Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Closing Time

My last week at Columbia Music Entertainment (CME) was spent divided between the Intellectual Property Rights Division and the Human Resources Department. My time in IPR was largely spent receiving lectures on copyright law and the intricacies of licensing agreements. CME owns the rights to and is currently licensing a large selection of songs from Japan’s most famous and beloved folksinger Misora Hibari. Though she died of cancer in 1989, her likeness and music continue to sell products and grace billboards throughout the country. The agreement I looked at dealt specifically with licensing her music for use with a new electronic pachinko machine that bears her likeness. Cha-ching!!!

The IPR division had me translating addendums to licensing agreements between CME and Apple Computer’s iTunes Music Store. Understanding legal jargon in English is hard enough. As expected, translating the thick legal jargon from Japanese to English was quite a challenge, but valuable practice for me. In order to concentrate, I found that I needed to be in a completely silent environment while translating documents.

It didn’t help my concentration that my desk was located next to my internship coordinator and head boss Okano-san in the Human Resources area of the 10th floor. They didn’t have a free desk on the other side of the floor where the IPR division was located. Because of my close proximity, Okuno-san would occasionally override the tasks given to me by my boss in the IPR section, and ask me instead to spend 30 minutes looking over and editing the PowerPoint file he would present to the American investing board later that afternoon. I would then have to spend an additional hour going over the corrections with him in person, during which time he would ask me mind-bending English usage questions such as, “What is the difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’?”

I spent the second half of my last week at Columbia in the Human Resources Department, right where I had begun my orientation two months ago. I didn’t even have to change desks and Okano-san was gracious enough to treat me to lunch during each of these days at our favorite nearby fish restaurant! In between trips to the fish restaurant, I sat at my desk and created a sweeping PowerPoint presentation that documented my internship experiences at Columbia. I had just a few days to go before I was scheduled to present to the chairman and CEO of the company, Hitose-san.

Friday arrived before I knew it. Okano-san had warned me that Chairman Hitose-san could only spare 45 minutes from his busy schedule to attend my internship presentation. Everything would be fine, assuming we got the ball rolling on time. Due to a room scheduling conflict, I found myself dressed in my best business casual, laptop hugged to chest, waiting for the executive boardroom on the 11th floor to open. When the black suit clad Japanese businessmen finally filed out of the room fifteen minutes later, it was my turn at bat. We got the projector hooked up to my laptop and working in record time: 10 minutes! We were already seriously behind schedule and this only added to my anxiety and pit stains.

Chairman Hitose-san is a self-proclaimed “ojisan” (old guy). He is close to seventy years old, with a mole spotted bald head and thick black glasses. His wrinkly skin is usually covered by blue jeans and a white polo shirt – today was no different. His office is filled with stacks of CDs that nearly reach the ceiling, and framed pictures of him posed with the company’s young pop stars adorn his walls. Co-workers told me that he has a Harley but can’t actually ride it. Imagine a grandfather, who is desperately trying to be as hip as his teenage grandkids; that is Chairman Hitose-san in a nutshell.

As I began delivering my final presentation in Japanese, Chairman Hitose-san closed his eyes, leaned back in his over sized leather chair, and promptly went to sleep. He would sleep for the entirety of his time in the room, mouth hanging slightly eschew, waking about thirty minutes later in order to silently leave the room and never return.

It is difficult to deliver a presentation to someone who is sleeping. I didn’t know quite what to do or who to direct my speech to. I took the tact of looking up at the back wall and pretending I was delivering a proclamation in an amphitheater. This was because the other eight random attendants at my presentation were at the complete other side of the massive boardroom table. If you can recall the scene in Batman where Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale sit across from each other at the giant dinner table, then you have some idea of my misery.

I plowed ahead as best I could, flipping through slide after slide of pictures and Japanese text as sweat beads collected by my sideburns. I was determined to energetically recount my internship experiences for the yawning faces that I had never met. The only saving grace in the room was Okano-san and my friends from Human Resources, who listened and genuinely looked interested in what I had to say.

Okano-san had insisted that I put a section in my presentation that can best be described as “The White Boy’s Suggestions for the Company!” He thought this would be avant-garde. Thus, I spent ample time trying to articulate my interesting suggestions for business and marketing strategies in Japanese. This was the only aspect of my presentation that I felt was a complete waste of time. I felt awkward giving suggestions about how to run a company I had only been a member of for two months, and I don’t believe that any attendees in the room actually cared to hear my suggestions (even though some of my ideas were quite good).

I finished my presentation and received the obligatory compliments from people who yawned and wiped their eyes as the lights came up. Okano-san made an excuse on behalf of Chairman Hirose-san as I disconnected my laptop from the projector. I am proud that I delivered a full presentation entirely in Japanese to important company executives, even if they were less than engaged.

I spent the next several hours making my rounds throughout the company and saying goodbye to the real treasure of CME; the people who work there. My first stop was the studios on the sixth floor. I had spent time there goofing around on the digital piano (the only one I could find in the entire company) and cutting together some cell phone ring tones featuring the old Masked Rider show theme songs. The kids who work in the studio are my age, and they always have snacks there which I help myself to. We chatted about Japan and America and the possibilities of studying and living abroad. They wished me safe travels back to America, saying they were jealous and wanted to join me. I said I was jealous of them and wanted to live in Japan. We added each other as friends on MIXI (a Japanese social network website like MySpace), so we could stay in touch.

I popped into the sales and advertising divisions but most of the people were off working various live events, so the floors were desolate. Since I didn’t exactly bond with the people in these sections nearly as much as with my friends in Enka and anime, this wasn’t overly disappointing.

My last stop was the hardest one to make, the eighth floor, home to the Enka and anime divisions. By and large, the wonderful people in these two sections are responsible for giving me a truly once in a lifetime opportunity that I will carry with me till the day I die. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with these people that I can now legitimately call my friends.

Many commemorative pictures were taken with my coworkers from both sections, and I will post them as soon as my friends in Japan email them to me. As I was taking a picture with the youngest and most attractive female employee in the Enka division, Boui-san (pronounced boy), my three older female friends kept yelling at us to get closer together. “Put your arm around her Ben! Okay, good…yeah. Boui-san stop laughing! Good. Okay, just like that…like you’re gonna kiss. When you show this picture to your friends in America, tell them this is your girlfriend!” They cackled as they snapped the digital stills.

By the time I left the eighth floor I was towing along two bags, bursting at the seams with gifts of all sorts. Much like an airborne virus, the realization that this was indeed my last day at Columbia, slowly swept across the eighth floor, affecting all those within its reach. My three female friends from the Enka division became my talking shadow, following me around the floor as I shook hands, hugged, and said goodbye to many people. My parting words were always followed with the interjection, “Don’t you have anything to give him?!” Once any of my female bodyguards interjected this remark on my behalf, panic would shoot across the face of the coworker I just said goodbye to, as they began to frantically rummage through their cluttered desk in search of a gift.

I made out like a bandit! My bags were chock full of dish towels, CDs, entire anime DVD sets, and stuffed animals, just to name some of the items. A few coworkers gave me some neat retro Japanese toys and figures. Another friend, nearly tipping over his desk lamp in a panicked frenzy, thrust his own glasses case at me with outstretched arms. “Here, take it! I want you to have it. It is from Kyoto.” I tried to refuse but he insisted again and again. I now have an intricately decorated purple and green flower print glasses case in my dorm room at Stanford.

I left the eighth floor, walking backwards and waving goodbye. My eyes were damp but I kept it together. Chairman Hitose-san had gone home for the day, but I did my samurai duty and brought my gift for him, a book about Seattle, up to the executive floor and left it with his secretary. I wrote a personal note in Japanese thanking Hitose-san for providing me with this wonderful internship opportunity and attached it to the gift.

I walked back to my desk on the tenth floor and returned my magnetic keycard and laptop – it was time to go. Okano-san and my friends in Human Resources insisted on an old fashioned “miokuri” or send off, accompanying me in the elevator ride down and all the way out to the front of 21 Mori Building. Outside there was a light rain falling and it was already dark. I presented Okano-san with a parting gift to show my appreciation – a Seattle smoked salmon with a similar handwritten note of thanks in Japanese. We all shook hands, bowed and hugged.

I walked up the stairs to the blue sky bridge and crossed over the cars whizzing by on the four lane street below. I stopped halfway across the bridge, turned around and waved my final goodbye. As I expected, my coworkers were still huddled together in front of the building’s entrance, waiting for me to disappear out of sight. Before I knew it I was on a train heading home, my time at Columbia Music Entertainment already behind me.

B.E.W.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is such a great post. You really convey the emotions and behavior of Japanese business so well.

Ben doesn't think anyone reads his blog, so if you do, can you please leave him some kind of feedback to encourage him to keep this blog going in very busy times?

Thank you so much.

Su said...

It all started with a search for a Hello Kitty bounce house. I then saw you and the fact that you are from Seattle. Caught my interest and I read this post randomly. I got sucked in to it and enjoyed hearing about your experiences around the world. I love your enthusiasm and am following your friend's advice to encourage you to write more. Good work.