Monday, December 28, 2009 3:05 PM
An Honourable Pawnbroker
Recently my mailbag has been overflowing with plaintive mails along the lines of "Dear Penguin, when will you start blogging again?". Well actually it isn't, though as one of my email accounts is email@example.com I've been getting an increasing amount of emails addressed to other people who happen to share my surname, including an intriguing invitation to join the University of Iowa GraDykes Facebook group.
I digress. Work has been keeping me busy, and when I'm not busy I try to spend as little time in front of the internet as possible, as that is what occupies most of my day. And, tragically, this blog is not entirely anonymous, which means unlike more prolific work bloggers such as Foreign Salaryman or Green-Eyed Geisha I am not really at liberty to blog from the rich vein of juicy stories from the fascinating world of business life in case someone gets wind of the fact that I am lampooning them on a public website. (I may or may not have a totally other, completely anonymous blog for that purpose).
However I think I can share with you, dear reader, this slightly long-winded anecdote which might be mildly amusing if you are familiar with Japanese business etiquette, and if not please bear with me while I try to explain it as I go along. (If you are easily distracted, now might be a good time to go and follow someone on Twitter or whatever it is the young people like to do nowadays).
So, as you may or may not know, addresses in Japan (particularly Tokyo) are notoriously unintuitive, with the "house number" representing an arbitrary location within a numbered subblock of a numbered subblock of a named subdivision of one of Tokyo's 23 wards. Got that? Just to confuse things further, Tokyo is basically a random jumble of former goat paths along which a random jumble of similar-looking buildings has been constructed. Which often means if you are going somewhere you need not only a good map but also very good instructions of how to get there from easily locatable landmarks such as the nearest station. In extreme cases the instructions are "call and we'll send someone to fetch you", and it is perfectly acceptable to call ahead and have yourself verbally guided in ("can you see the ramen restaurant with the red sign? OK, just past that there is a tobacconist, and past that there is a narrow alley with a sign advertising massages in the entrance, turn left down there until you run into the junction with the house with the garden dwarf outside, then right until you see an office building with a pink facade, and we're located just past that but before the Hello Kitty Proctology Clinic").
Now, if the person you are guiding in is an Important Business Customer, etiquette requires that you use your best keigo, aka a hideously convoluted ultra-polite form of speech in which the customer is verbally positioned just below Emperor rank while you and your entire company are placed somewhere below gutter slime. However, being a smaller company, we do not have the luxury of a specialist keigo telephone operative-cum-tea maker (aka OL - Office Lady), and that task usually falls to my colleague whom I shall name Kawasaki Girl, for she is from Kawasaki, and who is ridiculously young and not employed for her keigo skills, to the point she has a little note on her monitor with the appropriate words for "company": "heisha = us, onsha = them". (Literally translated, "heisha" means "our worthless flea-ridden scumbag of a dysfunctional and sclerotic organisation", while "onsha" means "your most worthy company which shines like a beacon of golden light in the pantheon of commercial entities"). (Also, we make our own tea).
Going off at a slight but important-to-know tangent, but as you may also be aware, Japanese is big on honourific suffixes such as the well-known -san, which is sort-of-equivalent to "Mr." or "Mrs.". It's fairly neutral though, so if dealing with Important Business Customers you would use the much more honourific -sama. However, -san is also used, especially in Polite Situations, in conjunction with less animate or tangible entities such as ramen restaurants and proctology clinics.
So, imagine the scene. Young, wet-behind-the-ears Kawasaki Girl is doing her utmost to guide Important Business Customer towards the tumbledown shack which we dare to call an office, and slowly getting her -sans and -samas mixed up. Meanwhile Important Business Customer is approaching the last major landmark before the office, which is a pawnbroker.
Or, as Kawasaki Girl put it, "Pawnbroker-sama".
Now, I appreciate if by this point you are not convulsed in hysterical laughter at the situation, but as soon as the words were out of the mouth she realised she had just implied we hold the pawnbroker in very high regard and possibly have some sort of business relationship with them. Fortunately Important Business Customer turned out to be an old drinking buddy of the Boss Guy or something so we can probably get away without denigrating ourselves to putrid sub-gutter slime in future dealings with him and his company.