Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Quality and Pride

I have written about Mr. A on this blog before. When we had our house renovated and enlarged three years ago, his father-son team was hired to do the roofing and siding. He was an eccentric old man, toothless and quite hard of hearing, but he was also as lovable as he was amiable. To say he knew what he was doing would be an understatement; he took one look at the original roof (which had long since become a nightmare of caulking cement because of its persistent leaks) and just about blew a gasket. "Didn't those people know anything?" he railed. "Where was the rainwater supposed to go except right under the tiles? This is ALL WRONG!" He and his son then got busy making a more proper roof. There was no hurrying with them. At Mr. A's insistence, they did everything at a nice, easy tempo, double-checking everything along the way. That, coupled with their one-hour commute to our house, meant that progress was slow. The chief carpenter, my wife's uncle, seemed a bit exasperated at first, but he soon realized that Mr. A had a lot of very useful advice to give about home construction in general if he was asked. Soon the kind, old man was an important voice in the "construction committee", and he remained so until the whole project was done.

Some months after the construction was finished, most likely as a result of the frequent, small earthquakes we had that year, the new bathroom extension settled a bit. Then the roof would leak if the wind blew hard enough in one particular direction. We didn't have the heart to tell Mr. A, and my father-in-law was going to try to fix it himself. As it turned out, Mr. A insisted on coming by and checking up on his work. There was no concealing it from him; he took one look inside the bathroom and spotted it immediately. We insisted that it was no big deal, and that we could probably patch the spot with a quick touch up. He would have nothing of it. He came in once while we were away at work and fixed it up. It hasn't leaked since.

Tragedy struck Mr. A not long after that. His son, the other half of his construction team, wound up in an unfortunate situation and got out of it by committing suicide. It was a devastating loss in more ways than one, but it didn't even slow the old man down. He still continued to swing by at intervals to visit and check up on things (including work he'd done on a neighbor's house). My father-in-law also never missed a chance to recommend him to other people, and he continued to have a fair work load. As time went by his visits became less frequent, but he still popped in from time to time, and he seemed almost like family.

Last Thursday I had the day off from work, and I made a run to the Makuhari Costco to get Halloween supplies. My father-in-law was off on a trip for a few days, my wife was at work, and my kids were at school, so I expected to have the place all to myself when I came back home. As it turned out, there was an unknown car in the driveway and tools all over the place. Fearing the worst, I parked my car on the street and sneaked in to investigate. I found Mr. A at work replacing the (ugly, duct-taped) conventional gutter and drain pipe system on the awning over my father-in-law's new front door with a more decorative chain and metal disk type. He seemed befuddled, even a little disappointed, to see me. When I asked him what was up, he quickly put on his hearing aid and replied that he hadn't been asked to do the work, and my father-in-law didn't even know he was doing it. He said, "It just needed to be done."

That's just the sort of guy he is.

On that note, other than that little leak in the new bathroom extension, the only other problem we've had since the renovation of our house was with the new doors. The chief carpenter, my wife's uncle, refused to use locally-made doors, which he said were no good. Instead, he insisted on ordering ones from a more reputable (or so he said) company based in Iwate Prefecture. They were considerably more expensive than the local types, but my wife's uncle asserted that they were worth the cost. They did seem like very good doors. However, after half a year had passed we began to have some trouble with them. The main issue was their adjustable hinges; they kept slipping out of adjustment, making the doors harder to open and shut. I was able to fix them myself without too much trouble, and I found myself having to reset them at intervals. However, the settling of the bathroom extension caused that door frame to lean a little off-center, and that made the door stick no matter how I tried to fix it. To make matters worse, the screws used for the hinge adjustment wound up jamming and stripping, meaning they weren't going to budge, period. We figured that was pretty much that, and we just endured it.

After a year of quietly putting up with the sticking bathroom door (and occasionally readjusting the other doors), we wound up with a problem we couldn't ignore. The latch mechanism in the door leading from the living room to the front hallway broke. I looked all over for a replacement, but none of our local building supply stores had even heard of that particular brand. Finally, the "expert" in our (supposedly) most reputable home and garden center sold me a latch that he said would work. "You'll have to re-drill the screw holes," he said, "but the latch and mechanism are pretty much the same." Which turned out to be a load of crap. The latch mechanism wouldn't even fit in the socket. I was prepared to use a file to gouge out the hole enough to slide the little bastard in (I mean the LATCH, dummy!), and was even considering buying new doors, but by then my father-in-law had taken notice. He asked his brother the carpenter for advice. The uncle contacted the door manufacturer in Iwate, and they gave him the phone number for their authorized service representative in our area. An appointment was made on the spot.

The repairman came while my wife and I were away at work (but FIL was there). We only wanted him to fix that one door with the broken latch. However, I hear he took one look at it and went ballistic over both the defective parts and the improper installation. After replacing the broken latch, he took the whole door frame apart and reinstalled it. Then he insisted on having a go at every single one of the new doors. Believe me when I say I was shocked when I came home to find that not only were all the doors opening and closing more smoothly than before, but one problematic doorknob had been redone, and the bathroom door was actually sticking much less. But that wasn't the end of the story. The guy came back the next day with some different equipment and asked to have another go at the bathroom door. He took apart the frame, planed it out with some kind of fancy, self-leveling machine, and reinstalled it so that it now opens and closes without so much as a squeak. It's as if we'd gotten a whole new set of doors even better than the first.

Even more amazing was the fact that the guy didn't ask for a single yen in payment. After some prodding, my FIL got him to accept the cost of the gasoline needed for his (two hours each way) trip plus some vegetables from his garden and a bottle of sake, but other than that he wanted nothing. He just told us to be sure to let him know if we had any more trouble with those doors. Believe me, all thought of replacing them with those of a different manufacturer gwugged and went immediately!

Good service has long been a tradition in Japan. Unfortunately, there's lots of evidence that it's on the decline. It seems like recent news has been filled with stories of major corporations trying to hide behind their name and simply pretend that problems don't exist. We hear of companies passing off mislabeled and/or shoddy products on trusting customers. In this era of recession, it seems more and more that profit is coming before reputation, something that would have been almost unthinkable a couple of decades ago. It's therefore refreshing to see people like Mr. A and the door repairman, skilled artisans who have pride in what they do and put quality over profit.

They're the lingering face of a Japan that I hope never dies, even in these cynical times.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

One for Dave

(I've already posted on his memorial site, so I'll put this one here.)

It was the summer just before I entered junior high school, and I was at an event at the church my family attended at the time. Actually, the "event" part had already pretty much ended, and it had become a meeting of some sort. For a restless pre-teen like myself, that translated as "excruciatingly boring". However, as my restless gaze wandered about focusing on everything but the speaker, I noticed something that finally grabbed my attention. There was someone I'd never seen before standing at the blackboard in the corner drawing a picture of a TIE fighter. I perked up immediately.

Unlike the other boys my age at the church, I was a sci-fi buff (i.e. a total geek), not to mention a die-hard Star Wars fan. I also liked drawing. Seeing someone there with common interests seemed almost too good to be true, so I immediately went over to check out this newcomer. We wound up testing each other's sci-fi knowledge, drawing sketches of such things as the Eagle from "Space: 1999" and the Lunar Interceptor from "UFO" (while our respective parents glared at us with annoyance and embarrassment). Thus began my friendship with Dave.

He was certainly a unique individual, both talented and eccentric to extremes. My parents and other friends at the time weren't quite sure what to make of him. As the time went by, however, he generally endeared himself to everyone. He had an infectious sense of humor and a generally positive, easy-going, "Why worry?" outlook on life. He also proved to be an extremely loyal friend. It's not that we always got along well; actually, we bickered almost constantly (a fact that led more than one person to ask if we were brothers). There were also times when his loyalty could be more of a liability than an asset (such as two occasions when he tried to intervene in my love life...with catastrophic results). If anything, Dave was good (sometimes TOO good) at making things happen.

In fact, Dave proved to be a major influence in my life as well as in the lives of others. Our joint efforts with regard to our love of drawing and fantasy/sci-fi produced things that I still use today in ways I hadn't imagined at the time. It was also with Dave that I formed my first band, with myself on guitar, and he and I both started writing songs together. He was also the one that first introduced me to the world of studio recording, first when he took a studio engineering class and used me as his test subject and again when he bought a multitrack recorder and showed me how to use it. He was also the first member of our circle of friends to get a car, a big, brown Impala station wagon (nicknamed the "Starship Impala" by some) that came to be our group's cruise mobile. Dave not only offered us an escape from boredom and into a wide variety of life experiences, but he also provided us invaluable glue that kept our circle together and even helped make it bigger. Perhaps the strongest testament to his influence is the fact that, as we've come to see so clearly now, much if not most of the circle is still tied together even despite the distances.

As we grew older, our respective paths led us in very different directions. We attended Clackamas Community College together. I graduated with honors, transferred to Oregon State, and from there went directly to my new life in Japan. Dave, on the other hand, was never a very willing student, being more interested in his own projects than the study courses, and so he finally dropped out and joined the Army. His time in the military helped indulge his love of machines as he worked on Bradley fighting vehicles, M1 tanks, and Hummers. It also gave his thinking a much stronger political slant to add to his already fervent religious beliefs. Our infrequent contact via letters was boosted tremendously by the introduction of the internet, but that also led to some very inflammatory discussions. At times our comment thread interchanges became openly vitriolic (as regular visitors to this blog should know well), and there was more than one occasion when he broke all contact with a huff, but somehow we always managed to overcome it in the end. No matter how heated the political/religious/social/psychological feud became, the tie of longtime friendship always seemed to be stronger.

However, as it turned out, though Dave was already very tall for his age when I first met him and not lacking in bulk as an adult, his body wasn't as strong as it appeared. It seems that longtime issues finally caught up with him and, coupled with more recent problems, produced a deadly mix that even his happy-go-lucky attitude couldn't withstand. He never revealed any of this to those of his friends he stayed in touch with; his posts and comments on Facebook and on blogs remained mostly positive right up till the end. Tellingly, however, his very status post on Facebook was a clip from a Bible verse, specifically Matthew 17:20: "...if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move." Dave passed away peacefully in his sleep two days later, on September 21st of this year, his loyal dog by his side and a copy of "The Shack" sitting open nearby. He has gone on to what lies beyond for him, and the rest of us are left to deal with the shock and the sudden empty hole in our lives.

Considering the influence he has had on my life, far greater than I ever really considered till now, that hole seems very large indeed. Here's one for you, Dave.

P.S. I'm planning on making a musical tribute to Dave taken from our musical beginning, but for now here's a little instrumental entitled "Starship Impala" to help stir the waters.