Salaryman (サラリーマン, Sararīman?, salaried man) refers to a man whose income is salary based, particularly those working for corporations. It has gradually become accepted in Anglophone countries as a noun for a Japanese white-collar businessman.
Japan's society prepares their people to work for the greater good rather than the individual and the salaryman is a part of that. He is expected to work long hours, additional overtime, to participate in after-work leisure activities such as drinking and visiting hostess bars with his colleagues, and to value work over all else. The salaryman typically enters a company when he graduates college and stays with that corporation his whole career. Other popular notions surrounding salarymen include karōshi, or death from overwork. In Japanese culture, becoming a salaryman is the expected career choice for young men and those who do not take this career path live with a stigma and less prestige. 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." 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 male white-collar employee who typically earns his salary "based on individual abilities rather than on seniority."  Salarymen are known for working many hours, sometimes up to sixty hours per week. Often times, because of his busy work schedule, the salaryman does not have time to raise a family and his work becomes a lifelong commitment. Companies typically hire the salarymen straight after high school, and they are expected to stay with the company until retirement, around the time they reach the age between 55 and 60. As a reward for the demonstration of their loyalty, companies rarely fire the salarymen unless it under special "dire" circumstances. There is also a belief that the "amount of time spent at the workplace correlates to the perceived efficiency of the employee." As a result of this incredibly intense and depressing lifestyle, salarymen may become so pressured that they may commit suicide.
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 both the Japanese and American media. Some films in Japan about salarymen include Mr. Salaryman, Japanese Salaryman NEO, and a drama series entitled History of a Salaryman. There is a certain expectation among the middle and upper classes for Japanese men to become salarymen. For many young Japanese men, accepting anything less than becoming a salaryman and conforming to its ideal is considered a failure, not only on him, but on his parents.
The life of a salaryman revolves around work. The activities that he does outside of work typically involve his coworkers, which lessens the distance between him and work. Due to this expectation, there have been a variety of names given to salarymen: shachiku (社畜?) meaning corporate livestock, and kaisha no inu (会社の犬?) corporate dog, to ridicule salarymen. Business networking requires entertaining clients. This can include nightclubs, saunas, hostess bars, karaoke clubs, high-end restaurants, and teahouses. The bulk of networks forged are developed through shared sexualized leisure, meaning catering to the desires and pleasures of men. The activities that these salarymen partake in include drinking, gambling, and sex consumption, to name a few.
Over time, the expectations of a client have increased dramatically. Initially, drinks and a meal would have sufficed, but now the client wants expensive, rare pleasures, and sex consumption. The meal and drinks now serves as an appetizer for a business deal, while the main course includes a trip to a karaoke club, sauna, and a massage parlor that provides sexual services to its customers. Salarymen typically do not have any true leisure time due to their nights off being spent hosting clients. What little time they do have outside of work is spent drinking as well as playing golf, pachinko, or mahjong.
Changing social circumstances have greatly diversified the life of the salaryman 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 an immensely popular game among the 1960s generation of salarymen, 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 superiors. The collapse of the economic bubble led to the closing of many 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.
While the majority of salarymen are heterosexual, there still exists the small number of those that are homosexual. Homosexuality has a significant presence, but the discussion of it is considered offbeat. There is an extreme disconnect between that working life and private life of the salaryman. The salaryman is not expected to bring his significant other to any work-related function with him nor would there be a place for that significant other. When discussion of his private life is brought up, the salaryman will just substitute "boyfriend" for "girlfriend". After work drinking sessions or client entertainments rarely include sexual partners, whether that be female or male.
The corporate social life for a salaryman is generally assumed to be one of heterosexuality, but the announcement or formal recognition of that heterosexuality is rarely, if ever, brought up. Sexuality in Japan is considered taboo to discuss. There is a general absence of homophobia in the workplace, mostly due to the fact that it is not noticed. Salarymen almost never come out in relation to their sexuality in the workplace, so the opportunities for conflict between salarymen are nonexistent in this sense.
Many homosexual salarymen feel dissatisfaction with living as kakure homo, which means "hidden homosexuals".
In order for these men to keep hiding their sexuality, they attempt to establish their masculine credentials by persevering in the workplace and even take it as far as marrying at the correct marriageable age, or kekkon tekireiki. This relieves the pressure from society to get married, even if they are unhappy in their marriages. The pressure mainly comes from the individual's parents, but sometimes even their workplace superiors will pressure them into marriage. Some salarymen will marry a homosexual women for the purpose of satisfying both his and her parents with the marriage. This also allows the couple to pursue romantic interests more suited to their tastes without upsetting their newlywed partner.
Gay salarymen also have trouble fully participating in work-related leisure activities. There is the notion of homosocial bonding that these after-work activities promote, which the gay salaryman will not be able to devote himself wholly to. The bonding is heteronormative in nature, as the destinations for after-work leisure typically involve a hostess bar, where the men appreciate the hostesses and discuss their traits with each other. The gay salaryman can have trouble attempting to describe why a certain hostess is attractive to him for obvious reasons, while his co-workers might become more privy to his sexuality due to this. The salarymen are then expected to flirt with the hostesses and even, there be it rarely, have sexual relations with the hostesses. This is determined to be a source of male bonding as they flirt with the same women.
The development of the Internet has allowed gay men to access a new interactive space in which they can discuss their troubles and pressures with other gay men while still preserving their anonymity. One of the largest concerns for gay salarymen is the debate on whether or not to come out at work. The internet forums provide a free space for these men to interact with both homosexual and heterosexual men in order to make that decision. The most popular response to this question is that sexuality should be private and personal and has no place being present in the workplace. The counterargument for that is that heterosexual men and women do not have to keep their sexuality private because they are assumed to be heterosexual.
Japan is a country where hierarchical structures are dominant, especially in regards to age and gender. As a whole, the men are the "ruling" sex of the country, and therefore salarymen also has that advantage over their female counterparts. According to author Futoshi Taga, equal opportunity in the workplace instituted by government policies do not typically affect the salarymen and in fact, as "elite male workers, under hierarchical company systems, still gain great advantage from the subordination of female employees and male freeters (casual workers)." However, this also means that there is more pressure on the salaryman. He is expected to "complete adulthood, join a company as a full-time permanent worker, as well as it is seen as essential to provide economic pressure for the family," in order to achieving true "hegemonic masculinity." However, this need to achieve and maintain hegemonic masculinity has also proven to be rather problematic for many salarymen that do choose to have families. Salarymen often work long hours and therefore their busy work schedules may lead to conflicts with the family, as a result of not being able to spend time with them. Furthermore salarymen are often even miserable after entering retirement, as they frequently experience feelings of emptiness and never being able to be fully satisfied. Because they devote so much of the majority of their lives to their careers, they frequently find themselves emotionally distant from their family members and communities.
Because of the pressure that the salaryman is given at work, some die from the overload of work, or karōshi. According to a Washington Post article, the Japanese government attempted for years to set a limit of the amount of hours one can work, and the issue has been prevalent since 1970s. Finally in 2014, after 30 years of activism, Japan's parliament (Japanese Diet) finally passed a law "promoting countermeasures against karōshi." However, even with this new law in place, many Japanese citizens still criticize the government and maintain that the law isn't enough. For one thing, they believe that there should be laws against companies that violate work hour laws and should penalize them for doing so. It seems that the focus of the current legislation that passed is on gathering evidence through statistics of the salarymen that have died of karōshi, as well as providing counseling for the workers. Approximately 2000 applications are filed by family members and loved ones of the salarymen that fall victim to the karōshi, in hopes of seeking recognition for the death by overload of work. However, experts also stated that the death toll is most likely much higher, and "as many as 8000 out of the 30,000 annual suicides a year are thought to be work-related" and "there are as many as 10,000 non-suicide karōshi deaths a year." In addition, the salarymen who survive the long, stressful work life often do become mentally unstable.
Historically, karōshi, literally translating to "overwork death" was first diagnosed as the a "circulatory disease brought on by stress." The issue with karōshi first began in the late 1970s after the OPEC crisis occurred, which took a toll on the reconstruction of the post-war Japanese industry. Since then, the number of deaths from this disease has only increased, as competition began to increase between overly-aggressive competitive companies. This has also become even more of an issue at larger companies in Japan, such as Toyota, one of the largest carmakers in the world as well as one of the most prestigious companies in Japan. Toyota has been known to be "publicly embarrassed" by the situation, especially after Kenichi Uchino, a 30 year old quality-control manager at Toyota collapsed and died in 2002. For six months, Uchino had worked more than 80 hours unpaid overtime every month. After this incident, Toyota had announced that it would begin paying their workers for their overtime hours as well as making an effort to monitor their health.
- Career woman
- Japanese blue collar workers
- Japanese management culture
- Japanese work environment
- Office lady
- Salaryman Kintarō
- Simultaneous recruiting of new graduates
- Suicide in Japan
- White-collar worker
- Work-life balance
- A Week in the Life of a Tokyo Salary Man. Dir. Stu. Perf. Stu. Youtube.com. N.p., 28 Feb. 2015. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.
- Vogel, Ezra F. "The Problem and Its Setting." Japan's New Middle Class; the Salary Man and His Family in a Tokyo Suburb. Berkeley: U of California, 1963. 1-12. Print.
- Wingate, Kristin (2011). "Japanese Salarymen: On the Way to Extinction?" (PDF). Undergraduate Journal of Global Citizenship 1.1.
- McLelland, Mark. "Salarymen Doing Queer: Gay Men and the Heterosexual Public Sphere." Genders, Transgenders, and Sexualities in Japan. N.p.: Routledge, 2005. 96-110. Print.
- Osburg, John. "Entertaining Is My Job: Masculinity, Sexuality, and Alliances among Chengdu's Entrepreneurs." Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality among China's New Rich. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford UP, 2013. 37-75. Print.
- Dasgupta, Romit. "Creating Corporate Warriors: The "Salaryman" and Masculinity in Japan." Asian Masculinities: The Meaning and Practice of Manhood in China and Japan. By Kam Louie and Morris Low. London: Routledge, 2003. 118-34. Print.
- Gill, Tom. "Re-Reading The Salaryman In Japan: Crafting Masculinities." Journal Of Japanese Studies 41.1 (2015): 174-178. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.
- Taga, F. "Salaryman Masculinity: The Continuity and Change in the Hegemonic Masculinity in Japan." Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews 42.3 (2013): 391-93. Web.
- "Japan's Killer Work Ethic". The Washington Post. July 13, 2008. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
- North, Scott (September 2014). "Japanese Workers Fight against Karoshi, Death from Overwork". Red Pepper. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
- Media related to Salaryman at Wikimedia Commons
- "My Life in Corporate Japan"
- A week in the life of a Tokyo salary man