In a long meeting in the offices of Kobe Steel in Kobe, Japan in January, 1981, Al Domeshek and I had explained why Kobe’s air separation plant that Production Operators had bought from them suffered an explosion and had tried to register the urgency to repair it placed on us by our customer, the Chevron Corporation. In our second meeting the next day, we got the impression that the Kobe engineers thought that nothing unusual had happened the previous day.
Knowing that we had far more bad news for Kobe, we decided to push on and address the larger problem of the failure of their plant to operate successfully according to our contract before the explosion. We had resolved to demand that Kobe needed to completely replace the air cooling heat exchangers, add separate equipment to remove water and carbon dioxide from the in-coming air as well as to add foam insulation to the column surfaces and repair the cold box where the explosion occurred.
The enormity of doing this in the next two days with a language and culture difference was over-whelming. We tackled it a piece at a time and were greeted by total silence and quite a bit of what we thought was dis-belief. This went on for the rest of our meetings and I promised that our demands would be laid out in a detailed report on our return to the States and this seemed to appeal to them.
On one of our afternoons in Kobe, Tak Sakuraba, our escort took us to visit Kyoto, the City of Ten Thousand Shrines. He armed us with lots of coins, some of which we had also been accumulating and said this was for shrine money. Paper money was discouraged by the shrines because they said it got blown away but we got the implication that it got stolen. Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 649 to 1868 when the Emperor, and therefore the capital, moved to Tokyo. We went in about six of the shrine buildings which were quite amazing in their decoration. Everyone we saw in Kyoto
was in national costume except the tourists of which there were thousands everywhere.
On the Friday, we took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo for one last meeting with the Mitsui Corporation from whom we had purchased the Kobe plant. They had been told of our demands and asked me to stay over the week end to have a final meeting on the Monday with one of their directors. As compensation for having to stay over they said I was invited to play golf with one of the senior managers and I would be picked up on the Sunday morning at my hotel. Al was flying back to Houston on Saturday afternoon so we went shopping together in the morning. We bought Kimonos for our wives and I fell in love with a very Japanese looking vase, but I am sad to say I later saw several identical ones in Macy’s in Houston at a quarter of the price I paid.
We went into the basement food market of a giant department store in the Ginza and were shocked at the food items that people were buying and the high prices they were paying for them. There were birds and animals of all kinds being butchered in front of our eyes and at one booth we watched a chef smash the shell of a live turtle, put the draining blood in a jug and poured cups of it for a line of waiting people who drank it with relish. (There were no “round-eyes” in the line).
On Sunday at 9am I was picked up by Sakuraba’s boss’s boss whose name I have forgotten and driven in his Mercedes to the Tokyo Golf Club, the
oldest golf club in Japan. The weather was good but chilly and we first went to a dining room and had hot Saki and tempura vegetables. We then got me fitted with brand new rented clubs, found our two lady caddies dressed in long black dresses and went to play the first nine holes. I was a 10 handicap at the time and I found that my host was a 12 and wondered if he had been carefully chosen. It turned out that we played almost identically and we enjoyed each other’s company. After the nine holes we had a very impressive sushi lunch with a couple of glasses of scotch and went out to play the back nine. Our clubs had been cleaned and our drivers were on the first tee in a rack and the caddies were down the fairway awaiting our drives. Another fun nine holes was followed by drinks in the bar.
I had been told to expect to be at the club all day so I assumed we were going to have dinner but I was shocked to find that we had gone to a large bath house on the premises and was given a locker, a towel robe and a pair of shower slippers and my host said, “Everything off”. Reluctantly I did and followed him into a large tiled room with troughs of running hot water and several naked men seated at them. With some difficulty I finally recognized my naked host, shed my robe and sat near him.
A little old lady immediately came and scrubbed me all over and when through told me to go sit in a large hot tub that already had about ten occupants including my host. He asked me if I wanted a massage or dinner and being scared of what a massage entailed, I chose dinner. I was back at my hotel about 8pm, which made it the longest time I had ever taken for a round of golf.
In the morning, Tak Sakuraba took me to the Mitsui office to meet the Head of his department. He thanked me for staying over to meet him and said that he had studied all the reports and understood the urgency of, in effect, re-building the air plant and would ensure that Kobe would be responsible for all costs incurred. He emphasized that we should outline in a letter exactly what we and our customer, Chevron wanted them to do. This was fine for us but it was very noticeable that there was never an apology or even the slightest admission that mistakes had been made or that their engineering had been flawed or even out of date.
He then surprised me by presenting me with a gift for my wife to compensate for delaying my return home. He supplied receipted documents so that I could prove to Customs that it was a gift and I would not have to pay a tax. From this, I assumed it was an expensive gift. We found it to be a beautiful silver brooch with several large pearls, which I was later assured were genuine. This capped a really interesting eight days of being entertained, educated and frustrated but which I had truly enjoyed.
Back in Houston, I brought Paul Pigue, my boss up to date and he and an engineer, Bob Street who had negotiated the original Chevron project before I had joined the company, left for California to explain the situation to them. Their reaction to what looked like being a delay of a few months to an already over-due project is another memory for another day.
3 thoughts on “Memory Thirty Eight”
Your writings trigger a whole series of experiences I had but not shared with you. Looking back, I realize all that I missed in Japan.
I enjoyed hearing Al’s stories in Atlanta last year about trying to explain to all the Japanese in the control room to run (out the door and through the snow) before the impending explosion, and also his story of hating to not understand the language and then watching a Japanese man talk to his dog in the park, and thinking, damn, even that dog UNDERSTANDS what he is saying!!!
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