The Japanese Art of Rejection: The Inquisition

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“The Judge must admonish him (the Advocate) not to incur the charge of defending heresy”–The Malleus Maleficarum, the witch-hunters’ handbook, published in 1486, regarding the danger of vigorous legal defense of accused witches

The art of inquisition in Japanese-style recruitment

The Rising Moon/Image: Michael Moffa

[Note: This is Part II of “The Japanese Art of Rejection”.]

When my White House speech for the Prime Minister was dropped by Mr. Narita as softly as a tree drops a wilting cherry blossom that then gently drifts to the ground, I did not fall to the ground on my knees and onto my pen to commit seppuku.

As I explained in “The Japanese Art of Rejection: The ‘No!’Drama” (Part I of this two-part posting, here at, Mr. Narita very pleasantly, even soothingly dumped my 2-minute White House-targeted speech he had requested of me—rejected mostly because it was too difficult for the Prime Minister to memorize. Fair enough, courteous enough.

The Sound of More Falling Cherry Blossoms

So, our budding relationship still intact, we resumed our cordialities. It was not long thereafter that my second micro-economic drama with Mr. Narita and his recruitment matrix unfolded, like a fresh, precariously perched cherry blossom amid our still blossoming relationship.

It seems that the same initial enthusiasm for my speech-writing skills that motivated Mr. Narita’s highest-level governmental invitation was undiminished in connection with a second, corporate invitation: He encouraged me to apply for a job as a full-time writer, at a prominent ESL academy in central Tokyo, with which he had unexplained, but strong ties. Very receptive to the idea and bolstered by his evident support, I applied. The interview was scheduled.

The Grandiose Inquisitor

The format was an all-Japanese panel interview—a couple of administrators and a teacher. In addition to Mr. Narita, my German friend, Axel, who had introduced us, was invited as well, perhaps as a courtesy to or for some utilization of him as the go-between or corporate equivalent of a “nakodo”—marriage match-maker, of the kind who collectively arranged more than one Japanese friend’s betrothal.

Things were proceeding very smoothly, effortlessly—“asa no meishi mai” (as easily as getting out of bed and preparing breakfast; literally “the time before breakfast”). That is, until the in-house teacher, who sat behind me, in the grandstand decided to teach me some lessons.

To confirm Mr. Narita’s intuitions and explore his confidence in me, the panel decided to test my grasp of English—specifically TOEFL exam English. With my very high English GRE score, my abstruse thesis on Wittgenstein collecting dust in a library, etc., as comforts and amulets, I was certain that there could be no problem, no serious challenge.

What this Shogun’s minion chose to do, however, was to challenge many of my native-speaker, university lecturer answers to the multiple-choice questions—specifically the ones related to idioms and other phrases. In his mind, the idiomatic expression “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’” would have to be paraphrased this way: “To insert the letter ‘I’ into ‘team’ would be to commit a spelling error that would cause one to lose face and disgrace one’s employer or master, necessitating dismissal, resignation or worse.” Any other interpretation would be unacceptable.

Like an inquisitor following the interrogation formats prescribed in the Malleus Maleficarum (The “Witches’ Hammer”, the infamous 1486 witch-hunters’ handbook), he tried to hammer my responses, one after another.

The guy was as relentless as he was wrong—not merely often, but every time he opened his mouth. Worse, he was cocky, aggressive, rude, otherwise disrespectful, over-zealous and under-trained (socially, as well as pedagogically). Worst: He was very un-Japanese—and perilously unaware of whom he was dealing with.

Shoot-Out at the Not-OK Corral

After four or five of these crackpotshots (not crack-potshots), I had enough of this Grand Inquisitor and his grandiose grandstanding. In retrospect, I suppose he genuinely thought that despite his being a quite young, heavily-accented non-native speaker, his grasp of English idioms just had to be better than mine—even though each of the consecutive challenges he mounted failed miserably.

Fed up, I retaliated: I paused and then with some measure of self-control said, “I’m sorry. This is over.  This is not an interview; it’s an inquisition. And if I have to work with him, I’m not interested in the job.”

Whoa!….I had just broken and broken up a set of Japanese rules of business and interview etiquette:

  • Rule 1—Never cause anyone to lose face
  • Rule 2—In the face of awkwardness or dissatisfaction, always shoot for damage control, not at the perceived human source of the problem (unless you are the boss)
  • Rule 3—Never make it personal
  • Rule 4—Never aggressively challenge an acknowledged expert in a collegial context.

The problem was that these were precisely the rules the Japanese teacher had broken—all of them. (At least, to his credit, he did not fall asleep during the interview—an incredibly common occurrence in Japanese meetings, and, in my firsthand experience as a mystified observer, always tactfully rationalized by others present as “paying deep undivided attention and displaying intense concentration”. Seriously, I am not making this up.)

So, reverting to (wild) Western frontier justice, I went for the shoot-out.

Some of the details have faded over time, but their definitely was an awkward silence, some shuffling of paper and shoes, and—this I recall very clearly—a visible sigh of relief, as a “thumbs-up” from Axel, a latter-day Visigoth in his own right. Well, that was that. It was over.

The Hidden Agenda of the “Inscrutable Japanese”

So I thought. Instead, and to my amazement, I was shortly thereafter invited for a second interview! “Inscrutable Japanese”?—this confirmed the validity of the notion. What could they possibly have had in mind? Had they reprimanded or fired that teacher? Made him fall on his pencil?

There was to be another, unexpected surprise in their collective Japanese pencil box.

Same chess board, different pawns: This time, I was to have a face-to-face—or would it be face-to-lose-face?—meeting with a real heavyweight “ringer” war-horse: They brought in an American consultant whom they apparently recruited specifically for the purpose from omnipotent MITI (the then fearsome Ministry of International Trade and Industry)—possibly through Mr. Narita, since he attended this meeting too.

My Meeting with Meaty MITI

The huge American, Texan or Oklahoman as I recall, was friendly in manner and started by saying, “We merely need to determine that you are indeed a very capable writer.” Beginning to sense where this was going and why it was happening, I turned to Mr. Narita and asked, “Mr. Narita, do you have that speech I wrote for the Prime Minister?”

Fortuitously, he did. He handed it to the meaty MITI young recruit wrangler, who then read it very carefully. Done, he looked up and said to all present, “This guy writes better than I ever will.” Yippie! I won!

Japanese “Logic”: Their Recruitment Ace in the Hole

If I did, it was a short-lived victory, for then the power on or behind the throne emerged from behind the curtain and cut to the real chase: The director, president or “riji cho” (pretty much the same thing)—whichever he was—sat with me and with a perfectly straight face said the following, almost verbatim:

“Ah, Michael-san…yes…you are a very good writer. We can see that now. But there is a difficulty. You see…(Note: Brace yourself for this bit of Japanese artful dodging.)….here in Japan, we have a lifetime employment system. Since you are not Japanese, we cannot offer you lifetime employment. So, I am sorry to say that we cannot offer you the job that you clearly deserve.”

If a second cherry blossom falls or is dropped from a tree when there is no one listening, does it make a sound? You bet: at least a whispered “B.S.”.  Foolishly, I tried to counter this illogic with logic: “Well, since my plans for Japan are not lifetime, it seems this is not an issue, especially since few foreigners, like me, will (want to) stay here forever.”

The sound of another cherry blossom falling on deaf ears. Maybe the sound of only one hand clapping for his performance—certainly not my hand.

With that, it was truly, finally and irrevocably over. But what had just happened? My misconceived and renewed optimism had just been crushed by a sumo wrestler-size fallacy that was not to be budged. Then I got it.


The point of the whole exercise was

  • Not to stage a Japanese-style visible apology to me
  • Not to give my credentials a second and more qualified examination
  • Not to restore harmony among us all
  • Not to “keep my resume on file”
  • Not to find another niche for me
  • Not to determine the correct answers to the TOEFL exam questions.

My informed hunch is that, from the moment the second interview was conceived, it had one and only one purpose: to somehow avoid hiring me, while saving face for the teacher, who, of course was not going to be fired for my sake—unlike a staff member I worked with in Kobe, who because he mistyped one very simple kanji (a Japanese character) on a mass-mailed letter to thousands, lived in terror for a day or two, as he came within another kanji’s breadth of being fired by the boss.

From the recruitment and business relations standpoint, it may have appeared to have been a big gamble, for if I had been discredited as a writer, it would have reflected very badly on Mr. Narita’s judgment in recommending me. He was far too important to the school and staff for that to be allowed to happen. So, my conclusion is that well before the second meeting, it was a foregone conclusion that I would not be discredited and that I would not be hired.

Once again, “Ah, Michael-san, yes, you are very good…..ah, but, too bad: We can’t hire you.” Sounds like a story to be pasted on a Japanese SaveFacebook website, e.g., (which is registered, but apparently up for sale, if anyone is interested.)

A Unique Inquisition

Anyway, the first time this happened with Mr. Narita, I felt flattered in being rejected.

This time, I just felt like laughing—probably a first in the history of those “put to the question” by any Inquisition/inquisition.

By Michael Moffa