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Copyright © by Don MacLaren
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                                ​                              My Time in Japan's Courts
by Don MacLaren​​​


​​​                                                                              Preface


​​Two published stories of mine concerning my experiences in Japan's courts are below (and linked on their titles in this preface).[1]  The first - "Teaching English at the American Club...in Japan" (aka "The American Club and the Vermin of the Wilderness") - concerns my time as an English teacher for a school based in Utsunomiya, Tochigi (about 95 kilometers north of Tokyo).  The litigation was over several months in unpaid wages.  The company sponsored the visas for its full-time foreign employees (of whom I was one), so we were dependent on it for our livelihood in Japan.  Our employment contracts prohibited us from working anywhere else while we were employed there, so we had no other source of income.

The name of the company is the American Club.  As of 20 November 2018 there was a Wikipedia article on it, here.

​​The second story - "My Life in Corporate Japan" - concerns my time as a writer and translator at USC Limited (株式会社ユーエスシー) a trading company based in Tokyo.  The litigation concerned fraud the company was ordering me to take part in (the company was defrauding numerous clients, the Japanese government among them), as well as compensation and work conditions.  Like the American Club, I was dependent on it for my livelihood in Japan, as it was my visa sponsor​​.  However, I did not initiate the lawsuit, the company did - when it sued me.  You may wonder how this could happen.  Please read "My Life in Corporate Japan" to find out.
​​

​​[1] I (Don MacLaren) have made some changes to these stories since publication - changes which are solely my responsibility, not the responsibility of the literary journal which originally published the stories - Wilderness House Literary Review.  In any case, the events I describe in these stories, on this webpage, are true and verifiable.

Please email me if you desire other information on what I have described in these stories: info@donmaclaren.com​​​​

​Don MacLaren
20 November 2018
Jiangsu Province, China ​


​​
My Time in Japan's Courts

​Two Stories:

I: Teaching English at the American Club...in Japan
    (aka "The American Club and the Vermin of the Wilderness")​​

​II: My Life in Corporate Japan
​​​​
                                                                                    I​​

                                          Teaching English at the American Club...in Japan
​                               ​(aka "The American Club and the Vermin of the Wilderness")​​     ​


​​​​Copyright © by Don MacLaren
The following story is based on a version that was originally published in the summer 2010 issue of the literary magazine
Wilderness House Literary Review.  I (Don MacLaren) have made some changes to the story since publication - changes which are solely my responsibility, not the responsibility of Wilderness House Literary Review.  (For the version published in Wilderness House Literary Review please click here.)

​​The writing has been copyrighted, so if you wish to use or quote anything in this story you must properly cite the source, including the author's (Don MacLaren's) name.

by Don MacLaren

​​Author's note: the events I describe in this story are true and verifiable, but I have made some changes to names, dates and situations.

          I began to work for Mr. Konno and Mr. Sugimoto at the American Club English School, in Oyama, Tochigi, about 70 kilometers north of Tokyo, in 1991. I was assigned to teach in various factories and family-run cram schools, in addition to working at four different branch schools of the American Club. I took trains almost every day all over 60 kilometer radius, from as far north as Nikko, in northern Tochigi Prefecture to as far south as Koga – a city in northern Ibaraki Prefecture. "You make more money for the school than anyone else," the head gaijin (foreigner) instructor told me one day. "Keep up the good work!"
          Though I appreciated the compliment, I believe that the problems I outline below largely stem from the fact that in order for the school to survive its focus had to be on making money, rather than on education. Thus, it was not so much a school, as a business.
          In addition, to traveling around the Northern Kanto area of Japan to teach English, I began working at an affiliated senmon gakkou, something like a two-year community college or trade school in the U.S., in April 1994. Both the American Club and the senmon gakkou were owned by Sugimoto, a big man by both Japanese and western standards. Sugimoto was a former professional boxer and had a black belt in karate, but a different style of karate than that which I had begun studying shortly after I arrived in Japan.
          One day in early June 1994, Konno, a man in his mid-30s (like me) with a receding hairline (also like me) who seemed to always carry a Marlboro regular in his hand (unlike me), came in the office in Utsunomiya while we were preparing our classes. "Don, there's something I want to tell you," he said. "The students at IBL (International Business and Language Senmon Gakkou) really like your classes." I was pleased to hear the news, but was too busy planning my next lesson to pay his compliment much heed. "And one other thing. Uhh, what was it?...Oh yeah, congratulations on getting your black belt in karate." He lit the Marlboro and exhaled, smiling at me as he did so.
          A few weeks later, on a very hot, humid day, I wrote out a check, my final check, to American Express. The check would pay off the last of the $5,000 I had owed on my credit card when I arrived in Japan in 1991. In addition, there was $6,000 I owed Visa and Master Card, when I arrived in country, which I was about to pay off as well – ignoring advice I often got from people to either declare bankruptcy or just disregard my credit card bills.
          When I put my pen down I walked outside, got on my bicycle, sped past rice fields to the karate doujou (training center), went through a hard workout, sped home on my bicycle, showered, changed into my clothes, sped to Oyama train station, several kilometers from my apartment, rode the train to Utsunomiya, about 25 kilometers north, then sped from the Utsunomiya train station to the American Club/IBL on another bicycle - which I kept locked up in the rack next to the station.
                                                                                                          *
          I was dripping with sweat, and the only thing that kept my spirits up was that it was payday. As I walked into the door of the teachers' office I realized I'd forgotten to mail my check to American Express. But anyway, my credit cards were nearly paid off by that time, and I figured I could have them paid off completely by my 35th birthday – which was to come in a few weeks.
          Though it was payday I hadn't yet had time to go to the bank to get my money. (Japanese companies deposit employees' pay directly into their bank accounts.) I was rather surprised when Konno came up to me as I sat at my desk, patted me on my back and asked "How much money do you need, Don?"
          "Well, the money's going into the bank today, isn't it?" I asked. He shook his head "no," and lit a Marlboro regular.
          "Tell me how much money you need," he said, after he exhaled. I was happy to see he was smoking Marlboros, knowing that with each drag he took he was eroding the US trade deficit.
          "Well, when's the money going into the bank?" I asked.
          "I don't know," he said.
                                                                                                         *
          We eventually did get paid – two days late – and got paid late the next two paydays as well.
          Later I called Konno and told him that I was worried about the future of the American Club because of the pay problems. I said I wanted to stay in Japan until at least March 1995, when my contract ended.
          "Is there was any danger of the company going bankrupt?" I asked.
          "Nani o yutteiru, kimi?" he asked, incredulously, telling me 'what the fuck are you talking about, boy?'
          But he already knew what I was talking about. I answered him with silence, a common form of communication in Japan. The only thing he could think of to break it was "If you were the president of the company, what would you do?"
          "If I were the president of the company I would pay my employees on time," I said as I mentally calculated the student loan debts I was still paying off. The calculation had reached $11,000 by the time the conversation ended.
                                                                                                        *
          Eventually, by October 1994, pay was so late it seemed we might never get paid. By this time I'd started calling and visiting various organizations asking for advice and help. Countless hours of conversations with the Labor Standards Office, the National Union of General Workers, and other organizations took place in Japanese. I contacted all the employees and tried to organize them to seek our back wages as a group, which is what all the organizations I had consulted with suggested I do. We finally received three months in back pay in court, on December 26th, 1994.
          Though the experience was a distasteful one, after my networking and negotiations with labor unions, lawyers, and government offices I thought it would be a waste for me to go back to the States. I felt that experience would help me to get a job in Japan, and I had met enough good people during the course of that experience so that the prospect of staying in Japan seemed desirable.
          I also thought that because of the experience I had a story to tell, and I began to jot down notes for a book about my time in Japan. But as so often happens in life, just as I finished one chapter, unbeknownst to me, another, more dramatic one was incubating.
          In March 1995, when my contract with the American Club ended I found a job in Nagano Prefecture, a mountainous area northwest of Tokyo. I worked six or seven days a week, an average of 12 hours a day, though I was never paid overtime. For the most part I had to install insulation in houses. The insulation fibers got into my clothes, hair, eyes and skin and gave me a hacking cough. Installing insulation was not what I had in mind when I had been told in the interview that I would be working as an interpreter and in sales. I shared a small house with a group of carpenters from Canada and the U.S. It was filthy. After they left I discovered that some of my possessions were missing.
          As soon as I got my visa renewed in early June 1995 I quit the company in Nagano and moved to Tokyo, planning to try my luck there.
                                                                                                    * * *
          The period from June to August 1995 has always struck me as special - a turning point in my life - though it is difficult to put my finger on why. Perhaps it is because I had moved to Tokyo without a job lined up, or because of the area I lived, a neighborhood I thought romantic – with its narrow alleys and old buildings. Perhaps it was because I was alone, but never lonely, partly because I was compiling more and more notes for a book. Or perhaps it was because I was about to get a job that actually seemed like it could be a career for me, instead of all the other jobs I'd had up to that point in my life, which only seemed to be like a bridge to something else.
          I also felt good about myself, having organized employees, engineering a lawsuit against the English school I'd worked for and seeing it through to a successful conclusion.
                                                                                                     *
          I arrived at Ueno Station in Tokyo on a train from the Nagano countryside and put my bags in a coin locker. I walked around in the hot sun and muggy heat, looking at the pretty legs of the OLs ("office ladies") as they moved through the streets in their skirt and blouse uniforms. As the sun began to set, the oppression of the mugginess began to wear off. I walked into a restaurant in Ueno Station and had curry rice and a beer - a typical meal for a male commuter in Tokyo. "Well, I've got the rest of my life ahead of me," I said to myself. "Where am I going to go?"
          I went to Ueno Park and drank another beer that I bought from a vending machine as I looked at more pretty girls walking in front of the large pond in the park. A beautiful Japanese woman I'll call Ms. Narita, who had brought joy to my life before departing for a new life outside Japan, came to mind. "Where has she gone? What road has she taken in life?" I asked myself out loud. One of the pretty girls looked at the gaijin talking to himself. I smiled at her and she smiled back. I realized that the last day I had seen Ms. Narita, three and a half years previous, in January 1992, we had sat on the same bench I was sitting on that day in June 1995.
          A couple of weeks after arriving in Tokyo I got a job at an English school, but continued to look for another job. I found one at a trading company in Fuchu-shi, a district known for the green of its parks and trees, the Tokyo Horse Race Track, and one of the largest prisons in Japan. I was to work as a writer and translator for this company that imported products, mainly from the US. In the interview I met the president of the company, Mr. Fujii, a man who spoke good English, and said he'd lived in the U.S. for a long time. He was an elderly man and seemed very pleasant. During the interview he also mentioned that he had been interned in one of the infamous concentration camps in the U.S. during
​World War II. I liked him.
          I asked about what benefits the company had. Fujii and the directors who interviewed me said I could expect a minimum 10% raise my first year with the company, health insurance that would even cover me during vacations I might take overseas, and a good pension plan. I thought it sounded like a good deal and, as required by Immigration, signed a contract to work there.
                                                                                                                 *
          Before beginning work at the company in Fuchu-shi, I took a ten day vacation in the Philippines - my first trip to the Philippines since 1982, when I'd been in the Navy. I spent most of my time in Manila, but also made a trip to Batangas, a town on the coast, south of Manila, to the island of Boracay, and to Olongapo, on Subic Bay (where my ship, the USS Coral Sea had moored when I was in the Navy). In Batangas a man with a severe case of pox sat down next to me and ordered a whiskey while I drank a San Miguel beer at an outdoor food stand; in Boracay I fell in love with a beautiful, young Filipina named Rose, who sported long, jet-black hair and a red and blue tattoo of a tiger on her back, just below the right shoulder. On the way from Manila to Olongapo, on a rickety bus, I saw the destruction caused by the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo. In one of the dust-covered villages there was a hand painted sign planted in a mound of ash and filth. "HELL" it said, with an arrow pointing to where the bus was heading. Swarms of locusts or some kind of vermin flew about the wasteland as we made our way through it. Despite the desolation, there were still communities of people inhabiting the wilderness, getting on with their lives as best they could – children playing and men drinking San Miguel beer.
          I had to bid goodbye to Rose and her tattoo, the Philippines and the vermin of the wilderness to greet my new job in September 1995. On the way to the airport the cab driver drove through Smokey Mountain – an enormous garbage dump tens of thousands of people lived in. They salvaged and sold the wares they found to passerby as the taxi driver slowed to avoid hitting them and the children that crossed the road.
          The memory of Rose, along with the image of the children playing barefoot in the garbage of Smokey Mountain and the wilderness, made my eyes cloud with tears as the plane took off for Narita Airport outside Tokyo.
                                                                                                          *
          Unbeknownst to me, I was to return to Japan to see a wilderness of a different landscape.
          Within a few months after leaving the American Club, employees there began calling me and telling me that pay was late again. These were people the school had hired to come from overseas and teach after we had sued the school for delinquent wages. When these new employees arrived in country they found the school had no intention of paying them. None of them spoke Japanese, so they were unsure of what to do to get help. Some of them, however, heard about the previous lawsuit from foreigners at other English schools in Tochigi, who put them in touch with me.
          I called one of our lawyers and the new employees took the company to court, but not before Konno had abandoned the employees and fled to parts unknown, while Sugimoto managed to legally sign off responsibility for the company.
          The court agreement of December 1994 our lawyers negotiated stipulated that we had to keep quiet about what the company did to us in order to get our pay. I was afraid this might result in people being victimized in the future, but under strong pressure from my lawyers, fellow plaintiffs and the judge I went along. Surely enough, and sadly so, I was right: people were victimized again. Not only were the employees from overseas out of money, but so were the Japanese staff, as well as the landlords of the rooms the American Club held classes in and the students who paid for classes up front (often as much as a year up front).
                                                                                                         * * *
          The 1990s have been dubbed Japan's "Lost Decade" by the media. The economic troubles of that decade in Japan, like the economic troubles at present, were caused by the collapse of overvalued land prices, and the securities and loans affiliated with real estate. The Japanese yakuza played a part in this in Japan, though by no means the only part. Their role might be somewhat analogous to those who scavenged on Smokey Mountain in Manila - picking up on the detritus of others and selling it back to the people it came from (except instead of selling at a lower price, the yakuza often managed to sell it at a higher price).
          Apparently the reason neither Sugimoto nor Konno declared bankruptcy was because Sugimoto had loans for other businesses he operated and the assets of the American Club served as collateral. Thus, he relied on the solvency of the American Club. One of these pieces of assets was land the school owned but was having difficulty making payments on.[1]
                                                                                                       * * *
          The employees in the second lawsuit won in court, but since the company had stopped operating (and no one came to represent it in court), the prospect of getting their money seemed dim. However, after the court's ruling, the Labor Standards Office of Japan met with the employees and the employees were finally paid 80% of their wages with taxpayer money. The employees were satisfied with this situation and I felt that my efforts had paid off and my work was done. However, Sugimoto was still swarming around Tochigi, running businesses like bars, restaurants and real estate investments, in addition to running the senmon gakkou I had worked at when he wasn't paying us.
          The end had come, though unbeknownst to me at the time there was still a snake in the grass of the corporate wilderness of Japan, lurking about, which I wrote about earlier in this journal.[2] I began preparing notes again to write a book, which I worked on for three or four months or so. I would go home to my apartment and write the notes out in longhand in notebooks I bought at the convenience stores in my neighborhood, on the wooden table I'd bought across the street at a discount store called Don Quijote; then I would wake up early and go to a chain coffee shop called Doutour, inside the train station close to my office building, sit down with an espresso at one of the small tables in the non-smoking section, and continue writing the narrative of my life in Japan.
                                                                                                        *
          One morning, I woke up at 4:00 AM and couldn't get back to sleep. I showered, dressed and decided to go for a walk in the big park nearby after buying a can of hot black coffee from a nearby vending machine. I sat in front of a plant I had put in the soil two years previous and drank my coffee as birds chirped in the trees above and carp swam in circles in the pond a few meters in front of me. I sat there for almost an hour, sorting through my thoughts and editing my book in my head. Then I bid goodbye to the plant and set out for Lawson convenience store to buy a rice ball for breakfast. On the way there I saw a man lying in the middle of the street, under a pedestrian bridge. A police car arrived and a cop got out of the car and began directing traffic so the cars passing by wouldn't hit the man. Another cop ran to the man to see if he was all right. A third cop came to the sidewalk and asked if anyone had seen what happened. Nobody had. A couple days later I read in the newspaper that the man had died when he jumped in front of a car from the bridge.
          I continued on my way to Lawson, looking down at the ground as I contemplated both the body of the man I'd just seen and whether anyone would want to read a story about foreigners coming from the other side of the world to Japan to work, only to discover that they were not going to be paid. "Aggh," I heard someone shriek in shock and fear. As I turned my head up I heard the same person utter "gaijin!" in a muted voice. I was as shocked as he was. The man was grossly deformed, with a huge reddish welt on the left side of his face that was much too large to have been the result of injury. But I was marked as a gaijin, a fate that can make it difficult to live in Japan, but one that sometimes allows one to negotiate through the contaminated wilderness of business relationships without becoming infected with vermin-carrying diseases.
                                                                                                            *
          During the course of the lawsuits I contacted the press. Two Japanese newspapers as well as a local English newspaper ran stories.[3], [4], [5] In addition I wrote essays that were published in the Letters to the Editor sections of three different publications.[6], [7], [8], [9], [10] In the first letter, published in The Japan Times, I stated that "our lawyers and the mainstream Japanese media failed to clearly expose our employer for what he is, and thereby failed to prevent similar abuses from reoccurring."[11] And alas, later similar abuses did reoccur. NOVA, the largest English conversation school in Japan went through a similar situation before it declared bankruptcy in 2007, with debts of ¥43.9 billion (about $300 million).[12] Its president fled and many of its 7,000 employees are still going through Japan's bureaucracy to get delinquent wages. (One of the NOVA employees was a fellow plaintiff in the American Club lawsuit of December 1994.) It was also the postwar bankruptcy in Japan with largest number of consumer victims (its students, who had paid up front for classes). Then, in April of this year, GEOS, another one of the biggest English schools in Japan filed for bankruptcy, after its employees suffered months of late wages.
          While in Japan I sometimes read stories in the press about immigrants in the U.S. being victims of employers who withheld their wages, but for some reason when this kind of thing befalls U.S. citizens and other westerners in Japan the U.S. press tends to remain silent.[13]
          My journeys through the wilderness and my note-taking are just about at an end, but I have yet to finish my book.


Notes

[1] Isao Konno, former President, American Club Ltd.,
Letter to American Club Employee.
Utsunomiya/Tokyo, Japan, January 1996
(In this letter Konno outlines the situation with Sugimoto, claiming Sugimoto prohibited Konno from filing for bankruptcy. He goes on to write that if Konno attempted to file for bankruptcy despite this prohibition, Sugimoto would harass Konno's wife's business with sound trucks from both the Japanese right wing and communist parties.)

[2] Don MacLaren, "My Life in Corporate Japan,"
Wilderness House Literary Review, spring, 2010

[3] Asahi Shinbun, Utsunomiya edition, Utsunomiya, Japan, Jan. 25, 1996

[4] Shimotsuke Shinbun, Utsunomiya, Japan, Jan. 26, 1996

[5] Networking, Utsunomiya, Japan, Feb. 1996

[6] Don MacLaren, "Labor scofflaws often go unpunished,"
The Japan Times, Dec. 14, 1997

[7] Don MacLaren, "Pros and cons of Japan bashing,"
The Mainichi Daily News, Oct. 31, 1998

[8] Don MacLaren, "Corruption is de rigueur in Corporate Japan,"
Business Week (International), Dec. 7, 1998

[9] Don MacLaren, "Labor scofflaws still running amok,"
The Japan Times, Apr. 4, 1999

[10] Don MacLaren, "The back-wages of sin,"
The Mainichi Daily News, Apr. 19, 1999

[11] Eric Johnston, "Nova boss handed 3 1/2 years,"
The Japan Times, Aug. 27, 2009

[12] Minoru Matsutani, "Geos school chain files for bankruptcy"
The Japan Times, Apr. 21, 2010

[13] The only exception I know is an essay I wrote, published in the "Readers Report"
section of the international edition of Business Week:
Don MacLaren, "Corruption is de rigueur in Corporate Japan,"
Business Week (International), Dec. 7, 1998


Don MacLaren has published articles, letters, memoir, stories and poems in publications such as TIME, Newsweek (International), Business Week (International), The Japan Times, Japan Today, The Tenderloin Times, Danse Macabre and the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal.

Copyright © by Don MacLaren

To contact Don MacLaren, please e-mail him at: info@donmaclaren.com
To learn more about Don Maclaren, please click here​.​


​​​

                                ***                          ***                          ***

​​                                                                                                   II

                                                           My Life in Corporate Japan​​



​Copyright © by Don MacLaren
The following story is based on a version that was originally published in the spring 2010 issue of the literary magazine
Wilderness House Literary Review.  I (Don MacLaren) have made some changes to the story since publication - changes which are solely my responsibility, not the responsibility of Wilderness House Literary Review.  (For the version published in Wilderness House Literary Review please click here.)

​The writing has been copyrighted, so if you wish to use or quote anything in this story you must properly cite the source, including the author's (Don MacLaren's) name.

by Don MacLaren​​

​​Author's note: the events I describe in this story are true and verifiable, but I have made some changes to names, dates and situations.

          It was early May 2000 when I picked up the one chair I had in my Tokyo apartment and beat it as hard as I could against the wall - again and again - until I broke the chair into pieces and put several holes in my wall. Throwing the pieces left in my hands to the floor, I looked out my seventh floor window onto one of the busiest streets in Tokyo and thought of how easy it would be to jump out the window and fall to my death to end the frustration I was living.
          A little over a year before I had gone to a national labor union in Japan and told a union officer that the trading company I was working for as a writer and translator was defrauding the Japanese government and several companies overseas by, among other things, forging the seal for Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and putting it on documents I had translated. Later, I said, the company's directors would send the forged documents out to the company's clients and suppliers. (The documents falsely stated the quality control conditions the Japanese government required to import products into Japan through my company.) I told the union I wanted to notify the Japanese government and the companies being defrauded about this. I also told the union that upon hiring me the company had promised me pay and benefits that the company had not followed through on. The union's officer said the union would be happy to represent me in negotiations with the company.
          After long, hard thought I decided to formally request the union's assistance. I made up my mind that I would accept at the minimum an apology from the company for ordering me to participate in fraud. The money I was owed - which totaled about $10,000 at that time - was important, but not as important as the fact that my company was defrauding people and ordering me to take part. I told the union that I valued an apology over money. I also told the union that at some point I wanted to go to the press with the story, and would refuse to agree to keep the story quiet, no matter how much the company might insist I do so in the midst of negotiations. The union representative agreed to all of my requests, but told me the union had one request of its own - that as compensation for its work I give the union 20% of any monetary settlement I might receive from the company. I agreed.
                                                                                                      *
          The first negotiation session took place in April 1999. I sat between two union officers, facing three of the company's directors. I tried to still the shaking in my hands as we discussed the demands the union was making on my behalf. The company refused the demands, one by one, insisting that I was making up the story about fraud. Unbeknownst to them, however, I had made copies of the forged documents, as well as a copy of a receipt for one of them I had been ordered to send by registered mail.
          In the next negotiation session I placed a copy of one of the forged documents on the table in front of the directors and told them they were lying. They had no choice but to admit they were. "Don has absolutely nothing to do with this," Mr. Ueyama, the director who had forged the seal for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said, his voice cracking. As he spoke, he suddenly looked out of place in the stylish suit he wore, while sweat built up above his upper lip – a phenomenon common among Japanese when extremely troubled by something in a situation that requires them to maintain composure. "Don deserves a written apology, doesn't he?" Ms. Asakura, the higher-ranking union officer present said, more a statement than a question. She looked comfortable while dressed simply, in cheap slacks. "Yes," Ueyama answered, in a barely audible whisper, but audible enough to record it on the tape recorder I had placed in the inside pocket of my suit-coat.
                                                                                                    *
          But negotiations dragged on for over a year. The company would request proposals from the union for a monetary settlement, indicate it was on the verge of agreeing to them, then refuse them – almost in the same breath. I told the union I just wanted to get it over with, and that I'd be satisfied with a written apology from the company. Then, I said, I'd leave Japan and contact the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the other defrauded parties on my own if I had to.
          "If the company just apologizes it doesn't mean anything," Asakura told me one night on the phone after I called her. She was a woman about my age at the time (39), who told me she'd worked in a hostess bar. She had an attractive face and an ample ass I'd begun to fantasize about more and more as the negotiations dragged on. "If the company pays money as part of its apology then the apology is sincere," she said. "Well let's at least contact the press," I told her. "We can't do that," she told me. "Why not?" I asked. "Because we can only go to the press if the company breaks off negotiations."
          "Why didn't you tell me this before negotiations?" I began to ask, but before I could finish my question Asakura told me she had to take another call.  Asakura was constantly taking calls and always seemed to be in the middle of some crisis. I was lucky enough to get to speak to her more than a minute or so at a time, always struggling to speedily organize my thoughts and communicate what I had to say in intelligible Japanese as I did so.
                                                                                                      *
          I began to look for other jobs, one of which was a position in the New York City Teaching Fellows program, in which the city's Department of Education subsidized a master's degree in education while candidates taught in underperforming schools. One day I received a letter, inviting me to an interview for the program, and I flew to New York in early May 2000.
          Upon returning, I picked up a letter in my mailbox - under a pile of ads for porno videos and prostitution services that often found their way into mailboxes in Japan when I lived there – and stuffed everything into one of my bags. Then, after entering my apartment, I opened the letter to find my company was suing me to contest the amount of money the union was requesting for a settlement to negotiations. Among the documents in the letter was one the company was submitting to the court, which blamed me for the fraud. It was then that I picked up the chair in my room, beat it as hard as I could against the wall and broke it into pieces.
                                                                                                    *
          "Will the union provide me a lawyer?" I asked Asakura over the phone the next day. "The union can find you a lawyer. That's no problem," she assured me. "Will the union pay for a lawyer?" I asked. "No," she answered. Then she said she had to take another call and hung up on me.
                                                                                                    *
          ​On June 6th, 2000, I made my first court appearance at the Hachioji courthouse on the outskirts of Tokyo, representing myself without a lawyer, and told the judge that I was planning to file a countersuit. Around the same time I got a letter from the New York City Department of Education, informing me I had not been accepted into the Teaching Fellows Program.
          After the court date the union made a weekend excursion to an onsen (hot spring) outside Tokyo. The excursion consisted of bathing, meals, and drinking, but mostly meetings. About 100 union members from various companies in Tokyo attended. In the meetings we went over all the issues the ten or so branches of the union were dealing with, and in each meeting the union's officers told us we had to try to recruit more union members.
          During the last meeting, on Sunday afternoon, the union officers asked us if we had anything to say. I raised my hand and told them "no one in my company wants to join the union because everyone in my company knows that I'm being sued for joining the union in the first place. The best way for the union to make itself appealing is to help me to come to a resolution in the negotiations and the lawsuit. Then, the union can concentrate on getting new members from my company's employees."
          The directors, sitting at a long table at the head of the room, shuffled papers and cleared their throats. As I observed a spontaneous moment of roaring silence fall over the directors I noticed that sweat was forming above Asakura's upper lip, just as sweat had formed above Ueyamas, when during the negotiation session he conceded he'd ordered me to take part in fraud. Soon enough the meeting spontaneously dissolved, the excursion ended and I was left to find my way alone to the train station and back to Tokyo. (Asakura had given me and some other members a ride to the excursion, but there was no sign of her car when I walked out to the parking lot to get a ride home.)
          A few weeks later I talked with some of the union's directors, told them I was unhappy with the way Asakura was handling my case and said I didn't want her representing me anymore.
                                                                                                              *
          Though I couldn't really afford a lawyer, over the next few months I took several days off work in order to consult with attorneys. This became a financial burden. In addition to losing money from not working, I had to pay for the consultations (5 thousand yen - about $45 at the time - for a half hour).
          However, one of the numerous subplots to this story, which I won't go into, is that I got lucky, and through another union member who had conflicts with Asakura, found a lawyer who charged me a fee I could afford.
                                                                                                             *
          I spent countless nights without sleep, often staying up all night working on the lawsuit - writing documents in Japanese or translating documents for the union or my lawyer, which I would send to them by fax nearly every day. When I did sleep I had dreams I was slipping down a pit into a wasteland, and the harder I tried to climb out the further I fell.
          Other nights I lay awake for hours on my Japanese futon, on the floor of my apartment, then gave up on sleep and went for long walks in a large park a couple of blocks from my apartment building. Often, coming home from the walks I still couldn't get to sleep, so I would go buy Asahi beer at one of the 24-hour convenience stores nearby, go back to my apartment and drink it in the dark. No matter how much beer I drank, I never got drunk. The nervous tension inside me seemed to quickly burn up all the alcohol I consumed.
          After finishing the Asahi there were times I still couldn't get to sleep, but it didn't matter because by that time it was daylight, so I would brush my teeth, shave, shower, dress and go to work.
          But when I would arrive at work I wasn't given any work to do. The company (and some of the people in the union as well) were apparently hoping that because I was sitting at my desk with nothing to do I would go nuts and jump in front of a train, as many an office worker has done in Japan. (Then, after the suicide is scraped off the tracks it is the policy of the train company to bill his or her family for any damages to property.[1])
          One night when I couldn't get to sleep I rented a porno video, but it just made me more frustrated and I picked up my VCR and threw it against the wall, breaking the VCR beyond repair. "I hate this life!" I screamed, but no one heard or understood or cared.
                                                                                                              *
          In Japan ostracism is used as a way to get people to quit their jobs, because it is difficult to legally fire people in Japan, especially union members. By the time of the lawsuit, the company had stopped giving me work to do, but I still faithfully punched the time clock by 9:00 AM every day and sat at my desk until it was time to leave at 6:00 PM. Naturally, it was difficult to come to work every day and maintain my composure, given the fact that I was working for a company that was suing me. Frustration and rage boiled through my blood and I feared it was only a matter of time until I exploded. However, I cultivated the ability many Japanese do to not let inner turmoil show. I would have quit the company if I'd found another job, but even then, without seeing the lawsuit through to the end I would have been stained with the accusation the company made about me being responsible for the forged documents. And if I didn't contest the accusation through the courts, it would have been the same as tacitly acknowledging wrongdoing.
          ​I woke up one morning and got ready to go to work - to do nothing. I started punching holes in the long-suffering walls of my apartment, and only stopped when I considered that at some point in the future I would probably have to pay for the damage to the walls.
          Because they gave me absolutely nothing to do at work I would sit at my desk and read books on history, war and politics, like Bernard Fall's Street Without Joy, Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History, William J. Duiker's Ho Chi Minh: A Life, Herbert Bix's Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, John Dower's Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, George Feifer's Tennozan and the King James Version of the Bible, among others. Then, I wrote my thoughts down and continued to write and write to try to keep from going insane, until I had filled up several notebooks. I broke up the reading and writing by reviewing the Spanish I had studied in college and the Chinese kanji characters I had taught myself over countless hours during my first years in Japan.
          One day, when I was sick with a cold, I went to the drugstore across the street from my apartment building and, after reading the labels on different medicines, found that there is codeine in much of the cough and cold medicine that is sold over the counter in Japan. I began buying this medicine and popping the codeine pills regularly, chasing them down with the codeine cough syrup in order to mellow myself out. I kept a bottle of the pills in my desk drawer at work, and on some especially bad days I took as many as six or nine or twelve or more codeine pills at work so I wouldn't get violent and murder someone.
                                                                                                              *
          Many people I have told this story to have asked me "Why didn't you just leave Japan?" "Why didn't you talk to friends?" Why didn't you get counseling?" "Why didn't you go to church and pray?" I did or attempted to do all these things, but none of them worked because none of them helped resolve the problems.
          However, the problems did go away for a while when I drank Asahi, or dropped codeine, and one time when I called the number of one of the ads for prostitution services I found in my mailbox and made a visit to the Kabukicho area of the Shinjuku district - a 25 minute train ride away - for a tryst. But the problems only returned with more force later.
                                                                                                              *
          There is a myth of consensus and harmony in Japanese companies. The literature on the "Japanese Economic Miracle" of "Japan Inc." often misleads Westerners into believing that Japanese voluntarily work overtime and later, also voluntarily, go out and drink with the boss. However, if one were to sit down with an underling in a Japanese company and have a heart to heart conversation, one would hear differently. When employees justifiably request to be paid for the overtime they are required to perform, or other benefits they are entitled to receive, their companies will sometimes take them to court, which is what my company did to me. (For more on this and other phenomena in corporate Japan, see Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power.[2])
          There is also a myth about the Japanese reluctance to go to court, which was debunked in my case when I got the letter from the courthouse.
          The reason I didn't want to agree to keep quiet about the negotiations and lawsuit is that I had gone through Japan's legal system before, and in a previous lawsuit concerning three months in unpaid wages at an English school I was working at, the president of the company insisted we keep quiet about not being paid before he handed us our money in the courthouse. Our agreement to remain silent allowed the school to hire new employees from overseas, which the school subsequently stopped paying as well. [3],[4],[5],[6] The directors then fled, without paying the new employees anything.
                                                                                                              *
          After I obtained a lawyer, the judge in the Hachioji courthouse decided to have my case moved to the biggest courthouse in Japan, to the Kasumigaseki district, in central Tokyo, where the Japanese government's offices are located. My lawyer and I went there and filed a countersuit in January 2001.
          By this time the union told me they had received a letter from the company stating that the company's directors had broken off negotiations and gone to the Japanese government's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, as well as the other defrauded parties, and apologized for the fraud. Up to that time people from the union had been coming to support me in court, but from then on no union members came to the courthouse. The union had abandoned me.
                                                                                                               *
          When the company sued me its directors stated that though at one point I had claimed they had ordered me to forge someone's signature on a document, they had actually had that person's permission to sign his name. (The document stated that my company was the sole distributor for the company's products in the Japanese market, which allowed my company to charge whatever price it wanted for the product.) I began a search for the man whose signature employees in the company had been signing, found the phone number for his office in Belgium, and called him up late one night. Recording the conversation, I asked him if indeed the company had permission to sign his name to documents. "No," he said. "Has the company ever had your permission to sign your name?" I asked. "No," he said again. The conversation continued amicably for another minute or so and he thanked me for calling him and informing him what my company was doing. (Later, his company informed mine that their business relationship was over.)
          I transcribed the conversation and translated it into Japanese. Then, I gave my lawyer a copy of the tape of the conversation, the transcription, and the translation - which he in turn submitted to the court.
                                                                                                               *
          I told my lawyer that I was not going to agree to keep quiet about the lawsuit, and he told me that would be no problem. During a court session in late August, 2001 my lawyer made a proposal for severance pay. Then later, in early September, he called me up and told me to look in the mail for a registered letter that was to arrive soon regarding the settling of the lawsuit.
          Shortly after that I decided I didn't want to become a junky and flushed all the codeine I had bought down the toilet.
          A few days later I went home from work and started to pack my bags for America, not caring what happened in the end. I only had about $4000 in savings, but I figured if worse came to worst I could live outside, homeless. Los Angeles or San Diego would be good places, I thought.  ​At least they're warm in the winter.
          The night I began packing I couldn't sleep. But this time it wasn't because of stress. Rather, it was the absence of stress that kept me awake. I lay in bed for over an hour with the lights off, then giving up on sleep I walked to the window in my seventh floor apartment and looked out from it. As I often had during the previous two and a half years of negotiations and lawsuits, I considered what it must be like to jump out of a window as I gazed at the stars in the sky.
          Then I turned on the TV to find that the World Trade Center in New York City had been attacked by kamikazes. With the rest of the world I witnessed people falling to their deaths from the windows they jumped from. That night turned out to be another one without sleep. I thought of how insignificant my problems now seemed as I watched TV, prayed, cried and drank Asahi.
                                                                                                                  *
          Returning from work the next day, I opened my mailbox and beneath a pile of porno and prostitution advertisements found the registered letter from my company that my lawyer had told me to expect. I opened the letter to find that the company accepted the proposal for severance pay my lawyer had made. I was awarded 5 million yen by the court, which came to about $37,000 after I paid my lawyer. The company also apologized in writing for ordering me to take part in criminal activity, and as my lawyer said, there was no indication that I had to keep quiet about the lawsuit.[7] I had won.
          And after ten and a half years in the country I left Japan, after taking my lawyer's advice and covering up the holes in my apartment's walls with prints by Salvador Dali.

Notes

[1] Howard W. French, "Kunitachi City Journal; Japanese Trains Try to Shed a Gruesome Appeal,"
The New York Times, June 6, 2000

[2] Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990)

[3] Asahi Shinbum, Utsunomiya, Tochigi, Japan, January 25, 1996

[4] Shimotsuke Shinbun, Utsunomiya, Tochigi, Japan, January 26, 1996

[5] Shimotsuke Shinbun, Utsunomiya, Tochigi, Japan, February 23, 1996

[6] Don MacLaren, "Corruption is de rigueur in Corporate Japan," Business Week (International),
December 7, 1998

[7] Wakaichousho (Court Agreement), Tokyo District Courthouse, Civil Cases 19 Bu, October 2, 2001,
Plaintiff: USC Limited, Defendant: Donald Roy MacLaren, 2000, Wa 24705; Countersuit Plaintiff:
Donald Roy MacLaren, Countersuit Defendant: USC Limited, 2001, Wa 704

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