Showing posts with label Japan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Japan. Show all posts

Saturday, January 2, 2016

In Memoriam

The year ended on a sad note for us. Our friend and my colleague of some thirty years, Mitsuo Nitta, passed away two months earlier and we didn’t learn about it until we received a letter from Yushodo, his company in Tokyo: “I am Yoshie Kato, Mr. Nitta’s secretary. With great sorrow, I have to inform you of the passing of Mr. Nitta on 27th October 2015 at the age of 82.  I deeply thank you for your lasting friendship with Mr. Nitta, and would like to send my best wishes to you and your family.”  I stared at this letter in disbelief, not only stunned by the news but also because it revealed how out of the loop I am now in retirement.

Mitsuo was a well-known rare book collector, antiquarian bookseller, and reprinter of some very rare texts.  He made a presentation copy for me of his reprint edition of Samuel Johnson’s, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).  (My company had reprinted Webster's 1828 Dictionary.)  He was a Member of Honor of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers whose web site is publishing Letters of Condolences in Mitsuo Nitta’s honor.  I’ve been told that mine will be added soon, but as it may be edited and I’m not sure whether all the photographs will be included, I post it here as well in honor of my long-time friend and colleague, Mitsuo Nitta:

As I had retired from the publishing business more than fifteen years ago, it was only when we sent our annual Seasonal Greetings to Mr. and Mrs. Nitta that we learned from Yushodo that Mitsuo had passed away two months earlier.  I was shocked that my old friend had died, as was my wife and son.  It seemed impossible, a person with such brimming enthusiasm and largess of life.  And I felt particularly saddened that we had become so out of touch since my retirement that I only recently discovered this great loss.

I first met Mitsuo in 1968 when I was working for Johnson Reprint Corporation but it wasn’t until I became the President of the Greenwood Publishing Group in the early 1970s that our friendship and extensive business dealings blossomed.   I knew Mitsuo mostly from the publishing side of the business, Yushodo becoming our distributor in Japan and that relationship lasting decades.  We also cooperated on a number of joint ventures, including reprints of some antiquarian titles.

He always had that twinkle in his eye with a warm but restrained smile suggesting what the future might bring, soliciting an opinion and sharing his. Many of our joint publishing ventures were initiated with nothing more than a handshake agreement, committing resources even before a contract was drawn and signed, a mere formality.

When my wife Ann and I first visited Japan in 1975 he treated us royally and even helped set up appointments with some of his competitors with whom I had dealings on other projects.  Our evenings were occupied by a number of dinners with him and Hisako, or staff from Yushodo.  He liked to pair me with some of his younger managers, always intrigued by what we members of the “younger generation” might bring to the business.

He loved to share the Japanese culture with Westerners and had such generosity of spirit.  On one of my trips to Japan, at the very end of 1989, with Japan at its zenith of economic power, he asked me to make a major address on U.S. - Japan economic relations to Tokyo's Rotary Club consisting of executives of leading Japanese companies at the time. Mitsuo was my mentor for the speech which was very well received.

As that trip was at the end of the year, I brought my wife Ann and my 12-year old son, Jonathan, so we could experience the Japanese New Year together.  Mitsuo took Jonathan under his wing, admiring Jonathan’s inquisitiveness and interest in Japanese culture.  Mitsuo asked his son to take Jonathan for an insider’s tour of the Ginza area in downtown Tokyo. 

We all travelled with Mitsuo and his wife to the Tateshina Resort & Spa northwest of Tokyo where Naruhito, the Crown Prince of Japan had stayed.  I’m not sure whether that trip was a greater delight to us or Mitsuo who was constantly amused by our reaction to living Japanese style (we loved it of course).

There on the eve of the 1990 New Year, we were treated to a special weekend where we were the only Westerners, sleeping on handcrafted tatami mats, eating traditional Japanese food. I remember that Mitsuo challenged me to guess the identity of one of the many dinner courses served throughout the 3 hour meal………something that tasted like steak tartar to me. He laughed when he told me it was raw horsemeat, a delicacy in the region. Luckily, I had sufficient Sake to wash it down.

The high point of the weekend was the spa. First we had to bathe ourselves sitting on small stools, using a bucket with water, soaking and scrubbing every inch of our bodies until squeaky clean. Then, with nothing on but the winter kimono, we walked outside into the freezing night air, with snow all around, disrobed, and plunged ourselves into the steaming hot tubs. A bamboo curtain separated the ladies from the men. We could talk to our wives but not peek. Jonathan took to this so naturally while I had to be coaxed into the hot pool, simply because the temperature difference was so great.  Mitsuo found this very funny.

That trip had a lasting impact on our friendship and left such a deep impression on Jonathan that nearly ten years later he chose to spend his college junior year abroad at Doshisha University in Kyoto, immersing himself in the culture and the language.  Naturally, Mitsuo kept an eye on him, occasionally getting together and giving me his opinion of “the boy’s” maturation and adjustment.

Mitsuo and Hisako were in New York City in April 2011 when he heard I just had open heart surgery, with complications which required a two plus week stay in the hospital.  He insisted on flying down to Florida upon my returning home to see his old friend.  Sadly, that was the last time I saw him.  We hugged as he left. There will always be a place in my heart for Mitsuo, a person of remarkable spirit and dedication to his profession, one who has impacted so many lives.  Farewell, my friend.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Another Holiday Ritual

There’s a corollary to sending out Holiday Cards: receiving cards and then coming to the point of having to throw them out.  We keep a list of names and addresses so we have a checklist of the people we’ve sent and received cards from.  Over the years, that list has declined from hundreds, and then leveled off to about a hundred, and now to less than a hundred.  Death, and the attrition of friends with whom we now have only a superficial relationship are the main reasons for the decline, and some have gone the Email route to express their holiday greetings.  We still like to send a card and put a stamp on an envelope but probably that too will fall by the wayside one of these days.

I feel a sense of sadness when old friends or former colleagues suddenly disappear from our checklist.  Of course circumstances change and old relationships not actively maintained are the main culprits.  As much our fault as theirs.  On the other hand there are people with whom we exchange cards, year after year, although our contact with them from decades ago was strictly accidental and passing.  

One such exchange is with Bianca, the woman Ann shared a hospital room with when our son Jonathan was born.  I think we visited one another a few times after the respective births of our sons more than three decades ago, but outside of that, the only contact we’ve had has been those holiday card exchanges, she commenting on her son’s progress in life and we doing the same.  It is a touching tradition and we look forward to those holiday updates as our sons navigate their lives, born on the same day and at almost the same moment.

Another holiday card exchange is truly remarkable.  As the New Year was turning from 1989 to 1990, I had a business trip to Japan and decided to take Ann and Jonathan (his first such trip, being only 12 years old at the time).   

While I was meeting with our host, a Japanese bookseller in Tokyo one day (this photo is of us, he and his wife in front of our hotel), Ann and Jonathan decided to take the underground to the Ginza area to shop and have lunch.  As they were finishing their meal, Ann remarked to Jonathan that she thought a fellow diner appeared to have been listening very attentively to their conversation.  Ann smiled at her and shortly afterward a very demure looking older Japanese woman came over to their table and in very correct English apologized for appearing to be overhearing their conversation.  She went on to say “I hope you will pardon me, I do not mean to interrupt, but may I ask where you are from?”  Ann was a little surprised as it was quite unusual to hear a Japanese person speaking English so well.  

So Ann replied and the woman asked whether she could move next to them and talk to them a little as she had so few opportunities to speak to native English speakers.  She explained that she was a language teacher in her nearby home town of Yokohama.

By all means Ann said and so throughout the rest their meal, the three of them talked.  They hit it off!  She introduced herself as Mrs. Murakami, and invited Ann and Jonathan to be her guests at a specialty dessert shop down the street.  They continued to talk and then Mrs. Murakami did something very uncharacteristic of the Japanese, she invited us all for tea and lunch and to see her ancestral home in Yokohama where she and her husband lived.  Ann accepted knowing we were free that following Saturday.   

So off to Yokohama we went where she met us at the train station to help us find the house, situated in the prime spot at the top of a hill.  Although not a house the size of most average American homes, it was very large by Japanese standards.  But it had been handed down from generation to generation in her family and was highly treasured.  We were cordially welcomed by other members of her family and led into the living room and seated in places of honor.  This room also serves as a bedroom where tatami mats are placed on the floor for sleeping. After a small meal concluded with tea, we were given a short tour of the rest of the house, in particular one room devoted to the worship of her ancestors, where a shrine was adorned with candles.

The following year, we decided to send her a holiday card and she sent us one as well, the two crossing in the mail.  Since then, we have not missed a Christmas holiday without sending a card and note to her as well as she to us. 

As it turns out, Ann and Mrs. Murakami had a chance to renew their acquaintance ten years later, in 1998, when we flew to Japan to visit Jonathan, then spending his junior year at Doshisha University in Kyoto.  Mrs. Murakami treated Ann to an extraordinary luncheon where no menus were presented, exquisite small dishes just kept arriving at their table for almost 2 hours.  Ann remembers thinking that that was the most gastronomically incredible meal she has ever had!

However, this year we didn’t receive a card and we were worried, knowing Mrs. Murakami is about ten years our senior.  We were about to put our list away and suddenly there appeared an envelope from Japan and we could tell by the handwriting that it was from her.  We were elated.

Inside the card was a very neatly handwritten note as follows:

Dear Ann,
   Thank you very much for your 26th Christmas card.  It gives me courage for life.  The picture of you two is so wonderful and you are as young as you are when I saw you for the first time in Tokyo.  I am not so fine.  I was in a hospital ten days this summer and next year I will have an operation on my eye.  But fortunately I can attend the class of Reading Shakespeare two times a month.  We have spent twenty years now.  Still we have seven plays ahead of us.  Every member is around eighty years old.
   Please tell my best regard to your dear son Jonathan.  I wish you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
With love, Toshiko

Indeed, Toshiko, your note too gives us “courage of life.”

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Random Nature of It All

Hat tip (again) to Barry Ritholtz who as a "financial guy" (actually schooled in law) has a logical way of looking at the inexplicable. He puts his spotlight on the recent gyrations of the stock market and the blather of the financial channels --  all constructing a "story" to "explain" sudden up or down moves in what, short term, is really a guessing game.  Media noise --  a  form of cognitive dissonance, contradictory "explanations" some of which appeal to investors and therefore feed the furnace of their convictions.  Which begets even more gyrations. As Ritholtz so accurately puts it: "people create a happy little bubble of delusion."  His article "What's Your Stock Market Story?" is well worth reading and keeping in mind when making one's next trade.

Speaking of the inexplicable, how do we mere mortals understand the consequences of a term that suddenly surfaced on the waters of our online lives: Heartbleed?  Perhaps a binary Loch Ness Monster?  How vulnerable is any online financial transaction or, for that matter, routine things like writing emails or even posting this innocuous blog?  And all of this the result "of a two-year-old programming error?"  Two years and we've all been lulled into a "happy little bubble of delusion" that all those "Secure Sockets Layer" web sites to which we've committed sign-ons, passwords, credit cards, etc. might have all been vulnerable and no one seems to have a full understanding of the consequence.  No consequences?  Armageddon? Somewhere between? A random programming error -- or an intentional one  -- that could have been silently exploited for two years?  Talk about a potential Black Swan. Here's Scientific American's take on it.

On to the random nature of one's career.  Looking back from the so called "golden years" how many can say that his/her career and how it unfolded was one of unsullied choice?  Choices do have to be made, but those are ones circumstances concoct, almost like one's DNA randomly assigned at birth.  I could have ended up as a photographer, a librarian, or even in the insurance business -- there were paths in front of me to each of the foregoing, but I choose publishing, my first job being the result of a chance interview.  From there, I was able to make choices over the next 35 years, but, even then, I was given a random set of options.  Do I choose from behind door #1, #2 or #3?

Once I was running a publishing company, one of the choices I made was to pursue international opportunities.  Japan became one of our largest overseas markets and so I occasionally made trips to Japan, sometimes alone, sometimes with Ann and eventually both of us with our son, Jonathan.  The Japanese culture had a profound impact on us all. 

Fast forward to last night.  All those random choices.  No wonder when our gourmet club was deciding on the next "theme" -- one that was to be held at our home -- we suggested Japanese.  What a feast it was.  Our friend Lois made 3 platters of sushi: delicious fish, tuna, grouper and salmon.  We served a very good chilled sak√© with that and during dinner which everyone drank and  enjoyed.  Then Susan made authentic Miso soup along with tasty shrimp gyoza.  Gail brought short ribs with a Japanese barbecue sauce and a very refreshing side of cucumber salad. 

Ann made one of my favorites -- a genuine yaki udon dish with a homemade yakisoba sauce, tender pieces of chicken, red pepper, onion, bean sprouts, broccoli, shiitake mushrooms and scallions and of course udon noodles!  She also made traditional sticky rice (enough for twenty people!) along with glazed chicken drumsticks, serving it with a very nice Green Tea in beautiful tea cups that Susan brought.  For dessert, Ann served sweet pineapple and John made Green Tea Ice Cream that was out of this world.  Ann was in her authentic Japanese Happy Coat while our son, Jonathan, had given me some traditional bamboo flute music to play in the background, greatly adding to the evening's atmosphere.