Friday, August 25, 2006

In Memoriam: Norio Tsuruta

It was 1998, and my first trip to Japan as a marketing manager. The local sales guy, Tsuruta-san, was going to pick me up at the Century Hyatt. I had never met him in person, but on the phone he told me to "Look for the Japanese guy with the big, beautiful mustache!" I had no problem finding him in the crowded lobby, big mustache and all. Thus began what became a long professional and personal relationship.

Tsuruta-san was a salesman's salesman. He was what we in the industry call a "relationship manager" and he taught me much of what he knew. It didn't really matter what he sold - and much of the time he wasn't all that certain - but that wasn't important. What was important was finding and maintaining the personal relationship with the decision makers at the Japanese conglomerates, something that is much more important that having lower prices or better features.

Tsuruta-san was also my tutor into what I would call "modern Japanese culture": Karioke. Hostess clubs. And drinking. Lots and lots and lots of drinking. I don't know how many times I ended up giving customer presentations in Japan totally hung over. The good news is that most of the Japanese were hung over as well.

In karioke, Tsuruta had a velvet voice. He told me to learn one or two songs really, really well, and he took his own advice, allowing him to practice and perfect a handful of songs. I don't remember how many times I heard him sing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". He also did a great "Love Me Tender", a song I stole from him due to its simple lyrics and limited range.

Hostess clubs were another Japanese institution Tsuruta-san introduced me to. For those of you not familiar with them, they are small bars or karioke establishments that have young girls who chat with you, pour your drink, maybe do some light flirting. It is essentially a big ego booster for the local salary man. I found myself looking forward to these little outings, not only for the light flirting, but also to watch Tsuruta-san hook up with his next "girlfriend". He was very Japanese in this regard, having both a family life and an "evening life". And although it didn't fit with my own personal mores, I didn't judge him for it. It was who he was and how he lived his life, and he lived it large.

So with his heavy drinking, smoking and womanizing, I didn't think twice that he seemed to be looking more and more haggard over the past few years. But, hey, the guy partied and he was over 50! And when we did get together in the U.S. or Japan, we went out as usual, even if the evenings were a little more subdued.

We last saw each other just a couple of months ago in Japan, and had a nice evening out. We tried to get together during my last trip just a few weeks ago, but he told me over the phone that he was going in the next day to have "hip surgery". I assumed he fell or something and was too embarrassed to talk about it, so I didn't press it. I told him to get better and that we would go out when I was back in Tokyo in September. I actually had a business lead for him that he seemed pretty excited about, and we promised to speak again soon. He sent me a follow-up email a week ago Monday saying he was looking forward to seeing me in September.

That dinner will never happen. It turns out the "hip surgery" was for pancreatic cancer. He passed away this past Wednesday. I and everyone who knew him will miss him dearly.

Update: Rorscach also has written a tribute.

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