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Authors: Sujata Massey

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My journey had been long and hard enough that I broke with my usual tradition of awakening many hours too early. Instead, my eyes fluttered open at seven, when it was light beyond the blinds, and I could hear the gentle sounds of morning traffic beneath my window. I stretched, feeling unusually refreshed as I lay in the comfortable though unfamiliar bed—the resting spot of so many agents before me, including Michael. Today, as my bare toes touched the polished wood floor, I knew I had big shoes to fill. But I already had large feet: size eight and a half narrow. It was fortunate that I'd bought my new Celine pumps in the United States, because I was almost certain that size wouldn't have been available in Japan.

I took a long, luxurious shower and went to look at the clothes in my suitcase. I hadn't unpacked the night before, so the Escada suit had some deep creases. But I found an electric iron in the bathroom and a mini-ironing board in a drawer, which also contained a variety of oddments that included false eyelashes, mustaches, eyeglasses with non-prescription lenses, spirit gum, pancake makeup, and toupees. The drawer gave me the feeling that most of the agents who'd come before me were men; still, I was glad for the resources. I added my own stash of makeup to the drawer. It had been a few days since I'd done the full Asian eyelid maquillage, but I had a diagram, and it wasn't that hard to duplicate—almost as good as Dora's work, I decided. I was going to test it this morning, just to see what happened.

By ten, I was out the door. Even though there was food in the fridge, I was tempted by the memory of something I'd glimpsed the night before: an Italian cappuccino bar. It made sense that a well-off girl of twenty-three who wasn't an office lady would have the time for a cappuccino or latte in the morning; and spending some time near a window, gazing outward, would give me a chance to get my bearings in my new neighborhood.

Hiroo was a mystery to me. I had lived all over the city, from Minami-Senju in the northeast to the central Shitamachi neighborhood of Yanaka and in the southwest in Roppongi. Hiroo was close to Roppongi but was more staid: a land of fur coats and Volvo wagons, art galleries and patisserie shops—perfect for bankers and foreigners on expense accounts who wanted to send their children to the neighborhood's English-medium private schools. Even if I could have afforded it, it wasn't my speed.

I stopped first at a nearby Citibank cash machine to withdraw some yen, then made my way into Giulia's, a beautiful little shop with an interior of what looked like aged wood and small, marble-topped tables.

The first sip of delicious coffee mixed with perfectly frothy milk jolted me into the present. Hiroo wasn't half bad if I could have this every morning. I would save my receipts, mindful that I could spend up to $200 a day, not including my rent-free apartment. When I found and purchased a new pair of Asics running shoes at the sports emporium near the station, I was still happily under budget. I was beginning to enjoy the perks of spying, although there was a lot of hard work ahead—starting with my attempt to get the job interview.

I laid my cell phone on the table in front of me, thinking about how it was supposed to be my excuse. This was all so pathetic—like saying that the dog had eaten my homework. But I had an idea. Michael had mentioned that he'd wanted me to change cell phones as we went along, for our security. Maybe I should get a new one sooner than later.

I rode the subway seven minutes to Roppongi, my old stomping ground, because I remembered that the last time around, I had seen a lot of cell phone shops there. As I began to browse around Roppongi Crossing, I was overwhelmed with options: private companies like Au and DoCoMo, where you took a phone and paid the bill later; or prepaid phones that could actually be discarded after they were used up. The second idea seemed somehow wasteful, but I liked the anonymity of it. After getting a guarantee in writing that the phone was capable of making overseas calls, I bought a pale pink one for 10,000 yen—about $100. I'd noticed, while at the coffee shop, that most young women had little hang-tag things dangling from their phones, so on my way back to the subway, I bought a cell phone charm from a kiosk that I liked: a tiny replica of Tokyo Tower, which itself was a copy of the Eiffel Tower—just as I was a copy of a Japanese woman, down to the cell phone charm.

It was one-thirty, high time for lunch; but having gotten up so late, I wasn't hungry enough for a restaurant meal. A woman was roasting sweet potatoes in a little brazier set up on a truck on Gaien Higashi-dori, the street that was a main artery in and out of Roppongi. For 100 yen, I sank my teeth into the soft, sweet
yakiimo
. The vendor looked at me anxiously when a tender chunk dropped on the lapel of my blue interview suit; I accepted a paper napkin with gratitude and cleaned myself up.

The truth was, I thought as I went belowground to the subway to catch the Hibiya line to Ginza Station, I didn't love the suit that Mrs. Taki had insisted that I buy. We'd bought it in a hurry, finding it in the overwhelmingly characterless Tyson's II Mall, filled with endless boutiques and salesgirls who'd ignored us. Maybe they'd thought that we couldn't speak English or that, because I'd come in dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, I wasn't going to be a big spender. I was accustomed to such reactions, all the time, in America.

The suit was a mixture of silk and wool, in a color called French blue—a slightly brighter, prettier color than navy, but still dark enough to mean business. The cut was close to the body, though, and the jacket had an asymmetrical closure that was fashionable. Still, I regretted that the skirt hung a few inches below my knees, because it was a standard size 4; no petite had been available.

Mrs. Taki had warned me in advance that my trademark fishnet stockings, even in a conservative color like nude, would appear shockingly risqué in Japan, so I wore regular sheer pantyhose, in which I felt mightily uncomfortable, with the Celine pumps that had a cute strap across the front and a two-inch heel. I was carrying a matching purse, another Japanese touch. To jazz things up a bit—after all, most girls here changed their handbags as often as their cell phones, and right now the trend for phones and handbags was pink and beige—I'd tied a red-and-pink Hermès scarf of 1980s vintage onto the strap. I'd already made sure my new cell phone was on manner mode, though I didn't expect anyone to know the number yet and call me. The phone was going to be a key prop in my excuse.

When I got out at Ginza Station, I studied the complicated map, looking for the best way to Mitsutan. The customary way to reach one of the department stores was to trek along an underground tunnel that in turn led to a specific exit with a short flight of steps into the store's basement. Entering a store through a basement—even a basement packed with mouthwatering food displays—did not strike me as the proper way to begin my adventure. So I took another exit, which brought me up a short flight of stairs to the great outdoors.

It was ironic that Ginza-dori had been named using the kanji character meaning silver or money, because the street itself was plain gray: a respectable, businesslike gray that was a reflection on the weather, the constant flow of traffic, and time. I stood on the sidewalk, surveying the great temples of retail that I'd read so much about and now was seeing through different eyes. Matsuya, Matsuzakaya, and Mitsukoshi were as big as the largest department stores in New York City. This made sense, given the prewar timing of their construction. And while most of the buildings had redesigned their facades to look up to the minute, one hadn't.

Right on the corner, across from Mitsutan, was Wako, half the height and width of its competitors, but architecturally charming. Wako was one of the Japanese department stores that Supermart was contemplating buying. I couldn't imagine it, I thought as I gazed upward at its historic clock tower, which looked like a bigger version of the diamond-circled face of a Wako watch. What would Jimmy DeLone suggest replacing it with, Timex or Swatch?

Right now it was two-thirty, Wako time: for me, it was eleven-thirty at night. I rubbed my eyes, then regretted the action. Now I'd have to check my makeup. To be on the safe side, I went into Matsuya, not Mitsutan—up to the young women's floor, past a delicious display of beribboned Tocca spring dresses and into the ladies' room, where I decided to freshen not only the eye makeup but the blush and lip color. During my short sprint through the store, I'd been impressed by the exquisite appearance of the dozens of salesgirls in blue-skirted uniforms who had bowed toward me, breathing a gentle
irasshaimase,
or welcome.

I was not on par with these girls; if they were so perfect at Matsuya, I could only imagine how they'd be at Mitsutan. Ms. Aoki could probably handpick Miss Japan runners-up to sell makeup or handbags or evening dresses. It was that kind of store.

I went down to the first floor, where a giant midsection of the store—the exhibition hall—had been set up for a “World Chocolate Fair.” Forty specialty chocolatiers from Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Germany were selling their wares in special boxed sets for the Japanese Valentine's Day. The average going rate seemed to be 3,100 yen for twelve chocolates; but there were cut-up chocolates at each counter available for sampling. I picked up a tiny sixth of a bonbon from Jean-Paul Hevin, relishing the tiny jolt of sweetness and energy.

I'd whiled away more than an hour; it was finally time to make my approach to Mitsutan. I left Matsuya and crossed the street when the traffic light chirped green. I was doing everything by the book, from this point forward.

A pretty girl in a pearl-gray suit smiled when I asked her where the personnel department was located. Gently she said, “I'm so sorry, but it's not in this building.”

Not in the building? How stupid I'd been not to check it out beforehand. What if the personnel department was in the Asakusa store or even out in Yokohama?

“It's located in the annex, directly behind us. You'll need to go around the corner, enter the alley, and then you'll see it. There's a guard outside the door, and just tell him you have an appointment in Personnel.”

“Thank you,” I said, breathless with relief. I didn't have far to go, and I still had fifteen minutes.


Gambatte
,” she said as I headed out the door.

Work hard; give it your best shot.

The same thing Michael had said.

I straightened my back as I went down the alley, which really was a small, busy road that led to the loading docks and parking garage. Parking at Mitsutan's garage was free if you spent 50 within two hours.

The parking guard directed me to the annex building, which turned out to be dimly lit and cold. As I stood gazing around this place that seemed the opposite of the bright, well-heated department store, workers trundled racks of clothes into storage areas, women sped unsmilingly into the ladies' locker room, and employees of both genders started lighting cigarettes as they headed into a cavernous, grimly decorated cafeteria. Apparently smiles, light, warmth, and glamour were commodities to be offered to customers only. Feeling slightly disturbed, I entered a battered-looking door marked with the kanji character for personnel.

A girl in the black Mitsutan uniform was seated at a small desk with a phone glued to her ear. She motioned for me to sit down on one of two chairs upholstered in purple-and-black-striped fabric. While she talked on the phone, I decoded the kanji on her name tag. Her family name was Yamada, an easy name made up of the kanji characters for mountain and rice field. Her given name was a bit harder—Seiko, made up of the kanji characters for sacred and child. Now that I was back in Japan, everywhere I went could be a living language lab.

“Hello, Shimura-san,” Miss Yamada said after she'd hung up the phone.

I couldn't hide my surprise that she knew me by name. I nodded, still speechless.

“Your picture was on the application. I recognized you. Actually, Aoki-san, our director, was expecting you yesterday. Did something happen?”

“Really? I'm so sorry. I must have had the time confused, because I wrote down Friday at four.”

“That was the original time, yes. She wanted to change times, because the circumstances changed.”

I liked Yamada-san; she was presenting lots of information, obviously without being aware of it.

“She called!” I tried to sound hysterically upset. “I'm so sorry, I didn't know.”

“I left a text message about the change on your voice mail.”

“My phone is awful!” I cried. “Actually, I've given up on it and bought a new one, so I hope this kind of thing never happens again.” I whipped out the pink phone to show her.

“That's a cute charm. Is it Tokyo Tower?”

“That's right. See, you can light it up by pressing the back.”

We were playing with the charm when a door in the back of the office suddenly opened. I realized I should have been working harder on convincing Seiko to rebook my interview than on showing off a phone charm. The phone clattered to Seiko's desk between us, and she looked as distraught as I. She jumped to her feet and said, “Aoki-san, may I present Shimura Rei, one of yesterday's applicants!”

“You didn't come yesterday. Or call either.” Ms. Aoki, wraith-thin and exactly my height, was about ten years older than I. As she spoke, she was unabashedly inspecting me from head to toe, her gaze lingering on the clothes. After I'd really had a chance to look at her, I realized why: she was wearing Escada, too, one of the other suits that I'd seen in the little video of the designer's collection that had been playing in the boutique where I shopped. But her suit fit her, hitting just at the knee. Obviously, it had been sewn for the Japanese market.

I bowed deeply, thinking to myself what this meant. She liked Escada. Was it a good thing that we both wore the same line, or would it make me seem to be overstepping?

Blessedly, Seiko Yamada interrupted. “She was just telling me, medical emergency. And her telephone wasn't working in the hospital.”

“I didn't see you mention any medical conditions in your application.” Miss Aoki pressed her lips together.

“It—it was my aunt, and normally my mother would help her, but she happened to be traveling away from the city that day.” I prayed I wouldn't forget these details. “And, yes, I'm so sorry, it's true that my telephone wasn't ringing. Not just because we were in the hospital, but because—it was poor quality. So today I bought a new phone. I regret missing out on my greatest employment possibility because I was careless enough to have owned faulty equipment.”

It had been quite a speech; much more talk, in one go, than Taki-san had advised. I hung my head humbly after I was done, looking at my new shoes, which were starting to hurt like hell. If only I could have broken them in first. If only—

“I have a few minutes. Follow me.” Taki-san was using the command form of Japanese, as befit her status. I, on the other hand, had thrown myself into using
keigo
, a kind of old-fashioned, superpolite Japanese spoken at tea ceremonies and in department stores, at least by salesclerks to customers.

I proceeded behind the personnel director into her office, which was large by Japanese office standards, although it was windowless, and stacked almost to the ceiling with file cabinets. There was no computer terminal, perhaps because working at a computer was Seiko Yamada's job. I noticed she'd had a PC on her desk.

Miss Aoki—who I'd decided was probably a miss, because there was no ring on her left hand—motioned for me to sit in a stiff chair facing her desk. She settled back into a luxuriously padded regular office chair. “You sounded different when you were speaking with the secretary, just before I came out. Why is that?”

“Well, ah, I have always thought that in a department store, one would speak formal polite Japanese, so that is why I'm speaking it now—”

“That's correct. You don't ever shift into casual form with another employee, even if there are no customers around.” She paused. “But your formal Japanese, it's a bit strange—almost antiquated, like kabuki.”

“I'm sorry,” I said. “I'll try to do better.”

“Perhaps it comes from—working with antiques.”

I paused, not knowing whether this was an invitation for me to protest or to make some kind of comment. So I did neither.

“Or perhaps it comes from living abroad for a while, then coming back here.” Before I had a chance to figure out a nonanswer to that, Miss Aoki launched into a staccato barrage of questions that corresponded, roughly, to the kind of questions asked everywhere at interview. Why did I want to work at Mitsutan? Answer: to combine my love of fashion, sales, and hospitality in the greatest department store in Japan. What was my greatest weakness?
A tendency to exaggerate
, I thought privately, but said instead, with a rueful smile, that I shopped too much. My greatest strength? I'd thought about this one hard, because I had to be careful not to sound boastful. Then I remembered my whole reason for being at Mitsutan.

“Listening. I think if you listen to people carefully, you can resolve almost any conflict.”

“The thing that marks you out from the other applicants I've seen is your time abroad.”

Damn. She wanted to know about America. Well, I'd do my best with the story that Michael, Taki-san, and I had concocted.

“My father's work—he is an investment banker—brought us there, to California. I went to a girls' school in San Francisco.” My school, actually.

“The one in
The Princess Diaries
?”

So Miss Aoki was a fan of adolescent romantic comedies. I looked at her with new hope.

“No, I'm not sure where that was filmed—I mean, when it came out I was already back here at Waseda University, studying art history.”

“What do you think of foreigners?” she demanded.

This had to be a trick question. Had she seen through my makeup? She'd already detected that my use of
keigo
had a theatrical bent.

“The foreigners were very kind to us,” I said. “It was no problem for me and my family to get along. Of course, we missed Japan very much, which is why we returned.”

“Do you have foreign friends?”

Again, I hesitated. “Yes, I made several good friends at Waseda. It's so nice for me to have the opportunity to keep up my English.”

She put her head to one side. “How's your English?”

“Not too bad. I had some kind teachers in San Francisco, and I enjoyed keeping up my English at Waseda.”

“Ah, then you are a
kokusaijin
,” she said, her voice slowing as she appraised me.

A
kokusaijin
was a term for a Japanese person who was comfortable with foreigners; who wasn't shy about speaking with them, at least. Miss Aoki was so stern that I couldn't tell if this was a compliment or a complaint. So I just looked at her, waiting.

She folded her arms and looked at me. “The fact is, I think I have settled already on the two girls I want to hire for the sales floor. Those positions are no longer available.”

“I understand.” But Michael and Taki-san wouldn't; they'd be horrified that I'd managed, in fifteen minutes, to completely shut myself out of the position we all wanted so badly.

“But you strike me as a
kokusaijin
, and we have an opening for one of those as well.”

“Really?” I knew Japanese stores were staffed with many more people than American stores, but I was stunned to think that they actually had a staff position for a
kokusaijin
; it was the strangest thing I'd ever heard.

“Do you know of our K Team?” Miss Aoki continued.

“I'm sorry, but I don't.”

“Well, perhaps you wouldn't, because a Japanese person wouldn't need to use the service. But we have a personal shopping service for foreigners, known as the Kokusaijin Team. That team is called to interpret and to assist in currency exchange, processing tax rebates, and, of course, gift and clothing selection. The foreigners who can prove residency in Japan get a K Team card, which allows them a five percent discount on everything, and free parking.”

“How nice for them,” I said. “Does the K Team only work with English speakers, then?”

“The team is supposed to be able to help any international customer, but unfortunately, we are not the United Nations. Okuma-san, who oversees currency exchange as well as the K Team, speaks Chinese as well as English and Japanese. Han-san is half Korean, so her languages are Korean, Japanese, and English. There was another employee, Marcelle, who spoke French, Japanese, and English, but she recently repatriated to France. It would have been better if you spoke French or German as well, but English will do.” She raised a cautionary finger. “That is, if your English is truly fluent. I can't promise anything until you take your written and oral language tests.”

The wheels in my mind were spinning. This was better than I had dreamed. If I worked for the K Team, my stomping ground would be the financial services section of the store. I would be able to plant bugs in the area where currency exchange was happening, and I'd have a good excuse to make my way around the store's various departments—that is, if I wasn't constantly busy.

“I speak a little bit of Spanish,” I said. “I'm not fluent, but I'd be willing to help any Spanish-speaking shoppers to the best of my ability.”

For the first time, Aoki-san's mouth edged into a slight smile. “Really? Why didn't you put it on your application?”

“I'm sorry that I didn't. Since this is a Japanese department store, I didn't ever think it would be useful.”

Aoki-san shook her head, as if dismayed at my ignorance. “I'll ask Yamada-san to administer both tests in the waiting area. That is, if you think you are ready.”

“I'd be honored to take the test,” I said, not daring to smile fully, because that could appear too cocky. “Thank you so much, Aokisama, for this tremendous opportunity.”

“One last thing, regarding your application.” Her eyes bored into me. “Where are you living, exactly?”

“In an apartment in Hiroo with my parents. It's only fourteen minutes by subway to Ginza Station.”

“Yes, I saw the address on the application form, but you only listed the cell number. Do your parents know you want to work here? Do they approve?”

“Oh, very much so. I'm sorry, I should have listed the home phone, and I'll do so now,” I answered hastily. “There is an answering machine there, in case I or my parents are not there to answer. A regular telephone is much easier to deal with than a cellular phone, anyway.”

“I noticed you brought your cell phone into the office.” She shook her head. “We don't allow our salespeople to speak on cell phones while working.”

“Of course. I'm sorry that I didn't think of that.” I hung my head.

“Well, now you understand. And nothing's final, anyway, until you pass your tests.”

I wound up with a score of 80 percent in Spanish, and 98 percent in English. I wondered if I'd really flubbed an English answer, or whether the answer sheet was incorrect. Ultimately, it didn't matter. Miss Aoki offered me a job, with the contract to be reconsidered after six successful months. My starting pay was 1,000 yen an hour, but that was offset with a generous ten percent discount, and two free custom-fitted uniforms. The uniforms would be fitted on Monday. I was to join the rest of the incoming class of salespeople at Mitsutan's manners-training program, which lasted through Wednesday. Then I would be introduced to my new boss, Mrs. Okuma; and the Korean-Japanese saleswoman already on the K Team, Miyo Han.

 

“Congratulations, although I knew you'd pull it off,” Michael said when I telephoned him afterward with the good news. It was six-thirty on Friday night in Tokyo, which meant eight-thirty on Friday morning in Washington.

“Plan B worked,” I said, realizing that all I'd done was follow the directions he'd given me.

“Great. I just hope you don't wind up working there the full six months,” Michael said. “By the way, do you know how many spies it takes to change a lightbulb?”

“Tell me.”

“Only one, but it took three senior advisers to agree that it was broken in the first place.”

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