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Sneaky salarymen scheme, skim and hide cash from their wives
Corporate samurai reveal the secrets of their penny-pinching ways to hit the town
Although it’s hardly the experience of the typical tourist to Japan, most surely can’t help but wonder about the apparent conformity on show among the legions of black-suited office workers crowding every train and coffee shop in central Tokyo.
Are they really all just drones in service to the Greater Good and are they actually as boring as they seem? In short, the answer to both is a definite “No” -- something I found out when I donned a black suit of my own and joined the salaryman army.
The first thing that would really strike anyone experiencing the daily life of a typical Tokyo white-collar worker for the first time would be the staunch patience and discipline needed to survive in the Japanese business world.
From the start of each day, you utterly surrender your individuality, first physically on the jam-packed commuter trains, then mentality at an office dominated by groupthink and tedious rules. Day after day you walk the line, kowtow to superiors and swallow your opinions.
It’s in this repressed atmosphere that I’ve witnessed the flourishing practice of hesokuri, or keeping a secret pocket money stash, which works as a kind of freedom fund for salarymen. The inspiration? Restoring personal sanity with off-family-balance-sheet detours into Tokyo’s retail wonderland.
“Almost all Japanese salarymen have a secret bank account,” says Mr. H., an executive at my former employer, one of Japan’s largest conglomerates.
“There are so many ways to use it, and it actually is basic policy for Japanese companies to support it.”
Hesokuri is a term that’s been around since the Edo period of Japanese history. It’s often been equated with money that housewives secretly stash away for shopping and dining.
But that definition was more applicable to the economic bubble period of the late 1970s and 1980s, when huge corporate expense accounts paid for the salaryman’s hedonistic entertainment and housewives raided their husbands’ fat company bonuses.
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From what I’ve seen, two decades of stagnation have drastically altered the use of hesokuri. The stakes these days are much lower -- big expense accounts are gone and fat bonuses are rare, so the modern wife has slim pickings.
So now, it’s the salarymen who quietly and methodically create a hesokuri with skimmed wads of cash.
Hats in the air
In the places I’ve worked, hesokuri has been a natural expression of accumulated, unexpressed employee frustration.
When work is finally over, the tension is explosively released -- never belligerently, but rather with an earnest feeling shared with co-workers, like hats being thrown in the air together. I wish I could find a bar in the United States half as cheery as the typical Tokyo izakaya.
For many salarymen -- especially those with no time to see family or friends -- this hesokuri-funded, nightly drinking bout is the one thing that makes weekday life worth living. And in lieu of the long-gone corporate expense account, the spirit-building value this represents to the typical company cannot be understated.
A hush-hush topic
Still, you won’t find “hesokuri” listed in any Japanese company’s handbook. In the beginning, I had to quietly ask around to learn more, starting with a veteran manager who sat next to me.
His response was instructive. He leaned over in his chair and whispered conspiratorially: “If hesokuri yes ...” He made a motion of upending a bottle and sucked noisily. “If hesokuri no ...” He made a choking sound and pretended to slash his lower stomach with a sword in the manner of seppuku, the samurai ritual suicide by disembowelment.
He then pointed over to the desk of Mr. H, my boss, indicating he’d hook me up if I wanted: “Get hesokuri ... you very like.”
The way it works is you first create a secret account at one of those paper-statement-less Japanese Internet banks. This keeps things separate from the family bank account that receives your monthly company paycheck and business expense reimbursements, Mr H. explained.
This secret account is the foundation of hesokuri, as most married men essentially turn over their family bank account to their wives, who control household spending and from it dole out a monthly kozukai (personal-spending allowance) to their husbands.
A salaryman can live within the typical wife’s kozukai budget -- about ¥36,500 (US$473) per month and shrinking every year, according to reports -- but it’s a very complicated business. Most of my Japanese colleagues haven’t been equal to the effort.
Resisting the gleaming vending machines, station kiosks and cafés that charmingly line every step of the exhausting Tokyo commute is almost impossible.
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As is evading all the kozukai-busting enticements, and they’re everywhere in dense, uber-expensive Tokyo -- the nomikai (office drinking party) playfully suggested by the “office ladies” (administrative staff), fancy lunch invitations from fat-cat managers and pit-stops at pricey cafés after customer sales calls.
You could multiply these situations by a thousand; it’s all part of the challenge of managing a kozukai in Tokyo.
Waves of temptation and a feeling of general funk are usually enough for a salaryman to cave in and create a hesokuri. A common motivator is having a backup fund to prevent the embarrassment of declining a senior colleague’s drinking invitation for lack of enough kozukai.
It is for this face-saving reason -- and avoiding unpleasant financial conversations with the wife -- that a fair number of my colleagues have used hesokuri.
Going all the way
But it also true that a surprising number of them took it much further and swindled their wives wholeheartedly. And I don't use that word lightly.
One of the middle-aged sales managers at my previous firm, for instance, used to have the company dump all of his business-trip expense reimbursements into his secret bank account, blatantly testing the limits of his wife’s obliviousness.
A friend of mine -- and I clearly remember his sad story the day after his hesokuri bubble-era ended -- told me: “My wife finally caught me last night. She screamed, ‘You went to Osaka and America last month, but your salary payment was the same! Please explain! You must explain.’”
The company then conspired to let my friend funnel off smaller, less noticeable parts of his expense reimbursement. He chose the daily meal allowance of ¥3,500 given on business trips.
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Younger colleagues with more attentive wives also preferred skimming from the meal allowance because it was off the top, so to speak, and therefore virtually undetectable.
If you take frequent business trips and opt for cheap convenience-store bento meals on the road, they explained, an airtight hisokuri can be slowly built over time.
The hesokuri home run
And then there was the engineer at the company with a ¥40,000 a month kozukai from his wife.
This didn’t come close to satisfying his taste for “soaplands” (massage parlors), so he boldly went for the hesokuri home run twice a year using a very clever trick.
Every July and December, he’d have the company send his bonus (each equal to some two months of salary) to his secret bank account and then proceed to skim a sizable portion for himself.
On the same day, he then would send the rest of the bonus to his family account by bank transfer. The key to the deception? “He manually changes the ‘sender’ name from his secret bank account to our company’s name,” explained Mr. H.
The tax man giveth
Not quite believing what I was seeing, I once asked a Japanese friend at a major trading company about his colleagues’ use of hesokuri.
He explained it’s basically the same there, with an added conspiratorial twist -- his company gives employees an end-of-year “special bonus” check skimmed from their official company bonus.
Going for anywhere between ¥100,000 to ¥300,000 each year, the special bonus checks are typically cashed at a bank for secret nocturnal rampages.
How can a check that big possibly go unnoticed by a wife? The reason is as follows, and it led me to grasp why salary-skimming and hesokuri runs wild as it does.
Japanese companies deduct income tax on all salary payments and file their employees’ income-tax returns for them (only the rich or self-employed must file their own individual returns).
The upshot of this deduction at source is that a wife would likely have no opportunity to notice a difference between a bank-deposited salary and recorded income at the local tax office. See what I mean about sneaky?
And “poof” -- that’s how a salaryman’s big bonus check magically disappears from the family ledger and into the bars, restaurants and massage parlors of Japan.