Japanese Artist Chronicles Young, Ambitionless Office Workers in Comic Books

Makoto Yoshitani's pop art is part Dilbert, part Kafka, part symbolic self-immolation.
Makoto Yoshitani's pop art is part Dilbert, part Kafka, part symbolic self-immolation. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 21, 2008

TOKYO -- The American poet Theodore Roethke called it "the inexorable sadness of pencils." It's the desolation of time lost and dreams forsaken while sitting in an office.

Japanese office workers know that sadness in their bones. Millions of them linger dutifully at their desks until well past 10 p.m.

Now they have their own poet.

He is Makoto Yoshitani, a 30-year-old systems engineer who himself lingers late into the evening in an office in Tokyo, where he customizes accounting software for corporate clients.

Sometime after 10 p.m., Yoshitani goes home, stays up late with pen and ink and transforms office indignities into dolorous pop art that is part Dilbert, part Kafka, part symbolic self-immolation.

In a hugely successful series of comic books -- more than 850,000 copies have been sold -- Yoshitani chronicles the existence of an office-bound young man who has zero social skills and is infected with an especially virulent strain of inexorable sadness.

In one episode, he attends a meeting. His boss is there, bloviating. The young man cannot stop fiddling with his pen. He unscrews it and, to his horror, the top pops off, striking his boss in the cheek.

"I . . . I am sorr . . . ," the young man stutters.

The boss gives him a quick glance but continues talking as if nothing has happened, as if the young man does not exist.

Sitting there silently and hopelessly, the young man thinks, "Please, please, say something."

In a global survey last year, Japanese workers were far and away the least inclined to show initiative at work.

The consulting firm Towers Perrin surveyed nearly 90,000 workers in 18 countries and found that just 3 percent of those contacted in Japan were willing to do extra work to add value to their companies. The global average was 21 percent, while 29 percent of Americans claimed that they demonstrate initiative at work.

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