Where's my waiter? The truth behind the flyjin
Since March 11, much has been written about the white-collar expat workers who fled Japan in their suits and ties after the earthquake; families, briefcases and expense accounts trailing behind them.
That relentless negativity has yet to be balanced by a more relevant picture of the vast working classes of non-Japanese who run so many of the city’s ethnic bars and restaurants.
To put things straight, we asked three stalwarts in the business for their thoughts about what happened in the days and weeks immediately following March 11, and for their plans for the future.
Nelson Surjon, the owner of six-month-old La Gargote, a French Izakaya in Azabu Juban, was just starting to make money with his new venture when the earthquake struck.
“Most of my staff reported into work on Monday after the earthquake and we discussed the growing nuclear crisis,” he says.
“I asked them to stay but most were nervous, saying maybe we'd better move south for a few days which is what we did.” When the French Embassy started recommending their citizens depart Japan, the chef informed Nelson he had decided to go home to France.
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“We are not [company-posted] expats -- we try to make a business, raise a family, so when your embassy tells you something, you listen. I would never have left if it was just me, but I have a wife and children,” he explains. “With half my staff gone and my embassy suggesting we leave, I decided to go back to France too.”
After three weeks, Surjon and most of his staff returned to Tokyo and they have successfully re-opened the restaurant.
“For sure, it will be harder to find French help now. We are trying to open a second place and I was counting on a friend in France to help, but he’s cooled on the idea of moving to Japan,” Surjon tells us.
Italy is just a vacation
Luca Baldi, the manager of La Bisboccia, a highly acclaimed Italian restaurant in Ebisu since 1993, never left after the earthquake and neither did his staff.
After discussions with the Japanese owner of the restaurant, Luca closed the place down for five days, as almost all of their bookings had cancelled.
“We could have left,” says Baldi. “We were in touch with the Italian Embassy and they supported us, but leaving wasn’t a solution. I have a mortgage. We have no big corporation behind us, supporting us.
“We are on our own and we need the work. Japan is my home. Italy is just a place I go on vacation.”
Hiring staff from outside Japan might be more difficult post-earthquake, but those already here will find the environment even more competitive.
“It used to be easy in Japan to find good work, but about three years ago things changed because of the economy and it’s harder to find good jobs,” says Baldi. “So, we stayed and protected our jobs.”
“At La Bisboccia, the Italian waiters make the difference,” he tells us. “It is the magic of this place -- the Japanese feel like they are in Italy and the foreign customers like to make special requests and we like to serve them. I love Italy, but earthquake or not, I’m staying put.”
Summer power cuts
Byomkesh Panday, the owner of Priya, an Indian restaurant in Hiroo, takes pride in his close relationship with the foreign families who live and go to school in the surrounding neighborhood.
“We never closed after the earthquake -- we are open seven days a week and we continued to stay open,” says Panday.
“When our regular customers heard we were here, they started calling us for deliveries. All the moms were happy. And then, a few days after the earthquake, the foreigners left,” he laments.
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“After three days I was worried. I asked the staff if they wanted to leave. Air India sent us an email telling us of extra flights to India. But, my staff said they would be the last to leave,” says Panday.
Priya hires its staff from India and Panday doesn’t think there will be a problem hiring new help. He does, however, have another concern. “If they cut our electricity this summer, that will affect our business even more.”
Panday also says he feels the Japanese government needs to get involved with the foreign community and keep them informed about the current situation.
“We need information -- we need to know what is happening,” he says.
“If the government doesn’t step in, the fear will continue. Why do people still buy bottled water if the water is supposed to be fine? Because fear remains."