Life in Japan for a salaryman

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Life of a salaryman in Japan
Not so easy for a non-Japanese to be an executive in Japan
By Mark Rothman
Being a salaryman in Japan is not for the faint-hearted.  For those that have studied, you would be aware of the inhuman traits of these dedicated individuals.  I have written this article as an experience reference for those gaijins (foreigners), like myself, who intend to live in Japan as a part of Japan.

“I work in Japan, doesn’t that make me a salaryman?”
Subjective, but in my experience, absolutely not.  Many gaijins will come to Japan with no particular goal (in a business case) or with a plan to experience the wonder of this country for a short time.  Such people usually find jobs teaching English, though if you are bilingual the prospects are wider.  Another category is those that are transferred to a Japanese branch, usually within large corporations.  In both cases, these people will mostly retain the work habits of which they feel most comfortable with, even if they stay in Japan for many years.

“What do I have to do to become a salaryman?”
In a simplistic statement, just become like the swarms of Japanese businessmen that you see in the news.  Uniqueness is not tolerated for working professionals.  This means presentation, attitude, work commitment and above all, respect.  Like the rest of the world, Japanese salarymen can be divided into three major categories.  Junior, mid-management, and senior.  Let me elaborate on some of the details of the senior position, as this is the most complex, yet desirable.
You must maintain the utmost cleanliness at all times.  This includes short neat hair, shiny shoes, clean pressed suit and shirt (the press line in the pants is very important), plain tie with only a simple pattern, no additional jewelry and nothing other than the most conservative adornments.  Also note that any items, such as a binder or meishi (business card) case must be black only, with no patterns.  

Also, suits must be dark colored, and shirts with collar buttons are preferable.  You should also have at least five different suits and a minimum of three different shoes.  It is a definite minus if you are attending a meeting with other executives and you are wearing the same suit and shoes as the last meeting.

Not too surprisingly, the brand names that most Japanese people are crazy about, also apply in this area as well.  It is not actually a requirement, but definitely a bonus.  Examples are Salvatore Ferragano shoes, Rolex watches and Mont Blanc pens.  All these items carry the prestige that is expected from senior executives in Japan.  Lack of items that do not carry a certain prestige by salarymen can be viewed similar to those teenagers not wearing the latest fashion in Shibuya.   

As crazy as it may sound, this is the standard, traditional way of a senior executive in Japan.  The tradition bends from industry to industry – some are more lenient than others – but ultimately following this guideline will keep your career in the right direction.   

“Does a salaryman work 9 to 5?”
Most definitely not.  A salaryman has the utmost commitment to his work and his company, even above his family.  Often a salaryman will stay in the same company his entire life, hoping one day to reach the senior level.  In my particular case, I work an average of 13 hours per day, with a 1/2 hour lunch-break, and usually at least every other weekend depending on work requirements.  Typically, you are also on call 24 hours, 365 days a year to your superiors – and there is no hiding since the ketai (as the Japanese dearly call their cell phones) should be turned on at all times.

“What is a salaryman’s social life?”
This usually relates to the level of the salaryman.  Junior level salarymen are not burdened with the responsibility of the higher level categories, so can indulge in a life other than work on occasion.  Put simply, the higher in the hierarchy you are, the less personal life you tend to have.  There are no rules or definitions for this – it is simply the way that it is.  The dedicated young salaryman will often give up his personal life to continue working to create a good impression on his superiors.  It is not surprising that over 50% of marriages in Japan are “in office”, that is co-workers marry, or are introduced through a co-worker.

“Do I really have to be like this to be a salaryman?”
This depends on what your goal is.  As mentioned, many gaijins will not have a clear business or career objective when they come to Japan.  And, if it is the first visit, the culture shock and work environment is weird enough to drive even the sturdiest of non-Japanese professionals away.  What I have described is from my own experience dealing with senior executives from some of the largest corporations in Japan.  Hence it may be a little overkill, but as mentioned, it is directionally correct.
Please do not treat this article as a be-all and end-all statement about being a salaryman. Remember that Japan is no different than any other country in that everyone has different experiences.  




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