5 Surefire Tips to Help You Succeed as a Salaryman in Tokyo


The art of working hard without doing any work

A few years ago during an interview with Michael Thuresson, author of The Salaryman: A Memoir, I asked him if the Japanese salaryman gets a bad rap.

“If there is a villain in the book, it’s not the salaryman,” said Howard. “It’s the institutions.”

In Japan, “salaryman” is something of a derogatory term. For the uninitiated, a salaryman is a working stiff that does little more than keep a chair warm at the office. He is Edward Norton in Fight Club. Kevin Spacey in American Beauty.

But the Japanese salaryman doesn’t punch Meatloaf in the tits or score weed from teenagers to release their tension. They grin and bear it and develop ulcers from an unlimited supply of sake.

Said Howard, a fellow Midwesterner who worked as a salaryman for several Japanese companies, “There is an understanding that I now have about why salarymen work late and can be seen at a tavern maybe later than their Western colleagues. It’s not because they care any less about their families than we do. [It’s the] peer pressure and maybe a motivation vacuum caused by the formality of companies.”

Introduction to the Salaryman

Life as a salaryman isn’t what it used to be during Japan’s Bubble Era of the ‘80s. Back when the company comped after hours drinks, taxi rides, and first class air passage.

The Lehman shock and a cultural shift among the younger generation has forced companies to change the way they do business. The only perks these days for the salaryman is the possibility of living in corporate housing in a shabby concrete hole on the outskirts of Tokyo and a round of golf with your asshole boss every Saturday morning.

The work day of a salaryman isn’t just pushing papers from one desk to the other. There is the unspoken world of office politics, where every physical gesture and facial tic communicates your status in the salaryman world. One wrong finger point and you my balding friend are in the doghouse.

HR will find out, and they will transfer you to Fukui.

My first job in Tokyo, some 10 years ago, was as an English teacher in the Yaesu district on the west side of Tokyo Station. My students were salarymen. Boring, trapped-in-a-loveless-marriage, salarymen. Having spent 10 years working my up the corporate ladder in America through the art of small talk and boot-licking, I was curious how you could succeed without really trying here in Tokyo. So I peppered these guys in their cheap black suits and worn-down shoes with questions, and they taught me the ins and outs of surviving Tokyo’s business world.

The etiquette lessons fared me well as I stumbled through my 10-year career in Tokyo. Despite having a basic grasp of the Japanese language, I was able to pick up a few key phrases and formalities. I adhered to behaviors and physical gestures that helped land business clients and score interviews with Japanese celebrities, business leaders, and diplomats.

For those who weren’t properly brainwashed during corporate initiation, here is how you too can work your way up from corporate services junior assistant to the district senior manager.

Become the Wizard of Excel

When you’re not printing out and organizing your email correspondence in three-ring binders or making seating charts for your boss’ meetings, most of your actual work time as a salaryman will be spent creating Excel spreadsheets – and not just for budgeting or expense reports.

Japan is where artists become famous for creating artwork on Excel. The senior executive manager will not be able to comprehend your proposal to schedule a meeting with the executive senior director unless you have worked into the wee hours of the morning plotting senseless graphs and text blocks onto an Excel document.

You must then passcode protect this piece of digital nonsense. Then send the password in a separate email. Then call everybody to make sure they received the emails. Then resend the emails since you forgot the attachment. However, make you have properly cc-ed everyone in order from highest ranking official to lowly assistant secretary.  Otherwise the senior assistant manager will berate you in his office until after the last trains have stopped their engines.

Your Business Card is Your Life

Before you get to such an important post where you are invited to attend meetings, you must first master certain salaryman rules of etiquette. It all starts with your business card – or meishi. Your business card is a reflection of your soul and is to be treated as such.

First, you will need a snazzy carrying case. The salaryman uniform consists of few frills – white, buttoned-up shirt, black suit and jacket, black shoes, that’s it. However, splurging on accessories is one way to impress. Sharp spectacles, brand-name watch, and a shiny carrying case for your business card.

The way you handle this case, and the cards therein contained, are of utmost importance. Your cards should be in pristine condition. The case should be carried in the left breast pocket of your jacket, over your heart – since again, this is a reflection of your essence within.

During a meeting, there are generally two rounds of business card exchanges. The first exchange will be at the entrance to the meeting room where a line of lower level plebes such as yourself quickly make greetings and business card exchanges. This session is less formal and etiquette is not so severe. These people are of no importance.

Make sure you have removed a stack of business cards prior to entering the room, and as you greet each person, hold the business card with two hands and make your exchange with a quick bow. Being able to hand over a business card with two hands, while at the same time accepting your counterpart’s business card, is a sleight of hand that takes practice.

A woman – always a woman – will show you to your seat and pour tea. Now comes the important part. Place your business card carrying case on the table horizontally in front of you. Once the important mucky-mucks are seated, you should stand and initiate the business card exchange with the most senior representative. Hold out your business card in two hands, head cowed. When they offer their business card, make sure to slide your card under theirs when making the exchange. This shows deference.

Once you receive their business card, study it reverentially, repeating his name (it will be a man) and recite his title. Then place his business card on top of your carrying case. Once all of the assistants are seated, arrange their business cards in a line on the table next to your case. The placement of each card should correspond with the seating assignment for its counterpart.

If this ritual has been completed to satisfaction, the senior district executive will feel at ease and will happily listen to your presentation, all the while his eyes droop in a half-sleep (or even full sleep). Don’t worry. He already has a copy of your presentation and all the important decisions were made prior to your meeting. The most important part of the meeting is the last 10 minutes when you get to excitedly start planning the follow-up meeting.

How to Eat and Drink Like a Salaryman

Dining out is an important aspect of salaryman life. Meetings are just a formality. After hours drinks at the izakaya is where the real decisions are made. As a true salaryman you will have your own izakaya you regularly attend where the staff know you and you might even have your own personal bottle of sake on hand.

Just like meetings and shit breaks, you should arrive to drinking engagements exactly on time – not a minute late, and not a minute early. If you are hosting you must direct everyone where to sit. Seat the most senior executive the furthest from the door, or closest to the wall, depending on your dining situation.

From there guests are arranged in hierarchical order. The most junior staff should sit nearest to the server, because they are the ones who will make all of the orders. Junior members must also keep a close eye on the drinking glasses of their senior compadres. Their glasses must never be empty.

The first round of drinks should be draft beer for everyone so they can participate in the kanpai, or cheers. When clinking glasses with your seniors, make sure the lip of your glass is below the glass of your seniors, again showing deference. Also, keep an eye on the glass of your senior member. Even if you are not the one ordering, you should keep pace with your seniors and match them drink for drink. Though they will most likely fall asleep in their chair.

Generally, you will order dishes to share. However, if you are ordering individually, make sure you don’t go off script. Order the same food and drinks as everyone else. Being a team player and coming to group consensus is the most important aspect of being a successful salaryman. In America, standing out from the crowd is a good thing. In Japan, they hammer down the nail that sticks out.

When the night is over, find a cab for the senior members and drag them into the back seat as politely as you can. Stand outside and wave like a maniac at the departing cab. Then take the new recruits from general affairs out for karaoke.

On a side note, a proper salaryman doesn’t have time for lunch or a coffee break. Any break are to be conducted at lightning speed. You must build calluses on the inside of your mouth so you can slurp up piping hot ramen or coffee faster than a university sophomore can snort a line vitamin-C-laced cocaine.

How to Sing Like a Salaryman

Unfortunately, once the night leads you to the karaoke room, this is not the time to unleash your inner David Lee Roth. Again, seating order is important. The most junior members sit next to the phone in the karaoke room so they can make everyone’s drink orders, with senior members sitting furthest away from said phone.

The senior members are given first choice of song and they get to keep the microphone as long as they want. During one karaoke session I patiently sat through four Avril Lavigne songs in a row. I didn’t know she had four songs.

Once the old farts in the room have had their turns, the mic is politely passed along from person to person. When it is not your turn, you should sit in silent encouragement for each singer, clapping along, and keeping your mouth shut. If you can’t fight the urge to join in, grab a tambourine.

You should have two or three karaoke songs in your back pocket. Some karaoke houses have special hourly rates for individual men who want to practice their karaoke songs. If you are not able to sing a Japanese song, then you should sing The Beatles, Queen or Oasis. “Hey Jude,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Creep” by Radiohead are easy crowd winners. Then sit your ass down.

Fifth Rule: Don’t Talk about the Karaoke Room

Drinking parties are supposed to be the time when junior colleagues are able to speak their mind and behave like the rutting boars they are. Even if you miss the last time and sleep outside the conbini, arriving at the office in the same clothes you wore the day before, reeking of gutter piss, no mention will be made of the previous night’s events.

This goes for all personal matters that happen outside the office. Don’t speak of your family. Don’t show pictures of your children. Many salarymen fail to wear their wedding ring at work because once you are inside the office, you are married to the job.

There are other rules to being a successful salaryman. You should be able to bow the proper depth depending on the rank of the reciprocal bower. You should be able to pour beer with the proper amount of foam (two knuckles minimum). You should be able to play golf well enough to compete with your boss – but not beat him.

Master that and you will get invited to more meetings. The more meetings you attend, the happier your wife will be, and not just because you are spending less time taking up space and smelling up your cramped apartment. She might even raise your weekly spending allowance.

But most importantly, you will never have to do any real work again.

Check out Michael Thuresson’s website or find The Salaryman: A Memoir on Amazon.


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