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Authors: Sujata Massey

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During the tour I'd gotten some good ideas about places for eavesdropping. In addition to getting computer spyware into a PC at a cashier station, I hoped to plant listening devices in the highest-grossing accessories boutiques, which were Vuitton, Versace, and Coach. Among Mitsutan's regular departments, I had already pinpointed Young Fashion—since supposedly the freest-spending people in Japan were women between ages fifteen and thirty—and Gifts, the spot where shoppers went to buy “duty presents” for their friends and colleagues during the December and July gift seasons, typically spending between $700 and $1,200 per holiday.

Now, as we followed Mr. Fujiwara downstairs into the food basement, which was thronged with more shoppers per square foot than any other section in the store, I had a new consideration. The women who came to buy bread or chocolates or marinated squid engaged in direct cash or credit transactions with a counter clerk; there was no cashier station. I wondered whether it would be possible to bug these places, and if so, whether there was a good likelihood I'd pick up something of value. The more bugs I planted, the greater my risk of being caught.

“We have at present eighty-eight food shops on this floor!” Mr. Fujiwara called out, interrupting my worries. Now I became aware of other sounds: the din of vendors hawking fresh fish, steamed Chinese buns, and chocolate croissants. With their kerchief-covered heads and aprons, and their wider range of ages, the employees in the food basement looked more like a cross section of traditional Japan than the fashionable, black-clad crew who worked upstairs. My nose twitched at the delicious aromas of grilled onion in one area, rich miso in another, and perfectly ripe strawberries across the aisle. Some shoppers were doing more than just smelling. A backpacker with unwashed red hair who looked as if she hadn't eaten since she'd left Bali was devouring sample after sample of
gyoza,
held on a tray by a man wearing a white chef's toque and a very anxious expression. Japanese onlookers were nudging each other, snickering a little at the out-of-control foreigner. I looked away, feeling sorry. I knew what it felt like to be really hungry, with no money.

“Eighty-eight food shops, all staffed by Mitsutan employees who have completed our food specialty program. Remember, your ten percent discount applies here when you shop in uniform, but that is only for food to take home. No eating at any time on the sales floor!”

“Which food counter is the most successful?” I asked, coming up close to Mr. Fujiwara so that he could hear me.

“It's hard to make one choice, but I believe Lady Beautiful cakes is a consistent high performer in the sweets section; and in the Japanese food section, Country Bento is extremely popular. Can you see it, with the royal blue canopy overhead? Ah, my goodness, the
kaicho
is right here, taking a walk around. Look smart, everyone! I will see if he is willing to inspect you.”

Mr. Fujiwara threaded his way ahead of us and over to the Country Bento counter, where I recognized Masahiro Mitsuyama, the chain's
kaicho
, or chairman. He looked older than he had in the photos I'd studied from the board reports—here again, I thought, was another instance of the store putting its best face forward. In the pictures, Mr. Mitsuyama had looked about sixty; but in the flesh, stooped over with a cane and with a deeply creased face and bottle-thick glasses, he looked somewhere in his eighties. How impressive that he was on the floor, tending to business! I watched him point from dish to dish, asking questions of the Country Bento salesclerks, two men and one woman, lined up at attention with their hands clasped in front and heads bowed.

Mr. Fujiwara ran up, bowing deeply himself. I could see his lips moving, and he gestured back to our group. Mr. Mitsuyama nodded; and, bowing again, Mr. Fujiwara made his way back to us. “He will greet you. Have you had your Physical Hospitality Seminar yet?”

We all shook our heads.


Ah so desu ka.
Well, remember that the most important part of Physical Hospitality is the bow. I will say ‘
Rei
' very quietly, then all bow together. Try your best.”

For a moment, I jumped at the sound of my name, feeling singled out. Then I recalled that
rei
was the word for bow.

I bowed along with the others, hoping to give Masahiro Mitsuyama the impression that we were the most obedient, focused class of trainees to ever come through the building.

“How do you do?” he intoned in a delicate, reedy voice. “So pleased to see you.”

I'd wondered if Mr. Fujiwara would introduce us, because we did have our name tags on, but he didn't. And indeed, the warmth he'd shown us seemed to have vanished as he made a few general comments to the chairman. “This group seems a bit rough, but with concentration they may prevail,” Mr. Fujiwara said. “It is a great privilege for them to meet you, the one who has led Mitsutan for the last forty years.”

“Forty-four,” corrected Mr. Mitsuyama.

“Yes, of course! Excuse me,” Mr. Fujiwara said.

“Forty-four years, and I visit each store at least once a week,” Mr. Mitsuyama intoned. “Currently, I'd like to check the temperature of the
bento
.”

“Please do,
Kaicho
. The temperature is meeting regulations, I hope,” the manager said, pulling a thermometer out of the case.

“The number on the thermometer is one thing, but how about that rice?” Mr. Mitsuyama pointed at a glistening square of rice, topped with a purple plum—part of a fish-and-vegetable
bento
box lunch at the front of the counter. “That rice looks hard. I shall sample it to check.”

Masahiro Mitsuyama chewed. “Too hard,” he announced, speaking with his mouth full of half-chewed rice and tuna.

“Oh, I'm very sorry!” The manager hung his head as I glanced into the case at the fish-topped rice, which looked okay to me.

“Don't let it happen again.”

“Yes, yes. I will try harder to improve.”

Mr. Mitsuyama looked at us. “Your first week, you are learning an important lesson. There will always be a challenge to follow the rules set for you, but understand that the rules do not guarantee perfection. Perfection is up to you entirely—to your own hard work.”

We bowed again, and following everyone else's lead, I remained silent. Mr. Fujiwara burbled his thanks, and we remained at attention, then fell into bows again until Mr. Mitsuyama had moved away and could no longer be seen.

When I stood up, I rubbed my lower back and looked at the Country Bento counter staff. Their faces were grave.

“I don't need to tell you what you need to do,” Mr. Fujiwara said. “You know yourself.”

“My sincere apologies for our poor example!” The counterman's voice squeaked with emotion.

“Don't worry.” Mr. Fujiwara reached out to take a sample rice ball set out in a tiny paper cup on the counter. He munched it quickly, his face softening into pleasure. “This isn't bad at all. And as the
kakaricho
said, you and your staff have provided an important lesson for our trainees. Customer satisfaction occasionally means going
beyond the rules
. Never forget.”

Beyond the rules: this was the situation that my government feared was Mitsutan's standard business practice. And if the culture of pleasing people was so entrenched throughout the store, my job of digging up proof of corruption was going to be pretty straightforward.

When I finished my first day at Mitsutan and rode the subway home, I wondered, as I had fleetingly before, about why the United States was so threatened by the success of an old-line Japanese department store that it had sent Tyler Farraday over to investigate. There had to be a link to American interests, somehow.

What if the U.S. government thought Mitsutan was trying to take over an American retail giant like Macy's? I'd read
Rising Sun
back when I was in junior high school—and I'd gotten into trouble with my father for doing it, too—and I now recalled that the famous thriller was all about the threat of Japanese takeovers of American businesses. The book reflected a certain paranoia that flashed through America in the 1980s, when Japan's bubble economy expanded to many real estate holdings worldwide. No matter that the British and Canadians owned more buildings and companies on American soil—it was Sony's ownership of Rockefeller Center that scared everyone.

No, I reminded myself, any takeovers going on in retail were supposed to be in reverse. I remembered an article in the
Wall Street Journal
about Jimmy DeLone and Supermart possibly going after Mitsutan. DeLone was an out-of-control foreigner, a blunt speaker who wouldn't get along in Japan. But he was important enough that nobody would dare throw him into the Sumida River.

When I reached my apartment, I kicked off the pointy-toed pumps that were killing my feet, poured a glass of Chilean wine, and dialed the United States. It was five in the morning in D.C., so I'd be getting Michael out of bed, and I hoped he wouldn't be cranky.

“I hope I didn't wake you,” I apologized when he picked up.

“No, I've been up for a while. How was the first day?” Michael's voice didn't have the slightest sleepy edge to it; I wondered if he always woke up this way.

“Quite interesting.” I told him about Mr. Mitsuyama's involvement with the store's minute details, including the temperature of rice at a food counter. But Michael seemed less impressed than I'd been by this; instead, he wanted to know if I'd been personally presented to Mr. Mitsuyama.

“Not exactly. I was part of the group of trainees and our leader—the customer service director I mentioned, Mr. Fujiwara—was keeping us on a pretty tight leash.”

“Good,” Michael said. “You want to be unremarkable in case he sees you again, which he very well might when you're up around the boardroom.”

“Oh, I doubt they'll be sending me to the boardroom for any reason. Now, one of the reasons I was calling was that I was hoping you might still have that article about Supermart? I wanted to read it again.”

“Sure, I'll fax it right over. But about the boardroom, Sis—I know it's a little early in the game for you to explore the whole store, but within the space of three or four weeks, I'd like you to get something in place there.” Michael was talking about bugging, but he'd never use the word over the phone.

“But I have much better access to other places in the main building: cashier stations, food counters, Young Fashion—”

“But we need to hear what goes on at stockholders' meetings,” Michael said. “The annual one is set for June. And before that, there might be private conferences between high-level executives, which we'd love to know about.”

“I'm doubtful the boardroom's even in the main building,” I said. “Personnel and the locker rooms and cafeteria and all the other backstage areas are in an annex—”

“Well, it sounds like you have a reason to be in that building as well,” Michael said. “Don't worry—you'll find your way. Now, what about your boss on the K Team? What's he like?”

“It's a she, a Mrs. Okuma, and I haven't met her yet. Supposedly I will soon.”

“Well, you don't need to report back until then, unless something's urgent.” Michael's tone was as dismissive as his words.

After we hung up, the fax came through. I read it slowly this time, pondering the meaning behind each of the involved entities: Jimmy DeLone, Supermart, Mitsutan. What was the connection, and could they have been somehow involved in Tyler Farraday's death?

 

The next day at Mitsutan was completely devoted to a course called “Physical Hospitality.” I learned the correct way to give directions, with the thumb tucked against the palm, and a flat hand extended; and the importance of personally guiding shoppers, whenever possible, to what they were looking for. I bowed so much that my lower back ached; but at least I'd gotten the correct, flat-back movement right.

I also learned that under no circumstances could I use the pretty public restrooms; if I had to go to a restroom, it would be on my break and over at the annex building, where a grim, unheated women's room stood next to an equally dismal employees' cafeteria. There was a locker room where women employees were to report no later than nine; we had up to half an hour to change into our uniforms and apply makeup, and go over to the store for
cho-rei
, the motivational lecture conducted by a senior manager every day and broadcast over the store's PA system. After that, when the store opened at ten o'clock, we were all to be standing at attention at the fringes of our departments, bowing deeply and ready to offer a heartfelt
irrasshaimase
—“welcome”—to the first customers of the day.

This Wednesday was the first semi-workday, because it was time for me to begin going through the processes rehearsed during the first two days of training. At eight-thirty, I caught a subway to the Ginza; at seven minutes to nine I made it to the annex building, where I went to my assigned locker and unlocked it with the key I'd gotten during training. Because I was a new girl, I felt hesitant to break into the conversations of the happily chattering saleswomen flinging off their fashionable street clothes. But I didn't need to say anything, because I was noticed right away.

“So you're Shimura.” A voice came from the left, that of a tall, slim girl next to me, who was already dressed and was brushing the long, silky curtain of midnight-black hair that fell to her elbow.

“Yes, how do you do?” I said, as I finished pinning my name tag onto the left side of my jacket.

“You aren't supposed to take your uniform home,” she said.


Ah so desu ka
! Thanks for the information. I had to take it home to—fix a button.” I'd taken both suits home because I needed to sew my equipment into each outfit, one listening device per jacket cuff. I had also sewn my tiny drill and a tube of putty into the jacket lapels. My aim was to always have my equipment handy, because purses weren't allowed on the sales floor.

“Ono-san can do the alterations. But usually, there is no need. Why did you burst a button—did you eat too much at lunch?” The saleswoman looked me over with a superior smile, that of a
sempai
—a senior student.

“I must have. The curry rice in the cafeteria is really delicious.” I was aiming for a laugh, but my comment was met with dead silence. “Oh, I'm sorry. I know nothing, this is my first real day.” I now shifted into the role of
kohai
—junior student. Now a second girl came over to look at me; she had a perfect pageboy and a cupid's-bow mouth painted a perfect pale pink. I was suddenly conscious that I had no lipstick on, because I'd left the correct choice from Dora's salon at the apartment.

“Didn't someone talk to you about your hair?” the second girl asked.

“What about my hair?” I shifted over to the mirror to take a look. I had carefully blown dry the style Dora had cut for me just a week and a half earlier. It looked fine.

“There are color rules at Mitsutan. You can't have hair that's too light.”

It was true that Mrs. Ono had pulled out a sheet of cardboard which had five little colored swatches of synthetic hair on it, ranging from the blackest black to a subtle red-tinted dark brown, just like the color Dora had mixed for me.

“Thanks for the warning, but nobody has remarked on my hair so far.” I prepared to exit; I didn't want to spend another minute with these sadists. Next time I was going to choose a locker as far away as possible.

“Maybe you colored it last night? Looks like an at-home job.” There was undisguised malice in the girl's laughter, and I wondered what she would scrutinize next. I hoped not my eye makeup, which I'd spent half an hour on in the apartment bathroom that morning.

“Thanks for your welcome,” I said. “But I must be joining my class.” In fact, I'd seen another one of the girls in our freshman group glance over at what was happening to me before she slipped out the locker room door.

Out on the main floor, I tried to push away the sense of awkwardness the girls had worked so hard to instill in me. Hazing was a fact of life in Japan, from elementary school onward. I should have expected it to happen in the store as well, but still—in such a mannered world—it came as a shock.

I stood silently with the women from my training group as the personnel director who'd interviewed me, Miss Aoki, spoke. “You are lucky, for today the
cho-rei
will be led by our
shacho
, Mitsuyama-san. Hush, it's time to listen now.”

For a moment I started in confusion, because the voice booming over the speaker system was strong and youthful, not thin and wavering like that of the old gentleman I'd seen the day before. Then I remembered that Chairman Masahiro Mitsuyama's only child, Enobu Mitsuyama, had become the store's chief operating officer three years earlier. And on my first day, he'd lead the
cho-rei
.

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” A dramatic pause. “It's an old piece of wisdom that I came across recently, while reading. I thought about it for a while, and how in retail it's also true, especially at this store. Kindly allow me to explain.”

I listened closely as Enobu Mitsuyama's lecture continued to describe the great responsibility to treat all those who came into the store with respect, for it was they who truly paid our salaries.

“What can we do to extend life?” Enobu Mitsuyama asked, then answered himself. “Work beyond the best of one's abilities. Reach out to help a colleague in need. Remember to counsel one's family and friends to think of Mitsutan as the best place to fulfill their shopping needs. Shop here yourself.”

There was a pause. “As you know, our employee discount is ten percent, standard for the industry. Now, we are proud to announce a new initiative—a fifteen percent discount, available to all store employees who shop using their Mitsutan credit card.”

Excitement rippled through the women around me. Fifteen percent!

“As part of the process, we will phase out the point cards used in the past, whereby one pays cash for an item and has the points recorded. Credit is much more convenient, I'm sure you will find. I am delighted to offer this gift to you. It is my personal gesture of thanks for your hard work and loyalty.”

As the words died away, people around me sank into deep bows, and I joined them, realizing belatedly that Enobu Mitsuyama was on the premises—in fact, walking down the aisle toward the front of the store, where we were. He was a tall, good-looking man somewhere in his thirties, with a strong gaze; a full head of black hair, cut modishly short; and a black-and-charcoal-pinstripe suit. I had to hand it to him; increasing the employee discount would obviously encourage the sales staff to buy, especially the young women who still lived with their parents and thus had no food and housing expenses. And a rise in the use of credit would enrich Mitsutan's private banking division; most Japanese used cash, not credit, so this was a clever way to encourage borrowing among people who hated to borrow money.

“It's the big moment; time to report to your departments,” Miss Aoki said after
cho-rei
was officially over and all the employees had left the aisles for their workstations. “Please hurry, because in five minutes the store doors open. You must not be late!”

I nodded, and hurried up the escalator to level four. The K Team office was adjacent to the cashier's station here, on a floor devoted to middle-aged women's fashion. Not my ideal fashion scene—but highly convenient for the bulk of K Team's customers, foreign women accompanying their executive husbands on business trips to Japan. Quickly, I passed the “Rose” section devoted to fuller-sized fashion—garments that were even more fully cut than the size L suit I wore, but with labels that were more discreet—sizes like 0, 1, 2 and 3. Then it was “Daisy,” the section for small sizes—women under four feet ten inches, and generally less than ninety-five pounds. I passed the coat section and the formal suit section, tracking along the path to a sign hanging from the ceiling with both a dollar symbol and a yen symbol. There, just as Miss Aoki had said, was a glass door marked K Team, and an office beyond it.

A middle-aged woman who had to be Mrs. Okuma, director of the K Team shopping service, was standing outside the door, eyes set expectantly on the aisle. Next to her, arms folded and looking bored, stood one of the beautiful but mean girls from the locker room—specifically, the one who'd faulted me for taking my uniform home.

As Muzak began pouring over the PA system and a melodious woman's voice began welcoming customers to Mitsutan, the girl narrowed her already catlike eyes at me.

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