23 July 2020
What do we remember of friends?
And they of us?
By Richard Pooley.
Time for me to take a break from being rude about Johnson and his government. Time to write an article with no message. Just rumination and a couple of stories from another world – the past.
Ever since entering semi-retirement eight years ago I have been making an effort to get back in contact with old friends. Moving to France from the UK in 2013 also meant making new ones. One benefit of being alone in France during her nine-week Covid-19 induced confinement was the wish of friends to get in touch and introduce people online I had never met before. They thought I’d be lonely, bless ‘em. My address book is fuller than it has been in decades.
One of the more interesting discoveries during this process has been how few facts I remember about my friends, new as well as old. And how little they can recall about me. When being introduced to someone I have never met, whether orally or in writing, there will be the briefest summary of my career (often wrong), country of residence (usually correct), marital and family status (always right), and how we know each other. It’s the latter which intrigues me. It’s more often than not explained through a story. A story which I have either forgotten or which is not really about me at all.
In March my wife and I spent a day in Sussex with a couple I have known, more off than on, for forty years. Robert is an architect, Elizabeth a retired doctor. Early on, Robert said that he had mentioned me to someone and told “your Japanese vending machine story”. Struggling to recall what this story might be, I asked if the person was going to Japan. “Oh no, it’s a great story and taught me a lot about Japanese culture. Never forgotten it.” Was it the one when I climbed Mt Fuji through the night and discovered a manned post office, toilets and a line of vending machines when I arrived, exhausted, at the top? “No, not that. The salesman being beaten up – verbally – by your sales staff. Remember?” I did. And here it is.
Kirin was one of my training company’s biggest clients in Japan. So, as the boss of our Tokyo office, I, together with our Japanese sales manager Kogure-san, would often meet Kirin’s training director in a meeting room in their head office. Kita-san was a hard task master; the smallest failing on our part would result in a tongue-lashing, which Kogure-san and I would have to sit through impassively and always accept as deserved. Such treatment of suppliers is the norm in Japan. After all, “okyakusama wa kamisama desu” (the customer is god). At the end of one such meeting, however, Kita-san turned from criticism to enquiry. Well, Japanese-style enquiry, the kind without questions. On one of his visits to our training centre, during which all the sales staff would be on parade, foreheads close to the floor on his arrival and departure, he had noticed that we had a new vending machine, dispensing coffee and soft drinks to our participants.
“It is not a Kirin vending machine, Pooley-san.”
I confirmed that it was indeed not a Kirin vending machine but that it did give our clients good quality drinks and its purchase had not placed a huge strain on our limited financial resources. Kita-san listened, nodding all the while, as Kogure-san made the same points and a few more in Japanese. Kita-san spoke passable English but arguments are always more convincing if made in your own language. There was a long pause before Kita-san spoke again:
“Yes, Pooley-san, but it is not a Kirin vending machine.” Another pause. “Tomorrow, I bring salesman to your office.” A longer pause. “10.00.”
There was no asking if this suited our schedules. We noted that Kita-san’s bow as the lift doors closed was unusually low. Had he been happy with the meeting or were we about to be screwed? Probably the latter, Kogure-san said with a sigh. When we got back to the office and told our colleagues the news, every member of the sales staff, administrators included, begged to be allowed to attend the meeting with the Kirin salesman. In vain did I argue this was unnecessary. Kogure-san sided with his team.
At 10.00 on the dot, Kita-san and his salesman stood and bowed at the entrance to our office, foreheads close to the floor. My sales staff were all there to greet the pair. Their bows were little more than nods of the head. The meeting itself lasted exactly an hour. Kogure-san, Kita-san and I said nothing in the fifty minutes between the greetings (and observations by both sides of how excellent the coffee was supplied by our new vending machine) and the farewells. In those fifty minutes my sales staff grilled the Kirin salesman with such heat that I thought he might burst into tears. They doubted the veracity of almost everything he said, questioned the quality of every component of the machine he was offering us, and accused him of taking advantage of our supplier status to demand a ridiculously high price. Kogure-san had got them to do their homework; they seemed to know the price of every vending machine on the market. On leaving both men bowed as low as on arrival.
We bought the Kirin vending machine at a price not much below the one first quoted by Kirin’s salesman. We had to. Even I had realised this as soon as Kita-san told me that we did not have a Kirin one. No use our saying that our new one was also manufactured by a client or that we had no need for a second machine. At one point in my time in Japan we had six bank accounts at six different banks and four of the same type of insurance policies from four different insurance companies. We could not expect, for example, Sumitomo Chemical to pay our fees into our account at Tokai Bank. The bank did not belong to the Sumitomo keiretsu (industrial group). As soon as Sumitomo Chemical became a client, we had opened an account with Sumitomo Bank. It was and is part of the cost of doing business in Japan.
So, why the charade of the hour-long meeting with Kita-san and his salesman? Because it was a necessary charade. Every salesman, even one from a big company like Kirin, has to endure such a meeting with a potential customer however lowly. “Enduring the unbearable with patience and dignity”, the best translation of the key Japanese concept, gaman, has to be demonstrated. Just as Kogure-san and I had to do every time we met Kita-san.
It gave a huge boost to the morale of my sales staff. At last they had been able to play the role of purchaser. No wonder Kogure-san had wanted them all to attend. They insisted we went out that evening to celebrate. At my company’s expense, of course.
Back to my friends Robert and Elizabeth. That story is, in their eyes, me. Have you ever wondered how your friends “see” you?
You may be wondering how I introduce Robert and Elizabeth. I take the conventional route: how I met them. It still involves a story, though one they remember as well as me.
I was lying on my front on a nudist beach on the Greek island of Andros. I’m a shy Englishman. The two English girls lying on their backs beside me were less shy but nonetheless wearing the briefest of bikini thongs. I looked up towards the top of the beach and watched a couple putting up a large canopy to provide shade against the already fierce sun. Still in their swimming gear and pale-skinned, I guessed they were recent arrivals from Britain. The strong breeze off the sea was making their task more difficult but in the end the structure was in place. I mentioned it to the girl nearest me. She rolled over and gazed up the beach.
“Good Lord” she said in an accent shaped by years at an independent English school for girls. “What an amazing erection!”