Throughout my life, I’ve classified people into three types from my stutterer’s perspective.
The first type of person shows their distaste to stutterers as if their speech deficiency is derived from mere laziness and lack of determination. I still remember the badminton coach from another secondary school scolding me for my feeble umpiring voice. Being an umpire of badminton matches was torture for me, but I was obsessed by the sport at that time and there was no way to avoid calling out the scores in the games. The middle-aged man threw his irritation at me as if the 13-year-old girl would stop stuttering by his assertive command. Of course, his method didn’t work.
“Please, leave her alone, will you?”
I heard my badminton coach beg the man from the neighbouring school. She couldn’t bear seeing me trembling.
“That girl has a problem. She cannot speak well, you see…”
My coach, the 31-year-old woman, belonged to the second type. She didn’t know about stutterers, but she felt uneasy with my awkwardness and showed her sympathy. The second type of person might feel superior to such shaky speakers. Though being rescued like this was a big shame for me, most people were in this group, and I understood that I should thank them for their kindness.
There was no mental health counsellor in my school. No teacher used the word “stutter” with me in 1995 in Tokyo. I was just “a shy girl”. Still, I knew that there must be a third type of person, who stuttered themselves or had stuttered before. I had met them in books and movies. People who feared hearing their own voice would fully understand me. If I ever marry a man, he would be a stutterer. Since I was 13, I have been waiting for him.
3rd April 2019
I have covertly named my boss in the RA group, the customer service department manager, “the bachelor”. He is a middle aged, single man in a high-ranking position who is supposed to be rich. I wonder which type of person he is; either the first or the second type. I hope it’s the second one.
This morning, the bachelor appeared in the office for the first time since I started working here two days ago.
“Good morning,” I greeted him as his seat was diagonally before mine.
His monotone voice responded from beyond the low partition.
The silence made his typing sound remarkably loud in the small room. No one else had come in yet.
“I heard you’ve just come back from a business trip. How was the Philippines?”
I tried to start a conversation and immediately sensed my mistake. The departmental manager didn’t say anything for five seconds. His icy stare froze me.
“Was it warm over there?” I asked quickly.
“Not so bad.” When he said this, his big slanted eyes were already turning back to his PC screen.
OK Megu, don’t talk to this great bachelor casually. Remember, this is a Japanese company. People don’t talk like they are friends.
In fact, I, Megumi Ishikawa was rather favoured by Japanese companies for my docile manner in the past. When I worked for foreign companies, I felt I was too subdued to meet my party-loving boss’s expectations. So now I’m optimistic that I would fit in with people here soon.
Just before 9 a.m., my co-workers, three women my age, came in the office all together. They chatted like they were friends.
“I’m so glad you’ve joined our team, Megu-chan.”
Yasue the office administrator beamed at me from the next desk. We already called each other by our first name.
“I’m so happy too, to have you here,” Namiko, my supervisor in the email handling team agreed from the back seat. “I had a really bad time with your predecessor. The bitch was completely looking down on our tasks.”
“I know, that showy young girl, right?” Hiro sat next to Namiko. “…Oh, the other one? The black-haired quiet girl? …Yeah, she was also bad, for sure.”
I wished only “the showy young girl” had been their enemy, because I had black hair and I was rather quiet. I alerted myself that I should never stop showing my gratitude to these chatty office ladies.
In that afternoon, the bachelor gave me a lecture about my second role, helping him with English email communications for the new project.
“We regularly contact these three telephone companies in the UK, France and Hong Kong for our global hotline business.”
My manager wrote those company names on the white-board, which lifted my spirit. Even in this office of all Japanese people, I can still be international. I imagined myself running into Hanna at the international terminal of Haneda airport, and casually telling her, “I’m just back from my business trip to Paris.”
While the bachelor left for his desk to fetch some documents, the white-board suddenly fell from the cabinet and hit my shoulder.
Ouch! Of course, I would never go to Paris.
“Gosh!” Namiko instantly swivelled on her chair. “Are you OK? Who put the board in such an unstable place? It’s so dangerous!”
The bachelor rushed back and apologized to me. I realized that even when he apologizes, he looks scary.
“That’s OK,” I shook my head ten times. “Please don’t worry, it didn’t hurt me at all.”
I saw Namiko, Yasue and Hiro exchanging obvious frowns behind our manager, and learned that they all hated him.
At 6 p.m., no one in our team showed any sign of leaving the desk. I glanced at some vacant desks where the workers who were sent from an agency answered phone calls.
“You can go home, Megu-chan.” Namiko told me as if catching my searching eyes.
“You must be tired. When you’re still new and haven’t got many things to do, I expect you’ll feel more tired,” Hiro showed her understanding.
At the platform of JR Yotsuya station, I wrote a text message to Rica to answer her question about my new work place.
“My co-workers, three women, are all nice to me.” I put a smile emoji after this. “Also, I’m finding my second role in the global project so interesting. I’ll enjoy my work there soon!”
Cherry blossom was raining on the platform. Someone has said that life is as fragile as cherry blossom, but I felt my three days in RA were like three weeks. I had already thought about the three weeks ahead too. I didn’t appreciate my time-traveling brain, because what I saw there was not all bright.
5th April 2019
It’s Friday. I ran to Onami sports club after work. I needed to apply for the sports club membership today.
“I have resigned from my former company, so I can no longer have the TIK discount.” Mentioning this at the reception, I hoped my disappointment wasn’t visible. With TIK, I had had two-thirds of the club fee discounted, but now I must pay the full fee which wasn’t cheap for me.
The gym staff offered me the “Under-39-year-old plan”, with a monthly fee of about 9,000 yen.
“That monthly pass sounds great. I can come here every day!” I said, like an enthusiastic sportswoman.
In fact, I was only interested in Friday’s ballet class, but I wouldn’t say so. I didn’t want the gym staff to see me as one of Mr Kawai’s female fans. I’m not yet eligible to be his fan, I thought; at least until I become a slightly better dancer.
Kumiko was delighted to hear that I had got the club’s monthly pass. Of course, she and her husband had been gold members there for decades. She introduced me to another ballet class on Mondays and Saturdays.
“The instructor is a strict woman, but she will help you improve your skills,” she said as if she was my aunty.
“Why not?” I bravely responded. “Now I’ve got a monthly pass, I should join as many classes as I can.”
I already pictured Kumiko’s impressed face, seeing how quickly I was improving under the second ballet instructor. Mr Kawai might notice my improvement too. He would hear from someone that I was practicing hard despite the scary woman instructor, and maybe one day he would come to me and say…
“Ha! I’ve never seen anyone who can’t sit upright without bending their knees so much!”
The mocking voice made me raise my eyes from the studio floor. Mrs Biwa was sneering down at me.
“I told you, I’ve got the most inflexible body in Ogikubo.”
My remark somehow hit the Kyoto madam. “Haha! even harder than Kumiko’s brick body!”
Hearing the two women’s high-pitched cackling, I soon joined them.
It’s fine. Entertaining people makes me feel good. Who said that “impressing people” should happen with something superior? Inferiority also impresses people, right? And it seemingly makes them happier.
After the ballet class, I moved to the next smaller studio for the yoga class. Sitting on the yoga mat, I inhaled the slightly sweaty rubber smell. I actually liked the smell. It’s the smell of Friday for me; the distinct remains of hope. While I thanked God for letting me be here, I was already longing for next Friday. “Hope” is a good thing, like Andy in The Shawshank Redemption says. But it lasts as long as it is never fulfilled. I feel it lasts forever.
“How is your new workplace?” asked my yoga friend Mrs Yamagishi from the next mat. “It’s really good you can continue coming here.”
She knew about my recent job change.
“Yes, it’s good, but my teammates in the office work until late. I’m the only one who leaves the office at 6, except for the agency workers.” Saying this, I suddenly realized I should worry about this significant fact.
“Seems they have an overtime culture there. A typical Japanese company, eh?”
Even when Mrs Yamagishi grimaced, her wrinkled face looked like it was gently smiling. “You might be asked to do overtime in the future.”
“Oh no!” I begged her as if she was my supervisor Namiko. “I can work until midnight on other days, but please, not Fridays!”
9th April 2019
I have decided not to complain about my new workplace for whatever reason. Looking back at my long, tormented March, I should be grateful for being employed and going to the company every morning. Walking from Yotsuya station with a crowd of hurried business-men, I feel I’ve been accepted by this society. You know, I’m living in the Reiwa era now. Some fresh air might be blowing in my life.
While at home, my stupid hands were typing to Kim on Skype.
“My supervisor asked me to do some tasks after 6 p.m. yesterday, so I didn’t make it to Monday’s ballet class…”
Complaints again. I’m sure I was born complaining.
“The customer service role is quite boring. I’ve been directed to use certain email templates that are similar apology letters. Almost the same letters are mechanically sent to all the café and shop customers, even though each of their complaints is different.”
Namiko looked upset when she found me adding my own words in the apology email yesterday.
“This sentence is unfamiliar to me. Where did you get this from?” asked my supervisor who checked every single email I wrote to the angry customers.
“Oh, I just added it because the customer mentioned her sick cat…”
“I am asking from where you got this sentence. Did you look through the past emails as I instructed?” Her sharp voice cut me off.
“I’m sorry. It’s my own words.”
“Please, ONLY use the phrases you find in the past emails or the templates, OK?”
Namiko never gives me the reason, just like Miyo and Fred in ITCM. I couldn’t understand why we had such rules and I didn’t wish to undermine my bosses, either.
“Sure. I’ll delete the sentence.” Of course, I wanted Namiko to trust me, so I added, “Thanks for the advice.”
After I deleted the sentence, she immediately sent the email out to the customer. What the checker examined was whether all the sentences referred to the templates and nothing else.
“Look, Megu-chan, I think the sentence you added was nice and the customer would appreciate the sentiment, but we have rules to follow. All right?”
Namiko still looked upset after a few hours, which amazed me.
“Of course, I totally understand,” I said, nodding like a walking pigeon.
There must be a special reason for these rules which I shouldn’t worry about. We handle customers’ inquiries, mostly complaints, on behalf of our client shops and cafes, so the rules might have been from our clients.
‘We do email patchwork jobs all day, taking words and sentences from here and there. We need neither skill nor heart. It’s just so boring!’
My cry reminded Kim of the old TV drama, “The Office Space”. She said that the drama was about some office workers who did boring tasks and it was so funny. I should watch it.
12th April 2019
The air outside is getting warmer. I can preserve fresh chicken in a glass jar for up to two days in this season. I have also decided to have a take-away lunch from Don-maru sushi shop every Friday, because fresh seafood is the last thing I could keep at home. Don-maru’s lunch box is only 500 yen and they offer more than 50 different kinds of toppings. This means each week I can try a different kind.
At the small lunch area in the office, I opened my take-away box. I glanced at the four women at the next table, expecting someone to say, “That looks delicious. Where did you get it from?”
But everyone there was looking down at their lunch box or smartphone and showing no interest in what others were eating, so I tried to talk to the thin, long-haired girl nearest to me. She took off her earphone hidden in her hair to answer me. Suddenly, I felt rueful.
“…Yes,” she said, “I’m watching a video on YouTube.”
The girl didn’t look annoyed by my disturbance. Though I had actually asked what she was eating, now I pretended to be interested in her YouTube video.
“I like American TV drama. I can forget everything about my job while I watch it.”
Her voice was soft, and her eyes were lifeless as if too tired to look at anything other than her smartphone screen. I had heard that some telephone operators in this company worked until midnight every day.
After making sure that what she was watching was not “The Office Space”, I decided to leave her alone. And I turned back to my shiny red tuna.
13th April 2019
My aunt-like Kumiko had talked with the ballet instructor Ms Oda about me, a new student.
“That’s why she was kind to you in the class today,” Kumiko said proudly. “She is known for being a little hard on beginners.”
We were in a small Ramen shop near the gym after attending Saturday’s ballet class in the morning.
“Thanks. She seems to be a good teacher,” I said, imagining her poisoned arrow penetrating my body one day. Ms Oda’s keen eyes had already shown distaste to me in the studio today. But I didn’t worry about it so much.
“This is fab: having a nice lunch after ballet and going for a swim in the pool later.” I was simply enjoying the warm noodles with my easy-going friend. “We’ll also go to the jacuzzi straight after the pool.”
“Yes! We should definitely do this again on Saturdays,” Kumiko loved the plan.
Since we both lived near the sports club, it was convenient to go home and back again for swimming in the evening. Kumiko walked along the walking lane in the pool and I swam in another lane. I can actually swim like a dolphin because mum sent Rica and me to a prison-camp-like swimming school when we were small.
We went to the big baths after swimming. Unlike dolphins, I love warm baths too. I only take a shower at home, so bathing my whole body in the warmth is certainly a luxury for me. With several other women totally relaxed in the large bath, I stayed in until I became like a boiled octopus.
“You’d better get out now,” Kumiko warned me. “A skinny person gets red so quickly.”
Whenever she calls me “skinny”, I hear a mixture of enviousness and scorn in her voice. It’s like she wants to lose weight while she pities my childlike body.
Kumiko waved at me before disappearing into the sauna room with other ladies. It’s incredible that they’re going to be roasted in the sauna after being boiled in the bath.
My body was still warm when I got home. I wrapped myself with a blanket and sat at my low table to chat with Kim.
“It was a very nice Saturday today. All the grumpy customers at my work should take a warm bath after some exercise, and their anger would evaporate.”
“What kind of complaints do they make?” asked Kim. “People here say the dish is cold or the food has no taste…”
“One customer complained about a restaurant staff member who had picked up a coin from the floor after she had dropped it, then gave it to the customer in the change. Apparently, she should have picked it up by her apron instead of with her hand, or she should have got another coin from the till.”
This surprised my American friend. Actually, there were not many complaints about the food or the products. More complaints were about the shop clerks’ attitudes.
I remember one email saying that the “dead-fish-eyes” of one of the café staff horrified her.
“The serving girl looked at me with her dead-fish-eyes when she brought my coffee. I have never seen such cold, spiritless eyes in my life!”
I have disliked my small eyes since my primary school teacher said I looked drowsy when I was wide awake. I used to put cosmetic glue on my eyelids to open them a bit wider. What if the server had simply looked at her customer in her usual manner? How would she feel if she heard her eyes being described as dead-fish eyes? There are people who look scary even when they are smiling, like the bachelor in RA.
“I guess the customer had been having a bad day. She definitely needs a warm bath,” Kim agreed.
18th April 2019
The global hotline project in the RA group has been moving slowly. The project manager, the bachelor, is often out of the office, and he hasn’t given me so many tasks for the new project. Still, it seems to have secured my position in the company because there are only a few English speakers here and people show their special “respect” to us, to a degree.
“You’ve lived in Australia before, I heard. Did they throw stones at you?”
Namiko’s question today was NOT a joke.
“No. Why should they do such a thing?”
My supervisor, who was one year older than me, innocently said that she had heard about racial harassment towards Asian people in some countries.
“White people look down on other races, right?” Hiro added. “My friend was verbally abused when she travelled there.”
These women believed that Australians were all white-skinned.
“Sorry to hear that, but nobody abused me there,” I repeated.
“Did you have a tall, blue-eyed boyfriend over there?” was the next question.
“But you saw many blond boys there, didn’t you?”
I recalled my boss in the Sydney restaurant where I had worked for a year, but he was Chinese Indonesian with dark hair. My flatmates in Adelaide were mostly from Middle East. My landlord was a white man, but he was bald, so I couldn’t tell his hair colour.
“Um… probably some.”
When I talked with them, I felt as if I was one of the first Japanese adventurers who had travelled overseas on a small boat during the Edo period.
“You write English very well, Megu-chan.” Yasue complimented me, looking at my PC screen from the next desk.
I had just found two errors in my English email which I sent out two days ago. One of them was a misspelling of heroine. ‘Thank you so much Aileen. You are our heroin,’ my email said.
Yasue doesn’t speak English, so how could she evaluate my English level? But I knew better than to ask this too practical question.
“The telephone service providers say their service doesn’t cover Iran.” I reported this to Yasue as if she was also involved in our global hotline project. She dragged her chair nearer to see my PC screen better. “Here, this sentence says so.”
Yasue intently listened to my brief explanation about our project. Apparently, the bachelor hadn’t shared the project contents with anyone in the email team.
“So, none of our three telephone service providers can give us a toll-free number in Iran. What will we do now?” she asked.
“We will find the new provider!” I answered, trying to suppress my excitement. “I know someone from Iran. I’ll ask him.”
Namiko cut off our conversation by giving me some email patchwork jobs. She also told me to prioritise our customer service task over the new global project. I wish it was the other way round.
At home, I wrote to an on-site worker in ITCM. He was from Iran, and I had helped him apply for his and his wife’s visa when they came to Japan about a year ago.
“Hi Amir, It’s Megu who worked for ITCM until last month…”
My fingers soon paused on the keyboard. What if he still didn’t know about my resignation from ITCM? Elle hasn’t yet replied to my text message about my banned Google account.
“Hi Amir, you might have already heard that I left ITCM last month, but…”
What if he has been told by the company to ignore any contact from me? Could my email possibly cause some problems for him and his wife? They are staying in Japan under the Highly-Skilled foreign professionals five-year work visa.
I ended up taking one hour to write the simple three-paragraph email. If he wanted to avoid me, he wouldn’t reply to me. I was tired of too much speculation. I just wanted to contribute to my current company, yet I was afraid that my former co-worker might think I was contacting him because I wanted revenge against ITCM, which terminated my employment contract.
The sudden dismissal from my former company was still troubling my life. One rejection could change the whole world of the rejected. Others might not see it as so significant, like all my friends who chorused, “Forget about the company. You are still my good friend.”
I may be, in their beautiful minds. But I’m never the same Megu in my defeated heart.
19th April 2019
While copying and pasting email sentences, I surreptitiously observed my supervisor. I have this vigilant third eye located on my back. I wanted her to be in a good mood and release me at 6 p.m. today. I must go to my ballet class tonight, because we’re having a dinner party after the class. Our ballet instructor is also joining his students.
“If you can’t make it to the class, just join the dinner at the restaurant,” Kumiko said to me. But I’d prefer to go to the party with everyone after the class. It would look natural.
Namiko was continually chatting with Hiro about a customer’s complaint. Their conversations make up the background music to my job.
“I’ve put some replies in the first checker’s box. When you find the time, please,” I asked her, carefully choosing a pause in the BGM.
“All right,” Namiko nodded and resumed her stream of jazz.
My third eye skimmed my supervisor’s messy desk. The inside of the open drawer resembled a full rubbish bin. I actually liked Miyo’s treasure-island desk in ITCM. But today I didn’t feel like teasing Namiko about the calendar of macho Sagawa delivery men among her litter.
Please check my emails soon, I prayed.
Here is the worst scenario, which has actually happened before. I make an enormous effort to complete my tasks by 2 p.m., but the first checker Namiko checks my work at 4 p.m. and sends some back to me for corrections. I revise and resubmit the emails at 4:30 p.m., but Namiko is at a meeting so they get checked at 5:30 p.m. If she passes the revised ones, then it’s OK. Mind you, Namiko is sometimes inspired by new thoughts and may ask me to review one of the revised emails.
“I see you have corrected the parts that I pointed out. However, we need one more sentence, don’t you think?” she would say. Besides, there is the second checker waiting!
Until 6 p.m., I was like a spy in the enemy line, nervous and scared. I could have told them that I had a dentist’s appointment and needed to leave early, but the idea had merely been circulating in my mind till now. I knew I would stutter if I said this, not because it was a lie, but because the words had already been in my mind and I had been fearing to voice them.
When Namiko acknowledged that all my tasks for today were done and permitted me to leave at 6:10, I felt like screaming. Yay!
Ballerinas were sitting before the mirror in the powder room of the gym. Whenever I see them, I feel as if I’m in a flower shop. Their faces were always beautifully made up, but they needed to triple-check their appearance after the practice tonight.
About twenty people showed up in the local seafood restaurant for the dinner party. With their long hair untied and in their spring dresses, the ballet madams looked more elegant than in the gym studio. Perhaps it’s because they were beaming at their adored instructor right now.
What would it be like being surrounded by many females who all admire you? I wonder. There was only one male other than Mr Kawai at the table: a man in his 60s who also received private ballet lessons from the instructor. Actually, there were about five regular male students in the Friday class. Mr Kawai once showed us different postures for males and females during the lesson, and added, “…but today, no one cares about your sex, so you can take either style you like.”
Everyone smiled, and I decided I liked him.
Sitting at the edge of the table in my grey cardigan, I thanked God for letting me be here. When I heard about this dinner plan last month, I was still on my job search.
My third eye glanced at the instructor’s profile on the other side of two madams. He was talking with some women and smiling. He never looked like a prince in his royal harem. He was more like an elegant tree surrounded by some flowers. The pretty flowers naturally gathered and bloomed there as if a painter drew them around the tree to make the perfect picture.
The restaurant was filled with people’s voices. I couldn’t catch a single word from his mouth, having my own chat with the ladies around me.
“Really, you are also from Hino City? I went to the Daichi Kindergarten.”
I discovered that my new ballet friend who sat before me had graduated from the same kindergarten, primary school and secondary school in Hino as me. That was thrilling. I hoped that her younger sister’s classmate’s friend didn’t remember me as a timid stuttering kid.
When we talked about the school teacher who we both knew, Kumiko turned to my side.
“Do you want to swap the seat with me?” She needed to shout at me even though she was sitting on the very next seat. “So you can hear Mr Kawai better.”
“Oh no,” I hurriedly shook my head. “No thanks. I’m fine here.”
Sitting beside him? I would feel very uncomfortable.
Yet another kind lady stood and came to my seat with the same offer.
“Everyone would like to talk with Mr Kawai, so we can rotate around the table.” She stated this as if it was a universal law.
“Thanks. But I’m fine with—”
“Yes, you should at least greet your instructor. That’s one of the purposes of this dinner party, right?”
Kumiko’s voice covered mine and I glared at her in my mind. Several women were now looking at me and I felt ludicrous hesitating to just sit beside our handsome ballet instructor. If I had no stutter, I might have been able to slip in the next seat and chat with him about whatever for five minutes. But my feet were firmly glued to the floor now. I really can’t move!
“I’m…actually…um…” I looked for an excuse, anything plausible. “I’m so full that I can’t move now,” I said, and gave a shy laugh.
“But you were just saying the food was not enough?” Kumiko remembered such a trivial thing, though she has already forgotten about my stutter.
“Oh, actually, I’ve had too much juice and my stomach is so heavy,” I kept my apologetic face on. “Don’t tell this to the others, but I’ve opened the zip of my pants so I can’t stand and walk now, you know…”
The lady caught my whisper and smiled. “I see. That sometimes happens to me too.”
Seeing her retreating, I felt the danger was gone. I put my empty glass on the table in Kumiko’s line of sight. I saw Mr Kawai drinking oolong tea and felt like having one too. I was actually thirsty.
After a while, my aunt Kumiko turned to my side again. Her face was pink from her cocktail.
“Your name!” she hollered. “He is asking your name!”
I saw Mr Kawai was also looking at me. Oh yes, I must have been the only new one here whose name he didn’t know.
“My name is Ishikawa.” My voice was carried to him by Kumiko and another lady between us. “Thank you so much for your classes.”
My bow was received by him.
“Thank you for attending my classes, Ishikawa-san,” the instructor politely bowed back.
I felt a flower inside me instantly opening its bud towards the tree. How strange. I had never known about this flower before.
The party was over before 10 p.m. While I was walking to my one-room apartment, I looked up at the full moon and thought my flower would survive for many months ahead without any nutrition.
He knows my name now.
21st April 2019
Amir replied to my email and made my day. He said he and his wife had been upset by the news that I had suddenly left ITCM. I was eager to know how they had been informed about my dismissal, but I held my questions. Telling them the truth would only damage their beautiful image of the company in this country.
I just thanked him for his suggestions of several telephone providers in Iran. Indeed, the information was so helpful.
“Don’t worry about me,” I wrote. “I’m enjoying my current role in my new work-place.”
In fact, I missed my office administration job in ITCM so much.
26th April 2019
Among the job advertisements I saw during my recent job search, several companies emphasized, “Your chair is a balance ball. You won’t have a sore lower back after a long sitting job here.” They were not particularly promoting the fitness implements. Their message was to introduce their relaxed office atmosphere.
The moment I saw the bachelor sitting on his balance ball and slightly bobbling as he tapped on the keyboard, my balance-ball image was instantly destroyed. Here in the office, two more people, the line manager and the telephone team leader, sat on balance balls. All three were like prison wardens of this company.
The line manager, who sat in front of me, was apparently upset with something that afternoon. The long-faced cigarette smoker usually shared his problems with the bachelor or Yasue, but both were out of the office at the moment. He made several phone calls, then kept leaving his desk and coming back frequently. From his phone conversation, I realized that one of his telephone operators had made a call to a wrong number and it had caused a problem.
The line manager’s hollowed eyes made him look like a skeleton. Yasue sometimes calls him “Ikemen:イケメン”, but he is always “natto breath” for me. Until I discovered that the stink was coming from the air conditioner above my seat, I had suspected that the line manager had natto every morning.
“It’s going to be a long evening…” Namiko and Hiro’s whispers were always in earshot.
One by one, telephone operators came into our office from the other rooms. Most of them were strangers to me, but I recognized the thin, long-haired girl who watched YouTube during her lunch. As she kept her head down just like the other ten people surrounding the line manager’s desk, her dark hair completely hid her profile. But I couldn’t help sensing her nervousness. Apparently, they had been summoned by the line manager, but he didn’t speak to anyone at all.
In the quiet room, a voice of a woman emanated from the telephone recorder on the line manager’s desk.
“Hello, is this Mrs Yokota? I am calling from the Wakaba factory regarding your purchase order…”
The silence was followed by the customer’s tired voice. “Is this Wakaba, calling me?”
“Yes, Mrs Yokota,” the caller continued pleasantly. “Your order has been confirmed and the shipment was made just this morning, so I am informing you—”
“This is NOT Yokota. This is Morioka,” the emotionless voice interrupted. “I am Morioka, who has made an official complaint about your product and has been waiting for the compensation.” The tone suddenly took on a sharpness as if she had remembered the anger.
“Oh, I am so sorry, Mrs Morioka…” the caller sounded flummoxed.
“What a rude company this is…” the weariness came back into the customer’s voice before she abruptly hung up.
Now everyone in the office was suppressing their breathing. I kept typing the same sentence five times, pretending I hadn’t heard anything like the other email team associates. The dial tone from the recorded message could still be heard and the line manager didn’t say a word. Instead, he pressed the replay button without warning.
“Hello, is this Mrs Yokota? I am calling from…”
The whole conversation was played again. All the phone operators kept imitating bowing rice plants with heavy panicles. I stood up for the bathroom and took my time there.
To my surprise, I heard the same recorded conversation still filling the dead silence when I came back to my desk.
“What a rude company…”
I didn’t know how many times we would have to hear this. It was nearly 6 o’clock.
“I’m very sorry.” One of the telephone operators apologized. She must have been the one who called the wrong number. “I should have checked the list more carefully…” her voice miserably quivered.
The line manager was still mute. He paused as though expecting their Seppuku.
“It’s also my fault. I should have warned her about the complaining customer,” another woman started sobbing. “It’s my fault.”
I felt the vomity natto smell intensify around my desk. Maybe nobody has cleaned the filter of the air conditioner for decades.
I whispered to Namiko that I had finished my tasks. She permitted me to leave, waving me away as if I had disturbed her watching an interesting period drama on TV.
Even though it was five minutes past six and I didn’t need to hurry, I ran towards Yotsuya station. When I got to Ogikubo, I jumped off the train, leaped up the steps and dashed into Onami sports club.
Kumiko was already in the studio in her black leotard. Other madams were practicing their dance to classical music. I finally felt safe.
“How are you?” my ballet friend asked. “Are you OK?”
Just a minute ago, I felt bad, not because of someone’s mistake in my workplace, but because I had learned that my line manager was categorized in “the first type” from my stutterer’s perspective. Over the low partition between our desks, I had seen his cold-blooded Tonosama’s face.
“Yes, I’m good now, thanks,” I said, looking at our instructor entering the studio like a smooth leaf carried by the spring breeze.
28th April 2019
JR Shinagawa station’s central gate was busy, but it wasn’t because of the first day of Golden Week. I’ve been to the Tokyo immigration office from this station many times for ITCM workers before, and here was always busy.
Ami appeared in her beige trench coat as her email had described in advance of our meeting. In the crowd, she found my pink flip-phone and called out.
“Are you Megu?”
Ami had responded to my online advertisement for “English language study friends in Tokyo” and we met today. As we introduced ourselves, walking between the skyscrapers, I found that Ami had come to Yokosuka from Hokkaido.
“I have a good friend called Ami, and she also lives in Hokkaido!” I exclaimed. To me, any Ami living in Hokkaido can’t be a bad person. “You girls should definitely meet in the future.”
In contrast with the outside sunlight, the inside of TGI Fridays was dim. We ordered the huge lunch burgers which Ami recommended. Our conversation never slowed down during lunch. When Ami asked about my job, I told her that I had just changed my career.
“Nobody speaks English in my new workplace. I’m forgetting the language, so I put the advertisement online,” I explained, glancing at a young waiter with a pitcher passing by our table. Meeting up through online must be nothing for the younger generation, but I hesitantly glance around whenever I mention an “online meeting” like this.
“You said your previous company was a foreign company. What was it like?”
Ami said she had been dreaming to work for a foreign company since she started to study English.
“It was interesting, working with people from different countries—” I paused, recalling my former colleagues’ colourful faces. Their smiles were soon wiped away by Fred’s frown on my last day. “But in the end, it’s not about where you’re from or what language you speak. I have learned to see people as individuals. When you see each person individually, you see foreigners in the same way as you see Japanese people.”
Ami thoughtfully nodded. “For sure, there are various types of Japanese people too.”
“That’s what I mean. I had bad experiences with two British people in my previous company. That doesn’t make me hate everyone from the UK, obviously,” I said, sounding decent.
In fact, I made every effort to avoid British bosses during my latest job search. But I didn’t need to say this to her. Instead, I confessed to her how I had been dismissed from ITCM, which shocked Ami.
“We meet many different Japanese people in Japan. Foreign bosses and co-workers are just a part of them,” I said, feeling a little proud of my dismissal experience, which not many people could have felt.
So as not to tarnish Ami’s bright image of Tokyo’s foreign companies, I talked about ITCM’s annual client cocktail party which was quite gorgeous.
“You’re right, Ami. Overall, the office atmosphere was relaxed compared to many Japanese companies. More freedom, I guess.” I smiled, hoping she didn’t notice my strained tone.
Freedom indeed. Fred secretly monitored our emails and Skype chats in which he wasn’t addressed nor included. It’s exactly what my former Japanese director did in his Kingdom by installing a piece of software called scrutinizer.
“But if you were forced out like that, then it all must have turned out to be a nightmare!”
Ami’s shock didn’t seem to be erased so easily. “I’m sorry about that. You had such an awful experience just a month ago.”
“Oh, it’s already gone,” I nonchalantly waved my hand. “Look, it’s just one story. We shouldn’t condemn all Chinese people considering there are many who fight against their government inside the country, right? You shouldn’t think all foreign companies in Tokyo are like ITCM either.” Saying this, I remembered my suggestions to my managers during my time at ITCM. Wasn’t I just like a government critic in China?
Anger came back and I regretted my confession about my miserable dismissal. It’s not gone yet, actually. Maybe, it’ll never go.
“If there’s one thing which still bothers me, it would be that I couldn’t say sorry to my co-workers about their dismissals…”
We ordered some sweets and changed the topic to Ami’s trading company. But my story of ITCM seemed to remain in her mind. When we left the restaurant, the outside was as dim as the inside. Walking back towards Shinagawa station, Ami made a suggestion.
“Talking about my blog, are you interested in creating your own?”
Ami had many readers on her nail-art website. “You can write about your experience there. People who work for a foreign company in Tokyo may be interested in your story.”
My immediate idea was, “Ike might find my blog one day. Is it possible that Luca, Ash, Nelson, Janny and many others might read it?” Hanna hadn’t replied to my message so I had almost given up contacting my former co-workers.
But exposing my humiliating experience online was another thing.
“Maybe that’s not a bad idea,” I responded.
Ami introduced WordPress.com to me. My mind was already distracted by images from my ITCM memory album. Before we separated at the ticket gate of the Keikyu line, we promised to keep in touch. I know we chatted in Japanese and are going to do so in the future too, but I don’t mind that. Probably, what I wanted was not an English learning friend, but a friend who doesn’t think Australians throw stones at you.
“Show me when your blog is completed.” Ami’s smile disappeared into the crowd.
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