Two weeks ago, I was back in Tokyo again. The skyscrapers were even bigger and more ornate, and beautiful. The people, always well dressed and fashionable, were even more so. The economy, after 20 years of unwinding too much debt, is buzzing. The Olympics are coming in 2020 and by then, one developer will have finished a re-creation of the entire Avenue des Champs Elysees, all two miles of it. I was there on business, again, and it felt like home.
I always had a fascination with Japan. When getting my MBA, my best friend was a young executive from Japan on a one-year “leave” from Mitsubishi Oil. I taught him English swear words and he taught me Japanese culture.
The differences between Japan and America are striking. What counts in America is bold moves and winning. In Japan, what counts is absolute loyalty and effort. If you fail, but fail while trying your best on behalf of your company or country, again and again, then you are a hero. It is still true today, but it began in the distant past when Japan was composed of warring fiefdoms and your ultimate loyalty was to your liege lord.
It was good to die if you died a hero, never having quit; and it was beyond horrible to give-up. Giving up is a disgrace. It brings shame to your whole family, shame that lasts for generations.
Later I met Sachio Mikumo. He was a young officer from the Bank of Tokyo, the most powerful and prestigious institution in Japan. The bank had just bought a bank in California and Sachio had been assigned to it. Mikumo-san was both bilingual and Westernized, so after the purchase he was one of a small team sent to California. He was there on a five-year rotation. We met and became friends. Our families played together. It was fine.
Then he rotated back, became a star within the bank and was able to hand me a spectacularly large and profitable deal. Why? We were friends. It was loyalty. That was not the only reason, but it was the real reason. So I spent most of a year in Tokyo and grew to both love and loathe it. Loved because it was beyond exotic; loathed because the Japanese businessmen were always subtly, well, hostile.
I knew why, but did not realize its full extent, not really. Japanese consider all non-Japanese to be barbarian. By “barbarian” I mean not quite human. Barbarians smell bad. They do not wash. They are unclean and foul. They have no manners. What they want is obvious. Reading their faces is like reading the faces of children. When they talk, they get real close to your own face, and along with their rancid breathe, they spittle at you.
With Sachio, it was different. Over his five years in Orange County, we became real friends. Around his Japanese friends and colleagues, I would joke that I knew I was an unworthy barbarian. That would bring laughter from the Japanese, but never the reply “no, you’re not.”
Some years afterward Sachio quit Bank of Tokyo. He was a rising star within the bank, yet he chose to quit the Tokyo rat race and bought a house in Newport. It was behind a gate because he also has a home in Tokyo and travels back and forth doing deals. He is good at that, doing deals between the Japanese and Westerners. He understands both sides and brings closure.
His old Japanese friends are jealous. They also hate the Tokyo rat race and they are envious of Mikumo-san’s ability to break off and leave.
Last week, we were back in Tokyo on another spectacular deal. By then, Sach knew I hated mornings and scheduled meetings accordingly and of course orchestrated everything. Meaning, it will be a success if we just follow his lead.
Still, I was jet-lagged, cantankerous and after a week, tired of it. Sachio knew it and grabbed me out of my bed at The Ritz on Friday before I left, and drove me into the mountains to visit a famous Mt. Fuji overlook.
You could see Mt. Fuji as though it was right there. There were volcanic mists emerging from the ground. The smell was sulfuric, strong and lovely. Sach reminded me we had once spent a four-day weekend at near-by spa resorts hanging out in natural hot springs, eating deliously, getting massages, and sleeping on the most comfortable futons in the world, more comfortable than anything available in America.
The whole day was mad and magnificent, even Mikomu-san’s really horrible driving on mountain roads, which made me nauseous.
Then I was home again in Laguna, blinking in the sunshine, and I thought a very Japanese thought: was it all just another dream within a dream?
Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and now lives in Laguna Beach.