Language | BILINGUAL

A company freshman’s sharp learning curve

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

The first Monday in April — April 2 this year — sees tens of thousands of 生き生きして元気な新入社員 (ikiiki shite genki na shinnyū shain, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newly hired company employees) — also referred to as フレシュマン (fureshuman, freshmen) — decked out in their new navy blue suits and dresses, heading for banks, offices, stores, factories and so on, for their first day of work.

As a part of their 就職活動 (shūshoku katsudō, job-hunting activities), most went through the process of 入社試験 (nyūsha shiken, written tests) and 面接 (mensetsu, interviews). Once the intention to join up is 内定した (naitei shita, tentatively confirmed), workers may be expected to provide additional materials, including a 保証書 (hoshōsho, letter from a personal guarantor), and undergo a 信用調査 (shinyō chōsa, personal background check) and 健康診断 (kenkō shindan, physical examination).

Some, while still in university, may have already spent several months at the company as インターン (intān, interns).

Another part of the freshman ritual each April is the 入社式 (nyūshashiki, company entrance ceremony). This week’s Shukan Post introduces a number of these held by major firms that it describes as 変 (hen, strange or weird). One is shoe care company コロンブス (The Columbus Co., Ltd.), at which the new arrivals, clad in aprons, buff the oxfords and loafers of their 先輩 (senpai, seniors). Freshmen at 三菱鉛筆 (Mitsubishi Enpitsu, Mitsubishi Pencil Co., Ltd.) learn to sharpen a point on the company’s traditional wood and lead pencils. New staff members at Japan Airlines fling 折り紙ヒコーキ (origami hikōki, paper airplanes) skyward.

But perhaps the strangest one of all is at 鳥羽水族館 (Toba Suizokukan, the Toba Aquarium) in Mie Prefecture, where photos show male staff members wearing scuba gear and flippers over their business suits, standing in line underwater inside a huge fish tank as they are handed their first work assignments, on documents made of waterproof paper.

One of my first impressions of life at a Japanese company was how things can swing, at a moment’s notice, from stiff formality to laid-back informality.

Take the 朝礼 (chōrei, morning assembly), which tends to be observed with impressive decorum and gravity. You are likely to encounter similar formality at the president’s 年頭挨拶 (nentō aisatsu, speech given on the first working day of the new year) or other occasions, such as the 創立 記念日 (sōritsu kinenbi, anniversary of the company’s founding).

There’s almost no use of people’s given names, and it’s especially rude to address anyone older than yourself that way. Of course, I can name exceptions: At one company where I worked was a charismatic section chief, first name Masayuki, who became so used to being called “Mike” that most of his Japanese colleagues did so.

There were occasions when, to maintain a high esprit de corps, we would join in a rousing chorus of the 社歌 (shaka, the company song). I entered the consumer electronics firm Aiwa in April 1976 and soon afterward was singing stirring lyrics that went:

我れは皆ともに行かん (Ware wa mina tomo ni yukan, All of us, going together)

我れらの道はこの道ぞ (Warera no michi wa kono michi zo, Our way is this way)

アイワ、アイワ、我らのアイワ (Aiwa, Aiwa, warera no Aiwa, Aiwa, Aiwa, our Aiwa)

You get the idea …

Alas, the practice of singing company songs appears to be in decline. One reason from some years ago was the adoption of フレックスタイム (furekkusu taimu, flex-time), by which it’s become more difficult to gather all the staff in the office at the same time. Also, a quarter or more of the workforce may not be 正社員 (seishain, regular staff) but workers from 人材派遣会社 (jinzai haken gaisha, a worker dispatch agency).

I was amused to observe how my co-workers dealt with people in the same office who had a common surname. Our three male Tanakas, for instance, were differentiated by nicknames. One was called by using the alternate readings of the unusual kanji in his first name; another, who stood over 1.8 meters tall, was referred to as “Jumbo”; and a third, who practiced judo and whose prominent jaw resembled pro wrestler (and later Diet member) Antonio Inoki, was branded for life with the nickname Anton.

After I memorized the names, I soon became aware of the personal grudges, rivalries and other friction in the office, when someone would confide to me AとBの相性が悪い (A to B no aishō ga warui, “A and B don’t get along”).

I also recall a few sayings that underscore my own experiences as a company freshman. One, set just behind the vice president’s desk, was a framed work of brush calligraphy, a classical aphorism using the four characters 初心勿忘. It is read Shoshin wasuru bekarazu, literally meaning “First heart, do not forget.” More colloquially, it exhorts you to never forget a beginner’s humility.

Another is an aphorism that goes 石の上にも三年 (Ishi no ue ni mo sannen, “Three years atop a rock, perseverance prevails”). Customarily, the joining of a company called for a three-year commitment before departing. While not etched in stone, many’s the time a co-worker would remark that custom dictated he had to stick around for another year or so before quitting.

I have many warm memories of my experiences in the 1970s, when I’d still been here less than a half-decade. Being the sole foreign face in a Japanese office can certainly be a different and unfamiliar world — but personally, I found the whole experience fascinating.