Selling Indulgence in Corporate Japan

“Grandmother, Grandfather, how healthy are you?” The recorded female voice sounds metallic over the bus loudspeaker. “The medical services provided by Seto Rehabilitation Hospital have been trusted by the Tokuyama community since the fourth year of Emperor Showa.” I am sitting in the back seat of the bus, paging through my English-as-a-second-language textbooks, jotting notes that pass for a lesson plan. Outside the window a landscape of sheet-metal warehouses, factories, power lines and blocks of colorless housing rolls impassively by.

At a bus kiosk, a diminutive schoolgirl in a blue-and-white uniform steps in, her head bowed down and her face hidden behind a sheaf of thick, black hair. As she passes the sensor, the recording screeches “Beeeeep — Please take your boarding receipt as you enter.”

Although no one else on the bus seems to care, I am fascinated and somewhat puzzled by the repeating string of announcements piped into our ears by the Tokuyama City Bus Company. I listen to advertising for driving schools and old-age homes (aimed, respectively, at those just under or just over driving age) alternating with safety warnings and instructions on how to use a public bus. I have to unlock the elaborate formal language word by word to grasp what I am being asked to do: “Hand down to us the courtesy of not losing your boarding receipt,” “Please be so kind as to wait until the bus has come to a stop before you stand up to disembark,” and “Let’s all cooperate and vacate our seats for those of enfeebled body or elder years.”

This auditory wallpaper of ultra-polite language etches new vocabulary and sentence patterns into my eager, second-language-learner mind. I wonder if the courteous words might serve as a balm for the over-tired bus patrons living in the ash-colored world I witness out the window.

As my stop approaches, I hear, “Honored customer, soon the bus will be arriving at the Tokuyama City Hall bus stop. We sincerely thank you for your patronage. Please bring your attention to not forgetting any of your personal items.”

I pick up my briefcase, and I step off the gray bus onto the gray sidewalk and look up at the low, gray sky. Across the street the concrete face of the Tokuyama City Hall sits, blank and square — a comment, I imagine, on the grim, industrial landscape.

I look at my watch as I cross the concrete bridge over the thick, black Tokuyama River sludging its way toward the ocean. I have become inured to this opaque, charcoal color of Japanese bodies of water, though I am sometimes startled that I might have gotten used to such a thing.

A few blocks down, I pass a gas station. The pink-and-green neon ideograms of its sign flash and punctuate the humid air. A uniformed attendant making manic gesticulations at the oncoming traffic runs out into the street before a departing customer. As the vehicle pulls off, he and his co-workers perform deep, formal bows and shout hearty slogans: “We are grateful for your respected business!” “So sorry for inconveniencing you!” and “Please consider coming again!”

Next to the station, open piles of smoking, plastic garbage give off a putrid, chemical smoke.

Surreal as this all once seemed to me, I head on, almost oblivious, to my final job site of the day, lost in my thoughts. After 10 minutes of walking past low, cinder-block walls, houses of blue-painted, corrugated tin, squat apartment blocks and weedy vacant lots, I see my destination rising above the tangle of antennas and power lines: the off-white office building where I teach English conversation — the Juyo Pharmaceutical Company.

In Japan one’s social status is determined, to a great extent, by the size of the company that one works for. I work for a very large company. In noodle restaurants, in sake bars, in public parks or shrines or anywhere, strangers will walk up to the foreigner (me) and begin a conversation — usually the same conversation: “What is your country?” “How old are you?” “Why did you come to Japan?” “Your honorable job?”

When I utter the words “teach English,” I get an immediate response. The role of teacher conveys upon me a certain sovereignty, an aura of power and respect (an aura I could well do without). But when I speak the phrase “Juyo Pharmaceutical,” my interrogators really begin to beam. Their pupils dilate, and they enthusiastically exhale, “Is that so?!” (This is an employee of an important corporation.)

To myself I laugh. Just a few months ago, I was heading west across the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona on a Greyhound bus wearing a very sweaty M.C. Escher T-shirt, my face unshaven and my long hair dirty, to board an airplane to Japan. Now with short hair, blue blazer and necktie, I am offered this bizarre respect within a hierarchy that I could never have imagined.

As I approach the entrance, I straighten my tie in the reflection from the automatic sliding-glass doors and enter the well-lit and carpeted lobby that is the headquarters of one of Japan’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers. I look around at the pastel murals and the serious but soothing decor, and I try to pretend that I’m the kind of person who belongs in such a place.

Behind a bright-white desk sit Ms. Kimura and Ms. Takahashi, the two cheerful receptionists, or in local parlance, “office ladies.” Upon my entrance they both smile, place their hands on the desk in front of them, and give a seated bow. “Welcome to Juyo Pharmaceutical!”

Almost automatically I think, “Ah, they’re happy to see me. They know that I am a feminist; I respect them as people and never objectify or demean them. They are smiling because I am not like the businessmen that they have to pander to every day from 8 to 5:30.” But the next man walks in behind me, and undiluted by repetition, the smiles and bows pour forth again, earnest and emphatic.

I am left only to reflect on their skill of execution. These women are professionals at the top of their field. They work for Juyo Pharmaceuticals, a very big company.

Every Japanese corporation has its cadre of office ladies. Their role is seen as indispensable: They produce an aesthetic and textural quality in the workplace and smooth the rough edges of the business world. They are a commodity personnel managers are loath to do without.

As my comprehension of this language has increased, I’ve begun to recognize that the office ladies’ speech contains a vast layering of verbal genuflection on top of each small bud of meaning. In Japanese, speakers can draw upon a reservoir of such stock phrases, or aisatsu, which are words of greeting or farewell that don’t contain explicit informational meaning per se but are used to establish rapport or indicate the proper level of deference.

When someone leaves the lobby, Ms. Takahashi and Ms. Kato again deliver a series of apologies and protestations of unworthiness (on behalf of the company? themselves?). The person leaving then offers his own aisatsu of apology and reassurance, the quantity and quality of which, I have found, can be read as a general barometer of his status in relation to the office ladies (if he is an employee) or to the company (if he is not). The scripted exchange is as regular and predictable as the cycle of announcements on the bus and invariably ends with the customary shitsurei-shimas, or “I have been rude.”

The first time I decoded this phrase in my pocket dictionary, I was perplexed. “Huh?” I thought. These two women are transcendent in every conceivable arena of manners. They greet customers politely; they answer the phone politely; they deliver disappointing pieces of news politely; they serve little porcelain cups of green tea politely. Their humility and self-effacement are flawless. They are sweet and smiling to the most abrupt salaryman.

“I have been rude.” Each time I hear this, I wonder if it is but a rote expression, or if to some extent, Ms. Kimura and Ms. Takahashi really feel this inside.

Once when I was early for class, I sat in one of the lobby’s large, abundant, orange Naugahyde chairs preparing my lesson. On my right the glass cases displayed various Juyo products: plastic sacs of intravenous fluid and cans of electrolyte thirst quenchers. As I paged through the business-English textbook, “Venture Stateside,” I watched these two perform their various tasks.

In another section of the spacious lobby, businessmen were smoking and discussing some order of business. A phone call arrived at the front desk, and the younger receptionist, Ms. Takahashi, answered it in sugary falsetto.

“Excuse me, department manager Kato, sir!” she called to the group sitting near me, “The telephone. Are you able to answer it now?”

One of the conversants, a salt-and-pepper-haired man, grunted his assent and lifted himself out of his chair. As he began his conversation, he paced back and forth in front of her desk, taking long draws on his cigarette. Ms. Takahashi, with an air of concern on her face, began to follow him around, taking small, mincing steps in her restrictive, navy-blue skirt, unobtrusively moving an ashtray underneath his sagging ash as he alternately sat on the edge of her desk and then resumed his pacing.

Watching her ministrations, I became embarrassed for myself. I was raised to be uncomfortable with privilege, and I can barely stand to watch it. I thought about Ms. Takahashi’s job — what she is expected to do, the words she can and can’t use, the way she is treated by the male members of the company — all of it predetermined by the reproductive organs she was born with.

After the man got off the telephone (without even a glance of acknowledgment to the patient Takahashi-san), I decided, in my too-American, too-direct way, to try to find out how she felt about this treatment. I approached her, and in my best attempt at her honorific language, I began, “Umm … I know this is rude, but if you don’t mind, and if you are not busy, there’s a little thing, a very small thing that I would like to ask you …”

“Hai!” she replied stiffly, her hands placed formally at her sides.

I invited her into the small conference room off the lobby, a place where her bosses wouldn’t hear us.

Inside I asked her, “When men look down on you like that, do you not feel angry about the way you are expected to serve them?”

Her face registered incomprehension, then shock and surprise. “No! I am so happy. I am privileged to have this job.”

“But don’t you feel that you are disrespected … as a woman?”

“No, no, no. Not at all.” The fluorescent light glistened on her deep scarlet lipstick.

I didn’t understand. How could she possibly feel what she was saying? I had assumed that everybody here was just like me, wearing these formal clothes and playing these roles only as a hateful but necessary compromise to put rice on the table.

Like the foreigner in every land, I began to construct interpretations on the shifting soils of partial information and ad-hoc speculation. Had she “internalized her oppression”? Maybe she didn’t trust me to keep what she said to myself. (I am a male, and her superiors sit in my class.) Or maybe she just knows no other world.

All these considerations notwithstanding, I couldn’t find it in myself to accept as true her claims to be happy and privileged to endure such treatment. To me, willingness to be humiliated seemed like part of her job description.

Furthermore, in Japan one has to be especially cautious of assertions that all is well. The circumstances in which someone speaks tend to determine what is said. Role and situation so often supersede the individual’s personality.

Or is the distinction between role and “real” personality nothing but a naive, Western fancy? What exactly is the self, anyway? It was the Buddha, I believe, who once said, “We build the road, and the road builds us.”

I wanted to tell Ms. Takahashi about my confusion, to ask about her reasons for her supposed happiness, but abstract concepts were not easy to explain at my level of Japanese. Nonetheless, I tried — haltingly — to explain my American ideas of equity and mutual respect.

She listened politely (this, after all, was a male speaking), but her twisting fingers revealed her discomfort. Perhaps she was uneasy with my trampling on the invisible boundaries. (Why is he talking about this?) I could tell that what I was saying was not being accepted as just your ordinary strange behavior of the improperly raised foreigner. Ms. Takahashi is not a member of the social class of Japanese that has been “internationalized” into understanding that foreigners do not know the proper rules of behavior — what is appropriate to speak about and what is not.

Whatever the reason, as I continued to explain why she shouldn’t be satisfied with her job, I was struck all of a sudden with the patent absurdity of a man lecturing a woman about feminism. A phrase from my women’s-studies classes in college came out of the past: “The essence of feminism is honoring women’s experience as they see it.”

OK then, I told myself, she says she’s not unhappy; you have to believe her.

And why did I initiate this conversation in the first place? To confirm that she felt oppressed? To mitigate my sense of embarrassment at her obeisance to all men and thus to me? Was I trying to show myself as an unwilling recipient of her cheerful fawning?

I think I had hoped to share with her our “natural” solidarity and outrage and to mark myself as different. But feelings about inferior treatment, it seems, are not necessarily universal. In Japan people are not supposed to be equal. Inequality is, in fact, finely calibrated everywhere. School, office and family are theaters for repeated rituals of ranking and promotion, and even diversions and hobbies are not thought of as serious pursuits without their complement of tests, competitions and licenses to establish the proper level of each participant. The structure of the language itself makes gradation of people appear almost inevitable. In 80 percent of Japanese sentences, the subject is simply discarded because verb forms indicating either humility or respect always tell you who is doing what.

And unlike in my country, being “underneath” is not a result of personal failure. It’s not a matter of “blowing it” and winding up on the bottom; it’s just the natural way of things. How could it be otherwise? I had been projecting onto Ms. Takahashi my own memories of how it felt to be looked down on and disrespected. The longer I live here, the less and less sure I am what the words inferiority and submission actually mean. Have I (and my culture) been wrong all this time?

Today, as I have ever since our conversation, when I pass Ms. Takahashi’s desk, I do what everyone else does and exchange the familiar, pleasant apologies and self-deprecations, and enter the conference room adjacent to the lobby where I will be teaching tonight’s class.

Thick swivel chairs surround the large, veneer-topped tables. I proceed to write today’s points and focus sentences on the whiteboard with the erasable felt-tip pen:

1. How to disagree politely

2. Expressing gratitude

3. “How about you?”

4. The unreal conditional

I then sit at my place at the head of the room and sort through my photocopied teaching materials. Tonight it’s exercises on two-part verbs and dialogues on airplane departure times. And I pretend I am really here to teach English.

Everyone here in Japan calls what I do “teaching English”— the immigration officers, the company, my friends, the students. But recently I’ve been thinking that I am selling something else here.

What is the inexplicable force that causes so many Japanese people to throng to English conversation? It’s almost a national fixation. Why do they pay so dearly for it? What creates the constantly high demand for my “skills” (i.e., I speak my own language)?

True, over 400 million people in the world speak English. True, Juyo researchers must read scientific articles and papers and occasionally talk with researchers from other countries. True, being able to speak any English at all in Japan is a mark of status in whatever social group one is a part of. But my students (and I have verified this time and again) do not lay much emphasis on the “study” part of “study English.” They never review our lessons or vocabulary at home; they do not read books or newspapers in English; they do not listen to the listening tapes that I prepare for them. They always prefer meandering chat sessions to orderly and cumulative lessons, and most of them are mortified rather than eager when I call on them in class. This is the case for my company classes as well as my private lessons. This is the case with doctors, housewives and high-school students, even people who have specifically approached me with real reasons to need to speak English. They all simply appear in class two to four times a month, smiling, ready to be entertained.

I have tried to ask “Why?” directly. When I first arrived, naive as I was, and found myself facing a new company class at a bank or trading firm or public utility, I used to begin the session asking the assembled, nervous males, “What is your purpose in studying English?” And we would go around the room.

The answers usually, almost always, fit into three categories: (1) “We Japanese must be more international,” (2) “I want to visit America someday,” and the puzzling (3) “I have English complex.”

Why only three answers? And what do they mean? I spend a lot of time pondering, making conjectures and testing hypotheses. The cycling and recycling of my unanswered questions make me crazy. Why do they want so badly to study English?

It’s true that the government consistently pushes vaguely defined “internationalization” in radio broadcasts, newspaper articles and banners hung from public offices. But very few people, whether Japanese or long-term foreign residents, can, when questioned, provide a concrete definition of what that actually means. It is also true that many Japanese people take eight-day, four-city trips to the United States. However, almost all such tours are escorted from airport gate to hotel check-in to tourist site and back to airport gate by a series of Japanese-speaking guides, so there’s little incentive to learn to really speak. Is it possible my students don’t know their motivations themselves?

And what exactly, I wondered for the longest time, is an English complex?

The first student to arrive is Mr. Tani, a younger student who usually wears a somewhat troubled look. He has just returned from the Netherlands, where he attended this year’s international drug-research and development conference.

“Hello, Tani-san! How was your trip?” I ask.

“It was … so-so,” he replies, using one of our recently studied idioms.

“Why was that?”

“The Chinese and Korean researchers are speaking their papers in fast English. My presentation … very difficult … not so good.”

This I can well imagine. From what I know of his English in class, I surmise that his lecture was quite likely halting, over-cautious and of less-than-perfect pronunciation. And from his general demeanor, I can tell that he took his inability quite personally.

“We Japanese have an English complex,” he says.

The descending tones in which he delivers this dictum combine with his dejected posture to explain to me that in Japan, “English complex” may be a kind of shorthand way of expressing that sense of shame and low self-worth I notice whenever the word — or anything related to the word — English comes up.

If I walk into a public restaurant where I am unknown, I can physically feel distress and tension fill the room. Soon there are three or four different tables of diners declaiming their inability to speak my language — a topic that I assume they were not discussing before my arrival. Similarly there is a palpable wave of relief when it becomes clear that I can speak a little bit of Japanese. It’s almost as if my own presence as a European-faced foreigner immediately becomes an opportunity to revisit and reopen the wound of the entire nation’s struggle to speak what is, after all, a very complicated, grammatically irregular language. It is as if my existence might have no other meaning.

Depending on my mood, I respond with either annoyance or understanding. For as much as I wish to be seen as an individual and unique, I do come from a nation which defeated and occupied Japan and which even today is populated by millions who demand that the world “Speak English, dammit!” One need only think, further, of how Japanese society places an almost sacred importance on that ritual of school shaming known conventionally as the entrance exam, by means of which a human being’s value is calibrated with a multiple-choice test, and the outlines of this English complex begin to emerge.

Nonetheless I am still more than a little surprised that even in their own country, many Japanese people I meet feel they should be able and ready to converse with me in my language whenever I appear in their vicinity. Like a bad smell, there is a wave of embarrassment and tension that follows me around wherever I go.

Although I know from past experiences that it will probably be fruitless, I try to console Mr. Tani as best I can before the other students arrive. “Yes, maybe you could have spoken better English, Mr. Tani, but remember you are not to blame. Your English teacher in high school was preparing you to take an exam, not to talk to people. I know you want to learn to speak English, but you just need to try a different method. Rote memorization does not work for learning a language. You must be creative when you speak. Also you need not be overly concerned with making mistakes. You were just using the wrong method when you were learning English in school.”

Mr. Tani’s mood, however, is unchanged. He becomes silent and looks dejectedly at the ground, and I am reminded again that he is only one of millions ashamed to have studied so much English in school and not be able to speak it. I wish that I could communicate this to him, but clearly I am not being asked to.

The planners in the Education Ministry in the 1950s never intended to help ordinary citizens have verbal intercourse with the English-speaking world. It was only necessary for engineers to be able to comprehend scientific texts and to produce research papers for technical journals. Although the Ministry’s emphasis is now slowly shifting toward building verbal skills, it may be too late for my generation of students. The fact that the shift didn’t happen earlier, however, doesn’t seem to me a reason for personal shame.

Mr. Tani, it appears, does not agree. Perhaps an institution’s failure in Japan is felt to be personal. Just as the performance of one’s company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange may be a source of individual pride, the lack of efficacy of one’s school system can be a source of chagrin. A few months ago, there was a sudden drop in attendance in class when the company’s president was exposed in a scandal for greasing the palms of some professors from a national university in exchange for drug patents. (“We were so ashamed for our company; that’s why we did not come to class,” one student eventually confessed.)

Most days I am just too tired to engage in this same not-your-fault / yes-it-is dialogue. It’s just one more of the scripted exchanges that, as an English teacher in Japan, I find myself repeatedly engaged in. Perhaps Mr. Tani needs somehow to pour this ash on his head. Maybe on some unconscious level, this self-shaming is intended to provoke some nurturing and reassurance from me, the friendly, young English teacher.

One by one my students enter and greet me respectfully. They loosen their ties and sit down at the table. I welcome each of them by name, show them kindness, and they smile. I know the importance of kindness here, especially in the context of the frightening nature of the foreigner. I do like my students, but I’m not so green as to think that it’s not a part of my job.

For the next two hours, thanks to the contract between Juyo and Business English, Inc., the subcontracting firm for which I work, I will be in the presence of this group of researchers and scientists — and be paid $80 for my trouble. I might mention that this is more than I have ever made in the United States and certainly more than a normal person might reasonably expect to be paid to have a conversation.

During the hiatus of the English class, everyone will be group “membahs” in a strange and unpredictable world, the world of the gaijin, or literally, out-person. Although I may be “being myself” (that myth of America!), I am also playing a semi-theatrical role, that of the emancipator. I don’t require my students to show the proper deference toward me, the teacher, or toward each other. I don’t expect them to meander all over before saying what they want. I don’t demand inordinate self-humbling. If anything, I expect them only to discard what (to my American mind) are useless and inefficient verbal contortions.

Until one lives here, it’s hard to believe the range of behaviors that are preordained by custom and practice. In meetings, there is a particular length of time elapsed before the order of business is discussed. One visits one’s ancestors’ graves on a particular set of days in August. A certain order of topics is used to initiate a conversation. A younger person utilizes a specific level of linguistic respect to a business associate of slightly greater years and rank. Women fix dinner and handle the finances. Men attend neighborhood decision-making meetings and wash the car on Sundays. It’s all quite startling when one first realizes what’s happening.

Japanese society does not privilege the infinite expansion of individual freedom. They were not endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights — or at least not the same ones.

But in English-conversation class, my position as leader of this group, combined with my buoyant personality, creates a kind of free zone where we will all be equal and autonomous conversants. Under the aegis of this word, teacher, I am accorded the power to create an ecosystem of friendliness and good feeling — a microclimate of protection. No statement made in English class will find its way into the company’s structures of retribution; no favor received will have to be repaid. In my foreignness, I am the talisman that wards off the evil spirits of obligation and conformity. It’s just happy fun, a role in my Americanness that I cannot help but play.

Outside of this bubble, it may be the case that Mr. Kondoh has just been released from the hospital for cirrhosis of the liver — a complication resulting from his compulsory after-work drinking on company business. It may be true that Mr. Tani will soon be transferred to the other side of the country, away from his wife and young child, as a reprimand for not canceling his vacation to Nepal when asked to stay and finish a proposal. And Ms. Yoshikawa (the only female in the class) may have had to serve tea and answer phones for half the day despite her master’s degree in biochemistry. But for the next two hours, the circumstances of their lives will be placed in a state of suspended animation as we enter the childlike, let’s-pretend world of English conversation.

When about five students have arrived, I begin the class. I do not start with an everyone-stand-up-become-quiet-and-take-a-formal-bow or with an ornate address laced with honorifics acknowledging the people who have brought us here today. I begin the class with a simple “Hello!” and the question “What would you guys like to talk about today?”

After a pause one man raises his hand and suggests the seasonal topic of cherry-blossom viewing. A murmur of approval rises from the others.

Flowers? “That’s great!” I think. Corporate males in the United States would never choose such a discussion willingly. As usual I start my unfettered speculations. The Japanese must be so liberated from our fear of being labeled gay…masculinity is configured in a gentler way in Japan…maybe this is an example of the continuation of Buddhist aesthetics surviving behind the stiff, gray suit? The foreign teacher soon finds that such compare-and-contrast meanderings are a lifesaver during the long, empty minutes while students are struggling with their utterances.

Mr. Sugihara starts the discussion. “We Japanese celebrate the blooming of fragile cherry flowers every year at this time.”

I pretend not to know this and nod enthusiastically. “Good! Very good English, Mr. Sugihara.”

After a pause Mr. Okada continues, “To Japanese, our lives like cherry flowers. Very beautiful, but not lasting so long.”

In point of fact, I have heard these things in more than four different classes now and recognize it as part of the larger project of “educating the foreigner to understand and not hate Japan” (prompted perhaps by television images of United States auto workers taking sledgehammers to Japanese imports?). Perhaps these phrases were part of this week’s public-radio English-conversation broadcast. But as an English teacher, I have to be happy that a spontaneous string of words that makes sense is being produced. I smile my encouragement, and the students begin to relax. This is my job.

Now Mr. Kondoh describes the single- and double-blossom varieties and tells us about how lovely the pink petals look in the air as they swirl about the picnickers on the grass. “Beautiful, like snow.” All of us forget the factory grinding away outside the window and allow ourselves to be transported to a more ancient and tranquil Japan.

The shift, I consider, is emblematic of the two distinct and separate spheres of consciousness that Japanese people are said to inhabit. There is the camaraderie of company-sponsored sporting events that punctuate the regimentation of the fluorescently lit office; there are the 250-page comic-book fantasy adventures read by almost every age group during interludes in the busy schedules of work or school; and there are the polite and obsequious words of the bus monologue heard by passengers as they travel through the concrete landscape under the pollution-smudged skies.

Philosophers of Japanese culture discuss these two realms in terms of duty (giri) and sweetness (amae). The two categories usually correspond to, respectively, the outside (soto) and the inside (uchi) aspects of daily existence. (Interestingly, the word for interior, uchi, can be used to mean alternately my company, my house, my family and even myself, depending on a complex calculus of relationships between the speaker and the listener.)

When the outside world of duty and its constant denial of emotional gratification becomes too heavy, one retreats into an inner domain where sweetness flows freely. It flows from those — usually women — whose appropriate behavior has been designed and redesigned over the centuries to maximize the recipient’s sense of being completely taken care of, of being swaddled in a nest of indulgence.

The sweetness-providers themselves, in turn, are limited by a strict code of acceptable behaviors, and through this circumscription, they provide a variety of finely crafted refuges for others. Today most of these sanctioned crevices are also businesses, and they make a remarkable profit. Hostess bars (known, cryptically, as snacks), erotic comic books and Southeast Asian sex tours: All are magical lands for men where they can take risks, expose their shame without consequence, and do the forbidden and be forgiven.

It is into this slot that the young foreigner steps, unwitting, thinking that he or she will be teaching English. The shifting curtains between interior and exterior and the concentric layering of the interior world are not often explained, but there the foreigner lives, just the same.

Every month in town, I see the new ones arrive. If they fit the description — that is to say, if they are under 30, cheerful and of European descent — they get the job. Each one is a substitute Hollywood movie star delivering — at a place and time convenient to the customer — a sparkling package of enthusiastic spunkiness. They give the salaryman or the housewife a fleeting, exciting contact with all that is young and glamorous and quintessentially “America.” The men are all James Dean, and the women are all Marilyn Monroe. Each one evokes the world of red convertibles speeding down endless highways and of surf barbecues on Southern California beaches. These symbols swirl around the person of the English-conversation teacher, and these symbols are for sale. The admission into this virtual world — safe, free from strictures of Confucius and reassuringly temporary — is a mere 6,000 yen per hour — and, in the case of my Juyo students, paid for by the corporation that employs them.

To create this make-believe world, the experienced foreign teacher carefully admixes to his or her performance enough solid-sounding “content,” enough explanation of subject-verb agreement that the students can plausibly pretend that the class is a serious, work-related endeavor. But the teacher also makes sure that the room will glow with the warm amber of indulgence and escape.

On a larger scale, this kind of interaction can also be seen as the “reproduction of labor power.” That is to say, it is a kind of heavenly manna enabling the businessman to get out of bed each morning fresh enough to feed another 12 or 14 hours into the hopper. When I soothe their fear of making errors, when I do not suggest that they might do any homework, and when I fail to examine them on their competence or lack thereof, my presence soothes the injuries they receive daily advancing the cause of the world’s second-largest economy.

The arrangement might even be seen as an evolutionary adaptation on the part of the society as a whole, as a favorable genetic mutation enhancing economic productivity as Japan competes with other industrial nations.

Thus I join the ranks beside office lady, housewife and Filipina prostitute. I play childlike games with the men in suits: English bingo, English baseball, “Guess Who I Am” and “Fast Talker.” But they do not feel disrespected. It is my job to be fun.

And now, as the class takes its break in the silent and partially darkened lobby and Ms. Yoshikawa inquires of us which kind of soft drink we would like, I ask myself, “Do I feel degraded in this position? Do I feel as if I am ‘putting out,’ as it were, my friendliness for (very good) money?” I ask myself, “Do I really mind?”

As I drop my body into the soft, orange Naugahyde seat and am served my refreshment by the smiling Ms. Yoshikawa, and I am too exhausted from 10 hours of teaching to protest, I look around at my reanimated students and consider the question. To my utter surprise, the answer that comes to me, floating down, is the same as that of Ms. Takahashi, the cheerful office lady. No, I don’t mind at all. I like it very much.

About the Author

Andy Couturier

Andy Couturier is the author of Writing Open the Mind (Ulysses Press, 2005), A Different Kind of Luxury (Stonebridge Press, 2010), and The Abundance of Less (North Atlantic Books, 2017). He is an essayist, a poet, and a professionally trained writing teacher.

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One thought on “Selling Indulgence in Corporate Japan

  1. Lovely piece Andy. Really put
    Lovely piece Andy. Really put me there. I like how your recognize yourself as a “comfort” English Teacher. Really good description of the strangeness as viewed by American eyes.
    Would Uchi be something a japanese mother might call her daughter? Home/family/me. I wanted a Japanes nickname for a character in my Eyeliner Girls project. So far I’m using Yuki or Yasashii the girl has a white patch in her hair. Hope Thanksgiving works out.

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