The year was 2000.
I was laying down on the sofa in my 300sq. ft. apartment in Tokyo, watching Sunday TV, remote in my hand. I had a lot on my plate, and the most important thing at that moment was what to eat for lunch.
The closest place was just two minutes away – take out bento place. I was thinking of Chicken Kara•Age bento with extra rice: ¥450 or about US$4. Yes, that sounded right, and I stood up and grabbed my wallet for a short one-minute walk for my lunch. As I walked to the bento place, I realized I want to go back to Los Angeles. For the past year, I worked as a film producer for a production company. My job did not go well as I hoped it would, so now, I am stuck, not knowing what I want to do next. I knew there was no job for me here in Tokyo. I knew I should go back to LA and that was what I wanted to do, and the biggest question was, what do I want to do?
I picked up my chicken kara-age and took it home and started eating and thinking of my options.
I always wanted to work in a restaurant and for a while, thought it would be fun to work as a bartender just on weekends, as I would enjoy being in the crowd, watching people, making and serving drinks. I thought I would enjoy that more than being a customer at a bar, getting drunk using my hard earned cash.
So, my thinking was to find a restaurant in Tokyo to work. I went into a local bookstore and found a magazine that had a list of part-time jobs. In Japan, especially in Tokyo, there were several magazines with tons of part-time job listings.
I looked up part-time and full-time chef positions and found several listings. Almost all of them were evening and nighttime shifts, which I did not mind. I marked up some that caught my eyes and called the phone number to set up an appointment.
One of the interesting things about help wanted ads in Japan is that they can specify the age range of the workers. For example, the add would say, “Male 21-35 wanted to a chef position at a Ramen restaurant in Shinjuku.” This is perfectly legal in Japan. Most restaurant ads requested younger workers, and I had difficulty finding a position that fit my age: I was thirty years old then.
I got on a Yuraku•Cho line subway and headed out to Ikebukuro and Shinjuku. The restaurant was an Izakaya – western style pub with many appetizers and beers and wine on the menu.
I met with the restaurant manager, who was older than I was – mid-thirties and asked some basic questions like if I had a previous experience.
“No, nothing at all,” I said.
“OK. You understand that most of the workers here are younger than you are. Do you think it’s going to be a problem?”
“Uh, no, not at all. Why could it be a problem?”
In Japan, culturally and traditionally, a younger person needs to pay respect to the older person. At a workplace, a new employee must pay respect to the senior employees even if they are older than the senior employees. So, my case, it could create an issue among senior employees who were younger than I was. Even if I had no problem using respectful Japanese words, they would feel awkward because I was older, and feel the need to use respectful words to me and may not be able to command me or ask me to perform tasks. For me, working over ten years in the US did not have that problem, but for the Japanese workers, it was a problem.
“I’ll let you talk to the kitchen manager,” restaurant manager told me. He went back into the kitchen and came back with the kitchen manager.
“My name is Saito,”
“Nice to meet you Saito-san,” I said.
“So, I heard you have no previous experience.”
“Yes, that is correct. I have never worked in the restaurant before.”
“Do you know how to cook?”
“Yes, I always cooked for myself. I can cook Osechi.”
“All right, that is good.”
The kitchen manager seemed reluctant and showed very interest and enthusiasm in talking to me. I was unsure why he was talking to me that way.
“Why are you looking for a job?”
I told him that I was in LA for a while and then, worked in Tokyo since last year and now, I wanted to change my career and focus on cooking.
“OK. Do you have any question for me?”
“No,” I said.
“OK, thank you. The manager will call you and let you know about the result.”
And that was the end of my interview.
A few days later, the kitchen manager called me and said that they decided not to hire me.
“The kitchen manager said it would be difficult for him to work with someone older than him.”
That was when I realized I should go back to LA to work in the restaurant. After spending almost ten years working in the US, Tokyo was not a place for me to work. I had different work ethics.