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Day 4: Wales: home of the Japanese boyo

1997 September 2
by Paul Vallely

There was no one in the bar who was not Japanese when I arrived at the Maerdy Hotel in the village of Pencoed. Though the hills behind it were those which demarcate the edge of the valleys of South Wales, in my neat little bedroom there was a notice which informed guests that, on channel 5, Japanese television was available. Downstairs in the dining room the menu insisted on chips with everything, yet everyone in the dining room was eating rice with their gammon or steak. Everyone here, too, was Japanese. Beneath it all ran the surreal soundtrack of the hotel’s piped music in which a Johnny Cash soundalike was singing “The City of New Orleans”.

I had expected the train from Newport to be a local shuttle on a sleepy Welsh branch line at the end of my journey from Cornwall. But I had misread the geography and the local economy considerably. The train which pulled up was a long Intercity and the line along which it travelled – I was later to discover when I found that my bedroom was well within earshot of the railway – was busy all day and night with heavy freight carriage as well as passenger expresses. This was the line which joins Cardiff to Bridgend, Port Talbot and Swansea. Once it had carried the coal and steel that were carried through the veins of the heartland of industrial Wales. But things have changed.

The centre of the nearby town of Bridgend, where I had alighted, looks like any unremarkable British small town, with its small branches of the usual chain stores and its unprepossessing local shops. But its fringes tell another story. Along its outer double-carriageway bypass lies a succession of new factories for new, hi-tech industries. This is now the seat of some of the heaviest investment in Europe by the Japanese business sector. Some 17,000 Welsh workers are now employed by Japanese firms. Sony is today, after British Steel, the biggest employer in the principality, and the Maerdy Hotel is only one of a number of local businesses that is glad of it.

After dinner, the hotel manager, Mr Nanji, gave me a few tips for the next day. Mr Nanji was an expert in cross-cultural matters. His first name was Firoz, which is Persian. He was born in Tanzania of Indian stock. And he had lived in Canada for 17 years before the extreme cold of Edmonton drove him eight years ago to Wales.

“Nanji in Japanese apparently means, `What time is it?’ I have tried to learn a few phrases to make my guests feel at home,” he said.

Since Sony began its latest expansion phase, Mr What-Time-Is-It? has had 90 per cent occupancy in his 26-bedroom hotel. Almost all the guests are Japanese, many of them long-term, and are all what Mr Nanji calls “floor staff” – junior engineers who work on the shopfloor. “The Japanese are very conscious of status. The senior people would not want to be here at pounds 35 a night with their junior staff. They are all up at the Coed-y- Mystr, a posh hotel up the road.

“First, remember they don’t like shaking hands; they just bow,” Mr Nanji began. “If a Japanese gives you his business card you must hold it in your hand for as long as you talk to him. To put in your pocket or wallet is to dismiss him; it’s a real insult. And never blow your nose in the presence of a Japanese person; it is a terribly rude thing to do.” There followed half an hour of serious briefing.

“Is there anyone I could practice on?” I asked at the end. The next day I was due down the road at Diaplastics UK, a Mitsubishi-owned injection- moulding company that makes the plastic cases for TV sets. He looked around. No, the early birds were already in bed. And the late ones were not back yet.

“Many of them are out at 7.30am and not in till midnight,” he said. “Recently I had one check in after a three-hour ride to Tokyo airport, a 13-hour flight to Heathrow, a train to Reading, another train to Bridgend and then a taxi here. He arrived at midnight and asked for a 6.30am breakfast so he could be at his workbench at Sony by 7.30am. They are hard workers.”

By way of compensation he took me backstairs to the kitchen to show off the Japanese rice steamer that one of his long-term guests had donated to the hotel kitchen. “We now serve Japanese rice for breakfast too,” he said, pulling out a large sack of the stuff. “I had to go a long way to get it – to Cardiff,” he said, extracting a handful of the short, stout grains that produce the sticky breakfast fare. For purposes of comparison he scooped from another sack a handful of elegant Basmati grains; he smiled, too much of a diplomat to pass comment in words.

Before bed I wandered up the road to the village of Pencoed, past cramped terraced houses and new bungalows. By the Salem Chapel (1775) where an all-girl youth group was meeting, I spotted a lone Japanese engineer on his way back to the Maerdy and tried to engage him in conversation. He bowed and twitched a smile and responded monosyllabically. It was not clear whether he did not understand or whether he simply considered my questions impertinent.

What, I wondered, as we parted and I continued my perambulation, did he make of the place, with its oversupply of chip shops and discount carpet stores, the strange notice in someone’s front window which read: Gone to garden party at Buckingham Palace/ Beware/ Mother-in-law, and the pub which, though it was a weekday evening, was full of locals who looked as if they had stepped off a charabanc, with children running round and one even in a pushchair though it was after 10pm? The air was filled with raucous chatter so heavily accented that it was barely possible for an Englishman to understand, let alone a Japanese, had he displayed the lack of taste to venture in.

Back at the hotel the TV was showing a depressing regional news bulletin. A local toxic gas leak. Rioting on a Cardiff housing estate. A Crimestoppers appeal for information on a man who loads supermarket trolleys with wine and runs out into the street without paying. I switched to Channel 5 and watched a giddy sushi-bar comedy about the gastronomic adventures of the Japanese equivalent of Compo, Foggy and Clegg (complete with frilly pinny). Oriental family values meet the occidental soap opera? It felt simultaneously familiar yet totally incomprehensible. But then perhaps it would be an apt preparation for the next day.


Tomorrow Day 5: A sticky moment on the factory floor

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