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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Far Away Places #4

Osaka, Japan

As it so happened, it was on a business trip to Japan that I was able to demonstrate Bushu-suru. Let me explain…

In the way of many businesses, leaders where I worked and at a company in Japan decided it would make sense to enter into some sort of cooperative agreement. My role was to work with Hiroyuki, an engineer working in Osaka. Our task was to evaluate each other's compressors and render opinions as to the possibility of each company manufacturing and/or using the other's in their products.

Hiroyuki came to La Crosse and we spent time together in the office and the laboratory, discussing features of the compressors we were comparing and making plans for operational tests and other engineering evaluations. During his stay, he came down with a bad cold and we explored the local Walgreen's. This was a foreshadowing of things to come during my subsequent visit to Osaka, as it would turn out.

So, some months after Hiroyuki left La Crosse, I made the long trip to Osaka, my first and only visit to Asia. The plan was for me to visit the offices and factory, getting an introduction to the company; a few others who had visited the facilities before, would come a couple of days later.

Getting to the hotel from the airport was a breeze as all of the signs in the airport and on the train I took were in English as well as Japanese. Same at the hotel. For example, I encountered this warning in the bathroom in my room: "Avoid contact with water. Danger of electric shock." This advice was, mind you, on the combination toilet/bidet seat. Nonetheless, I appreciated the fact that the warning was provided in my native language so I could… OK, that's another story altogether.

The next morning, Hiroyuki met me at the hotel and led me to the nearest subway stop for the ride out to his office. As we went down into the station it became obvious that the coddling of non-Japanese speaking tourists was over. As far as I could tell, all signs were in Japanese only. Like this one:

Now what essential advice do you suppose we are being provided here? Right, I don't know either. I'm sure some of the signs said "Exit," "To the Trains" and "Tickets." Or perhaps there were things here that I should not allow to get wet lest I suffer some dire consequences which were described on the warning. I'll never know. What I did was grab ahold of Hiroyuki's coat. Tightly. For the duration of the ride.

The factory tour was interesting, but I was feeling progressively less well as the morning wore on. When we returned to the office, my stomach was in full protest to the effects of the long flight and 13 hour time difference. Coffee, water and light refreshments were offered in the conference room set aside for the meetings, but there was no way. Rather, I suddenly became very ill, right there in the meeting room. A few things were demonstrated by this. One was that it is not possible for embarrassment to be fatal. I am sure of that, since I am, after all, writing this account many years after the fact.

But more to the point, I got to see first hand just how kind and considerate my hosts were. Several people came to my aid, expressing great concern over my well-being and insisting that I not concern myself with cleaning up as they were already on the task. In fact, they escorted me to the director's office where I was able to use his private washroom then lie down on the sofa in one part of the large room.

It was only a short time later when I began to feel a little better and volunteered to continue with the meetings. They had other plans, however. Hiroyuki escorted me to the office of the on site company doctor who prescribed some medications which I picked up at the on site company pharmacy adjacent to his office. I was then escorted to the reception area where a company car was waiting to take me back to the hotel.

Every hour that passed found me feeling better and that evening I was even able to confront an appetizer of octopus and other seafood delights at the hotel restaurant. I didn’t order it, of course, but just being able to consider it represented significant improvement.

So, I hung in and the rest of the trip went well. There was, in the end, no agreement for the kind of cooperation envisioned early on and I have not seen Hiroyuki since those few days in Osaka.

As you might remember, much the same thing happened to President George H. W. Bush in 1992 at a banquet at the home of the Japanese Prime Minister. Accounts of this event include references to the fun that late night comedians had with it. It was even a joke in an episode of The Simpsons. Years later, there were references to what became known as Bushu-suru, meaning "to do the Bush thing."

It's too bad that humor (and ridicule) are what seem to have been the primary reactions to that unfortunate event. Because my experience showed me the kindness and concern of the people I was with that day.

During his stay in La Crosse, Hiroyuki told me about "Yamato Damashii," which he said meant "Never Give Up Spirits!" It was the idea that you should not give up in the face of adversity. He had a headband with the words written on it and he wrote out the characters on a paper napkin. You know, in case I wanted to get a tattoo someday.

Seriously, it has not been an easy time for the people of Japan. I can only guess, but perhaps the concept of Yamato Damashii is an encouragement as they struggle to rebuild and I would also guess Hiroyuki would offer it as such. So, here it is, in his hand: