Chapter 8: A Foreigner in the Inside

Chapter 8. A Foreigner in the Inside

In addition to the New York Times I also requested a membership of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Japan which is located in Hibiya on the ninth floor of the Imperial Building (Teikoku Biru). The majority of journalists posted in Japan by foreign media are members of the club which has offices worldwide. I attended interesting presentations by journalists who had published books regarding subjects, not always on Japan. The presentations were scheduled in the evenings following a light buffet supper. I had the pleasure of meeting James Sterngold one of the correspondents for the New York Times.  The chief correspondent was David Sanger. Many of the articles regarded US-Japan trade issues. Both journalists were excellent writers but I occasionally disagreed with their analyses.

Foreign journalists posted in Japan frequently asked me about my experiences as a foreigner in a Japanese company and my treatment as a female employee. I replied that since I had lived in Japan seven years prior to entering the company there were not many unknowns. If they wanted to know how I was treated by management it would be wise to first ask Japanese staff about their treatment.

When I interviewed an American CEO of a large construction company in 1995 he said that prior to 1989 and the bursting of the asset-inflated bubble there was a lack of coverage in the American press about Japan:

The American press and business publications built this myth (and maybe the Japanese had something to do with it) of quality and better management. Now we are coming around to saying, “Maybe this myth is a myth.”

Foreign journalists often struggle to access news due to the press club system. The foreign media has been objecting for many years about the barriers and is obliged to work within a certain context and conditions and reporting is confined to accommodating these conditions. Their publications may not assess the entire story and their analyses of current events may also be incomplete.

The efforts of academics and commentators to access reliable information is further complicated by the insularity of organizations and their reticence to open their doors to outside observation by both Japanese and non-Japanese. The Japanese social political system is relatively opaque compared to those of Western industrialized nations and gaining a solid understanding of a given environment can be difficult and time-consuming.

In Japan’s Nuclear Crisis’s chapter entitled “Information-Sharing is Not a Buzz-Word in Japan: Press Clubs Insulate an Insular Political Economy” the section “Press clubs: information cartels control the flow of information” explains that the formation of press clubs can be traced to 1890, around the same time Japan’s new bureaucracy was established to modernize a feudal Japan. Japanese reporters insisted on entry into the sessions held by the Imperial Diet. Since then, press clubs have served as the major purveyor of information from the ministries and from the Diet to both Japanese and foreign media.

Reporters, commentators and journalists who belong to news organizations and who are covering government activities are assigned to press clubs (kisha kurabu) which are located in offices that are set up to gather news from major organizations such as the ministries, the Prime Minister’s office, political headquarters, local parliament and police headquarters, as well as consumer, entertainment and sports organizations.

There are now approximately 1,000 press clubs located throughout Japan with members ranging from approximately fifteen to twenty, with the major Japanese dailies regarded as regular club members. The Prime Minister’s Club can have over 500 members and the Diet Club can have as many as 5,000 members. Some institutions such as the Japan Broadcasting Company (NHK), the ministries such as the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications also operate their own press clubs. Japan Railroad (JR) and the power utilities have press clubs. Reporters and journalists representing domestic and foreign media are assigned to one club and can remain in that club for their entire career.

The members of press clubs receive information first. There is a close interpersonal relationship between reporters and their press clubs which prompts reporters to cooperate in the manner of questioning the news source and the way that the information is released to the public. If reporters incur disapproval from the press club they may be sanctioned. They may even be expelled from the club.

The Japan Newspaper Association or Nihon Shimbun Kyokai (NSK), also known as the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association (JNEPA), plays a fundamental role in choosing which newspapers, journals and television stations can enter a specific club. The NSK was founded by Japanese media on 23 July 1946. It is an independent organization based on voluntary membership. The members include the major dailies throughout Japan and television stations, which are also affiliated with the newspapers. The new members, including news agencies and broadcasters, are chosen by the board of directors and must abide by the Canon of Journalism.

Since the NSK decides on who enters which press club, accessing information is controlled and, therefore, restricted. The interlocking and vested corporate interests strengthen the press club system because the major newspapers are directly or indirectly linked to broadcasters, namely television and radio stations. Japan has five national newspapers; the Asahi, Yomiuri, Mainichi, Sankei and Nikkei. There are two major news agencies, Jiji Press and Kyodo News. Six broadcast companies constitute the government’s public broadcasting system: Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK), TV Asahi, TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System), Fuji TV, NTV (Nippon Television) and TV Tokyo. These organizations tend to control the activities of the press clubs. The direct and indirect institutional connections support the approach of Japanese mass media’s conveyance of information to the public and Western journalists often comment on the homogeneous nature of news reporting by Japanese media. Japanese and foreign news providers who are not members of the press clubs experience difficulty accessing primary data.

The Other Side of the Coin

Nevertheless, Japanese journalists will struggle to cover issues in the United States. An interview I conducted with an economics correspondent from the government-funded NHK posted in New York in 1994 revealed his difficulties in accessing stories in the United States:

When American journalists cover America, they have the advantage. When Japanese journalists cover Japan, we have the advantage, not only because of language but, also, because we have many friends. It is true that in Japan, we can visit company executives’ homes at night on the so-called “night round.” This sometimes allows us to get an exclusive or an “off-the-record.” So, open press conferences are not as common as in the United States because the important questions have already been asked. I go to Wall Street to meet many American bankers, security companies and American economists. It is very difficult to enter this silent circle. Although I can get interviews, in order to access good information I must have a friend among them. Still, as a journalist, I don’t approve of any barriers to foreign journalists. We have to change our ways and make all information available to everyone.

A Foreigner in their Midst: the positives and the negatives

 In 1988, Sanraku entered into a number of import and distribution third-party ventures with the luxury brand Champagne Pommery, Scotch whisky maker William Grant, Torres, the largest producer of Rioja in Spain, Cordoniu Cava and Cruz Domaine de France. And taking advantage of Ajinomoto’s presence in China, a key market where it had manufacturing facilities and excellent distribution channels, Sanraku began to import wine from Gu Yue Long Shan located in Shaoxing Province in 1990. The company also invested in a joint venture with an Australian winery in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales to produce wine for export to Japan.

 Following the Glenfiddich launch I began participating routinely with members of the wine division at negotiations with foreign wine producers. Occasionally, large trading companies that had international operations such as Mitsui and Marubeni would introduce foreign wine producers who wanted distribution in Japan. The producers either had contacted the trading companies directly or the trading companies had scouted producers whose wines were considered suitable for the Japanese market. If the wines received high marks at a tasting a meeting was scheduled with the producer and representatives from the trading company sitting across the table from the wine division. Preparations for the meetings were often at the last minute and haphazard. Although schedules had been printed, the statistical information from Sanraku’s branch offices regarding inventories and sales was missing and the director had to improvise. In other words, the statistics were ambiguous.

I invariably received queries from the trading company representatives about how I was able to enter Mercian and serve in a position which traditionally would have been appointed to Japanese staff. Probably the representatives had never encountered a foreign woman involved in negotiations and who was comfortable in their environment. The exporters as well as foreign press correspondents also commented on the unusual nature of my job. Realistically, if it were not for the Plaza Accord and the BOJ’s monetary policy, I would probably not have had the opportunity to work in an unsophisticated and conservative company attempting to internationalize. I began taking photographs of my environment and collecting documents related to my work to comprise a detailed portfolio.

When Cruz Domaine de France, which represented many of the smaller French vintners internationally, came to call, my colleagues exclaimed, “The French are coming! The French are coming!” They were arrogant, perceiving the Japanese as wine novices and unable to differentiate between fine and mediocre wines. During a tasting we found that one of the Cruz wines was corked [wine becomes acidic when air seeps through the cork]. When we informed Cruz management who were attending a negotiation session, they appeared confused, as though we had imagined that the wine had turned. Even after they tasted the wine, they insisted that the wine was not corked. We refused the wine and requested a new shipment.

Cordoniu and Freixenet were Spain’s largest Cava produces. Since Suntory was importing Freixenet Sanraku courted Cordoniu. Negotiating directly with the Spanish producers at meetings was straight-forward but sending FAXs to Spain (email was virtually non-existent at the time) was another matter. It seemed as if there was a religious holiday celebrated weekly for a saint’s birthday and Spanish wineries turned off the FAX machines on those days. If there was an urgent communication we had to remain at the office late in the evening to ensure that our FAX was received in Spain, Champagne Pommery was a valuable client because Suntory was also marketing and distributing a top-end Champagne. The house posted a young Frenchman in the wine division as its representative for the first few months to ensure that marketing was implemented accordingly. He was very popular among the young female staff.

Until 1989 there was no consumption tax in Japan. Instead, a luxury tax was included in the retail price of the goods. In 1989, the luxury tax was revoked and replaced with a 3 percent universal income tax. The meeting to discuss the revaluation of the prices of imports, particularly Champagne Pommery, one of the more expensive items in the wine portfolio, revealed the pressure to compete with Suntory. Since the Japanese tended to consider higher priced wine such as champagne as superior, the consensus was to set the price of Pommery slightly higher than Suntory’s champagne.

I received occasional requests from Suzuki and wine division kacho to translate their communications with foreign producers and consultants. The work gave me access to information regarding the wine division’s business development and overtures to foreign wine producers. At times, FAXs and other materials while being distributed to the other members of the division were withheld which was isolating. But my curiosity was cured with casual visits to the central files to look at faxes and other communication, which concerned operations about Mercian’s two foreign wineries, future alignment with Australian wineries, and overtures to California wineries such as Gallo and Robert Mondavi. Evidently, Martini did not satisfy Sanraku’s thirst for California wine, which, as yet, had only a tiny slice of the wine market.

“Face Blend

I participated in wine exhibitions where the attendees were Japanese representing the wine trade. However, on one occasion Mercian set up a booth at an exhibition at the American Club where westerners who worked in the branches of foreign firms or embassies were the majority of members. The club is located adjacent to the Russian Embassy in Tokyo’s Rippongi district, known for its night life and expensive real estate.

I arrived at the club before my colleagues and sat in the lobby to wait for them. Until the exhibition, with the exception of foreign clients, I had associated primarily with Japanese. As club members strolled through I received a major shock. The members were tall, Caucasian, with blond or brown hair. For what seemed to be an eternal minute I was unable to distinguish one person from another because they all looked alike. Their faces were the same and they all wore the same expressions. I was probably experiencing what Westerners experience due to lack of exposure; all Asians look alike. In China this is known as ‘face blend.’

At the booth, my colleagues who had little exposure to westerners expressed surprise that the attendees were larger than me. When we returned to the office after the exhibition I related my confusion when the people entering the club were white and had the same faces. My colleagues exclaimed, “Now you’re one of us!” It was a momentary acknowledgement of belonging to the group.

A Foreigner’s Faux Pas: “Information-sharing” is not a buzz-word

Loyalty to the group is vital to the stability of the group. An employee is reticent to disagree openly with his superior’s decision for fear of antagonizing him or falling out of favour because the other members of the division may distance themselves thus isolating him from the staff. Since the Japanese identify themselves as members of groups and feel protected as such, isolation for them is an exceedingly unpleasant prospect. Behaviour considered to be out of order, even mild descent, may provoke isolation by other members of the division, who will move to protect their superior in the hope that he will regard them as loyal and reciprocate appropriately in the future. Despite the image of tranquillity there is a muted tension that workers learn to accept. Although I was considered an “outsider,” in order to integrate into the group I was careful to hide any negativity.

However, group unity tends to encourage group insularity thus preventing staff from sharing information with employees from different divisions. There is a muted fear of raising suspicion among the members of their own division if they share information with other divisions, even though not relevant to their own division. “Information sharing” is not yet a buzz-word in corporate operations.

Mercian’s divisions were entities unto themselves with the directors forging strong relationships with their staff. The exchange of information between divisions was done only when deemed mutually applicable. Not realizing the consequences, I made a corporate etiquette blunder by passing on to other divisions newspapers or journal articles with information I considered not relevant to my division but which could be pertinent to the liquor division or the luxury products division or the procurement and distribution division. When I was asked by one of my division’s kacho the nature of the information I had offered another division, I gave him a copy of the article to assure him that the information was not applicable to our division but that it was useful to the other division. But he remained suspicious. Nevertheless, I learned that being a foreigner could be advantageous as well because I was able to operate outside of the considered norm and had some leeway to move between divisions and to communicate more freely with other staff.  However, I was cautious to be as inconspicuous as possible.

The Unanticipated Negatives

Acceptance was intermittent. My male colleagues, forgetting that I was “one-of-them,” would utter derogatory remarks about foreigners, especially, about the physical attributes of western women. The overtly racist and sexist comments were comparable to comments made by Westerners regarding Asians and I did not take their attitudes towards non-Japanese, including Chinese and Koreans, personally. One afternoon I answered a phone call for a kacho, replying briefly to the caller’s question before passing on the call. The kacho reassured the caller that I was not Chinese but an American.

Racist comments regarding Japanese were common among foreigners working in Japan.  I was making the rush-hour commute home on the train when I was stunned to hear three Australian businessmen standing in the center of the car loudly mouthing racist remarks in English about the Japanese. I was mortified. Although no one reacted, some passengers must have understood the obscene language.

Some foreign clients assumed that since I was a westerner like themselves I was more comfortable culturally with them and, therefore, willing to divulge information about Mercian’s plans for importing their competitors’ products and future strategies regarding their products. I was taken for meals occasionally by clients’ agents after meetings with the wine division in order to find out any information that had not been discussed at the meeting.  I was amazed at their audacity. As a Mercian employee I was loyal to my employer and I did not want to risk losing my job and cutting the networks I had established within the company.

Since all females may receive comments of a sexual nature from male staff on the work place or sexual overtures they prefer to turn a blind eye because they do not want to cause disruption on the workplace in order to keep their jobs. In the case of some societies, foreign women are regarded according to a different criteria. Although not prevalent now, Japanese female staff in American companies were most likely to experience discrimination because they carried the image of being sweet and fragile and would acquiesce to sexual overtures. In Japan, foreign women, particularly attractive young women, are considered by Japanese men to be outside the “norm” and fair game.

I had assumed before entering the company that because of my age I was immune to this behavior but since I appeared to be younger than my age I was considered approachable.  After entering Sanraku, male staff asked me if I liked Japanese men and I replied positively because I wanted to integrate and to get on with the job. Regardless, I never considered ethnic differences so my reply was honest. Furthermore, the remarks from male staff, who had not generally been exposed to foreign women on the workplace, were not malicious and occasionally meant as a compliment, depending on the vocabulary.

 Disco in Rippongi


There were numerous adventures in Tokyo, most of them related to work. There were episodes that illustrate my inexperience regarding Tokyo-life and which, in retrospect, were quite comical.

It was in the autumn of 1989 when the female kacho suggested that I attend a wine promotion event organized by the California Wine Society which would be held that evening nearby in the Ginza.  She said that it would be a good way of meeting people. I suspected that she had been invited but did not want to go because she commuted to Fujisawa which took almost two hours from Tokyo Station. Since my remit was marketing California wine, attendance seemed logical but I was reluctant because I was tired after a long day and wanted to return home.

Grudgingly, I went directly from the office in my business attire. Several steep steps from the outside of the building led into the venue. At the entrance two young assistants were seated at a reception table, registering visitors who were crowding into the narrow room. Bottles of California wine from various wineries were opened on a long table for the promotional tasting offered by two representatives from the California Wine Society. Compared to the French Wine Society promotion events, this one was rather drab but given the fact that California wine was still a relative unknown, the budget was limited.

As I sipped a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon a well-dressed Japanese man approached me holding a glass of red. He was about two inches shorter than me and, speaking in impeccable Japanese, he said that he was a wine-lover and was interested in trying California wine. I wanted to leave as soon as I had finished drinking the one glass when he abruptly asked me if I would like to go to a disco. He seemed entirely respectable and since I had never been to any disco I was curious and it was still early evening.

The disco was located in Rippongi, which, besides the American Club and the Russian Embassy, was home to foreign and Japanese corporate offices. Rippongi is also the posh night-club neighbourhood, popular among Japanese and foreigner corporate executives and office workers alike. Sake bars serving morsels of fish and chicken and innards on skewers, karaoke bars and Mah-jong clubs jostled for position on the narrow streets, declaring their specialties with garish neon signs. Some shops were opened during the bubble years. The area was blanketed in a gaudy haze, a den of iniquity where frequenters were briefly released from the strictures of social scrutiny.

The man led me down a hill and into a side street lined with clubs, among them the Java Jive Disco. It was an alternative world, an escape to a Caribbean island with sand strewn on the wooden dance floor surrounded by beach deck chairs. Stripped beach umbrellas perched on top of low tables next to the chairs shaded exhausted dancers from the bright lights overhead. A Jamaican band played Reggae tunes while dancers swayed to the music. The man brought me a Pina Colada decorated with the commensurate miniature umbrella. He asked me for a dance and when we danced our feet crunched on the sandy floor. I was so engrossed in my surroundings that I forgot to feel uncomfortable until we took a break and returned to our chairs.

Wondering what would happen next, giving him the benefit of the doubt, instead of asking him if he was married I asked if he had a family. He replied that he had a son who was seventeen and who lived with him. He added, without hesitating, that his wife was a surgeon and that he was an eye surgeon who specialized in eye cancer. He said that he practiced at the National Cancer Research Institute located in Tsukiji where the St Luke Hospital and the fish auction house were also located. He was a member of a tennis club and he enjoyed bird watching and travelling to exotic places to photograph birds. Although his background was impressive, he was unabashed about taking a foreign woman to a disco.

 I was about to politely take my leave when he asked me if I would like to go to a Kabuki performance at the National Kabuki Theater. I had always wanted to attend a performance in the traditional Kabuki Theater so I took the risk and accepted, which I later regretted because it triggered a series of strange incidents which could only happen to a naïve foreigner in Tokyo. The doctor enhanced the invitation with a promise to introduce me to his friends at the theatre.

Kabuki: not a safe bet

We made arrangements to meet on a Saturday morning at his laboratory in the institute where he would show me a film of his recent trip to India to look at wild birds before heading to the theatre. When I arrived at the hospital, the main floor was vacant of staff and there was no one at reception. I took the elevator to the floor where the laboratory was located to find that there was no staff around nor were there employees working in the spacious laboratory. The doctor, leaning against a long white counter and wearing a white laboratory technician’s coat, was waiting for me expectantly. He took me to an adjacent room where he had set up a movie projector, a screen and two chairs in front of the screen. After I was seated he brought me a cup of green tea and proceeded to operate the projector. The film was sixteen millimetre and in color which intensified its morbid nature. Concealing my repulsion, I watched for thirty minutes vultures pecking away at the corpses of large animals like hippos and elephants and the remains of humans who had been partially cremated on funeral piles floating down the Ghandi River. The entire film was of birds of prey pecking at corpses. At the end of the film he asked me if I found the film disturbing. I retorted that the film was beautiful, a reaction which he had not anticipated.  He was mildly disappointed.

Onto the Kabuki Theater where, judging from a courteous greeting from a well-dressed, middle-aged woman, the doctor was perhaps a patron of the theatre. Unfortunately, the doctor’s friends were not there. The doctor ushered me to a box seat. A Noh play preceded the Kabuki drama. Since the language was in ancient Japanese, a translation ran across a screen above the stage. Kabuki actors are male who play both male and female roles. The stars have loyal fans who applaud when they enter the stage. An intermission followed the first act and the doctor took me to a dining room where lunch was served in three-layered lacquer boxes, each layer offering Japanese delicacies. The price of a box seat ticket and the lunch must have easily been $200.

After the Kabuki, the doctor took me to a French restaurant in Omotesando. We drank fine wine with the meal, finishing with cheese and biscuits. When the cheese arrived, the doctor loudly complained to the young waitress about the quality of the cheese and demanded another selection. I was taken aback by his behaviour because the cheese seemed perfectly acceptable and, also, Japanese rarely complain about service even if the quality is poor. Furthermore, his language was very impolite. I was embarrassed because I would not have complained myself. As we left the restaurant he offered to introduce me to his friends again and invited me to another performance of Kabuki. I accepted because I assumed that I would meet people who were most likely well-educated and interesting.

When I met him the following Saturday at the theatre he was alone and I wondered if he had ever intended to introduce me to anyone. We saw Kabuki in box seats but the lunch was a simple meal in the usual wooden one-layer lunch box. Leaving the theatre the doctor asked me if I would like to go ball room dancing and offered to introduce me to a club. Concerned that he had contacts at Sanraku and, not wishing to upset him, I accepted reluctantly.

 Like Java Jive, the ball room was another world. I left my coat and handbag in a locker before entering the ball room. The whole scene was reminiscent of the 1950s when the Japanese were becoming “Americanized.” A live band was playing Glen Miller and Benny Goodman ballads. The musicians were middle-aged and older. The dancers, escaping to their post-war past, were mainly in their sixties, the women in taffeta dresses and the men in tuxedos, a single flower in their button holes. High bar tables dotted the dance floor where dancers drank cocktails capped with the usual miniature umbrellas. The doctor brought me a drink before asking me to dance.

His face hit directly at my bust line and he was enjoying himself.  I was not. When the dance ended I politely called it a night and he escorted me to the subway while confiding that his wife was not interested in sex. I replied that his situation did not relate to me and hurried off. He did not contact me again until a few months later when he invited me to play tennis at his tennis club. Fortunately, the oenologist had invited me to join his family in Odawara to go mushroom-picking. The doctor never called again. In retrospect, I had indeed taken a risk because I could not confirm if the man was actually a doctor. He could have been support staff because I never met his colleagues. Also I never knew if he spoke English because he always communicated in Japanese.

A Dentsu Mini -Drama

Another adventure occurred when the director of corporate strategy whom I met at my interview invited me to join him and an executive from Dentsu for dinner one evening. He had also invited two young Japanese female staff who turned down the invitation. Despite misgivings, I accepted because the director had been very kind at the interview. After dinner the executive offered me a ride home in a taxi and since Sangenchaya was forty minutes from the restaurant and it was late I gladly accepted. On the way, the executive asked me if I would like to play billiards. In order to pry myself out of an awkward situation I hesitantly asked him about his children. He had several. I asked if his wife worked and he replied that she stayed at home to take care of the children. When the taxi arrived at Sangenchaya Station I requested that the taxi stop at the main road leading to my street. As I was alighting the taxi the executive asked me if I was not worried about the late hour and walking home alone. I assured him that the neighborhood was very safe.  The executive angrily retorted, “I guess I won’t be seeing you again!”