No such as thing as the average ‘gaijin’ in Japan

by Angela Jeffs

Charles Lent points out landmarks from the 31st floor of Tokyo Sankei Building in Otemachi with confidence and pride. After 13 years in Japan he knows more than a few.

For the last seven he has worked in human resources at SAP Japan, a major provider of business software. It’s what he calls his “day job.”

When first approached for this interview, he’s unsure: “I’m just the average ‘gaijin’ in Japan.” Assured there’s no such thing as an average foreigner in Japan, that everyone has a story worth telling, he agrees to meet for dinner.

But no sooner do we sit down (or rather he has sat me down, with typical Southern States American courtesy), than he’s in a panic. “I’m trying to find my grandparents’ photograph, but where is it?”

One by one, Lent draws photo albums, sketch books, work folders and yet more photos out of a blue leather briefcase.

They help show who he is, he explains, and so we work our way through them, with orders of food getting a bit lost in between.

The name Lent he states is traceable to Dutch ancestry, but roots are mainly U.K.-based: Scotland, England. “My mother’s maiden name was Paschal, which means Easter.” Such an odd coincidence, he laughs: “Two Catholic holidays, Easter on one side of the family, Lent on the other.”

A graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans Louisiana, Lent describes his maternal grandparents (who also lived in the Crescent City) as the smartest people ever met. “My grandmother loved games — board games, card games, word games. She knew things like the names of 14-letter rivers in Russia.

“They were both so outgoing, ” he continues, “told stories, loved parties, always had a jug of martini mix in the fridge . . . They swam, played tennis, told dirty jokes, stayed up late, playing poker, whipped up amazing ice-cream sundaes with frozen Snicker bars. They took the lead in life. Made everything an adventure.”

Studying English Literature and French, Lent spent a junior year abroad in Paris, then returned home to graduate. “I had this idea of joining the Foreign Service but after a very strange interview in Washington realized it wasn’t me.” Having taken a class in Japanese history in high school, and liking languages, he applied to the JET program.

Happy to go anywhere, he ended up instead in Chiokawa-mura (a tiny place now swallowed up by restructuring in Ibaraki Prefecture) working in a local junior high school. “On my first day the superintendent of schools greeted me with the Japanese expression ‘Ichi go ichi e’ which I really appreciate now. It means, seize every opportunity. While recognizing the structure in our lives, it’s the wonderful accidents that make life so exciting.”

Not only did his Japanese improve by leaps and bounds, but he became attached to the community, with news arriving still of marriages and deaths, babies and gossip. “I was welcomed into peoples’ lives so completely. Everyone was amazingly generous.”

Describing himself as the stubborn bounce-back type, not even moving to Tokyo and surviving four years without a bathtub could bring him down.

Living in a 4-mat room in a house owned by the widow of a small time talent agent and going to the public bath every day provided perspective, he says, grinning. “Then SAP hired me — a great company, loads of opportunity. Now I’m handling international liaison tasks, dealing with people all around the world. In many ways it’s a dream come true.”

A natural performer (school plays, gymnastics, playing clarinet in the marching band) — and on his own admission “a bit of a talker; hit me on the head with a hammer if I get too much!” — Lent found an outlet with TIP (Tokyo International Players). “I first performed in Dracula in 1999. I guess the next audition I’ll go for is ‘Pirates of Penzance.” Can he sing? “Well, music’s a huge part of my life.” Yes, but can he sing? “After so many musicals I’d say, yes, I can carry a tune.”

He has also worked with Matoba Akemi, President of Office Matoba, “a visionary who sees connections and then follows up on them, makes things happen. She’s been running her own company for the last 30 years, helping young actors, artists, musicians and writers develop their talents.

Among an interesting number of productions (most recently in Shikoku and the Yokohama Dockyards) Lent played Puck in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ on Naoshima, a small island in the Inland Seto Sea. “Matoba-san and Director Nozaki Yoshiko took a huge chance, working with me tirelessly. The opportunity to perform in Japanese and this role in particular was a life altering experience.”

Lent also paints, and every six months or so stages an exhibition. Subjects? “I do a lot of flowers, but mostly my painting is abstract.” He paints things not as they are, but “how I imagine they might be. There’s always a filter. It’s only when I take away the layers of reality superimposed over what I see that I’m ready to start work.”

July 1 Lent began a two-year project that theoretically at least will leave little time for all these interests. “Right now I should be reading, not talking about myself.” He has started an MBA in International Management through Canada’s McGill University because, “it’s a great school and I needs to do something different.”

With a lot of ideas about training and communication, he wants to head up a company where he can do more of what he enjoys. “Wanting to engage with people, I’m drawn to those ready to talk about anything and everything. People who live in the moment but care about others and have stories to pass on.”

Like his grandparents?

“Yes, like my grandparents.” And lo and behold, here they are. Young, bold, full of smiles and optimism (and still playing jokes!) bounding along circa 1941 looking as if the world is their oyster.

Lent grins back at them: “That’s how I feel: excited by the enormous range of possibility that’s out there, just waiting to be identified and grasped. I love waking up every morning and thinking, Wow, what am I going to do today?