Nagoya Writes

December 4, 2007

The Grey Samurai by Ernest Schaal

Filed under: Issue: May 2006,Prose,Schaal — usbengoshi @ 6:03 pm
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It was raining that Monday morning when Tanaka-san came into my office with his diskette. Before then, I didn’t know that the “Grey Samurai” worked at our company. I didn’t even know that the “Grey Samurai” existed.

Tanaka-san was the head of the Finance Section. Normally, he valued his free time as much as I did, but he had spent all weekend working on a file on his laptop. He came to my office to have that file transferred to our computer network.

Our company policy stated that all files made off-site needed to be checked for viruses by my section before they could be loaded onto the network. Tanaka-san was following company policy.

“It has a virus,” I said in an informal Japanese. The Japanese language has various levels of formality, from the honorific form used with superiors, to the formal form used with strangers, to the informal form used between friends, to the abrupt form used with children and pets. I used the informal form because we had been friends for years.

Our friendship began because we both loved computers and because we both stood out as being different in a very homogeneous company. I stood out because I was the only white foreigner that worked there. He stood out because, although born of Japanese parents, he was raised in London and spoke English better than he spoke Japanese. In addition, he stood out because he was married to a foreigner, a Chinese woman whom he had met as a student in England.

Initially, we were considered outsiders, but over time we were accepted. Eventually, we became section leaders. Our promotions were partly due to our talent, but also partly due to a seniority system common in many Japanese companies.

Tanaka-san took the news of the virus calmly, but I could see that he felt violated.

“I guess that means my laptop is infected, too.”

“Probably.”

“This isn’t a good start to a new week.”

“Yeah, it looks like it’s one of those Mondays that the Carpenters sang about.”

“I wonder how I got it. I’m pretty careful about those types of things.”

“I’ll check.”

It took me only thirty minutes to find the cause of the virus. His twelve-year-old daughter Yoko-chan, who has great computer skills, liked using his laptop without his permission and disabled the firewall protection. Somehow, in doing so, she also disabled the anti-virus protection. The virus came attached to a message about her favorite vocal group, Morning Musume.

I wrote a short statement reminding people of the current policy and setting forth a sanitized version of what happened. No names were used.

Because of this incident, the president suggested a complete audit of all our computers. During that audit, we found out that Toshio Sasaki of the Finance Section was posting messages from work to the soc.culture.japan newsgroup. He used the name “Grey Samurai.”

Newsgroups are discussion groups on the Internet among people who share a common interest. Soc.culture.japan was a newsgroup in English about “Everything Japanese, except the Japanese language.”

While our policy allowed the use of newsgroups for business, it did not allow the use of personal lifestyle newsgroups such as soc.culture.japan. That’s the reason why we blocked such newsgroups from the network.

While newsgroups could be read using email, they could also be read using a website. He had read and posted messages via a popular website.

I knew a little about soc.culture.japan before this. When I had first thought of coming to Japan, I sometimes checked it to find out about Japanese culture. I stopped checking it because I grew tired of the insults swapped between those who loved Japan so much that they were blind to its faults and those who hated Japan so much that they were blind to its virtues. There was sometimes useful information, but the ratio of chaff to wheat was too high.

The Japan lovers included those that yearned for the glories of the Japanese Imperial Army of the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the early years of World War II. They denied that the Japanese had committed any war crimes, denied that any racism or sexism now existed in modern Japan, and called the Chinese and the Koreans bad names. They also included those who had fallen in love with Japanese culture due to their love for Japanese animation.

The Japan haters included posters from economic rivals who haven’t forgiven Japan for the atrocities of World War II and for being richer than they are. Mainly, they were Chinese and Koreans. Their number also included some white supremacists and others who hate Asians in general.

Sasaki fit in perfectly with the other netizens of soc.culture.japan, swapping insults with the worse of them. He was one of those who yearned for the past glories of the Japanese Imperial Army, and his messages often had many slurs against Chinese, Koreans, and the white race. Unlike most of the other Japanese posters, he also had slurs against the burakumin (the “untouchables” of Japan), the Ainu (part of the indigenous people of Japan), and residents of Tokyo (because they look down on him).

He frequently used phrases like “dirty Allies,” “little Chink weasels,” and “honorary Whites.” Sometimes, his language was stronger and sometimes more vulgar.

Besides insulting various groups, he had one truly signature belief, a belief that was his alone. He believed that the Japanese Imperial Army fought the “real” Nazis during the war. To him, the “real” Nazis were Great Britain, the United States, and especially the Chinese army. He even went so far as to claim that the German army also fought the “real” Nazis. Many newsgroup posters often deliberately misuse the terms “fascist” and “Nazis” to apply it to anyone who disagrees with them on any topic. Godwin’s Law roughly states that as a newsgroup discussion grows longer, eventually someone will make a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler. Sasaki was the only one that I had heard of who had so distorted the term “Nazis” as to apply to the Allied forces of World War II.

While I disliked the tone and content of his messages, I had seen worse. It was the nature of that newsgroup and newsgroups in general. Something about the anonymity of the Internet causes some people to act at their worse. Some, like him, used the newsgroups as a means of insulting people they don’t know with slights and slurs that they would have never dared use face to face.

Viewed objectively, Sasaki had not caused any breach of network security nor had he violated policy. He might have violated the spirit of our company policy, but using the web to access newsgroups had not been specifically banned. Frankly, I hadn’t anticipated that it could have become a problem.

Viewed subjectively, his messages bothered me. It is one thing to deal with a racist on the Internet, and it is another thing to deal with one in real life. On the Internet, one can filter out messages from known racists, but one cannot “filter out” people in the workplace.

All that afternoon, I found myself looking at the nametags of employees as I passed them in the hall, to see if I could spot the “Grey Samurai.” They all seemed friendly, but one of them secretly hated me because I was white. I hadn’t thought about being white in Japan for a long time. Now “Grey Samurai” was making me feel paranoid. I told both Tanaka-san and the president about what I had discovered.

I wondered what kind of person would write such messages. They were full of hate and weird beliefs, but at least he could spell and he used proper English grammar. Most racists on the Internet weren’t so eloquent.

My guess was that he was an educated but bitter man. My mental image of him was a young salary man, dressed in a black suit, coming home to an empty hovel filled with expensive electronic gear. I guessed that his social life consisted solely of soc.culture.japan and video games.

His actions did raise one important issue that I needed to take up with upper management. If someone made a connection between our company and his messages, it could damage our reputation. His remarks could turn customers and employees against us. Since he insulted such a wide variety of people, the chance of someone being offended was high.

That night Tanaka-san and I went out for a few drinks at an izakaya (a Japanese-style bar) near the train station. It was small, not much bigger than an average hotel room. We sat at the counter and drank large bottles of beer while snacking on side dishes of grilled chicken on skewers, fried potatoes, and gyoza (Chinese-style dumplings).

Since we were both married with children, we didn’t go out drinking very often. I had invited him out because I wanted to know more about the Grey Samurai.

“I read the messages you gave me, and I just can’t believe that he wrote them.”

“They are definitely his. I found the messages still on his computer.”

“That’s not what I meant. I know in my mind that he wrote them, but in my stomach, it is hard for me to believe that he would do that. It just doesn’t seem like him.”

“His messages about Americans are making me feel a tad paranoid, and I’m not comfortable about the other messages either.”

“He also said some really nasty things about the Chinese. Everyone knows that my wife is from China.”

“What kind of person is he?”

“I don’t know. I thought I knew… Before, he seemed conscientious, knowledgeable, with a great feel for numbers.”

“His postings make me think he’s a very bitter little man.”

“Bitter? He doesn’t seem particularly bitter.”

“How about gloomy?”

“No.”

“Withdrawn?”

“Not really. He seems like a typical Japanese salary man. He seems to like his work.”

“What are you going to do about him?”

“I don’t know. I’ll talk to him tomorrow and try to find out what is going on. I’ll let you know what happens before the meeting.”

The next day, I presented my findings at a management meeting, with the recommendation that the filter procedures be adjusted to disable web browsers from posting newsgroup messages. I made no recommendation about what to do with the Grey Samurai, since that was not my section’s concern.

Earlier, Tanaka-san told me he counseled Mr. Sasaki on his inappropriate behavior. During that counseling, Mr. Sasaki apologized for the trouble he had caused. He said he had meant no harm, thinking of it as an innocent means of reducing stress. He admitted that in hindsight, it was a stupid thing to do. Tanaka-san recommended that he be placed on probation, that we monitor the newsgroup to see whether the change in filter procedures put an end to the Grey Samurai.

Both recommendations were accepted.

After two weeks, there was a follow-up meeting where I reported no further posts by the Grey Samurai. After that meeting, I stopped monitoring the newsgroup.

I thought the matter was over, but then something happened at the next company trip. Each year, we all go for an overnight trip to some fancy resort where the employees can “bond.” The company pays for part of the expenses, and we pay the rest.

That year, the trip was to a fancy resort along the beach of the Sea of Japan, near Kanazawa and the famous gardens of Kenrokuen (one of the three great gardens of Japan). The hotel was rated one of the best resort hotels in Western Honshu, with outdoor baths right next to the sea. The only reason we could afford it was by sleeping five people to a room.

After reaching the resort, we had a formal Japanese dinner, where the seating was selected randomly to promote better interdepartmental relations. The meal consisted of a variety of small dishes, including among other things, grilled salted salmon, pickled ginger, grated daikon radish, dried plums, sashimi (raw fish), clear miso soup, and of course, rice. Seated opposite from me was Toshio Sasaki.

I was surprised because he looked clean-cut and intelligent. He was even good-looking, resembling Yon-san, a current Korean star popular among Japanese women. He didn’t look anything like the pathetic loser that I imagined from reading his posts.

While most of the conversation was in Japanese, enough of it was in English for me to find out that he had an excellent grasp of the language. He seemed knowledgeable and informed. Then, when one of the other diners said she was going to China for vacation, I was surprised by his comment.

“Be sure to see the Great Wall. I went there and it is unbelievable. It made me realize how advanced Chinese culture was that they were to be able to build something like that.”

“When did you visit China?” I asked.

“I went during last Golden Week. I was only able to go for a few days, but it was fun.”

“How did you find the Chinese?”

“They were very friendly. It is a visit that I will treasure for the rest of my life.”

That night, I had trouble going to sleep because of the snores of my four roommates. As I lay there, I wondered if he really did go to China. If he really did go, how did he like the people? If he didn’t like them, why bother lying about it? He could have just stayed silent.

A few weeks after the trip, I checked soc.culture.japan again. I noticed that a new poster was sending messages that used the same type of language that the Grey Samurai had used. There was even a remark that “the Japanese Imperial Army fought the ‘real’ Nazis.” An Internet search showed that the Grey Samurai had been the only one who had previously used that particular phrase before in a newsgroup.

I told Tanaka-san about what I found, and two weeks later Toshio Sasaki was gone.

A few days later, Tanaka-san and I went out for drinks again and I asked what happened.

“When I showed him copies of the messages, he said they weren’t his. He said that a copycat poster must have posted them.”

“That’s weird.”

“He said it might be some Chinese person who had felt insulted about his previous posts, who was trying to make him look bad.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“It left me speechless. I was standing there, listening to him as he rambled on. The more he talked, the stranger it got. Maybe if I said something, he might have stopped. As he continued to talk, he elaborated on his theory of some Chinese conspiring against him. He tried to explain to me how sneaky and unprincipled the Chinese were, drifting into harsher rhetoric. Then it happened. Right in mid-sentence, he stops.”

“Why?”

“I think he must have suddenly remembered that my wife is Chinese.”

“What did he say next?”

“Nothing.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

“Someone must have said something.”

“No, neither of us did. Instead, he went to back to his desk and wrote out his resignation.”

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