Out of Japan: When a career move turns into a soap opera

TOKYO - Japanese companies can be similar to the mythical Hotel California - you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. A career- minded female friend, whom we shall call Ms Suzuki, recently decided to resign from a prestigious Tokyo bank to take a more interesting job at another financial company. And in the period betweeen jobs she also planned to get married to her long-standing boyfriend.

In theory it was a clean-cut move to change her life, take the marital plunge and gear up for new career challenges. But in practice, far from being a simple 'exit stage left, re-enter stage right in new costume', the whole manoeuvre took six months of tortuous planning, deception, romantic self-denial and ruthless office politicking. When it was over, the saga had become a comedy of manners revolving around the complex social relationships that bind every Japanese to his or her company or work group.

Ms Suzuki's first problem was how to resign from her old company. A simple resignation letter or a private chat with her immediate boss was out of the question. This would be far too blunt and would involve humiliation and social wounds which would take many years to heal.

'Superiors lose face if someone working under them resigns - it reflects badly on them as superiors,' Ms Suzuki said.

The fact that the bank had not treated her very well, promoting her more slowly than less talented male colleagues, was immaterial. Face had to be preserved at all costs.

So emerged the first part of her plan: convert a weakness into a strength. Aware that some of her bosses knew her talents were not being exploited to the full, she applied for a transfer within the company to a job which she knew she could do, but which she knew would never be given to her because she was not sufficiently senior in the bank's rigid hierarchy.

When the transfer request was rejected on the grounds that Ms Suzuki did not have sufficient experience, she was able to feign disappointment and say that maybe she was not good enough to work in the company - that she was an inconvenience to her bosses. The best solution, she theorised out loud, would perhaps be for her to resign.

By now her bosses had realised that she wanted to resign, and was conducting this elaborate charade to save face all round. The delicacy of her stratagem was much admired.

While all this was going on, Ms Suzuki was negotiating her new job. The main obstacle here was her prospective husband. Japanese women are expected to work in their early twenties, usually doing menial work at less pay than their male colleagues, until they get married. Then pressure is put on them by their bosses, with the promise of a 'goodwill bonus' to resign.

Ms Suzuki could have used her marriage as an excuse to get out of her old job, but she was afraid that it would compromise her position with the new company, or even cause it to withdraw her job offer. To make matters worse, her fiance was a foreigner, creating a two- fold risk that she would leave her new company shortly after joining either to have a baby, or to follow her husband back to his native country.

The plan was to keep her marriage secret, at least until she was established in her new job. But she was tipped off by a friend that the company she was joining was very thorough in investigating recruits, and would probably send a private investigator to where she lived to check out her background. At the time she was living with her boyfriend, but maintaining a small flat of her own in another part of Tokyo. So for several months, fearful that her dark romantic secret would leak out, Ms Suzuki dutifully slept alone in her flat.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan until Ms Suzuki found out that a female colleague in her old company had got wind of her marriage intentions. This colleague had a grudge against Ms Suzuki because of an office power struggle and seemed on the point of revealing everything. Fortunately Ms Suzuki happened to know that her rival had been having a secret affair with one of her married male superiors. A mutually beneficial silence was quickly agreed.

Ms Suzuki is now happily working with her new company, still keeps in contact with her former colleagues at the bank, and has moved back in with her man. The soap opera of the last six months is over, but it was compelling viewing.