Japan’s salarymen ― sad, fat punching-bags, foot soldiers of Japan Inc

Japan’s salaryman worked hard during the week ― he was expected to be in the office early and to socialise in the evening. — Reuters pic
Japan’s salaryman worked hard during the week ― he was expected to be in the office early and to socialise in the evening. — Reuters pic

TOKYO, Oct 9 ― In a Tokyo karaoke booth thick with cigarette smoke, Shinsuke Chiba's eyes bulge as the 41-year-old rips into an enthusiastic, if somewhat misjudged, rendition of the Sex Pistols' “Anarchy in the UK”.

Jacket folded neatly on his briefcase and necktie loosened only slightly, insurance broker Chiba is no Johnny Rotten, but earns hearty applause from his workmates nonetheless, before passing the microphone with a bow and raising his beer glass with a drunken leer.

“I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid,” father-of-two Chiba told AFP. “My dad told me to stop being silly. He worked for (Japanese computer giant) Fujitsu for 40 years and wanted me to work for Fujitsu too.

“But I failed the exam,” he added over the din as a colleague belted out a Japanese folk song. “I've been in insurance for 13 years. It is getting tougher with the economy the way it is.”

Chiba's party of five fit the stereotype of the “salaryman” to a tee, guzzling beers and smoking at a furious pace as the clock ticked towards the last train on a rainy Thursday night.

Japan's identikit corporate samurai are cultural shorthand for the world of work, an army of back office grafters that swelled as the country's post-war economic miracle took shape.

They squeeze daily onto famously crammed rush-hour trains to work lengthy shifts at the office ― 12 hours or more is relatively common ― not daring to leave before their managers.

In the evenings they might be boozing with clients or summoned to practically compulsory company drinks, where much of the corporate bonding goes on.

Figures of mirth

Unsteadily, many rush later that night onto the last train, desperate to avoid the exorbitant cost of a long-distance taxi ride home.

Most struggle manfully to stay awake, fearful of missing their stop, but the sight of those who gave in ― snoring, dribbling and with their suits askew ― is not uncommon.

“The salaryman is Japan's favourite figure of mirth,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. “They're the sad, fat punching-bag, but in some ways they're admired. They are the foot soldiers of Japan Inc.”

The one-time paragon of modern Japan came of age in the booming 1980s.

Back then, men graduating from a half-decent university could be almost certain of finding a good job. They would trade a lifetime of loyalty for a solid career path where promotions and pay rises came with time served.

The salaryman worked hard during the week ― he was expected to be in the office early and to socialise in the evening. At weekends he would play golf, often as a way to keep up professional relationships.

On the one day a week he was not in hoc to his company, he would sleep.

The hardships were many ― men often barely saw their children ― but the guarantee of a job for life with a company that would always look out for you made the trade worthwhile.

But then the bubble burst and Japan's economy floundered. Hiring programmes were trimmed. Salaries were frozen, but the overtime stacked up as firms tried to get more bang for their buck.

More than two decades on, lifetime contracts are the exception.

Nowadays, even some graduates from top universities struggle to find a full time, permanent job; instead, they do the same job as their tenured colleagues, but with little security and lower wages.

Social contract

However, says Kingston, it's a two-way street, and for some younger Japanese the toll exacted on their fathers and grandfathers is giving them pause for thought.

“They are much more zealous about guarding their private life and not allowing the job to take over,” he said.

“Corporate Japan has broken the social contract. Why make all the sacrifice if it's not going to be reciprocated?”

And the sacrifices for the hard-slogging salaryman can be big.

Japan's labour ministry keep statistics on the number of lives claimed by “karoshi” ― death from overwork ― every year.

“There is clearly a correlation between overwork and depression, and alcoholism and depression,” said Kingston. “Society was long in denial about these problems.”

“All that has changed in the last decade or so. People are recognising that untreated mental health issues are a major factor in the high suicide rate.”

There are more than 21 suicides per 100,000 people in Japan, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), against a group-wide average of less than 13.

“Today's salarymen are wondering perhaps if they've become the lost tribe ― the tribe facing extinction with job security under siege,” said Kingston.

“They're the ones who aren't being paid overtime, their incomes are declining, their lifestyle has been downsized.”

The hard-drinking and long-hours culture among salarymen is cited as one of the reasons Japan has relatively few women in the workforce.

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to boost their number, critics say no amount of legislation will make a difference if mothers cannot get home to their children because they are expected to stay late at the office.

Clambering noisily into a tiny elevator, Chiba's pickled revellers decide to have one for the road.

“Drinking helps us relax,” chuckled 54-year-old bank employee Kiyoshi Hamada, sporting the classic “barcode” comb-over of thinning hair, and nibbling on chicken gizzards at a traditional izakaya restaurant.

“It's always been hard work, but it's even more of a slog now. Putting work before family is strangely Japanese maybe.” ― AFP

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