Jim Vassilakos

Morality may not translate across cultures, but these days competition does. What happens when the two come face to face?

It was a big machine, all yellow like summer daffodils except for the black diagonal stripes along its tow arm. To the younger workers, it must have looked entirely benign, but Ada had recognized its true nature from the moment he'd first laid eyes on it. They'd used a similar device in the mines for hauling around big sacks of gravel. This one had relatively lax duty by comparison. It just picked up the naked auto bodies after they'd been painted, transferring them up to assembly line C. Then it would sit still like a big lump of slag, idling until its dim-witted logic circuits queued it back to action.

He made his sign with the remains of a big cardboard box, writing the Japanese characters for "dangerous" in long, bold strokes with a red marker. His supervisor would no doubt remember his initiative, perhaps making a notation in his personnel file. All he had to do was find a good place to hang the sign, someplace where it would stand out, someplace where people would notice it and pay heed.

Ada climbed over the safety barrier. The trick was not in approaching the machine, but it waiting for the right moment. It stood still so long, sometimes there was no telling when it would lumber back to life. That was its real danger. You had to be some sort of psychic just to figure out when it would decide to move. Like now, for instance.

Ada screamed, but only for a moment. Then the blood came spurting from his chest and underneath his armpits. He stood there, before the other workers, legs flailing back and forth as the machine picked him up, its scissor-like claws pushing on his old, splintering ribs like it thought they were solid metal. It wasn't until some hours later that they found the sign, so soaked through with Ada's blood that his long, bold strokes with the magic marker were no longer discernible. They had to ask one of his friends what the sign had said. Then they all nodded and agreed in hushed murmurs.

The old man was right. It was dangerous.

Stark streams of crimson light fell across the Oppama Valley, cutting through the late afternoon clouds and dancing along the smooth white cement outside Nissan's Assembly Center #13. Something about the design of the building (perhaps the coal-black roofing) seemed remarkably efficient at attracting and retaining heat. Thomas Randell wiped the thin veil of perspiration from his forehead, returning his arm to the task of carrying his blue suit jacket. It had been a warm day, even by local standards. Now, as his white polyester dress shirt stuck to his chest and back, making a conspicuous splotching noise every time he turned his torso, he found himself thinking more about his weak bladder than about the words of his interpreter.

"...reducing productivity ten percentage points and reducing defective parts by twenty percent after last year."

Tom suppressed a yawn. He'd heard the spiel before in various others plants. Despite their quiet nature, the Japanese liked to brag as much as any people, particularly when they thought they had something to gain from it.

"Well, Mr. Kawamata, your workers may be smarter, better-educated, and even more efficient than ours. But there's one thing they can't do."

For a moment, the Japanese executive seemed as affected by the heat as his American counterpart. Tom smiled and motioned to his watch. "They can't tell time. It's only a quarter until quitting, and nobody is servicing their stations."

Kawamata just smiled, sputtering forth another intelligible stream of Japanese.

"They know the time," Yukihiko translated. "They wait until after work to clean up."

Tom lifted his eyebrows, "After work? In other words they work overtime without pay?"

"It is a strictly volunteer practice."

"How many?"


"What percentage of them volunteer?"

"Ah... all of them."

Tom nodded. "All of 'em. Sheesh. If only we could get the UAW to volunteer for something like that."

Yuki laughed, and Kawamata chimed in as if on queue even before he'd heard the translation. He must have known the American's sentiments from the look on his face.

"Mr. Kawamata says that his people love the company. They believe in quality through harmony."


"The unsung harmony of man and machine. He says to look around. This is a community full of vitality."

"All I see is a bunch of laborers working their butts off."

"Not laborers. He says they don't use that term. They are employees as he is... like members of a family... the Nissan family. Mr. Kawamata asks if it is okay for him to... ah... make an inquiry?"

"Go ahead."

"How much production do you lose in the States due to strike?"

"A lot."

"He wonders if you would believe that in the twenty-seven year history of this plant, there has been only one strike."

"How long did it last?"

"A week."

"How many weeks?"


Tom shook his head even though the figure didn't faze him. He'd learned from the literature he'd read to expect such "obedience" from the Japanese work force. It was one of the things that made cross- planting Japanese management methods a problematic proposition at best. No Americans really seemed to know what made these people tick.

"What caused it?"


"The strike. What was it over?"

Kawamata nodded and pointed to a large crane-like device at the corner of the room. It was colored yellow, except for the powerful arm which was accented by a row of black diagonal stripes. Tom watched as it moved cars from one line to another, yanking them up, turning them in mid-air, and placing them along a new conveyor belt as though they were no heavier then papier- mache.

"He says that there was a tragedy here some years back. One of the employees climbed over the safety barrier and was fooling around. The machine mistook him for a car, and he was killed."

Tom coughed, "Killed?"

"It was his own fault. He was violating a safety clause clearly stated in his contract."

"So the union shut you guys down for a week. A week for a man's life. Uh... don't translate that last part."

Yuki smiled.

"Say, did you notice any rest room signs anywhere?"


"Y'know Yuki. Lavatory? Some place where I can piss?"

"It's over there," he pointed.

"I'll be right back."

Tom made his way across the floor, amidst the clinking and clamoring of machines -- only machines. The assembly line was moving so fast, the workers barely had time to breathe, much less talk with each other. Inside the rest room, the noises of automotive production seemed to recede against the beige, porcelain walls. Yuki walked in while Tom was still relieving himself. His young Japanese friend carried a clipboard and a Japanese-English dictionary, looking somewhat apologetic about his intrusion.

"I need to go, too."

"No, really? I figured you just wanted to stand there and watch me."

Yuki looked at him wide-eyed.

"It's a joke, Yuki."

"Ah... American humor is still strange for me sometimes."

"You just think we're all too fat, lazy, and stupid to have humor." It was an ongoing joke between them, and Yuki laughed out loud when he heard the comment. Tom ambled over to the sink, checking on Yuki's progress. His interpreter seemed more interested by some Japanese graffiti than with where he was urinating. He finally laughed again.

"What's it say?"

"Beware the revenge of those who eat."

"A commentary on the cafeteria food?"

Yuki nodded, "I think so."

"What's that one say?"

Tom pointed to a particularly large scrawl on the far wall. Yuki peered at it for a moment, then began reading out loud.

"This isn't a beer company. Why are we increasing production at the height of summer? Hire more workers."

Tom raised an eyebrow, "You're making that up, right?"

"It's exactly what it says."

"Sounds like things aren't quite as harmonious as Mr. Kawamata would have us believe."

Yuki shrugged, zipping himself back up with studious delicacy. Kawamata was waiting patiently as they exited the rest room. He wore a tired smile, as though the heat were penetrating even his luxurious cotton.

"Yasu... he just asks if we find the facilities adequate."

"More than adequate. Don't tell him about the graffiti."

Yuki nodded. "Don't worry."

It was after a generous dinner of sashimi and octopus that Kawamata posed the question. The food had been so fresh that Tom had been forced to forfeit one of his chopsticks to a quarrelsome purple tentacle, and the scene made Suji (as he preferred to be called) laugh out loud, a great belly laugh with all the trimmings. Then he burped and apologized, saying something about the finest entertainers in all Japan having nothing on his American guest. He paused for precisely one heartbeat after Yuki had finished translating, dark eyes becoming suddenly serious.

"So what do you think about our set-up here? Can we do business?"

Such directness was so far from the norm that Tom found himself taken aback by the question. Of course, his host had every right to ask it. Still, even after being wined and dined to excess, the idea of jumping into bed with the man and his company grated on Tom. There were still a few nooks and crannies which warranted closer examination.

"Tell Suji that we are very grateful for his hospitality and that what we have seen so far will please our directors back home... that we can look forward to an era of prosperity between our two companies."

The Japanese executive smiled and nodded, drinking his glass of sake in one gulp. Tom did likewise.

"There is one small matter, however. I will need some statistical details for the report. Personnel department records."

"He says to send your request through the headquarters."

"No... it's important that the research be conducted first-hand. If he could tell me the password to the personnel database, that should suffice. We could conclude our work here tonight and make the morning flight."

Yuki translated, and Kawamata listened intently, a slight furrow forming between his eyes.

"Tell him that if we're going to be partners, we might as well start trusting each other."

Armed with the password, written on a small restaurant napkin, Tom entered Nissan's personnel database from back at his hotel room. Yuki just sat on the sofa chair, watching the television with a tired yawn.

"What do you think you're going to find?"

"The truth. You think you can get us to 1-11-15 Kita?"

The place was dark and run down, the dim light of tall actinic lamps shimmering in icy circles along the rain-spotted street. The flat they were looking for was situated on the third floor of the building, its entrance nestled between the stairwell and the door to a corner suite. Tom knocked lightly, stepping back as the door opened. The woman on the other side seemed surprised, which was natural enough, and Tom let Yuki do the talking until the man came. He was in his sixties, sparse white hair covering most of his scalp, and he drooped his head in a manner which suggested that he was more than a little saddened that his evening was being disturbed by a pair of suits.

"Tell him that we only want to ask a few questions."

The man kept shaking his head, muttering a fluid stream of gibberish.

"He says he knows nothing."

"He sure talks a lot for a guy who knows nothing."

"Ah... let me rephrase. He says he knows who we are and that he has nothing to say."

"Look, Mr. Kayama. Either you answer my questions, or I'll tell your employer you were rude to me. Your choice."

The old man shut up, detecting from the tone of the American's voice that he'd better listen close to the translation. Then he shuffled to the side, directing one arm toward the flat's interior.

Like many Japanese homes, his place was about the size of a studio apartment. It had a small kitchen and bath tacked on, white, wall plaster peeling in the cold, moist air, and only one window for ventilation.

Tom made himself a seat on the wood floor, directing his polished leather shoes to the corner of the room where Mr. Kayama's grease- stained, work boots wearily resided.

"I read your personnel file. You've been working at Oppama for a long time."

He nodded, then shrugged as if to ask, "What of it?"

"Sit down, Mr. Kayama. This won't take long."

The man complied, bending his brittle knees with considerable strain.

"You were there during the strike. According to your file, your salary dropped about three months later. You have missed every opportunity for promotion since, and you are now making less than workers with comparable seniority. Considerably less. I want to know why."

"He says to ask his union."

"I'm asking you."

Kayama shrugged again, his deep gray eyes finding some corner of the room and hitching to it. Then he began to talk, and despite the ready translation, all Tom could hear in his head was the old man's coarse and tired voice.

"There was a shop-floor meeting... a union meeting. I spoke out... told Shioji, our local boss, that the strike had accomplished nothing. The rules keeping the machines on regardless of circumstance had not changed. Wages had not improved. Work hours, the speed of the assembly line, demands for overtime... all the same. After the meeting, I was taken aside by several of Shioji's men. They told me that I was a fool, that the strike was not because of Ada. It was because of an internal power struggle. Shioji's boss had to flex his muscles to command personal respect from management. The strike had nothing to do with Ada except that his death was a suitable pretense."

"What about his family? Did they get any compensation?"

The old man smiled, then began to chuckle quietly.

"I guess that's a no."

"They said to go talk to the mutual aid society."

"That's supposed to be a joke?"

"It has no money. Nobody pays into it because nobody trusts it. People trust only in themselves. We work in a desert, here. We are all bits of dust and sand."

"Why don't you leave?"

"He says that one does not job hop in Japan. Even if there were jobs for old men, he says he could be blacklisted. A few years ago, seven anti-unionists were fired from the Atsugi plant... fired by the union, not by management. They were later attacked by two hundred union members."

"Attacked? Two hundred against seven?"

"That is correct. They had to be hospitalized. They were very lucky to have survived at all. You do not cross the union in Japan. And the union does nothing for the workers. That is just the way it is."

Yuki occupied the driver's seat of their rented car on the return trip back to the hotel. He was tired, but like many of the Japanese white-collars, he had a strange knack for remaining awake and attentive whatever the situation. Tom, meanwhile, consoled himself with watching the specks of rain form on the windshield. He would schedule their flight before fading off to sleep. Better to leave in the morning than have to face Kawamata with only an ideological explanation.

"So did we find the truth?"

"What do you think?"

Yuki shrugged, "I think it's bad. I never really knew how much is secret."

"Yeah, well, you learn something new every day."

"What are you going to put in your report?"

Tom shook his head and sighed. "If we do this partnership, it's going to mean copying Nissan's labor policies in the States."

"It will lift the company's profits, yes?"

He said it with a smirk, and Tom grinned, "Yeah. If it actually works, it'll lift profits quite a bit, but it'll also drop working standards right down the cess pit."

"Drop and lift," mused his Japanese friend. "Just like that machine. But what do you care about working standards? You're an executive, not a laborer." And then he laughed. It was his teasing laugh, as if inviting the American to say something stupid. But it contained a hidden edge, just barely discernible, as though lurking somewhere within the folds of that laughter there was someone crying, someone pleading to be let out.

"I may be an executive, Yuki, but I'm also an American."

"An American?"

"Yes... a fat, lazy, stupid American. And we stick up for our own."

Yuki laughed again, this time high-pitched and merry, and Tom imagined that Yuki understood what he meant. Perhaps he could understand because he'd seen both sides, the good and bad of each culture. It afforded him an interesting choice, to decide where his destiny would lay.

Unfortunately for Ada, not all people had that choice. And look how he'd ended up.

Jim Vassilakos (jimv@ucrengr.ucr.edu) is an MBA graduate of the University of California, Riverside campus. He drives a tan Nissan pickup and writes in his spare time.

This story is based on an article by John Junkerman titled "We Are Driven," published in the August 1982 issue of Mother Jones magazine.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Jim Vassilakos.