What Is A "Salaryman"?

by Justin Sevakis,

Julian asks:

Although I don't know much about working options in Japan, I imagine there are tons of careers one can go into. Out of those, intricacies of work a salary man does interests me. In anime, there is so much pressure to get ahead in academics all in order to end up being an officer worker or salary man. I'm sure anime being fiction exaggerates it all, but I have to know....what exactly does a salary man do? Are there any benefits to it? They make it sound like a bland job, but what is the reality of it?

"Salaryman" (サラリーマン) is basically a catch-all term for a male Japanese white collar worker, one who works at a big bureaucratic corporation and usually can be seen wearing a black suit. They are ubiquitous in Japan, especially in major cities. Their work might be anything from financial planning to health care appliance sales -- it's basically any office job.

While one might think that every company and work arrangement is different, there's an astonishing amount of uniformity in the lives of salarymen across Japan. The prototypical life of a salaryman is that a company recruits you straight out of high school or college, and you can expect to stay at that country for your entire career, until you retire. You'll work long hours, be forced to go out drinking with the boss, and barely have time for your family. Life will be about currying favor with the higher-ups, working hard, and otherwise being a "team player."

Salarymen are an often-derided and ridiculed group, essentially because their ubiquity means that they symbolize Japan's corporate/work culture as a whole. Outsiders to Japanese corporate life are often baffled by why anyone would want such a hard life for themselves -- often referring to them with words like "shachiku" (corporate livestock). It's not too far off from how we refer to middle management employees as "pencil pushers" or "wage slaves." As people who write anime and draw manga for a living are usually outsiders, we often see these attitudes in the anime and manga we consume. Probably nobody satirized the salaryman better than Katsuhiro Otomo, whose feature film Roujin Z and segment of Neo-Tokyo ("The Order to Stop Construction") offer a searing indictment of corporate culture run amok.

For Westerners who work with Japan on a regular basis, the "sarariimaan" mentality is often a frustrating cultural barrier. Japanese corporate employees tend to be very rigid by Western standards -- they often concentrate on following the procedure laid out for them with exacting detail, rather than cutting unnecessary red tape or thinking about a "big picture" that doesn't have immediate application for their daily job. For example, a stereotypical salaryman would have a client fill out the same form 4 or 5 times rather than deal with a small typo. Amusingly, Japanese employees who work a lot with people in the West tend to be pretty apologetic about these small procedural frustrations (but are often helpless to do anything about them).

Corporate life in Japan often holds at least the promise of lifetime employment, as well as a number of fringe benefits, depending on the company. Some offer corporate dormitories for low level employees, an in-house doctor's office, re-imbursed business expenses, and/or a pension. Lifetime employment often means that employees who screw up are seldom shown the door -- they just get transferred to a new department (for better or worse).

But life is not easy for salarymen. The hard hours and long nights spent either working overtime or out drinking cause serious health problems, and working to death is a thing that happens with alarming frequency. When the bubble economy burst in the early 90s, many salarymen who were promised lifetime employment found themselves laid off, with no idea of how to get a new job for themselves. It's pretty common to see salarymen passed out on trains late at night, or vomiting in the streets after a night of drinking. Back in the 80s, when Japanese guys were obsessed with golf, a huge number of salarymen joined expensive country clubs and bought expensive golf clubs in the hopes of spending time with the bosses.

There are a few Westerners who manage to move to Japan and function in a Japanese corporation, but just as many end up feeling stifled and disheartened in that sort of work environment. It's not one that encourages "thinking outside the box" or any real expression of individuality. If you are raised to require those things -- and many of us are -- it's probably not a life that will appeal to us.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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