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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)

Those numbers, which have been echoed in similar surveys here, come as no surprise to Yoshitani.

"I think a lot of people feel it is uncool to be gutsy at work," he said. "You want to do a good job . . . but you don't want to take it a step further."

Young office workers can easily see the folly of working too hard and measure its soul-crushing consequences, he said. They need only look at their parents and others in the postwar generation who sacrificed their personal lives to build Japan into the world's second-largest economy.

"Those generations older than us have no friends, and they have no hobbies," he said. "But we have found out that there are other ways to live."

That other way is the path taken by the "hodo-hodo zoku" -- the "so-so tribe" of youngish office workers who avoid stress, turn down promotions and regard ambition as a kind of cancer. Being so-so is plenty good enough for them.

The apparent proliferation of such slackers in the workplace -- a phenomenon that is sufficiently threatening to the Japanese economy to have warranted front-page coverage in the Wall Street Journal -- guarantees a growing readership for Yoshitani's books.

"There are more and more people who want to do things hodo-hodo," he said. "I actually don't know anyone who wants to be promoted."

Nor does he know many young people with the gumption to marry and raise children. "If you get married, you probably will have to . . . accept a promotion at work to take care of your children."

Yoshitani's anecdotal impressions are supported by government statistics. The percentage of Japanese women who remain single into their 30s has more than doubled since 1980. Demographers say postponement of marriage is the primary reason for Japan's plunging birthrate and for a slow-motion population implosion that by 2050 will have cut the country's current workforce by 70 percent.

Yoshitani's comic-book series is called "Otaryman." The title joins "salaryman," the internationally known word for a loyal, hardworking company employee, with "otaku," a word often used to describe a socially inept young man obsessed with comics, computers or anime.

An otaryman, then, is an oxymoron of the office. His head and his heart are usually elsewhere. He is surrounded by fellow office workers but can't figure out what to say to them. He stays late at work not because he really wants to, but because everyone else does.

Yoshitani concedes he is that otaryman.

"We systems engineers often say to each other that even people held in slavery can go home and have dinner with their families," he said. "We cannot."

Yoshitani can go home, of course. He can quit whenever he wants. He does not have a wife or kids to worry about. Sales of his work are accelerating. He is well on his way to becoming rich and famous.

Quitting, though, would cut him off from the indignities, social failures and drudgery that inspire his art.

Besides, he says, "I genuinely like my job."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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