A few months ago I came across this article by Ruth Alexander on the BBC website, about the surprising popularity of the Business Novel in Japan.
Surprising to outsiders maybe, but if you live and work here, it’s immediately obvious why the genre is so successful, since the influence of business is immense, not least on the psychology of the individual. I can easily understand why someone working twelve hours a days in his or her ‘kaisha’ (company) should seek to pass the commute immersed in a fictional account of the world of work. As Alexander points out, customs and pragmatism dictate that dissatisfaction is rarely expressed in the workplace. As a result, Japanese, like anyone else, turn to imaginary heroes to show them a way out of the impossible web that a large company structure presents.
Based on my recent conversations with students learning English for business purposes, and inspired by a fresh reading of that great work, Gulliver’s Travels, I now humbly propose to the reader my
PROLOGUE FOR AN UNWRITTEN BUSINESS NOVEL
A has been posted to an overseas assignment. His mission is to ensure that PLANT 14, acquired by LBX Corp two years ago, maintains an upward trajectory of productivity.
There are several reasons why A has been chosen for this role. Firstly: he is a long-standing employee of LBX Corp; he has gained experience and the respect of his colleagues during fifteen lengthy years of service.
Secondly: A has spent the past nine years in management roles of increasing levels of responsibility. He is ready for the task.
Thirdly: The Board of Executives view A as future Executive material. It has long been company tradition that before taking on an Executive role, managers must prove themselves in overseas environments.
Fourthly: A is a competent speaker of THE GLOBAL TONGUE. Senior Executives whom he has accompanied on overseas trips have had reason to note this.
Fifthly: The permanent leadership position at PLANT 14 has been vacant for four weeks, since the unexpected loss of the previous manager, K.
A meeting has been called to inform A of this decision. Present are the Company Chairman, the Head of A’s Section (also a member of the Board of Executives), and the Company’s Head of Human Resources, Miss H. The meeting takes place in the boardroom, on the forty ninth floor of Head Office Tower. The window commands a superb view of the metropolis, with the rebuilt Imperial Palace in the centre. Standing close to the glass, executives can look down on the National Assembly, the government buildings, and the Prime Minister’s Residence with its garden and wall of fir trees.
The other attendees were already present when A arrived. Despite being early, he apologised for keeping them waiting. The usual niceties were observed, following which the Chairman informed A of his assignment. A expressed gratitude, and in the accustomed form, pledged to repay his debt to the company for the trust they had placed in him. A’s Section Chief then informed him of the importance of the mission. A acknowledged his understanding of the fact, and reiterated his commitment to the goals outlined. The Chairman thanked A, and, switching to an informal register, informed him that the colour of his suit matched the fabric on the boardroom chairs very nicely. It hardly need be said that this was a way of hinting to A that a Head of Section Role was awaiting him, should he be successful in this assignment. A, a man of some culture, smiled and quoted the proverb which can be translated into the Global Tongue as ‘A Wise Man Observes the Colours of his Master’s House’. The chairman laughed and told him that soon he would see ‘many many colours’ (another proverb), but hopefully not so many as would make him blind (the Chairman’s invention). There was much laughter at this among the four. They were seated two by two at the top of the boardroom table, though leaving empty, of course, the seat at the head belonging to the Company’s Octogenarian President and Founder.
A lies awake, sweating off the alcohol the Chairman and the Section Chief poured down his throat. Before the drinks, he called his wife to inform her of the assignment. They had already discussed the possibility of him going overseas. After much agonising, they had decided that it would be better for his wife and young son to remain behind, though in the event, given the location of Plant 14, there would have been no other option. When A returned home after midnight, she and the three year old boy were already sleeping together in the large bed. A went into the spare room and crawled into the single bed. He fell quickly into an alcoholic sleep, but after a couple of hours woke up again. Now it is three thirty am. He has to get up for work in two hours.
No one knows this, but A suffers from bouts of a crippling lack of confidence in his abilities. Such a bout is assailing him now: visions of failure and humiliation leap unbidden into his brilliant but fragile brain. He has bought numerous books on how to control these emotions, and now he tries to employ the diverse techniques they suggest.
Finally, he identifies the precise point that is bothering him. It is that at the drinks, no further mention was made of what happened to K. Unable to sleep, A gives up trying. He enters the messages on his laptop, and locates the one he was looking for:
Memorandum: to all staff
It is with sadness and regret that LBX Corp must inform staff of the loss of a valued and gifted employee, K. As many employees will have been aware, K was heading up the important work being carried out at our recently acquired Plant 14. To his credit, in the fourteen months since his taking on the role, productivity more than doubled, while on a recent inspection by Quality Control, procedural standards including safety were found to have greatly improved.
The Company thanks K for his tireless efforts throughout a long career which began sixteen years ago in the Engineering Division, where he spent seven years before taking on a role in quality control, as a Chief Officer much loved by his staff. A successful two year stint as Operational Manager of Plant 9 was then followed by his final assignment to Plant 14.
A brief memorial service for K will take place at 1pm in the company canteen, for any employees wishing to attend.
A closes the message. He then recalls when he first heard about the incident with K, only the day after it happened. This was in conversation with his coetaneous colleague C from Corporate Communications. The two had been in the queue together in the office canteen.
C (in conspiratorial tones): Have you heard about K?
A: I got the feeling there was something going on out at Plant 14. What’s up?
C: (at close quarters, giving A a whiff of the tobacco he’s addicted to) This is not official knowledge. But apparently K climbed a ladder and pitched himself into one of the vats. Nasty way to go, boiling alive.
Those words rebound inside A’s skull now. ‘Nasty way to go, boiling alive’. Mentally, he attempts to translate them into the Global Tongue. He realises he does not know how to capture their colloquial import: he can only say ‘Boiling alive is an unpleasant way to die’. This is the other factor that is bothering him: he does not share his superiors’ confidence in his linguistic abilities. What if he does not understand the native workers, and they don’t understand him? They will not take him seriously. Productivity will drop, and quality will also suffer, as they realise they can return to their sluggish ways.
K was a natural leader. A is nothing of the sort. In his own language, he can play the part of one – but how on earth will he do this in THE GLOBAL TONGUE?