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SPECIAL
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006


REPORT ON JAPAN: SALARYMEN

The corporate warrior beats a retreat

They work dawn till dusk and rarely take vacations. But their days are numbered

Special to The Globe and Mail

TOKYO -- Midnight is fast approaching and it's soon going to be Wednesday, but Kenji isn't worried about the time. He flicks the tip from his Mild Seven cigarette into the ashtray, orders another vodka and tonic from the barman and continues to discuss the prospects for his beloved Yomiuri Giants in this year's baseball season.

Kenji is a Japanese salaryman. He looks a little pained when asked if he is one, but either out of his innate Japanese sense of politeness or because he hasn't got a better description, he concurs.

His résumé ticks all the relevant salaryman boxes. Like his drinking buddies huddled around the cozy bar, Kenji is a middle-ranking manager in the accounts department of the Sumitomo Corp., a gigantic trading company with interests in everything from chemicals and transportation to media, real estate and consumer products. Now in his mid-40s, Kenji has never worked anywhere else and he proudly writes "22" on a beer mat -- the number of years he's spent with Sumitomo.

Outside the bar in Tokyo's Kabukicho entertainment district, the streets are packed with hundreds of Kenjis, clad in plain dark suits and white shirts, chattering loudly to themselves and their cellphones while spiky-haired touts try to lure them into clubs, bars and agencies with names like Love Shack that advertise "happy fresh love time" offered by beaming young women whose photos beam from the walls.

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If viewed only from Kabukicho's neon-illuminated vistas, Japan's salarymen are in vigorous and rude health.

However, the sober, morning-after reality doesn't offer such certainties. Based on the available economic and social evidence, the worker ants who built Japan Inc. to the peak of its economic power during the bubble economy of the 1980s are having to face an extended morning-after that started when the economy crashed in 1990.

When the Japanese dared to dream their economy could become the largest in the world, the salaryman was a corporate warrior. His Stakhanovite toiling underpinned the country's prosperity, and the word karoshi (death by overwork) entered the popular lexicon.

The salaryman embodied a culture founded on hard graft and long hours, where workers apologized for not being the last in the office with the words: "Osaki ni shitsuree-shimasu." Translation: "I'm sorry that I am going before you."

In return, Japanese companies offered jobs for life and promotion based on seniority rather than merit. Even now, 80 per cent of Japanese men enjoy seisha-in or full-time permanent status, compared to 50 per cent of women, according to the National Union of General Workers.

Since the bubble economy burst, a job for life in the manufacturing and export sectors is seen less as an opportunity to achieve a secure future and more as an admission that you are willing to be an underachieving drudge. Being a salaryman just isn't dasai (cool) any more.

The salaryman who selflessly never took his entire vacation year after year for the sake of the company, and indeed the nation, is being replaced by others who are determined to gorge themselves on the fruits of their labours.

The parasaito shinguru (parasite single) office workers who live with their parents and enjoy have a large expendable income, are one of the primary reasons why more than 90 per cent of Tokyo residents in their 20s own at least one item made by Louis Vuitton. Birth rates have fallen steadily in Japan in the past decade, partly because a significant proportion of the salaryman's female counterpart, the "office lady," are refusing to get married and have children, preferring the freedom to spend their income on holidays, meals out and designer goods.

Younger Japanese find their heroes now among such people as baseball marvel Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, 22, who last year set the record for most hits in a season, and Takafumi Horie, the 32-year-old maverick president of Internet portal Livedoor, whose audacious bid to take over one of Japan's giant media companies, Fuji TV, has convulsed the country.

To their wives and children, salarymen can often be shadowy figures, glimpsed between getting up and leaving for work by 7 a.m., and when they return home at 10 p.m., possibly drunk, probably exhausted and interested in little else but sleep. Kenji's needs are simple on the weekends: a session at the local golf driving range and tickets to the baseball game, neither of which are in the company of his wife and two daughters.

This year, male local government officials in Ota-shi in Gunma prefecture were ordered to take six weeks paternity leave at full pay after their wives give birth. The allowance had been in place for 10 years, but no one had ever applied for it.

When a salaryman retires, he may start to learn how distanced he has become from his family. Many Japanese women refer to their pensioner husbands as sodai gomi (oversized junk with no practical use) or nure ochiba (wet leaves clinging to their feet). With this background, it's hardly surprising to note that Japan's suicide rate is close to 40,000 a year and that men in their 40s and 50s make up 40 per cent of the total.

Japan's salarymen fear they may not even have to wait until they retire before they become surplus. Although a revolt by members of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's ruling party in mid-March means the planned easing of foreign investment will be delayed until 2007 at the earliest, many Japanese fear that gaijin (foreign) work practices are ready to scythe through the numbers of salarymen.

In early March, when Sir Howard Stringer was named the first westerner to be chairman of the iconic Sony brand, many Japanese commentators noted with awe -- and fear -- how he slashed 9,000 jobs in the U.S. operations. In the eyes of the salaryman, foreign investment means "restructuring" -- job losses, to put it plainly - and the end of cozy social contract between himself and his employer.

Japan remains the second largest economy in the world after the United States, but the warrior caste of salarymen that drove the country forward for two generations after 1945 may have an ever-diminishing role in the new century.



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