Friday, November 29, 2013

My Days on the Job in Hiroshima

After graduating in 1973 with a degree in East Asian Languages & Civilizations, I headed to Japan to figure out if I wanted to make Japan the focus of my future career. Four years at Harvard had left me unsure. Eizo Toda, the father of an exchange student (Sekio Toda) who had lived for several months with my parents offered me a low-level, part-time job with his company, then called Mazda Unyu Hiroshima, whose primary business was transporting Mazda cars, trucks and parts both domestically and internationally. Toyo Kogyo also made Ford Courier pickup trucks which were also transported. He placed me in the Gyomuka or Business Section. Italicized below are excerpts from the journal I kept.

Gyomuka office
Pictured l to r: Nishimura, Yamai, Yokobayashi, Kikugawa, Sugimoto

My job description was non-existent so neither I nor my co-workers knew exactly what I could or should be doing during my half-days on the job. Sugimoto-bucho, the section chief, gave me a desk at the extreme right of a group of four desks each of which faces another desk, making a total of eight. On my left is Yokobayashi; in front of me is Inoue. Next to him and across from Yokobayashi is Mae, the youngest member of the group. Behind Inoue and Mae is a chalkboard with the ship schedules, a world map to the left and a calendar to the right. Typewriters sit on a shelf underneath. To my left, above the plain sliding windows on the dull, gray walls, are a series of photographs of what I assume to be the company’s ships. Through the windows I can see a part of the enormous Toyo Kogyo complex. The office is very plain-looking…Desks crowd each other (as do people) and even a small table and set of chairs, presumably for conversation, are wedged in between cabinets and newspaper racks and partitions. My desk is amply equipped with pencils, pens, erasers, stapler, scissors, glue, stamp pads, note books, etc.

The Big Board

When I arrive around 8:15 a.m. with Mr. Toda and his driver, Kimura, a cup of ocha is patiently waiting on my desk. Bells chime via the loudspeaker system and everyone rises for calisthenics in time to music and instructions. Exercises last only a few minutes and are hardly strenuous; nevertheless, everyone participates at least to some extent.

Yokobayashi was about my age. He was curious about me so he both asked questions and answered many of mine as he tutored me about the business. Yokobayashi explains in diagram form the exporting process. Our office receives information from Toyo Kogyo and types out invoices, bills of lading, shipping instructions, etc . These are distributed to the appropriate areas and cars are labeled and inspected by Customs and loaded onto ships.

The Gyomuka’s main job involved organizing the actual shipments of vehicles and parts. In a time just before computers took over this kind of work, it required a fair amount of labor to ensure that a specific vehicle moved efficiently from Toyo Kogyo’s Mazda assembly line to a ship headed for the port in the United States or elsewhere that would get it to the consumer or dealer who had ordered it. Every day Inoue-san mesmerized me as he shuffled and sorted cards representing vehicles.

Serving tea

Occasionally I translated some work-related documents, but more often I read materials my co-workers gave me. They ranged from pre-war elementary school books on “Morals” to the company policy manual. The manual included data on salary levels that were eye-opening. I was appalled to learn that a young man just out of high school earned more than a female college graduate. Not only that, but the pay schedule for women topped out at age 32. After all, if a woman couldn’t snag a husband by that age, she certainly didn’t deserve any opportunity to make a decent living herself, or so it seemed. Indeed, Nishimura-san, a graduate of Hiroshima University with an English major, like the other woman in the section (whose name I can’t recall) was required to serve the men tea periodically throughout the day and to take orders for lunch in the company dining room, among other duties.

Lunch is at noon and the less said about it the better. From about 12:15 until the end of lunch break at 12:45 is the daily go-narabe round-robin at which I am the most consistent loser. The game itself is played on a squared-off board with white and black chips. The object is to get five of one’s chips down in a row. They may be horizontal, vertical or diagonal and about the only rule seems to be that one can’t have 3 in a row in two directions at once.

I most enjoyed the occasional opportunity to help my co-workers actually drive the new Mazdas from a giant parking garage/warehouse down to the ships at dock for loading on board. Even more fun were our Tuesday evenings out on the town.

Nights on the Town

With my best friend, Masashi Izuta, and an ever-changing cohort of Mazda Unyu staff and denizens of my favorite haunt, we made the rounds of izakaya and other bars in the Nagarekawa area of downtown Hiroshima pretty much every Tuesday night. 

Most often we met at Ishimatsu, a friendly place which serves mostly grilled fish of various types, along with beer and sake. The genial 'master,' often in t-shirt and two or three-day growth of beard, runs a monthly bowling tournament followed by a party in his upstairs room. 
Ishimatsu 'master' regaling us with song

Post-bowling party at Ishimatsu

We often finished up the evenings with nightcaps of oden and chazuke along with more beer and cigarettes  at a tiny oden-ya called Yamanobe, run by a 40ish woman with a motherly smile. All too often my night ended by being thrown into a taxi and rolling out when it reached the Toda family home in the Eba neighborhood. [No photos available :)]

Yamanobe 'mama-san'

Weekend Excursions

On some weekends co-workers invited me to join them and, sometimes, their families on excursions to places of interest.
Weekend excursion with Yokobayashi & Izuta

Izuta, Inoue and Miss Ueno in Onomichi

Kids playing in temple yard, Onomichi

One autumn Sunday Izuta and Inoue took me to Onomichi, an old port town about 45 miles northeast of Hiroshima,which is packed with very old Buddhist temples. I’ve since learned it was also the setting for Ozu’s film Tokyo Story. Upon our arrival in Onomichi, we met a Miss Ueno with whom we had been connected by the mama-san from Yamanobe.

Other weekend excursions with co-workers included an October matsutake mushroom hunt with Kimura and several of the other company drivers. We feasted on the large, difficult to procure, mushrooms in various forms – grilled, mixed with rice, and in sukiyaki. 

Kimura cooking rice with matsutake

Harvesting Rice
In mid-November, Yamai took me to his house in Kumano, in the mountains a few miles east of Hiroshima, to help with reaping the rice crop. Sunday morning we headed over to the fields where Yamai-san’s father had set up the machine which strips the rice kernels from their stalks. The process was a simple one – carry the dried rice plants, which have been bundled and hung in two layers over bamboo poles, to the machine, shove them through and then stack the stripped stalks off to one side. 
Yamai's brother showing rice kernels

The countryside was an uninterrupted pleasure, from the women in mompei (the baggy patterned bloomer-like pants) and straw hats, faces surrounded by towels worn like bonnets, to the ubiquitous kids, running, jumping into the piles of rice stalks and, of course, crying for their mothers.

Yamai children playing in rice straw

From the vantage point of forty years, in 1973-74 I enjoyed a remarkable opportunity to learn about  Japanese corporate culture and business practices during my six months in the Gyomuka at Mazda Unyu Hiroshima. Even better, I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with  some wonderful co-workers who opened their homes to me and shared family time and cultural interests with me.  

Other Gyomuka Staff Members

Misawa-san, Deputy Section Chief

Sugimoto-Bucho, Section Chief


And so, having come to Japan to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, I decided to continue studying about Japan - returning to the U.S. in 1974 for graduate studies at University of Michigan, leading to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start and head for 28 years a museum devoted to sharing Japanese culture with Americans. A much better choice than making sure that those Mazda vehicles found their way to their American owners.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Pongashi Man

From August, 1973, to June, 1974, I lived in the Eba neighborhood of Hiroshima. Since I generally worked only half-days, I often spent time in the afternoons just walking or biking around the neighborhood, usually with camera in hand. Most of the adults were shy around me, but the kids were, well, kids. Sometimes shy, sometimes rude, sometimes goofy and usually curious about something.

One winter afternoon I heard a commotion and followed the noise around the corner where I came upon a most curious sight. A wizened old man bundled up with a coat, scarf, hat with furry earflaps, and facemask stood next to a peculiar machine on a pushcart surrounded by the neighborhood kids. I had never seen such a contraption before and had no idea what it was all about. The kids were all excited and very attentive, jostling for positions close to the machine.

I didn't want to distract the man or the kids, but I had to find out what was going on. One of the older children told me it was the pongashi man and that it was very good. That wasn't much help since the word pongashi  [ポン菓子] was not familar, so I proceeded to watch. The soot-covered contraption began to spew smoke and steam and, before long, a loud POP, loud enough to scare at least one little girl.

Pretty soon the kids were handing small coins to the man in return for little containers of popped rice. Yes, pongashi is kind of like Rice Krispies or popcorn, only instead of salt and butter, it is coated with a sweet goo, more like kettle corn.  On second look, the contraption did look something like a popcorn machine, only mounted on a wheeled cart and looking like it never got cleaned.

The kids obviously loved the pongashi. I could barely remember being so excited over something so simple. Now I assume the Pongashi Man has gone the way of the Fuller Brush Man. What a loss.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Traveling Japan 1973-74

Sunset and Reeds

In 1973-74 while living in Hiroshima, I traveled widely throughout the four main islands of Japan: Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido. The following images are mostly landscapes and beauty spots, ranging from formal Japanese gardens to seaside hamlets on the Japan Sea coast. Other posts will focus on people and places of specific interest.

Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima

Feeding Koi at Shukkei-en

Shukkei-en is a beautiful stroll garden, originally built by Lord Asano in the 17th century in what is now central Hiroshima, very near the reconstructed Hiroshima Castle and ground zero. The garden, too, had to be reconstructed after the atomic bombing. Nearby Miyajima is best known for the large torii gate situated in the water before Itsukushima Shrine, but it has a number of other beautiful spots. I have visited the island on many occasions and especially enjoyed its quieter, less visited locations.

Perched above Miyajima
View of a misty Miyajima

Akiyoshidai Cavern is located in Yamaguchi Prefecture, not too far from Hiroshima. Inside it was dark, as you might imagine, but the entrance/exit is quite spectacular.

A fellow former student in one of my Japanese language classes was a Catholic priest in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku. On a visit with him, we toured one of the great daimyo stroll gardens of Japan: Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu. It dates back to the 18th century when it was the private garden of the Matsudaira family. Now it is a 130-acre public park enjoyed by thousands of people on a beautiful day.

Kikugetsu-tei Summer Pavilion, Ritsurin Park

Young couple, Ritsurin

a modern day hermit, Ritsurin

Lotus Pond

As I made my way south and west along the Japan Sea Coast, I spent a day hiking by myself on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture where I came upon this isolated hamlet, gorgeous rocky coastline, and seaside rice field.

Noto Peninsula coast

Seaside rice field, spring, Noto Peninsula

Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, while little known outside Japan, is actually one of the world's largest volcanoes with a rim some 75 miles in diameter. The central active peak, Nakadake, continues to spew steam and smoke.

Overlooking Mt. Aso

Volcanic rock, Mt. Aso
Nakadake, Mt. Aso

Nakadake, Mt. Aso

The northern island of Hokkaido has wide open spaces. Although most of my photos from Hokkaido have disappeared, I love this long row of larch trees.

Among the most beautiful sights to seen in a Japanese autumn is a field of susuki, or miscanthus, in the late afternoon sun.

Rice fields take on vastly different appearances depending on the time of year. Flooded in the spring, with seedlings beginning to develop in early summer, full and ready for harvest in the fall or, as below, after the harvest.

What would a series of travel photos of Japan be without Mt. Fuji?