Like any good businessman, Douglas G. Nomiyama often builds rapport with clients by telling them a little about himself. Only in his case, the most innocent revelations sometimes leave everyone bewildered.
"They're not used to someone being so independent, who cooks for himself, lives on his own," said Nomiyama, 26. "They don't understand why I don't live with my parents to save money."
Nomiyama is a Japanese-American, Stanford-educated, raised in Seattle. And in his job as a U.S. export representative for Mitsui & Co., a Tokyo-based trading company, he often deals with Japanese citizens. They quickly learn that--despite appearances--he is from another world. "Whenever we tell Japanese that we're Japanese-American, they say 'No--you are American-Japanese,' " he said.
As Nomiyama has found, to be a Japanese-American with a Japanese employer can mean navigating a tortuous path between cultures. The Japanese may rely on their American cousins to explain such diverse aspects of U.S. life as how to scold an errant employee or arrange for a car rental. At the same time, they may be confused when the Japanese-Americans don't act Japanese--even though some, such as Nomiyama, are third-generation Americans.
Japanese supervisors may even expect their Japanese-Americans--or \o7 nikkei\f7 --employees to make personal sacrifices that they would not demand of other Americans. Yet for all the insights that Japanese-Americans have to offer Tokyo-based employers in the United States, they rarely are granted real power within such companies.
"You're expected to behave like the inside group, but you don't get the perks," maintained Harry H. Kitano, a Japanese-American who is a professor of social work and sociology at UCLA. "It's a very difficult position. I don't think I'd want to work for a Japanese company because of all these expectations."
It was not always so. Such companies stood out as havens in an earlier era when Japanese immigrants met with flagrant prejudice in this country; when the educated often toiled in gardens, factories and fruit stands. As recently as the 1950s, many Japanese-Americans felt shut out of corporate America--and saw Tokyo-based firms as the alternative.
Older Japanese-Americans in particular may feel a special relationship with such companies. "When you look around at other banks, how many minorities do you see as senior vice presidents?" asked Mas Miyakoda, who is one of 10 Japanese-American senior vice presidents at Sumitomo Bank of California.
The Santa Monica native, 61, declared with obvious pride: "The name of Sumitomo in a Japanese household always had prestige."
Yet if Japanese-Americans in this country have made great economic progress, the Japanese employers here have done even better. The soft-spoken Miyakoda, who started out as a bank teller in the 1950s, recalled that the Japanese-Americans at Sumitomo used to crack jokes about their supervisors' poorly made footwear. "If you heard the shoes squeak, you'd say, 'He must be from Japan.' "
Today, with Japan's emergence as a financial superpower, such jokes seem quaint. "Now I guess they all wear European shoes," said Miyakoda, who oversees Sumitomo's personnel department from the San Francisco headquarters. "They don't squeak anymore."
The Japanese and the nikkei long have viewed each other through a curious cultural lens. Most Japanese-Americans are descended from farmers who fled to this country in quest of a better life, starting at the end of the 19th Century. According to scholars, many Japanese back home blamed the nikkei for the hostile reception they received here and looked upon them as the dregs of Japanese society.
Even today, noted Yuji Ichioka, a UCLA history professor and author of "The \o7 Issei,\f7 " a new book named for the early immigrants, Japanese who are in this country on business see their American cousins almost as "kinds of freaks."
One obvious source of puzzlement to the Japanese is the decidedly non-Japanese behavior of the Japanese-Americans. "Those from the outside tend to be more outspoken than someone in Japan," explained Kathleen Kumagai, 34, a former assistant vice president with the Industrial Bank of Japan in Los Angeles. "I'm not as humble or deferential."
She added: "There was a lot more bowing between Japan-born local employees and the Tokyo staff than between me and the Tokyo staff."
At Mitsui, Nomiyama said he has to resist the attempts of his supervisors to get him to spend time on weekends cultivating potential customers--an unpaid work contribution that Japanese employees make routinely. "I tell them most (Americans) don't work on weekends," said Nomiyama, who works at the company's Seattle office. "It's for friends and family."