TOKYO -- He is hailed here as an "industrial warrior," the driving force behind Japan's economic success. He is also ridiculed in cartoons and commercials as a wimp who lives in terror of the boss' glower and chews antacids by the case.
He is as much a part of the Japanese cityscape as neon and sushi bars. He is found in dark suit, imported necktie, short hair parted on the left. No beards or moustaches. Accessories are standard, too -- pocket calculator, leather briefcase, commuting pass, business cards, pornographic comic book for long subway rides.
Most of all, he is mass-produced. The "salaryman," as the male white-collar worker is called in Japan, is what most of the 280,000 young men who graduate from universities each year quickly become.
The good salaryman devotes himself body and soul to the company. If the company thrives, so will he. He loves his wife and children, but in a pinch he can be counted on to put the office first.
In few countries do such stereotypes hit so close to the truth. The Japanese joke endlessly about the salaryman, but not much is happening to replace him as an important bearer of the national standard. Some commentators predict that the new generation of young people, more devoted, it is said, to family and self-expression, will undermine the salaryman lifestyle. But for now, a good job at a good company is what the average young man aspires to and the salaryman lifestyle generally goes with that territory.
What follows is a day in the life of a prototypical salaryman, a portrait based on interviews, observations and reading over a three-year period of reporting in Japan. Salaryman represents no specific person and his company is no specific company. But when the Japanese think about a salaryman, someone like him comes to mind automatically, perhaps the guy living next door.
We join Salaryman as he rises from bed in the cramped master bedroom of his house, a thin-walled, heavily mortgaged affair deep in Tokyo's teeming suburban expanses . . . .
Salaryman's wife of 12 years has already been up more than an hour and gotten the two children off to school. Our man was too late getting home the previous night to see them. On Sunday, he is planning to take his wife and children to an amusement park a half hour's drive from the house -- it's been a while since the family had a decent outing together.
After a wash, shave and quick dressing, Salaryman lights the first "Mild Seven" of the day, the brand that he and a third of all Japanese smokers favor. He wanders down the narrow stairs to the breakfast table, where his wife has laid out eggs, thick toast and coffee. He digs in and they talk about the new car they are planning to buy. "You're still against the Crown?" Salaryman asks. His wife doesn't answer. The Crown is a type of Toyota that she feels is not only too expensive but too flashy for someone of his rank at the company.
Salaryman opens his newspaper and sees another article about skyrocketing land prices. Good thing we bought when we did, he thinks. We could never afford this house now.
His wife drives him 10 minutes to the train station, where he slips into a throng of other salarymen embarking on the 70-minute journey to central Tokyo, site of the company where he has been employed since he graduated from college 15 years ago. The train that stops before Salaryman is packed, as it always is.
He pushes his way in and, after staking out a strap, pulls from a pocket a book on computer science. Salaryman is 37, a shade too old to have grown up with computers. He is now determined to catch up and stop feeling the fool on this subject around the youngsters at the office. Thirty minutes later, a seat opens up and he drops into it. He is soon dozing, the book forgotten.
There are two kinds of salarymen, the elite and the run-of-the-mill. Salaryman counts himself among the former, the men heading for the top. But he is starting to slip. When he should be at home boning up on some new commercial skill or at a special night course, he is more likely to be out drinking with office buddies.
At 9:10, he steps into his real home, the sales division, on the 11th floor of the glass-skinned headquarters of his company. There are 40 cluttered desks in this room, and no partitions. Salaryman's is at the head of a bank of eight desks pushed head-to-head with four on each side. It is his little empire within the company. He fires up another Mild Seven and gets down to work.
There is no privacy in a Japanese office. Every phone call, every coffee break, is communal knowledge. A certain amount of slacking-off is permissible, but everyone does his or her best to look busy. No one, after all, wants a reputation for letting the section down.
Salaryman has risen to the rank of kacho, or section manager. His job consists largely of analyzing sales data sent up from field offices and processed by his own subordinates before being passed his way. This morning, he must assemble material for a contract the company is after. Finishing right on time, he runs into a 10:30 meeting.
The meeting lasts more than an hour and helps members inch toward a strategy for grabbing the sale. "Let's give our all to this contract," the dour-faced department manager tells the group as it breaks up after an hour. Perhaps the Sunday outing with the family could be squeezed into the morning, leaving the afternoon for the office.
Salaryman is 10 years younger than his manager and part of his batsu, or faction. The manager has done well, rising ahead of his due according to seniority. He has carried Salaryman along with him much of the way since Salaryman first worked for him in a provincial branch of the company years ago. Salaryman defers to his manager in the elevator, seeks advice on personal problems, and even volunteered for some heavy lifting one weekend when the manager was moving house. It meant cancelling the baseball game with his son, but what could he do?
Lunch today is noodles, grabbed in a shop in the building's basement. Salaryman eats with a fellow member of his "class" at the company, the group of 140 young men who were ceremonially inducted into its ranks 15 years before, singing for the first time the company song. Salaryman, like most of his type, can never converse with a co-worker without marking unconciously whether he is ahead or behind in seniority.
With this colleague, though, things are more relaxed. The two men have become fast friends. Over the noodles, they talk of their passion, golf. Neither has the money, or the time, to join a golf club. But both have bought complete sets of clubs and imported clothes and shoes. At lunch, Salaryman sometimes manages to stop at a driving range on the roof of a building near his company, where under a pro's direction he whacks balls into a net eight yards away. His own clubs are used maybe one weekend a month on a larger range near his house, where the ball can actually fly 80 yards before being arrested by the net.
Soon talk turns to his colleague's interest in leaving his job in procurement for one in Salaryman's department. There is an opening, but it wouldn't do to apply for the job outright. He might not get it, after all, and the shame would be public. And the manager might be put off by a man who places his personal preferences ahead of what the company needs.
Salaryman promises to help, but his mind right now is more on his own future. Few people ever reach the rank of department manager and Salaryman is beginning to have doubts about his own chances. Salaryman knows of others from his class who are already assistant department managers, the next rung on the ladder. Salaryman thinks he will make assistant department manager but after that, who knows? He may hold steady at that grade until his mid-50s and then be farmed out as a senior executive to one of the smaller of the company's many subsidiaries.
Neither Salaryman or his friend would consider doing what one classmate did. This man quit the company two years ago to set up his own consulting business. He has prospered, but in Salaryman's mind lacks the most satisfying element of professional life, membership in a large and respected organization.
Waiting for the elevator, Salaryman decides to sprint up the stairs instead. By the third floor, he is breathless and cursing. Last year, he actually bought a membership in a sports center near the office, then used it only twice, wasting a wad of money. But how could he exercise when his colleagues remained behind to work?
Back at his desk, Salaryman groans. A new batch of sales orders has appeared during lunch to be analyzed. Ganbatte (Fight!), he thinks to himself, and hunkers down. Work is interrupted at 4 for another meeting, to which he has nothing to contribute but which he must attend to appear part of the team. It ends at just before 6.
By now most of the secretaries and tea-pouring women have gone home. By 7, Salaryman has finished his compiling. But he does not leave -- in fact, the thought never occurs to him. None of the other men has. Besides, he has been included in a 7:30 dinner at a nearby restaurant, where the department is entertaining some people from the buying department of a client company.
There business cards are exchanged and the men, numbering four from each side, sit down in a private room. The restaurant is in a basement, but false paper windows and the gurgle of an artificial spring give the feeling of a feudal-era teahouse. Beer is poured, and on cue, everyone raises a glass and the dinner is officially underway.
It runs two hours, through course after course of raw fish and vegetables and rice. Women in kimonos glide in discreetly to fuss over the men, flirt a bit, and top off their beer glasses. Talk touches on the price of golf clubs, the fight for the Japan Central League Pennant, the weather. Everything, in fact, except the equipment sale that has brought them together.
They get up to leave. With drinks, the bill comes to about $1,600, which the restaurant will add to the company's tab and forward at the end of the month. Salaryman's manager is pleased with how the dinner has gone. "They seemed really to enjoy your story about the ski trip," he whispers as they walk out. Now the manager is going on with two of the client company men's to a pricey hostess bar, where he intends to ask for "kind consideration when you make a certain decision."
Salaryman is now free to head for a get-together with office mates. He rolls in to the drinking spot they have decided on at about 10, two hours after things have got under way. Three other friends arrive from a parlor where they have been playing mahjong and the gathering gets a second wind. Soon people are yelling at Salaryman to sing. He struggles to his feet and stumbles through his standard number in such a situation, a teary ballad called "At the End of a Journey." One of these days I've got to get new material, he thinks as he drops back down, feeling a bit boozed. Another Mild Seven is lit, the 45th of the day.
As 11 p.m. rolls around, several friends are talking -- it is unclear how seriously -- about going to a sopurando (soapland), a type of bathhouse where young women suds up clients and offer sexual services. "Just call your wife and tell her the boss is making you work overnight," says one.
Salaryman has been to such places since his marriage. For a while, he had a thing going with a young woman from the audit department. But he broke it off when he felt she was making too many demands. Lately, he has lost interest in such diversions -- they're too expensive, he tells himself. "No thanks," Salaryman tells them, and steps outside to flag a taxi for the ride to the station.
As the train races into the suburbs, Salaryman pulls an adult comic book from his briefcase and for 30 minutes gets caught up in sex-laced detective and samurai dramas. After scanning a sports paper that someone has left behind (his baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, has won again, he notes with satisfaction) he dozes the rest of the way. By some near uncanny ability this and other nights, he rouses himself promptly as the train reaches his station.
After waiting 20 minutes for a cab, Salaryman rides toward his home. In the early days of his marriage, there was always a ride waiting for him -- his wife, whom he would telephone on the way from a transfer station. In the car, he would rest his eyes and listen halfway to her talk of the day's happenings, how their girl's piano lessons were going, how their son was still crazy over those robot models.
About two years ago, that began tapering off. Salaryman's wife developed interests of her own, got involved in pottery courses and became less willing to tailor her life to his. Now, if he telephones from a station, he is likely to wake her up and get little sympathy for the late-night shortage of taxis.
At home, he lets himself in the door, quietly. On the table his wife has left ochazuke, a rice, pickle and fish concoction over which hot tea is poured. With the remote control, Salaryman zaps on the color TV, keeping it at its lowest volume. He takes in a late-night talk show while slurping down the final food of the day. Ten minutes later, after opening his children's door for a sentimental gaze at them as they sleep, he scrubs himself down and eases into a hot bath.
Sunday, Sunday, he thinks. If we're back here by 1, I could be on the train by 1:30. The job shouldn't take so long. I know it by heart.
John Burgess has just completed a three-year tour as Northeast Asia correspondent for The Washington Post.