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English translation - 06.6.28

The song of his life

Why a Japanese man sings since 1981 in front of the factory gate

NOBODY IS PAYING attention to Tetsuro Tanaka. The guards of the technology company Oki are barely looking up, when he parks his grey motor scooter in front of the gate. The school children running past are ignoring him, when he puts his cowboy hat on his shoulder length hair, installs a microphone stand and hangs his guitar around his neck. The workers surging through the gate are looking embarrassedly to the side, when he starts to sing. It is shortly before 8am in Hachioji, a university town in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Tetsuro Tanaka, 58, has been standing here at the same time for half an hour every day. Since he got laid off 25 years ago.

Tetsuro Tanaka sings with a high voice, passionately, like an Asian Bob Dylan. They are peace songs, written by himself, in English, so the world can understand him. "Isn't it bad to discriminate", Tanaka sings, "isn't it bad to exclude?'

Tanaka feels he has been discriminated against and excluded by Oki, one of Japan's biggest technology corporations, which produces printer and telecommunication devices. Tanaka's fight against Oki started in 1978, when the company laid off 1300 employees.

At that time Tanaka worked as an engineer at Oki. He assembled integrated semiconductor circuits, for 9 years, since completion of college. Tanaka wasn't one of the laid off workers, and he actually was not a fighter, he was interested in arts and led the company's mandoline club.

But he couldn't understand that the union didn't protest against the layoffs, after all, the fired workers were young fathers, like himself. When the company demanded shortly after, that the employees prove their loyalty with group morning exercises, Tanaka refused and stayed at his desk. He was the only one.

He who doesn't exercise with us, is against us, the company management said. And he who meets with traitors is one himself.

Tanaka got less and less work, he only was allowed to assist, and his salary was reduced. One after another the mandoline players left Tanaka's club, and nobody answered when he wished them a good morning. " I would like to invite you to my wedding", a coworker friend said, "but you know". When Tanaka ran as a candidate for the company union, he knew he had no chance. Of course the favorites of the management won.

Tetsuro Tanaka received his pink slip on June 29th, 1981. The company just turned 100 years old and Tanaka 33. He refused to go when he was transferred to another company branch - in his view a punishment for his rebelliousness. The next morning he stood in front of the gate and sang for the first time.

Tanaka already reckoned that Oki would fire him and he had prepared and saved money. His sons were just two and four years old, and his wife didn't earn enough money as a preschool teacher to feed the family all alone. In case of necessity he would have had to sell his condominium. In the afternoon Tanaka gave guitar lessons to finance his singing in the morning. After a while so many students came to his classes, that he didn't really need the job at Oki any more. And he actually didn't want it any longer.

Tanaka planned to keep singing for about three years nevertheless, as a protest. Maybe some day Oki would apologize to him and admit that they intimidated and harassed the employees.

The apology didn't come after three years, not after 20 years either. It didn't come at all, and Tetsuro Tanaka kept singing. At the same time he filed lawsuits, as far up as the supreme court, but he lost all of them. His candidacy for the Japanese upper house was unsuccessful, too.

But after all, Tanaka's songs outlasted 12 Japanese prime ministers, 4 Oki CEO's and one Japanese emperor.

Once a year he gives a flaming speech against discrimination at Oki's shareholder's general meeting. They are required to let him in, since he bought a few shares of the company.

Every third Friday he sings in front of the Oki headquarters in Tokyo.

And every 29th of the month he celebrates his "Firing Day". Then he is not alone in front of the factory, but with his supporters. They are retired Oki employees, who don't need to worry about their job any more. On Firing Day they put up colorful umbrellas and camping chairs and sing for five hours, "don't turn your head away from what you see".

Meanwhile Tetsuro Tanaka has spent almost 9000 hours in front of the company gate. His victory is that after him no Oki employee ever was transferred as punishment again. They don't want to risk acquiring a second Tanaka, he thinks.

The guards in their blue uniforms have never tried to send him away. They wouldn't dare. They are much younger than him. Tanaka was there before them.

By Kristina Allgoewer

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