Chapter 3: Holding Out for the Dream Job

Chapter 3: Holding Out for the Dream Job

We relocated to the Napa Valley, California, the premier wine producing region in the United States. Besides grapes and wine, the area is also known for its hot springs and popular among sufferers of chronic diseases for the mud baths and mineral water. In 1880 Robert Louise Stevenson who suffered from Tuberculosis took an extended eight month honeymoon with his wife Fanny Vandegrith at the Calistoga Hot Springs before moving to an abandoned cabin near the Silverado Mine where he wrote the novel The Silverado Squatters.

By the mid-1970s, many Japanese had sufficient expendable income for a honeymoon to Hawaii or a trip to the US and Europe. Explanations written in Japanese at key tourist attractions in the larger cities on the east and west coasts indicated a major increase of Japanese on holiday. By the early 1980s Japan had become the world’s second biggest economy and the producers of luxury goods such as Tiffany and Cartier began to cater to Japanese tourists, hiring Japanese staff to ease sales transactions.

Americans could be forgiven for thinking that the Japanese were wealthy because they were flocking to jewelry, handbag and shoe shops to purchase expensive name brands. However, if Americans went to Japan and purchased the same items they would have understood why most Japanese consumers were confined to purchasing domestic brands while spending their income on luxury goods overseas. The high tariffs which were levied on imported goods, including leather products, jewelry and apparel, made the same luxury items unaffordable to the majority of Japanese. Besides import duties, the wholesaler’s costs were incorporated in the price of the imports.

We saw a significant rise in Japanese home electronics and car imports. The United States’ open markets to Japanese imports and the continuation of the favorable exchange rates put Japanese producers on an even playing field with their American rivals. By the mid-1970s the Japanese automobile industry was taking full advantage of the oil shock and, hot on the heels of Chrysler and GM, aggressively pursued American consumers who were beginning to appreciate the fuel-efficient engines as well as the lower prices. Honda first entered the American market via its motorcycles, which proved to be very competitive with the heavier Harley-Davidson. German car manufactures also benefited with sturdy and reliable fuel-efficient Volkswagens and Audis.

Anticipating a Wine Boom

I saw that a market for foreign wine was steadily growing in Japan and that Japanese tourists were beginning to visit wineries in the Napa and Sonoma Valley. I decided to establish a small company which would provide tours of Napa Valley wineries specifically for Japanese tourists and businesses which wanted to invest in wineries located in the region.

 In the 1960s the only place one could buy a decent bottle of wine in Japan was at Western- style hotels. Suntory’s classic was a sweet red similar to the Communion wines which were introduced to the Japanese in the sixteenth century by Portuguese and Spanish Catholic priests. Imported German and Austrian wines like Blue Nun, a Liebfraumilch, also catered to their preference for sweet wines, which remained popular until the mid-1970s. As an alternative, diners could bring their own bottles to the restaurant and pay corkage. Wine-lovers could also find imports in department stores or they could go to a local liquor shop to buy domestic vintages produced by the two largest producers in Japan, Suntory Inc. and Sanraku Inc. Imported wines and blended whisky, such as Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker Red and Black sold at premium prices.

Nevertheless, as early as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics there were signs that eventually wine would find a proper niche in the Japanese market. It was simply a question of exposure to options. Only a few would dare to predict that within thirty years not only would many Japanese be taking wine seriously but, also, would be enjoying a California Cabernet with Japanese cuisine. As Japanese companies began to internationalize and establish corporate offices overseas, their employees who were seconded abroad for three to five years drank fine wines which were unavailable in Japan. Furthermore, Germany, Austria, Italy and France had become popular tourist destinations where Japanese could enjoy wine with their meals.

In 1972 a Suntory television commercial urging people to “drink wine on Fridays” triggered a mini-wine boom. By 1979, the younger generation, especially women, were drinking a glass or two of wine at bars and in restaurants, usually the sweet variety.

Ironically, although the rise in consumption of domestically produced wine raised profits, it also created a shortage of Japanese grapes. There were not enough grapes to go round and bulk grape juice from Romania, Hungary, Germany and Austria was blended into the domestic wine. The labels on the bottles of some domestic wines do not indicate that 90 percent is reconstituted grape juice and water.

There were no guided tours in Japanese and the majority of Japanese tourists were not fluent in English. I decided to design a tour in Japanese. Initially I visited a number of wineries where there were tours in order to gauge which ones would be applicable to both Japanese corporate executives and tourists. The Louise Martini Winery and the Beaulieu Winery offered excellent one-hour tours daily as did Shramsberg Vineyards, a sparkling wine producer, founded in 1862. Robert Louis Stevenson befriended Shramsberg during his honeymoon, recording the visit in The Silverado Squatters. In 1969 President Richard Nixon served the wine at a State Dinner honouring Premier Chou-En Lai in Beijing.

 I met a housewife who catered private functions and proposed a joint venture where she would provide lunch following the tours which included the wines from the wineries toured that day. She enthusiastically accepted and I designed a brochure in Japanese intended for wineries, hotels and travel agencies located in the Bay Area.

The three wineries permitted me to record their tours which I transcribed into Japanese.  The process took six months. Unfortunately, before the tours began the caterer pulled out due to family issues. I planned to initiate the tours myself but my husband’s health continued to deteriorate and we moved to San Francisco. Nevertheless, my efforts were not in vain because the project served as a catalyst to gaining entry as the first non-Japanese employee in Japan’s largest domestic wine producer several years later.

Farewell to a Friend

The Hibis intended to visit us in the spring of 1980 but in February we received an unexpected telephone call from their son with the news that his mother had died following an emergency operation at Kamakura Hospital. Although he tried to reassure us that their house was also our house, we were inconsolable. I wrote to Mr. Hibi a letter of condolence and he replied giving details of her funeral. She was buried in the family plot in Engakuji monastery, a poignant reminder of one of her favourite books and her favourite author. I could never have predicted that this event would directly affect another event while I was working for a Japanese wine producer ten years later and influence my decision to create a brief academic career at a Scottish university eighteen years later.

Holding Out for the Dream Job

I was offered a position in a San Francisco law firm on the condition that I receive a law degree with the firm paying the tuition fee. It was very tempting because within two years I would be earning a lucrative salary and supporting us comfortably. Nevertheless, I wanted to work in a Japanese importer and distributer of goods, preferably foods and beverages because I had, along with Japanese consumers, experienced highly tariffed imported goods and high prices of domestic goods due to the government subsidies. But I did not understand the intricacies of the distribution system and government regulations which was fundamental to keeping Japan’s markets tightly regulated and, for all intents and purposes, closed to foreign direct investment. I wanted to know why Japan’s markets were still protected and why the government was continuing its mercantile policies which frustrated the competition among domestic companies and the development of domestic consumption. The policies seemed to be self-defeating.

Hopefully, in the end, my responsibilities would provide a foundation for a future job in the United States Trade Representative (USTR) in Washington, DC. I presumed that, in addition to a significant exposure to the effects of Japan’s trade policies, my fluency in Japanese and relative ease working with Japanese would be an invaluable asset to the USTR.

However, in order to cultivate a thorough knowledge of Japan’s distribution system and market access it was vital to enter a large Japanese company to observe directly the effects of government regulations on market entry and to participate in negotiations with foreign suppliers to learn Japanese negotiation methods. Therefore, I chose to wait for an opportunity.

One criteria for the job was that I would be the first foreign employee in a conservative Japanese company because I was well-aware that foreigners who worked in Japanese firms left because they had experienced what they considered to be discriminatory practices and harassment due to misunderstandings arising from poor communication and ignorance of the Japanese corporate system. On the other hand, Japanese management were reluctant to hire foreigners because they were unable to adapt to corporate regulations thus disrupting the workplace. Mutual misunderstanding was also prompted by cultural differences. Japan was an ultra-conservative and insular society and Japanese corporations operated very differently from western corporations.

Foreigners saw Japan as a “westernized” country and a democracy and anticipated that management would accept them as equal to Japanese staff.  What they did not understand was that Japanese corporations were hierarchical, that they would be considered as new staff and expected to adhere to instructions from their superiors and abide by corporate etiquette.  Many foreigners were frustrated that they were not accepted for their skills and experienced what they considered to be demeaning treatment.

I wanted to enter a corporation where the staff had no previous exposure to foreign staff and, therefore, few preconceptions. By entering a conservative Japanese company as the first and only western staff I would be able to adapt smoothly to the corporate system without promoting misunderstandings.  I did not presume that the Japanese staff would be able to relate to me as a foreigner but I did assume that I could make them comfortable with my presence and integrate in the workplace over a period of time. I did not consider Japan a “foreign society” but I failed to anticipate that fluency in the written language could provoke other problems.

A Window of Opportunity

To keep up my Japanese I commuted weekly to the University of California in Berkeley for Japanese lessons with a tutor whose husband was an American whom she had met in Japan when he was teaching English. American men in the 1970s and 1980s were attracted to Japan’s remarkable transformation from a war devastated state to become the third largest economy in the world. Dissatisfied with their lives in the US and opposed to the Vietnam War they longed for acceptance in a political society that seemed to echo their own values.  The move to Japan was an escape from their own society. Generally, they were employed as English language instructors. Some men married Japanese women in order to integrate into the society and alleviate loneliness. Many of the women preferred Americans because they wanted to escape from the strictures of their society and live in the US. Nevertheless, the men were not fully accepted by their in-laws and, sadly, their wives were considered as out-siders and no longer true Japanese if they followed their husbands to the US.

The tutor, realizing that I was fairly fluent in written Japanese, suggested that we collaborate in a new translation of a short story by Miyazawa Kenji, one of Japan’s most famous authors. Night of the Milky Way Train has a poignant beauty and is very popular in Japan. Even though we completed the translation, the tutor was unable to find a publisher.

As I had predicted, confident of an expanding market for foreign wine during the next decade and taking advantage of very low interest rates courtesy of the Bank of Japan (BOJ) which had lowered rates in 1985 due to the Plaza Accord and the floating of the dollar, Japanese wine producers began purchasing or investing in vineyards located in famous wine producing regions such as the Bordeaux and the Burgundy regions of France and in the Napa-Sonoma Valley. In 1986, Suntory, a family-owned firm, considered to be the producer of the finest domestic whisky and wine, purchased Chateau St. Jean, a Sonoma winery, and invested millions of dollars in replanting vineyards and grounds. However, it sold the winery in 1996.

Although not engaged in wine production, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, Japan’s third largest producer of pharmaceuticals and the first to build a research facility in the US in 1983, purchased a California winery. Established in 1921, the multinational company also has a food and beverage division which produces snacks and sports drinks such as Pocari Sweat. CEO Akihiko Otsuka referred to wine as a healthy alternative to hard liquor and stored a collection of Bordeaux in a cellar in the Otsuka Pharmaceutical Research Center at Lake Biwa, near Kyoto.

In 1986, Otsuka purchased Ridge Winery, which is located at an elevation of 2,600 feet on top of Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains near San Jose. Two of the owners who were former presidents of Syntax, a pharmaceutical firm which had a joint venture with Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, knew that Otsuka was a collector of Bordeaux. When Otsuka visited Ridge, he liked what he saw and purchased it.

By sheer coincidence, in the summer of 1987 my translation partner introduced me to a Japanese friend, a woman who operated a tiny promotion firm in Japan. The woman wanted to introduce me as a future employee to the soon-to be new director of the wine division at Sanraku Inc., a subsidiary of Ajinomoto, and Japan’s largest domestic wine producer.

When the tutor’s friend visited San Francisco we met. She told me that the vice president of Ajinomoto Tadao Suzuki had taken the helm of its subsidiary Sanraku, Inc. Ajinomoto is the sole producer of the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate. The woman explained that Suzuki intended to convert Sanraku, a conservative, unsophisticated producer of low-end Japanese spirits, whiskey and wine into a market leader, focusing on wine, and with name recognition to rival Suntory. In order not to be out-gunned by Suntory, in 1987 Sanraku Inc. purchased Markham Vineyards which is located across the road in St. Helena from Louis Martini Vineyards.

Prior to 1987, Sanraku was importing and distributing wines and liquor from France, Austria, the Netherland, Germany, and the United States but Suzuki was determined to up the game by giving Sanraku Inc. a full corporate make-over. Its parent company, Ajinomoto, and its lenders had the capital to finance the operation. For moral support Suzuki brought along with him some of his former colleagues from Ajinomoto to manage various divisions, including the wine division, general affairs, finance and human resources. His soon-to-be director of the wine division was the director of the mayonnaise and soup division.

The woman was attractive, single and about thirty five, which by Japanese standards was beyond the age considered appropriate for marriage. She had earned a degree in politics from Waseda University, a first-class private university in Tokyo.

 Her fashion statement was flamboyant by conservative Japanese standards.  A bit rebellious, she smoked, and her vocabulary bordered on the irreverent, often in the masculine vernacular, illustrating that she was a member of a new breed of Japanese women, independent from traditional social mores and men.

Her father and her grandfather were engineers, her grandfather having studied automotive design in the 1930s in Germany at Porsche. I assumed that she was financially independent and able to defy the accepted social etiquette at the time. She mentioned that her mother had died and shortly afterwards her father remarried, triggering a turbulent relationship with him, which may have influenced her rebellious attitude towards men.

She did not divulge information about her profession nor her financial backing. She first met the future director of the wine division at a promotional event for Honda motorcycles that was sponsored by Ajinomoto. Dressed in black leather motorcycling gear, tight breeches and jacket, she was particularly enticing. They went out drinking afterwards and became friends but she did not confide details regarding their relationship.

Too Good to Be True?

Ostensibly it seemed like a fine opportunity even though the wine trade had been hit by a scandal around that time. The Japanese are fastidious consumers. Half of a dead rat in a jar of Skippy Peanut Butter in the 1950s did not faze Americans but in Japan a jar or bottle with a hint of anything foreign will be withdrawn from the market. In this case, Austrian wine had been contaminated with antifreeze and the wine market withered. It took several years and a concerted effort among foreign wine associations and domestic importers and producers to revive trust among Japanese wine drinkers.

After she returned to Tokyo I was very apprehensive because the job had yet to be created. When she returned to San Francisco in September with three other colleagues, two women and a man, all in their thirties I began to worry. Evidently they were on a marketing survey trip or at least this was what they told me. I was invited to spend several days with them as their tour guide. The first day they hired a car and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to the nearby posh seaside town of Sausalito where we stopped at a well-known hotel for lunch on the roof-top veranda. The group marvelled at the yachts anchored in the harbor below, the stunning views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

What was striking about their behaviour was their complacency and arrogance, a sign of what was occurring among youth in Tokyo. Their manner seemed to be a deliberate denial of refinement which is commonly associated with Japanese culture. Their language laced with slang and colloquialisms, which are now a part of the daily vocabulary. It was at the height of the “bubble” and it seemed as if their budget was bottomless. I wondered who was supporting the expense account.

 After perusing the lunch menu they ordered some of the most expensive items with a bottle of wine. They smoked while they picked at their food, leaving most of it on their plates, suggesting that the Japanese, at least the Japanese in the big cities, were now nouveau riche, conspicuous consumers, and in the process of discarding the “less-is-more” foundation of Japan’s cultural heritage. But I had not been to Japan for twelve years to experience this evolution. The following day I took them to Fisherman’s Wharf before they returned to Tokyo. It was not until I went to Tokyo for the interview that I saw the impact of the ‘asset-inflated bubble’ on Japanese consumer culture.

The potential position at Sanraku presented an invaluable opportunity to work in a conservative Japanese company and to engage in work that would provide an intimate view of distribution, business development and corporate strategy. Suntory had already internationalized and was employing a number of foreign staff.

I waited expectantly for word from the woman who finally contacted me at the end of the year with the good news that I would be interviewed at Sanraku in February. Elated, yet cautious, I made preparations for the trip, sorting out a tourist visa. I contacted Mr. Hibi whom I had not seen since 1976 to ask if I could stay with him during the interview period.  He had married his secretary a year after his wife’s death, much to his children’s dismay. Nevertheless, he was very pleased that I was coming to stay with him.