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Job firing launched labor activist on career

by Tomoko Otake

You may have seen him on TV, commenting on Nova teachers who lost their income and housing when the language school went bankrupt in November 2007. Or you may have seen him marching through Shibuya, leading a chant of “Tatakau zo! (We’ll fight!)” and calling for solidarity and action among workers. Or you may have seen him on the streets, handing out fliers he penned himself calling for an end to unfair dismissal.

On any of the above occasions, Louis Carlet, the vice secretary general of the 2,600-member-strong National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu (NUGW), of whom 15 percent are foreigners, is at ease with himself, pursuing his cause in flawless Japanese.

Yet, the 43-year-old labor organizer says it took him a long time to learn and adjust to predominant mindsets in Japan, which he found were completely different from those of his native United States.

Carlet, who grew up in the state of Delaware, came to Japan in 1995, as he was interested in Eastern cultures and “in learning a different kind of lifestyle, a different kind of thinking.” After looking for a job for six months, he passed a paper test and got a job at the Nikkei newspaper group as a translator.

Carlet translated mostly financial and business news into English for the Internet division of the company — a job in which he had no prior experience and for which he says he was totally “under-qualified” back then.

“I managed to do well on the test, but once I got in, it was really, really difficult,” said Louis recently at a Kawasaki hospital, where he was hospitalized for three weeks to undergo an operation.

“I had to struggle, and my boss yelled at me every day,” Carlet says of his Nikkei job. But, he worked hard, and over time got the hang of it.

Several years later, he encountered a course of events that changed his life — and his career — irreversibly.

As the economy took a downward turn following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the news company fired translators and copy editors, especially those who had led a fight against what the workers saw as unreasonable demands from management. Carlet, among those that had fought, was also fired.

The workers eventually reached a financial settlement with the company, but did not get their jobs back. After that, Carlet began volunteering for NUGW, which led to him taking a fulltime job six months later.

Carlet, who is separated from his Japanese wife, says it took him a long time to figure out how Japanese people think and express themselves.

For one thing, it took him years to be attentive to hito-no-me, or how you look, he said.

Keeping your private and public life separate, as well as not showing emotions in public, also required a lot of getting used to, he says. “In America, there is almost no koshi-kubetsu,” he says in reference to the Japanese concept of separation of one’s public self from one’s private self.

“You could be in an office and two people might be kissing. In Japan, it’s inconceivable — I had to learn about being very reserved with my feelings. And being patient. People (in the States) are much more emotional and quick to become emotional.”

But, Carlet said, once he acquired such traits himself, he felt much more relaxed. He has also acquired a sense of resignation over the years, which in part stems from his medical condition — polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder of the kidneys. The affliction requires him to undergo dialysis three times a week.

“My illness perhaps has influenced my outlook, made me resign myself to many things,” he said. “My personal motto is ‘I ain’t dead yet.’ This captures both my resignation and my fighting spirit.”

Carlet urges fellow foreigners to learn the Japanese language as best they can, and notes that he lives in a completely Japanese environment.

“I don’t support segregation,” said Carlet, who, despite often open and blatant discrimination against foreigners, plans to stay in Japan. “I want to be a normal part of society, separate my garbage properly and all that.

“And I think foreigners should learn Japanese, and I often pressure foreigners, ‘If you live here, learn Japanese. Even if you are here for two years, learn Japanese.’ “

While he misses cheap and tasty delivery pizzas in the States, Carlet says he enjoys “the good service, good food, and good hospital care” in Japan.

And just as importantly, he has discovered a new version of himself — the Japanese version — which, he says, is more civil than his American self.

“I’m very happy I’ve learned Japanese because I’ve learned this whole new me. I don’t think it’s contradictory; I think it’s just a different expression of who I am.”