The Farewell Wristwatch
What makes it hospitality is eyes that can see into the heart.
In the airport departures lobby, Katsuo Umehara, manager of a shabu-shabu bar  called Kichiro,  pulled out his cell phone.
“Hey, it’s me. Thanks for your hard work. What’s up?”
Golden Week  was approaching, and they were opening a sister store. He would be getting on a flight pretty soon to help out with that, but it was the weekend and he was worried about his own store, too.
“Yeah… … Yeah… … Ah, okay, have you got enough change? … … Okay then, thanks again.”
He was only occassionally away from home, but when he was, he seemed to worry about the minutest details.
After he said thanks yet again, he continued with, “Oh, and one other thing…” but eventually he did snap his cell phone shut.
As he was closing it, he started to sit down on a bench, but when he saw the face of the person next to him, he stood up again.
“Ah, thank you very much for the other day,” he greeted the man stiffly.
The person he’d greeted looked suspicious for a moment.
“At the Shinjuku Kichiro. You helped us out a little while back. I’m the owner, Umehara.”
“Ah!” The man seemed to remember. “You give such a different impression than when I saw you in the store I didn’t recognize you, my apologies. Are you on this flight, too? That’s a coincidence. And I’m the one who should be thanking you for that day.”
This person, Mr Ōta, had been the star of a banquet held at Kichiro the month previous, in March. March had been Mr Ōta’s last full month at work before retiring from the company at which he’d been employed for many long years, and the banquet had been a farewell party.
Even customers who’ve only been to a store once are sometimes left with strong memories of the store employees.
There can be a wide variety of reasons, even in a single case, but Katsuo Umehara wondered if a comparitively large number of cases might be caused by the proverbial small bone caught in the throat.
Something like ninety percent of how a person feels about any given service is based on whether or not it’s offered according to what they expect, but when there’s something left undone… That thing becomes like a tiny bone, stuck in a corner of the mind, and it can stay there for an unexpectedly long time. That was the night of that banquet. It was why Mr Ōta, guest of honor, had such a tight expression on his face.
Customer service skills could only enhance a situation by burying that small, stuck thing. That’s what Umehara had always thought.
“The announcement a little big ago said the flight was about twenty minutes late,” Mr Ōta said, smiling quietly.
“Oh, did it? I was on the phone, I didn’t notice,” Umehara replied. Mr Ōta, perhaps mindful of the time, looked at his wrist-watch. Umehara thought his way of looking at it was a little unnatural, but the reason for that would become clear later.
As a matter of etiquette, they didn’t ask each other where they were headed, but instead, as Umehara sat down, Mr Ōta said to him, “I’m really sorry about the organizer at that farewell party, I mean really.” His expression was as quiet as ever.
Umehara offered a flawless negation, “Not at all,” accurately assessing, of course, what Mr Ōta was saying.
There certainly had been a few issues with the man who’d organized the party that day. To put it plainly, he was inept.
After the banquet had started, Umehara had said, “As today’s guest of honor, I hope everything is to your satisfaction.” He hadn’t imagined there was any specific problem, but he’d realized his error not too long after.
Umehara remembered that night.
Had it really been entirely the organizer’s fault? Of course he definitely had been inept, but there were plenty of other things… Something was stuck in Umehara’s mind, like a single forgotten screw in the shop’s service.
The farewell party.
There had been signs about the organizer from the first phone call.
“Hello, I’d like to have a banquet at your place.”
He said there would be twenty or thirty people. He was quite vague about it. Then when they tried to confirm what the occassion was, he was long winded and vague. That gave an instant clue to the man’s inexperience. As far as Umehara was concerned, though, that wasn’t a problem. In cases like these, he would just stick close to the organizer, never in front of him, and without the organizer ever being aware that he was being stuck to, but he would support the organizer at all times, with brute force if necessary, and produce the event as if it had been raised entirely on the organizer’s initiative. In his experience, situations like this almost always went off without a hitch.
It was instead the experienced organizers, the ones who tried to take control of every little thing, that were trouble. There had been plenty of times when the curtain, as it were, was full of holes, and what was worse, the person in question didn’t recognize, would never recognize, that the holes were even there. In these cases, Umehara did not stand behind the organizer, he stood right beside them, and in the gaps, when the organizer was looking the other way, in other words when the organizer couldn’t see, Umehara would devise some scheme to lead the party forward.
So then, in the case of this particular farewell party, what he’d predicted was that he’d call the organizer on the day before the reservation to confirm the number of people, and the reply would be, “Plus or minus two or three people maybe…”
He resigned himself to it, We’ll have to just deal with it. But on the day before the party, he was told that the number of people had increased. By ten people.
The plan went entirely out the window.
They couldn’t handle that many tables. They had a backup plan to avoid the impression of being overcrowded as much as was possible, but when done on a full shop scale, it was tight. The layout was at its limit.
They ended up with six people sitting in the space meant for four people’s seats, and when they asked the organizer if he wouldn’t mind such a layout, the response was, “Roger.”
Roger? What is that? I mean he said it easily enough, but…
If the service wasn’t scrupulous in that constrained space, the guests would be dissatisfied with the shop, that’s all there was to it. He wouldn’t allow himself to pass it off with some excuse either, like, under such circumstances…
Happily, the staff understood his aims. In cases like this, they knew that deliberate attention to every inch of available space was needed. They had to keep a wary eye on the arrangement of the tables, and give as much consideration as possible to the positioning of even coasters and chopsticks, to avoid a constricted feeling.
He tried to gently call attention to the problem with the organizer. “These are the final numbers then, I assume?”
The organizer answered that indeed they were, but there was a distinct lack of self-confidence in his voice.
And of course, about noon on the day in question, came this:
“Four or five people fewer.”
“What are we going to do, manager?” one of the staff asked. “We can’t just cut out four or five people, can we?”
They were right. If they simply cut them out, the whole room would be off balance, and things would seem even more constricted.
“No other choice,” Umehara said, to which the staff member replied, “Take it all down then?”
The chopsticks that had been placed just so on the tables, the coasters, everything came down. The whole layout of the tables had to change.
The staff was quick. They knew what they were doing.
Work progressed in a flash. After a quick consultation, they converted everything from vertical to horizontal, a hundred and eighty degree rotation. When they were finished, the entire landscape had changed.
And then, with incredible speed, the chopsticks, the coasters, were all set out again. The number of people had only decreased by five, but they’d created a surprisingly spacious atmosphere.
“The man who organized it, it seems to have been his first time, didn’t it,” Mr Ōta said, on the bench in front of the boarding entrance. “It must have caused everyone at your company a lot of trouble, yourself especially.”
“Oh no, not at all,” Umehara answered. Against his better judgement, he tried asking a question. “That farewell party, it didn’t leave you dissatisfied in any way, did it?”
Mr Ōta had been retired compulsorily.
A farewell pary, that goal of the company he’d been employed at for so long, and his own goal. A meet-up where he could receive the thanks of the collegues and subordinates with whom he’d passed days both clear and cloudy.
Umehara had been intensely aware of the meaning behind the event, and had intended to spread his customer service eye warmly into every nook and cranny.
But for some reason, he couldn’t help but feel that there was something he’d left undone, a screw he’d forgotten to tighten.
“Dissatisfied?” Mr Ōta looked at Umehara with a face that said, “Good heavens!” and then smiled gently. “Oh no, it was a very nice party.”
Then he glanced down at the watch on his left wrist.
“You must be in a hurry. Delayed flights are a pain, aren’t they,” Umehara said.
“No, I’m a free bird now, I don’t have any use for rushing,” Mr Ōta answered, still smiling.
The farewell party didn’t quite start at the appointed seven thirty.
Even as the hour passed, people were only gathering in drips and drops. The poor state of the organizer’s curtain was being quickly made clear.
Not to mention that the organizer himself was late. It was nearly eight o’ clock.
He entered the shop without even giving his name, took his seat, and ended up buried in the midst of the other party-goers.
He may have been buried, but Umehara knew him right away. That person sitting amongst the other guests and chatting, but blinking at the staff and in the direction of the kitchens, he must be the organizer.
An then, Umehara checked on the guest of honor.
He wasn’t making any eyes at the staff or the kitchen. Instead, he was surrounded by a ring of guests, and talking to every one of them in a fidgety rush. Mr Ōta couldn’t be mistaken for anyone other than the guest of honor.
As Umehara’d thought, the organizer was not leading the party.
If there was no opening speech, there would be no toast.
Umehara quietly approached him and called out a name he’d heard on the telephone once, “Mr Sakamoto?” The organizer gave a big surprised nod. Umehara whispered in his ear.
“It doesn’t seem like everyone’s quite here yet, but shall we bring out the beer?”
Once they brought out the beer, someone would start the normal flow without the organizer having to pay attention to anything. “A toast! And to lead it…”
Draft beer was poured into medium-sized mugs according to the number of people they’d been given. One staff member had volunteered to play bartender, and he stepped up. The whole bunch of them were lined up, and with last-minute adjustments to the head on the beers, everyone ended up with the same beautiful medium-mug serving. They set all the beers up on the tables simultaneously.
The organizer’s “Cheers” was quiet, but the bubbles in his beautiful mug were brilliant, and the party was enlived.
“I never realized he had such terrible manners when he was drunk until that farewell party,” Mr Ōta said, his eyes following the planes visible on the other side of the glass.
“He certainly had a healthy appetite,” Umehara answered.
After the toast was finished, things followed their normal course.
All at once, the hall fell silent. The attendees had begun eating. This was frequently what happened. It didn’t necessarily mean that the guests had gotten bored, so the staff didn’t make any inappropriate moves.
They entrusted the guests to the flow of the party.
Once their appetites were gradually sated, conversation blossomed.
It was about that time that large quanitites of alcohol were circulating.
In the middle of it all, the organizer had started to get quite sloshed. It seemed, in fact, that he’d been getting air drops from his compatriots. “Hey, mister organizer, good job.”
Umehara suspected this was dangerous, and had prepared counter measures. After the organizer became totally useless, someone would be needed to arrange the party’s progress. If things got too bad, they might break up mid-flight. But rationally, not everyone would be drinking alcohol. So, the venue would have to put a target on someone, and gently urge progress on.
Umehara had even found his target. The pleasant chatter wasn’t slowing down, but still, he’d checked in on a few people who weren’t drinking that much.
The one who was the least bored turned out to be the party’s guest of honor.
Observing him indirectly, Umehara was relieved to see that Mr Ōta seemed to passing his time enjoyably.
However, the organizer was now taking a slightly unexpected action.
“I have to go,” he said, and did indeed leave the shop.
The organizer of the party was absent from it.
This was beyond unexpected. When the person from an interior table whom Umehara had targeted went to the toilet, Umehara mentioned to him, “If there’s anything you need from us, please let me know.”
He was hoping to get a sense of any established hierarchy.
It was maybe thirty minutes later.
The organizer returned.
Umehara had no idea what the man had been doing outside, but Umehara did remember his slightly tense expression.
After that, the organizer got really smashingly drunk.
When Mr Ōta had said, “such terrible manners when he was drunk,” surely this was the part he’d been referring to.
His gait had been unsteady.
He kept knocking into the tables.
“Oi, are you alright, Sakamoto?” several people approached him asking, lending him their shoulders.
Umehara, standing a little behind him, took care of things indirectly.
The departures clerk made an announcement: “Our sincere apologies, but the flight has been delayed a bit longer.”
“The organizer got drunk faster than anyone else. He caused trouble for everyone, I think,” Mr Ōta said, glancing at his watch again.
Just then, suddenly, a memory surfaced in Umehara’s mind.
Now that I think about it…
The organizer was leaning on a coworker’s shoulder, and suddenly turned back towards Umehara, glancing around in all directions.
“There’s a suprise after this. I’ve got a favor to ask,” he said.
Umehara thought about it. He probably meant that someone was going to produce something that would ellicit a reaction from everyone, but as he tried to confirm that, the organizer’s head only turned round and round.
Oh yeah, we have a protocol on stand-by for stuff like that. Regardless of what the surprise is, we have to tighten down that noisy room, so we can get the place together.
First, they would replace every guest’s glass with a new one. Things would take on a ceremonial mood. To that end, they would turn the lights down, but imperceptibly. Mr Ōta’s seat would be the only one still lit up.
Yeah, yeah. That surprise…
Umehara found a loose end of that small thing that had gotten stuck that night.
But things ended up so confused in the end.
Apparently taking its cue from the organizer’s drunkeness, the whole place had gotten quite disordered. Maybe they should take away the tableware? Umehara wondered, imaging the surprise.
Someone Ota’d never dreamed of was going to put in an appearance at the party.
Was that the play?
If it was, they probably didn’t need to be too artful about it. Since the person’s appearing would be more of an act than anything else.
Who was it?
Maybe the company president or something?
That couldn’t be it.
Oh wait, it was his wife, wasn’t it.
“Cast your eyes on someone who’s supported you from the shadows these thirty years.”
The organizer would make some such fishy comment.
Then the chaotic room would get a bit awkward.
Umehara contacted a flower shop the ladies on staff always used, and requested they prepare a casual bouquet.
But his guess missed the mark.
The party was going to be over before too much longer, and still no one had appeared.
All the while, the organizer was sinking.
He fell onto a table.
His collegues who were sitting nearby poured him a glass of water, but when they told him to drink it, he only lifted his head and mumbled, “Surprise, surprise,” like he was talking in his sleep.
Guest of honor Mr Ōta stood up.
“Thank you, everyone, for today.”
The short greeting sounded like the opening lines of a speech.
His expression seemed lonely.
Ah, a bad ending, huh.
Umehara felt it keenly.
Umehara thought, sitting on a seat in front of the boarding entrance and remembering the events of the farewell party a month earlier.
Still though, what was that surprise? It hadn’t sounded like drunken rambling.
“Mr Ōta, sir, I have an awkward question I’d like to ask you.”
I might as well ask it now, Umehara decided.
“What is it?” Mr Ōta answered with a gentle expression.
“At the farewell party, was there some kind of plan to bring your wife in on the spur of the moment?”
For an instant, Mr Ōta made a “Wha?” face, but then he immediately smiled.
“Well, my wife’s already passed on, it’s been six years ago now.”
“Ah,” Umehara said, straightening up. “I’m terribly sorry.”
“Not at all.”
Mr Ōta must have thought that Umehara had taken an excessive amount of care with him, because he then answered the question himself, quite firmly.
“Actually, it was my son, that night.”
And so the surprise was revealed, when Umehara least expected it.
Mr Ōta’s story was this:
He’d lost his wife six years previously, and now lived alone. His son had gone to far off lands to find work. That day, his son had happened to be back in the country on a business trip, and had entrused an object to the organizer at a coffee shop next door to Kichiro while the farewell party was in full swing.
“Ah, that must be when the organizer went out for a while?”
That did seem to be the case.
The son had called his father’s company, but learning of his father’s farewell party that night, he’d called the party organizer instead. It was just a cheap thing, but he’d bought a commemorative gift for his father, and so he wanted to give it to him at the farewell party.
The commemorative gift, in other words, wasn’t necessarily the surprise.
But the villainous organizer had ultimately proved useless. The following day, the organizer visited Mr Ōta’s home, his body shriveled up like a salted slug. He’d apologized about a hundred times and delivered the commemorative gift from the son.
“Oh did he?”
Just as Umehara said that, the plane’s preperations were at last put in order, and boarding commenced. The line snaked into place.
As they started to line up, Mr Ōta said, “Do you want to know what the gift was?”
Awkwardly, but triumphantly, he pulled back his sleeve on his left wrist. “It was this.”
His wrist watch.
Umehara had to apologize, but he hadn’t thought it especially valuable. It looked a bit shabby on someone like Mr Ōta.
“I’m on my way to my son right now, actually,” Mr Ōta said.
He normally wore a slightly higher class of watch, he said, but thought he should wear this one when going to meet his son, so he put it on today. It was out of the norm, so it made him feel a bit ill at ease, he said.
Umehara finally realized why Mr Ōta had been glancing strangely at his watch the whole time.
The two of them entered the plane.
Their seats were pretty far from each other, so they parted at the door. After taking his seat and tightening his seat belt, Umehara glanced again and again at his own wrist watch, as if Mr Ōta’s guesture had infected him.
There’s an idiom that means something like, to forget to put the eye on the dragon. 
In flight, not long after take-off, Umehara recalled that phrase.
The kanji at the end of the four-kanji phrase used in the expression wasn’t the one for clear weather, although they did look similar. It was the kanji for the pupil, for the eye. The kanji in order were picture-dragon-point-eye, so you draw the dragon with a lot of care, but you forget to put in the pupils. The organizer, well, he’d gotten what was coming to him, and there wasn’t much to do about that, but it was still too bad for the son who’d tried his best.
It was only one small thing, but the organizer had obstructed it’s being accomplished.
Maybe the service had been like that, too.
If one thought of a restaurant as a canvas, making someone welcome was the dragon that was supposed to be vigourously painted there. Even if you drew it brilliantly, even if you drew it dilligently, if the eyes were missing, it wouldn’t reach people’s hearts.
He traced back over the story of the banquet, the ups and downs that led to its conclusion. As with any kind of story, the landing is more important than anything else. The ending.
That night’s farewell party was no exception.
Once the surprise materialized in that final scene, it must have left a deep impression on Mr Ōta. Where it took place didn’t necessarily matter. The event must have carved itself deeply into the hearts of the sender as well as the receiver, and no doubt they both thought of it as a meeting that they wouldn’t be able to forget for a long time.
Making someone welcome was the eyes on the dragon. To put it another way, it was the ability to focus all the way through to the finish, to those final moments.
Some surprise had been planned.
And Umehara’d suspected it, but he’d failed to catch on. And because of that, he’d been unable to assist in arranging that final scene.
I guess I felt somewhere deep down, like, “Oh well, it’ll be over soon anyway,” and so I didn’t keep my focus all the way to the end, Umehara thought, on the plane as take-off commenced. Then, on a memo inside his head, he wrote this: Every last drop of a person’s concentration should be poured into their task, right up to the end
[1 – shabu-shabu is a dish of thinly sliced meat and veggies that you scald in a pot of boiling water]
[2 – 吉郎 the auspicious path]
[3 – a week in early May with three holidays in it, so many companies give their employees the entire week off]
[4 – 画竜点睛を欠く – something like, “to go without putting the eye on the dragon painting…”]