Recently I received some correspondence asking for my insights into Japanese culture, in particular the concept of “salaryman” (サラリーマン). Although my response may seem harsh, possibly exaggerated, the grain of truth runs deep. I’ve had to slightly edit my original response, but much of it remains intact. I may have been in a slightly jaded mood the day I wrote this. But what else are blogs for? It might touch a nerve with some people. But regardless, it is my opinion that Japanese attitudes towards work-life balance and gender roles need to be addressed, in a dramatic way, if the country wants to navigate the next 50 years successfully.
I framed my response in the style of a university lecturer.
Thank you for your enrollment in DMH University’s MA in East Asian Studies. We look forward to your participation in the course modules. You have chosen to begin your studies with our Modern Japan module (J301 and C433 respectively). Taught by Dr. DMH himself, we believe you’ll find his style casual as well as engaging.
Lecture 1 – Salaryman
Where to begin with those “things”. Yep, “things”, because I am not really sure they are human. Can’t put them in the same category as WOBs(Waste of Bloods) because not really sure they have (B)lood at all. They are basically nonpersons to me. They are one of the primary reasons certain aspects of this nation suck. Actually, if they could all be gathered on to an enormous metaphorical bus and then driven off another metaphorical cliff into the ocean I would be extremely content – like Buddha under the Bodhi Tree.
Here is the run down of a salaryman’s daily life. This is not a generalization, every single one of them follows this daily pattern to a T. There are no round pegs in square holes. And I would reckon that 90% of the working male population classifies themselves as “salaryman”:
1) Wake up at a reasonably early hour (6:00-7:30 AM). Eat a meticulously prepared breakfast of rice, miso soup, and some kind of foul fermented soybeans, washed down with green tea – all which he assumes will be ready for him, prepared by his wife and/or mother he still lives with (especially if he is not married, but there is a good likelihood that he lives with mother if he is that most honored of all children – the first born male). Put on a well ironed black suit with black or dark nondescript necktie and jacket, regardless of scorching hot temperatures in the summer – rarely does the salaryman break a sweat because of his inter-dimensional lizard skin.
2) Either drive or commute via public transport a long enough distance to be sufficiently exhausted upon arriving at the office, 1 hour minimum (2 and a half hours in most cases – one way!) This is what the salaryman refers to as “free time”.
3) Arrive at office and bow profusely to everyone, deeper bows to senior staff, and shout with over machismo “Ohayou Gozaimasu!”. The enthusiasm in which they say this phrase is remarked upon in hushed corners later in the day and is the primary characteristic used to evaluate potential mates for the office ladies to marry.
4) 8:30 to lunch – work dutifully at very non-private desk, robot like, not once discussing anything other than work related topics with anyone around you.
5) Lunch – either prepared by wife/mother in a “obento” box (that is arranged with so much care and precision that one has to question the sanity of the women who made it) or eaten at restaurant with co-workers (other co-workers at this time tell “crazy” stories of their day at their non-private desk)
6) After lunch – until 6:00 PM (refer to # 4)
7) 6:00 – (undetermined) – The salaryman absolutely does not think of returning home at this time – some often commit seppuku, ritual disembowelment, at their desks when such thoughts do occur. Work continues as before, even if there is no work to do.(in such cases it is acceptable to stare at computer screen for several hours) Salarymen are only permitted to leave when boss leaves or is given very special permission to leave by boss. At that point the salaryman then shouts “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu!” while deeply bowing. This translates as “I am sorry to disgrace myself, leaving in shame at this early hour, my family and deceased elders shall disown me should I gather the courage to face them again!” Others remaining in the office then shout “Otsukaresama deshita” meaning, “You are not forgiven!”
8) The work day does not end at this time, for 60-90% of days the salaryman must go with co-workers and boss to izakaya – a place to eat and drink and let one’s guard down for the remaining hours of the day. While drinking at izakaya – salarymen get very personal and reveal their true self. Salary men might make bold claims like “I like beer” and “I enjoy working at this company very much!” Such wild discussions will remain confidential and will never be referred to within the office.
9) 11:00 PM – 2:00 AM Salaryman returns home. Quickly washes up and and goes to bed in separate room from wife – in order to not have sexual intercourse.
10) Next morning – REPEAT #1 – #9
On the rare day off many salaryman can be seen overcompensating for lost time with their children and wife. They behave with gusto in public parks and shopping malls – ensuring that onlookers see that he is a great father and wonderful provider for his family.
It is important to note that “salaryman” is not some abstract sociological concept only discussed by social anthropologists. In fact, I have met many men who refer to their occupation as “salaryman” as well as many children who refer to their father as a “salaryman”. It is also considered a great goal in life to become a “salaryman”. When students write essays about their future job many declare “I want to be salaryman.”
As stated before it is my humble opinion that Japan would be a far greater nation should the “salaryman” be completely eradicated. That being said, the situation is far more complicated. More “salaryman” are being created daily by a monolithic education system hellbent on churning out faceless, necktie wearing, soulless robo-office workers. So to truly address the “salaryman” problem one has to dismantle the Japanese education system – the focus of our next lecture.