BACK IN OREGON
the next afternoon, I went straight in to see the office
manager at Price Waterhouse. “I’ve got to have two weeks off,” I said, “right
He looked up from the papers on his desk and glared at me, and for one
hellishly long moment I thought I was going to be fired. Instead, he cleared
his throat and mumbled something . . . odd. I couldn’t make out every word
but he seemed to think . . . from my intensity, my vagueness . . . I’d gotten
I took a step back and started to protest, then shut my mouth. Let the
man think what he wants. So long as he gives me the time.
Running a hand through his thinning hair, he finally sighed and said:
“Go. Good luck. Hope it all works out.”
I PUT THE
airfare on my credit card. Twelve months to pay. And unlike my
last visit to Japan, this time I wired ahead. I told the executives at Onitsuka
that I was coming, and that I wanted a meeting.
They wired back: Come ahead.
But their wire went on to say that I wouldn’t be meeting with Morimoto.
He was either fired or dead. There was a new export manager, the wire said.
His name was Kitami.
KISHIKAN. Japanese for déjà vu. Again I found myself boarding a flight for
Japan. Again I found myself underlining and memorizing my copy of How to
Do Business with the Japanese. Again I found myself taking the train to Kobe,
checking into the Newport, pacing in my room.
At zero hour I took a cab over to Onitsuka. I expected that we’d go into
the old conference room, but no, they’d done some remodeling since my last
visit. New conference room, they said. Sleeker, bigger, it had leather chairs
instead of the old cloth ones, and a much longer table. More impressive, but
less familiar. I felt disoriented, intimidated. It was like prepping for a meet at
Oregon State and learning at the last minute that it had been moved to the
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
A man walked into the conference room and extended his hand. Kitami.
His black shoes were brightly polished, his hair equally polished. Jet black,
swept straight back, not a strand out of place. He was a great contrast to
Morimoto, who always looked as if he’d dressed blindfolded. I was put off by
Kitami’s veneer, but suddenly he gave me a warm, ready smile, and
encouraged me to sit, relax, tell him why I’d come, and now I got the distinct
sense that, despite his slick appearance, he wasn’t altogether sure of himself.
He was in a brand-new job, after all. He didn’t yet have much—equity. The
word sprang to mind.
It occurred to me also that I had high value for Kitami. I wasn’t a big
client, but I wasn’t small, either. Location is everything. I was selling shoes
in America, a market vital to the future of Onitsuka. Maybe, just maybe,
Kitami didn’t want to lose me just yet. Maybe he wanted to hold on to me
until they’d transitioned to the Marlboro Man. I was an asset, I was a credit,
for the moment, which meant I might be holding better cards than I
Kitami spoke more English than his predecessors, but with a thicker
accent. My ear needed a few minutes to adjust as we chatted about my flight,
the weather, sales. All the while other executives were filing in, joining us at
the conference table. At last Kitami leaned back. “Hai . . .” He waited. “Mr.
Onitsuka?” I asked. “Mr. Onitsuka will not be able to join us today,” he said.
Damn. I was hoping to draw upon Mr. Onitsuka’s fondness for me, not to
mention his bond with Bowerman. But no. Alone, without allies, trapped in
the unfamiliar conference room, I plunged ahead.
I told Kitami and the other executives that Blue Ribbon had done a
remarkable job thus far. We’d sold out every order, while developing a
robust customer base, and we expected this solid growth to continue. We
had forty-four thousand dollars in sales for 1966, and projected to have
eighty-four thousand dollars in 1967. I described our new store in Santa
Monica, and laid out plans for other stores—for a big future. Then I leaned
in. “We would very much like to be the exclusive U.S. distributor for Tiger’s
track-and-field line,” I said. “And I think it is very much in Tiger’s interest
that we become that.”
I didn’t even mention the Marlboro Man.
I looked around the table. Grim faces. None grimmer than Kitami’s. He
said in a few terse words that this would not be possible. Onitsuka wanted
for its U.S. distributor someone bigger, more established, a firm that could
handle the workload. A firm with offices on the East Coast.
“But, but,” I spluttered, “Blue Ribbon does have offices on the East
Kitami rocked back in his chair. “Oh?”
“Yes,” I said, “we’re on the East Coast, the West Coast, and soon we may
be in the Midwest. We can handle national distribution, no question.” I
looked around the table. The grim faces were becoming less grim.
“Well,” Kitami said, “this change things.”
He assured me that they would give my proposal careful consideration.
So. Hai. Meeting adjourned.
I walked back to my hotel and spent a second night pacing. First thing the
next morning I received a call summoning me back to Onitsuka, where
Kitami awarded me exclusive distribution rights for the United States.
He gave me a three-year contract.
I tried to be nonchalant as I signed the papers and placed an order for five
thousand more shoes, which would cost twenty thousand dollars I didn’t
have. Kitami said he’d ship them to my East Coast office, which I also didn’t
I promised to wire him the exact address.
ON THE FLIGHT
home I looked out the window at the clouds above the
Pacific Ocean and thought back to sitting atop Mount Fuji. I wondered how
Sarah would feel about me now, after this coup. I wondered how the
Marlboro Man would feel when he got word from Onitsuka that he was
I stowed away my copy of How to Do Business with the Japanese. My carryon was stuffed with souvenirs. Kimonos for my mother and sisters and Mom
Hatfield, a tiny samurai sword to hang above my desk. And my crowning
glory—a small Japanese TV. Spoils of war, I thought, smiling. But
somewhere over the Pacific the full weight of my “victory” came over me. I
imagined the look on Wallace’s face when I asked him to cover this gigantic
new order. If he said no, when he said no, what then?
On the other hand, if he said yes, how was I going to open an office on
the East Coast? And how was I going to do it before those shoes arrived?
And who was I going to get to run it?
I stared at the curved, glowing horizon. There was only one person on the
planet rootless enough, energetic enough, gung-ho enough, crazy enough, to
pick up and move to the East Coast, on a moment’s notice, and get there
before the shoes did.
I wondered how Stretch was going to like the Atlantic Ocean.