Home on the Montana range -- far from home for Tokyo tenderfoots Japanese managers learn cowboy ropes


DILLON, Montana -- At the Sage Creek cow camp way up in the hills, Travis Edminston rises from an easy chair in a log cabin that smells of wood smoke and bacon grease. He puts down his Louis L'Amour paperback and announces in a cowboy drawl, "We're going into town for a haircut and some grub."

They really talk like that out on the range of the Lazy Eight Ranch. They sleep in the bunkhouse, saddle up before the sun, then round up the dogies to rope 'em and brand 'em.

Hardly the place you'd expect to find a couple of Japanese sales managers.

How to explain, then, the presence of Hidehisa Mori and Osamu Kurihara. You can call them Harry and Sam, 'cause everybody else here does.

They've come to this huge Japanese-owned ranch as part of a plan by Zenchiku Ltd. to make lots of money while producing an ultra-tender grade of marbled beef for their pickiest customers back home.

To Zenchiku executives and to American rancher John W. Morse Jr., who runs the Lazy Eight, Harry and Sam are part of an exchange program that will bridge the cultural gap between two distinct ways of doing business.

But if Wild West pulp master L'Amour had ever gotten hold of this tale he might have called it, "The Trail of the Tokyo Tenderfoots."

Consider what has become of Harry.

Nearly two years ago he was Mr. Mori, harried young man in a dark suit, white shirt and black shoes, wedging his way onto the suffocating Tokyo commuter trains for daily two-hour, stand-up rides to his sales job with Zenchiku. There was lots of bowing and scraping to the bosses, who he could never call by their first names. Lots of remembering to walk behind them and carry their briefcases. Lots of pushing and shoving to get around among the millions of people in a city only about twice the land area of the Lazy Eight.

Now, after 13 months as a cowboy and half a year in the ranch office, he is just Harry, age 30, the nice guy in blue jeans and sneakers who calls the boss John and goes fly-fishing every evening. He has three pairs of cowboy boots and fond memories of his recent cowboy life, even though the soreness of long hours in the saddle sometimes left him crying in his bunkhouse bed. And even though sometimes the dogies never wanted to do what he told them, no matter how loudly he shouted "Yee-Ha," or how furiously he waved his cowboy hat in the air.

Meanwhile, Sam, another 30-year-old Zenchiku sales manager, is still out on the range, having arrived only five months ago. He has passed the stage of saddle soreness, he says, pointing to the inside of his thighs.

But he acknowledges he still has a lot to learn.

"In some parts I am like cowboy but in some parts I still have Japanese spirit -- city boy," he says, laughing.

He is also not yet as fluent in English as Harry, but that might be expected from someone spending time on the range, where grunts, curses and cowboy idioms dominate conversation.

Sam also has a ways to go before becoming as immersed in American popular culture as Harry.

Last year Harry was swept up in enthusiasm for sky diving, though one jump proved to be enough. Now the passion is fly-fishing. This winter he hopes to buy a nice rifle and go elk hunting.

"This is kind of a long vacation for me," Harry says, looking off to the hills. "We are city slicker in Japan."

Indeed, there's little chance he'll hop on horseback once he's back home. Joining a riding club costs about $40,000, he says, shaking his head.

"I don't want to go back to Japan," he concludes.

The ranch is an easy place to fall in love with. Besides the clean air, clear rivers and majestic scenery, there is wildlife everywhere.

While Harry crossed the ranch on a recent afternoon, he passed a heron, a golden eagle, a half-dozen deer, two foxes and a hawk lumbering up from the side of the road clutching a ground squirrel in its talons. A family of beavers lives just upstream from the Sage Creek cow camp.

But unless he wants to quit his job and starve out in Dillon, he knows he'll go back to Japan in March.

He also has the ranch's larger mission to worry about -- producing top-notch beef.

Though the Lazy Eight is already coming up with meat far more marbled and tender than anything offered on the American market, Mr. Morse says ("If you put the fat in the palm of your hand it will melt like butter melts"), the ranch is still working to find the combination of breeding, feeding and environment that will unlock the door to consistently high quality.

If they succeed, it will have been more than worth the time and expense.

Though the Japanese eat only small amounts of steak, usually after it's been sliced into stir-fry strips easily handled by *T chopsticks, they're willing to pay $50 a pound and more for the best.

In the meantime, Mr. Morse is learning more about Japanese ways of doing business, while Zenchiku learns more about the ways of the American ranch.

That's where the trainees such as Harry and Sam come in. They're the second pair to arrive since Zenchiku bought the ranch in 1988, and Mr. Morse says the relationship is bridging the gap of understanding.

But the trainees invariably arrive more eager to learn cowboy ways than the management ways of the ranch, and that makes Mr. Morse a little nervous for their safety.

With good reason, Harry says. "Cowboy job looks cool, looks sharp,but is very, very dangerous. . . . They taught me best way for safety, not best way for job."

Nor is the work easy. For starters, he got lost twice out on the 77,000-acre range.

Then there are those stubborn cows.

"Pushing cattle looks very easy, but it is hard," he said. "They always find the easiest way, which is to go down. We have to make them to not find the easiest way. But if one of them does, all others will follow."

The American cowboys aren't always easy companions, either.

"When I f up, they got ugly," he says, speaking like a true cowboy.

In times like those, only his horse was a comfort.

"The horse was a very good teacher for me. Very gentle and silent. They can speak English and cow language."

Only the horses with engines, such as Harry's Ford Bronco, seem to give the trainees fits.

One of Harry's predecessors racked up 28 flat tires during his tour of duty, earning the "golden lug wrench" award at his going-away party.

Harry is closing in on the record with 17, and says the reason is simple: "Japanese trainee drive too fast" -- too fast over all those sharp stones across the range.

Less than an hour after saying that, Harry jostles the Bronco up a rugged hill. He has punched in a music tape, and as a cowboy singer croons about cottonwoods, brood mares and frisky calves, Harry slows the truck and gets a sheepish look on his face.

"We have flat tire," he says.

Sure enough, air is hissing from the front right tire.

Down the hill, where a narrow stream meanders through a bright green field, a hundred head of white-faced cattle look up toward the truck, and some begin mooing. By the time the lug wrench is clanging against the wheel nuts almost all the cows have joined in, creating a chorus worthy of "Rawhide."

A few days later Mr. Morse discusses the recurring tire problem over the telephone with a reporter. "We had a little talk about it yesterday, and we're going to buy some higher quality tires," he says.

Thus bridging another cultural gap in the hills of the Lazy Eight Ranch.

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