Monday, March 24, 2014

japan: my grandfather

I thought I'd post a little something different today and get a little more personal since this is a personal blog. I always enjoy when other bloggers talk about the elements that make up who they are as people, so I thought I'd start with some Japan posts, beginning with my family. People often ask who my inspirations in life are and I'll be the first to admit that my inspirations don't go far beyond the bounds of family but since I have found myself needing more and more inspiration these days, I thought I'd write about one: my grandfather. 

My grandfather worked for the Toyota company when it first began decades ago and was the first person from the company to go to New York in 1957 and open up shop, as it were. The first person. Ever. In the years after WWII, Japan’s economy was in shambles - like the rest of the country - so the only way to salvage it was to get foreign currency circulating within it. In this case, the US dollar. Problem was, basically no one on the international scene even wanted anything Japan had to offer (which, to be honest, wasn’t much). My grandfather described these early exports as primitive - ceramic plates, bowls, silk stockings, etc. So Toyota scraped up adequate funds, sent my grandfather over for six months with a few traveler’s checks and ordered him to try and get the Americans interested in Japanese exports. But this was a whole lot easier said than done because everything about Japanese exports was wrong. When my grandfather would bring samples to potential customers, they’d find something to pick at: the color was wrong, the shape was wrong and (in the case of fabrics) even the weave was wrong. All this time my grandfather was sending back reports to Toyota stating what the issues were and, over a good deal of time, the quality of Japanese goods improved to the point that Americas were buying. Thus, the Toyota Trading Company was born.

My grandfather worked with the international trade branch within the Toyota company, which includes the automobile branch but extends far beyond it. I always forget to distinguish between the two since, growing up, Toyota was always more or less a single entity in my mind consisting of both branches. However, I began realizing that to most people Toyota is merely the name of an automobile maker. So to clarify: my grandfather was the vice-president of Toyota North-America, but presided over international trade which naturally included cars but also fabrics, foodstuffs, etc etc etc. He is currently retired and has been for years though he is still marginally involved in the company. He is part of the Toyota Society, a group of retirees who meet a few times a month for business affairs as well as chummy fun - golf, ma-jung and luncheons. He also is the auditor for his friend’s engineering company, which keeps him busy. Sometimes I think he should take it easy, not to take on so much and to relax more. A big part of me is afraid of when my grandfather passes away and I don’t really want him to rush that day, though it will come when it wants to, I suppose. I don’t know, I can hear the voices of my mom and some friends telling me not to worry about it, about my grandfather’s inevitable death. And I don’t think about it often, obviously, just when I am reminded that he is getting old and that no one lives forever. I will admit that when he passes away, I will be crushed for a very long time.

My grandmother always called him katsuo, a kind of fish that is constantly moving because were it to stop moving it would die. There is a legend in Japan about the katsuo who constantly swim around the world, not because it was afraid it would die were it to stop - it kept swimming simply because it loved movement and didn’t want to stop. That describes my grandfather perfectly, he is always on the go, not egged on by a fear of death. He is always in a suit, no matter where we’re going, be it a quick run to the grocery store or to an orchestra concert in an upscale concert hall. In fact, I have never seen him not wearing a suit in public. A few years ago we went shopping together and came across the men’s jeans section of the store. He paused for a moment, hands clasped behind his back, dressed in a grey pin-stripe suit, black shoes polished and suddenly looks over at me and said, “Maybe I should start wearing jeans, wouldn’t that be different!” with a laugh. I laughed right along with him, trying to picture him in a pair of jeans. And you know what? I couldn’t do it. I am so used to seeing him in his suits, looking perfectly comfortable and casual just as I feel in my jeans and cardigans, that to picture him any other way was nigh impossible. Needless to say, he’s still sticking to the suits. He is a businessman at heart but also a businessman with a heart. Growing up as a teenager during WWII and the years following, he was confronted with the jarring reality of life in a country on the losing side of war (never a fun place to be). For years people were starving to death around him and there was never enough of anything. One thing I always admired about my grandfather was how human he is, how conscientious of others around him whether it was people he came across in business circles, societal circles or someone he passed in the grocery store. He was a very successful businessman, but the money never got to his head. Instead, the images of starvation and struggle remain firmly imbedded within him; his greatest joy comes from making other people happy. We were eating at a very fancy, delicious sushi shop one night and as I ate (with ‘child-like bliss’ my uncle later informed me) my grandfather watched me with such joy in his eyes. My uncle looks over and says with a grin, “Grandpa grew up in a time when everyone starved to death so his greatest joy is watching the people he loves eat good food”.

The war taught my grandfather and those in his generation to persevere and work themselves to the bone because there was no other alternative. He helped build one of the largest and most successful companies in the world, yet still remains incredibly down-to-earth. It’s insane. He is accepting, he is loving, he is understanding and compassionate. I wish that everyone had someone in their life like him, someone to look you square in the eye lovingly but firmly tell you to keep going, to keep on chugging away at life. Someone to whom you can look at and realize that yes, love does in fact cover a multitude of sins - including those that were inflicted upon you.

I hope that someday I can be like him. I don’t know how realistic that is, but there’s nothing wrong with having lofty goals, yes?

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