The concept of the salaryman is deeply associated with Japan and with a particular way of working but is also in its own way troubling in its implications about the relationships between the employed and the employer in the contemporary society. Allegra Pacheco’s documentary Salaryman (サラリーマン) explores this culturally specific phenomenon along with its radiating effects on the wider society and the attitudes of younger workers who are beginning to turn their backs on the duplicities of the salaryman dream.

Originally from Latin America, Pacheco was first struck by the ubiquitous sight of drunk men in suits asleep on the streets of the nighttime city. The phenomenon has become so commonplace that few would remark on it or even really notice, yet to an outsider such as Pacheco it appeared strange. After all in few other cities would it be possible to fall asleep in a public place and wake up unharmed in full possession of one’s belongings. What she discovers through talking to several salarymen is a story of continual erasure in which the “corporate cattle” as one brands himself are left with no other acceptable outlets to relieve workplace stress born of an oppressive and bullying culture than excessive drinking often as part of the semi-compulsory nomikai afterwork drinking sessions. Having missed the last train, these men often have no other option than to simply wait until the morning when rather than returning home they replace their shirt at a convenience store and head straight back into the office.

These excessive working practices of course take a toll on the family when men rarely arrive home before 10pm if at all and leave early for the morning commute with little opportunity to interact with their wives and children. Pacheco then follows one working mother who is more or less left to handle the entirety of childrearing alone in her husband’s continual absence having to work taking her son to daycare and picking him up into her own working day along with the housework and cooking her own dinner. Meanwhile Pacheco also turns her attention to the phenomenon of the Office Lady or “OL” which is not exactly a salarywoman but separate category of worker treated almost like corporate domestic staff. Such women are often looked down on by the society around them which views the job solely as a stopgap for those looking to leave the workforce on marriage to become a traditional housewife. 

The presence of the OL may reinforce the idea of the corporate entity as a patriarchal authority in which the female executive or salarywoman is not regarded as an equal in what is often regarded as a homosocial society. One commentator describes the self-image of the salaryman as a contemporary samurai who owes ultimate loyalty to his company prioritising his corporate family over the social. Another reason salarymen can be found scattered over the city another expert argues is that they simply fear going home to a less certain environment in which familial bonds may have begun to fray under the strain of their workplace stress. Though Japan actually has well placed labour law designed to protect employees from exploitation it is not well enforced partly because of the nature of the relationship between workers and employers that prevents employees from speaking up about workplace bullying or injustice. 

These bonds between the employed and the employer are largely founded on the post-war promises of the era of rising prosperity in which companies offered jobs for life along with a tacit agreement to look after employees and their families which encouraged the already collectivist mindset that allowed workers to believe they were working towards a common goal of rebuilding the nation and ensuring economic prosperity for all. Such bargains however largely fell apart after the collapse of the Bubble Economy leaving the present generation with all of the stress and few of the rewards their parents may have enjoyed. Pacheco interviews the mother of Matsuri Takahashi who sadly took her own life in exhaustion born of the exploitative working environment at a top advertising firm with a reputation as a “black company” regularly ignoring standard employment law in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be challenged for breaking it. Other young people similarly cite burnout and the fear of karoshi or death from overwork as reasons they decided to leave the corporate world but even they do not necessarily find fault with the system only point out that it suits some better than others and was no good for them.

Then again according to a man who organises the extreme commute as an ironic sporting contest, the pandemic may have issued a wakeup call to the ranks of salarymen realising how nice it is not to have to cram themselves into a rush hour train or miss their kids’ bedtimes because they can’t get out of a nomikai. According to him the salarymen and women of tomorrow will demand the right to work when and where they want less likely to conform to outdated ways of doing business or wilfully participate in a system of widespread exploitation when offered no guarantees of future employment by a company who may try to silence them if they speak up and is just as likely to casually discard them at the first sign of trouble. His belief that this working revolution may usher in a new age of mutual compassion may seem naive or idealistic but it seems there’s hope for the salaryman yet that he may finally discover the means to free himself from an oppressive and exploitative working culture. 

Salaryman streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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