By Ray Sawhill
As pop culture goes global, we’re becoming more and more familiar with the “Who’d have thunk it” entertainment response. Who’d have thunk steel guitars—which Americans associate with the relaxed pleasures of country & western and Hawaiian music—would ever be set alongside talking drums and tribal rhythms? Yet they are, in the dance music known as AfroPop. Who’d have thunk American action movie forms would mix with French existentialism and then bounce back at us from Hong Kong, like signals from a telecommunications satellite we forgot we launched? Meet Jackie Chan and John Woo.
Recently, some of us have been having fun adjusting to a Japanese form of pop entertainment called the “business novel.” Not many examples of it have made their way to America yet. The enjoyably disconcerting new collection called “The Dark Side of Japanese Business” (M.E. Sharpe) is the third such volume released here, and it’s currently the only one easily obtained. But the genre has been around in Japan since the 1950s, and is now as established as mysteries and historical fiction. Dozens of authors write these novels, which come with such titles as “Disciplinary Lay-off” and “Oil Shock.” Ikko Shimizu, who wrote the three stories in the present volume, is among the most celebrated and successful of these writers; the stories are published individually in Japan, and “Keiretsu,” the longest of them, has sold over 300,000 copies, and has been made into a TV movie. Shimizu, who started off as a financial journalist, is now a rich man in his mid-60s who employs a staff to do his research. His author photo shows him leaning proudly on a Porsche.
There’s nothing in American popular culture directly comparable to these novels. The reality-television series “Cops” has some of their just-the-facts-ma’am flavor. The thrillers of Michael Crichton and John Grisham provide work details and atmosphere. “L.A. Law” and innumerable sitcoms suggest something of how much of our living we do on the job. But you read through these stories looking in vain for glamor and thrills. Where are the Feds? The mob? The laughs and camaraderie? The thrillingly enticing scenes of sexual blackmail?
What you get in a business novel are characters who engage in business skirmishes, then retire to interpret what has occurred and to decide how to respond. Then? Well, then they return to work. Instead of chases and courtroom scenes, we’re given a lot of conferring and reflecting. Instead of the keep-the-tension-mounting writing common in American pop, we’re given language flatter than in any company report. “The high-yield products were odd-shaped headlights, particularly for export cars,” writes Shimizu in “Keiretsu.” The closest thing these works have to a romantic lead describes his likely wife-to-be in these swoony words: “I guess she is rather plain as a matter of fact, or she’s average-looking. But her mouth is kind of gentle.” So, the bewildered American reader wonders, should the role be offered to Demi Moore or not?
Yet Shimizu’s stories are genuinely gripping. Needing help getting my bearings, I gave the book’s translator, Tamae Prindle, a professor at Colby College, a call. She informed me that in Japan, Shimizu is thought to be somewhat Marxist in his view of business. (You could have fooled me). He’s also known for his porno touches—a story here about a beautiful young geisha shows off some of his amorality and bluntness—and he’s considered the most muckraking of the business novel authors. Mainly, said Prindle, “people read these books for information.”
And it’s the information that holds you. As business situation after business situation is painstakingly laid out, expository-flashback fatigue sets in; then you realize that exposition is the whole point. In “Keiretsu,” the aging Shigeya, whose father founded Taisei Automobile Lighting Company, fights to keep control of his company, and to pass its leadership along to his own son. His foe is Tokyo Motors, the leader of the keiretsu his company belongs to. TM insists on placing its own managers on Shigeya’s staff, and keeps its profit margins high by forcing ever-larger price reductions on its suppliers. (Prindle says most Japanese readers would recognize “Tokyo Motors” as Nissan.) “How to contend?” is virtually the whole story.
The novel manages to be absorbing without once making your blood race. The absence of climaxes, initially frustrating, helps you sink into the intricacies of Shigeya’s predicament. Which board members are likely to support him? How should he interpret that phone call from the bank vice-president? How can Taisei expect its employees to keep their morale up if their dormitory has inadequate air conditioning? As a writer, Shimizu is nothing if not methodical; of course, the world he’s portraying is one of elaborate protocol and interlocking obligations. (One of the characters is simply known as Quality Control Section Chief Saito. Imagine making water-cooler chat with him!) When the codes of respect are violated—”We don’t need you, senile old man,” barks one rebellious exec at Shigeya—you’re more shocked, in a low-key way, than you are by the sounds of Uzis in an American thriller.
I found myself becoming fascinated by the Keiretsu Company Binding Rules, and by sentences that might have put me to sleep in other contexts. “A car is made of many parts—some 14,000 to 15,000 on average,” Shimizu writes. “TM had arranged to buy approximately 80% of these parts from its own keiretsu.” Noted—also savored and enjoyed. When a TM engineer asks a Taisei staffer, “You propose putting a washer on each lamp—doesn’t that add to your cost?”, I was genuinely curious about how the inevitable “Yes, but …” answer would be handled.
I even grew to enjoy the lack of what the American novel-reader in me craves. A central human relationship, for instance. What we’d assume would be the spine of the book—the bond between father and son—isn’t developed at all. By American standards, the two men barely seem to know each other. Private lives where the characters can cut loose with their true feelings, for another instance, are nonexistent. Before the final scene, where she displays a steely will, Shigeya’s beloved wife of many decades is limited to a few appearances along the lines of: “Michiko popped her head out of the kitchen and asked if she should serve dinner, but nobody paid attention.”
There’s no use pretending that reading these stories doesn’t make you feel mighty American—ie., clumsy, loud-mouthed, and uncomprehending. There’s also no avoiding the suspicion that we entertainment-junkie Americans will never be able to sweat a detail as thoroughly as the Japanese. Just at the moment when you know you’d be kicking back and slipping a video in the VCR, the characters in “Keiretsu” are starting to comb through their business predicaments all over again. These tales aren’t stories of heroic, embattled individuals; they’re about the costs of consensus. Patience and concentration are the entertainment values they’re selling. Shigeya isn’t trying to release the star within; he’s just trying to deal with a large company that has grown a little arrogant. The collection is a mind-bending cultural artifact. It can get an American reader interested in the automobile-headlights business. Who’d have thunk it?
- Buy a copy of “The Dark Side of Japanese Business.”
©1995 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review.