Salaryman (サラリーマン, Sararīman?, salaried man) refers to someone whose income is salary based, particularly those working for corporations. It has gradually become accepted in English-speaking countries as a noun for a Japanese white-collar businessman.
The word can be found in many books and articles pertaining to Japanese culture. Immediately following World War II, becoming a salaryman was viewed as a gateway to a stable, middle-class lifestyle. In modern use, the term carries associations of long working hours, low prestige in the corporate hierarchy, absence of significant sources of income other than salary and karōshi—'death from overwork.' The term salaryman refers exclusively to men; for women the term career woman or, for lower prestige jobs office lady is used.
According to researcher Ezra Vogel, the word "salaryman" saw widespread use in Japan by 1930, "although the white-collar class remained relatively small until the rapid expansion of government bureaucracies and war-related industry before and during World War II."
The term does not include all workers who receive a set salary, but only "white-collar workers in the large bureaucracy of a business firm or government office". So, the term includes those who work for government (e.g. bureaucrats) and major companies (e.g. those listed in Nikkei 225). Workers in the mizu shōbai (nightlife) and entertainment industries (including actors and singers) are not included even though their income may be salary based. Similarly, doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants, musicians, artists, politicians, the self-employed, and corporate executives are also excluded.
A typical description of the salaryman is a white-collar desk worker in a suit and tie, who has a high grade of education (usually university). However, the term may also be used to give a highly negative social image. The word "businessman" is often used to avoid the negative image. A significant percentage of Japan's workers are salarymen. They have been sent into companies from universities through the unique system called "simultaneous recruiting of new graduates" (新卒一括採用 Shinsotsu-Ikkatsu-Saiyō?). In sociology, the salaryman is known as Japan's new middle class, as opposed to the old middle class consisting of farmers and storeowners.
The media often portray the salaryman in negative fashion for lack of initiative and originality. Because of this portrayal, communities may be less willing to help the salaryman with his emotional problems, which often leads to clinical depression or even suicide. Corporations are often more willing to fire salarymen to lower costs, and many Japanese students are attempting to veer off the typical path of graduating from college to enter a corporation and become a salaryman. The act of escaping from the corporate lifestyle is known as datsusara. A vivid portrait of this can be found in the 2002 Takeshi Kitano film, Dolls.
The prevalence of salarymen in Japanese society has given birth to many depictions by the media and various cartoons. The following are stereotypical images of the salaryman:
- Lifestyle revolves entirely around work at the office.
- Works over-time on a daily basis.
- Diligent but unoriginal.
- Thoroughly obedient to orders from the higher levels of the company.
- Feels a strong emotional bond with co-workers.
- Drinking, golf, and mahjong are the three main social activities that provide stimulation outside of work.
- Lack of initiative and competitiveness.
- Wears a suit, necktie, and dress shoes to work every day without fail.
- Partakes in late night karaoke and binge drinking.
The three stereotypical activities of the salaryman were listed above, but changing social circumstances have greatly diversified their lives outside of work.
Though the importance of social drinking has not declined, its image has changed over time from mass partying during the economic bubble to conservative consumption at home after the collapse of the economy during the 1990s.
Mahjong was immensely popular among the 1960s generation, who brought the game into company circles directly from high school and college groups. The 1970s generation saw a gradual decrease in the number of avid mahjong players, and by the 1980s, it became common to not show any interest at all. Some current salarymen may have never touched a mahjong set in their lives.
Golf became widely popular during the economic bubble, when golf club passes became useful tools for currying favor with corporate executives. Many mid-level salarymen were pressured into taking up golf to participate in golfing events with their bosses. The collapse of the economic bubble led to the closing of many of these golf courses, and the ritual of playing golf with executives has become increasingly rare. However, some current salarymen may have golfing experience from their student days, and golf is still acknowledged as an expensive hobby for salarymen.
An interesting recent phenomenon is the otaku salaryman, sometimes called otariiman (オタリーマン?). The 2000s has seen the rise of this type of salaryman, who appears perfectly ordinary at work, but is actually an intense otaku in his private life. It is currently not uncommon for salarymen to have a wide range of hobbies, but the “otaku as salaryman” is still treated as a relatively new entity in Japanese culture.
Datsusara (脱サラ?) refers to the act of quitting work as a salaryman and finding a new occupation. The term only refers to those who quit their office job to find a more fulfilling line of work, and not those who were forced to search for a new job after being fired, or quit simply out of boredom. Becoming a stay-at-home dad also does not qualify for this category. Examples of this include becoming a SoHo worker, entrepreneur, web designer, farmer, fisherman, traditional artisan, writer, restaurant/store owner, franchiser, and many other occupations.
Datsusara is not an easy option for the salaryman. The new job is often a childhood dream or a momentary inspiration of some sort, and takes a huge amount of time and work to come to fruition. The main danger lies in taking up a profession without the proper knowledge and training; a salaryman seeking to become an organic farmer can unwittingly devastate his first crop because all of his knowledge is based on reading and studying rather than actual hands-on training.
Despite the numerous risks involved, the number of salarymen who quit their jobs has been on the rise since the 1990s. Many of these people only became salarymen because they were told to do so by their childhood environment, and quit after becoming discouraged by the nature of their work. Datsusara can also be seen as a rebound against the stress of schoolwork and university entrance exams, or against corporate hierarchy. Another factor is that improvements in living standards have made it so that one does not necessarily need a set income in order to survive.
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- Japanese work environment
- Japanese management culture
- White-collar worker
- OL (Office lady)
- Simultaneous recruiting of new graduates
- Salaryman Kintarō
- Suicide in Japan
- Work-life balance
- Japanese blue collar workers
- Career woman
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- This article incorporates information from
- Vogel, E: Japan's New Middle Class, 2nd ed. University of California Press, 1963. Page 5 bottom.
- Vogel 1963, page 5 top.