Encounters: Tokyo Times

A Californian can only survive so long in a country where hardship is expected to be endured rather than overcome

I'm thinking of quitting,' said Mike. 'Quitting what?' I asked. 'The agency or the investor relations business?' 'The country,' came the reply. 'I think it's time to go home.'

I had time to take in this surprising news while the waiter placed two beautifully presented antipasti in front of us. We were lunching in a Venetian restaurant - in a room that everyone might have thought was in a real palazzo - except perhaps Peggy Guggenheim.

In fact we weren't in Venice. Three things gave it away. The few customers who were there weren't sufficiently animated; from the window one looked down on streets filled with people and cars rather than water; and the waiters were polite - and dressed as gondoliers.

No, we were on the top floor of a modern office building in Ginza and the country Mike was thinking of quitting was Japan.

Mike's announcement was surprising. He had lived in Japan for over 20 years. After graduating in oriental studies at a West Coast university, he had come here to teach English in Sendai in the north. Then he had moved into journalism, working for one of the English language dailies published in Tokyo. During the mid-1980s he had been hired by a New York-based investor relations firm which was desperate to find a Japanese-speaking westerner to head up its Tokyo office.

Of course the Tokyo office had been a mistake from the start. Opening it had been an intellectual rather than a commercial decision. The firm had global ambitions and, having set up successfully in London, it decided that to be truly global it needed to be in the world's third major financial centre.

Nevertheless, it had made money in its early days. American companies were queuing up to list in Tokyo and would pay Mike and his colleagues to verify what they were told by their Japanese securities house. 'Yes', he would tell them. 'You do need to make a presentation at the Tokyo Kaikan to 200 people - at least once a year. And you do need to follow it with a reception at $100 a head - with the ice sculpture of the corporate logo costing extra.'

Japanese firms had spent money too; maybe not on IR as we know it, which was then an unknown concept in Japan, but certainly on very glossy, very expensive English Language annual reports.

But the bu{BBle had burst. The Nikkei had plunged from the mid-30 thousands to the mid-teens. American companies saw that their Tokyo listings were not worth the huge cost of maintaining them and Japanese companies, short of cash, cut their external budgets first.

It was what was happening to the Japanese economy that I wanted to talk to Mike about. He was not an expert, but the experts I had been speaking to had confused me with talk of a shrinking bond-equity market helping the stock market and steepening yield curves and debt monetarisation aiding a banking recovery. But no-one had explained why the Nikkei, bumping along around the 20,000 level, was regarded as a recovery when western exchanges had long ago overtaken the highs they had reached before their 1987 crash.

Instead I asked what made him think of leaving Japan. The business environment might be difficult but surely investor relations was now taking off there? 'It was the Kobe earthquake,' he said. I was surprised. After all, it was hardly felt in Tokyo. 'It brought home something to me about the Japanese psyche,' he explained. 'If you and your ancestors have always lived in a land where you know that everything you have struggled to build can be lost in a few minutes, you expect life to be hard. People enjoyed themselves during the bu{BBle, but they never really believed that it would last. To talk about recovery is to assume that prosperity is a natural state.'

We were interrupted by the Japanese gondolier with a muttered sumimasen as he cleared the plates and replaced them with fegato and polenta.

I looked through the window at a city which had been destroyed and rebuilt twice in this century and wondered what was at the root of Mike's pessimism. It can't have been the fear of an earthquake hitting Tokyo; after all, he came from northern California.

In the end I realised that after being immersed in Japanese culture for 25 years, he had a deep need to recharge his batteries in a country where hardship was something to be overcome rather than endured.

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