I cannot hide anything while you are here: so you are fired!

This old tactic is absolutely the sleaziest of all inelegant ways to terminate someone:

You're Fired!

Let me give you a hand there…

CFM Asia, k.k. (“Capital Fund Management”) is a global French company with a proprietary technology that crunches numbers, then churns this into financial products. These are highly sought by pension funds and banks.

CFM Asia, k.k. incorporated in Tokyo 5 years ago, hiring a Japanese trilingual go-getter to facilitate the process. This individual found their real estate, set-up shop, handled the accounting; you know the type? In 5 years, the company flourished and the staff doubled, brought-in two expatriate technicians from Paris. This Japanese national continued to play the key roll as the technicians spoke no Japanese and the Representative Director needed his own level of handling. Eventually, he was promoted upstairs and now runs the London operations. A really great guy.

So CFM kicks over some rocks and hires a new guy… spends a couple of months in transition, then left to his own devices. But this staffer-with-the-company-from-the-start knows everything: handles everything, facilitates everything, translates, interfaces with FTC. This, of course, drives new guy nuts. So he plots. And waits. And spreads stories that undermines her credibility & standing and boosts his own; you know the type?

Finally, when all things are in place, after a long vacation that includes a secret couple of days at the headquarters to deliver the coup de’ gras, he arrives in Tokyo… everything planned-out in advance (including hiring replacement, her first day on this explosive day!).

He gets in early that morning before anyone else, all a’quiver with excitement. New girl arrives early too. The ambush is set.

Our earnest employee arrives for work a bit before 9:00 a.m. as usual. It is a warm Spring day, yet before she can make it to her desk, bossman ushers her into the conference room. “Oh, welcome back! How was your trip?” He responds after sitting her down, “Sorry, but today is your last day. Here is your Resignation Letter, please sign here, here (and pointing with the pen she is to use…) and here. You can come back tomorrow when everyone is gone to collect your things. Thank you for your work here…”

You might think this is unfathomable but this kind of story happens with enough frequency in small foreign companies with bosses who don’t have a clue, but finally feel their “lock” on power.

This battle is still in full-swing. CFM Asia has hired a local law firm, so they are busy cobbling together “cause” of enough enormity so to justify immediate termination, but this just will not fly: too much mental gymnastics & re-depiction of reality is required.

So what should one do in such a predicament? Go to a bengoshi… file a suit… argue by throwing stones at the castle walls? There are plenty of ways to go about righting this kind of wrong, the most effective is (the same way you eliminate mold) exposure to sunlight.

The essential points here are:
1.) If you are going to hire a fox to watch over the chickens, don’t let the fox… first eat… the chickens; and
2.) If a company treats valued & dedicated employees so shabbily, how will they secretly treat their valued-customers?

In normal Japanese society, this kind of corporate behavior is exceedingly rare. No foreign capital company or know-nothing Representative Director should get a “pass” with such torrid behavior and be able to say, “opps! well, sorry, talk to my bengoshi…” That is what’s known in the vernacular as chickensh*t… and something you would normally expect from a financial services company… in Japan??!

They are at it again: Sloppy terminations in Tokyo.

It’s been a while since reporting on some of the nasty, sneaky tricks companies pull on unsuspecting employees in Japan.

Takin' for a ride...

Takin’ for a ride…

These tricks are companies’ attempts to whittle-down, right-size or rationalize employee ranks. They do this by skirting Japanese laws and social norms established within the confines of their own companies here. “I don’t want to hear again how Japan is different! Just do what I say!” is frequently the background music for these stories.

Many of the formerly favorite tactics have fallen by the wayside precisely because of exposure through blogs like this one. In their place, new and slightly tweaked older tactics rise to the top and hit my radar. Here are some current flavors-of-the-mouth.

1. “I don’t like what you did two years ago so I decided you’re fired.”
2. “After negotiating a voluntary resignation successfully, headquarters decided to post-date to 3 months ago, thereby reducing what you thought you were getting, hahahaha. Take it or leave it.”
3. “No one likes you; you’re fired”.
4. “You refused to move HK (so we could easily fire you there) so you’re fired.”

More details to follow in a daily update here. There are a lot of take-aways but if a reputable company is going to treat their “most valued resource “ (employees) as these stories reveal, one has to wonder about their view of their “valued customers”. Definitely something to chew on. To follow in sequence:

1.) CFM Asia (in Japanese/English/French);
2.) Sigma-Aldrich Japan;
3.) Bank of America Merrill Lynch – brought to you by HR Director Leisa Nagy;
4.) UBS AG Japan.

End of War in Okinawa

Maybe because I grew-up on this tortured tropical island, the reminder today of the Okinawa_turtle_back_tomb69th anniversary of the fall of Okinawa to US forces jumped-out at me like a punch to the gut.

This 90-day battle was epic even among truly epic battles elsewhere in the three WWII theatres (Pacific, Europe, Africa).  Ninety-days!  What this could have possibly been like?  Simply, it had to have boggled… even now, it must even now boggle the mind and shock one’s sensibilities.

Today … we too are confronted with global trends and aspects of the economy, the human-condition that we cannot quite grasp.  Things are underfoot that we cannot quite accept as reality.  We in fact refuse to believe: they are too huge, too incomprehensible. They run counter to everything that our society, our religions and our training have guided us to conclude about the world and how things “work”, i.e., the financial collapse, drone-surveillance, the bail-outs, NSA big data vacuuming, the encroaching death of the US Constitution, the black-shirted TSA, the US war-machine. But back then, too, alien concepts were thrust upon Americans.

With this reference, try to put yourself back in time, after the Marco-Polo Bridge Incident, then Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore.  Not so long ago… consider this:

Guadalcanal was a shocker.  America for the first time was confronted with the ferocity of the Jap fighters, the concealment of nests, the tactics employed, the tunneling, the inhumane treatment of prisoners, the preference of death-over-capture, reverence for the Emperor.  Only afterwards and with the benefit of hindsight was anyone able to appreciate any of this at all.  While astounding, we would not be mesmerized today if kamikaze-type fighters plunged into ships in a far-off war.  Back then, this new tactic in fact had soldiers and sailors frozen in place, so new and incomprehensible a sight it presented.  Comparably, it would be as if watching an authentic star-fighter warship, replete with hieroglyphic symbols and bearing obvious scarring / discoloration from an ageless trip, landing today, just there, a stone’s throw away!

Similarly, when sleepy, countrified, insular & agrarian America joined the world community and was confronted by something equally incomprehensible (the Japanese), we too were dumbfounded.  Honestly, people on decks of aircraft-carriers already on fire stood mesmerized as plane after plane struggled to crash INTO them (kamikaze), or waves of Jap soldiers with bayonets charged foxholes (and usually successful!), having wrapped each other tightly in gauze so that even if hit, they could continue.  This tactic created the absolute necessity for the deployment of the .45 which would drop an elephant.  They just couldn’t kill these other-worldly Japs.

Unfathomable.  Yet, just like us today.  Lost in our training, schmeared in the lie that is consumerism controlled by mass-media, (and thinking it is “natural”), pursuing money… never getting “there”.

My teenage pals and I came to know all the battlefields in Okinawa by exploring caves in jungle fatigues, crawling like tunnel-rats, outstretched arms holding candles, probing into the damp, heavy darkness, waving away cobwebs, squealing like little girls at monstrous bugs, centipedes, spiders… always forward.  Reading topography for possible jungle-swallowed sniper-nests; being rewarded with discoveries of bones, ordinance, undiscovered cache, discarded bodies, hidden tunnel openings.  And this insatiable appetite was not just generated by a terrain burdened with raw, recent and abundant scars.

We would dive in turquoise colored waters that sometimes dropped suddenly hundreds of feet, hovering like skydivers over bombed-out wrecks.  The battle of Okinawa, the gashes in the landscape, pill-boxes and gun-emplacements, rusting wrecks were all daily reminders to us and the Okinawans, only 2/3 of whom were fortunate-enough to have survived this hell a mere 20 years earlier. Wounds everywhere were gaping, though healing. Slowly.

During the very brief period of this battle, one third of the 300,000 Ryukyuan population were annihilated, most of the children, all the young men.  All livestock, chickens, pigs: gone.  Agriculture came to a complete halt months before the campaign.  Ryukyuans who spoke in their native dialect were killed as potential spies, not even a second-consideration given: “just do it”.  Entire villages were regimented, 100% of them!  Tunnels were dug everywhere: into sacred tombs, into naturally occurring limestone caverns (lots of these!), double-backs formed into the hills, concealments in water-wells, inside ponds, under floorboards of houses.  Ninety-days!  And every inch intended to be a bloody, hand-to-hand battle.

In any conflict, to suffer a double-digit loss is a catastrophe: a 5% attrition guarantees a courts-martial. Historically, casualties will normally be three times greater than fatalities.  But THESE were civilians!  For Japan, Okinawa could simply not be lost.

Soldiers from all over Japan poured into the islands.  Eventually, 100,000 soldiers occupied the island and conscripted the locals.  Fewer than 8% of these soldiers survived.  The largest battleship ever built (even today) was the mighty Yamato with a crew of 3,000.  In transit, on a one-way kamikaze mission to “rescue” Okinawa (to be purposefully beached in Buckner Bay), it was sent to the bottom with all-hands.  The US forces lost 12,500 soldiers suffering an astounding 5 time multiple in casualties.  Even more sobering is the fact that as bad as it was on land, the Navy suffered more deaths than the army or the marines.  In fact, the Navy suffered more deaths than casualties, a rare reversal generated from the successful plunder of kamikaze attacks.

The most lasting impact of the battle is vivid and well-preserved.  I’ve visited Okinawa and outlaying islands endlessly since departing Okinawa to focus my career on this marvelous, insanely-difficult-to-master country & culture.  The final days of the battle focused on the southern tip as defensive-position after defensive-position fell (none “surrendered”) and as a smaller and increasingly more decimated bands of soldiers retreated, eventually carving-out a last-stand on the Mabuni hills of the Itoman peninsula.

Clean-up lasted another month as the beachhead at Buckner was expanded and mopping-up increasingly centered around the Cliffs area. At this time, the caves were packed with the wounded remnants of decimated forces.  Ammo was almost all spent, little water, few rations. US Piper planes (spotters) identifying pockets while Japanese soldiers ordered Okinawan kids to crawl out to the lines to do damage and keep the GIs at bay. Caves given-up still contained wounded and soldiers, who each took turns killing themselves. The terror in the south had civilians killing one another after taking turns taking care of their parents, infants, then their children last.  This insanity just escapes description.

The last remaining unified bands of survivors were nurses, all Okinawan teenagers who straggled from shelter to shelter dragging or carrying, and caring for the wounded who might be saved… but eventually giving-up even on them.

With so, so many, and not enough grenades to go around, they tried to tightly huddle in groups of five or so, pull the pin… struggle with each other in these last desperate seconds to hold the device closer to their chests … but this always left most just mortally wounded … and absolutely terrifying even more the 14 year-olds who watched, or came across piles of withering bodies afterwards.  This went on for days: too afraid to die, not knowing how, no easy methods, and always the pounding of aerial bombs, mortars, pillars of black smoke rising into the sky.  The verdant vegetation now long gone, the sea can be seen beyond.  But this only conveys more horror as it is absolutely, impossibly, covered to the horizon with ships of every imaginable shape: the devil-amerika-jin G.I. are here.  Panic.

As the noose tightened and the GIs approached on foot, and with no self-defense and no IMG_9617 IMG_9642 IMG_9643soldiers to protect them or even order them around, the cliffs preventing further escape beckoned them as their only escape. In droves they just leapt … Japanese-speaking G.I.s pleading with them, begging them with canteens of water, pleas and promises.  Reports from spotters in the piper airplanes were ghastly, reporting the final dash, girls in white, in pairs or just perched on a craggy edge, sometimes approaching soldiers only yards away,  pleadingly … a brief hesitation, then falling to the coral 200~300 feet below.

Very, very few didn’t leap and survived in inerasable shame, guilt, exhaustion… maybe less than two hundred?  In the twilight of their lives now (as of this writing), these beautiful girls now take turns walking tourists through the quiet, preserved caves… and thereby honoring their friends by being the echoes of such a wretched, wretched story.

Many ways to cook: CS dishes it up

Continuing on the theme of unloading unwanted, no longer useful human resources in Japan, here is a follow-up from another vaulted icon in the financial services industry.

Memo to HR Staff:  CS’s standard global policy is simply: “this is what we pay in terms of severance and it is very generous…”; if the employee disagrees with the payout, respond with the excuse that we just cannot do any better, times are tough, we have no money.

Splay-open first... then skewer.... then add salt...

Splay-open … then skewer…. then add salt…

In the meantime of course billions of profits are announced quarterly on our website.  But still, treat even requests for tiny improvement as if this would require squeezing blood from stone.  Be compassionate; but say “no”.

If a snarly employee refuses to sign-off, explain that they are really lucky because even getting to this point (and not just because they are not being immediately terminated), you-the-HR-professional had to personally move mountains to get to this simple, precarious point.  If challenged with the well-known fact that earlier CS employees have settled at significantly higher amounts, quickly defer that you cannot comment on that situation: every situation is different.  And besides, aren’t they being a little insulting?

Of course, disregard local employment rules applying to Japan.  Stress over-and-over that we have our own GLOBAL policy, which is far superior to whatever is offered in a backwater legal community like Japan.  Mention that Japan labor laws are rather inconvenient in this process of getting to a solution quickly, without damaging unnecessarily the employee’s reputation or career prospects. Keep repeating the GLOBAL policy.

Show your strong side when negotiating with soon-to-be former employees.

Show your strong side when negotiating with soon-to-be former employees.

It is also useful to stress Regional Management’s role to get job cuts done even though Labor Law works very different in Japan.  Tell ungrateful, unresponsive employees (because it is true) that “…my hands are tied… it is Singapore’s decision”.  Look truly helpless when delivering this.

HR’s work is intrusive so it requires an air of arrogance in order to keep employees from becoming haughty.  However when it comes to terminations, maneuvering between the disconnect between Japanese labor laws and our Global Policy generates stress and, well, there will be mistakes. In our experience, it is best to start making incomprehensible mistakes on sensitive disengagement documents including job titles, severance amounts and illegible documents to convey the sense that this is common practice “because there is so much of it going around…”.  This will add to employee uncertainty and fear as the process unfolds.

A final tactic that works well is to artificially inflate the severance package by including entitled pension amounts, untaken vacation days, unvested but earned bonuses. While these amounts are generally entitled already, completely separate from any severance amount… still, try it and sometimes weak or stressed-out individuals will just jump on it. Anyway, the point is to get them to sign straight away within a three week-window; then, Mission is Accomplished.

Easy pickin's... looks NOTHING like when we first fished him out, huh?

Easy pickin’s… looks NOTHING like when we first fished him out, huh?

Sometimes offer job-placement support; make this into a big deal.  “It’s a GREAT concession!”  But be careful: ONLY offer if they agree to sign immediately.  Otherwise, suggest in vague terms the possibility of being “black-listed” within the industry.  Stress that this means Asia-wide.  Be careful here because it can be variously interpreted … but again, as long as they sign-off “voluntarily”, mission is accomplished and all is forgiven.

Disregard internal company-rules when inconvenient to the situation. This could apply when the employee has a medical condition, for example (many fall into that hole as the stress is expected to mount exponentially during this process: push it). Advise that

我が信条 Our Credo ... " We are responsible to our employees, the men and women who work with us throughout the world. Everyone must be considered as an individual. We must respect their dignity and recognize their merit. They must have a sense of security in their jobs. Compensation must be fair and adequate, and working conditions clean, orderly and safe. We must be mindful of ways to help our employees fulfill their family responsibilities. Employees must feel free to make suggestions and complaints. There must be equal opportunity for employment, development and advancement for those qualified. We must provide competent management, and their actions must be just and ethical." ...

我が信条 Our Credo
… ” We are responsible to our employees, the men and women who work with us throughout the world. Everyone must be considered as an individual. We must respect their dignity and recognize their merit. They must have a sense of security in their jobs. Compensation must be fair and adequate, and working conditions clean, orderly and safe. We must be mindful of ways to help our employees fulfill their family responsibilities. Employees must feel free to make suggestions and complaints. There must be equal opportunity for employment, development and advancement for those qualified. We must provide competent management, and their actions must be just and ethical.” …

medical-leave is not counted at all in their situation and deny the employee the use of this entitlement even if a legitimate medical issue exists.  Insist on the provision of shindan-sho (doctor’s report), but then ignore it if produced.  Insist they consult with a company-doctor.  He is on HR’s payroll (neat borrowed tactic; massive company Credo nailed to the vaulted wall of their lobby entrance).  See? we can do anything.

Finally, in the event these tactics fail, threaten unilateral termination.  Explain precisely to keep out of trouble: the employer has the right to terminate unilaterally… even if it does not comply with the Japan Labor Law… when the employee does not accommodate the legitimate directions of the employer.

If they disagree, THEY have to prove THAT to a third-party judge (after they have been fired!).  With little available cash and no experience pursuing a legal claim in Japan, and likely no language abilities… the chances of them going THAT far are exceedingly low.  Likely, their defense beforehand is only bluster, positioning and putting-up a strong front.  Given the experience and in-house

Scrumptious!  What's left goes out with the trash, please.

Scrumptious! What’s left goes out with the trash, please.

knowledge we in HR clearly MUST possess, we can expect far better results in these areas (bluster, positioning, putting-up a strong front) than a single hired-resource that we manage through this process, one-by-one.

Go get ‘em! (… and take out the trash when you leave).

Recognition

One of the coolest things that ever happened to me occurred in high school just after I moved to Atlanta in 1969.  I haven’t spoke of it until now, even among friends, because it always seemed so self-aggrandizing… still, it is admittedly a pretty cool thing to befall someone:

This was after spending my formative years growing-up at the height of the Vietnam War on the island of Okinawa, an American-controlled tropical island.  Okinawa is a necklace of islands strung-out between Japan and Taiwan.

That a war was ongoing was evident everywhere. Okinawa was a beehive of activity related to this effort: thousands of soldiers, huge hospital complexes and military vehicles of every description on the roads and in the sky.  The air thumped throughout the day with Huey helicopters crisscrossing each other and landing nearby.  As kids, we’d sit on a boonie-grass knoll and watch lines and lines of B-52s lumber down the tarmac and takeoff for bombing runs five hours away.  These grey beasts looked like they would never possibly get airborne, so huge and obviously overburdened they were.  Especially after watching squadrons of Phantoms

SR-71 Blackbird super-secret spy plane.

rocketing on takeoff, these behemoth Stratofortress super weapons seemed to taxi down the runway, miraculously lifting off at the very end as if screamingly lucky; SR-71 spy planes would cruise in, still glowing from the friction heat their speed produced.  Incredible.

Kubasaki Junior High School, west side of the island of Okinawa facing the South China Sea. 1969.

After finishing the ninth-grade in a POW-type campus comprised of Quonset huts, sitting right on the turquoise colored South China Sea, a WATTS call from my father in Vietnam announced we would be moving to Atlanta where he would retire.

My ’65 Corvair; had a nasty habit of just clunking-down: uncool.

“Where is Atlanta?” my baby sister squealed; “who cares?” we all sang in unison, “we’re going HOME!”  After a military life with 7 siblings, on 2~3 year tours here / there / everywhere, picking-up, starting again only to leave again once best-friends were found, and repeating over and over… well, this was a joy beyond description.  Finally, after a life as transients, Home.

Entering an established community of civilians in NE Atlanta was a strange experience, precisely because it was soo…..Americana.  My brother and I joined the football team as nobodies, purchased a passable jalopy Corvair from money we earned working as deckhands on a Merchant Marine ship; we attempted to blend in.

Briarcliff cheer squad… really, the only true reason anyone would actually play football.

That was a tall order: the cute girls were already spoken for, the in-groups already firmly established, we were outsiders in the truest sense: our hair and our clothes were all wrong, our lingo grating… we didn’t blend.  To make matters worse, fighting for slots on a team populated as well with fathers on sidelines who had participated for years and years in practices, team events, summer sessions… well, we were worse than just nobodies: we were interlopers.

This all changed after school had been in session for a month or so.

An announcement crackled over the speakers throughout the school in mid-class one day… something almost unheard of…. instructing all the students into the huge gymnasium for “an assembly”. Everyone quickly, gleefully packed into the hallways for a class-by-class march to the gym.

Once inside, it was surprising that the entire floor was already

decked-out in folding chairs, bleachers reaching into the floorspace from both sides. The entire school from 8th Grade to 12th would completely fill this void.  In 10 minutes, the place was packed to the rafters, huge floor fans circulating the muggy air.

The stage was populated with the Administration seated at an angle off to the side.  The Principal stood and watched, nodding every once in a while into the audience, maybe to a teacher or some pet student; he alone occupied center stage as if basking in some new-found insight.

I followed my classmates to one of the side bleachers… to the right and closer to the stage than the baby 9th graders but miles away from the god-like Seniors who naturally, even now in this cavernous auditorium, threw their weight around with aplomb.  Rank has its privileges; I already knew that.

The Principal cleared his throat into the mic and the din slowly subsided.  Something was definitely up.

The Principal further calmed the room by beginning with: “I have an important announcement to explain the reason for this Assembly but first, some preliminary items of school-business…” and as if on que, the beefy Vice Principal stood from his seated position and replaced the Principal.  This fellow, in a too-forced stern voice, began with something about keeping the lockers clean, that the parking in the lot was reserved only for Seniors (and undeserving underclassmen were violating this), a word about the upcoming Pep Rally planned before Friday’s big game, and on-and-on, drone-drone-drone… the natives were getting visibly restless.

Finishing-up, the Principal leaped to the podium again, rising to his full height.  I noticed for the first time that he was wearing a three-piece suit, bright blue tie.  He begins: “Students, Administration, Staff – we’ve been called together today because I received a phone-call yesterday informing me that in our midst are two shining examples of heroism that need to be acknowledged.” The room fell suddenly quiet.  Over the summer, there had been a terrible car wreck in which a favorite student was killed, so this resonated immediately.  He paused for dramatic effect, looking around the audience.

Then from the back of the auditorium, the center double-doors sprung open nosily.  A number of people in the crowd physically jumped in their seats as all heads turned in unison to see what was the intrusion.  From the unseen foyer beyond the doors, a crisp shout echoed through the packed cavern… “Forward… MARCH!”

Into this fully packed auditorium marched a military procession, replete with flags on pointed, spear-like lances, two lines of six soldiers fully decked-out in military regalia, led by some guy who looked like General Patton.

I cannot even begin to describe the impact this had on the audience.  Awe, fear… as if a group of aliens had suddenly appeared in our living room… “poof!” like that.

This group marched in practiced unison down the wide middle aisle, boots shining, rifles on the shoulders of the rear four, flags pointed at an angle to display the full colors.  Clomp-clomp-clomp echoing and reverberating off the walls.  A feeling of dread consumed me.  I shot a glance at my brother sitting in the Senior’s section; his eyes were already riveted on me.

The color guard divided similar to liquid hitting a divider, splitting in front of the stage in military precision, one file to the stairs on either side, up the stage and poured, as if into a mold, as a backdrop behind the podium… without missing a single beat… totally in unison and in perfect cadence.   This alone, the only sound as they made this procession, was mesmerizing and somehow mystical.  The Principal watched with a grin beaming on his face.  By now my stomach was in my throat and I had difficulty breathing.  I held my brother’s gaze.  Trepidation gripped the two of us.

The Principal introduced the medal-festooned officer, a four-star General with literally light ricocheting off his chest.  He stood ramrod straight in front of the mic until the Principal sat-down, dusted-off his pants leg self-importantly and straightened his tie.  The General did not even bother to look… he just knew… and when he was ready, he started:

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, a tone conversational yet seeped in power and confidence, his first words echoed into a silence where even a pin drop would be noticed. “Five months ago, there was a tragedy, a fire and an explosion, where several people were trapped inside a burning house.  What makes this incident so remarkable is that this occurred not here in Atlanta but far away on the island of Okinawa, a place where the US military maintains a dominant presence.” He paused, looked left, right, and then down at the Seniors. I was praying this would be a “We Want You” speech for recruitment though I already knew better.

He continued, “This presence is not without problems…. soldiers get into trouble, there are riots for the return of the islands to Japan, the Vietnam War effort is largely centered on our presence in Okinawa. The relations between the Okinawan civilians and the United States are constantly under attack in the media and by elements against the war and against the United States occupation of Okinawa since the end of the Pacific War.”

As he continued, I nervously looked around, seeking a hole to escape into.  I noticed all the eyes in the auditorium, those of my classmates, focused exclusively on the stage in front as this scene unfurled.  I was invisible, as if secretly observing and no one noticing.  I realized that that Thing I so desperately wanted, even after months of attempting to have someone notice me, to remember my name, to welcome me warmly into a gathered crowd after school as were many in a daily, predictable ritual… well, I wanted to just remain anonymous again. I knew this wasn’t to be and it was unfolding far too rapidly, too unstoppably.

After describing the explosion and the breaking into a flame-engulfed house, the first-aid, the deaths involved… and pregnantly refraining from mentioning any names, he finally concluded by saying, “… and in recognition of the heroic efforts of these two young men seated in this auditorium, the Commander-in-Chief of Pacific Forces has commissioned the following citation.  I would like to read this citation but first, I would like to ask brothers Joe and Tim Langley to come up.”

As if it’d been holding it’s collective breath far too long, the entire auditorium exploded in applause and cheer!  Had I not been better trained, I am absolutely certain my pants would have been covered in my own urine.  I stood-up, surprising those seated around me, and maneuvered through a suddenly constricted pathway made all the more narrow with outstretched hands and claps and remarks hurled from every direction.

My brother, closer to the stage, waited for me on the gym floor and, like a big brother, pushed me up the stairs first, in front of him.  What a guy, I thought to myself as I checked quickly to see if his front was wet (it wasn’t) and mounted the stairs.

As appeared in the ’70 Senior Album, sent by a classmate after reading this article… completely forgotten photo. Wow. (credit: Amy Watkins Rhodes)

I honestly don’t remember much about standing up there surrounded by a crisp color guard, their eyes steely glued forward, or of the General reading directly from the frame-enclosed citation, or the words spoken thereafter.

I do remember, however, the awe and the magnificence of standing there, identified and singled-out, surrounded by those whose mere acknowledgment I had craved, and feeling the anxiety of being an outsider magically melt away. My high school life was forever transformed after that… and for a new kid, that’s a pretty big deal.

To this day I don’t know how such an event was conceived or organized but I am so grateful that someone took the time and the interest in acknowledging something that anyone would have done in a similar circumstance.  Honestly, it is just by a twist of fate that it was my brother and me who were placed in a unique situation and where, fortunately, some lives were saved.

The Duke Victory, a merchant marine cargo ship that brother Joe and I worked on as our way to get back to the United States from Okinawa, summer of ’69.

This is the first time I have ever revealed this story or how it impacted me.  Even pals in Okinawa never knew of this since it happened just weeks before we finagled work on an underhanded Merchant Marine ship in Naha Port and sailed away the next morning from that time in space… without even saying “goodbye”.  Even now it feels like I am writing about someone else, so far and long ago that era seems now.

Anyway, standing there on that stage next to my brother, receiving an ovation from all these strangers in this very strange place we tumbled into… well, you can imagine: for me,  I was forever touched by and still remain eternally grateful for that.

Citation for Patriotic Civilian Service

Of all the interesting and remarkable things that have happened to me, this is by far the coolest.

Four Months Afterwards…

It has been a long while since my last post; let me update you on what’s been going on.

While most of the foreigners who fled due to the nuclear reactor situation in Fukushima have returned, there are plenty of lingering aftereffects. In most cases, foreign and Japanese families returned to Tokyo in April/May, finished schooling, then departed for summer vacation (Japanese school system runs year-round April-to-March, summer break in August).  Tokyo as a result is full of abandoned husbands.

The impact of radiation leakage has spread pretty seriously however.  Just this week, it is announced that beef contaminated by irradiated hay has been shipped throughout the archipelago and entered the food chain; this is for sure and without doubt.  Recall is not mentioned, suggesting a collective “oooopps!” from the Japanese government as the only manageable English translation for what should be a major “gomen-nasai” and the unsheathing of the short blade.

The rebuilding – if it can be called that – in the north is going strong but slow; it is just so massive.  Since the triple disasters, there have been two major vacations here (Golden Week – 10 days, 3-day weekend last week)(yes, even a 3-day-weekend is cause enough for celebration in this country of workaholics).  Yet, what happened then and continuously in fact since mid-March is almost unfathomable: the steady stream of people to volunteer.  There are one-day trips, weekend trips, one-week forays… the whole nine-yards. Schools send soccer teams up, companies organize to distribute product or erect temporary-shelter, people arrange to take their vacation-time to go … the list is as endless as is the proliferation of this sense of duty throughout the entire country.

Everyone comes back with similar stories of the stench, the mind-numbing magnitude, the herculean effort being devoted.  It is truly astounding.

In addition to just getting down on your knees to scrub walls or spoon-up sea-salt contaminated dirt in neighborhoods or parks, people understand that simply spending money at hotels, grocery markets, restaurants is a good way to help, too.  So in Sendai they organized a festival this weekend (3-day-weekend).  Anticipating 50,000, organizers had to cancel when more than 130,000 showed-up along the festival route!  The same thing with volunteers: waiting in line, registering, getting an assignment, situating yourself (and being fully self-sufficient in the process by bringing your own food, water, tools, gloves, steel-bottomed shoes, cookware, etc. and etc.), the logistics is itself a challenge.  But people stoically soldier on, make friends, wait without frustration, put-on-a-good face, exude a good attitude.

For me, though not even Japanese, I feel pride and awe (and this was before the tremendous women’s soccer victory of yesterday!).

As unbearable as the situation is, the people who lived through this ordeal must continue to maintain in their damaged houses, live in shelter nearby or risk losing their land and house.  Essentially, the Japanese government will exercise eminent domain at any suggestion that the property is “abandoned” (and there is PLENTY of that: many areas effected by the tsunami lost 40% of their population, some even more).  In most cases, the records of ownership have all been destroyed and they STILL have not figured-out who is alive / who is dead / whose is what.

So thousands of women devote their energies to cleaning and scrubbing inside waterlogged houses to make them livable (the men assigned more physical, manual labor).  In the meantime, flies and bugs are everywhere and making, for the queasy, everything just that much more difficult. And this is on “holiday” time? And you might get a shower after a hard day but then again you might not?  And the whole time the earth continues to shake and you are at or near sea-level?  And a steady uphill sprint of 2~3 km. may or may not save you?

Incredible video runs on the television from time-to-time show soldiers still digging through mud chest-high in catch basins for accumulated parts of bodies.  They trudge, collecting and preserving articles of clothing, wallets, wrist-watches, and claw their way forward. Armies of volunteers clean and preserve these artifacts, tag them with notes, and display them for bereaved to view.  Warehouses devoted just for this are full – row-upon-row; a steady stream of visitors come-in all day long, walking quietly up one aisle, down another.

In the meantime, a massive, major typhoon approaches from the south, scheduled to strike Tokyo on Wednesday / Thursday before kicking-out to sea again.

So how am I taking all this?  When the swarms of locusts arrive and the rivers run red, I guess then I will be ready to call it quits.  Until then, surrounded by all this stoic beauty it is difficult to walk when others continue.

More to follow…  clicking “like” or volunteering encouragement to continue with a comment would be warmly welcomed.

Battle of Okinawa

Like many of my pals who grew-up and were indelibly touched… even infected by time spent on Okinawa, we have ‘a thing for’ the island.  We know where the significant battles were, have extensively explored the gun-emplacements (now mostly removed and consumed again by jungle), the sunken wrecks, the tunnels that hid soldiers, villagers, provisions, the wounded. The vast fields of tombstones where final stands were made are familiar sites.  When I stumbled upon this book, I was immediately moved to share it with others simply because it is so profound and physical; I don’t think it is just me.

Published this month is Author Jeff Shaara’s moving & revealing book on a truly epic battle entitled

The Final Storm: A Novel of the War in the Pacific. The book is currently on the NYT’s Best Seller List.

Jeff Shaara describes his motivation for writing the book:

Though Hollywood has given us countless ways to dramatize the Second World War in the Pacific, the challenge for me was to bring to the reader a story that isn’t simply a rehash of everything you’ve heard before. And, where Hollywood is often less concerned with keeping the history accurate, I have always felt that if I’m going to tell any story like this, “getting it right” is key. When dealing with World War II, my research often included conversations with living veterans, and ignoring their truth just to “beef up” the tale, does an incredible injustice to what those veterans accomplished.

In the Second World War, the Japanese were unlike any enemy we had ever faced, a very different enemy than the Germans. We had very little understanding of their culture, of how seriously they took their loyalty and obedience to their emperor, and we were completely unprepared for their willingness to die rather than accept the dishonor of surrender. For young soldiers and Marines who faced this determination, the fights often became a slaughter on a scale no one could have imagined. To put a nineteen year old boy into that position, and hope that he responds appropriately is not a typical method of training our young troops.

In researching The Final Storm, I was surprised to find a significant amount of humanity among the Japanese commanders whose voices became a vital part of this story. Okinawa was the last great stronghold that held the American wave away from Japan itself, and the Japanese troops assigned to defend the island country knew that there could be no retreat. The Americans who confronted them had to fight not only this extreme dedication, but the weather and the geography as well. A fight that was scheduled to last a month, took three. How and why are far more interesting to me than a simple history lesson.

If this story is not a history lesson, it is also not an exercise in blood and guts. That kind of story would get old very quickly. What has always drawn me to these stories are the characters. I am not concerned with giving you every detail of the numbers of casualties or the positions of troops. There are historians far more qualified to do that. My job as the storyteller is to find the voices that will carry you (along with me) into the story itself. My search is to find a story beneath the history lesson, to feel it, hear it, smell it, to explore not only the horror, but the laughter (and yes, there is laughter. There has to be.) What kind of thinking and agonizing goes into command decisions? What makes a nineteen year old Marine rise up from a muddy hole to drive forward into the enemy he cannot even see?

While much of The Final Storm focuses on the great struggle for Okinawa, this story does not end there. One more extraordinary drama must be played out, the story of how the Second World War actually ends: the dropping of the first atomic bombs. Through characters such as Paul Tibbets and General Curtis LeMay, I try to show just how much tension and how much mystery surrounded the bombs themselves. Consider that, to the young crews of the aircrafts that were to carry the bombs over Japan, none had any idea what would happen when the bombs were actually exploded, whether their own planes would disintegrate, along with the targets they were seeking. On the ground, the Japanese civilians had already experienced massive bombing strikes from American planes, and so, on that morning of August 6, 1945, the sight of a single B-29 bomber high in the clouds above causes no real concern. That point of view is here as well, a Japanese doctor who is weary of the war, of what he knows to be the propaganda being fed to the people by their military. And yet, he has his own duty to fulfill.

There are debates ongoing today about whether the United States did the “right thing” by ending the war the way we did. The decisions made by President Harry Truman are controversial even now. My job is not to anguish over morality, or debate what is politically correct. Ultimately I have one goal: to bring you the best and most accurate story I can, as told by those who were there. With so few veterans of World War Two remaining with us, I believe we must be reminded just why we owe them our thanks, and why their legacies must be remembered. I hope you enjoy the story.

Whether you visit Okinawa or not, read this book and reflect on what happened.  While most chose to downplay it, beyond the turtleback tombs, the sandy beaches, the coral reefs that stretch far off into the surf, this place is sacred.  Incredible, indescribable sacrifices were made; we all benefit from this legacy.

Clicking “like”, volunteering encouragement with a comment, or reposting would be most appreciated.