Chapter 4. How I Got the Dream Job

Chapter 4: How I Got the Dream Job


I arrived at Tokyo Haneda Airport at 6pm. Despite being jetlagged, as soon as I made my exit from the airport I felt right at home. Tokyo smelled exactly the same as it did when I departed twelve years earlier. I took a taxi to a business hotel located in Nihonbashi in the vicinity of Ajinomoto’s headquarters where Sanraku was ensconced and where the firm had reserved a room for me.

Tired and anxious about the interview, I alighted from the taxi and carried my luggage to the hotel reception. At that very instant, I realized that I had left my handbag in the taxi and I ran out to catch the driver before he took off but, to my horror, he had already left. My handbag contained my visa, passport and my wallet with all of my money. In desperation, I hurried to the nearest police box to report the situation to the officers on duty. The policemen told me that they would immediately contact all of the taxi companies in the Tokyo metropolitan area and as soon as they heard anything they would call the hotel. The hotel reception kindly registered me even though I had no identification other than that Sanraku had made the reservation. The receptionist assured me that I would be called as soon as the police or a taxi company contacted them. I was relieved that I could communicate in Japanese because otherwise I would not have been able to express the urgency of the situation.

Since it was already 8pm I knew that I would probably not receive word until morning. But I thought that, although the bag might not be returned, remembering my previous experience twenty years earlier, there was a good possibility that the bag would be returned. I spent a restless night waiting for a call which came at 7am. The bag had been recovered by a taxi company and that I could collect it. I debated about the type of gift to offer the taxi driver and whether a traditional gift of a large tin of Japanese biscuits from a well-known shop or whether cash was more appropriate on this occasion. I decided on an elegantly wrapped large box of a variety of Japanese rice crackers and biscuits. I opted to take a taxi since I was unfamiliar with the area where the company was located. Tokyo is a huge city and the ride took thirty minutes. As I had thought, the bag’s contents were intact. When I presented the biscuits to the manager, thanking him profusely, his expression fleetingly registered both disappointment and contempt since he had expected cash from an American.

The Interview

The next morning I went to Ajinomoto’s corporate headquarters for the interview. The building was located on Showa Blvd in Kyo-bashi in the Ginza where a number of corporate headquarters and commercial buildings also straddled the wide avenue. The drab white building with a cornerstone inscribed with the date of the company’s establishment in 1907 had been built in 1972. After a receptionist dressed in the Ajinomoto company uniform announced my arrival, a second receptionist from Sanraku came to usher me to Sanraku corporate headquarters on the fourth floor and to a large private room. She brought me a cup of green tea and instructed me to wait for a few minutes. The windowless room was a typical arrangement for business meetings. I sat at the end of a long sofa in front of a rectangular wooden coffee table on which was placed a heavy crystal ashtray. To the right was a large easy chair. I was dressed conservatively in a dark green kilt skirt, white cotton blouse and a dark green cardigan which I had knitted.

After waiting nervously for about five minutes the door opened and a balding gentleman in his mid-fifties wearing Japanese leather sandals, usually worn at home, shuffled in. He handed me his Japanese business card identifying him as the director of human resources. Sitting in the arm chair and puffing away on a Japanese brand cigarette (Cherry or Peace) he spoke perfunctorily in informal Japanese with a quizzical expression on his face. His accent indicated that he was not from the Tokyo area. I had anticipated that the company had been well-briefed regarding my background and my credentials and that the interview was merely to confirm details. But the director spoke to me as though I was an oddity. I began to suspect that no one had told him anything about me as a potential employee. I also suspected that he had never interviewed a foreigner nor had he associated often with foreigners. After the twenty minute interview the director told me to wait and left the room.

 As ten anxious minutes passed and as I started to worry that I would not be offered the job the director entered the room again, this time followed by two middle-aged gentlemen and an older man. Bowing, they handed me their Japanese business cards identifying themselves as Sanraku executive directors. They were friendly but appeared puzzled as well. The interview was conducted in Japanese because no one spoke English, which was fortunate because at least I could prove that I was fluent in their language. I related my education, my background and my years in the Napa Valley. When I was asked about wine in general I was effusive about the growing wine market in Japan and the Japanese’ penchant for fine wine. I was also asked about California wine which I predicted would become popular and gain a niche in the Japanese market. I was pleasantly surprised that they were impressed that I was a Juilliard graduate because most Americans had never heard of the school. Their reaction could have been related to Sanraku’s rival Suntory’s advertising campaigns which focused on the art.

Towards the end of the interview the HR director leaned forward and uttered the word kiboo which in Japanese can be translated as “hope,” “desire,” or “objective.” I had no clue to what he was alluding and, in desperation, I glanced at the business cards I had placed on the table in front of me. The director sitting beside me was in charge of corporate strategy. I blurted out that I hoped to contribute to Sanraku’s new marketing strategy as a member of the wine division, which seemed to satisfy the executives. The director of HR stood up and told me that I would meet with the director of the wine division at the end of the week. Evidently, the executive board wanted to meet me initially before going on to the final stage with the new director of the wine division. I checked out of the hotel and took the train to Kita Kamakura for a reunion with Mr. Hibi.

A year later a young woman entered the wine division as a trainee. We exchanged experiences about our interviews, which were remarkably similar. The HR director had been at Ajinomoto before following Suzuki to Sanraku. The fact that he was a native of Niigata explained his speech pattern. She was also confused about kiboo but finally realized that he was referring to the amount of salary she expected to receive. We laughed every time the HR director passed our division. Mr. Suzuki had been at the helm less than a year and I am still incredulous that I had managed to secure the job.

A Reunion

After the interview I went to Tokyo Station and took the train to Kita Kamakura and to “my home.” It was a tearful homecoming. Mr. Hibi greeted me emotionally and, for a moment, it seemed as if I had never left my home. But as soon as I was seated on the familiar sofa in the familiar lounge beside Mr Hibi, I felt an incredible emptiness, realizing for the first time that Mrs. Hibi would not appear. Although his children were opposed to his second marriage, Mr Hibi was in his mid-seventies and did not want to move because he could visit their mother’s grave often while being cared for. Mr. Hibi brought out the plum wine, which Mrs. Hibi had made and enjoyed with me. Although I stayed in “my room,” the room was no longer mine.

The following day, I accompanied Mr Hibi to Engakuji to his wife’s grave in the family plot.  Mrs. Hibi had never mentioned her relationship with the monastery but it seemed the perfect spot for her because of her humble nature and her love of Natsume Soseki. The graveyard was ancient and crowded with the graves of famous Japanese politicians and writers. Mrs. Hibi’s grave stone had been carved by an illustrious Zen master who was the head master at Engakuji for many years. Mr. Hibi, placing fresh flowers on the grave, told me that I could visit any time I wished and that I should mention the Hibi name to the gate keeper at the cemetery entrance because he would let me pass without paying the entry fee.  I could not have foreseen at the time that Mrs. Hibi’s grave would play a role while I was employed at Sanraku.

As we walked to other monasteries in the vicinity I confided that I was concerned that the job offer was ambiguous but he assured me that the position was mine. Several days passed before I received a call from Sanraku to schedule an interview with the incoming director.

I went to the corporate headquarters to meet the new director who was in his mid-fifties. He was short and rather portly. Fortunately, the interview was merely a formality as if my position had already been decided. He was very cordial and positive about having me as a member in his division. He requested that I return to the States and await further notice because the company would apply for my sponsorship in order to obtain a work permit. But I feared that circumstances could change at any time and that I might be sloughed off. In other words, as an ignorant foreigner I presumed that unless a contract was in hand the job was not guaranteed. I told the new director that I would try to have a friend to sponsor me which would speed up the process of obtaining a work permit for a foreign staff.

I returned to Kita Kamakura and asked Mr. Hibi if he would act as my personal guarantor because I would feel far more secure if he sponsored me. He was a successful businessman with excellent connections and I did not feel that my request was an imposition since he regarded me as a close friend. He graciously accepted.

I remained in Kamakura for a week, waiting for the illusive contract, biding my time by visiting old haunts and an old friend who lived in Kamakura proper. Kamakura Station had been rebuilt and the supermarket where I had shopped in Motomachi had opened a branch behind the station. There were also new tennis courts. I was unable to find my friend’s house because new homes had sprouted up on new streets. To facilitate the search I went to a rice and sake shop in my friend’s neighbourhood to ask directions. Since the proprietor made deliveries to homes in the vicinity he knew where my friend lived.

No Trespassing

I returned to Engakuji where I had been many times.  I went to see the Sharidan, a National Treasure which was built by Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhist monks in the thirteenth century. The building was rebuilt in the sixteenth century after burning down. Engakuji sustained thirty practicing monks who meditated in the Sharidan. Only male monks were allowed to enter and it was off-limits to laymen except on special occasions. Women were forbidden. It was February when traditionally the monks went to their respective temples and families for a two month respite from the strenuous practice. I passed through Engakuji’s main gate and went to the rear of the monastery where the Shariden was located. Within the monks’ living compound the wooden structure stood elegant in its simplicity. The entrance to the compound was protected by a low bamboo fence. Written in Japanese in black ink on a wood block was the warning, “No Trespassing.”

I peered inside the compound to see if anyone was around. Only one white cotton undergarment was hanging on a pole, proof that the monks were off on their winter break. I tentatively climbed over the fence and as I approached the building, I heard hammering and men’s voices. Holding my breath, I peeked inside to see carpenters repairing the ceiling.  They did not notice me creeping nervously inside onto the dirt floor. I could hardly believe my luck and for ten minutes I basked in a thousand years of spiritual energy as I gazed transfixed at the slightly elevated wooden platform where the monks chanted prayers and meditated daily. But I knew that if I stayed any longer I would be caught. Reluctantly, I left and climbed over the fence thinking that I had managed to escape without being noticed. As I began walking towards the monastery’s main entrance I heard the sound of clacking wooden sandals behind me. I glanced around to see a monk in his robes pursuing me, his arms folded across his chest. He shouted angrily in Japanese that I should not have entered the compound. Frightened and feeling a tad guilty I promptly answered in English that I did not understand Japanese and made my escape.

Mr. Hibi called Sanraku several times to enquire about the contract. He told me that, although the HR knew that he would be sponsoring me, it would take several months to process a work permit. I returned to San Francisco to wait nervously for word and for the contract. Without a firm contract and with new management, my future job was still an uncertainty. In order to impress upon Sanraku that I was waiting, I sent in hand- written Japanese the latest news about the wineries and forecasts for the 1988 vintage in the Napa-Sonoma Valley.

Finally, in June I received word that Sanraku had obtained the work permit and that I could come. Overwhelmed with relief I made hasty preparations and collected the visa at the Japanese Consulate and packed my bags.

I arrived six weeks later during the hottest and muggiest period of the year.1988 saw the beginning of a rash of political scandals that served to unhinge Japan’s political system because of the involvement of numerous high-ranking members in the LDP and elite civil servants.

The Recruit scandal hit the front pages of the major dailies. The scale of the massive insider trading and corruption scandal brought down Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita’s entire administration, the resignation from office by many key politicians, and the arrest and indictment of powerful businessmen. The episode was a good example of collusion between cross-party ultra-conservative politicians, bureaucrats and big business and of money politics during Japan’s post-war period.

The scandals that plagued Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (1974-76) during and after he was in the prime minister’s office were regarded as political corruption, involving primarily politicians. The Lockheed bribery scandal in 1976 was covered by the international press because the case went to trial and Tanaka was sentenced to four years in prison for accepting $3 million from the Lockheed Corporation for convincing ANA to order passenger planes from Lockheed instead of from McDonnell Douglas. Abe’s uncle former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato (1964-72) was also implicated with Lockheed officials in separate bribery cases.

The Recruit scandal, involving 155 prominent figures, was regarded as the most pervasive of all time and much bigger than the Lockheed scandal. It was credited with ending the 1955 System and the reign of the LDP, spurring the defection of LDP members to form splinter parties such as the New Japan Party in 1992 and Morihiro Hosokawa’s installation as prime minister in August 1993.

The Japanese electorate generally regarded politicians as corrupt and not in the same league as bureaucrats who were considered beyond reproach. But elite civil servants were now vulnerable to public scrutiny and no longer off-limits to interrogation by prosecutors.