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The Noble Sarariman


He was a dupe, a fool, a brainless, clueless buffoon who'd been sold a bag of goods, and willingly sacrificed everything to gain nothing in a world that had quickly gone to garbage.

Who made modern Japan? For his efforts in transforming the country into a western-emulating, liberal-democratic monarchy, Fukuzawa Yukichi often gets the votes. So important was he that we find his face affixed to every 10,000 yen note we pull from our wallets.

Then there is Douglas MacArthur. For his role in post-Pacific war reconstruction, McArthur became not only the shaper of society as we navigate and try to fathom it on these shores, but also the conqueror who might have had his face plastered on those brown rectangular notes. Might have, but for the fact that he was summarily recalled by a president, fearful that old Mac was angling to anoint himself king of the archipelago.

There was the prime minister, Eisaku Sato, another kind of uncrowned king, whose unprecedented (and since unrepeatable) eight-year stint at his party's helm set the standard for political stewardship. During his term Sato managed to normalize South Korean-Japanese relations and wrest Okinawan sovereignty from the United States. Although Sato didn't get his face on a bank note either, he did strike gold with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.

A case could be made for the likes of Nissan or Toyota, the automakers whose go-go export policy of the 1970s influenced the balance of trade for a generation and worked to finally place substantial amounts of paper sporting Fukuzawa's visage in the pockets of the Tanakas and Hashimotos and Suzukis of Japan. Thus, after generations of self-sacrifice and stuffing whatever surplus came their way under tattered futon covers, Mr. and Ms. work-a-day consumer began converting their sudden windfall into gold flakes sprinkled over green-tea ice cream, weekend junkets to Bali, and immense collections of Gucci, Fendi, and Yves Saint Laurent goods.

If you are looking, though, for a class of people who molded today's Japan, then the answer would almost certainly be unanimous: the sarariman. The sarariman is what peoples of the world other than in Japan would call the "salaried worker". This white collared workhorse has been lauded as "the backbone of the country", the "corporate warrior", and the "samurai in modern dress". The sarariman it the uncomplaining drone who is willing to snap up briefcase and laptop and wing to foreign climes at the ping of an e-mail, all in defense of corporation or nation � which, for the past military-less string of decades, has amounted to the same thing. In the eyes of the Japanese, this guy has been god incarnate: he is an authentic contemporary hero. At least this was the case between the mid-1950s and the early 1990s, and if not in public consciusness, then certainly in the hands of ReDotPop: the mirror and pace-setter for key societal trends in Japan.

You thought that this motif of the organization man as warrior was merely a simple-minded American fad of the 1980s? Yes, it's true that back then a frenzied, desperate air wrought by economic exasperation and escalating paranoia among Yank businessmen spurred clever marketers into mining the writings of legendary 17th century warrior, Miyamoto Musashi. They plundered his work for insights into the "samurai business mentality".

However, apart from Madison Avenue publishing, the notion of sarariman as economic soldier has been a relatively stable theme in an array of Japanese media: from movies to television to commercials. More than any other communication form, however, it has been manga (or Japanese comics) that has helped reinforce this caricature. In the words of Yoshihiro Yonezawa, "when Japanese adults became avid manga readers in the mid-1970s, it was the white-collar employee ("salaryman") who was more and more the comic book hero."

This had much to do, of course, with Japan's rising economic clout worldwide. After decades of relative seclusion and international quiescence, Japan was increasingly extending its global presence. Manga writers and consumers were attuned to (and properly proud of) this dramatic transformation.

Manga is not a trivial medium in Japan. First of all, it extends back into the early 19th century. It has become a form of communication that is well-established, widely-consumed, and chock full of cultural significance. The originator of manga was the renowned ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai, a painter with over 30,000 pieces in his portfolio. The term he coined means "whimsical pictures" � a moniker intended to capture his method of allowing the brush to glide across the page at random.

By now, manga is so well-ensconced in ReDotPopdom that, according to one author, its annual aggregate circulation in 1989 was 1.16 billion, or 27% of the total books and magazines sold in Japan. Another author claims that in 1995, manga accounted for 2.25 billion units sold, or 47% of all published material. That year, Shonen Jump, a popular weekly magazine for boys, sold over six million copies a week. A statistic reported in 2001 on Japanese television claimed that in excess of 5 billion comics are printed in Japan per year � a figure which averages out to nearly 15 million a day.

Although accurate figures are difficult to assemble, John Lent, an expert on comics in Asia, has averred that "the hugeness of the Japanese comic art industry has no parallel in the world. A number of magazines top one million circulation, and cartoonists are among the highest-paid individuals in the nation."

Within the manga form, scores of genres exist: from those targeted for young girls to those focused on sports; from those centering on science fiction to those depicting gay love. As in the case of the western superheroes Superwoman or Batman, many manga feature a central character whose activities are presented in serialized form.

What's the point? Well, for our purposes the point is that during the 1990s a number of manga about sararimen began to appear. The most famous of these was probably Hiroshi Motomiya's Sarariman Kintaro. Its breakaway popularity has led to incarnations as movie, television series, and even commercials. Three other series of note include Kenshi Hirokane's "Section Chief Shima Kosaku" at the end of the 1980s; Juzo Yamasaki and Ken-ichi Kitami's Tsuri-baka Nisshi (Fishing Fool, Nisshi); and Norio Hayashi and Ken-ichiro Takai's Somubu Somuka Yamaguchi Roppeita.

Although all these manga are set in the corporate world and center around the activities of contemporary sararimen, they are far from identical. Shima is a middle-aged section manager, while Nisshi is a middle-echelon employee. Nisshi's preference is for fishing over work, while Shima can be characterized as work-obsessed. His style is uncompromising and hard-charging. Commensurately, Shima's activities are dramatic: he will often travel overseas or engage in corporate in-fighting with rivals; Nisshi's life, by contrast, is rather quiescent and unassuming. And yet, it is his humble hobby that often serves as magical spur, unexpectedly resolving problems in the "unnatural" corporate milieu. Thus, while Shima fits the mould of a "classical" dramatic action hero, Nisshi, is, by contrast, less god-like; more off-beat.

Of all the sarariman heroes, however, Kintaro is, by far, the quirkiest. He is certainly possessive of the most volatile character. A former biker (punk and social misfit), he has been known to retreat into the persona of lout: shouting, shoving, punching and kicking are part of his corporate relations bag of tricks. In the early series, one of his stock phrases was akin to: "Don't fuck around with a sarariman, dude." Emblematic of Kintaro's no-nonsense demeanor is the following scene, in which he screams at the board of directors: "Everything you do is to maintain your image! All Japanese companies cover themselves with lies and produce foolish results!"

It should hardly come as a surprise that Kintaro's creator acknowledges the fantasy in all this. His hero would not survive even one day in the actual corporate world. Nonetheless, and perhaps because of this, consumers have taken to Kintaro. As one bookseller asserts, "Most of our buyers are salaried workers in their 40s who would like to do the things Kintaro does in the story. I think he encourages workers that they can be successful without a certain education or background." (See CS In other words, Kintaro provides a fantasy-projection of how one might buck the structural realities that tend to rule the lion's share of these mice's lives.

The major debate about Japan among Japanologists over the past decade has been the degree to which the country is monolithic. Is there only one Japan, only one kind of Japanese? For decades the answer had been "yes". But look at any corner of ReDotPop for longer than the time it takes to scan a list of current movies or survey the titles in a convenience store magazine rack, and the answer is clearly otherwise.

Surely, considering the range of characters that have struck positive chords among the manga consumer, it is hard to maintain that a singular heroic type exists. Kintaro is a lone wolf, a brat and bully. Shima is a fence-swinger, a higher striver than any of the other sarariman heroes. Yamaguchi, by contrast, places ambition on the back burner. His motivation comes from his good-natured preference for harmony.

What is consistent about all of these heroes, though, is their opposition to what is dysfunctional in the organizations that house them. Kintaro rails against the traditional approach taken by his rigid, conservative company. Shima continually confronts the villains and gamers who are wreaking havoc in his organization. Yamaguchi aims in every story to resolve personal conflicts and petty troubles within the company.

This has significance out in the "real world". For, whether in aggregate or isolation, these sarariman heroes serve as models for harried commuters burdened by an unending life tied to the organizational treadmill. As Yonezawa has suggested, "'Salaryman' manga depict everyday situations readers can identify with. They suggest how we might solve our own problems, and offer a release for negative, pent-up emotions."

At the same time, he continues, "the adventures and idealism of such heroes give readers an opportunity to escape from mundane reality." In Yonezawa's opinion, manga white-collar workers "may seem like bantamweights" when placed alongside the comic book superheroes of other spaces and times, "but they achieve something valuable for their companies, triumph over rivals, and remain true to their ideals � taking on heroic proportions for readers today."

In short, all of these sararimen are something more than mere economic drones. Far from expendable resources, they all are earnestly engaged in waging battle for the good of their company; they are acting in the name of a noble cause.

Well . . . this is how it was until a few years ago, anyway. Then came Japan's bursting bubble: speculation in real estate that over-inflated the price of land, which led to irrational levels of debt acquisition by companies unable to repay their loans. Their defaulting not only bankrupted individual businesses, but also the many satellite organizations feeding off of them � such as construction and design and electrical and plumbing � and not only the many employees supported in these industries, but the banks who extended all the illusory money that underwrote all these business, as well.

And it was all whose fault? The sarariman's, of course. Which is why as the 1990s hit their stride there was a healthy amount of sarariman dunking going on. TV commercials were big in this regard: replacing the image of armies of workers conquering foreign climes with depictions of armies of ants scattered maliciously (and gleefully) by a dark suited worker: frustrated, imperious, turning the tables, emulating his life as grunt in the chain of command. Similarly, worker bees soon became a suitable substitute for the white collared warrior, buzzing home to their simple hives; monkeys were also a serviceable icon, mindlessly carrying out repetitive tasks. All too soon, the once-widespread representation of sarariman as bold, proud, conquering hero had all but vanished from public view in lieu of depictions of over-worked, harried, slovenly, unsympathetic, inarticulate louts.

Approaching the millennium, times got even tougher for the noble sarariman. Now, comprising a major chunk of the aging demographic, he was no longer part of the "Three Highs" of physical height, education, and salary sought by so many young brides-in-waiting a decade before; he was now reflected by the "Three Ks" of kusai, kitanai, kirai (literally: smelly, dirty, disliked), scorned by wives and youth, alike. The sarariman became the butt of jokes, the object of younger scorn. He was a dupe, a fool, a brainless, clueless buffoon who'd been sold a bag of goods, and willingly sacrificed everything to gain nothing in a world that had quickly gone to garbage.

And so it was until a week or so ago. When, in one simple act, reversal of fortune was achieved. Now, thanks to one humble human being, sararimen are all the rage, again: returned to their status of respectable and possibly even respected. This time, our hero's name is Koichi Tanaka, and he's nothing like the globetrotting Shimizu or the acid-mouthed Kintaro. No, our guy is an unassuming functionary inhabiting the second-to-bottom-most rung in a company that develops precision equipment for science.

In other words, this is a guy who shows up to work at 9a.m. in jeans, dons a company windbreaker and slacks, clips on a tie, inserts a couple of ball point pens and a number 2 pencil or two into the plastic case crammed in his left breast pocket, and then goes into the lab and designs machinery 'til round about midnight. He is the kind of drone who toils endlessly on inconsequential task after non-descript project, until one day he happened to make a mistake and � importantly for the unfurling of his fate � recognized the significance of his error, then went on to extrapolate from, explain and apply it, such that he created one of the most important discoveries of the past few years. Whatever it was.

Actually, the discovery � which developed a method of mass spectrometry for use on large molecules � occurred years ago. And, for all his trouble, as befitting a lowly employee, Tanaka received the paltry congratulatory sum of $1,000 from the company who smugly patented his discovery. And then of course that patent led to Tanaka's receiving the Nobel Prize, which more important than its reverberations in science, has led to the seismic shift that has transpired in the public perceptions of the sarariman. After all, you pocket one of those awards and that should be sufficient to obliterate a half-life of swelling scorn.

Tanaka is a Japanese original. That may sound like an oxymoron, I know. After all, how often do we hear "Japan" and think only of a faceless, undifferentiated crowd? Our preconception of Japan is that everyone wears the same things, eats the same stuff, thinks the same way, acts identically. But, this guy Tanaka: he's the first Japanese to be honored with a Nobel in the natural sciences, and he doesn't even have a doctorate. He's also the guy that prompted Japan's 2000 Nobel winner in chemistry to utter in confusion: "What kind of a person is this?'' A strange cat, indeed. Tanaka has long refused to take a promotion exam simply because "Promotion to a higher position would keep me from research (and) I wish . . . to continue pursuing my research.''

So, Tanaka is a good story all the way around. The media have lapped him up eagerly. He is the lead on the news, his life is picked apart, his public appearances filmed, his press conferences quoted, his superiors interviewed. Above all, though, this man is excellent data. For, you wouldn't believe the volume of nay-sayers populating the scholarly ranks who have asserted that Japan is and has always been a cookie-cutter society. "Here comes another one down the pike, cut in the same pattern, pulled from identical dough."

Although, increasingly, one hears that this idea of a group-based society is a fist of cards that has been way overplayed, it helps to have a flesh-and-blood example to point to. Sure, we can say that Japan is full of individualists, folks with maverick ideas, strong personalities, and unique approaches to life � "It has always been that way," we can say "from feudal times forward", � but who do we have to point to, other than, say, Yoko Ono? And she may not be the very example because look what happened to her. She was so deviant and marginalized over here, as woman, as artist, that she had to flee to England to create. And even then, no one ever quite understood or appreciated her.

But Tanaka is a man and so (alas, but true) is saddled with less of that institutional resistance. Besides, now that he has a Nobel in his pocket and enough money to tell people to shag off; he basically can be as original (or not) as he pleases. The man's got it made. It helps, though, that he seems to be a nice person. At ease with himself, Tanaka seems possessive of a good-natured disposition. Most importantly; he seems not to be too much taken with himself; as reflected in the palpable dose of honest to goodness bewilderment at his sudden great fortune.

"I was at a loss over what was happening yesterday. I was so stunned,'' he told the media. "But seeing my face in the newspapers and television this morning jolted me into reality. I really did win it.''

Tanaka is both bemused but also disturbed by his Nobel. At a recent press conference for foreign correspondents, he gamely tried to answer questions in English, but ultimately turned to a translator. After searching for an answer to the question: "What would you like to say above all about your current situation" he replied (in English): "That's hard to say even in Japanese."

Finally he settled on a phrase that the translator played for fullest effect; dramatically enunciating: "LEAVE . . . ME . . . ALONE!" A phrase that many a Japanese would love to utter � a statement that in the course of any "normal" life builds to crescendo with each passing year given the many structures one sits embedded within. No matter how many times one dreams of blaring this to a parent or colleague or spouse or boss, rarely would s/he ever actually say so. Unless, of course, s/he has a Nobel pinned right there on the old lapel.

So, we are always wondering in this space about what all this means for Japan. Is it changing? Is the popular culture contributing to that change? Well, when we regard this case that the media has affectionately dubbed "the Nobel sarariman", we can see a powerful short-term impact. It is true, of course, that the rehabilitation of the sarariman may actually have begun with the song-turned TV drama-turned ad campaign-turned movie, ashita ga aru sa. As I suggested in an earlier column on that theme, perhaps it was becoming time to fawn over sararimen again. But with a Nobel prize winner in their corner now, sararimen everywhere can breath that much easier. Their rehabilitation is now about complete.

The reason that Tanaka's story has so captivated the Japanese imagination is its irony, and its existential enormity. In this society � historically so rigidly structured, with human relationships so clearly delineated, and human possibilities so self-evidently pre-determined � the idea that a spotlight could suddenly shine in a remote corner of the social tide pool and reveal all at once that what we assumed to be but a meager speck of sand was actually a glorious glinting pearl . . . well, that was simply too delicious.

Accompanying structure these many centuries has been a noble fatalism: the notion that all humans are assigned a lot in life and must quietly serve out that sentence; however unfortunate or unfair. That, in a nutshell, was the samurai's fate. And for over two generations, it has been the sarariman's, as well. Until Tanaka Koichi, that is.

Sararimen, Koichi showed us, do not have to live out a tragic opera. They can be more than cogs in an immense, anonymizing system. They can be gems capable of producing works of originality, elegance, and profound social significance. And, whether they wish it or not, they can be accorded the recognition that they deserve. And possibly, just maybe, they can provide a hint of a world full of more extensive individual freedom and greater human possibility.

* * * *

For more TJM Holden on Japanese culture, click here to read about advertising, and here to read about identity.

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