By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   November 15, 2018

I was eight when planes piloted (in my comic-books) by sinister-looking Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Even before then, “Made in Japan” reputedly meant “cheap and shoddy.” During the war, of course, Japanese were simply our diabolical enemies. And, thanks to war-movies like God Is My Co-Pilot, the image of evil Japanese pilots was strongly planted in my mind.

Not until 1958, when in my 20s, did I have any close contact with an actual Japanese person – and ironically, he was a pilot. Worse than that – he was my first flying instructor! Living in San Jose, California, I’d decided to learn to fly – and this man had somehow been assigned to teach me. Unfortunately, his English was poor. I really couldn’t understand him, and flying beside him, my life literally in his hands, I couldn’t help recalling all those nasty wartime images. It wasn’t the best learning environment, and I soon sought another instructor. 

Flash forward: Berkeley, the 1960s. At a yard sale, I purchase a used tape recorder. But the manual is missing. Regrettably, the machine is marked “Made in Japan,” and the dubious brand name of “Columbia” makes me suspect it’s a knock-off, and I’d be wasting my time trying to contact the manufacturers. Still, since an address is given, I risk an airmail stamp, and write, requesting a copy of the manual.

To my amazement, I soon receive back from Japan a polite reply, together with the requested manual, both in decent English. And the machine itself turns out to be quite satisfactory. 

From that time, my attitude toward Japanese products underwent a painful revision. I wasn’t alone with my mixed feelings. You may remember the scene in Dr. Strangelove, in which Peter Sellers (as a British Air Force officer) recalls being a prisoner of the Japanese, who seemed to enjoy torturing him. But he cannot help adding, “Strange thing is, they make such bloody good cameras.”

In all the following decades, I had no trouble with Japanese products – until I became attached to a particular type of ballpoint pen, and a serious quality problem emerged. The pens were great while they worked. But time and again, one would annoyingly stop working, even while clearly containing plenty of ink. 

Perhaps I should have been warned by the name of the Japanese manufacturer – would you believe it! – the PILOT Corporation!

However, recalling “Columbia,” I hoped a letter to the Pilot Company in Japan would quickly resolve the problem.

Their website said the Pilot Pen Company started in Tokyo as long ago as 1918 – but said nothing about submitting complaints. However, it gave the name of the C.E.O. The buck, I figured, must stop with him. So, I sent him one of the bad pens, with the following letter:

“Mr. Kiyoshi Takahashi, 
Pilot Corporation,
Tokyo 104-8304, Japan

Dear Mr. Takahashi,

I have great respect for the Pilot Corporation, and great liking for your Pilot Better Retractable Fine-point pens. But there is one problem: They keep drying up and refusing to write, even when there is still plenty of ink in the pen! The enclosed example is only the latest of many (at least five) which I have had to throw away because of this problem. Is there something I am doing wrong? Is there any way to start the ink flowing again? I would very much appreciate your help.”

But the world has changed since I last looked! When six weeks later a reply finally came, it wasn’t from Japan – but from an entity called the “Pilot Corporation of America,” in Trumbull, Connecticut! Their “Consumer Advisor” told me that my letter to the “parent company” had been referred to her. (Imagine that! American companies now had parent companies in Japan! So, that’s what all the talk of “multinationals” and “globalization” is about! Still, if defective pens must be produced, at least part of the job is now being given to workers in my own country!)

Enclosed were two new pens – but nothing concerning the substance of my complaint – just a statement of “regret” at my “inconvenience.” 

This was disappointing. But what was I expecting? A frank acknowledgement of some embarrassing production failure? A humiliating apology? Mr. Takahashi, with my letter and returned pen in one hand, committing hara-kiri with the other? 

If you feel I’m not showing here all the respect professed in my letter, remember: mine is the generation of “God Is My Co-Pilot,” – not “Pilot Co. is My God.”  


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