Story of OWNDAYS: The Revival — Ep 19: A Story about Chief Takahashi that You Should All Know

May, 2012

Our new pricing system — no additional charges for thin lenses — was implemented just in the nick of time and was having a great start throughout the country. Things had finally calmed down after nearly a year of daily nerve-racking stress and I was feeling relieved, sitting on the veranda of our new HQ/merchandise center in Taba, about to have a smoke.

The sun was shining just right. You couldn’t tell if it was spring or summer. The moment you thought it was getting hot, a breeze would come through at just the right timing to cool off your face. Just as it did, a wind chime hung by someone’s front door down below would let out a most refreshing chime, as if enchanted by the breeze. This afternoon proved to be a real treat, an unusually peaceful, relaxing and nearly perfect moment in time.

Leaning on the veranda railing, I calmly took out a Cool menthol as always and took a big drag. I looked up at the clear blue sky and exhaled.

A cat was sound asleep bathing in the sun in a nice spot it found on the roof next door. As I stood there phased out, staring at the cat, I heard the glass sliding door open behind me and sensed someone coming out on to the veranda. I turned around to see Chief of Merchandise, Takahashi.

Chief Takahashi was just as bad a chain smoker as I, and a frequenter to the same place, i.e., the smoking area. He had his slightly grey hair all slicked back as usual and was wearing a well-tailored ivory jacket, a grey Brooks Brothers button down shirt — ivy league fashion, to a tee. Except on this day, there was no sharp beaming look in his eyes like he usually had behind those trademark round framed glasses. He looked rather frightened, even hallow. Something seemed wrong.

Upon finding me, he looked down at the floor and asked quietly, as if holding something back, “Mr. President, may I have a bit of your time…?”

“Sure. I’m free now anyway,” I said. “Hmm? Takahashi-san, you’re not gonna have a cigarette?”

“No… not today.”

“Huh, that’s new.”

“Yeah, not exactly just today…, I uh,… I’ve decided to quit.”

“Why? You’re not starting to worry about your health now are you?”

Chief Takahashi was always puffing away like a steam engine. He drank hard every night as well. Every morning he’d chug down coffee to jolt his brain awake with caffeine before plunging into work. He looked as if he came straight out of a comic about a Japanese salaryman from the Showa era. Every time someone tried warning him about his negligent lifestyle, he would say, “A long life without my beloved booze and cigarettes is a life not worth living! I’ll do as I please. Short but robust, that’s my motto!” Indeed, he did always say that.

“Well… I’ve kind of fallen ill…” he said.

“Fallen ill? You don’t mean to tell me you’ve caught something — like something embarrassing that you can’t really talk about in a loud voice, do you?”

“Ahahaha,” he laughed. “I wish it were that…”

“If it’s not that, then what’s wrong?”

Chief Takahashi scratched his head as if to say, “Well, you’ve got me.” He then whispered, as if subdued,

“The truth is… They’ve found cancer in my bladder. It’s malignant.”

Time froze.

A cold and suffocating silence took over. The dry sound of the wind chime, the sounds of children walking home from school in the streets, everything had become a hallow echo. I had no idea how much time had passed by. In reality it was probably only a few seconds, but the dreary space between the word “cancer” and the next words to come out of his mouth seemed to last forever, just lingering there.

“Well, it’s not like it’s terminal,” he spoke. “It’s stage three. So with some surgery and treatment, it should be fine.”

“Oh. But isn’t stage three pretty serious?”

“Well, there are different types of cancer and each stage has even more phases within it, so it’s hard to tell, they say. It doesn’t seem to be that serious in my case. There should be no need to worry so much.”

“Is that so…?”

“But they say that coffee and tobacco accumulate in the bladder. The doctor was very clear about that. ‘Things wouldn’t have been so bad if you had quit smoking and coffee,’ he said. I’ve actually quit smoking before, back twenty years ago when my child was born. I don’t know why I didn’t just fully quit then… I really regret it now. Everyday. I know it’s no use regretting that now, but still…”

“I see…”

“And I had talked it up so much, saying I’d rather live a ‘short but robust’ life, you know. When it comes down to that fateful moment, though, humans just turn into this big ball of regret, hahaha,” he said jokingly.

Stage three bladder cancer…

What does that even mean? How much longer does he have to live? Should he have an operation right away? I had so many questions running through my head, but after realizing just how serious things were for Chief Takahashi from the anxious look in his wandering eyes trying to hide behind a cheerful facade, I just couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I found myself merely nodding and mumbling, and staring down at the smoke leaving the end of my cigarette, trying to hide my feeling of shame.

My first impression of Chief Takahashi was that he was a wiz with words when he was drunk, but very taciturn when not. He seemed to be very blunt and curt. I had thought, “Whoa, now that’s a tough one to approach. Who knows what he’s thinking…” Early on, just a few months after I took over as President, when I was having trouble deciding what to do after finally getting a grip on the flow of our merchandise, Chief Takahashi approached me and said, “Let me take care of merchandise!” I made him Chief, then and there. In fact, this was the very beginning of our currently on-going election system and in-house FA system. Our personal affairs policy is to “give the job to those who want it”. Chief Takahashi was actually the first person to implement it.

After appointing him Chief, as he requested, I had practically left almost all things related to merchandise to him. And boy did he take off running, like a fish released back into the ocean. He greatly improved our merchandise quality. Back when I had first taken over as president, I used to think that “If you were a salesman, you should be able to sell the unsellable, even a rock.” After seeing the quality of our merchandise clearly improve, and seeing the look in the face of our sales team and how much more motivated they were, I completely changed my opinion. I remember it very well.

Around two years after he took over as Merchandise Chief, when we were in a slump, we had become like fellow soldiers, running around, visiting manufacturers together in Sabae, Korea and China nearly every month. We had overcome the tough years, side by side. And now, after five years, right when we were beginning to see the buds of future growth, right when we were in an “Alright, now it’s time!” kind of phase, he said he had cancer in his bladder and he didn’t know how much longer he had got. It was a cold hard, heavy and gloomy fact. I felt like I was being dragged through a bottom-less swamp.

“So, I’ll have to go through some treatment for a while. I’ll take some days off with the leaves I have, but I’ll take care of a substitute so don’t worry. It shouldn’t be anything you can’t handle.”

He said in a lighthearted, cheerful way, seeing that I was at a loss for words. He spoke as if he was simply going on vacation for a few days.

“What’ya talking about! Who cares about work? Your top priority now is to concentrate on getting full treatment. It’s an order.”

“Thank you very much. But you know, there really should be no need to worry. I’m not going to die any time soon. And if I have surgery, there is a very small chance that I’ll die alright. It’s easy to say ‘concentrate on treatment,’ but as you can see I’m still in top shape. If I have nothing to do, all I’ll be thinking about is what could go wrong. And that wouldn’t be good for my health now. Please allow me to work, as normal. I’ll take care of the cancer. I mean, we’re finally a new and improved OWNDAYS now, with our new pricing system and brands and everything. We’re really on a roll. I can’t keel over quite yet.”

As if to rid the air of its bitter aftertaste, Chief Takahashi acted strong and cheerful. This spread over to me, and I was able to cheer up a little as well.

“Well, you’re right about that. If you die on me now, I’d be lost. Please, take it easy on me, won’t ya?”

“Ahahaha,” he laughed. “It’s alright, sorry to make you worry. Oh, and one more thing. Please don’t tell anyone else in the company. I don’t want them to act any different. I’ll let them know myself, when the time comes.”

“You got it. We’re gonna get rid of this cancer. We’ll give you all the support you need too, so don’t worry about any of the day-to-day stuff.”

“Thank you very much. And Mr. President, I have one more favor to ask, if it’s alright.”

“Of course. If there is anything I can do, just let me know!”

“That cigarette you got there…please make it your last. A healthy body is really important.”

I took my box of cigarettes out of my pocket, crushed it as hard as I could and threw it in the trash can right in front of him. I took my time slowly smoking the remainder of the cigarette in my hand, looked up at the sky and said what might be the worst one-liner in history,

“So this is my last cigarette, huh… Gotta remember this one.”

“Ahahaha,” laughed Chief Takahashi. “It’s a favor for both of our sakes. So, yeah, please, enjoy it.”

“Yeah…it doesn’t really taste so good…”

From that day on, Chief Takahashi continued to give OWNDAYS his all, while at the same time fighting the illness that was haunting him. In case anyone cares, I have kept my promise with him too. I quit cold turkey. And this is a guy — who up until that last cigarette on the veranda — had been smoking four packs a day.

August, 2012

On one Monday morning, we were having our usual weekly executive meeting in the HQ meeting room which was in the basement and had no windows. We were having loud discussions about many new details, from store sales and construction updates, to frame revenue analysis and regular updates from each department.

Just as the clock was about to strike noon, we had come to the end of our last topic, bringing our meeting to an end. It was then that I heard the good old husky voice of Chief Takahashi say “One last thing, if I may,” raising his hand. Our eyes met for a split second. Knowing exactly what he was about to do, I sat and watched in silence. He stood up briskly, knowing that the other chiefs would, at this moment, rather go to lunch. After a brief silence, when everyone’s eyes were on him, he started to speak calmly, as if giving an inventory report as usual.

“Um, excuse me for bringing up a personal matter, but I think I should inform all of you that I have not been feeling well in recent days, and upon visiting the hospital for a checkup, I’ve been diagnosed with bladder cancer. I have already started treatment, but I will be going into surgery in the near future and will be absent from work for a bit.”

The meeting room froze over. It was as if every little sound in the room before Chief Takahashi’s unexpected announcement had suddenly turned off. Unnerved by the sudden change in atmosphere, he went on.

“Of course, being in charge of merchandise, I plan to continue working with all of you as always, regardless of cancer. That should be about it. I just thought you all ought to know. One last thing, and I feel like an old lady for saying this, but there are many heavy smokers in our company. Too many of us overeat and overdrink as well. Too much coffee, too much alcohol. I am just as much a culprit of all these. I am at a point now, though, that I can say sternly. Please take care of your bodies before you regret it. Your health is very important.”

He then looked in my direction and gave a most pleasant smile that brought charming wrinkles to the corners of his eyes, and said,

“You won’t see me in the office as often as before, but I know very well how warmhearted of a company OWNDAYS is, Mr. President, and I suppose I need not worry about paid leave and medical fees.”

To which I said nothing and gave him a wry smile and a thumbs up.

July, 2014

Roughly two years had passed since Chief Takahashi started his battle with cancer. The rainy season had just come to an end, and an intense summer heat replaced it. I was on my way to work. Everything was as usual. As I hurried along by myself to our office, which wasn’t exactly close to the station, I noticed Chief Takahashi walking ahead of me in the distance.

Even in the blazing sun, he was flawlessly clad in a double-breasted suit and hat — the ideal image of a wild and stylish older man that a lot of people aim too hard for these days. It was like he had just crawled out of a fashion magazine, as always.

For the past half a year or so I was busy with our opening rush and I was running around the country for days on end. I was only able to come back to Tokyo for about two days out of the week and hadn’t seen Chief Takahashi in a few months.

I had heard that he was really having a dreadfully hard time treating his cancer but looking at him from behind that day, all dressed in business man battle mode, looking as suave as ever, you couldn’t tell one bit. I had asked him regularly about how things were going and he would cheerfully say, “The cancer is neither big nor small. It isn’t growing and I don’t even have any noticeable symptoms,” so I had believed him. I had thought I would be able to work with him for another ten years or so.

However, it seemed that he was unable to hide the toll that his battle with cancer had taken on him. His energy was depleting. His footsteps were heavy, as if he had iron chains around his ankles. He was walking slowly, step by step, watching his own feet as he made his way to the office. Since I was almost late for an appointment, I walked by him in a hurry and gave him a light nod as I passed by, saying, “Good morning.”

To this very day, I regret doing so.

Because that would be the last time that I saw Chief Takahashi.

Why didn’t I greet him more cheerfully…? So what if I was late? Why didn’t I just stop and walk beside him, talking about the things we did and the things we were going to do…?

I had all the time in the world to do so but I didn’t.

To me, that morning was just another morning on the run. The kind that came all the time. However, to Chief Takahashi, those few moments that morning, were in fact precious moments for him to savor the remainder of his shortened life.

Why didn’t I stop to walk beside him…

Two weeks later, on August 19th, 2014, roughly two years after being informed of his cancer, Chief Takahashi took his last breath.

“I just received a phone call from Chief Takahashi’s wife. He has passed away.”

This was the short text message waiting for me when I turned on my phone upon my arrival at Haneda Airport coming home from a business trip. The message came from Chief Tanaka from the HR department.

A few days earlier, I had received a short email from Chief Takahashi that said, “I’m not feeling well, I will take off for a while. I’ll be feeling better and back at the office in no time.” Since then, I had become extra cautious about his condition and was planning to pay him a visit once I got back from the business trip. However, I was too late.

Only two years had passed since our talk on the veranda. He chose not to quit, and kept working with us as long as he was capable, knowing that his battle with cancer was going to be a long and hard one. I remember it as if it was yesterday. He spoke with such resolution and strength in his eyes.

The night before the funeral, Chief Takahashi’s wife informed me at the wake about a whole different side of the man — a side we didn’t know.

She told me that when they first found the cancer, it had already spread to his bones and that there was absolutely no realistic chance of recovery and that he was fully aware.

The cancer continued to spread, so much that during his final six months, one of his lungs was practically non-functioning and he could hardly breathe properly. He had been hiding his daily decline in health to go out of his way to come work painstakingly by our side.

Until his dying day, he hadn’t let anyone know, even me, the president, that his life would be ending soon. The sudden announcement of his death that was so out of the blue to us, was in reality, an announcement of his scheduled departure. As proof, all the details of his position had been passed on, flawlessly, to his successor, only a few days prior to his death, and both his desk and locker had been cleaned out and tidied up without anyone knowing.

For the first year after discovering his cancer, he came to work as he always did. Besides his gradual loss of hair due to the chemotherapy, he didn’t even look or act like someone who was suffering from the struggles of battling an illness. However, after a year had gone by, he started to take off more for treatment and had started losing weight. I became worried.

Nevertheless, he still came to work and dived right in, handling things calmly. He even had some heated arguments with our manufacturers and even regularly joined me on business trips to Sabae, China and Korea, to pay visits to our factory lines to ensure quality and cut down on costs.

He was always there to help save OWNDAYS when we were faced with serious crises — which happened multiple times.

When I went out on a limb and started our “storewide 50%-off sale” which had become way more of a hit than we could have imagined, we sold way more frames than we had expected. As shelves and stock continuously thinned out, we were contacted by store managers and franchise operators, saying, “We’re all out of worthwhile merchandise!!”

When that happened, the two of us ran out to Sabae, visited several manufacturers, begged for their understanding and bought the necessary merchandise with money we somehow managed to prepare. There were even a few times when we found ourselves unable to make our payments to the manufacturers on time.

The year after the earthquake and tsunami disaster proved to be full of hardships. However, Chief Takahashi would say, “Mr. President, you’re are the face of this company. You shouldn’t bow and beg so easily like that.” He then started to go ahead of me to the manufacturers and asked difficult favors on our behalf when I wasn’t around and got them to add an extension to the payments. He saved us during crises like this on many occasions.

I remember one time, during a business trip in freezing cold Beijing, Chief Takahashi and I were drinking so much together that we practically passed out. I remember getting into a loud fight with him in an izakaya in Sabae regarding our manufacturing plan. There are so many memories I have with him, I couldn’t possibly list them all. He was always earnestly thinking about us and about merchandise. Documenting down my memories of him like this, I’m beginning to feel that it was not I who had made my ideal OWNDAYS a reality, but rather, it was Chief Takahashi.

I feel deep and utter regret for not being able to show my appreciation to him directly and let him know just how much he has done for us. When we all went to say our final goodbyes, we saw him resting there peacefully in his coffin, never to say another word. The song Inamura Jane by Southern All Stars started playing over the speakers at the funeral hall. Upon asking about it, they told me that this was his favorite song. This was another new and surprising side of him that he purposely hid. Nonetheless, that in itself was very becoming of him as well.

At the end of our farewell to him, his wife spoke to the OWNDAYS staff, who had lined up shoulder to shoulder for a final greeting.

“My husband loved OWNDAYS. He wanted to go back to work with all of you, even at the very end. Please become the №1 optical shop in the world.”

We all cried.

It was a hot and humid Saturday. We stood there, drenched in tears and sweat at a funeral hall on the outskirts of Machida. We cried our eyes out.

I have no intention of saying anything like, “Let’s make OWNDAYS something big, for Chief Takahashi’s sake.”

It would sound a bit cheap and seem like a means to take advantage of his death, just to motivate our staff. I didn’t want to do anything like that, and I didn’t intend to. We would continue to raise OWNDAYS and we would do it ourselves, without rest. This was our fate. We’d decided it ourselves. It would happen whether Chief Takahashi would be with us or not.

The only thing I would like for you to know about this man is this.

There was this guy named Ken’ichi Takahashi. He looked tough, and didn’t talk much but when he drank, he did. He was cheerful and at times even controversial. This man put his life on the line to work for OWNDAYS. He worked until his body gave in and never went back on his principles until the very end. Thanks to him, OWNDAYS is where it is now.

That’s it.

To be continued in Episode 20