Monday, October 13, 2008

Let's Ecology! 14: Neither Fish Nor Fowl

I started work the next week. I was introduced to the tall Japanese guy who had greeted me when I showed up for the interview. His name was Hiro Okayama. He was a shitsucho, or "section chief," and he was to be my supervisor. Okayama was very friendly, with an eager-to-please, puppy-doggish manner. He told me that I would be working on the Ecology Goods Catalog. It seemed that Soga had won the argument after all, and I would be part of a project team. But then Okayama told me that I would also be doing special work for Takahashi and other people as necessary. Apparently, the argument about where to use me had ended in a tie. I was going to be doing the jobs that both Takahashi and Soga wanted. I thought that this must be an example of the well-known Japanese ideals of compromise and consensus.

I spent my first couple of days learning more about the organization. Apparently, the Recycle Movement Citizens Association, or just "Recycle" as everybody called it, was 12 or 13 years old. Takahashi had begun the group as a student club, putting on flea markets in parks and department store parking lots. Eventually he had dropped out of school to run it full time. This had gone on with little change for about 10 years.

Since he and his wife had trouble finding organic food in stores, Takahashi had gotten the idea of having it delivered directly to his home. Maybe other people had the same desire for organic food and the same difficulty finding it, he thought, so why not start a business? That was the origin of Turnip Boy, which had begun only three years before and had already grown astronomically. It was on track to gross about $30 million dollars that year.

There had been one structural problem, though. Recycle, like most Japanese environmental groups back then, had been an unincorporated organization. This caused a lot of problems when doing business. Not only had Takahashi been personally liable for everything the organization did, companies were reluctant to sign contracts with an unincorporated organization. It had also caused problems for employees, who had problems getting credit and so on without a properly organized employer.

The obvious step, in America, would have been to incorporate as a nonprofit environmental group. That was a problem in Japan, though. Back then, incorporating as a nonprofit foundation required a large capital outlay and, more importantly, it meant ceding a significant amount of autonomy to the government. Every nonprofit was under the jurisdiction of one government agency or another, which would place some of its employees on the board of directors as a matter of course. Takahashi wanted to avoid that kind of government supervision.

His solution was to form a for-profit corporation. This was the origin of Tamaki Network Corp., which had so mystified me during the interview. Tamaki Network signed all the contracts and employed all the people, including me, even though most of the business was done in Recycle's name. Although I didn't know it yet, this hybrid, neither fish nor fowl, simultaneously for-profit and nonprofit nature would eventually cause some problems.

More "Let's Ecology!" posts are here. "Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

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