Chapter 5: The Dream Job
Chapter 5. The Dream Job
The Ajinomoto Connection
Sanraku Inc., formerly known as Showa Brewery, was established by the Ajinomoto Corporation in 1934. In 1935 Showa began producing alcohol and, in 1946, shochu, a popular Japanese distilled spirit made from fermented sweet potato or rice with 25 percent alcohol content by volume. In 1961 Showa Brewery purchased Mercian Winery and then merged in 1962 with Nisshin Brewery to purchase Ocean Co., a whisky producer. In 1985 Showa’s name was changed to Sanraku Inc. The English translation of Sanraku is “three pleasures,” the company producing wine, shochu and a blended whisky, considered a “working man’s whisky.”
The English translation of Ajinomoto is “essence of taste.” The multinational produces the flavor enhancer Accent, otherwise known as monosodium glutamate (MSG), and holds the sole patent on the fermentation process for its production. MSG is commonly used in Asian cuisine. Saburosuke Suzuki established Suzuki Seiyakusho, a pharmaceutical company, in 1907. When Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist, acquired a patent for his invention of the fermentation process for MSG, Suzuki purchased a joint share in the product and received a permit from the Ministry of the Interior to produce MSG under the label Lady&Aji-No-Moto. Suzuki began production in a small factory in Zushi, a town located two hours south of Tokyo and where the Imperial Family has a summer villa. In 1909, after the company won a bronze medal at the first Japanese Invention Exhibition, it launched its brand Aji-No-Moto which became the corporate name as well.
Aji-No-Moto entered Taiwan in 1910 and in 1912 began selling wheat starch to spinning companies. The company expanded operations in China in 1914 and in 1917, Suzuki established S. Suzuki & Co., the origin of the present Ajinomoto Group. Although Suzuki opened sales offices in China, Singapore, Taipei and New York in the 1920s and 1930s, the offices were closed at the end of the war. After the war, in 1947, Ajinomoto resumed exports to the United States and began to trade publicly in 1949.
From 1951 onward Ajinomoto developed into a multinational company, its group of subsidiaries manufacturing a full range of products, including salad dressing, soups, seasoning, cooking oil, pharmaceuticals, fertilizer and animal feed. It launched Knorr’s Cup-a-Soup in 1964 and engaged in numerous joint ventures with foreign food producers in Japan to produce such products as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, General Foods Maxim Coffee and DANON dairy products. In 1982, it began exporting its product Aspartane to the United States and NutraSweet to Switzerland.
Tadao Suzuki, Saburosuke’s grandson, was Ajinomoto’s vice-president before transferring to Sanraku as its CEO in 1987. Although he wanted wine and spirits to be Sanraku’s core business, Suzuki also intended to expand Sanraku’s fish feed and chemicals business, which were also specific to Ajinomoto’s business interests. Suzuki was determined to achieve his objectives swiftly through substantial financing from Sanraku’s parent company and Ajinomoto lenders to transform Sanraku Inc. into a company which rivalled Suntory its main competitor.
Prior to Tadao Suzuki’s entrance, Sanraku had been importing and distributing wines and liquors. It was the agent for Tio Pepe Sherry from Portugal (1972), Gustaf Adolf Schmidt wines from Germany and Tokai wine from Hungary (1973) Jim Beam Brands (1977), and Remy-Cointreau and Maison Albert Bichot (1982). Louis Martini Vineyards located in the Napa Valley, was also included in the wine portfolio.
First Day on the Job
I stayed again at a business hotel courtesy of Sanraku because I had yet to find permanent accommodation. My first morning was devoted to my formal introduction to corporate staff. During the afternoon I would be taken to look at flats in the metropolitan area.
I was introduced to the nine staff in the wine division. Although not wine connoisseurs, they were Sanraku old-timers who had forged tight sales networks with retailers, hotels, bars and restaurants. An attractive and stylishly dressed woman in her mid-fifties was the only female middle-manager (kacho) in the wine division or, for that matter, in the entire company. There were three male employees in their late twenties, two full-time salesmen and one secretary, a female in her early twenties.
A young man came from HR to formally present me with my long-awaited contract stamped with the head of HR’s seal together with the company handbook which listed the corporate rules and regulations and the annual schedule. Everyone seemed pleased to meet me. Staff were seated at long tables with the directors of each division at the head and the division’s middle management (kacho) seated next to him. Since I was a new employee I was placed at the bottom end of the table.
Staff told me that in order to modernize Sanraku’s corporate culture, its management and working practices, Suzuki immediately employed two staff from McKinsey and Co. to engage with the wine division staff for a year. The male and female consultants sat at my desk but they rarely communicated with staff, preferring to observe daily operations in silence for one year before departing. Chuckling, the kacho opened the desk drawer to reveal the pencils they had left behind. Whether or not McKinsey’s recommendations were deemed realistic, Suzuki had sent out a clear message to personnel that the times were changing. Nevertheless, the Sanraku old-timers did not anticipate any major changes.
I was escorted to the other divisions by my director where I formally introduced myself in Japanese to the staff in each division in the traditional way, holding my contract before me while bowing respectfully. This procedure was repeated until my director had introduced me to the three other divisions located in the same room; liquor, the alcohol division which was in charge of the production of shochu, and a luxury goods division. With the exception of the luxury goods division where there were only two members, a director and his young female secretary, there were approximately ten to fifteen staff per division. The division for procurement and distribution, which collaborated with the wine division in the procurement and distribution of imports, was located in an adjacent room.
I was taken to the floor above to be introduced to the finance division and to the Sanraku upper management who had interviewed me in February. Finally, I was introduced to Mr. Suzuki in his executive office. He was very gentile and more sophisticated than his staff, including the director of the wine division. Although he had been briefed about my entry in his company he appeared slightly perplexed about me and my role. It was not until a few months had passed that I realized that my role had not been discussed in detail and that apparently, he was content to rely on Sanraku staff until he firmly held the corporate reigns. It was still early days.
Returning to the wine division I was unpleasantly surprised to find that on top of my desk was a pile of literature in Japanese about Sanraku and Sanraku’s winery, Mercian, which was located in Yamanashi Prefecture where Suntory also operated its winery. The male kacho in charge of Sanraku’s Markham in the Napa Valley, preferring to keep me in the position perceived as the primary role of a foreign bilingual, requested that I transcribe some of the literature into English for marketing brochures to be given to foreign clients. However, I knew that once I began translating I would be expected to continue. Luckily, due to extenuating circumstance, I was able to postpone the exercise.
Finding a Flat
The same man from HR came to collect me to take me to see rentals available to foreigners. He explained that Sanraku would subsidize 85 percent of the monthly rent while I would pay fifteen percent. I was delighted to learn that the subsidy was not included in my salary. The man showed me several flats which were about forty minutes commute from the office. They were shabby with two to three rooms carpeted with old tatami mats. The kitchen appliances were old and greasy.
The rents were inflated not only because of the bubble economy but, also, because landlords took advantage of foreign tenants and of the corporations which subsidized the rents. I doubted whether the HR staff could afford to live so close to the office. He probably lived with his parents or lived on the outskirts of Tokyo. I felt pressured to choose a flat soon even if the flat did not suit my criteria in order to integrate into the company quickly. Also, I feared that the fellow might report to his colleagues that I was being difficult. However, in retrospect, I could have made a final decision after seeing as many as ten flats and, most likely, my companion would have been happy to be out of the office for a few days. But since a new position had been created for me I did not want to cause any undo problems and enter as inconspicuously as possible. The initial impression of Sanraku’s first foreign staff had to be entirely positive.
The following morning I returned to the office. Only five feet separated the divisions. The alcohol division was adjacent to the wine division and directly behind me sat a Sanraku employee who was in his mid-fifties and near retirement age. He was a chain smoker, puffing continuously on strong Japanese brand cigarettes. I was engulfed in a cloud of smoke but since he never spoke to me, not even a greeting, I presumed that he was disgruntled with a foreign woman brought in by a new management who were taking over a company where he had been employed his entire career. Despite suffering from asthma I remained silent.
Although the literature on my desk I was supposed to translate was easy to understand, the male staff spoke rapidly and since they came from various regions their accents and some of their vocabulary also posed big problems. When I was asked if I understood, I nodded in the affirmative but I wondered if I would survive the first month. Fortunately, the literature provided much of the vocabulary used by the sales staff and within a few months I was able to adapt, but not quite. The salesmen sometimes used vernacular expressions such as yatsu which ordinarily means “young guy.” I would look around the room but could not spot a young man. As I became more familiar with my colleagues I finally drummed up the courage to ask the young secretary the meaning of yatsu. Laughing, she said that the term referred to liquor bottles. At that instant, I considered myself a full- fledged member of the wine division. Numerous incidences like this provided a foundation for future work and helped to establish a comfort zone in the work place and in subsequent Japanese corporations because the use of specific vocabulary differed according to the industry.
In the afternoon I went with HR to view more flats. The first flat was as depressing as the flats he had shown me the previous day. As I became increasingly worried that I would not be able to rent something hygienic and located closer to the office, he took me to see a small studio flat that had just been built for women tenants. The building was a squat grey concrete, two-story bunker-type structure with four flats on each floor. Concrete stairs to the second story climbed up the side of the building but there was no roof to shield tenants from the rain. The flats were fronted by steel doors. Located in Sangenchaya, a popular neighbourhood in Tokyo and one stop to Shibuya, a major shopping district in Tokyo, the flat, although somber and utilitarian was immaculate and convenient to shops. There was an eight minute walk to the Sangenchaya subway station and only one transfer to another main subway line which stopped at a station close to the office.
The landlord was a woman in her fifties and lived a few doors away from the new building. She had never rented to a foreigner and met us at a second story flat to assess whether she would consider renting to me. The steel door opened to reveal a small living space with wooden floors. The Japanese expression “as narrow as a cat’s forehead” (neko no hitai kurai) describes the flat perfectly.
The entrance led into a tiny unit kitchen. Above two gas hobs for cooking was a cabinet for storing dishes and cutlery and a second cabinet for storing provisions. Below was a compact refrigerator. Directly across from the cooking area was a unit bathroom which was slightly raised above the floor for good reason. The toilet was flanked by a sink and a narrow shower which was without a shower curtain. The floors were plastic and the narrow shower was also plastic. In the center of the floor was a drain which accommodated the excess water from the shower. Although a fan was installed to remove the moisture during a shower, using the toilet afterwards could be a wet experience for both feet and bottom. At the opposite end of the room glass sliding door, opening onto a tiny balcony, provided the only source of sunlight. There was enough space for a single bed or futon, a small dresser and a low table. The view from the roof was of Sangenchaya.
At first, the landlady was reluctant to rent to foreigners primarily because of the difficulties communicating. However, my fluency in her language and my ability to relate to her made her comfortable. She decided to accept Sanraku’s guarantee and the key money. She offered to order a low make-do plywood table which I could sit at using cushions while eating or watching television. It was a barebones existence. The rent was far less than the other flats and I accepted quickly so that I would be considered accommodating at the outset.
Commuting on a ‘killer train’
The streets near my flat were lined with small shops and a supermarket where I purchased essentials and cleaning products. I purchased a compact television at my neighbourhood electronics shop to ensure quick repairs if necessary. There was a tofu shop and a Japanese version of a take-away, which sold tasty hot Japanese dishes, including rice. A laundromat was a few blocks from the flat.
I stayed at the hotel for another week, spending mornings out of the office while I shopped for a bed and a dresser which I found at a furniture store in Shinjuku, a central district known for its department stores as well as for discount electronics shops. The most elegant shopping area in Tokyo besides the Ginza was Omotesando which was on the way to the office on the same subway line. The supermarket in Yokohama where I had shopped for my husband had also expanded to this neighbourhood and I could purchase favorite American brands and navel oranges but for a price.
My initiation to corporate life differed considerably from my expectations. Japan had effectively become my home and Japanese my second language and there was little to adapt to in terms of daily life with the exception of the commute to Showa Doori. I should have used the trains before renting the flat. The trains during rush-hour were called “killer trains” (satsujin densha) and for good reason. When I arrived at the platform at 8am, the rush hour, I discovered that there were four rows of commuters packed together in front of me. When the train arrived it was already full of passengers. Regardless, the conductors on the platform mercilessly shoved the first row of commuters onto the cars before the doors shut. Another train arrived a minute later and the conductors shoved a second wave of commuters onto the cars. I was pushed along with fellow commuters onto the third train. Passengers were packed like sardines in a tin. My arms were glued to my side but since I was held up by the other passengers it was impossible to fall. I could barely breathe. The train arrived seven minutes later at Omotesando where I transferred to the Ginza Line, which fortunately arrived at the opposite platform. I had no control over my body as I was swept out of the car by a wave of humanity across to the opposite platform onto a waiting train. There was no time to react. It was a matter of survival. I was numb by the end of the ride. I could not conceive of having to commute in this manner for years and remain remotely human.
I tried to make the daily commute as bearable as possible by gazing at the advertisements hanging in the car. Some of the seated male passengers read newspapers which carried photos of naked women or violent and pornographic comic books. Some of the whiskey and bank advertisements enlightened because they used photographs of westerners together with concocted catch phrases in English. Mitsubishi Bank released one with a smiling young blond-haired, blue-eyed man in a business suit with the phrase in English “Fresh Man” splashed across the top. Supposedly, the objective was to project the image of Ivy League upper class confidence and success.
I had assumed that I hardly resembled a Japanese but since I was small in stature compared to many westerners working in Japan and had black hair. I was often mistaken for a Japanese from behind. Also, my Japanese friends and colleagues would assert that I was “more Japanese than they were,” implying that my demeanour was subdued. Of course, this was a misinterpretation but in many ways this perception significantly helped me to engage in the workplace. Nevertheless, I increasingly became aware that I was indeed considered useful as the “white face” representative of the corporations where I worked. And there were instances at Sanraku when male staff focused on my bust or my legs even though I always wore a conservative blouse and skirt. Nowadays Japanese females are taller, generously endowed and have beautiful limbs, illustrating a change to a western diet heavy with dairy and animal products. But foreign women are still considered special in the sexual sense.
I wore good shoes to the office but after several pairs of shoes from the US were trampled on, I decided to break with tradition and wear trainers on the subway, changing them to proper shoes when I arrived at the office. After six months arriving at the office in trainers female employees followed suit. I had started a trend. Once I encountered Mr. Suzuki in the elevator getting an early start while I was still wearing trainers. Embarrassed, I sputtered out an apology which my boss waved off. He had attended North-western University in Chicago and was used to the fashion statement. He had also discontinued the traditional company uniform for female staff. Only the women at the Ajinomoto reception desk on the ground floor wore corporate uniforms. The morning pre-work group exercise routine and chanting the corporate slogan was also discontinued in order to westernize the environment.
Employees were provided monthly with subway and train passes as well as meal tickets for the commissary located in the basement. Social security tax was withheld from wages. I initially went to eat lunch in the cavernous commissary which served both Ajinomoto and Sanraku staff. It was canteen-style where kitchen staff served up typical Japanese lunches of fried fish, noodles, rice, tofu and boiled vegetables. I paid with the meal ticket and sat beside a few male members from my division who ate quickly in order to go on personal errands before the end of the one hour designated lunch break. Female employees rarely frequented the commissary, preferring to go out together for a more palatable lunch of sandwiches and a good gab or bring their own packed lunch. Later I joined them and also took advantage of the break to get a free lunch of food samples at one of the department store food halls located in Nihonbashi and the Ginza.
My efforts to be as inconspicuous as possible were hampered by a tall, lanky young male employee about eighteen, who had recently entered Sanraku after graduating from high school. He was in the finance division on the second floor but whenever he spotted me he would shout “Hi, Susan!” which was annoying at first, but I began to see that he was a lovely, highly intelligent fellow who was bored with his duties but whose potential Sanraku had no interest in developing. He told me that he was the oldest of seven children and that he supported his family. Sometimes, he came down to the wine division to break the tedium to chat or to ask questions about the US and California and to take sweets which I kept in the bottom drawer of my desk for staff in order to create a rapport when I first arrived.
Although half of the staff returned to their desks at 1pm, the kacho and directors were often absent, not to return until 3-4pm. When I inquired why nobody was around the secretaries’ giggling coquettishly, replied, Yukue Fume or “Whereabouts unknown” which could be interpreted in a number of ways, including having a coffee or going on a personal errand or, perhaps, engaging in something more risqué. When my superiors returned they would stay on until 7 or 8pm.
In all fairness, the kacho who were salesmen were often visiting bars, liquor shops and restaurants because Sanraku’s business was primarily with these trades. The salesmen also were pressured to go drinking with clients and commonly suffered from alcoholism. Sometimes I accompanied a salesman from the wine division to an outlet and invariably one of the secretaries would chirp, “Come back soon!” or “He’s so lucky to have a date with Susan san!” which brought unwanted attention.
6pm onward was considered overtime and staff collected time-and-a-half to support their families. Also, employees were reluctant to leave before their directors. However, it was a trade-off because many faced two-hour commutes to their homes on the outskirts of Tokyo, arriving too late to see their children. Although they may hastily slurp down a bowl of noodles at a platform kiosk before boarding the train, their wives waited for them with suppers prepared earlier in the evening.
Trial by Fire
I did not have a computer nor did I know how to use a computer. Within a few weeks after entering Sanraku a kacho decided to send me to an NEC school for a two-week crash course. The Nippon Electric Company (NEC) was, at that time, the largest producer of PCs and semi-conductors in Japan and furnished all of the PCs to Sanraku. The program was in Japanese and the keyboards were marked with Japanese characters which were manipulated manually to create Chinese characters, depending on the vocabulary. I doubted whether I would ever be able to learn the system, let alone operate a computer, within a few weeks. There were only three other Japanese students attending the class. At first, I missed some of the instructor’s rapid-fire Japanese but, fortunately, the manual was also in Japanese, which was easy to understand because manuals tend to be simple and childlike and often illustrated with cartoon-like characters which are helpful, especially in the NEC manual. After the class I returned to the office merely to show my face and to ensure that my desk was still there. It was “trial-by-fire” and I anticipated that when I had completed the course I would have to operate my first NEC PC.
There was no PC at my desk and I moved to another area in the office to use one. Mr. Suzuki requested a year-end greeting to foreign clients and the wine division director occasionally requested letters to CEOs of foreign liquor firms. Some of the communications revealed Sanraku’s corporate strategy in which I would not have been included in otherwise. When I was asked if I needed any tools to help me with my marketing responsibilities, I boldly requested the heavy Sunday edition of the New York Times, assuming that I would not receive it. Evidently, the expense was not an issue and a copy appeared on my desk each week.
Suzuki’s Corporate Strategy
Within months after entering Sanraku, due to a series of events, my responsibilities provided a continuous respite from duties usually associated with foreign staff and changed the way I would engage in the company. Better still, the work forged the way to be involved in Japan’s distribution system for liquor and food and for a potential job in the USTR.
Mr. Suzuki’s determination to internationalize the wine division made my remit wide-ranging; i) assist and participate in meetings and negotiations involving the conception, development, promotion and marketing of both imported and domestic products; ii) engage in market research, conducting on-site surveys and evaluating pertinent economic information from a variety of industrial and proprietary sources; iii) liaison activities with foreign producers dealing with Sanraku which included preparing and conducting market research tours, meetings and conferences for foreign corporate officials. I also participated in numerous wine events as a Sanraku representative.
These responsibilities afforded me the rare opportunity to monitor and evaluate the product distribution system, particularly the role of the wholesaler, and to perform analyses of Japanese demographic trends and consumer buying patterns. As importantly, I experienced how a large Japanese company was managed on a daily basis in terms of structure, organizational behaviour and practice and saw directly the many issues related to corporate expansion in general during the bubble years amid Japan’s volatile economic environment.
I translated the wine division’s marketing strategy for foreign clients:
The loosening of restrictions for obtaining a liquor license has opened up the flow of liquor onto the general market. The market for ordinary consumers has experienced a rapid growth due to a change in eating patterns (i.e. the tendency to eat outside the home in gourmet restaurants). Considering these factors and looking ahead to the future, Sanraku intends to acquire the top share in total wine sales not only for Mercian domestic wine but, also, for imported wine.
The Japanese diet has become extremely varied, including many gourmet and international food products and Sanraku is promoting wine as a part of the daily diet. Because of its affiliation with Ajinomoto, a major food corporation, Sanraku has the means and funds to emphasize its strong relationship to the food industry and, therefore, promote wine as an accompaniment to food.
- Domestic Wine: Targeting its Select Brand for household use, Sanraku also plans to catch hold of the first-time wine drinker but producing wine-like products, including Vino 5.
- Sanraku is seeking to raise the Mercian Brand image and “cost merit” by strengthening its Mercian network overseas and establishing the quality controlled MG Brand in the imported wine market.
- Imports: In the midst of the expanding import market, Sanraku plans to increase its share rapidly by handling world famous brands.
Shortly after my arrival I was invited by two young male employees from the liquor division to join female support staff in the tea room to taste test six clear liquids served in small glass cups. They explained that the beverage they were concocting would be marketed to office ladies (OLs). In the late 1980s young women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, who were mainly support staff in companies, were vigorously courted by not only confectioners but also by liquor producers. OLs were earning a good income but in order to economize many lived with their parents instead of renting their own apartments, an expensive proposition in Japan. Frugal (but only up to a point), they invariably spent some of their monthly salaries on sundries, mainly food and clothing. The wine and liquor industry, anticipating that OLs would acquire a taste for fruity white wine and low alcohol beverages, dashed off an array of products.
We tasted each liquid tentatively, assessing it for sweetness. The men refused to divulge the ingredients but several months later the finished product was being merchandised in a four-ounce pink can and heavily promoted in a television commercial featuring a popular starlet to launch Peachtree Fizz on the market. The drink was a mixture of white liquor, produced by Sanraku and a peach schnapps, one of Sanraku’s imports from the Netherlands. Supporting print advertisements and a hot-pink vending machine featured the same starlet. Some Sanraku executives questioned whether consumers preferred the starlet to the drink. Nevertheless, Peachtree Fizz was a resounding success. Following the launch, the two young inventors were presented at a brief ceremony with jackets bearing the Peachtree logo, hardly a substitute for royalties. One of the vending machines was on exhibit in the office and I asked the young man from the finance division to pose next to it while I took his photo.
The taste test episode served as an introduction to the other female staff who were in their twenties. Raised on a diet of American Pop Culture and Hollywood movies they confessed that they had anticipated that I would be blond and blue-eyed and taller. Bowing deeply, I expressed my apologies for having disappointed them. They burst out laughing and our relationship was on solid ground.
The Beaujolais Debacle: the wine division’s worst nightmare
Sanraku’s first triumph with Peach Tree Fizz was tempered in November with a major crisis revolving around the late delivery of Beaujolais Nouveau from France and which impacted negatively on Suzuki’s plans to re-orchestrate Sanraku’s corporate image. I had yet to drink the wine because it was considered too young for good drinking and prompted headaches.
Japanese wine producers and importers had made a concerted effort during the late1980s and 1990s to entice potential wine drinkers to buy their first bottle and to sip their first glass of wine. Marketing and promotion were extremely creative in 1988 and 1989 with big, pushy promotional campaigns for bringing Beaujolais Nouveau to the masses.
Although Takashimaya and Daimaru, two of Japan’s most prestigious department stores, had been carrying Beaujolais Nouveau for over fifteen years, sales were unremarkable. However, in order to introduce wine to the Japanese, who preferred beer and sake and otherwise known as “wine-beginners” in June 1988. Sanraku brought in a Summer Nouveau from Australia. Sales were so successful that feverish preparations were made by the domestic wine producers, including Suntory, to launch an all-out media campaign for Beaujolais Nouveau. It not only appealed to the agrarian roots of the Japanese, but also to their traditional love of festivals and celebrations dedicated to the first arrival of new crops of the season such as rice and tea. The Beaujolais Nouveau party was considered a logical extension of a festival welcoming the first sake.
There bottles of the Australian Beaujolais on display in the wine division but I was not involved in the campaign which had begun before my arrival. The campaign progressed on schedule and a complete success was anticipated for not only the 1988 season but for subsequent seasons as well. Sanraku along with the other main wine importers placed large orders with wine merchants in France. The wine was scheduled to arrive from France on the day before the third Thursday of November and delivered to hotels, restaurants and department stores, which geared up for record sales. The countdown to 12:01 a.m. began. But the wine division’s worst nightmare commenced when the wine failed to make an entrance at customs.
Because the sun rises in the East, Japanese celebrants would be the first to taste the new wine before everyone else in the world. And given the Japanese sense of timing, it was of crucial importance that the new vintage would be flown directly from France in time for the celebrations. Unfortunately, it was too much too soon for the France-Japan collaboration. The French were overwhelmed by the coordination problems of air-lifting hundreds of cases of the wine half-way around the world in a single day. The Beaujolais Nouveau did not arrive until the following day. Sanraku also had simultaneously launched a Mercian brand Beaujolais Nouveau to take advantage of the event even though the quality was questionable.
When the director of the wine division realized that the French Beaujolais Nouveau would not arrive at Customs on time for distribution to Sanraku’s customers he called an emergency meeting with all wine division staff, including Suzuki, and a kacho from the distribution division who was overseeing the operation’s logistics. Since Suzuki had not been advised of the situation earlier, he was outraged. The incident was the first time that I witnessed a number of examples of Suzuki’s isolation from Sanraku’s daily operations and key decisions taken by middle-management without first consulting with the CEO. However, Suzuki’s isolation from staff was specific to CEOs and chairmen in large Japanese corporations who confer mainly with upper management who are fed information by division directors.
It was also the first time I had witnessed the lack of “information sharing” between divisions in Japanese private and public corporations. Evidently, the distribution division delayed informing the wine division that the wine would be delivered a day late. In other words, there was no coordination between the wine division and the distribution division (i.e. “information-sharing”). The distribution division kacho attempted to justify his division’s ineptness by intimating that the French wine merchant may purposely have delayed the arrival of the wine in Singapore where the flight from Paris was refueled because the French did not want the Japanese to be the first to drink the wine. However, there was no evidence to corroborate his suspicions.
Appalled by the mishap, Suzuki pacing agitatedly around the room, suggested options that would minimize the damage in terms of large financial losses suffered by Sanraku’s clients and damage caused to Sanraku’s reputation and corporate image. My director, who accepted part of the blame for the debacle agreed with Suzuki that he, Suzuki, the Sanraku upper management and the directors from other divisions would travel throughout Japan during the week to personally apologize to Sanraku’s clientele.
I was dispatched to conduct surveys at twelve Tokyo department stores with managers in the liquor departments to get their assessment of Beaujolais Nouveau. Their answers to my questions revealed that the managers were unanimous about the boom being the result of the push by mass media and that the Japanese were always significantly influenced by media. The manager of Takashimaya’s liquor department explained:
College students want to give the impression that they are wine experts so they drink Beaujolais Nouveau on November 17. It gives them status, the same as when they are drinking Corona Beer or Wild Turkey. The mass media latches on to this and takes the message to consumers who then request that restaurants, which would not ordinarily carry such low-class wine, serve Beaujolais Nouveau. In France, the restaurants control what its patrons drink; “This is what we offer so please choose from our selection.” Restaurants in Japan cater to the whims of their clients. The customer controls what the restaurant offers. Beaujolais Nouveau has snob appeal.
The manager at the liquor division at the elegant and venerable Mitsukoshi department store said that Japanese were wine snobs and that Beaujolais Nouveau resembled Valentine’s Day, a mass media event:
Sanraku should know why Beaujolais Nouveau is so popular. It is one of the companies which pushes and advertises it. Its popularity is mainly due to mass media. It is not good wine and the wine department tries to persuade people to drink better wine. The wine beginner tries local wine. Mercian is watery, has no bouquet and is high in alcohol also. The company shouldn’t even produce it!
I was sent to represent the wine division at a tasting event at the elegant Ochanomizu Hotel to offer samples of the Mercian Beaujolais Nouveau. My constant smile concealed my embarrassment and the photograph of me serving a “wine lover” appeared in the December issue of the wine magazine Vinoteque.
The following year the grave illness of Emperor Hirohito necessitated the postponement of the Beaujolais Nouveau festival by one week in November. It was perplexing to see that staff were unconcerned about the Emperor’s health, complaining that waiting for his impending demise was a major inconvenience and a loss of business. The Emperor succumbed during the weekend following the third Thursday.
I was equally saddened when department stores and supermarkets remained open for business. The dirge from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was piped through loudspeakers, an acknowledgment of the end of an era spanning sixty-three turbulent years. I lamented the fact that government policies to overtake the United States economically to prove to the world that Japan was a force to be reckoned with had eaten away at the less-is-more frugal society that once was a primary attribute of Japanese culture and its traditional values. Within twenty years Japan had effectively become a nouveau riche throw-away society. The younger generation was focusing on the future and the creature comforts, travel and shopping afforded by new wealth rather than on a past that for many was bleak and highly controlled by the government. The present represented the loosening of strictures on the society and far more freedom.
Their apathy to the Emperor’s death was mainly because the majority of them were born after the war and were ignorant of their past because their history books conveniently ignored much of the detail regarding Japan’s engagement in the Second World War. Furthermore, SCAP had removed the Emperor as Japan’s head of state and the constitutional monarchy was dissolved along with the military. The old constitution was replaced with a new constitution prohibiting Japan from waging war and exporting military hardware. Emperor Hirohito was a reclusive figurehead who symbolized the past, the war and much suffering. Following the war, he became even more remote from society because he was no longer the head of state.
If Suzuki had been a Fly on the Wall
Suzuki entered Ajinomoto in 1951, after graduating from the School of Economics at Keio University and then attended North-western University in Chicago. He became a director in 1971 and then vice-president in 1981. Despite his education abroad, his business acumen and his former position at Ajinomoto, Suzuki was still a member of the traditional Japanese corporate establishment.
In terms of economic degrees, the private universities, namely Keio, Hitotsubashi or Kyoto, traditionally outranked the other universities and the technical colleges from where the majority of the Sanraku employees had graduated. The Keio old boy network was specific to certain industries such as the finance sector. Presidents and upper management in the retail banks are often graduates of Keio University, a private university recognized for its economics faculty. Suzuki and the Ajinomoto directors, who transferred with him to Sanraku, had received economics degrees from Keio. The Dai-ichi Kangyo Bank was staffed with Keio graduates and Sanraku staff’s wages were transferred monthly to Dai-ichi bank accounts.
Dai-ichi Kangyo (DKB) was the result of a merger in 1971 of Dai-ichi Bank and Nippon Kangyo Bank, government bank which had been the lead underwriter of war bonds during the Second World War, until it was later privatized. Dai-ichi Kangyo became the largest bank in terms of assets and deposit market shares. It was the only bank to have branches in all of the prefectures. The bank also managed the national lottery system.
The men who emigrated from Ajinomoto to Sanraku knew even less about wine than the wine division staff. The new director of the wine division who had been the former director of the mayonnaise and soup division at Ajinomoto had a penchant for sake and karaoke bars. His second-in-command, who was seconded from Ajinomoto was a marketer for Cup-a-Soup, was out of his depth when it came to persuading Japanese to drink more and better wine. However, Suzuki was supported by the expectations of future success because the 1970s and 1980s economy had created consumers with growing disposable incomes and who were willing to be wooed by imaginative marketing and promotion campaigns to purchase high-end goods.
Suzuki and his colleagues from Ajinomoto were approaching retirement age, which gave them seniority in the management. After their retirement as directors of their divisions they would serve as executives on Sanraku’s board of directors. Cliques (batsu) or old-boy networks exist in every society and can create a back-scratching, mutual obligation-mutual protection system in both business and government, especially in Japan where relationships are often forged during university years. The university in itself is a brand and future employment and even social status can hinge on where one has been educated.
If Suzuki had sat at desks in the various divisions observing Sanraku staff six months prior to his decision to diversify and expand operations, he would have recognized the significant differences in the corporate culture of Ajinomoto and its affiliate. He would have been better able to gauge the pace by which Sanraku staff would adapt to the change of management and their new responsibilities and the timeframe for achieving his goals. On the other hand, Sanraku staff, who had graduated from regional universities and technical colleges and on much lower incomes, would be uncomfortable sitting beside Suzuki whom they regarded as elite, urbane, wealthy and second in command at Ajinomoto, They would be reluctant to share information about personnel in the other divisions and their private personal concerns. Therefore, bringing in former colleagues from Ajinomoto to chair some of the divisions in order to restructure Sanraku would prove to be ineffective unless Suzuki himself was intimately involved in operations as well.