It's a chill late winter morning in Tokyo, but we sit in a perfect climate controlled office tower that looms over everything around it in a central part of the city.
Mariko, my coworker, comes over and taps my shoulder, “I have a problem I want to tell you about.” She's also offering me a chocolate from a box of chocolates. I take one and eat it greedily.
She smiles as if she’s about to tell a fun story. Over the past two years I've noticed that the bigger the problem is, the more animated, almost ebullient, she becomes.
“What’s the problem?”
“The HR department,” she says, then goes into full detail on the background of the problem, opinions about each of the characters, and how unjust, malicious and downright vile her oppressor in the HR department is.
While she talks, she touches my arm flirtatiously at regular intervals.
My mind wanders to my own somewhat pressing issue. Earlier this morning, I spent a half an hour on the floor of the office toilet, having one the episodes of dizziness and cold sweats that began a few weeks ago. Putting my back on the cold floor of the toilet stall takes my mind off the feeling of imminent doom. Thankfully, in Japan, the stall walls go down to the floor.
Mariko is now getting to the important part of her story.
“And, Watanabe in human resources says someone reported me leaving the office at 3pm.”
“What sort of terrible person would do that!?” I say, “I hope it gets sorted out, one way or the other.” I go back to reading the printed reports on my desk.
I feel Mariko still looking at me.
“You need my help?”
“So, why are you been leaving the office at 3pm, and returning at 8pm to finish your work?”
“My son, he’s big.” She shows how big her son's shoulders are with her hands. “He beat up another boy at school, so I volunteered to read books for the boy that got hurt to make up for it.”
Mariko is a single mother with an 8-year-old son. I wonder if 8-year-olds can really do much damage to each other. I decide it’s better not to ask.
I verbally sum up the situation. “You are working a full time job, taking care of your son, and now you are leaving the office in the middle of the day to read books for another 8-year-old?”
”Yes,” she says.
“Why don't you just say no?”
Mariko smiles tightly, tilting her head to one side. The Japanese gesture for when someone feels uncomfortable and doesn’t want to explain further.
I promise to talk to HR on her behalf. Solving the family problems of a mother and her son is definitely a new task for me. I’m 27 years old and have barely had a steady girlfriend.
In the office around me, lawyers and financial executives scurry back and forth, working on important documents and having meetings about these documents in glass walled conference rooms. Most are Japanese. There’s a scattering of Western expat employees to help coordinate with the headquarters of the European insurance company.
There’s a constant whirlwind of activity around Mariko’s desk. People frequently come by to chat. And she’s hardworking. She gets all the insurance payments sent on time and chases down difficult problems. Above her desk, a baseball pendant for the Tokyo Giants is pinned up. She says she attends the games to drink beer and shout at the top of her lungs.
Mariko is three years older than me, and we haven’t talked about much outside of work, or else I would have asked to join her.
I’m still dealing with my own issue. Curling up on the floor of the toilet and disappearing for 20 minutes at a time is going to cause problems soon. A better technique is needed to deal with the day terrors.
The next day, I hide a tiny whiskey bottle in my pocket and bring it to the office. While laying on my back on the toilet floor, I take a sip, and the terror immediately goes away.
Are my nerves shot because of the nerve gas attack? A year earlier, I rode the Tokyo subway on the morning of the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attack. My train went through the station 20 minutes after the sarin nerve gas was released by the cult. The news said the gas dissipated in minutes, but maybe I inhaled a tiny amount somehow. A shudder goes down my spine.
Since then, I commute to the office by scooter to stay in the fresh air outdoors.
The next day, Mariko arrives to the office twenty minutes late.
“I woke up laying on the floor of my kitchen at 7am this morning.” She’s giggling again. “I don’t know why I was there.”
“On the floor?” I ask.
“On the floor. On top of the kitchen counter, I saw two empty wine bottles. I don’t remember drinking them.”
“Unless you had a party, I think you drank them.”
Mariko gets to work, as if this was a normal thing to tell coworkers. I worry she must be under a lot of stress, and I’m now concerned about her drinking habits.
This makes me think about how I have spent three days sipping whiskey while laying on the toilet floor. A coworker that smells of whiskey at 11am could quickly become its own HR problem. A new answer is needed. I hate going to doctors, but I’m out of options. I make an appointment with the GP in the building.
I have been partying hard on the weekends. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Maybe I need to cut back on drinking. On the other hand, my annual health check comes up clean every year.
The previous year when they hand out the results a “B” sticks out. Cholesterol. My mind races, thinking of which unhealthy foods I’ve been eating that could increase my cholesterol levels.
I see a stir amongst our two salesmen. Izaki and Tanabe. They work as a team. They have a good cop bad cop sales routine. Izaki, photogenically handsome, does the talking, while Tanabe, about twenty pounds overweight, chimes in with agreement with whatever Izaki says, and then listens to the customer's issues. Tanabe also does most of the eating and drinking with the customers because Izaki likes to stay fit. Somehow, this is a perfect arrangement for both of them.
I ask them, “How are your health scores?”
“Bad,” Tanabe chuckles sadly. Izaki reassures him it’s not a big deal.
Izaki points at Tanabe and says, “He needs to eat with our customers, and when he gets back home, his wife feeds him another dinner.”
I look over Tanabe’s shoulder and see the results, all C’s, D’s and F’s.
“That looks bad, is he going to be ok?”
Izaki laughs and says, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. Life of salesmen!”
The weight of my cholesterol score feeling lighter, I pull myself together and make it to the human resources department. I stand in front of Ms Watanabe’s desk and say we need to talk. She's an attractive woman whom I’ve never seen smile or socialize with anyone in the office.
“Watanaba-san, my coworker, Mariko, needs to take care of a personal matter every day at 3pm. I cover for her while she’s away.”
Watanabe looks at me coldly. “Company policy is for employees to be physically present in the office from 8:30 am to 5:30pm.”
“But…” I try to think of what to add.
“Should I show you the employee handbook?” She gives a hostile stare.
I should have come up with more to say.
“Ok,” I stand up. “Thanks for your time.”
When I see Mariko the next day, I mention I put in a good word for her at the HR department.
“Thanks. Is it fixed now?”
“I think so. But try to keep a low profile when you leave the office.”
“Low profile. I will start going out the cafeteria door.”
Mariko then changes the topic. She has been teaching me tidbits about Japanese culture. She tells me, “Next week is Valentine's Day. In Japan, the women give the men they like chocolate on that day.”
“That’s very different than America,” I say.
“In Japan it's done this way. The women give the men chocolates.” They don’t discuss the whys and what-if’s in Japan. They prefer absolutes.
“Then, I hope to receive a chocolate next week,” I say.
“But if you receive one in the office, that’s a ‘giri chocolate’”. Giri is a word for a tedious obligation or responsibility. “You might get some giri chocolate from the young women in the office. But those two,” she points at our two salesmen Izaki and Tanabe, “those two are dirty old men and won’t even get a giri chocolate here.”
“But they’re married,” I say.
“They go to hostess bars and have their fun there.” She mimes touching a woman’s body with her hands.
Izaki and Tanabe chuckle nervously then look back at their computer screens. Japanese avoid direct confrontation.
When Mariko goes to lunch, Tanabe catches my attention. “Do you know where she goes every afternoon?” he says, starting to laugh.
“Of all the children in school, her son punched a yakuza’s son”, he says, “She needs to go read books for a mafia member's son.” Tanabe is now laughing uncontrollably and slapping his thigh.
In a few days, Mariko shifts the tutoring to an hour later. Ms Watanabe from HR makes frowning glances when she walks past and sees Mariko’s seat empty, but doesn’t bring up the topic again. Later, Mariko will come into the office looking relieved, “I’ve stopped tutoring now.” Japanese passive-aggressive tutoring can even wear down a mafia family, or perhaps they’ve tired of a stranger coming into their home.
I go to see Dr Sakata and explain my recent symptoms. The dizziness. The terrors. The racing heartbeat.
I explain my theory about the nerve gas.
His eyes squint slightly. He asks, “Are you under much stress at work?”
“Not really.” This is a lie.
“Do you get much time to relax?”
“I’m always working on something. Always studying something, so, no.” My eyes dart around the room.
“What you need to do, is you need to slow down. You are suffering the symptoms of stress.”
“I’m not sick? My heart is ok?” My heart is racing a million miles per hour.
“Relax. Spend some time not doing anything. After work, have a beer, watch TV, relax.”
The doctor gives me three days of pills that he says will stop the panic attacks. I don’t feel any different after taking one, but the next day the terrors don’t come.
I’ve been reading more in my spare time to slow down. I’m deeply engrossed in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, about a boy leading a solitary university student life, who’s befriended by the slightly older and vivacious Midori who works at a bookshop he frequents.
When Mariko is in a good mood I ask if I can take her and her son out to lunch on the weekend.
“Meet my son?” she says, “Impossible. It’s impossible.”
She giggles, waves her hand in the Japanese gesture for something so ridiculous it shouldn’t even be considered, and turns back to the stack of work on her desk.
I make a sad puppy face. I sense dating is more complicated here than in the West.
Without looking at me, she says, “You’ll find someone else to have lunch with.” She unwraps a chocolate, pops it into her mouth and starts typing on the keyboard.
At noon I go to eat alone at a soba noodle restaurant in a back alley behind a Buddhist temple not far from the office. School children wearing uniforms shuffle past on their way somewhere calling out to each other. Men in business suits sit tightly at the counter slurping noodles. A few groups of women fill the tables talking quietly. I hear the wind banging the shutter, and in the background, a myriad of sounds that could only be heard in this vast metropolis.
The pills from Dr Sakata run out. I follow his advice and spend more time trying to not do anything. It’s not easy but I learn to slow down, and not rush and worry about everything. The panic attacks never return.
The next time I see the doctor, I tell him, “Thank you for that, I’m fixed now.”
Dr Sakata looks at me puzzled and says, “But, I didn’t do anything.”
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This was like a window into the daily life of the MC in japan. I loved it! It was like watching him in a movie, capturing his confusion and somewhat isolation
I really liked the glimpse into Japanese culture, especially because I've had many Japanese students over the years! My advice would've been to show more emotion/involvement in the story. It was more of an observation of all these people, which was still fun and engaging, but the addition of the protagonist's panic attacks and romantic interest, could've been exploed further. Again, I really enjoyed all these characters and the way you brought them to life!
Thx for the feedback Rama. I find emotional writing still a bit of a puzzle, maybe I'll try more internal dialogue and metaphors. Your great at making small scenes emotional, I'll keep an eye out for your stories for inspiration.
Awww, that's very kind!
I enjoyed your story, Scott! I feel like I learned a lot about Japanese culture in a natural, casual way. You don’t hit us over the head with “this is how it is,” “and people act like this,” but show us this world through character interactions and situations—and you show how, differences aside, we are all alike in many ways, ex, how stress affects us and what we do to cope. The writing even had a calm tone that seems reflective of Japanese culture. Well done.
Thanks for reading Aeris. This was pretty much what I experienced back then, with a slight touch of dramatization. Yes, the theme is basically about stress. Slowing down a little bit helped tremendously.
I enjoyed this. Never been to Japan, but I’m familiar with the cultural references. You present them well: the unusual (to Westerners) Valentine’s Day custom; the yakuza; the office culture; and yes, the overall stoicism. My sister-in-law is married to a Japanese man, and my daughter is (maybe partly because of that) a bit of a Japanophile. Nicely done, and I’d like to see more of the cultural stories!
That's interesting that you are familiar with those! I wasn't sure if most readers would get the mood of the story. I'll try to think of other stories based in Japan from my personal memory with perhaps some added fictional dramatization. And I really enjoyed a few japanese television sitcoms, they have a unique and quirky sense of humor. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Wow. Talk about a stranger in a strange land! Very powerful and subtle story about daily life in a Japanese corporation. Mariko, to western eyes, is a fascinating study. She drinks two bottles of wine and doesn't remember. She is embroiled, however tangentially, to organized crime. She flatly refuses and romantic overtures yet she flirts with the MC and pops chocolates at work. Nicely done, Scott. This story feels so real and immersive.
Thanks for reading. Yeah, this story is a bit more subtle than someone of my wild political satires. Someday I'd like to write a memoir, that's pretty common i guess as a certain age, and know it won't be that interesting unless I learn how to turn up the emotional side a bit.
I talk with people every day who relay stories about duty stations in other countries, including Asia. I think what makes it interesting is the 'over there' - A, 'in the west' - B You elucidate the nuance of the culture in Tokyo, yet I wonder if it would make more sense to the average reader if those details were contrasted against another culture with every mention of their customs. It also feels a bit like romance interrupted by cultural barriers. It would seem more relatable to me if the protag defined the desire for Mariko. Just some ...
Thanks for the feedback, yes, I find foreign country stories very challenging to get right, Having lived over there for 9 years I might assume some things that probably need to be explained to the average reader in more detail. and then this being 95% non-fiction then how to add some excitement to mostly typical office life (except for riding on the subway during a notorious event of course, in which pretty much nothing happened except my train was delayed for 20 minutes with a lot of announcements about "a fire" at the next station) Inte...
I run a military surplus store, The US military is in over 100 other countries. Often it is just one year of their life, yet it makes a lasting impression. Some guys can't remember where they shit last, yet can recall details from Korea seventy years ago.
For sure, things that happen when we're we're young are so vivid. A lot of people from the US military were in Tokyo, mostly at Yokosuka. I knew a guy who did the secret code work on an aircraft carrier, but he said they would still bust his balls and make him wake up a 4am to scan Tokyo bay for enemy submarines with binoculars and stuff like that. Loads of military surplus stores all over japan too.
This is an interesting musing on stress. The stress of work, of being in a foreign country, of navigating the local culture - of coming so close to a terrorist attack. Yet despite the culture gap, both Mariko and the narrator have similarities in how they handle that stress - namely, liquor. There's a sense of not expressing this stress directly, of perhaps not addressing its source, but working around it. Even when the doctor gives the narrator an out, by asking if it's work related, the lie is "no". Is this pushing indirection and non-co...
Yes, there's quite a few different themes brought up, but the main one is a stoical, just getting used to things, concept that runs deep in the Japanese psyche. Foreign country stories are challenging, taking a bit of a breather from the black-mirror type of stories I've been writing lately has been good. Thanks for all the great editing suggestions!
“I commute to the office by scooter to stay in the fresh air outdoor,” the air quality in Tokyo is quite amazing for a big city. I guess the fact that it’s so spread out and has good public transport helps a lot. “A coworker that smells of whiskey at 11am could quickly become its own HR problem,” this I guess is true and yet I have been stuck on morning trains with plenty of office workers who smell like they crapped themselves and are heading back in to work in the same clothes. So many people end up asleep in the stations as well because ...
Yeah, I just remembered you are in Tokyo, so you probably get how the yakuza would not be happy having their kid beaten up, and how a normal Japanese woman wouldn't date a gaijin. The part about the yakuza was all a true story, but at the time i was more into partying in roppongi than dating my coworkers so we kind of kept our distance. Yeah, its weird how I saw top govt and govt employees totally wasted by 8pm, not socially acceptable in the the US but perfectly fine there. Its like those opening scenes in that old film series "tora-san" if...
I haven’t seen that but I have seen entire office buildings worth of people rat arsed and red faced when they should all be heading home to their families. Is it the same in Hong Kong?
Its the opposite, theyre not into excess drinking here unless its done very privately. I see hong kongers buying booze at the supermarket. It took a while to get used to but social events are more about eating and getting a bit loud without drinking much
Prefer it that way?
yeah, its probably better in the long run, but I do miss the silliness of japan and their devotion to the artistry and tradition of doing things.. "bunka chigai ga omoshiroi" is what my japanese teacher used to say when my class used to try to take her on about things. btw is there any new japanese authors worth checking out at all? hakuki murakami still feels new to me lol.. i must update myself.
I have missed your writing style so much! You have a gift for describing daily life in different cultures without overdoing it on the details. Thank you for sharing!
Thanks for reading! I really hope to write people in other countries as human just like us, and not overemphasize the differences. Sometimes its hard to make things relatable so happy to hear this story worked.
I couldn't gelp wondering if you're reading Norwegian Wood or wanted to draw parallels between the book's central relationship and your story's. As soon as I got to that paragrah, I had an a-ha moment where the quality of that relationship: a bit tortured and one observing the other, rang true. I liked the arch of the story; how the MC and Mariko helped each other overcome their issues. I felt moved by the backstory of the gas attack and the visual rendering of the awful toilet scenes was moving.
This caught me from the opening sentence. Good insight into Japanese culture. I will make a note to read more from you. Thankyou
thanks for checking it out! i tried something different than my usual more satirical stories, happy to hear it worked.
This was a fun snapshot of what it would be like to work in a foreign country. I had the feeling our hero was equipped to do the work but couldn't really find his legs. The anxiety attacks would be some manifestation of that (even though he had some notion of it being a residual of a gas attack, something you don't hear every day.) So often we think we have it all under control, only to have our bodies correct us in one way or another. Mariko was interesting to get to know; I sensed an intriguing mix of mystery, both cultural and perso...
Thanks for reading. I think I was just pushing myself too hard 24 hours a day, the panic attacks were scary, but went away thankfully. This story is 95% non-fiction with a touch of dramatization. Laying on the floor with the room spinning though was exactly what happened for a few weeks. Not going on a date? I think half because I was western and younger, and in reality we never really clicked in the office. Also, things are incredibly formal in Japan. There's a -right type of person- one would date, and they would very much stick to t...
Fascinating. I hope you'll share more of your experience. Adding a dash of drama is easily forgiven; like adding a gif to a text, it amplifies what you're attempting to get across. (Oh, and I know about panic attacks - they are beyond scary. My brother experienced a bout of them and told me he thought he was going to die each time he had one. I'm glad to hear you came out the other side; no fun.) So, send more Japan our way, please!
As someone who experiences anxiety attacks, I totally felt for you and the situation you were in while working in this corporate setting in Japan. I think recounting your thoughts during the panic episodes would've increased the drama in the story. I agree with the other commentators who mention that you provide a compelling glimpse into the ins and outs of daily life for a Westerner in Japan. Your creative non-fiction is good, but some of your fictional pieces are out-of- the-ballpark great. Please give us a book of short stories or ...
Also, since you mention wanting to publish your non-fiction in your Reedsy author bio, the "Grants and Awards" section of Poets and Writers magazine lists dozens of competitions for writers to send their work for publication and cash prizes. You may try sending some of your creative non-fiction pieces to the groups that sponsor those competitions.
Thanks mike, really appreciate your insightful feedback. Yeah, when I had the panic attacks, it was just a physical sensation without much thinking involved. It just felt like I was going to die within 5 seconds without any reason. They haven't come back but I worried for a long time about them as I'm naturally a bit jumpy. I def could have described the sensations a bit more. Turned back to writing epic silliness in satirical fiction this week. The noir arrogant narrator voice sometimes works when it finds the right theme. Thanks for the ...
Let me correct myself, Scott, your creative non-fiction can also be stellar, and you don't have to be an A-lister to write a critically-acclaimed memoir (most of the time those attributed to celebrities are ghostwritten anyway). So, my new suggestion is to go with your heart and write the book your spirit is asking you to write - whether it be fiction or non-fiction I'm sure it will be a success, if it reflects the quality of your work on Reedsy.
i love your writing style it makes you feel as if you were actually experiencing it
Thanks Al. Just wondering how you found my story? Google?