Disputes in Japan ( particularly when the parties involved interact with each other on a daily basis) are not addressed directly between people, and it is up to the group to resolve uncomfortable situations. In a company this most often happens during after-hours parties. Liquor lubricates the tongue, and provides an outlet for emotion and direct commentary unexceptable under any other circumstances in Japan.
Several weeks after I joined the company, it became clear that the eight members of my working group were extending themselves in an effort to help me adjust to the new environment. My boss, however, was cold, uncommunicative and distant. This is an account of how the group, led by our division leader, attempted to address the tensions between my immediate boss and myself many months later.
It all began with a departmental evening out, with sushi, lots of beer and casual conversation. The moment was ripe. . . but I had no idea what was in store for me.
After several rounds of beer the men switched to stronger stuff: scotch or whiskey and water served up by the younger men and women. Bottles lined up in the entry-way as conversations flowed and people became more relaxed.
Suddenly, my boss came and sat beside me, grabbed a bottle of Kirin beer and offered to pour. I bowed my head as he poured, took a quick sip and then hastily set my glass down and returned the favor. He smiled, held up his glass and we both drank. He nodded to the empty plate in front of me and said, "Ah, you can eat sushi?" I smiled, nodded, and responded with my stock answer. "Oh, yes. Apart from nato I can any kind of Japanese food." Satisfaction spread across his face, "Yes, yes. It is quite smelly! Many foreigners can't eat it, but it is good for your health!" He gulped half his beer and nodded, happily.
With "common ground" and a good feeling established through this little exchange, he grabbed the bottle again and topped up my glass, which was untouched. I realized I was late in responding to his half empty glass, and quickly re-filled it. He bowed his thanks and swigged.
"Ah, Debbie-san! Here you are!" It was our section chief, as if on cue. He sat cross-legged between us on the tatami matting, and draped one arm over each our shoulders. He smiled and asked me, "So, what do you think of your boss, here?" My boss didn't blink, just kept smiling and reached for his beer. Looking for an out, I smiled, grabbed at the bottle and filled both their glasses. Our section chief smiled, sipped, and continued on as if in response to words I had not said, "Yes, he's known, you know, as very aggressive and cold and pushy. The Mitsubishi Bank people we work with really dislike working with him. They get scared when they know he's coming to negotiate with them!" My boss kept on smiling and drinking. Unsure how to handle the situation and feeling perilously close to a dangerous edge, I just kept smiling and nodding too.
Our section chief didn't seem to notice or mind my silence. He just kept on going..."I think its a good idea for you two to meet once a week and discuss things that are difficult. You are American, Debbie-san." This time I managed a "Hai, so desu ne," (Yes, this is so) in response. "And this," he gestured around at the other people in the room, "is a Japanese company. There are differences." I mumbled agreement. My boss was still smiling and drinking. He'd nearly reached the bottom of his glass again, and I moved in quickly. Our section chief had stopped talking, and my boss grunted, laughed, then said, "What a good idea! A meeting with Debbie once a week!" He laughed some more. Naive as I was, I agreed, and this time all three of us lifted our glasses in a kampai (toast) to the weekly meetings. After a few more comments and more laughter, our section chief left.
My boss had not stopped smiling once, and now he called out to a man across the table from us and said, "Hey! Guess what! I'm going to meet with Debbie-san once a week from now on!" There was a round of laughter, and I began wondering what I was missing.
He stuck out his hand to me and said, in English, "Friends?" Completely at a loss, I smiled and said "Hai, tomodachi desu," and shook his hand. As he turned to his beer, he continued in Japanese, "Of course, I won't remember any of this tomorrow." As I reached for a second bottle of beer I remarked casually while filling his glass, "Oh, don't worry, I will."
He shot me a look, his smile momentarily faltered, but he resumed his jovial air soon after, and started talking golf to the guys next to us. I stood up and escaped to the ladies room for some air.
I never heard another word about weekly meetings afterwards, and misunderstandings between myself and my boss continued throughout the year.
After discussing this encounter with Japanese friends, I understood that everyone was trying hard to communicate that they understood my position, and wanted to support me. However, the system was the system, and I was being asked to wait, to be patient, to observe and to ganman (stoically endure) my discontent. This was not easy, and I found myself often feeling impatient and frustrated. This kind of tension is not an uncommon experience for foreigners working in Japanese workplaces.
Copyright 1995, Debra Carlson, WorldWeave Productions.