The other day…

…. we get a call from Mr. Ishii. It’s time to bring the car in for a service and check-up, and yes, he will come to pick the vehicle up, if we give him a time that is convenient to us.

Toyota is a Japanese industrial powerhouse that has its roots firmly in the soils of this land. In 1937, Kiichiro Toyoda shifted the focus of the family loom making business to automobiles and since then the family of Toyoda has been strongly linked to the management of the Toyota brand to see it become the world’s largest automotive manufacturer. Through production method innovation, quality management and firm guiding principles based on the common good, this company has set the standard for others to follow.

It is true that Henry Ford introduced the idea of the production line and the standardisation that that implies. However, think of Detroit and US car production at its heyday and you could also pick out the inefficiencies in the system that led to inordinate amounts of waste from stockpiled parts and components to finished vehicles parked idle in lots awaiting buyers. “Build it and the buyers will buy,” is not an approach that is employed at Toyota. The “Just in time” system in which components and parts arrive at the production line as needed in order to produce a product that is wanted, are at the core of Toyota’s success. Enough parts are stocked to enable assembly, but parts are only replaced after usage and so the need for acres of parts storage facilities is eliminated. The fact that a product is built on demand, also means that vehicles do not sit idle awaiting sale once assembled.

The guiding principles and philosophies of the company as stated on its PR material are not just for decoration. Whenever we deal with this firm, we get a strong sense that they are worthy of trust, take pride in their products and value the customer. This is certainly the case with Mr. Ishii with whom we have had a solid automotive relationship with over the last 15 years that we have been in Tokyo.

To be honest, a car is not really necessary in Tokyo. The train system is so ultra efficient, reliable and safe that taking the option of buying a car and subjecting yourself to endless stop start traffic, horrendous freeway jams and exorbitant running costs seems a total waste of resources. However, the train lines all seem to run to a central point around which other lines radiate out both above and under ground. The quickest route between two points on a map is not necessarily achieved by taking the train, and so a car can be useful. So too, a car is useful around Tokyo in order to get out of the city sprawl to explore the countryside and hills of Okutama and beyond. I can’t really say that I have ever taken the car for a drive in the mountains, but should I be tempted to do so, then the means exist for the desire to be accomplished.

We first met Mr. Ishii when we had saved up enough money to buy a second hand Corolla. His car yard was a short walk from the tiny apartment we were living in at the time and it seemed he had a fair selection of shiny and relatively modern cars on the lot. We were inspecting some of the vehicles on offer, when after a short time a 30s something man in a dark grey suit came up to us and introduced himself as Mr. Ishii, the yard salesman. He appeared to be a rather humble and quiet man who listened carefully to what we wanted without being pushy. He said that within our stated budget there was really only one car that would be suited and that was an earlier model Corolla, which although was only 5 years old, was still considered a “done by” car in Japan. Surprisingly, the car he eventually showed us was a spotless silver, four door sedan that looked almost brand new and had about 30,000 km on the clock. Coming from a land where 30,000km over 5 years seems suspicious to say the least, he assured us that the previous owner had used the car essentially as a shopping trolley and to run occasional errands locally. The car itself was in perfect order and drove like a dream. That was his first sale to us.

I have had some very interesting dealings with unscrupulous car salesmen in the past, probably all connected to the gullibility of youth on my part and the need to make income on their parts. In one instance I fell for a sales pitch that had me buying a Volkswagen Beetle that had been tinkered with by some well meaning but incompetent backyard mechanic, or a series of them. The thing looked great, with its metallic dark blue paint, wide wheels, modified twin weber carburettors and free flow exhaust and on first appearances it was just the car a young guy opts for. After being suckered in to paying the princely sum of $3000, I drove the vehicle home only to find that the more I drove it, the more problems seemed to appear. The racy little steering wheel had an unusual amount of slack in it before actually engaging the steering, the indicators did not work, when the wipers were turned on it resulted in smoke coming through the ventilation system and it seemed that the suspension was being helped along by a brick in the back left hand corner. The only reason I managed to return the VW and recoup the full sales price was that at the time I had some rather hefty friends who could look mean and threatening when called upon to do so. Interestingly the same car was later sold to a colleague of mine at work who confirmed that the electrics were posing a little problem when it rained. Having no recourse to hefty shady friends he seemed stuck with his purchase though. I should have offered him some “heavy” service in retrospect.

In another instance I bought what appeared to be a fine Holden Torana 1850. The exterior had just been repainted a shiny British racing green and it had a wonderful set of fat tyres on it that made it a must have. I seemed not to have learned from the recent VW experience and this one too was a dud as the carpets took on the task of soaking up all and any water that came cascading through the numerous rust holes in the body whenever it rained. I took the car to a local panel beaters and remember that he actually laughed when I asked him to fix the problem, apparently there was not much metal left to do anything with. I dread to think what would have happened had I had an accident in the thing. Probably the motor would have ended up on my lap as there was no barrier other than epoxy resin between me and it. On the upside though, the lack of metal in the body made the car light and highly maneuverable.

I digress.

What set Mr. Ishii apart was his attention to detail and his after sales service. Always unobtrusive, always polite, always observant and ready to meet our vehicular needs. He rang us when a service was due, he picked up the car for servicing, he supplied us with mountains of brand-stamped tissue boxes and cleaners for the inside of the car free of charge, he sent us calendars and New Year’s greetings; I get the feeling that had I been Jewish he would have gladly attended my son’s Bar mitzvah, if we had had a son.

I suspect that Mr. Ishii cares about the vehicles he sells almost like family members. He appears to have a sixth sense that lets him know when there has been an incident that needs his attention and he also shares with me an inability to comprehend why my wife insists on a tactile approach when driving. Maybe it’s a spatial awareness thing, or lack thereof, but sitting in the passenger seat while my wife hurtles along the narrow Tokyo streets has turned many a passenger into trembling blobs of jelly in the space of 10 minutes. I remember clearly when Mr. Ishii and I went along for a test drive with her. With each approaching car, my wife moved further and further left. Not a problem with that, except for the fact that concrete service pylons are placed in rather haphazard places along the sides of streets in Tokyo; some being almost a step in to the general traffic stream, whilst other are placed firmly against the roadside railings, really there is no pattern. Mostly we watch out for the erratically placed concrete poles, but on this occasion both Mr. Ishii and I were shielding our eyes and bringing up our legs to protect the family jewels, bracing for what seemed an inevitable impact. Luckily it never happened. And equally luckily, my wife was unaware of the trauma she had induced in us. Not sure what he is going to say when he sees the state of our current vehicle which has suffered greatly from the above “keep left” policy, but I will have a box of tissues handy should he need it.

There is no real reason why anyone should trade in a perfectly good vehicle is there? But over the years that we have been in Japan we have owned a series of steeds ranging from a sublime Lexus to the ridiculous, but adorable, current incarnation of the IQ which is really nothing more than a sofa with wheels attached to the sides, a motor plonked in front and more airbags than a mattress showroom. More to the point, Mr. Ishii has helped us with the exchange process along the way; calmly figuring out what he could give us for a trade in, asking what other companies have offered and then equally calmly giving us more on the trade. When the Toyota GT86 came out he saw me salivating over the demonstration model, and knowing my liking for the sporty, he quietly suggested a test drive. However, at the time I was suffering from a lower back issue and seeing how low to the ground the vehicle was, I had to regretfully decline his invitation. I am certain that had my nether regions been up to scratch that day, that I would have driven home in a red sportster and thus proving once and for all the stereotype of the middle aged guy in crisis.

Over the years Mr. Ishii has remained almost unchanged as far as appearances are concerned. It still seems to be the same suit that we saw him in all those years ago, let alone the hair style. What has changed is that our trustworthy car salesman has gone up in the world so that it appears the world about him has changed and he has merely stood still observing it all. From the modest car yard of our first meeting, he progressed to various branches in west Tokyo, and each time there seemed to be more staff for him to manage and more responsibilities to test his mettle. The last time we had dealings with him he was obviously the number one guy at the top of the ladder, yet still he maintained the modest and humble nature that sees us going back when needed. Perhaps he values our return patronage, too, or maybe he doesn’t understand why we are so loyal to him. One thing is certain, he gracefully declines being a passenger on any test drive my wife undertakes.

A lesson well learned.

…. of all things

The other day….

…. I was thinking back to the time when I first met him. A 6ft tall, well-built African American in crisply pressed army coloured clothes; short sleeved khaki shirt, darker twill trousers, black leather belt and shined up black shoes. The man was an immediate success to the eye. He bore himself with a sense of pride that immediately set him apart from any company he was with. In a nutshell, Dr. Dave was all about first impressions.

There was a casual confidence about him that made you feel instantly at ease with him. Here was a man who was self-assured, but also welcoming and accepting of others. He was engaging, intelligent and sociable. Meeting the Dr. was like meeting a long lost favourite uncle.

At our first meeting, Dave was 53 years old and working as an English teacher at the school I had just been appointed to in west Tokyo. He had strong connections to the US military and had been a practicing on-base psychologist until he was retired at the age of 45. With Dave, being moved on from the force was impossible; you could take Dave out of the army, but you could not take the army out of Dave – it was part and parcel of the man; his very essence. At his core, Dave saw himself as a battle hardened warrior, a veteran of the field. In his imagination, Dave was at war.

In Japan, with its long history of martial arts, Dave took the idea of the feudal samurai warrior to heart and crafted his self image around it. He took up kendo and would often carry the bulky protective armour and helmet with him. If not that, there was almost always a sleek bamboo practice sword strapped to his back. The ubiquitous shinai was part of his image. Sometimes, with his gear strapped to his back and the sword slung over his shoulder, Dave would put on his warrior face and jog on the road from the train station to the school; on the way passing many bemused students and teachers who would walk the distance in a casual 30 minutes. I soon learned that there was no particular reason for lugging the gear and sword with him other than a “just in case” scenario that constantly played in his mind. He wanted to be ready and he wanted to remain fighting fit. On arriving at his office, he would dump his sparring gear in the corner of the room, where it would stay until the end of the day; well mostly.

We shared an office space with about five other teachers. The desks were crammed together in a small space that competed with books, photo copiers, coffee making facilities and other paraphernalia. Not much space between desks to stretch out or move about in. On one particular day, I was returning from class and as I was approaching our office from down the corridor I heard what sounded like a kiai coming from the room. I had no idea what to expect, but thought that Dave might be at the root of it. I was right. When I entered the office, Dave had his shinai out, his warrior face on, and was practicing his kendo moves up and down the aisle between the desks in an otherwise empty office. At the end of each pass he would utter a kiai and bring his sword down for a strike to the head of his imaginary opponent. I stood slack jawed and in awe of the spectacle before me. Dave was oblivious of me and focused entirely on the battle at hand. He obviously had been fighting for some time as the sweat on his brow indicated. At the end of one particular pass, Dave was a little too enthusiastic with the sword and lifting it high, sent it slicing through the plaster ceiling tiles that popped and lifted from their suspended grid. This was enough to break Dave’s concentration and he looked up to inspect the damage he had done. Then, turning around he finally noticed my presence and offered me one of his warmest smiles. Warrior face instantly gone, he put down his shinai and sat back at his desk, wiping the sweat from his brow.

Unarmed combat was also a passion for Dave. He could speak endlessly about the technologies developed for war and how they were used to kill and maim, but hand to hand, man to man, warrior to warrior, “till death do us part” type scenarios were a favourite. In that sense karate appealed to him, but beyond that there was the gentle art of tai chi chuan. I was never sure why this seemingly innocuous dance, still practiced in the parks of Beijing today, was of interest to Dave, until I understood that the slow circular dance was developed as a fighting style by shaolin monks in ancient China and was at the core of modern day kung-fu. Tai chi utilises the opponent’s strength and turns it back to the aggressor. The warrior in this case becomes a master of the life force called chi and uses his own, plus the opponent’s, to disarm, maim or kill. At the height of his interest in this art, Dave would practice his hard soft moves at any opportunity he got. He would adopt a bent at the knee stance and consciously lower his body a couple of clicks and then begin waving his hands in front of his body in a figure eight move known as “wave hands like clouds” or another one called “grasping the swallows tail” that involved shifting the weight on to the back foot whilst reeling in an imaginary bird by the tail. One of the more memorable moments came when I was disturbed from my preparations by heavy guttural breathing from the end of the room near the office kitchen area. I got up to take a closer look, and there was Dr. Dave with his back towards me, knees bent, hands pushing against the doors of the refrigerator and emitting a dragon breath, no doubt to stimulate the power of his chi from his belly button. I left him to it, slowly edging back so as not to disturb the obvious communion taking place between warrior and whiteware.

Dave believed that the army had a role for anyone and was its best advocate. It provided guidance, discipline, sustenance and a reason for living; even if that reason was the killing of other human beings, the destruction of the environment and the destabilising of enemy economies. He was a true patriot and had the greatest admiration and respect for the members of the marine core, whom he saw as the embodiment of the values that drove him personally. In his classes at school, Dave would not really focus on his students or the task of teaching; his mission was to tell all of the glories of war and the brotherhood of blood. In one case I witnessed Dave telling a class of wide eyed 7th graders about the intricacies of anti personnel mines that were booby trapped and spring loaded so that when activated by a person’s foot they would release an explosive charge designed to explode at the level of the head and chest, thus immediately killing the victim. Tales from as far back as Vietnam to the more recent Desert Storm were told and retold with equal animated vigour as if he had actually been there himself.

Along his life path Dave was at one time married and has a son of whom he is immensely proud. Unfortunately, his marriage did not last the distance and he found himself as a solo dad in Tokyo with the responsibilities that that implies. With not a bitter bone in his body, Dave would recount how his ex-wife had decided to leave him to go to university to develop her career. She did so with his blessing, but left a man who became increasingly desperate over the years to find a new life partner. His charm and natural wit were endearing to many, but did not always work. His method of approach proved to be formulaic and involved impressing the candidate with his doctorate, the name of the university he had attended and the fact that he was writing a book; all true and impressive details that would soften up any would be mate. At one time we were on the look out for a new staff member and were in the process of reviewing applicants’ CVs. We were supposedly combing through the pile of applications to isolate the top 10 candidates for interviewing. One particular CV caught my attention, not because it was outstandingly good, but because it kept reappearing in the “likely” pile, even after it had been moved to the “unlikely” pile a number of times. Over the course of the few days that we were considering applications this happened again and again. It seemed that Dr. Dave was particularly impressed by the candidate and wanted her to be given an interview.

On the day of the interviews Dave was on his best behaviour and it seemed to me, even more smartly dressed than usual. When the candidate in question arrived at the office, he was immediately out to impress like a peacock courting a reluctant hen. He introduced himself as Dr. B, and as we gave her a brief tour of the campus, I witnessed how he took out his well polished trophies to embellish his show and tell. He told her his doctorate was in psychology; she was not impressed. He told her the name of his university; she was not impressed. He told her that he was writing a book; she was not impressed. He told her about his son and how good he was at school; she was not impressed. He even joked with her in his basic Japanese; she was not impressed. By the end of the guided tour, I was feeling almost as hopeless and desperate as Dave must have been feeling himself. In the following interview, the candidate related her surprise at being asked to come in to see us as it was obvious from her CV that she had had no teaching experience and probably her only saving grace was that her English was proficient. We did not tell her that she was there at Dave’s insistence as he was looking for someone to be a mom to his boy. She left the building without so much as a backward glance at Dave who was left standing alone at the entrance looking a little embarrassed with himself.

One final snapshot of Dr. Dave shows his immense respect for the Top Guns amongst us. Dave valued effort, education and excellence. He himself was an epitome of the heights a poor New Jersey boy could aspire to and his rank as a Lieutenant Colonel gave him the respect of many a rank and file soldier whom he related to in a friendly father like manner. Seeing Dave operating in his element made me realise the heart quality of the man. He really did care about the grunts, and they knew it. Beyond Dave’s personal achievements were those who had surpassed all; the cream of the crop, the top 2% of the top 10% and Dave had enormous respect for them. Think of the men who have walked on the moon and list them: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John W. Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. Twelve men who represented the furthest the hand of humanity has stretched to date. Twelve men who not only touched the sky by standing on the shoulders of others, but left footprints on moon dust to prove they had achieved the goal. And when Eugene Cernan came to visit, Dr. Dave was bristling with pride. At the end of the astronaut’s talk to the assembled student body, Dave raced out of the building and placed himself in an intercepting position so that Eugene Cernan would have to walk passed him. As the astronaut walked up, Dave took a step out introduced himself formally with rank and name and asked if he could salute Cernan. Without a single misstep the two men squared off and stood to attention. Dave pushed out his chest, put on his warrior face, looked steely eyed in to the distance and snapped a perfect salute.

“At ease soldier,” said Cernan.