The ‘JTB-Man’ In October 2007 I was at Narita Airport in Tokyo, at the end of a trip to Japan. Needing to buy a magazine, I stopped by the magazine stand near the departure gate. In addition to regular magazines, newspapers, and daily necessities, the shop also had on offer a range of touristy souvenirs. Along with the expected Hello Kitty mobile phone straps and inexpensive lacquer chopsticks-type kitsch was a selection of pocket-sized illustrated guidebooks published by the national tourism authority, the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB). Judging from the titles, these guides seemed designed to ‘explain’ Japan to first-time visitors – hence such titles as Festivals of Japan, Eating in Japan, and Living Japanese Style. Given the publisher and the series they were being published under, these publications were not particularly surprising. However, one guidebook did stand out a little from the others; it was called ‘Salaryman’ in Japan. At one level, the presence of such a title alongside works introducing Japanese festivals and traditions was not wholly unsurprising. After all, societies and nations come to be associated with particular tropes in the global imagination. In the case of Japan, the figure of the besuited urban, white-collar office worker/business executive ‘salaryman’ (or, in Japanese, sarariiman)1 came to be associated with Japan’s transformation from a war-devastated society in the years following defeat during World War Two to the world’s second largest economy within a period of three decades. Typically the salaryman would be a middle-class, university-educated middle-aged man, with a dependent wife and children to support, working for an organization offering such benefits as secure lifetime employment guarantee for permanent employees, and a promotions and salary scale linked to seniority. He would spend long hours commuting to the office in a jam-packed train, from a house or apartment in a public housing estate in the suburbs. After spending the day toiling away at his desk, or visiting customers and suppliers on sales rounds, the salaryman would stop by a Japanese-style izakaya bar for a couple of drinks with colleagues, before returning to his home in the suburbs long after his children have gone to bed. This was a figure who came to be regarded as something of an ‘everyman’ of Japan’s postwar social landscape, the ‘corporate soldier’ (kigyô senshi) who exerted a
powerful influence on imaginings of Japan, both within the country and outside of it. Indeed, the ubiquitous salaryman came to signify both Japanese masculinity and Japanese corporate culture. In this sense, the salaryman embodied ‘the archetypal citizen . . . [someone who] is a male, heterosexual, able-bodied, fertile, white-collar worker’ (Mackie 2002: 203). In other words, in the sociocultural imaginary of postwar Japan, the salaryman was the quintessential male shakaijin (literally ‘social being’, but more generally, a ‘socially responsible’ adult). This seemingly powerful presence of the salaryman finds expression in the Illustrated ‘Salaryman’ in Japan guidebook mentioned above. The guide covers virtually every aspect of the salaryman’s lifestyle. These include his daily schedule – how he commutes to work, what he reads while commuting, morning calisthenics when he arrives at work, what he eats for lunch, working overtime, and his after-work nightlife. The reader is enlightened about his leisure activities and pastimes, what he does on seasonal holidays, his conduct when attending weddings or funerals, what constitutes required reading for the salaryman, right through to the various health problems that plague him (headaches from hangovers and a weakened liver from drinking too much, haemorrhoids and stiff shoulders from sitting at his desk for too long, stomach ulcers from irregular diet and stress) (Japan Tourist Bureau (JTB) 2006: passim). Even the woman the salaryman is supposed to marry is depicted in some detail – ideally a so-called ‘OL’ (Office Lady) clerical/administrative staff, who, according to the stereotype, upon marriage to the salaryman, would quit work to become a full-time homemaker. The packaging of the salaryman in this way points to the culturally iconic position occupied by him (and for that matter, the ‘OL’ he is supposed to marry). The Foreword to the volume highlights to readers that it ‘is a historical fact that salarymen and the companies they work for have been the driving force behind the economic rise of postwar Japan’. Accordingly, it entreats readers who are ‘tired of fragmentary or over intellectual reports of Japanese business . . . [to] take a stimulating journey into the practical workaday world of the salaryman – a journey guaranteed to deepen your understanding and enjoyment of Japan’ (JTB 2006: Foreword). Moreover, the description in the volume comes across as a deliberately crafted projection of the salaryman as being the embodiment of ‘Japanese culture’, in much the same way that the other cultural icons in the series (traditional food, architecture, the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto, etc.) are presented. This is reflected in the Afterword accompanying the guide, where the authors declare that ‘the “salaryman society” is a realm possessing its own special rules and ethics, much like the worlds of politics or student life in Japan’ (JTB 2006: 186). Attempting to ‘explain why such a diverse range of people can be grouped together under the “salaryman spirit” heading’ we are told is futile. Rather, ultimately, ‘the old standby – “oriental magic” – may have something to do with it after all’ (187). Yet, we are talking about the 2006 edition of the guidebook, not 1986 or 1976. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, the discourse one is more
likely to encounter, in the media or in the course of conversations with friends and acquaintances, rather than being about the ‘oriental magic’ of the ‘salaryman spirit’ is more than likely to be about Japan as an increasingly traumatized society characterized by a widening class divide (kaksusa shakai) and socially disadvantaged groups like long-term furiitâ, casual/temporary workers with little chance of finding permanent work, or NEET (‘Not in Employment, Education or Training) or hikikomori (‘socially withdrawn’) youth with little hope of a nondysfunctional future (see Allison 2009). Indeed, a casual observation of the media and social landscape may initially suggest that the suit-clad salaryman is no longer the embodiment of the ‘archetypal’ male citizen of modern Japan, an impression aptly captured by the title of a 2008 Economist feature on the changing corporate and social landscape in Japan – ‘Sayonara, Salaryman’ (The Economist, 5-11 January 2008: 56-58). Rather, thanks to the diffusion of the ‘soft power’ of Japan’s popular culture, the signifier of Japanese masculinity is more likely to be the ‘funky’ commodified youth masculinity exemplified by the male stars of Japan’s pop idol industry, or the ‘feminized’ masculinity of the so-called ‘herbivorous men’ (sôshokukei-danshi), or even the otaku ‘geek cool’ associated with visual culture products like anime and computer graphics, than the middleaged (or even young), besuited salaryman. No doubt, the far-reaching economic, socio-cultural, and even political shifts that Japan has undergone since the ‘Bubble Economy’ boom of the 1980s and the subsequent recession plagued ‘Lost Decade’ of the 1990s and 2000s have undeniably had major repercussions for the salaryman and his position within Japanese society. Many of the earlier assumptions associated with the salaryman – the guarantee of employment for life, promotion tied to length of employment rather than merit, and a paternalistic regard for the employee, for instance – became increasingly redundant as a consequence of the corporate downsizings and restructurings of the post-Bubble years. Replacing the older model of the salaryman situated within its framework of corporate paternalism has been the emergence of a ‘new’ discourse of the salaryman, premised on significantly different corporate and life expectations (see Taga 2011b). This new discourse draws upon a globalized Euro-Americaninspired neo-liberal corporate ideology, one emphasizing efficiency, individual ability, and performance over the group (and indeed, over the corporation). This newer style of corporate masculinity stands in marked contrast to the companycentred hard-working but not necessarily ‘efficient’ salaryman represented in the JTB guide described above. An exemplar of this newer style of corporate masculinity would be an individual like Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian born CEO of Nissan and Renault. Ghosn, after being appointed to the helm of automobile manufacturer Nissan in the early 2000s, was credited with turning around the flagging fortunes of the organization over a surprisingly short time-span, thanks to his introduction of a radically new, individual style of corporate leadership, quite different to earlier paradigms of Japanese corporate leadership (Nathan 2004: 84-98). As a consequence of the apparent ‘miracle’ he generated at Nissan, Ghosn became both a role model for a new style of management, and a popular culture icon – his autobiography was
a bestseller, and he even became the hero of a popular manga revolving around his exploits. A more controversial (and notorious) exemplar of this new style of corporate masculinity in the early 2000s was the disgraced e-business entrepreneur Takafumi Horie, former CEO of the internet company Livedoor Corporation. Horie’s meteoric rise to prominence, and his equally dramatic fall following his arrest, and subsequent conviction, on grounds of financial fraud, made him the centre of widespread public and media attention. Much of this attention revolved around Horie’s unconventional business practices as well as his flamboyant personality and uniquely individual style of self-presentation. The image he projected (and continues to project despite his fall from grace) is quite contrary to the image of the conventional salaryman-style corporate executive.2 Given such radically different projections of corporate identity, it is no surprise that the media discourse – particularly outside of Japan – about the ‘death of the salaryman’ seems convincing. Yet, ironically, Carlos Ghosn or Takafumi Horie notwithstanding, the reality at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century is that the salaryman continues to be pivotal to the ways in which Japanese corporate culture, Japanese masculinity, and indeed Japanese national identity continue to be imagined and framed. One of the most popular shows on the national broadcast network NHK in the mid-to late 2000s, for instance, was the series Sarariiman Neo, which took the salaryman and salaryman culture as an object of comical parody and even derision. Underlying the unexpected popularity of this series was perhaps its ability to effectively tap into feelings of (often uncomfortable) identification with the salaryman lifestyle which many in Japan still feel. A similar sense of simultaneous identification/parody also comes through, for instance, in the popularity of the J-Pop/hip-hop group Ketsumeishi’s 2010 single, Tatakae! Sarariiman (‘Fight! Salaryman’),3 or in the continuing success of bestselling salaryman manga comics like Sarariiman Kintarô and Shima Kôsaku, which have been around since the 1980s and 1990s (see Matanle et al. 2008). Indeed, the salaryman’s very visible presence in popular culture spaces as varied as advertising, television dramas, and manga attests to the salaryman’s continuing presence in the collective national imaginary. Even within the context of corporate culture, despite the media hype about the salaryman being an anachronism from the past, research evidence seems to point to, if anything, important continuities with the past. Peter Matanle, in discussing the shifts in employment patterns, points out that while changes have quite definitely occurred in many of the workplace institutions and practices, at the core the ideology of lifetime employment continues to underpin Japanese corporate culture (Matanle 2006; see also Inagami and Whittaker 2005). In a similar vein, drawing upon research conducted with mid-level managers across a number of large-scale organizations, McCann et al. (2006) note that despite the uncertainties and pressures faced by mid-level managers, the ‘emphasis placed on seniority, loyalty and internal skills development in promotion decisionmaking remain largely unchanged’ (100). Quite clearly then, there seem to be contradictory pressures and pulls at work in relation to discourses about the
salaryman in contemporary Japan. On the one hand, what it means to be a salaryman in twenty-first-century Japan is seemingly quite different to what being a salaryman might have meant twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago. At the same time, it would appear that certain underpinnings and assumptions continue to inform and underpin the discourse surrounding the salaryman (see Taga 2011b).