Who is a Japanese salaryman? History and analysis

Who is a salaryman?

Salaryman is a Japanese term for a white-collar worker. The word is derived from English salary + man and has since entered the English language in its own right. The word now insinuates long working hours, low prestige in the corporate hierarchy, absence of significant sources of income other than salary, and death from overworking.

The expression ‘salaryman’, meaning a petite bourgeoisie, a new socio-economic class sandwiched between the upper middle class and the proletariat, originated during the Taisho period (1912-1926). By 1920, this term was already widespread, with both the joy and frustrations of salaryman life already in the topic of cartoons and comics and the salaryman could be regarded as an ideological reference group for the working population. The initial connotation was generally negative, reflecting the frustration of the new class to “satisfy their desire for consumption and fulfill their aspirations as a social class”.

However, after World War II, there was a change in the way people viewed salaryman. With restraints on Japan’s military power, Japan focused its energy on developing its economy. In this crucial developmental period, Japanese workers were an extremely disciplined, selfless labor force. They spent much longer hours at work than their counterparts in other industrialized countries voluntarily, often exceeding 12 hours per day, six days a week, without extra financial compensation for overtime. Their devotion to work can be attributed to their belief that adherence to state-corporate leadership would make Japan wealthy and eventually raise their own living standards. Devotion to one’s work and self-sacrifice became a social norm. Subsequently, the ‘salaryman’ became referred to as a selfless ‘corporate warrior’ (kigyo senshi) or ‘zealous employee ‘(moretsu-shain) who completely sacrificed his private life – family, hobbies, and leisure – and made work the priority in his life. Because an ideal salaryman has characteristics that parallel the bushido code, which also emphasizes loyalty, self-sacrifice, and frugality, this white collared workhorse has also been lauded as the ‘samurai in modern dress’ and ‘the backbone of the country’. These titles reveal the degree to which this social class molded the economic success of Japan. In the eyes of the Japanese, at least between the mid-1950s and the early 1990s, a salaryman was God incarnate, the authentic contemporary hero.

A Typical Day of a Salaryman

To give a better insight into the life of a salaryman below is an example of a typical day of a salaryman.

6:30 – Wake up
7:30 – Leave for commute
8:50 – At desk ready to begin work
9:00 – Workgroup has brief start-of-day meeting
12:00 – Lunch (a lunch box from home, company cafeteria, or out at a restaurant)
13:00 – Concentrate on work
17:00 – Part-time and hourly workers go home. Overtime starts now.
19:00 to 20:30 – Socializing with colleagues
21:00 – Commute home
22: 00 – Bedtime

These activities are generally repeated 5 days a week, shorter on Saturday, with golf and outings and other company-related activities (maybe entertaining clients) on many Saturdays and Sundays.

Office Space

The way Japanese utilize their office space is also very special, and very different from the Americans. Given that every company uses their space differently, below is a table reflecting the general differences between an American and Japanese company in the way the office is set up.

The U.S.

• Large spaces, large desks, the distance between desks/offices.
• Workers have separate cubicles, separate offices.
• Sit with backs to others–work requires privacy, concentration.
• Each employee has a set of their own papers, information, PC, etc. in their office.
• To communicate with someone, use a phone, or get up and walk to their desk.
• Workspaces are personalized (photos, art, etc.).
• Windows=status


• Compact use of space. Small desks, closely spaced.
• Desks of a work unit are put together to form one large table.
• Everyone faces the others.
• Not much room for papers, etc. Must be very neat, use collective supplies.
• Supervisor sits at the head, youngest sits at the foot.
• You work on projects with those who sit nearest you.
• Communication is continuous because you talk to or overhear everyone else’s business.
• Workspaces are for work only; only a few personal touches, if any.
• Window=exile from the active working group.

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As we can observe from these differences, it appears that the salaryman has relatively little privacy with respect to space. Also, certain arrangements such as supervisor at the end and the youngest at the foot reflects the hierarchy in Japanese corporations too.

A Typical Career Path for a Salaryman

To give a better understanding of the lives of salaryman in Japan, below is a typical career path that a salaryman would undertake in his lifetime. It is important to note that this is the ‘ideal’ career path, which is quickly fracturing under the pressures of Japan’s recession but is still the model for managerial workers.

1. Companies hire once a year and once a lifetime. During recruiting season, companies select from this year’s crop of college seniors and recent graduates. Teachers, family, friends, and other connections will help you find prospective employers, and you may face rigorous entrance requirements.

2. Employment begins on April 1st. For career-track employees, there will be several months of orientation and training. They learn the company’s way, starting with learning again how to bow, how to speak. The new cohort begins to get to know each other. They will belong to this same cohort for the rest of their careers. The new hire is assigned his (usually men) first job. A few people who are several years ahead will work with the new hire so that he learns the job with constant example and mentoring.

3. Job rotations. Every March, the personnel department determines job assignments for everyone for the next year. Promising young employees will be given stints in a range of positions & divisions so that they get a broad overview of the company’s business.

4. Kacho: first line supervisor (30’s). Members of a cohort are promoted to this level about the same time because it is uncomfortable to supervise people older than you. The kacho oversees daily work, and may also be busy taking education and certification classes.

5. Tanshin-Funin: Several times during a salaryman’s career, he may be transferred to a branch office or overseas, often at very short notice. Once his children reach junior high age, usually the family stays behind, and he commutes home occasionally.

6. Bucho: department head (40’s).

7. Madogiwa (“by the window”): the failures are put out to pasture by getting a desk next to the window and not much significant work to handle.

8. Senior management: By this time, members of the cohort who have not been promoted to the top have been given vague titles or positions in subsidiaries.

9. Retirement: 55-65 for most, much later for those who reach top positions. Usually, the company can place retirees in less strenuous jobs with affiliated companies at great cut in salary and prestige.

10. “Silver Years” As in the U.S., corporate retirees in their 50’s through the early 70’s are often healthy, well-off, and ready for new adventures, often traveling or taking up hobbies with their spouses.


In order to fully understand and appreciate the themes in salaryman anime, it is necessary to briefly examine the economic history of Japan, as well as its current economic status. We will look at how the economy grew immediately after World War II and from 1970-1990s. Then, we will explore the formation of zaibatsu and its modern form, keiretsu, as this structure resulted in an over-lending problem, which culminated in the unexpected financial crisis of 1990.

Immediately After WWII

After World War II, about 40% of the nation’s industrial plants and infrastructure were destroyed, and production reverted to levels of about 15 years earlier. The people were shocked by the devastation and swung into action by building new factories equipped with the best modern machines. As Japan’s redevelopment began, millions of former soldiers joined a well-disciplined and highly educated workforce to rebuild Japan. The national objective was re-oriented to building a ‘rich country’, giving up the notion of a ‘strong army’.

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Japan’s labor force contributed significantly to economic growth, mainly because of its availability and literacy. High productivity growth played a key role in postwar economic growth. The highly skilled and educated labor force, extraordinary savings rates and accompanying levels of investment were major factors in the high rate of productivity growth.


Japan’s redevelopment proved to be a huge success. Throughout the 1970s, Japan had the world’s second-largest gross national product (GNP)—just behind the United States— and ranked first among major industrial nations in 1990 in per capita GNP at US$23,801, up sharply from US$9,068 in 1980.14

During the 1980s, it appeared as though nothing could stop the Japanese economic juggernaut. Year after year, Japanese economic performance consistently outpaced its rivals. As we can see from the graphs below, during the second half of the 1980s, real economic growth averaged almost 5% annually and unemployment was low. It seemed like the best of times.


Economic growth averaging 5 percent between 1987 and 1989 revived industries, such as steel and construction, which had been relatively dormant in the mid-1980s, and brought record salaries and employment.

The Zaibatsu and Keiretsu Zaibatsu is a Japanese term meaning “money clique” or conglomerate. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, zaibatsu referred to large family-controlled banking and industrial combines. The four major zaibatsus – Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo, and Yasuda – had a history that goes back to the Edo period. These four zaibatsus, together with Fuyo, held a significant portion of the capital of the country between 1890 and 1945, and each had as many as 300 companies under their control.

The zaibatsus were technically dissolved by reformers during the Allied occupation of Japan. Their families’ assets were seized and their holding companies, the previous ‘heads’ of the zaibatsu conglomerates, were eliminated. However, complete dissolution of the zaibatsu was never achieved, in part because the zeitgeist supported such conglomerates. They were widely considered beneficial, and the Japanese public, including zaibatsu workers and management, were unenthusiastic and disapproving about the dissolution.

In turn, these business organizations evolved to form keiretsu system or series. While officially operating as a large number of independent companies, the former zaibatsu retained common names and a common corporate image and gave each other preferential treatment in business dealings, but the old “mechanisms of financial and administrative control” were destroyed. The important difference between the two was that the zaibatsu’s previous vertical chain of command, ending with a single-family, was displaced by the horizontal relationships of association and coordination now characteristic of keiretsu.

What is more important about the then-zaibatsu and keiretsu is that these highly diversified industrial companies are clustered around their own banks, usually very powerful ones, together with real estate agencies, insurance firms, and the famous trading houses. Because within a keiretsu, there is high trust between the individual companies and the bank, banks are willing to lend much more to these companies than most rational banks would, and this resulted in the over-lending problem as we will discuss below.

The Over-lending Problem

Even though there was significant growth in the economy, and Japan did not depend on foreign loans, “the banking system as a whole was over-lent through the central bank’s lending to the banks, on the one hand, and the industrial sector was over-lent through the keiretsu system, on the other”.

Japan’s reliance on bank finance was 30.5%, significantly higher than that of other developed countries. Furthermore, there was a high debt-equity ratio of over 500% during the 1970s. This meant that people had an illusion of being richer than they really are, forcing up prices especially that of real estate. When debts and prices have been artificially high for a long time, the economy is prone to a crisis, which eventually happened in 1990.

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The Financial Crisis of 1990

In 1990, the Japanese economy finally hit a wall. In April 1990, the Nikkei stock market collapsed, with share prices nose-diving 40%. Land prices, while slower to respond initially, also plummeted. It was the worst financial crisis in Japan’s post war history. The stock market crashed to levels unheard of before.

Because of the financial crisis and property market bubble burst, unemployment levels in Japan soared.

Below are some quotes of some Japanese salaryman who experienced the bubble burst.

The bubble burst in 1990 or 1991. Land prices came down; stock prices came down, and everyone thought that it was going to be a temporary thing. New regulations (soryo kisei) came in saying don’t lend on the basis of real estate. That kind of instruction came from the bureaucrats (o-yakusho). That created a hole of demand and the jusenos (finance companies) were rapidly filling in that hole by making loans to fulfill that demand, which everyone thought was really strange at that time.

At the time that the bubble burst, there were a lot of disquieting alarming things happening, and they came out clearly in the figures. I think that the bosses really had the situation on their minds as well. But I think they were far too optimistic about the situation then.

The above tells us that the Japanese economy and its people were not ready for the degree to which the stock market crashed, and were still optimistic about the situation immediately after the burst.

Repercussions of the Financial Crisis

Because of the Japan financial crisis, the 1990s witnessed significant changes in the Japanese employment system and in the work organization of Japanese firms. The ‘three pillars’ of the Japanese system – permanent employment (shushin koyo), seniority grading (nenko koretsu) and enterprise unions (kigyo-nai kumiai) – seem in danger of toppling. Even though it is debatable if these ever were the reality, now more than before, it appears that many companies can no longer maintain these ideals of traditional management.

To illustrate the significance of the breakdown of these pillars, we shall discuss lifetime employment with more depth. Lifetime employment is not just a policy to the Japanese, but it is the “rubric under which life and work are integrated”. Previously, once hired, the employee is retained until the mandatory retirement at age 55, upon which most employees except top managing directors of the firm must retire. The company then pays each retiree a lump sum separation amounting to typically about five to six years’ worth of salary. Because this amount is insufficient for the entire retirement period, an employee previously belonging to a large corporation like a keiretsu typically expect to find a part-time job in one of the satellite firms. As such, the relationship between the big corporation and lifetime employment is an intimate one. With the breakdown of this system, people’s whole life plan is disturbed; they lose not just their job security, but are likely to have problems finding part-time jobs after retirement. Thus, even though it seems that Japanese companies are careful to avoid abrupt or traumatic breaks with the past, the changes have created fears and uncertainties in the salaryman.

What has happened to the salaryman? He still drinks his tonic, and puts in the punishing hours. But warrior hero? Try tragic figure – a crumpled soul in a crumpled suit. He still leaves for work at 7am, makes a long commute sardined into trains, and may not get home until 10pm. But there is little of the bushido, the spirit of the samurai, about the salaryman today. Like a reflection of his country, he is just hanging on grimly, hoping for better times but not sure how or when they will come. —The Sydney Morning Herald

With this contrast between the heralded salaryman of the past and the seemingly pathetic one of the present, we shall examine the first theme that we extracted from the animes we watched – tensions in life.


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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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