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Saturday, April 21, 2001


A time of rapid change and slow speech

Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Japanese workforce? Like cards, you have been shuffled and dealt out to a different department or location within your company, as if you worked for Trump.

April is a time of great movement as employees are transferred, people change jobs and new employees enter companies for the first time. With all those people moving around, you'd think they'd bump into each other.

It's also a time when Japanese people reveal their secrets -- and suddenly disappear. "Where's Mr. Tanaka?" you ask your coworker. "Oh, he has taken a new job. He's probably in Hokkaido by now." "But why didn't he tell me?" you protest. "We Japanese don't say such things. We're afraid of how people would treat us if they knew."

Getting through April takes a great deal of patience. Do not attempt to make any major changes, such as at the bank you use with your mobile-phone company, because you will be confronted by young, trembling staff members with blank expressions, oozing with unease.

In the first days of their first jobs, these mere poker chips in the game are so unsure of themselves that even the simplest task will throw them into bewilderment, like termites attempting to eat the Eiffel Tower.

Excessive eye contact with paperwork and endless consultations regarding "Katakana? Or romaji?" will leave you languishing in their offices long after you have missed the train and all your afternoon appointments.

The work climate on my island has changed so much that I'm beginning to suspect it has brought on this cold I have. The girl from the post office now works at the city hall taking toilet-cleaning reservations and selling toilet-cleaning tickets. (I wonder if that's a promotion).

The dean of the elementary school and three teachers suddenly arrived in my "genkan" as if they'd been beamed down from the starship Enterprise. "We've been transferred to a new school," they explained. "Thank you for everything. We hope to see you again." And they tottered off, never to be seen again.

I went to the elementary school where I teach. Mrs. Ono ushered me in to meet the new principal.

"He is Engurish teecha," said Mrs. Ono, infused with a canny new confidence in her own English ability. "Nice to meet you." I said. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" "Yes, but in day it's very higher," the dean said, smiling.

"Yes," I agreed.

Mrs. Ono dealt me a stack of timetables, rules, forms to fill out, my teaching schedule and everyone else's so I would know exactly what anyone would be doing at any hour, on any day, for the entire year.

Then she moved closer, until her face was right in front of mine, the way she does when she has something important to say. "Inkan o . . . inkan o . . . inkan o koko de . . . oshite kudasai" (Please put your stamp, stamp, stamp here), she said.

I wonder if she speaks like this at home. "Taro, Taro, Taro, take out the garbage, take out the garbage, garbage."

"Kotoshi wa . . . classu no ninzu wa . . . ninzu . . . peeporu . . . ninzu wa . . . herimashita no de," (This year . . . the number of students, number of students, peeporu [people], number of students, has decreased so . . .). "Herimashita no de, no de" (has decreased therefore, therefore . . .), she said as a flash of light reflected off the silver molar in the back of her mouth.

But by now I was daydreaming, conditioned to listen in every five minutes or so. I could have learned three foreign languages and given birth to two babies by the time she finally said, "Ocha . . . ocha . . . ocha . . . nomimasenka? Ocha wakarimasuka?" (Tea, tea, tea, would you like some tea? Do you understand tea?)

Recently, everyone on the island seems to be speaking slower. Today, an announcement came over the public address system: "The Safe Transportation Brigade . . . is here! We are doing . . . free bicycle inspections . . . Bicycles . . . that make strange noises . . . bicycles . . . with bad brakes . . . bicycles . . . that need any kind of work . . . please bring them to the public hall."

I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't a sign somewhere that says, " 'Gaijin' on island, speak slowly." Or else it's written in the cards of the Japanese workforce.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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