Monday, December 28, 2009   2:05 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 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).

Heisha / Onsha

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.

Posted in Life in Japan
"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."

Watching people do this is a lot of fun when it's obviously bullshit and everyone knows it but they do the dance for empty seemingly pointless reasons anyway.

If you like getting your ass kissed by people who loath you come to Japan and get a good position. You'll feel like your at an ass kissing festival with your pants down.
Posted by: Chris B | 2009-12-29 11:21

Just wondering: don't people nowadays use increasingly a maps app and GPS on their phone to find locations?

I've just done that constantly while room-hunting in Copenhagen the last couple of days (Google Maps on my iPhone 3GS), and with 100% success.

Sure, I checked street signs, but I didn't need to. I just followed the pulsating blue blob on the map towards the pin marking my destination - both while walking and while sitting on buses and trains.

Would that be expecting too much of Important Business Customer - and breaking with an expected custom?
Posted by: Hum ELT | 2009-12-29 20:45
Wow, that note was pretty impressive, you'd think that she'd learn eventually! But yeah, that shit is difficult.

My image of the office of a Japanese IT company is based on flatulence and body odor, am I close to the truth?
Posted by: Salaryman | 2010-01-01 09:30
@ChrisB: Japan could probably meet any greenhouse gas targets it sets by abolishing keigo altogether and hence massively reducing the amount of hot air pumped into the atmosphere.

@HumElt: I think Japan had mobile navigation applications back when everyone else was marvelling at monochrome text-based WAP displays. No doubt the number of navigation-related phone calls is much reduced compared to earlier times, but the reality on the ground (haha) does mean mapping apps have their limits. Basically, once you get away from the main thoroughfares you are dealing with a twisty maze of narrow streets totally lacking street names or other easily cartographised markers and by the time you have a GPS fix and tried to correlate the pixels on your screen to your surroundings it might actually have been easier just to call. Also, Google Maps (in Japan at least) sucks serious donkey when it comes to giving a reasonably precise address. It currently locates Penguin Corporate HQ in the middle of a residential block one street over, which seriously inconvenienced the last iPhone fan who tried to guide himself here (yes, he did end up calling). For the record, Yahoo Maps gets it spot on.

@Salaryman: not working for a Japanese IT company I wouldn't know, but I will ask around.
Posted by: ThePenguin | 2010-01-08 08:39
Well, I am very curious on the answer to this so please do your utmost!

My image of a US IT company is fussball tables, geeky jokes and relaxed atmosphere.

My image of a Japanese IT company is BO and flatulence.

I guess it's a matter of preference.
Posted by: Salaryman | 2010-01-13 08:11
As soon as you said "Kawasaki Girl", I knew just what we were in for. Does her chimpira bf ever come by on his souped-up scooter that sounds like a lawnmower on crack to pick her up?
Posted by: Billy W | 2010-01-26 14:37
@Salaryman: if it's any help, we do employ some people in one of those Eastern European countries which pray each winter that Russia doesn't cut their gas supply off, and I always imagine their office as somewhere olfactorily dominated by cabbage by-products and high-tar cigarettes.

@Billy W: seems I have inadvertently tarred Kawasaki Girl with the reputation of her home town. I'm not sure of her relationship status, but actually she's a cool kid and rides her own motorcycle.
Posted by: ThePenguin | 2010-01-26 23:37
That photo was so silly I blinked twice before busting up laughing. It's a sad day when the basic equivalent of "Our Company = Us'ns / Your Company = Y'all" has to be taped up because it can't be remembered.

Posted by: john turningpin | 2010-02-20 07:24