(originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and friends on Mon, 11 Mar 1996)


On February 13, right after a hard day's filming of videos for my satellite English course, I came home to another of my wife's conundrums. Our home insurance policy (kasai hoken) had expired nearly two weeks ago, yet her attempts to get us renewed had been futile. She officially passed the baton to me and said I was to handle negotiations from here on in.

I sighed. Yet another Japanese company refuses to take a housewife's request seriously, so the husband has to get in on it.

REWIND: Our home, a two floor half-house, is right next to the Makomanai Jieitai SDF Base (former Camp Crawford), 100,000 yen a month, low-altitude military helicopters free. Like most renters, we took out an insurance policy, valid for two years, from our housing agent, Jouguchi Atomu, the biggest apartment-rental system in Hokkaido. All was fine until the end of our second year in our digs.

On Jan 6, my wife, Aya, calls them and says, "Hey, our insurance expires on Feb 1, so please send us information on how we can renew it", i.e. furikomi bank account numbers etc. They said they understood and would FAX us the info toute suite.

Jan 16 comes by and still no word. So Aya calls Atomu again and gets the sub-section leader (kakarichou) on the line; I'll call him Tanaka. He says the same thing as before and again nothing comes. On Jan 30, my tenacious wife calls Tanaka again, and gets the same song and dance--and the same results. No word.

Our insurance expired as scheduled, and on Feb 6 my wife calls again and asks the fatal question--have we been renewed? (keizoku shite iru?) Tanaka says yes, we have been renewed and he'll send us verification ASAP. Nothing comes yet *again*.

Finally, my wife's patience runs out and she decides to call in the big guns--me.

I had heard nothing about this whole flap until Feb 13. She knew I had videos and textbook revisions up the wazoo and wasn't much in the mood. And she was also a teeny bit afraid of unshackling and siccing me on others--she had seen me in action before and was still not used to it. We'd had problems with the water company, with Kita Gas, with just about any public works group which gets paid anyway whether they do service or not. Employees telling her over the phone, "Okusan, there's nothing wrong with the water heater--you just wouldn't know how it works. Figure it out, willya?" All this amaku-miru-of-women-by-the-salaryman stuff.

Then I would get on the phone and start shouting. I would employ the power of the bully in Japan.


I called up Jouguchi Atomu after Feb 14's filming and gave Tanaka a nice Valentine. I got him on the line and asked him why he still hadn't sent us the information on our renewal. He said that he had been busy and would send it right away. I stopped him and said we'd heard that before. Four times before, and I gave him the dates. He said it had been a busy January. I asked him if he was too busy to comply with a customer's request, well-in-advance, and if he felt no responsibility for letting a family's insurance expire. If we had an earthquake and our house was destroyed and children injured, who would pay? You? He said he couldn't guarantee that. So I asked him if we were renewed. He said he would have to check.

That's where I raised my voice. "Check? You mean you still don't know? What kind of a lazy employee are you? We could lose everything and you play ignorant? Put your superior on the line!" Tanaka tried to say something like he was on another line or something, so I screamed, "Get on with it!" and slammed the phone down.

I was then calling from school and had two students, participants in my videos, in my office at the time. They were in shock--they had never heard somebody so combative, save maybe a yakuza, and were wondering what could be eating me so. I had no time to explain. I counted five, loaded in all my rough Japanese, said, "Round Two" to my transfixed students, and called Jouguchi Atomu back.

I asked for Tanaka's superior.

"I am Tanaka's superior. I am Suzuki." the answerer said in English.

I told him to speak in Japanese and tell me what Tanaka had done with our insurance. Says he: "I haven't had time to confirm with him what had happened, but there seems to be some sort of misunderstanding." He then tried to offer a token apology and a please wait a little while but I wasn't going to be put off like that: "Apologies mean nothing. Are we renewed or not?"

"No you are not, it seems," said Suzuki.

"That means your Tanaka lied to us. He said we were."

Suzuki said he would have to verify that, but I cut him off: "Look, your company is not doing its job." I gave him the information about the dates my wife had called, how we still didn't have the information, how we'd be in serious sushi should a jieitai copter park on our roof, etc.. He cut me off--with a real bombshell:

"You are not renewed because you have not paid to renew yet. We only renew those who pay, you now. You must have misunderstood Tanaka. We Japanese (bokura nipponjin) would have understood each other in this negotiation, but you perhaps misunderstood his honorific language. (keigo)

Putting out fire with gasoline. I erupted into a fury and flurry of yakuza-ish language, a specialty of my boss inmy former trading company, who ruled through fear and browbeating his subordinates, particularly me, every day: "Why the hell are you trying to pin the blame on us (nasuri tsukeru) when it was your fault that we didn't know where to pay? Your junior lied and you're only giving me language full of excuses (iiwake gamashii)?" I asked him what kind of outfit he thought he was running when he could insult my wife, a native speaker, by suggesting that she couldn't understand stupid Tanaka's Japanese, and told him he was in for it.

I slammed down the receiver and contemplated my next move.

Round Three.

I called directory assistance at 104, got the complaints department of Jouguchi Atomu, and talked to a Mr Katou. Katou reiterated the basic apologies like a reflex, but stressed the need for an investigation. After all, it's not like our company to make mistakes like these.

I realized that I would have to bring out the big guns if I was going to get any sense of justice--if this problem stayed inside Jouguchi Atomu, they would simply apologize to us, think that was enough, hang up, wash their hands and have a good laugh over it that night in Susukino. If we were going to get anywhere, I would have to take it out of their company's hands.

I said that there was little sincerity in what Katou was saying, and said that if we didn't get the information and a formal apology immediately I was going to call the insurance company, say that Tanaka and Suzuki of the hokenbu had lied to us about renewing our insurance--engaging in fraudulent practices (sagi)--and insist that the insurance company not sell their insurance through Atomu anymore.

Katou paused. This was a credible threat. Jouguchi Atomu is but the agent for another company's insurance, Shiguna Hoken, and if they heard about this, feathers might fly. So he told me to wait right there for five minutes while he called Suzuki.

Round Four.

After about four minutes Suzuki called me--from his car. Despite a rather poor PHS reception, he offered his apologies. But by this time I was accusing him of mere tokenism. I told him that the real apology should go to my wife, and that he and Tanaka were to come to my house and personally apologize to her when I was there. And to me for treating me like a gaijin instead of like a paying customer. And he should think about what should be done about a person under his command who lies to his customers. He said he would.

I went home. Aya told me she had received about four phone calls from three different Atomu people, and the FAX had received just about all the information we would need. But she was still not quite satisfied. All the apologies she had received were still the "sorry, but, you know, we've been busy" variety, meaning that they were still trying to excuse themselves.

"So why don't we just get insurance elsewhere?" I asked. She replied: "Cos it's the cheapest around--2 years of 10,000,000 yen coverage for 25,000 yen. Best around."

"But Aya, don't we even get a severance-pay discount or something?" I asked. "No, and I don't want one. An apology would be enough for me, just as long as we are renewed now." A FAX then came in to say we were. She paid up the next day.


Saturday came and as Atomu's car pulled up in front of our house, my wife cautioned me: no bougen (abusive language), at least from the start. It had done enough already, so keep your cool.

Apology-cake and fruit basket in hand, Suzuki and Tanaka scuttled in. Suzuki was the typical middle-aged kachou who was starting to get the grey hair, tired bags under his eyes, and smile-wrinkles from maintaining the businessman's mask all day. Tanaka was 31, married, no children, and an employee at Atomu for 9 years. So this was not a new guy making a mistake on his first day.

We sat them down on the sofa, reserving higher table-chairs for ourselves. We offered them no tea and they gave us the apology. But I wanted an explanation for the lie. Tanaka answered, still denying the lie. And my wife took over.

She, in front of Tanaka's boss, told Tanaka exactly what he said, including his word-for-word claim that we had been renewed. I had never seen her quite so forceful and it had an impact on Suzuki. Especially when I mentioned that it was quite impossible for my wife to be ignorant of how finance and insurance in Japan worked. She had been a bank teller/manager and insurance lady in the past. No way was she just some "ignorant housewife". Tanaka was visibly shaken.

Then I turned to Suzuki and asked him what he had to say about the whole "keigo" claim. Why was he trying to make a foreigner out of me when my money's just as good as the next Japanese's, and when I wasn't even involved in this little negotiation until the very end?

He offered a very sincere apology, head almost to the floor from the armchair, saying that he really had misspoke (shitsugen) and shouldn't have resorted to such language. I continued to say that his English was good when he answered the phone, so if he can learn English, why couldn't it be possible that a foreigner could learn Japanese? He did not respond like I'd expect he would--a simple reaffirmation argument of the uniqueness of difficult Japanese--and instead agreed and said that this had been an important lesson for him.

I then said, okay, I accept your apology and will forget it. But remember--there will be more of us foreigners all around from now on in Japan, and you should look upon us not as foreigners and more as regular customers. He agreed in a way that I took as sincere.

Now I turned to the issue of justice. Although nobody would admit it, a lie had been told, and we wanted to know what would happen to Tanaka. If we hadn't made such a stink and something had happened, these children we were holding in our laps would be in trouble. I said that Tanaka had voided his right to sell insurance, and he should be transferred to another department. Tanaka turned pale.

Suzuki's answer surprised me: "Well, it turns out there had been another case such as this with Tanaka, so we have dealt with this (shobun) by demoting him from kakarichou to shunin, and we might make him an entry-level employee again." They soon scuttled out and that was that.

So we had won. We had our sense of justice. But it was bittersweet. Both Aya and I sat down and wondered just what my bullying language had gotten us. A person who had to go home to his wife and tell her that 9 years of advancement had been for naught--that he was a hira-shain all over again and would have to work his way up.

But then I stressed that this was Tanaka's problem. A lie is a lie and he had put us at risk through his negligence. And we were not the only ones, it seemed. Jikou jitoku.

All this because I got on the phone and started shouting.


Bullies have a lot of pull in this society. The inability for many people here to be able to shout down a shouter allows a lot of people, from paper tigers to shachous to yakuza to Tanaka Kakuei, to be able to get away with a hell of a lot because they have a loud voice and a pugnacious style.

Of course, throwing one's weight around gets you in the end if you are in a subordinate position, but when it's a fight for consumer rights it can make incredible inroads. Especially when there's the avenue of upsetting that company's comfortable relations with another business.

No wonder my wife is afraid to unleash me. Even I don't know what will happen when I raise my voice.

Dave Aldwinckle


(on to the next essay in this series--the email joust with a critic of this essay)

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