As the lone American in a Japanese company in Japan, one of your unspoken duties is to be a manner buffer for your bosses when you travel together to the US. Your job is to shield them from the foreign wilderness, and keep them in their comfort zone.
The reward for this is that you occasionally get to see their comfort zone yanked out from under them and watch them react spontaneously, which never happens in Japan.
And sometimes when this happens, you see buried talents emerge.
The challenge of my buffer duties hit me one time as I watched my boss at Tokyo Haneda airport let a security lady gently take off his coat and fold it for him as he walked through the scanner. She bowed deeply and apologized to him for the inconvenience of…..airport security.
It was the presuming way he nodded his head at her that struck me, as a satisfied lord might nod to a servant. It seemed he almost expected her to next hand him one of those little Japanese wet towels to wipe his hands.
The pampering effect of Japanese service truly creates a cocoon, I thought, and it extended into the Japan Airlines lounge, where my boss scoffed at the selection of wines and then stirred the staff there into apologetic action when a buffet item was temporarily unavailable.
On the flight, I watched him fuss with a JAL flight attendant over the slippers they gave him in his Premium Economy seat. Apparently they weren’t on par with business class, and the attendant bowed deeply and quickly retrieved him a better pair from the front of the plane.
It all showed how Japanese businessmen are blessed with this awesome sense of proprietorship over their domestic retail industry. I imagined what a United Airlines attendant would’ve done. Poured a cup of coffee in his lap, probably.
The rattling of his Japanese manner cocoon began with the standard-issue, Teamster-like US immigration officers that greet you when you get off the plane.
“NEXT!!!”, barked an annoyed-looking, ruddy-faced heavyset lady when we got to LAX immigration. My startled boss fumbled with his papers, and she sighed at him impatiently.
Welcome to the USA.
He’d often complained that greasy, American fast food seemed to be the only option at mealtime on previous trips, so I had planned ahead and found a Sweet Tomatoes salad/soup buffet for lunch that first day.
At lunch, I saw him struggling over in the restaurant’s soup area, squinting at a soup name and then asking the lady behind the counter: “What this please?”
She replied enthusiastically in a thick Polish accent: “Es minestroo-ne. Ess goo-du. You schude tuu-rye!”
He twisted his head in confusion and looked over at me, his manner buffer. So I came and translated: “Minestrone. She said it’s good. You should try”.
The US melting pot was a shock to his system; less than 1.5% of the Japanese population is foreign, so daily Japanese life is completely unfettered with accents. He found it charming and left her an unexpected tip afterwards, despite his general loathing of the US tipping system.
This stemmed from his one time in Las Vegas, when he locked himself out of his hotel room and asked the cleaning lady outside his room to let him back in. She paused, looked him up and down, and made a “cough up some money” rubbing motion with her forefinger and thumb. He was late for a meeting, didn’t have his manner buffer with him, and felt no choice but to give her $5 to open up the room.
After this, he swore off all tipping in all non-restaurant situations, and even at meals he’d leave only 10% (with me usually absorbing baleful looks from American waiters on his behalf).
On this trip we met up with our local Japanese staff and visited our L.A. customer, a laid-back, cool and casually-mannered California electronics company director. My boss entered their conference room, and was locked-in on the business card exchange.
It was their first time to meet, and these situations are highly ritualized in Japan: no small talk, approach each other with your card in both hands in front of you, step right, step left, stiff handshake, and then a servile two-handed delivery of your card.
Of course, more worldly Japanese businessmen ease up a lot on their formality when outside of Japan. But not this boss.
He sat there stuck at the “step left” stage and was partially bent over, as if he was frozen in the act of extending his hand. The American was in mid-story about something, unaware this little Japanese ceremony was going on.
My boss stood there looking wide-eyed at him, not listening. I sighed to myself: neither side was communicating.
After I stepped in to untie this little entanglement, the meeting went longer than expected. When it was over and we got into our rental car, the Japan office was just beginning their workday over in Tokyo, and already pestering my boss via texts for official updates on our meeting.
His plan had been to unwind inside the cocoon of a local Japanese restaurant in L.A., but this was soon knocked to ruins: he had to now go back to the hotel to prepare for a conference call with our president that night. The dual pressure of all this casual American-ness and Japanese formality pressed on him, and he snapped:
“Time for ham-bah-gah!”
He swerved the car into the first drive-thru he saw, deciding dinner would be burgers eaten in the car during rush hour on the L.A. roads, on the way back to the hotel.
He debated whether to get cheese on everything: “Hmmm. Che-dah bah-gah. Che-dah fries. Drinku wa?”
“Cheddar Coke?” I joked, enjoying the appearance of his dormant casual side. Here was a man that uses chopsticks to eat pizza during company dinners in Tokyo.
He decided against the cheese – too messy for driving and eating. And then he shocked us all with his masterful ability to juggle a burger, fries and coke – while driving a stick shift! – during rush hour in L.A.:
In Tokyo, I’d often seen him dutifully drink a fish tank of liquor at night with his bosses and impressively return to work – totally chipper! – early the next morning. And now this.
You couldn’t help but admire the talent to pull both of these off.