I arrived home from dinner the other night in a blue funk (made all the more remarkable by having arrived in a yellow cab).
I’d been with one of my best buddies. (I’ll call him “Suzuki” to spare him embarrassment over what follows.)
He and I have known each other for more than 20 years. We once worked for the same company.
We would argue daily, stomp off in different directions daily, come to identical conclusions daily, and laugh together daily. His career was literally in my hands—he worked for me—but even more importantly my career was in his hands. He knew that, I knew that, but neither of us talked about it.
Suzuki could do things better than I in the area of personnel management and goosing people along toward agreed-upon goals. My business exposure was a little broader on international issues and I was stronger in market positioning. We eventually recognized these traits and came to trust each other explicitly. Because of that, we made a good team. We won a whole lot more than we lost—better than par in the course of business.
Suzuki is Japanese. Despite the fact his parents— both physicians—were educated in Western medicine, his university is one of the more “Western oriented” schools in Tokyo, and his penchant for travel has taken him to more than 100 countries, Suzuki is…Japanese. It’s an “us” or “them” issue with him on every subject. (He once overheard me telling someone I was blood-type “G”—i.e., “gaijin“—and he later asked me quite seriously if Westerners had different blood than the “real” type possessed by “we Japanese”—A, B. AB and O.)
Suzuki’s questions regarding foreigners, specifically Westerners, began quite early in our relationship. I had been in Japan less than a month when he entered my office and announced that he wanted to get married. The problem in his view was that his intended wife already had a 2-year-old child. The biological father of the child had skipped, Suzuki’s intended wife had never married and his question was “What would Westerners think?”
I told him to go for it. The “company” wouldn’t care. The key was to make the right match—Westerners were usually tolerant of whatever might be considered a stigma locally.
The marriage seemed made in heaven. He announced a few months later that he had formally adopted his wife’s child and placed the boy in his family register. “Would Westerners do that kind of thing?” he asked. “In a New York minute,” I told him (and then, laboriously explained what that meant).
A couple years later, he reported he was tearing his house down (in the wilds of Saitama) and re-modeling it with an extra two rooms for his mother-in-law. “Yes,” I told him with reference to the question about Westerners allowing mothers-in-law to move in with them, but “probably no” to the part about tearing down a house and re-building it merely to gain two extra rooms.
About five years ago, Suzuki asked me if Westerners would think it odd that his wife was going out and getting a part-time job. In his view—admittedly a very traditional view—the wives of Japanese executives did not labor in the crassly commercial world. Their son was in university however, and Suzuki’s wife was bored sitting at home taking English and flower arranging lessons. I suggested that he might want to encourage his wife’s efforts—Western spouses often work at that stage in life.
Last year, during lunch, Suzuki asked me if a Western man would change his mother-in-law’s diapers. (I know, I know, but honest to goodness that question popped up at lunch! And we were eating… never mind.)
“Your mother-in-law’s diapers?”
“My mother-in-law’s diapers,” confirmed Suzuki. It seems that his wife was off on a trip to Kyoto, his son was off courting his girlfriend and Suzuki was holding fort at home. His mother-in-law’s health was failing and…well, she needed help. Suzuki helped.
For the first time, I couldn’t honestly answer the “Westerner question” from either experience or hearsay, but I expressed platitudes about charity and works of mercy, which were indeed concepts taught by religions in the West.
Which brings us to dinner the other night. Suzuki and I are both gone from the corporate world, so our get-togethers and conversations are often separated by months at a time.
The big news was that his son got married the first weekend in March. He had photos. Westerners appeared in the background. (“The people in Hawaii were very nice to us,” said Suzuki, “and I think they understood our customs.”)
The sad news was that his mother-in-law died the second weekend in March. He had photos. (“Do Westerners still think it’s strange to cremate dead bodies?”)
But the mind-boggling, blew-me-away news was that Suzuki’s wife walked out and left him on the third weekend in March.
“The worst thing,” he said with tears dripping— the likes of which I’d never seen in more than 20 years together battling business and bullshit—”is that she took my hanko and borrowed ¥60 million against the value of my house.”
“Are you serious?”
“And I have to pay it back by June 1 or I lose the house.”
“Would Westerners do that kind of….?”
That’s when I screamed, Suzuki screamed, I threw a plate across the room and we both dumped beer on the head of the manager who wondered what the problem was. We finished the evening at a curbside yakitori-ya near Shinjuku Station eating chicken and drinking more beer—just like the old days.
There are no answers to some questions. And there are certainly no distinctions in basic human behavior beneath the delicate embroidery of “culture.” Tough lesson, particularly for Suzuki in this case. Who knows what anybody would do?
Suzuki will sort it out, though. In the meantime, I don’t want to even think about what Westerners, Japanese, non-Westerners, non-Japanese, or Chinese pandas would do in any given circumstance. I’ll just sit here in my blue funk.