I’ve now had a chance to review the complaint in Van Etten v. Mitsui, 09 CV 1071, a reverse discrimination class-action suit brought by an American executive of Mitsui USA fired in 2006.
While I was originally favorable toward the idea of such a claim, the complaint itself tends to move me in the other direction. Avoiding the legal issues for the moment, let’s look at a number of relevant cultural issues indicated in the text which render much of the complaint less persuasive than hoped for.
The first hackle on my sensitive spine raised itself in profound discomfort in only the second paragraph of the first page:
Plaintiff brings this action to challenge a pattern and practice of race and national origin discrimination and retaliation committed by Mitsui USA and Mitsui Japan against current and former non-Japanese/non-Asian employees.
This last phrase — non-Japanese/non-Asian — is curious in itself. Does this equate Japanese with all Asians? Or does it make a distinction between the two?
And besides, what is an “Asian?”
For several centuries, the word “Asia” referenced a geography of indistinct determination, stretching from Syria to Japan, and from Siberia to the Andaman Islands, encompassing all nations, races, skin colors, languages, cultures. Essentially, a mishmash, due in large part to the impoverished understanding of Western explorers and mapmakers.
However, no Chinese I know would wish to be lumped together with a Japanese, or mistaken for him, and vice versa. Nor would a Taiwanese wish to be lumped together with the Shanghaiese, etc. But Westerners who didn’t know better, for no fault of their own — they were only just coming in contact — essentially classified everyone who lived in basically the same place: faraway.
Along comes 20th-century America, with its increasingly fractious ethnic and racial “melting pot,” the elements of which, despite their occasional averments to the contrary, make strong demands for what they see to be their own people, community, tribe, but not for the community at large. Over time, the law recognizes certain races and ethnic groups, providing benefits to those with specific attributes. A census must be taken every decade and various groupings are statistically analyzed. It is a convenient shorthand to group Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Papua New Guinean aborigines, Uzbeks and Fijians into one mother lode of a political grouping, the sheer weight of which would seem to have somewhat nearly the political capital other large groups like blacks and Hispanics would have.
But there is no such thing as an “Asian.” (Well, perhaps there is under federal law, but that fantasy I will avoid for the moment.) Things are too complex for this now rancid simplification.
In the complaint under discussion, the phrase “non-Japanese/non-Asian” is particularly troublesome.
Note this paragraph 18:
One of the central elements of the pervasive discrimination at Mitsui USA and Mitsui Japan is the use of and favorable treatment towards “rotational staff,” who are employees of Mitsui Japan set to take tours or rotations with Mitsui USA, usually for a term of three to five years.
Rotations are common in international corporations, especially among Japanese companies, for whom the practical experience of in-country work and residence has always been held to be invaluable. It is a practice Americans have cut out of their budgets, much to their discredit and disadvantage. The bias away from direct in-country knowledge within the American company is, in my opinion, a substantial reason for American loss of market share globally. How is it, do you think, that the Japanese automakers have learned so much about operating successfully in the United States, while we now see the American automakers on bended knee begging for government assistance?
Generally speaking, who is rotated out of Japan? A young Japanese with some in-country skills or scholarship who shows promise — someone who is marked for his potential to rise perhaps 10 or 20 years down the road.
I very strongly doubt that any non-Japanese — the “Asian” referred to in the complaint — would be drawn from India or China into a rotation into the United States. In fact, none is mentioned. No one without a Japanese surname, with the exception of a reference to two former complaints by Americans against the company, is even mentioned in the entire complaint.
To what classification is the complaint referring with the phrase “non-Japanese/non-Asian?” It is this ill-defined phrase, which recurs dozens of times in the complaint, that thoroughly confuses things for me. The fact finder may not find it so, relying upon the common Western conglomeration of all things “Asian.”
But if I were the defense, I would attack it.
My jaw dropped when I read paragraph 67:
Mr. Van Etten was also disadvantaged within Mitsui USA by the fact that Japanese was used to communicate, orally and in writing, throughout the day by top Mitsui USA/Mitsui Japan executives as well as with/by their underlings. This practice was rampant, notwithstanding the fact that non-Japanese/non-Asian employees would not be able to understand, leading to greater isolation and exclusion of non-Japanese/non-Asian employees. By way of example only, Mitsui USA held monthly, quarterly and annual business meetings where Mr. Van Etten’s business was discussed, but the meetings were conducted in exclusively Japanese and no national staff were included.
This is an extraordinary assertion and, in my eyes, damns the plaintiff and not the defendant. Essentially, it makes the claim that, for purposes of employment discrimination claims, all communication must be made in the English language.
The plaintiff, thus, despite having worked for a Japanese company for 18 years, had never learned the language of its parent company. In his position, most likely, he would not have to. But what language would he speak if were he to become a top-level executive having to make his reports to headquarters in Japan? English? If the plaintiff had been thoroughly fluent in Japanese, had lived and worked in Japan and possessed the very significant in-country skills required of a top-level manager, I would give greater credence to his claim.
But it is entirely unpersuasive to suggest that an American employee of a Japanese subsidiary without such skills is thoroughly qualified to take on a senior role, which would include significant, perhaps daily, contact with headquarters, and an understanding of Japanese practices in the home office. Life is very different in the office in Tokyo than it is in Manhattan.
By his own complaint, Mr. Van Etten was extremely accomplished — a producer. He claims that his termination for discrepancies in expense reports dating to 5 years prior was, in a nutshell, trumped up because he complained vociferously about discriminatory practices.
In and of themselves, these factual allegations, as written, do not portray him as one particularly suited to the resolution of a major dispute within a Japanese company. He must have some skills, because he lasted in there a long time, and life is tough going in a Japanese company.
But the complaint shows him to be repeatedly complaining, over the course of several years, orally and in writing, while hinting at a distinct lack of respect for many of his colleagues. While the record of complaints may be necessary evidence to show notice, it, on the other hand, gives us a clue as to the tension in the office that appears to have surrounded this issue.
Read this from paragraph 84:
…Defendants admit that Mr. Van Etten complained that the rotational employees were not qualified for the positions they held and that the practice of bringing Japanese/Asian executives from Japan amounted to discrimination against non-Japanese/non-Asian employees could have been awarded these positions. They also admit that Mr. Van Etten complained that he should have been promoted to general manager and was not because he is not Japanese/Asian.
Numerous incidents, involving HR and executive management, are detailed in the complaint.
While Japanese are more likely to expect open friction within an American workplace, and rather more tolerant of it, it is still considered at the very least unpleasant. Often, when taken to extremes, it becomes a distinct mark against the one who breaches that etiquette.
This is not to say that resolutions are always possible in a Japanese company — often not — but simply that jousting is the art of remaining hidden, while advancing in plain sight. Mr. Van Etten may be a complete gentleman in an American sense and he may have comported with the law, but the facts as related by his attorneys give the impression that his repeated straightforward complaints to HR and, more importantly, to Japanese senior colleagues accelerated the movement of the grindwheel, upon which the ax was finally sharpened.
The complaint raised other hackles as well, including the assertion that discipline was more tolerant of Japanese than of Americans, which assertion I find — based on my own experience and that of other foreigners I know in Japanese enterprises — almost totally incredible.
I am eager to read Mitsui’s answer. More on this case as it develops.
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