NOTE: I hereby grant permission for all archiving and other uses of this work, public or private, free or paid, in any format whether existing now or to be invented in the future, so long as a copy of this note and credit to "theGreatxIam" is given and no alteration is made to the body of the work. Copyright 2002, theGreatxIam
This story should give you a clear understanding of how I experienced Japan. I'm sorry about that.
But that's the Japan I saw. I make no claims that it's a complete picture. Quite the opposite, in fact. Japan is a wonderful land full of picturesque vistas, fascinating history and friendly people. All the guidebooks say so.
You won't be reading about that Japan today. Sorry about that.
Almost all that I saw of Japan, aside from the lights of Tokyo as I arrived (I had an aisle seat on the way back) was the inside of the offices of a company we'll call Ekasa (that's X to you). We'll call it that not because I'm afraid they'd sue -- everything I have to say is true -- but because I work in electronics and I like my job. If I tick off the boys at Ekasa, the closest I could get to a job in electronics would be flying a kite in a thunderstorm.
I was in Japan because I'd helped invent -- well, stumble across, to be honest -- a tough, clear plastic that was guaranteed to start warping in four or five years and disintegrate completely into powder inside of 10, no matter what you did -- no light, no heat, no cold, no difference. This stuff would be useless inside of a decade after you'd shaped it.
You still don't get it, do you? Ekasa made electronics and everything that goes into them. Including CD's and CD-ROM's.
Penny drop yet?
OK, then think about this. Ekasa and a couple of other companies basically have the entire world's consumer electronics carved up. Except for computers, but even there the computer makers outsource the speakers and CD-ROM drives and such. And all that stuff in the hi-fi mags about subtle differences in tone from one brand to another, or the excellence of the newest Ekasa subsonic recovery system gathering in harmonics unheard by human ears but richly contributing to the total aural experience for the true connoisseur -- all that stuff is crap.
The technology's so down pat by now that comparing the output from any two components in the same price range is like sniffing two piles of shit from the same dog. Only difference in what comes out depends on what you put in.
If everybody's got the same electronics, the only way to compete would be to lower prices -- which is the last thing these guys want to do. So, instead, they're all scrambling for something new to offer their customers.
No, not the next Walkman. Wake up and smell the sake, kid. I'm talking about pleasing their real customers: the music companies.
A few companies have a lock on music the way a few others -- well, there is some overlap -- have a lock on electronics. So they speak the same language -- not Japanese, not English. Cash.
And the electronics companies know the music companies are running scared right now. They dodged the bullet on that whole Napster mess, but they don't know if that was the biggest roach in the pantry. As long as anyone can pull their songs off a CD onto a PC, someone'll figure out a way to send them out.
That brings us to all those encryption schemes and unrippable CD's and even that scheme to slip secret static into songs so your regular CD player will jump over it but it'll tear the guts out of your computer if you try to rip it.
Mean shit, to be sure. And that last one's a sure sign that the music companies don't give a damn about the consumers any more.
Which is why Ekasa pays people to sniff around polymer labs, even picayune operation like the one my college buddies and I had. We'd been Chem majors and Chem E's and a couple of misfit physicists, all drinking together and playing cards together and skipping early-morning humanities classes together -- which all amount to the same thing. Me and another of the chemists were lab assistants for this prof whose big dream was to invent a plastic that could hold up to the same pressure of as a beer can and degrade gracefully in landfills, to boot. I know, I know, you're saying don't they call that a bottle? Look, this was a whole different set of problems, but I'm not going to go into all that now because it doesn't really have anything to do with this story. Sorry.
And just what does any of this have to do with Japan? Relax, we'll get there.
Anyway, the prof thought he was on to something. More important, he convinced some angels -- which just means guys with spare millions -- that he was. So next thing you know, me and my buddy aren't lab assistants, we're vice presidents -- the prof handed out titles in lieu of real pay. We hire a few of our other buddies to do the scut work and we're in business.
Only the prof's big idea turns out to be a flop because the stuff he cooks up actually begins degrading a bit faster than he thought, spewing various stuff that's bad for you into whatever liquid is put in it.
One of our scut crew thought he had a way to make a few changes and get something useful. But that would take more of our cash, and the prof would rather pocket his share and let the project die. My buddies elect me to inform our angels of this little plan. Next thing you know I'm a CEO, the prof is gone, and all the rest of our clan have signed up to help out.
We work our butts off, with the added stimulus that the prof has had us blackballed by his peers so our asses are grass as far as any return to the halls of academe is concerned. All that stands between us and "You want fries with that?" is what pours out of our beakers.
Which is, basically, shit.
The angels started flapping their wings all over me, Mr. CEO, and making noises about flying off. So I head over to our conference area -- i.e., the foosball table we stuck in one corner of the lab -- and proceed to confer. Our little group breaks down into two camps, which are:
1. We are on the verge of the greatest scientific discovery since air, so we must redouble our efforts even if it means going without food or sleep for weeks on end until we accomplish our goal.
2. Just how much beer could we buy with the money we have left?
I'm arguing for the first camp when one of the guys yells "Foos Rule!" Which, of course, means each side has to pick a champion for a game that will decide which camp wins, with the opponents bound by sacred duty to accept the outcome. Sort of a Knights of the Roundtable thing, but without the horses.
I naturally represent my side, being the two-time King Foos of my dorm. It won't be easy, though, because my worthy foe is the only man to ever have defeated me two games in a row.
The game starts with the usual ceremonial tip-off and it's a close thing. My foe is playing the angles well, and I get trapped into playing his game for awhile. But I launch a dramatic comeback with raw power up the middle to tie it all up.
Hey, it's taking longer to get to Japan than I thought. Sorry. Let me give you the low bandwidth version of the rest of the story:
I fire a foos shot that ricochets off the goalie and into a stack of test tubes. Faster than you can say Teflon and Post-It Notes, we check out the resulting goop. The stuff's a bitch to mold -- we can only do some thin flat sheets -- but it cures hard and clear. Our tests show it'll turn to an ecologically inert powder, but not as fast as we wanted.
We patent the goop anyway, just to have something to show the angels. Which is when Ekasa's folks show up, and Mr. CEO is on the big white bird to Japan.
But I still haven't explained why our stuff attracted them. My bad.
Here's the 411. What would make a music exec happier than a CD that can't be ripped or copied? A CD that can't be ripped, can't be copied, and self-destructs in a few years. Planned obsolescence: every marketer's wet dream.
The Ekasa gurus figured the music boys would love 'em to death for the idea. Sure, the public would get screwed, but they'd sell the new discs as much harder and scratch-resistant. When the CD's started warping years later? Oh, so sorry. But good news is they will disappear completely in few years -- good for environment, no?
Some of our bunch were a little ticked about helping them pull off a scam like that, and it took a lot of talking around the lab before we finally hammered out a compromise and I was shipped off to Japan.
So we're finally there. Only, well, be honest: if you're reading this, you're probably looking for the sex. And we haven't gotten to that bit yet. Sorry.
Look, it'll save us all a lot of trouble if I kick it into high gear. I get to Japan; chauffeured limo picks me up; five-star hotel; the works. But then I spend three days being bounced around offices at HQ, never seeing anything but low-level flunkies who give me gap-toothed Letterman smiles as interpreters drone on about the power and the glory of Ekasa. Finally on the fourth day they deliver the offer, which is laughable. When I balk, they apologize -- for wasting my time, not for the feeble offer -- and send me off to their labs, where it's broadly hinted that they're cooking up their own polymer.
All of which might have been more convincing if I didn't already know that their top two polymer chemists had said sayonara four months ago and defected to a Dutch firm. Don't these guys know everybody's secrets are on the Internet? So I squeezed their toes, threatening to go back home, though I was all smiley-smiley as I said it. Next morning we cut the deal in a few minutes and they apologized again for wasting my time. Sightseeing now, they smile as they shove me out the door.
So I'm finally free to see the sights. Only no driver, no limo -- so sorry; unavailable -- and no one to go with me.
Fine; I'll get my own guide. But the hotel has turned cold too. Gee, what a shock: It's also owned by Ekasa.
I've only got a few hours anyway, so I head off after snatching an English-language guidebook from the stash I brought with me. I hit a few high points near the hotel and decide to take a subway to a few others -- hell, for all I know the cabbies are Ekasa's, too.
Now, all of Tokyo is crowded. But the subways -- Think of the biggest crowd you've ever been in. Now squeeze it into half the space. Then make them all jam through a dozen or so doors into an even smaller space.
OK, you're getting close.
I mean, these trains are so crowded that they actually have pushers whose job is simply to stand outside the open doors of each car, wait until there are so many people crammed on that the doors can barely close and not one single extra rider could be forced in -- and then shove in another couple dozen. And I do mean shove. Push. Cram. Smash. Smush. Crush. And did I say shove?
But it's all right, of course, because as they're squashing everyone in, they're wearing white gloves. Wouldn't want to get anyone dirty.
All this is, I assure you, very relevant.
Because I was standing on the platform, watching this performance, when I got swept up. Next thing I know, I'm almost lifted off my feet, I'm getting elbowed and kneed, and some wacko in white gloves is forcing me further into the maelstrom.
The guy in the gloves is screeching and I think I hear a whistle and all of a sudden there's a whoosh and the subway doors close and I'm flattened against the glass and metal by a wave of sushi-breathed humanity. I'm not a tall guy, but in this crowd I stand a good four inches above average, so my head bobs out of the pile. I'm looking across a sea of straight black shiny hair. It feels like I'm drowning in panthers.
Squirming panthers. These people have absolutely no sense of personal space. The guy next to me doesn't even give me a glance as he digs an elbow into my side reaching down into his briefcase. He pulls out one of those weird bondage-and-battery comic books filled with hot-bodied Kewpie dolls and sticks it in front of his face, the pages tickling my chin. He ignores me even when I brush it away.