I had the rare and unfortunate opportunity to observe what goes on in a Japanese company when an important official passes away. On Monday, October 16, 1995, Yoshida-joumu did not show up for work. Because his absence was suspicious, someone went to see him at his home that night. Yoshida-joumu was found dead on the floor, a victim of heart failure. The next day, word spread to everyone in the company before even the morning bell rang.
Even I, who am not usually included in the company gossip, learned rather quickly. Ario-shunin, a new guy in the department who was rather excited about becoming my buddy, took me outside the office to have a personal conversation with me. At first I thought I was in trouble for something, but then to my unrelief I found out that he just wanted to tell me, in nice, patronizing baby Japanese, that Yoshida-joumu had died.
I was shocked and surprised, for I too had interacted with this man every day, but I kept my head enough to seize the opportunity to ask questions about Japanese customs regarding death, especially the words that should be said: In these circumstances, where an American says, "I'm sorry," a Japanese says, "Go-shuushou-sama."
When we returned to the office, everyone stood in a circle, many of the women, but none of the men, crying, listening to Miura-buchou's speech. When he finished, he suddenly had more to say but could not get himself to say it. The morning was filled with hushed voices, broken only by the clamor of several girls cleaning out the former joumu's desk.
In the events that transpired afterwards, two things amazed me. One was the speed with which formalities were executed. He was found dead on Monday night and cremated on Wednesday. (By the way, the law in Japan requires cremation.) During my conversation with Ario-shunin, I asked him if people from the company would attend the funeral, hoping that I too could attend. But he answered that life must go on in the company and that it was unlikely anyone besides upper management would go.
I guess things go on during overtime that leave me completely in the dark, because the next day at work I was the only one in my department to turn a magnet over (check in). All day I enjoyed the department's resources all to myself, though I could have just taken the day off and no one would have noticed.
There were, however, a few people from other departments who share the same office, so that when the funeral began that day -- at 11:00 in Yokohama -- a voice over the loud speaker directed everyone to stop what they were doing, stand up, and pray for a minute. This was the other thing that amazed me. Whether employees could put off a day's work or not, all of them were somehow involved in the formalities of the joumu's death.
A few weeks later, Yoshida-joumu's desk still remains unoccupied and his post unfilled. The flowers that sit on his desk have always appeared new, which means they are being changed often. I have yet to determine whether the company's reaction to his death was typical of a Japanese company, or whether the man was just plain loved. I would not be surprised to learn it was both, for in Japan, the company is family.