The Maverick

Within one Week of delivering the senior class address at her commencement, Laura Kriska Was on the floor of the Honda factory in Marysville, Ohio, as part of a corporate training program. she Was soon selected as the first american Woman to train at honda’s tokyo headquarters, and the company hasn’t looked the same since. find out Why in the following excerpt from the accidental office lady, Kriska’s 1997 book about her experiences.
The Maverick - Summer 2007
Despite the warnings, Mr. Honda told the government he didn’t need their help, that Japan was a free country and he was going to Make cars. it was this act, above Many others, that earned hiM the nickname “the Maverick.”

The first time I met Mr. Honda, I was on a social call to his office in the advisor's building near Tokyo Station . The building was Honda Motor's first headquarters, but only a fraction of the size of the Aoyama location. It was now a place to which top-level executives retired. Mr. Honda became a aiko komon, or supreme advisor, when he retired from the company. Since the death of his partner Takeo Fujisawa, Mr. Honda was the only supreme advisor and the only person in the company to have his own of?ce.

On the wall outside his of?ce were pictures of him with various dignitaries—Mr. Honda shaking hands with Princess Diana; Mr. Honda with his arm around Marc Chagall, his favorite painter; Mr. Honda showing a car to the Emperor of Japan. He was active and smiling in all the photos, looking more like a cheerful buddy than a supreme advisor.

I met Mr. Honda’s personal assistant in the entryway to the of?ce. He introduced himself as Mr. Sumikawa. He had a youthful look with jet-black hair carefully slicked into place. Trim and tan, he reminded me of an Asian Clark Kent. Mr. Sumikawa told me that Mr. Honda couldn’t see me just yet but that I could wait in the visitors’ room. He showed me to the room down the hall, explaining that he would come get me when Mr. Honda was available. The visitors’ room looked like an elegant living room with its large yellow leather sofa and matching leather coffee table with a glass center. I took a seat and waited. One of the secretaries from the advisors’ group, a woman I recognized, came in.

 “Would you like some coffee?” she asked me.
 “Oh, no, I’m ?ne.”
 She edged into the room a little more. “So what do you think of the advisors’ of?ce?” she asked. “It’s much more boring and quiet than the headquarters, isn’t it?”
 “Well, it certainly is quiet,” I agreed. “But the rooms are much nicer.” She chuckled and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Do you know the story about this sofa?”
 I shook my head.
“Well,” she said, glancing toward the closed door, “this is a rather famous piece of furniture. You see, it’s made from an elephant.”
 “An elephant?”
 “Yes. It’s elephant leather. It was an extravagant purchase. And see this coffee table? You can ?ll the glass with water and ?sh and make it into an aquarium.” She grimaced. “Isn’t that kind of distasteful? How would you like to watch ?sh swimming around while you sit on the hide of a sickly, yellow elephant? It’s dif?cult to clean the aquarium, so we rarely use it.”
 I nodded in agreement.
Mr. Sumikawa knocked on the door and announced that Mr. Honda was free now. I stood up from the yellow sofa wondering how it had ended up here.

Mr. Sumikawa led me back to the of?ce and I glanced at the row of pictures as we passed. Even though Mr. Honda no longer had an of?cial connection with the company, his in?uence was immeasurable. There was a special telephone in the secretariat reserved for only a few callers; Mr. Honda was one of them. That phone never rang more than once before someone ran to answer it. If Mr. Honda wanted to speak with a speci?c executive, instead of taking the call in the executive of?ce, the executive scurried out to the phone. Sitting among the secretaries, he would sit close to the phone, unconsciously bowing his head as he spoke.

Mr. Honda made impromptu visits to the headquarters, sometimes to see a car in the showroom or for a social meeting. Usually we would be tipped off by a call from the advisors’ of?ce that the supreme advisor was on his way over. Word spread immediately, and the entire headquarters would go into a ?urry of preparation, each department readying itself for the unlikely chance that he might stop by. When Mr. Honda visited the factories they were scrubbed clean and repainted. All of the employees, from the assembly-line workers to the chairman, appeared to sincerely respect Mr. Honda and seemed to want to show that they were taking care of the company and the jobs that he had created for them.

He had started the company with a good idea and a supply of surplus engines from the war, which he affixed to bicycles. At a time when transportation was scarce, this fuel-efficient, engine-powered bicycle was very popular. This led to a successful motorcycle manufacturing business.

Although he never had a formal education in engineering, Mr. Honda had always loved engines. I had read in books that as a boy he would get so excited about seeing a car drive through his small farming town that he would lean close to the ground after the vehicle had passed to smell the oil that had dripped on the dirt. When he was a teenager, he got a job as a mechanic and began a lifelong engineering career that would lead him to start his own piston factory. This led to motorcycles and eventually to mass production of automobiles against the wishes of the Japanese government. 

In the postwar period, the Japanese government tried to maintain very tight control over mass production of machinery because of the delicate balance of supply and demand for resources. Toyota and Nissan, both prewar manufacturers, were already making cars in 1961 when Mr. Honda wanted to expand his successful motorcycle business into automobiles. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry discouraged him, saying that he would not get the necessary support. Despite the warnings, Mr. Honda told the government he didn’t need their help, that Japan was a free country and he was going to make cars. It was this act, above many others, that earned him the nickname “the Maverick.”

There were other stories—now corporate legends—about Mr. Honda’s eccentricity. There was the time in the early years after the war, before indoor plumbing, when an important guest had gone to Mr. Honda’s home for a party. The guest drank too much, got sick, and dropped his dentures into the septic tank of the out-house. Mr. Honda insisted on retrieving the lost teeth himself, and later put the dentures in his own mouth to prove that they were clean.

I felt nervous about meeting the supreme advisor. I saw how Mr. Chino bowed to him even over the phone, and how the secretaries were practically hysterical in planning anything that included him. I would definitely introduce myself in Japanese, I decided. But should I bow or shake his hand? What if he didn’t understand me? I had to remember to hold my hands together at my knees when I bowed, not down at my sides like a man. He might think I was rude. Or maybe he was just old-fashioned.

Mr. Sumikawa opened the door to his office and walked in. Mr. Honda was sitting behind his desk. He stood up.

“This is the new employee from the secretariat, Ms. Rora. She has come from Honda North America and will be working with us for a while,” Mr. Sumikawa said with the ease of a man who had initiated thousands of introductions in his career.

“Hajimemashite. Dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” I tittered and bowed.

Mr. Honda walked around his desk and extended his hand. I offered mine. He gave it a hearty shake and smiled an endearing smile. “Herro Rora,” he said in English. I tried to think of something else to say, but there wasn’t time. Mr. Sumikawa said something about Mr. Honda’s next appointment and expertly ushered me out the door.

The Maverick - Summer 2007

I felt flattered just thInkIng about attendIng the prIvate affaIr hosted by Mr. Honda and hIs wIfe. I IMMedIately began to consIder what I would wear and how I would explaIn My InvItatIon to My envIous colleagues. then Mr. Sumikawa saId, “I was hopIng you could come to the party and take coats from the foreign guests.”

The next time I met Mr. Honda I was standing in his backyard near a stream filled with fish that I was trying to catch. A few weeks earlier Mr. Sumikawa had told me that every spring Mr. Honda hosted an Ayu Fishing Party. The ayu were a particular type of fresh-water fish common to Mr. Honda’s hometown of Hamamatsu. “Mr. Honda invites many guests, including foreigners,” Mr. Sumikawa had explained.
I had never been to a fishing party, and I felt flattered just thinking about attending the private affair hosted by Mr. Honda and his wife. I immediately began to consider what I would wear and how I would explain my invitation to my envious colleagues. “I was hoping you could come to the party and take coats from the foreign guests,” Mr. Sumikawa said. “Take coats?” I said, my glamorous image of dining with dignitaries deflating rapidly. “Of course I can help.”

Mr. Honda lived in a suburb outside Tokyo. The fenced-in backyard was the size of an extra-long tennis court, and a narrow stream, bordered by large moss-covered rocks, ran near the back fence. Lush bushes and flowering plants masked the edges of the yard, making it look like a miniature forest. I stood at the edge of the stream with several men from the General Affairs Department who were wearing casual golf shirts and slacks. Each of us had a bamboo fishing pole. I could see swarms of fish covering the shallow stream bed.

“You don’t have to be a good fisherman to catch these fish,” Mr. Sumikawa said to me, grabbing a pole. “There are more than 500 ayu in there and they haven’t eaten recently. You could probably catch one just by announcing that there is fish food here on the bank.”

Mr. Sumikawa reached into a bucket and grabbed a glob of a brown, gritty substance he called esa. He tossed it into the water, and instantly a mob of fish swarmed around, slapping and flipping over one another, trying to snatch a bite. Without baiting the hook he lowered it into the mass. Within seconds there was a tug, and he pulled out a squirming, silver-gray fish. The fish, no bigger than his hand, tried desperately to escape, but Mr. Sumikawa kept a firm grasp on the slick body while he removed the bloody hook. He showed me a basket of chopstick-sized metal skewers. With one smooth stab he speared the whole fish as though it were a hot dog and placed it on the grill.  

On the opposite side of the stream were a group of white-haired men in coveralls who looked as though they’d been transferred directly from the assembly line. They were taking leafy branches out of small plastic cages and placing them in the bushes near the back fence. “Those are mulberry leaves,” Mr. Sumikawa said. “You can’t see them, but there are fireflies on those branches. Later, when it gets dark, the fireflies will provide a light-show for everyone.”

Under a canopy set up near the house, several other old men in white coveralls set up tables and chairs—enough for 70 people. Along the wall of the house stood a bar and several counters for food. Behind one counter a sushi chef, wearing a traditional white cotton apron and hat, used both hands to mix heaps of vinegared rice in a large wooden tub.

Mr. Sumikawa took me inside the house to explain my duties. The front door opened into a spacious tiled foyer. We both took off our shoes before stepping onto a thick sheet of plastic that had been placed over the carpet. He showed me more than 100 numbered clips lined up on the floor. “These clips will be attached to each pair of shoes, and a corresponding tag will be given to each guest,” he explained. “Just like a coat-check for your shoes.” He told me that someone else would be in charge of taking the guests’ shoes, but that I should be ready to help and remind any foreign guests who might forget. 

We skated in our stocking feet over the stiff plastic, through the living room. Most of the furniture had been pushed to the sides, and a paper screen closed off half the room. Mr. Sumikawa opened a sliding glass door that led into the backyard. Directly below the doorway were more than 100 tan plastic sandals lined up in perfect pairs.

Mr. Sumikawa took me into the kitchen. “There is someone you might like to meet,” he said. The large kitchen had a full-sized refrigerator and a cooking area behind an L-shaped counter. On one side of the counter was a round table with four chairs. A sliding glass door took up the back wall of the kitchen and opened into the backyard. Three women in Japanese-print aprons were working. Two of them looked like teenagers and the other was significantly older. She was giving directions to the girls in a strong, yet courteous manner.

“We need to take the roses outside soon,” she said. “Here, let’s put that in the refrigerator.” To each of her requests, the girls responded politely with, “Yes, I understand.” Mr. Sumikawa approached the gray-headed woman, who recognized him and bowed her head. Mr. Sumikawa bowed back and turned to me. “Rorasan, I’d like you to meet Mrs. Honda.” I was stunned. I’d thought she was a maid.
“Konnichiwa,” she said.
“Domo, hajimemashite,” I managed to squeak. Mr. Sumikawa gave her my brief employment history and then left me to chat. Mrs. Honda motioned for me to sit on a stool facing the counter. I felt awkward, as though I should be working, but she insisted that I sit.

In reading about Mr. Honda, I had learned about Mrs. Honda, daughter of a farm-machinery salesman in Shizuoka Prefecture near Mr. Honda’s hometown. They had met through a traditional omiai arranged marriage meeting and had married when she was 21 and Mr. Honda was 30. “Mr. Honda will be here for his snack soon,” she said to the young women who were busily cleaning up. She started to prepare tea.

I had heard stories about her efforts in the early years of Honda Motor Company. On long winter nights when Mr. Honda and his business partner Takeo Fujisawa stayed up planning the future of the company, she made noodles in hot broth and brought them to the factory where the men sat trying to keep warm under a charcoal-heated table. She had encountered many struggles herself. One of her four children had died of diabetes at the age of 24. He had passed out on the street but was mistaken for a drunk and didn’t receive proper care until it was too late.

 

Kriska chats with Mr. Honda, in the post-polyester days.
Kriska chats with Mr. Honda, in the post-polyester days.

Mr. Honda suddenly bounded into the room wearing a bright blue and white Hawaiian shirt and asked if his snack was ready.
“In a minute,” Mrs. Honda replied.

He sat down at the table and turned on the television with the remote control, looking chipper for an 82-year-old. When the tea was ready Mrs. Honda served it to him with a sugar donut. When she came back to the counter, she asked me if I wanted some tea. I felt nervous about intruding on Mr. Honda’s snack time, but I nodded. She poured two cups of tea and produced a plate of peanut rice crackers. To my relief she said, “Let’s not bother him,” and indicated that we should stay at the counter.

A little while later, Mrs. Honda’s daughter-in-law burst into the kitchen carrying a hair dryer and announced that it was time to get ready for the party. Mrs. Honda told me to finish my tea and graciously excused herself from the counter. I watched her daughter-in-law unfold a privacy screen right there in the kitchen. She pulled a chair behind the screen and they both disappeared. The whir of the hair dryer drowned out the television, but by then someone had come in to talk with Mr. Honda, and they sat at the table seemingly unfazed by the commotion.

Party guests began arriving at 5 p.m., many in chauf-feured cars with miniature embassy flags mounted on the hoods. I took my place on the front landing. In stocking feet and clasping my hands in front of my body, I bowed and welcomed the guests. People of so many nationalities came to the door that I wasn’t quite sure what language to use. I opted for Japanese and repeated “konnichiwa” as the guests walked in.

The weather was warm, so my job as coat-taker left me with a lot of time. I focused my attention on shoes and decided I could almost predict the guests’ nationality by the way they handled their shoes. Japanese guests instinctively paused, slipped off their loafer-style shoes, and then easily ascended the low step to the landing. Non-Japanese guests would stop for an awkward moment to look for clues, as if saying, “Is this one of those take-off-your-shoes events or not?” With an indication from me they got the message and struggled with complicated laces or straps. A few, breaching etiquette, sat down on the landing to untie their shoes.

An hour later the party was in full swing and about 70 people were gathered in the backyard. An elegant Japanese woman wearing a string of pearls stood nervously at the edge of the stream as though she feared falling in. One of the General Affairs employees helped her with the pole and gave her elaborate instructions. Dangling the pole away from her body like a dirty mop, she carefully dropped the hook into the water. A moment later, when a famished ayu grabbed her line, she shrieked with excitement as the employee helped her secure her meal.

The fragrance of oleaster scented the summer air. Red and white paper lanterns hung from the canopy and illuminated the tables, casting light on the happy faces. I walked around the meticulously manicured lawn and listened to people talking in Japanese, English, and French. The closely cropped grass felt like the cushy fairway of a golf course. Near the grills, I caught the fresh aroma of roasted ayu. A general hum of laughter and talking ?lled the yard. All kinds of food and drink were available, but, like all the other helpers, I remained on the periphery. Mr. Sumikawa darted about like a minnow from group to group, laughing and talking.

Dessert arrived toward the end of the evening—the rice-cake pounding ritual. One of the sushi chefs, now dressed in a blue apron and wearing a white cloth tied around his head, came out into the middle of the party with a knee-high wooden mortar, a wooden mallet the size of a baseball bat, and a large bowl of steaming rice. A cloud of steam rose into the chef’s face as he placed the freshly cooked rice into the mortar.

Holding the mallet with both hands, the chef pounded the rice. Between each swing his assistant quickly mixed the rice by hand. The process was like a dance. The two moved in precise, rhythmic motions: swing-pound-mix, swing-pound-mix, turning the mound of rice into a glutinous ball the size of a loaf of bread.

After the chef and his assistant had done most of the work, the guests were invited to take turns beating their dessert with the mallet. The brave sushi chef reached his arms under the unwieldy mallet swings, risking serious injury. While everyone watched the excitement from their chairs, only Mr. Honda stood up next to the mortar, laughing and clapping his hands to the rhythm. He shouted encouraging words to his guests and almost jumped into the air every time the mallet seemed to waver out of control. After the rice was pulverized, small pieces were pulled away like taffy and covered with ?avored toppings like sweet bean paste, grated radish, and salty ground sesame seeds.

In the darkness of late evening, the ?re?ies appeared from across the stream. They glittered like a Christmas light display. A woman from the Chinese embassy squealed because she had never seen a ?re?y before. Finally, around midnight, the guests began to gather their shoes. As the guests waved and thanked their hosts, I handed out small plastic cages stuffed with mulberry leaves and ?re?ies. Mr. and Mrs. Honda stood, in matching plastic slippers, bowing together in the backyard.

A few weeks after the fishing party, a memo circulated through the of?ce encouraging employees to form quality circles—small groups who problem-solved in their own work areas. The objective was to select a speci?c problem and create a solution that would improve safety or quality, reduce costs, or improve the work environment. From my experience attending the convention I knew that some quality circle groups had saved the company millions of dollars with their ideas. But not all ideas were related directly to manufacturing. I remembered one group whose goal it had been to create smoke-free of?ce space, an accomplishment almost unheard of in corporate Japan. The memo announced that a competition would be held at headquarters at the end of the summer; the eventual winners would attend the international convention in the fall.

I paged through the quality circle handbook. It illustrated step-by-step instructions on circle activity, starting with brainstorming about the immediate work environment. “The people in your speci?c work group are best quali?ed to create solutions in your own work environment. Think about changes you would like to make—how to improve safety and quality or how to save time and materials.”

I looked around my of?ce. It was the same as always—the general manager smoking at his desk and buried in a stack of papers, Ms. Ogi making a phone call, Ms. Mori wrinkling her nose at a memo. Tom was unwrapping a carved-wood ?sh that a visitor from Thailand had brought. It was hard to look critically at something that had become so familiar. “Think about changes you would like to make.” I re-read the instructions and thought about Masa’s advice to “image it,” to picture in my mind the goal I wanted to achieve.

An idea popped into my head—the uniforms. Of course! Would it be possible to get rid of the women’s uniforms through a quality circle? I tried to picture the secretaries doing their work without polyester blue vests and skirts. I liked what I saw, and the image inspired me. Maybe it was possible; maybe I could change the uniform rule at Honda!

I carefully designed a sign-up sheet in Japanese. It said, “Quality Circle to Abolish Uniforms. Anyone interested in participating in this group, please sign your name to the list.” I fed the document into the flow of circulating memos, but when the document came back to me there was only one name on the list—my own.

I felt discouraged but not entirely surprised by the group’s response. I guessed from experience that either everyone or no one would have participated, and since it was an admittedly controversial topic, they all opted out.

But I didn’t want to give up. The chance to make a change in the system was too important, and now, thanks to Masa, the image was stuck in my mind. Just because my immediate work group didn’t rally around the idea didn’t mean that others wouldn’t. I had a feeling that other women in the company, women who had less traditional jobs, would be more likely to join my cause.

The idea was radical, but I could use the quality circle to disguise my plan. And there was something else I had going for me—the maverick tradition. Somehow I felt Mr. Honda would approve of my thinking precisely because it went against convention.

One day at lunch, I cornered Ms. Uno from Personnel, knowing that she was one of the few professional women in the company. When I told her about my idea, she seemed interested but unwilling to commit herself. She gave me the names of several women in the Overseas Sales Department to talk to and said that she would think about it. These women, like Ms. Uno, had been hired for their specific skills in foreign languages and worked in positions nearly equal to their male colleagues. During my breaks I snuck around the headquarters searching for kindred spirits. I felt like the agent of an underground rebellion. When I explained my ideas to the target members, they all agreed it was a worthy idea. One woman said, “I have often met foreign colleagues when they come to Tokyo after I have corresponded with them for months or even years. When we finally meet, they are always surprised to see me in a uniform, and I feel embarrassed.”

No one wanted to commit to being in the circle unless someone else did first, so I was forced to be slightly surreptitious. I told each person that the others had already agreed to join, which by the end was true. I had approached men and women in the company, but no Japanese men would consider joining. A French-Japanese man from African Sales agreed to join us, as did one American man who worked in the Parts Department. With Ms. Uno and two other women, our six-person group had a solid base.

We held our first strategy discussion at 7 a.m. in the company cafeteria. We decided to investigate the costs of supplying uniforms, corporate policy on the matter, and what other companies like Toyota and Nissan were doing. We also developed a questionnaire to distribute among employees to get their views.

We decided to distribute the questionnaire on a single day. On the morning of the survey, we arrived early and positioned ourselves strategically around the headquarters building like a group of ninja warriors ready to attack. Standing in front of the women’s twelfth-floor locker room, I planned to approach anyone who tried to go through the door. As I passed out the questionnaire, some women seemed afraid, as though I were administering a mandatory English test. Once they saw the questions written entirely in Japanese, they relaxed and cooperated.

I feared that our results would reflect only lower-level employee opinions because many of the managers arrived after the official work bell sounded. The solution, I decided, rested on the tenth floor, the office with the highest percentage of management personnel in the building. Suspecting that getting permission to distribute the questionnaire among the executives would take longer than trying to get the uniform policy changed, I decided to take a risk. I checked to see which executives would be at headquarters that day, and put a questionnaire on each of their desks. My defense against potential criticism was that the questionnaire was all part of the quality circle activity that management supported and encouraged.

Mr. Chino gave me his completed questionnaire immediately, making the accurate observation that the way we phrased our questions would not give us conclusive results. Slowly, throughout the day, the other secretaries, all except Ms. Mori, and a few of the directors brought me more completed questionnaires.

For two months the quality circle met once or twice a week before work and shared the results of our research. I was concerned that my language skills would be insufficient to lead the group, but after a few meetings I discovered that where my language skills fell short, my enthusiasm filled in. The group members didn’t care about my vocabulary; they cared that I was there each day, listening and working to make a change.

My role was to research the actual rules for uniforms. I spent several hours paging through four encyclopedic volumes of corporate policy in Japanese and making copies of anything referring to uniforms. At the next morning meeting, I reported the results over coffee and toast.

“There is no actual rule that states that only women are required to wear uniforms at headquarters. I found only one vague statement that read, ‘Consequences exist for employees who do not follow the proper dress code.’ I also interviewed several older employees who remembered that in the early days of Honda Motor Company, men also had a blue uniform jacket. But about 20 years ago the uniform for men was eliminated.”

“Why?” asked Ms. Uno.
“Well, my guess is that at about this time, because Honda started to do more overseas business, Japanese men went abroad and saw that European and American businessmen did not wear company uniforms, and it must have influenced them.”

Honda was more popular overseas than in Japan. Although the company seemed very Japanese to me, Honda had a reputation in Japan for being a youthful, modern, international company—an image cultivated by most corporations, if not in practice, then at least in appearance.

Ms. Yamamoto, from European Sales, reported on uniform policies at other companies. “I called Nissan and spoke to a public relations representative. Not surprisingly, Nissan has no uniform policy for men, and several years ago they made uniforms for women optional. They reasoned that uniforms did not encourage individuality and that abolishing uniforms would make the work atmosphere more pleasant. The most interesting point, however, was their belief that it was strange to have a women-only uniform policy. Since implementing their policy, they report that the office environment has become more pleasant and most women choose to wear their own clothing. They also did not hear the complaints about clothing costs that they had anticipated.”

 “Do you think many women at Honda would complain about clothing costs?” I asked.

“Since most women at Honda are unmarried and live at home, they spend much of their income on clothes anyway. Every morning on the subway you can see that most women dress up to go to work. I think cost is not a problem because they already have nice wardrobes,” Ms. Yamamoto said, and others nodded in agreement. Then she told us about a famous cosmetic company. “Shiseido also abolished uniforms a few years ago. Their representative said people should be free to wear fashions they like, and that freedom to choose contributes to a relaxed work atmosphere. Since they abolished uniforms, no major problems have been reported.”

Ms. Uno reported on the financial view. “A uniform costs the company approximately 8,000. Each woman has two uniforms, so for 300 women the total cost is ¥4,800,000. Locker rooms for changing also take up valuable space. The company rents several meeting rooms in the building next door because we don’t have the space here at the headquarters. Applying the rental rate for the equivalent space currently used for locker rooms, the company spends an additional ¥10,000,000 a year.” This meant that Honda was spending the equivalent of over U.S. $150,000 a year to maintain the women-only uniform policy.

Reports flooded in with facts and statistics to support our argument. The results of the questionnaire, though not conclusive, also supported our position. The majority of the 500 people we asked agreed that uniforms did not help women advance their careers and did not improve Honda’s image. 

We prepared our presentation for the circle competition, and after several dress rehearsals we were ready for the first round. Each group had approximately ten minutes to present its idea and findings to a panel of four managers, who decided which groups would move on to the next level of competition. There wasn’t enough space inside the small, dark conference room for everyone from the eight competing circles, so we took turns listening to the other groups. We waited in the hall, reviewing our speaking order and double-checking our stack of overhead transparencies.

When it was our turn, all six of us marched up to the front of the room. Arnaud, the French-Japanese man, opened our presentation with impressively polite Japanese and announced that our goal was to abolish women’s uniforms. With well-timed precision, we took turns standing at the projector and explained our findings. We incorporated pie charts and graphs, a diagram of the women’s uniform, and even a copy of Japan’s Bill of Rights with the anti-discrimination clause in Article Fourteen.

The only items missing in our presentation were the results of implementing our solution. An important part of the quality circle process was testing the proposed solution by measuring the results in order to prove its value. But our results were based totally on conjecture. We believed that abolishing uniforms would save the company money, increase morale, and improve Honda’s corporate image, but it was impossible to prove. Without these statistics, chances of advancing were slim.

After all the groups were finished with their presentations, we gathered in the conference room. One of the managers stood up and complimented everyone’s efforts. He then made comments to all the groups. Of ours, he said, “The project is very interesting, but the survey results are vague. Perhaps an opinion survey of what women think about wearing the uniform would be a more useful tool.”

 I held my breath. Did this mean we were out? We didn’t qualify? He was still talking to the other groups. My palms were sweating, and I felt like screaming, “What does it mean? Do we get to go on?” Finally he announced the names of the two circles that would move on to the second round of competition. He read the name of another group and then ours.

Outside, the rain pounds down like it was shot out of a huge fire hose. For nearly a week, they have trudged through waist-deep swamps, dodged bears, and prayed for blue skies—just as many of the group did the previous August, when the summer’s ferocious wind and driving rain simply caught their expedition by surprise and deterred them from their quest: to scale Mount Denison, the tallest peak in Katmai National Monument.

It had been so dubbed in 1923 in honor of Denison University by a 1909 graduate, Kirtley Mather, who was the first to document its existence. But to anyone’s knowledge, it had never been climbed. 

On that first expedition, Richard Soaper ’77 had suggested another name for the 7,606-foot-tall mass of rock, snow, and ice: “Mather’s Folly,” he called it when, confined to his own tent, he mused why their predecessor would place their college’s name among such brutal environs. Who would’ve thought that such a small peak—a cakewalk by any motivated mountain climber’s standards–could pack such a meteorological wallop?

And now, having passed the point where the first expedition turned around, some members of the second venture may have begun to agree with Soaper as crushing walls of rain, biting snow squalls, and disorienting fog posed all-too-familiar threats. They had planned this trip for May expecting the weather to be more cooperative. So much for that idea.

The group of experienced climbers includes five members of the first excursion—history professor Bill Dennis, John Phillips ’75, Espen Brooks ’77, Lou Berizzi ’77, Richard Soaper ’77, and John Faraci ’72—who are joined by Fritz Kaeser ’80 and Richard Wiggin ’70. Confined once again to their tents as they wait for the clouds to part, they grow so bored that they separate M&Ms by color and count the hundreds of little squares that make up the fabric of the tent.

But, the weather be damned! It was their mountain; it was named for their school! They’d come thousands of miles to get here and waded for hours through numbingly cold wetlands and glacial streams before they even made it to Mount Denison’s foot. They climbed through deep snow, traced around gaping crevasses, and spent the last three seemingly endless days stuffed into tents. This time, nothing would stop them.

Finally, the squalls subside. The steepest part is behind them now and they’ve no idea what lies ahead. The maps show that a broad, gently sloping bowl rises into Mount Denison’s summit cone. This is the goal. Three lonely peaks tower in the distance, shining radiantly in the late afternoon sun. To their left and right, outcroppings, snowy ridges, and shoulder peaks frame an incredible panorama. The thrill of being the first people to tread this virgin land is lost on no one.  

 

About half a mile from the summit there appear to be no major obstacles. All they must do is find the summit ridge, a few hundred yards short of the peak. But another snow squall enshrouds them and intensifies as they grow near the summit. It’s now actually raining through the snow. They pick a way forward with nearly zero visibility, soaking wet and exhausted.

Slowly, a dim outline of rock emerges ahead with a faint ridge of snow. The climbers pierce the squall where the ridge becomes an unusual jumble of mounds, all piled on top of each other as if pushed up into a huge bank by some giant snowplow. One by one, they climb over each mound only to find a higher one beyond it. Three feet on either side, the ridge drops into an unknown milky void. Bill Dennis tries to climb around some of the knobs, but can’t secure his footing. There are no shortcuts; they must keep climbing.

Through blinding fog, Dennis finds the highest mound. This is it! This is the peak! The clouds and snow steal the vista’s stunning view, and the expeditioners can only imagine how spectacular it must be. Dennis’s honor of reaching the peak first seems only fair to the others. After all, he took responsibility for coordinating both excursions. He insists it’s a community effort, but all look to him for guidance, literally and figuratively.

Espen Brooks positions his bulky movie camera and films his professor’s rise to the summit. Dennis plants his ice axe and drops his backpack, beckoning the rest to follow. This is the culmination of two expeditions and two years of effort. As if the heavens are praising the achievement, the clouds lighten overhead. Beyond them, a large dark shape emerges dimly, and disappears. Then, like something out of a Hollywood movie, the clouds blow apart, revealing not one, but two massive snow covered peaks standing two to three miles away.

“Oh, my God!” they cry, among other expletives. “This isn’t Mount Denison!”

 

Published August 2007