Books: Living the Japanese dream

This is a revealing account of company life in Japan by a freewheeling Irishman who bought into its stifling paternalism. Jonathan Head wonders how he stood it.

by Jonathan Head, the BBC's Tokyo correspondent
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Blue-Eyed Salaryman

Niall Murtagh

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Every morning I watch a stream of dark-suited, expressionless men, and a few equally blank women, pouring out of Shimbashi station. What strange force drives them on to jobs that consume time, happiness and identity?

To be a Japanese salaryman or woman is to surrender almost everything to the firm. You get home so late, you see little of your family. You submit to a seniority-based promotion system whatever your talents. You may be moved around the country without consultation. Strict rules govern your working and even your personal life. In return, you get looked after, for life. That's the theory.

Many Japanese in their twenties have rejected the salaryman thing, calling themselves 'freeters' or 'neets', with casual jobs in bars and shops, or no job at all, dressing like space aliens or Swiss milkmaids if they feel like it. And some in their fifties have also rejected the life too - or it has rejected them, as economic reality has forced big corporations to make redundancies.

But the lure of security and of belonging to a larger group maintains a tenacious hold in Japan. I've asked people why, but self-analysis is not a popular pastime here. Even when roaring drunk on Friday nights in the Shimbashi izakaya, the salarymen rarely talk about why they put up with the punishing working hours and lack of choice.

So it was with some eagerness that I picked up this account of a salaryman's life by Irishman Niall Murtagh. Not just a glimpse either; after wandering the world and then studying in Japan, he worked for more than 10 years at Mitsubishi, one of the most traditional of the zaibatsu (conglomerates) that until recently pretty much ran the Japanese economy.

He was the first foreigner to be promoted to management and receive a lifetime contract. He married a Japanese woman and started a family. Enough, surely, to have acquired some insight into what makes these institutions tick.

There are several years' worth of anecdotes in the book, providing a comical picture of life on the corporate front-line. Murtagh makes us laugh at the oddities of Japanese working life without being condescending.

There is affection in his writing for the baffling pettiness of Mitsubishi company culture.

One day, exhausted by the cramped trains, he cycles to work. Told that he is unlikely to be given a space to leave his bike inside the Mitsubishi complex, because there are company rules about how salarymen should travel to work, he parks it a few blocks away. Even so, he is reprimanded by zealous security guards who discover his violation. You might have inconvenienced the neighbours, he is told. The company approves - or disapproves - of the accommodation he chooses, or chooses it for him. It makes him write down goals for the year, list possible threats to his health on his journey home, and learn the company song. It's like an ever-present, fretting parent.

The formality with which his colleagues address each other to avoid offence or misunderstanding is beautifully captured. The endless, pedantic demands of the company, the sinister, big-brother aura of the Mitsubishi bosses, and the futility of the research projects he is required to believe in and work all hours on come shining through.

Yet I finished the book feeling none the wiser. Why do so many Japanese accept these constraints? Did Murtagh really spend that long at Mitsubishi without challenging his colleagues? If he did challenge them, what did they say? When an employee sends out a mass e-mail begging to be allowed to resign, the author meekly repeats the management's explanation that the resignation would make the company look bad.

In fact, Murtagh admits he becomes one of them, even allowing Mitsubishi to move his family hundreds of miles south to Osaka with little warning.

Sometimes, he ponders the footloose life he left behind, but then, with only a trace of irony, says he has found the Japanese dream - pretty wife, tiny company apartment, bicycle. His only rebellion is to refuse to bow, a bit like refusing to shake hands in Europe or the US. Having entered the bound world of the salaryman for a laugh, expecting to stay just a few months, he is no longer able to explain why he cannot leave.

As I write, a brash young Japanese entrepreneur is mounting the first ever hostile takeover bid here for the country's most profitable television station. He is condemned by older politicians and business leaders, but applauded by younger people. Mitsubishi, the most venerable zaibatsu of them all, is struggling to save its ailing automotive arm. A few companies - Toyota, Canon - are still making the salaryman system work. But the bonds of loyalty and lifetime employment that drove the Japanese miracle, and which so seduced the author of this entertaining but frustrating book, are fading.

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