Fiction | ‘Tamamushi’ by R. Sebastian Bennett | Issue 36 (Nov, 2020)

TOKYO, JAPAN 1990

“Japanese business ees very different,” said Hamaguchi, president of Japan Publishing Company. He was a portly man in a light green double-breasted sport coat. He spoke in a low voice, as stern as a priest. “Japanese system ees very relaxing, but you must work hard. You must work seexty seconds of every minute.” 

I sat in Hamaguchi’s office with the other new salesman, and we nodded enthusiastically. 

“I promise you all unlimited salary,” Hamaguchi continued, spreading his hands wide as if he were offering the pearls of heaven. “You will each determine your salary with your sales quota…” He paused to let this sink in. “You must learn sales technique. I will explain eet.” He picked up a copy of Tokyo Time magazine and held it up in front of each one of us so we could get a good look. “Companies which already advertise are thee best possibility.” 

“I bought a new Tokyo English Yellow Pages so I can look for prospects.” I took the phonebook out of my briefcase and flipped through the pages. The display ads flashed and disappeared. 

Hamaguchi ignored me. He slurped at a cup of tea and wiped his mouth with his fingers. “Now we are all part of the company. And I am company president. What is best for the company is best for all of us. And we have company pin, and meishi! Business cards for each one…” From another drawer, Hamaguchi took out four boxes and handed one to each of us. “In Japan, you must have meishi to be professional.” 

I opened my box, pulled out a card, and read my name in katakana, with the first and family names reversed. Below was my title: “Advertising Director.” I felt a quiver of excitement then. The other new salesmen seemed equally pleased. 

The cards were printed in English on one side and Japanese on the other. In the lower left corner of each card was a red and black J.P.C. symbol, a stick-figured body with a smiling round face gazing at a magazine—very un-Japanese. But it didn’t matter. I had a good job now, a real Tokyo business job. 

“I wish all of you good luck,” said Hamaguchi, clenching his fists like a boxing coach. 

“You must work hard. You must push beeg for sales. You must be… persistent. Then you will be a success.” 

Hamaguchi had dictated to us exactly what to say when we telephoned a prospect company. He had made each of us write out a script, the “sales pitch.” I sat down at my desk and scanned through my phone book. On page eleven was a full-color advertisement for Sako Department Store with a photo of three happy foreigners buying a kimono from a bowing Japanese salesgirl. I dialed the number and read my lines directly from the sales script: “Good Afternoon. This is Japan Publishing Company—” 

“Mushi mushi??” asked the telephone girl. 

“Yes, I am calling from Japan Publishing Company and—” 

“Mushi mushi??”

I saw that Hamaguchi was watching me, assessing my performance. This was the first sales call by one of his new employees. 

“Please may I speak with the advertising manager?” I continued, reading the second line of my script. 

“Mushi mushi?”

I didn’t answer. 

I heard some clicks on the line. Evidently I was being transferred to an English-speaking manager. Now I was getting somewhere. I gave Hamaguchi a nod to indicate good progress. 

A new voice took the call. “Mushi mushi?”

“Yes, I—

“Mushi mushi?”

This was ridiculous. Almost a Monty Python gag… So I switched to Japanese to tell the girl what company I was calling from—I hadn’t studied two years for nothing: “Kochira wa Nihon Shuppansha desu,” 

“Hai!” She acknowledged. 

“—You must speak English!” Hamaguchi interrupted. He stepped closer and pressed his fingers like the teeth of a rake onto the top of my desk. I covered the mouth piece and whispered, “But they don’t understand.” 

“Then you must hang up.” 

“Thank you,” I said, and hung up the phone like like an obedient little boy. “I was just going to use Japanese to try to get the advertising manager on the line.” 

Hamaguchi shook his head. “I know this must be… dee-fi-cult for you to understand. You must speak only English. Japanese are very impressed to get call from foreigner. You must expect that they will speak English.” 

I was getting a little tired of Hamaguchi’s use of the verb must. “Well what happens if they don’t understand and keep repeating ‘mushi mushi mushi’?” 

“Then you must say Thank You and make other call.” Suddenly, Hamaguchi turned around to face the rest of the office staff. “I weel be back at three o’clock,” he announced, as if declaring a summit meeting. And without another word, he walked out of the office. 

I sat perfectly still for a moment. I didn’t like this “English-only” rule. I didn’t like it at all. I had come to Tokyo to speak Japanese. To learn about the culture. Not to speak English to people who didn’t understand… Did Hamaguchi know from experience that only companies which had English-speaking staff would want to advertise in English-language publications? But that didn’t make sense. Sako Department Store had that huge ad in the Tokyo English yellow pages… 

With a glance to my right and left to make sure no one was listening, I dialed Sako again. I disobeyed Hamaguchi, spoke again in Japanese, and requested to speak with the advertising manager: “Senden bu no senkininsha onegai shimasu?” 

Instantly, the line was transferred to the advertising department. I explained about Tokyo Time and set an appointment with a “Mr. Arisaka” for that afternoon. Then I couldn’t keep a smile from starting. I bit my lip to prevent it. I slipped the advertising samples into my brief case and stuck the company pin through my lapel. It was my first appointment, my Japanese corporate baptism. 

On the ritzy Harumi Dori, land values were the highest in the world. It was said that you could lay a thousand-dollar bill on the sidewalk and the ground below it would be worth ten times more. I walked past a number of swanky department stores, glittering jewelry stores, high-fashion retailers and, of all things, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, complete with a picture of the smiling myopic Colonel. KFC customer lines stretched out the door and into the street. Then I saw it—SAKO DEPAATO! It wasn’t quite as big as the other department stores but looked classier, with polished brass trim around the windows. Two enormous gleaming doors opened automatically to let me in.

A sparkling chrome and gold perfume counter stood close to the entry. It was staffed by two picture-perfect Japanese girls, exactly the same height. They stood at attention, hands clasped, posed still as mannequins. 

Excuse me,” I said. 

Together, the girls swiveled their heads to look at me. They gave automatic bows. But one of them seemed to be smirking. Was this just my imagination? Was I just nervous?

I spoke Japanese in slow, solemn tones. “Where is Arisaka-san’s office? He is the advertising manager. We have an appointment.” 

At the mention of Arisaka’s name, there were rapid inhalations. Both girls’ expressions changed. Their eyes opened wider. They leaned forward, utterly alert and completely respectful. Now I was royalty. I was anointed. I knew Arisaka-san! 

“Hai!” said one of the girls. I wasn’t sure which one had spoken. She bowed and asked me to “sho-sho omatte”—to have a short, honorable wait. Then she bowed three more times and ran over to another counter. Clearly she knew that I wasn’t just a stupid tourist looking for smelly perfume. I was a revered advertising executive with keys to the city. 

Three more clerks bowed at once. “Hai! Hai! Hai!” they said and escorted me, the esteemed manager-meeter, to a chain of private offices in the back. I was ushered to a green leather couch and given a cup of tea for another honorable wait, while the receptionist made a few frantic phone calls involving frenetic whispers and worried glances, as if I might buy the entire store—building, property and all—right out from under her feet. But when she looked up again, I gave her a calm smile, a reassurance that she needn’t fret. 

Then a younger man escorted me to another office and introduced me to two salarymen. Slowly and deliberately, as if in a Zen ritual, I pulled out my business card and offered it with two hands in the polite Japanese way, so the printing faced the receiver. The men stared at the cards. The one on the left tilted his head in a parakeet’s twitch and then slid a business card out of his jacket pocket, which he offered with only one hand. It was a gesture soon duplicated by the other man.

I studied their cards. I had read that after careful consideration, the higher-ranking person’s card was supposed to be placed above the other cards on the discussion table, available for easy reference during the meeting. But I couldn’t tell who was in charge here, so I lay the cards side-by-side. Really, I could tell only one thing from these cards: Neither of these men was Arisaka. My abdomen tensed, and I fought back the queasiness in my stomach.

The first man spoke in halting English. “We are… very sorry. But Mr. Arisaka-san had emergency meeting. He has asked us to listen to your proposal.” 

Thank you,” I said, and bent my head forward in a little “seated bow” which I had designed myself, but seemed appropriate. I took the advertising samples out of my briefcase and lay them in front of the men. There were copies of the last two issues of Tokyo Time, a letter from one of the big Japanese hotels expressing how much the guests liked the magazine, a notarized statement from U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield which said he had read the magazine, and a pamphlet detailing the number of copies distributed per month.

Then I started my sales talk. 

The Japanese men nodded. They gave a big nod when I showed them an ad in last month’s Tokyo Time from Seibu Depaato, one of their competitors. And they nodded again when I pointed to the distribution list and tapped my ballpoint near the list of hotels. I might actually sell an ad, I realized. Yes, I could do it! 

I forced myself not to talk too fast. I Japanized my English with throaty syllables, so the men would be sure to understand. I nodded a lot and made earnest expressions and shook my samples. Finally, I brought out the contract and showed all of the different ad spaces and types…

But the men nodded enthusiastically at each space—and I knew it was all fake. I knew I had no chance. They were nodding mechanically, agreeing automatically like yes-men sidekicks of an inane talk show host. Their nods were not signs of acceptance; they were signs of understanding, validating each point of my presentation. There was no consent. But I thrust my big question, anyway. I was tired of all this nodding and grunting. Now the men had to choose. “So what advertisement size would be appropriate for Sako department store?” I asked bluntly. 

“Yes,” said the English speaker. “We are… very impressed by your publication. Our advertising budget will start in July. We shall consider your Tokyo Time.” 

My cheeks burned. My shins perspired. It was stupid of me to think that I could convince them to buy. The Great Arisaka wasn’t even there. And Japanese businessmen were famed for making decisions very slowly. All facets of a proposal had to be considered by all possible members of the organization. All aspects had to be analyzed and re-analyzed. Then there was a concerted hgroup action. Of course I shouldn’t feel too bad that I hadn’t gotten an immediate decision, right? 

But there was another possibility. Maybe the men simply weren’t interested. Maybe they were just stalling for three months under the guise of “consideration.” Pinpoints of heat flashed on the back of my neck. I took a deep breath. “Thank you for considering my proposal,” I said. 

“Oh, you are most welcome. It ees our pleasure.” They smiled at me, then at each other. “But don’t you need more customers before July?”

The men’s faces fell, sagged like leaking water bottles. “Yes… of course,” said the speaking one. “We will consider your proposal, very carefully.” 

I was beaten. “Thank you,” I said, and felt the blood rush to my temples. 

We all stood up. The non-speaker bowed first. He must be the lower-ranking one. The higher-ranking English speaker bowed afterwards. I made sure that I bowed last, but started my bow just after the English-speaker so my presumptuousness would be more subtle. 

***

On the top floor of the NDD building, the company cafeteria was surprisingly spacious. Ferns and paintings dotted the walls. A panoramic window offered spectacular views of the city. I sat with Mr. Otosaki, a middle-aged advertising manager and his assistant Miss Kawano, highcheek-boned and high-breasted. A pair of heavy reading glasses covered Miss Kawano’s eyes. 

After our meeting, Otosaki had insisted that I “enjoy” an NDD lunch even though it was 3:30 in the afternoon. I wasn’t hungry. Actually I was a bit ill, but I agreed with an artificial smile and a compliant bow. 

The waiter brought our bowls of rice and a plate of tsunomono bean appetizer.He gave me a curious glance.

“Do you like Japanese food?” asked Miss Kawano, as if to take my attention away from the waiter. She closed her mouth in a round, lipsticked smile. 

Before I could answer, Otosaki clarified the question with a hearty laugh and a slight lean forward. “Do you like Japanese rice?”

“Yes oishi— delicious,” I said. 

Miss Kawano nodded in quick, jerking motions and shot a fast look at Otosaki, as if my answer had proven something which they had discussed before. 

“Yes Japanese rice is best,” said Otosaki. “Japanese rice is sticky rice. Sticks to chopstick. Better to eat. Better for taste,” he explained.

When the waiter served a chicken plate to each of us, I decided to ingratiate myself as much as possible with my possible new clients. I spread both hands over my plate. “I like all Japanese food,” I said, “Sashimi and bean candy and natto,” which was a particularly smelly fermented bean paste that I’d never tried, but was known to make most foreigners puke.

Kawano and Otosaki exchanged another glance, almost an “I-told-you-so” look. But I really wasn’t sure just what they were affirming. 

“Miss Kawano has traveled a lot. She has lived in Bu-ritain and Fu-ransu,” said

Ototsaki. 

“Good.” I tried to give a lively nod. Of course we had to know each other’s entire 

background before we could do business. That was the Japanese custom, right? Business partners had to have total knowledge about each other to engender trust. And in my case, they had to know the exact degree of my love for Japan. They would exhaust all other topics of conversation and then maybe, just maybe, Otosaki would mention the contract. I would wait. I knew how to wait. 

“I had Furenchu boifurendo,” offered Miss Kawano, wide-eyed and breathless as if I would be eager to hear this. 

“Oh, great. Congratulations…” What the hell was I supposed to say? 

“Are you married?” asked Otosaki, inhaling a piece of chicken. 

“No.” I shook my head. 

“You are single?” he persisted. 

“Yes.”

Otosaki laughed and ordered some beer from the waiter. “For better or for worse, Miss Kawano is single, too…” This time Otosaki didn’t look me in the eyes. He pinched a big pile of rice with his chopsticks. Miss Kawano rearranged her napkin and gave me a suggestive, heart-shaped smile and a slight lift of her eyebrows. 

I was embarrassed. My thighs were hot. Of course! I was being set up. Like on The Dating Game. Miss Kawano had lived abroad and had foreign boyfriends. She was known to desire Western men. Her only option was to find a Western boyfriend, like me, who just happened to be there at the right place at the right time. And Otosaki, like a favorite uncle, was helping her out. 

Otosaki gave Miss Kawano another optimistic nod and a soft grunt, and she adjusted her napkin again. “Do you like music?” he asked me. 

Now they were closing in… It was time to be aggressive. Time for an affirmative defense. I would ask Miss Kawano a question. “What kind of music do you like?” I inquired. 

She quivered and lay a hand on the table to steady herself. Her new suitor had put her to examination. Now she had to perform. “Oh…” Her chest rose. “Oh I don’t know…” She had a dazed look as if I had asked her about the wonders of the universe, the fabled Spring of Youth or the Mouth of Eden. Shaking, she set down her chopsticks. “It ees, difficult, to eat and to speak, English.” 

“Ummm…” I made an understanding grunt and nodded consolingly. I glanced at Otosaki. He was fully engaged in eating chopsticked mounds of food, and for all intents and purposes seemed to have left the two prospective lovers, Miss Kawano and I, to our own devices. Otosaki was indeed our chaperone—but a permissive one… His duties were finished. Now he was convinced that his two kindlings were mature enough to go at it alone. 

The beer arrived and Otosaki filled a glass for me, then poured one for himself as well. Miss Kawano wasn’t given any beer. “Drink, please,” said Otosaki. Simultaneously, we each took a sip of the frothy beer and lowered our glasses. But a millisecond before Otosaki’s glass met the table, he spoke. “I’m sorry, we are not interested in your advertising proposal.” Then in almost a continuance of the same sentence, he asked, “How was your lunch?” 

I was caught by surprise. I managed to mutter, “Oh, very good… Thanks,” and reached for my beer again. It was a sudden grab to cover my blush. 

Not interested. The words echoed through my head. Not interested in your proposal. Obviously Otosaki had waited until the beer was served, as if we were all out drinking in the evening. Only in the presence of alcohol was it possible for him to speak frankly. So he had engineered an entire replica of an evening out, complete with female companionship. When businessmen went to drink together, often the biggest deals were made—or unmade. One of my Japanese guidebooks advised that you literally pour your drinks on the floor (spilling them discreetly, of course), so you wouldn’t be too drunk to catch the flicker of business revelations, quick and fleeting as falling stars. 

Well, if this was an evening out, and we were all drunk and candid, I could speak openly too, right? I would try. “Your competitor, KTT, Kokusai Telephone, already advertises in our publication,” I said. 

Otosaki held his chicken bone down with one chopstick, and began to scrape off the fat with the other. 

“Their market is exactly the same as NDD’s,” I continued. 

With two fingers, in a gentle slide, Otosaki moved his beer glass so it was precisely spaced between the beer bottle and his plate. Then he swiveled it so the grease mark from his mouth faced him directly. 

I stopped talking. I sat perfectly still. It was no use. I was being ignored. They had given an answer already, and no amount of evidence would change their minds. If I kept talking, I was only alienating them, convincing them that I was a rikutsuppoi, a “reason freak” who speaks in repulsive cold logic. 

At that moment, in a surreal epiphany, I saw myself as forever separate from the Japanese, like a lumbering cauliflower-eared boxer in a stadium of slim, agile karate champions wearing matching gi… Yes, I could learn Japanese ways and I could understand the language, but would I ever really fit in? 

After lunch, I escaped the moist lingering eyes of Miss Kawano with a series of bows, all the way to the elevator. There I was saved by the whirring, humming close of its doors. 

***

At my first Nissan appointment, Tokyo Time magazine had only gotten a lukewarm reception. I was given a tamamushi-colored decision. Like the tamamushi beetle’s iridescent back, this kind of response reflected a different color depending upon which way you looked at it. Miss Ishi, the early-thirtyish advertising representative with an odd face but a very curvy figure, had told me that she had to discuss my offer with the “Advertising Team.” But I had pressed her to meet with me again in two weeks. And now it was time. It was the final moment.

I stepped off the elevator on the sixth floor of the Nissan building in Ginza. In front of me lay several partitioned corridors, maze-like and circuitous. I turned left but soon found myself wandering through unfamiliar offices. These were huge wide rooms crammed with tiny desks and mounds of paper work. I turned around and paced toward the elevators—or where I thought the elevators should be. There was only a dead-end corridor. So I headed back around the other way. Finally, a bowing young Nissanite tapped me on the shoulders and, polite and contrite as a choir boy, pointed me down the right passageway. He followed me until I was safely seated in just the right place, behind a potted tree, and brought a cup of dark green tea. 

The tea was bitter, absinthian, which I took as a compliment. Nissan assumed that I was Japanized enough to like strong ocha, green tea, and that I wouldn’t demand only coffee like a pushy foreigner. 

Miss Ishi hurried over, rushing as much as she could in a pencil skirt which forced her into a knock-kneed trot. Her lower lip pouted a bit as she said, “Ummm… We are very sorry that after, considering—”

“—Oh!” I interrupted. “I brought something very interesting to show you.” I wasn’t going to give her the time to reject the contract. 

“You did?” she asked, cocking her head. 

“Yes…” I opened my magazine to a glossy Mercedes advertisement, rolling back the pages and spreading them like a sacred scroll. 

“No.” Miss Ishi shook her nose. “We have already seen this.” 

“You saw this two-page ad?” 

“I theenk you showed us smaller one.” 

“Oh, because I wanted to show you the large ad,” I stalled—then I had an idea, a grand idea. “This is the advertisement size that Toyota was very interested in…” 

TOYOTA!” Miss Ishi twitched into instant alertness. She stood very still and even seemed to stop breathing. 

“Yes,” I said again, trying not to laugh, “Because with Toyota, we had discussed the full-size, two-page ad.” Which wasn’t entirely true. I did have an appointment with Toyota’s advertising company and they had given me the usual answer: They were considering it. But if the Japanese used tamamushi decisions with me, I would use tamamushi statements back at them. Fair is fair. 

“Toyota will advertise in Tokyo Time?” Miss Ishi asked.

“Well, we’re just finalizing negotiations, but Toyota is interested for the next… period.” “Just a 

minute purease,” she said and walked away again… 

I waited. I could feel the tingle on the fishing line now, the jiggle at the end of the pole. It was a “we-too” fish! Whatever the competition does, we must do it too… 

Soon Miss Ishi came back. She was walking more relaxedly now, clicking along like an off-duty shop girl. “Okay, so please you will let us know if Toyota will advertise.” She closed her notebook. 

But I wasn’t finished. “Yes… I will do that. Do you think that Nissan would like to advertise next to Toyota advertisement?” 

“Eet it is very possible.” She gave me an encouraging smile. 

“Oh good. Only—” Here I frowned, creased my forehead as if the notion pained me terribly, as if I were reporting a death in the family. “I cannot promise you that we will still have advertising space. Our magazine is very popular now you know, what with Toyota and so on. All the spaces may be filling up.” 

Ah!” Miss Ishi’s look got intense again and she let out a small gasp. “Just a minute, purease…” And I got to watch the walk once more. 

When Ms. Ishi marched back again, I tried to appear as nonchalant as possible. I leaned back in my chair and rubbed my chin. That was what you did when you made ten-thousand dollar deals with Toyota and Nissan everyday. 

“Wheech space was Toyota interested in?” she asked again. Now she was talking. 

“Well, we had promised them the center two-page spread, but still we have available C-

space, single-page. That was the space I discussed with Rolls Royce, Japan. But I told them I could not reserve it without payment.” 

Miss Ishi was studying the page like a designer dress—flipping it back and forth, holding it up to the window, rubbing its surface with her index finger and sighing. Finally she spoke. “All right. Nissan will take C-Space.” 

I nodded and clenched my teeth so my smile wouldn’t be too wide, so my cheeks wouldn’t glow like airport landing lights. “Yes, very good. Excellent decision… Nissan and Toyota. Let me just get the paper work.” 

I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the yellow contract sheet. Then Ms. Ishi squinted as if to shield her eyes from a blazing desert sun. Japanese didn’t like contracts, hated them in fact. They much preferred oral agreements, thinking that anything which purported to force two parties to rigid conditions smacked of deceit. Just one last push was necessary. 

“So a copy of this paper we give to our printer, then he knows exactly what size to reserve, and we will have space for Nissan ad.” I clicked out the ball point of my pen and wrote “Nissan July” and checked “C-space.” Then I offered Ms. Ishi the pen. 

“Just a minute purease,” she said again, and stood up. 

Dammit! Just when I was so close. Just when I could see my co-worker’s jealous smirks. Just when I could feel Hamaguchi’s pat on the back, recommending me for a promotion… Shit. 

When Ms. Ishi came back, I didn’t look up from the table. 

Then she spoke. “Here,” she said. “I have hanko now.” A hanko was a Japanese stamp used in place of a signature on important documents. It was a traditional seal of approval. 

I guided her hand to just the right spot. There… Finally. Finally, I was a success. 

And bending the truth to sell the ad really didn’t matter, right? 


R. Sebastian Bennett taught Fiction Writing at the University of California – Los Angeles, the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, and directed the Creative Writing program at Muskingum University. His writing appears in Columbia Journal, Fiction International, Indiana Review, Mississippi Review, NEW STORIES FROM THE SOUTH, Texas Review, George Washington Review, Los Angeles Review, Oxford Magazine, Tulane Review, Paris Transcontintental – Sorbonne (FRANCE), Modern Literature (INDIA), and Alecart (ROMANIA), among others. He was the founding editor of THE SOUTHERN ANTHOLOGY. The story, “Tamamushi,” is from an unpublished collection, SEASONS OF YEN, which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award.

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