Tokyo salarymen: Modern-day samurai fight back

Tokyo salarymen: Modern-day samurai fight back

Fed up with long hours and little reward, some Tokyo salarymen are taking back control of their lives, says CNNGo reader Annamarie Sasagawa
Japanese salarymen
Tokyo office workers having few drinks before the train home at an izakaya restaurant in Shinbashi Station.

When it comes to work/life balance, white-collar workers in Tokyo have had it tough for decades. Lately, though, things have started to change.

You see them in their dark suits in the morning rush hour, cramming themselves onto already crowded trains.

They march into office towers in Shinjuku, Marunouchi, and Roppongi, slurp quick noodles during a rushed lunch hour, dash back to work, then grab a few beers in the evening with colleagues before catching the last train home.

These fearsome corporate warriors are Tokyo's salarymen. 'Salaryman' alludes to a man so dedicated to his company that he endures a grueling commute and long hours of unpaid overtime every day, until he's run into the ground. And occasionally even after that too.

Sometimes called modern-day samurai, salarymen in Japan's boom years certainly seemed willing to sacrifice it all for the firm's bottom line. But is that still true in Tokyo today?

Japanese salarymenSalarymen during the morning rush hour at Tokyo's Shinjuku station.

The detriment of humanity

Hiro Matsumura used to work in the sales department of a Tokyo publishing company. He looks back at his time in the corporate world with mixed feelings. "Tokyo is a huge city," he says.

"Whatever you want, good books, good movies, good music, it's all available. I liked that. But commuting to the office on a train full of people -- that's just the detriment of humanity."

In his salaryman days, Matsumura would recover from work stress by paragliding in his time off.

Three years ago, he decided to trade his briefcase for a backpack and work as a tour guide for foreign travelers. "I wanted to be independent," he says. "In my work now, only I am responsible for what I do."

Matsumura is one of a growing number of datsu-sara: former salarymen who leave white-collar jobs to work for themselves. The dream of leaving the salaryman life behind is now such a common one that datsu-sara consulting is a booming business in Tokyo.

Dual personalities for survival

For every salaryman who takes the plunge to work for himself, though, there are many more who continue to commute to the office every day just as their fathers did in decades past.

Kenta Tanaka (who asked us not to use his real name for fear his colleagues might find out he dislikes his job) is one of the latter.

Like Matsumura, Tanaka isn’t entirely thrilled with his lifestyle. He works as a pharmaceutical salesman for a Tokyo company, traveling a lot and putting in long hours.

Once or twice a year, he takes a day off to mountain bike on the Izu Peninsula a few hours from Tokyo. We ran into each other on a Wednesday morning on a rocky bike trail.

Life as a salaryman wears him out. "You need two personalities," he says. "One to put on at the office, and one for your real self. It’s tiring, but part of working in Tokyo."

He sometimes thinks of working for himself, but has a young child and doesn’t want to risk the financial instability.

Japanese salarymenBlending in is part of the salaryman culture.

Blending in is still the key to success

Japan is not an easy place in which to push against tradition. Career success in the white-collar world in Tokyo often hinges on a salaryman’s ability to blend in at the office and appear willing to sacrifice his personal life for the sake of the firm.

At the office, few salarymen dare to dream out loud of a bit less overtime or an easier commute -- stoicism is de rigeur in office culture here.

Still, attitudes towards work are undergoing something of a sea change among Tokyo salarymen, both those who have left corporate jobs and those who stick it out but yearn for independence. 

Public broadcaster NHK’s comedy program "Salaryman NEO," which pokes fun at the stereotype of the devoted, earnest salaryman, is wildly popular. Tokyo bookstores stock dozens of self-help books on finding work-life balance, and Japanese-language blogs about creating a life outside work abound.

In the midst of continuing pressure to play the role of devoted salaryman there is a tentative but widespread push for some measure of independence and balance among Tokyo’s salarymen. It’s a subtle shift, but in light of past traditions, an inspiring start. 

About the author: Annamarie Sasagawa is from Vancouver and lives in Tokyo. She works in the travel industry and knew very little about Tokyo salaryman life until she married an escapee.

Annamarie submitted this piece as part of CNNGo’s CityPulse section. To find out what other stories we are looking for, go to our CityPulse page