What It Takes to be a Japanese Salary Man

  • The quintessential salary man (サラリーマン) in Japan is a male white-collar worker or businessman who works for a large corporation or bureaucracy. He must have attended and graduated from an elite school, and is hence trained and brainwashed by default to suit working for “the greater good” instead of for oneself. He works 60-80-hour workweeks with unpaid overtime, drinks with and entertains clients, all on repeat. This to me seems like collectivism putting on its best show. This term was first coined in 1930s, and is still commonly used in more contemporary contexts. The issues of salary men have garnered much attention from the global media, especially after insights by the vlogger Stu in Tokyo, a salary man working in the financial industry.

    1. Business protocol

    Also known as shachiku 社畜 or “company livestock/slaves”, these salary men observe business manners round the clock. They are always decked out in sharp but conservative suits, and hand out name cards in a perfectly orchestrated 45-degree bow. Their heightened awareness of hierarchy fosters an environment of fear and abuse from authority in the workplace. They never say “no” to anything, and are the epitome of loyal employees who joined immediately after graduation and stay till retirement. The firm is their life, and their co-workers are their family. That said, they often have no negotiating power because no other company would want them seeing as they were “tainted by the training from their previous company”. The culture is very different from the western world where competency and meritocracy take precedence and switching jobs is not seen as a disgrace or expulsion from the previous company. These salary men hence ruthlessly fight to get into senior management while in the meantime avoiding becoming the madogiwa (窓際), the redundant worker exiled to the window seat.

    2. Unpaid overtime

    Salary men are expected to come to the office early, and work until the last train every day. They are given paid vacation days but do not utilize them out of “choice”, even after repetitive grueling 60-80 hour workweeks. Rain or shine, sick or injured, they come to the office nonetheless. Japanese households in the past deemed a man to have an important role in the office if he came home late or appeared to be very busy. This lends an image of a more useful and responsible father or husband figure. Hence, when salary men are not already entertaining clients’ needs in hostess bars or other venues of (usually slightly sexualized) leisure, they turn to having drinking sessions or nomikai (飲み会), at Japanese bars known as izakaya (居酒屋).

    3. Drinking sessions or “Nomikai”

    During a nomikai, everyone drinks till they go berserk. Nomihoudai (飲み放題) or all-you-can-drink plans are very popular. Even so, hierarchical rules still apply and the juniors are obliged to ensure that the seniors’ glasses are always filled. Very quickly though, all sense of propriety is lost and the Japanese become the total opposite of their normally quiet, poker-faced selves. Rowdy and inappropriate, this is the witching hour for their inner demons to be unleashed. Sexual topics are unabashedly set out on the table, and harassment is also not uncommon. It is customary to see groups of salary men huddled in a drunken stupor on the street, concluding the nomikai with one or three-ended (ippon-jime 一本締め or sanbon-jime 三本締め) claps. After which, they may go for an after-party known as nijikai (二次会), where more drinking ensues. You may also have seen drunken salary men sleeping on the streets or at train stations.

    4. A Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ending

    Even though there are some salary men who manage to emerge victorious from the rat race and retire with honor and dignity (and a family), there are others who are not able to handle the stress and wanted out. To some, the only way to get out without being socially disgraced was to commit suicide. Every so often, train lines are delayed due to people, assumedly salary men most of the time, jumping on the tracks. Another unprecedented ending is karoushi, or “death from overworking”. All of these for a small salary, it is no wonder that they get worn down to the bone. This trend seems to be gaining traction with Wall Streeters and Canary Wharfers in light of recent reports about collapses or deaths of interns and junior analysts in the infamous financial industry rat race. On a lighter note, some salary men’s careers may be suspended or come to a standstill after being forced to perform hansei (反省) because they made a big mistake. Hansei means to reflect, and in this time they are forced to take a hiatus of a few years or any period that is acceptable based on the mistake.

    In response to these phenomena, the Japanese government has set laws to clamp down on such cases of “public embarrassment” by setting a cap on working hours. But the consensus from the population is that this is not enough, and they demand paid overtime, and counseling, amongst other labor rights. Do you think you have what it takes to be a salary man in Japan?