark color preferred), we needed to always wear a white shirt, black shoes, black socks and a black belt. Every day. That was when I realized that my new work environment might be a bit more taxing to my West Coast sensibilities than I had expected.
And remember, these were rules. Not suggestions. Feel like spicing things up with a white shirt that has faint shadow stripes on it? You better git on down the convenience store and buy yourself something proper. (Yes, you can totally buy shirts, ties and underwear at the corner 7-Eleven. More on that later on.) Sporting those nice new chestnut colored shoes? Nice try, hippie, but in these parts black is the new black.
Nevertheless, by the time I boarded my plane, I had had a few months to prepare my new Reservoir Dogs wardrobe. My collection of white shirts had blossomed from precisely zero to about a dozen, and all the other accoutrements were likewise dialed in and tucked into the two large boxes that now comprised my worldly effects. So, new set of Big Boy Clothes for the Land of the Rising Sun? Box checked!
Of course, having been fairly warned of proper office attire well ahead of time, whatever requirements my new company had were all well and good. Even the rules I wouldn’t find out about till later were fairly easily adopted into daily life. Things like taking off your overcoat before coming through the office entrance. Not standing with your hands in your pockets. (Hands tucked into the waistband are fine, but only for men.) Men mustn’t trim their eyebrows, a habit I had not yet picked up anyway. All these little bits of office etiquette that a traditional company might insist on, I was able to adapt to just fine, despite my lackadaisical lifestyle to date. More or less. Even moving from the relative privacy of my own cubicle to the standard Japanese row of desks, pushed end to end like a high school chemistry lab, wasn’t nearly as hard to get used to as I had feared it would be. All this stuff would be fun to complain about down the road, and good for starting conversations with other foreigners, but none of it seemed too terribly weird.
Had it not been for the fact that I was the only American working there, it would really have just felt like I had taken a job in 1950s America. Well, aside from the fact that everybody but me was speaking Japanese, of course.
So things like the trivialities of my new dress code were in no way a surprise by the time I started work in Tokyo. Instead, my first real culture shock would come on my first morning in the office. And in all fairness, I should have seen it coming.
As with the dress code and the no-frills desk setup, I had been warned about the daily kick-off meeting ahead of time. When I was negotiating with Marunouchi Fudosan by phone from California, I dealt with management through a bilingual French fellow who worked there. Excuse me, trilingual. Those Europeans and their fancy language skills….
Anyway, Anton (2) had been supremely helpful in preparing me for the new office, but I could tell he had a pretty good sense of humor. So when he told me how each day would begin, I was sure he was pulling my leg. The weird ritual he described to me couldn’t possibly be real. It had to be a joke, made up to mess with the American’s head. Right?
The work day at Marunouchi Fudosan started promptly at 9:00 am, provided you were there in time for the daily 8:30 meetings. So obviously I made sure I was on time for my first day. Punctuality is very important in Japan, and I was well aware of that trait, and actually quite pleased with it. At 9:00 sharp the clocks chimed like Big Ben.
Right on cue, all 300 people in the office stood up at their desks at attention. Out to the front of the room came a Japanese guy in a traditional tunic, called a happi (法被). He was carrying a drum, which he beat twice, then he yelled “ohayou gozaimasu” (“good morning”), to which all 300-plus of us responded in kind, in unison. Drum Guy yelled at us again, in Japanese of course, that the morning assembly meeting was about to begin so we should all silence our phones. Then everybody sat down, and each department took turns announcing via microphone what they were working on that day. What properties they were trying to sell for clients, what new human resources policies they were working on. Everything.
All this went on for about half an hour, then the department’s second-in-command gave a brief motivational speech. Finally, we all stood up again, Drum Guy yelled at us some more, and we all yelled back, “Let’s work hard!” in Japanese.
That’s how the day began. Every single workday. Even on working Saturdays, which unfortunately were required from time to time, suit and tie and all. I still don’t know how the Number 2 Man thought of so many different ways to tell us all to go make money. But my point here is that, when this daily event — drum and all — had been explained to me before I came to Tokyo, I was one hundred percent sure I was being screwed with.
When I actually saw the morning assembly meeting (chourei, 朝礼) with my own eyes, I was flabbergasted. Maybe I wasn’t the most worldly guy around, but how could I not have known that Japanese companies all did this every morning? Well, the answer to that question, of course, is that they don’t.
Many of the quirks of our office, from the drum-led chourei to the super strict dress code to the hiring of some goofball foreigner who couldn’t even speak Japanese (guess who!), were directly attributable to the founder of the office. His unique personality as a combination of traditional Japanese salaryman and bold entrepreneur gave our workplace its special character. As with so many things in life, if we didn’t just happen to have this particular person in charge, the company would have been a whole lot less interesting.
As it was, that first morning at Marunouchi Fudosan was my first real peek behind the curtain of the fascinating country that I now call home. The first, but not the last.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, my first ever blog post. I hope you’ll come back from time to time to see what other aspects of life as a foreigner in Japan made an impression on me. As will always be the case, comments and questions are very much appreciated.
- Not my company’s real name. Marunouchi is a prime office area in central Tokyo, and fudosan (不動産) simply means real estate.
- Also a fake name.