What’s It Like To Be A ‘Salaryman’ In Japan

June 1, 2017 | 1 Comment » | Topics: Interesting

salaryman (transliterated from the Japanese which is itself borrowed from English), more formally a “full-time company employee” (正社員), is the local equivalent of a W-2 employee in America. This is roughly 1/3rd of the labor force in Japan, but it has outsized societal impact.

Traditionally, salarymen (and they are, by the way, mostly men) are hired into a particular company late in university and stay at that company or its affiliates until they retire.

There are other workers at Japanese companies — contract employees, who can be (and are) let go at will, or young ladies on the “pink collar” track who are encouraged tacitly or explicitly to quit to get married or raise children — but the salaryman/employer relationship is the beating heart of the high-productivity Japanese private sector. (The Japanese economy is roughly 1/3rd the public sector, 1/3rd low-productivity firms like restaurants or traditional craftsmen, and 1/3rd high-productivity household-name megacorps. Salarymen are mostly present in the last one, which happens to dovetail with your professional interests.)

The salaryman/employer relationship is best characterized as “You swear yourself to us, body and soul, and in return we will isolate you from all risks.”

The employee hereby promises the company: Your first obligation, in all things, will be to your company. You will work incredibly hard (90+ hour weeks barely even occasion comment) on their behalf. The company can ask you to head to a foreign office for three years without your wife and child beginning tomorrow, and you will be expected to say “Sure thing, when does my flight leave?” or accept that your career advancement is functionally over.

The company will mold you to their exacting specifications to do whatever form of service they require. You will happily comply, in this as in all things. For example, if your company needs a Java-speaking systems engineer and you have a degree in Art History, this is not a problem because you can be fixed. Sure it might take ten years and only work on a quarter of the new hires but that’s why we employ you for 45 years and hire a hundred at once! (What of the Art History majors who don’t successfully learn how to edit XML files or architect web applications? Well, they’ll be promoted in lockstep with the rest of their cohort, but tasks which actually require programming with magically route around them, and they’ll end up doing things like leading 6 hour planning meetings and producing spreadsheets. Lots and lots of spreadsheets.)

The company hereby promises the employee: Your company will provide structure and purpose for your life. You will be clothed in the company colors, literally and figuratively. You will be respected, inside and outside the company, as befits an employee of ours. You will be provided with benefits perfectly calibrated to allow you and your family to lead a middle-class Japanese life. Your children will go to as good schools as they test into. Your wife will be able to afford an annual trip to Hawaii with her girlfriends.

You probably won’t attend that trip because, as a salaryman, you wouldn’t want to leave your coworkers in the lurch by taking extended vacations. Your company officially allows you between 12 and 18 combined vacation/sick days a year, but salarymen generally try to hold themselves to about 5, taken in single-day increments. Your company loves you and wants you to be happy, though, so they’ll suggest two days for your honeymoon, two if a parent passes away, and one if your wife passes away. You can take that Saturday off, too, because the company is generous. There, that’s like four full days — five, if you time it with a public holiday.

There exist companies which don’t require their salarymen to work Saturdays. That is considered almost decadent for salarymen — the more typical schedules are either “2 Saturdays a month off” or “every Sunday off!” Even if you’re not required to work Saturdays, if one’s projects or the company’s situation requires you to work Saturdays, you work Saturdays. See also, Sundays.

Salarymen work large amounts of overtime, although much of it is for appearance’s sake rather than because it actually accomplishes more productive work. Depending on one’s company, this overtime may be compensated or “service overtime” — “service” in Japanese means “thrown in for free in the hopes of gaining one’s further custom”, so your favorite restaurant might throw in a “service” desert once in a while or you might do 8 hours of “service” overtime six nights a week for 15 years.

At those companies which actually pay for overtime (not uncommon, even for professional salaried employees, even for those who would characteristically be exempt in the US), there are generally multiple rates. I got time and a quarter between 6:30 and 9:30 AM, time and a half until midnight, and time and three quarters after 1:00 AM. That last bracket was there for a reason.

It is highly unlikely that anyone will ever tell you “We need you here until 3 AM. Yeah, sorry, tell you what, take off early at 9 PM tomorrow.” The company is just steeped in an environment which will make this decision seem like the most natural thing in the world to you. To leave early would let your team down. To make a habit of it would cause people to question your commitment to the company and to the important work that the company does. It will become so natural to work salaryman hours that you’ll teach their necessity to junior employees who you mentor, probably without you even realizing you’re doing it.

Don’t have a wife? You might quite reasonably think “I don’t have time to even think about that.” Don’t worry — the company will fix your social calendar for you. It is socially mandatory that your boss, in fulfillment of his duties to you, sees that you are set up with a young lady appropriate to your station. He is likely to attempt to do this first by matching you with a young lady in your office. There are, at all times, a number of unattached young ladies in your office. Most of them choose to quit right about when they get married or have children.

You might imagine that you heard a supervisor tell a young lady in the office “Hey, you’re 30 and aging out of the marriage market, plus I hear you’re dating someone who is not one of my employees, so you might want to think about moving on soon.”, but that would be radioactively illegal, since Japanese employment discrimination laws are approximately equivalent to those in the US. A first-rate Japanese company would certainly never do anything illegal, and a proper Japanese salaryman would never bring his company into disrepute by saying obviously untrue things like the company is systematically engaged in illegal practices. So your ears must be deceiving you. Pesky ears.

The company is your public life. Have an issue with your landlord? The company will handle it, in those cases where the company is not your landlord. (“So let me get this straight: we’re going to pay our employees, and then they’re going to immediately hand 25% of their salary over to an apartment? Doesn’t this suggest an obvious inefficiency? We could just buy a building and house dozens of employees there — lower transaction costs plus economies of scale.” Many Japanese companies have done this math already, and company dorms are quite common, particularly for young, single employees.)

Need to file paperwork with City Hall? Someone from HR can do it for you. Salarymen don’t file tax returns — the National Tax Agency and HR work out 100% of the paperwork on their behalves. Insurance? Handled. Pension? You’re sorted. Immigration, for those very rare salarymen who are also foreigners? Your CEO has written a letter to the Minister of Justice for inclusion with the paperwork that HR has put together, and you won’t even have to carry it into the office.

The company is your private life. All friends you’ve made since your school days almost by definition work for your company, because you spend substantially every waking hour officially at work or at quote leisure unquote with people from work. When you get off work rather early, like 7:30 PM, you’ll be strongly encouraged to go out to dinner and/or drinks with bosses, coworkers, and/or business acquaintances. (The company is buying, either directly via an expense account or indirectly via a “The most senior person pays and their salary has been precisely calibrated to accommodate this” cultural norm.) Like karaoke and golf? Wonderful, you’ll have an excellent time with the other salarymen, who have either perfected the skill of liking karaoke and golf or seeming to like karaoke and golf when invited out by colleagues.

We’ve mentioned that your company considers it its responsibility to see you appropriately married. That is not the sole way in which the company may try to arrange companionship, but let’s table that issue for the moment. When you get married, your boss will give the longest speech at your wedding, praising your diligence on that last project and bright future with the firm. Perhaps eight or so coworkers will show up. They’ll also take up a collection for you if a parent should pass away, come visit if you’re hospitalized, and offer to intercede if you should have trouble with your wife or children. You are, after all, one of the family.

Lifetime employment is somewhat on the outs in the last 20 years or so, but it is still a reasonably achievable thing in 2014, and an expectation that many Japanese folks quite literally structure their entire lives around. An offer of employment as a salaryman, while theoretically instantiated as a e.g. three year employment contract with “renewal upon mutual agreement”, is (practically speaking) a promise that one will be promoted on a defined schedule for one’s entire working career.

One’s actual salary as a salaryman is generally rather low — about $100 per year of age per month, as an engineer in Nagoya (set by a particular monopsonistic engineering employer near Nagoya). In Tokyo, my sense of the market is that, as an intermediate engineer in his early thirties, I’d probably command somewhere between $30k and $60k. (In Silicon Valley, the going rate would be somewhere between $120k and $160k and increasing rapidly.)

The stability is superior to even tenured professors or civil servants in the United States, though. Eliminating your position will result in, at worst, your transfer into a division optimized to shame you into quitting. Incompetence at one’s job bordering on criminal typically results in one’s next promotion being to a division which can’t impact shipping schedules and has few sharp objects lying around.

You owe your company one more thing: Don’t. Ever. Quit. Salarymen are very rarely hired mid-career — you start at a company directly after undergrad and stay there forever. If you somehow manage to separate from that company, you are damaged goods. You will, in all probability, never be offered a salaryman position again. You may be offered professional work as a contract employee, but this has worse material terms, second degree social status, and no job security.

You may think I’m exaggeratingNot so much. I spent about three years in the salt mines and could go on this topic for hours. You can also read about this, to exhaustion, in most books about modern Japanese culture. (Single favorite recommendation for foreigners: An Introduction To Japanese Society, Sugimoto. Salarymen rate only a chapter or two — the book is sweeping in breadth and does the best job I’ve ever seen at adequately representing the diversity of life here for a foreign audience.)

– Patrick McKenzie



A week in the life of a Japanese Salaryman

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  • Catmint

    I was married to Barbara for 24 years before cancer got her. One of the best things she did for me was talking me out of dealing. We had bought a house about 3 years ago. We both had steady jobs and were happily ensconced in the middle class.
    She sat me down and said we had too much to lose if we were busted. I had to agree, but didn’t like it. The extra money was useful and I enjoyed dealing ’cause I got away with it. When a friend was sent away for a 5 spot, I was so happy it wasn’t me. Barb was right!