I’ve had an on/off relationship with Japan since the very first days of my working life but today it’s only continued through a Xmas card exchange with and a letter to Kyoji Ohtake.
I met Kyoji at the start of the 90s when he worked in the UK for Dow Chemical supporting its sales activity with Japanese OEMs in Europe. He became a good friend of my family and we’ve maintained contact, hence the annual Xmas cards and letters.
I first visited Japan in 1972. It was during my time with Shell when I worked in its Operational Research group using computer programs to support LNG (liquefied natural gas) projects. One such project involved the delivery of LNG to Japan and in 1972 I went to Japan to support contract negotiations.
I was just 25, I’d enjoyed low budget holidays in Europe and I’d eaten Chinese, but not Japanese, food so it was a totally new experience to me. It started at the New Otani Hotel in Tokyo with the first bows of greeting and the delightfully crisp 10,000 yen notes which we got to cover our daily expenses.
Two points to note here: firstly it was the time of about 850 yen to the pound so those notes were worth about £12. And secondly we got a daily allowance, we didn’t claim expenses. The allowance was generous and more than enough to cover daily living in the capital city of a country which was only just starting to make its move towards the premier league of world economies.
That first visit made a big impression and much of what I experienced continues to characterise the Japan which I saw during my last visit. There was of course, and there still is, the almost structural politeness, there were taxis with their automatic back doors and drivers who used every stop to make notes on a clipboard, and there was little English spoken or in the public domain at large.
I was in Japan for about three months and after the first few weeks I moved into a flat close to Rappongi which was a bustling residential area a convenient walk from the office.
As a young man of course I was keen to explore opportunities for engagement with similar others. They didn’t really exist. There were no pubs and few bars although there were cafes and these seemed to present the venue for the Japanese to meet. They would stay open late and you could have a beer or a whisky to go with your cake if you wished. One such cafe was Almond which gave you the chance of sitting upstairs in the window overlooking the Rappongi junction.
Nightlife seemed to be limited. There were lots of expensive cabaret night clubs and almost an infinity of hostess bars serving the Tokyo salaryman at the end of his working day but they weren’t really what I needed. The only exception seemed to be Byblos in Akasaka which was a smart and reasonably inexpensive disco.
The low incidence of spoken English made life difficult of course and this was compounded by the general absence of writing in a western script, what the Japanese refer to as romaji. You got around this problem by learning a few words and phrases and memorising a few key characters so at least you could order a beer and find your way to the toilet. Then in cafes and restaurants you’d be rescued by the plastic models of dishes on display outside.
Japanese food was totally new to me but I took to it immediately. It helps that I like fish anyway but I quickly developed tastes for sushi and sashimi and tempura as well as the meat based yakitori, tepanyaki and sukiyaki. It was all washed down with good Japanese beer of course. We used to reckon that Kirin beer sponsored the Welsh sumo wrestler Daikirin
I travelled a little around the country and marvelled at the railway system with connections working in a way that I was later to witness in Switzerland. It was still the time of white gloved attendants to welcome you on board.
I returned to Japan for another long stay in 1973, when my internal travel took me down to Hiroshima and Miya Jima, and then was a fairly regular visitor, albeit for much shorter visits during my time with Mobil Oil in Jakarta (1974-76) and then with Dow Chemical in Hong Kong (1976-79). My Japanese travel then calmed down with a trip in 1981 to visit a key supplier and others in 1987 and 1991 to attend global business meetings.
During the last of these I met a number of young Dow Chemical Japan sales people and did a survey asking them ‘how tall is your father?’ They all indicated that he was a good head shorter which goes to show what the impact of the change of the Japanese diet has done to average heights. That was also the trip when at dinner I sat next to an older Japanese employee who was known for his crusty nature. I asked him if he had plans for the weekend (it was a Friday evening) and he told me we was going to watch his son play rugby. Coincidentally I had a world cup tie in my pocket which I gave to him. He proudly put it on. I was his best friend!
I visited five times in the early 90s when I was with FMC albeit one was just for breakfast. The penultimate trip coincided with the Tokyo underground Sarin attack.
I was back to Japan again in 2002 with Willett when I remember seeing a gang of workers heading off to a building site. What was so special about them was that one of them was a woman. That was certainly an indication of societal change. This was the last time I met up with Kyoji (see the photo above)
I really did think that was it but then I got the opportunity to return during one of my stints with Macsa in 2012. It was another short visit but I thought that deep down little had changed. There were still the taxis with automatic doors, there was still the unfailing politeness and there was still a very limited use of anything other than the Japanese language and its various character sets. Unsurprisingly the use of smart phones was ubiquitous. There were also more women evident, especially younger ones, as equals to men in the workplace and outside in restaurants and bars. Maybe that counts as change, and probably real change.
But back to the subject of this post: I’ve just posted this year’s letter to Kyoji. In it I’ve repeated the hope that we will be able to meet up again soon. He says he’s like to come to the UK whilst Juni and I plan to visit Japan. One thing that Covid has taught us perhaps is to seize the moment so if it’s possible maybe we will be able to do that in 2022.