Updated February 4, 2023
Life of a Japanese Salaryman: An Insider's View
In Japanese society, everyone has a role to fulfill.
Every person grows up to join one of the building blocks of society if they want to build a good life for themselves. And becoming a Japanese salaryman is perhaps the most prominent out of all these building blocks.
Being a Japanese “salaryman” is the definition of corporate work culture in Japan, and this is exactly why I wanted to write about it.
In today’s post, I’ll explain what a salaryman is in Japan, what they do, and what their work schedule looks like. I’ll also talk about the culture surrounding the Japanese salaryman and how the usual career trajectory looks for one.
Let’s begin with a definition.
What Is a Japanese Salaryman?
In Japan, job security is sacred. It’s what the parents start planning for, sometimes when their children are barely toddlers.
Many Japanese parents plan their kids’ education out as perfectly as possible — starting from preschool — so that their kids can be hired by companies right out of college. And while things are changing recently, Japan is known for having lifetime employment. Once someone is hired at a traditional Japanese company, it’s for life.
Of course, changing jobs has become more popular in the last couple of decades, but there are still many remnants of the lifelong employment system, and still plenty of “salarymen”.
In return for the promise of lifelong employment, each of these individuals becomes a salaryman. These people pledge their loyalty to their company, and they set aside their personal lives somewhat to become loyal company men, or “salarymen.”
In the traditional sense, a Japanese salaryman is essentially a loyal, white-collar employee of a big corporation — a middle-class office worker.
They get up early, often work long hours and put their work above everything else, even their family. They walk around in dark-colored suits and go out for drinks after work with their colleagues until they’re barely able to catch the last train home at midnight, only to repeat it again the next day.
Culturally, the term salaryman came about when companies started hiring people right out of college in postwar Japan. Even though the economic recession of the 90s changed the culture around working quite a bit, salarymen still exist in industries that are more on the “traditional side” today.
Now, let’s take a look at what these salarymen do and what their lives look like.
What Does a Japanese Salaryman Do?
Let me start by saying that there isn’t a specific job title that describes a salaryman. As I explained, a salaryman is a white-collar office worker, and they can work in a variety of industries.
However, the concept of salaryman mostly exists in the more traditional industries like finance, commerce, and business in general.
It’s only natural, as the concept of corporate loyalty is becoming less and less prevalent today. Companies in the tech industry, as well as startup companies, are abandoning the idea of having salarymen employees for life in favor of individualist concepts like work-life balance and employee rights.
Nowadays, you’ll see most of these salarymen working in administrative and managerial roles at banks or big traditional commerce or manufacturing companies.
Their work is pretty much secure from the get-go, as they are usually hired when they’re still in their third or fourth year of college. They can work at the same company forever, climbing the company ladder as they grow old without having to worry about getting fired.
However, the cons mostly outweigh the pros here, as they usually work long hours under strict conditions.
The Work Environment of a Japanese Salaryman
The traditional Japanese workplace can be hard to get used to, especially if you’re from the U.S. or from another western country.
I already explained this in detail in my post on the tricky parts of navigating a Japanese workplace, but unless you’re working at a foreign tech company or a startup, your work environment is likely to be a strict one.
However, a strict workplace doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be treated badly. On the contrary, you’ll find that people in Japan — especially in the workplace — are actually quite nice and respectful. The key concept here is respect, of course.
After all, Japan is a high-context society, which means that the tone of communication is usually determined by the titles of the people speaking, and respect plays a big role in the Japanese culture because of this.
As an employee, you’re expected to treat your superiors with respect, and this usually means having to nod your head and say yes to pretty much everything. Even if you think your employer is at fault, or even if you don’t understand the task at hand, not agreeing can be seen as rude.
Also, showing respect for people’s time is deemed very important as well. Salarymen are expected to come in for work as early as possible, and certainly before their managers/employers show up, simply because nobody wants to risk wasting time. This way, employees have time to get settled, and they’re ready to start working as soon as the work day officially begins.
Luckily, outside of the traditional Japanese business world, things are changing. There’s an expanding alternative business world that’s bound to consume most of the tradition-fueled practices eventually, but there’s still a way to go.
This is part of the reason why I started Japan Dev, to find thegood companies and promote them. I wanted to highlight the companies that value human life and allow their employees to have a good work-life balance, of which I explained the current state in a recent post.
Speaking of which…
The Work-Life Balance
A typical day for a Japanese salaryman starts early.
As these people are mostly middle-class workers, not all of them are fortunate enough to live close to work in the city center. So, most of them wake up early to commute, and some even sleep on the train, as commuting can sometimes take an hour or longer.
The days are long, too, as most salarymen work 7 to 8 hours officially, but they often end up staying at the office for 10-13 hours a day in total. Obviously, that can be brutal when it becomes your daily routine.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an overtime system in place, though. As I mentioned in my post on overtime in Japan, overtime is protected by the Japanese Labour Standards Law. However, this isn’t to say illegal overtime practices are non-existent.
Some companies force their employees to stay at the office after work for “seminars” or for “self-improvement,” while some can include a set amount of overtime in your contract to avoid paying the increased rate for the extra hours.
A Reddit user even states that the company he works for frequently made him miss the last train ride home to do unpaid overtime. Apparently, his employer thought that his apartment was only 2 km away and that he could “walk home.”
When you work as a typical salaryman in Japan, these are all in the realm of possibilities. However, overtime work isn’t the only culprit for the long work days these people have.
The nomikai culture is perhaps one of the most well-known talking points when it comes to the life of employment in Japan. The term simply refers to going out for drinking with your boss and colleagues after work, but its significance for the Japanese work culture is bigger than that.
Essentially, although they are less prevalent today, nomikais are an important way to connect and communicate with your coworkers and network with your managers or team leads.
Though they aren’t mandatory per se, most employees feel the need to attend these after-work parties because that’s the only way they can build relationships with each other. After all, socializing with coworkers during work hours isn’t that common at a traditional Japanese office.
Going to a nomikai can also feel mandatory because employees feel pressured to leave a good impression. Not socializing with coworkers might even lead to the delay of an expected promotion.
I explained what nomikais are and how you can survive them in another post in detail. I recommend you check that one out if you’re unfamiliar with the culture and intend to work in Japan.
Typical Career Trajectory of a Japanese Salaryman
As I mentioned, salarymen are usually hired for life. While this provides lifelong job security, it also provides a predictable career path. As the concept of salarymen is an established part of the culture, a salaryman’s career path is pretty much determined from the get-go.
Hiring and Training
Students usually get hired during their last year in college. Companies hire once a year when the year’s seniors are nearing graduation. Once employed, students begin their training to become a part of the workforce.
They learn to communicate in a business setting and how to show respect to their superiors. They also learn the job under the supervision of more experienced employees.
A New Career Begins
As April 1 is the beginning of the fiscal year in Japan, it’s when new hires officially start their jobs. However, they won't be doing the same thing for more than a year, as companies usually rotate their employees’ roles in March every year before the new fiscal term begins.
Each year, the new hires get a broader view of the operations of their company by working in a variety of positions. This rotation system continues for a while until the employee is well-versed in all operations of the company.
When the salarymen are around 30, they usually get promoted to their first supervisor role (Kacho), overlooking new hires who are younger than them. This is because traditional Japanese companies don’t allow employees to supervise people who are older than themselves due to “respect.”
Throughout their careers, employees are usually transferred from branch to branch if the company has offices in other locations. Eventually, at around age 40, they become “Bucho,” which means department lead.
After this point, some middle-aged employees tend to get fatigued, and the years of overworking catch up to them. If management notices an employee underperforming at this point, they simply move them to “the window side” and take away some of their responsibilities.
These people are referred to as “Madogiwa Zoku” or “the window tribe.” Almost every traditional office has at least a few of these employees, and they usually sit around doing small, mundane tasks.
Later Career Stages
Finally, somewhere between the ages of 40 and 50, department leads are usually promoted to senior management. If that’s not the case, they commonly have obscure positions at the company as resident Madogiwa Zoku members awaiting retirement.
For those who aren’t climbing up the corporate ladder, retirement usually happens between the ages of 55 to 65. However, they don’t stop working at this age. They usually get placed in smaller branches or get demoted to smaller jobs with less pay.
Those who are at the senior management level, on the other hand, might continue working in the same position until they decide to retire for good.
As I close out today’s post, I’d like to leave you with a couple of resources that I believe will be helpful. The first one is my post on becoming a manager, which I think will be an interesting read for developers who are considering management positions.
Lastly, the other post I’d like to share is my guide to finding a job as a software developer in Japan. I recommend reading this if you’re looking for a job, as I shared some great tips, all based on my personal experience.
As I already explained, things are changing outside of the traditional Japanese business world.
If you’re interested in working at a “modern tech company” in Japan, I recommend you checkthe Japan Dev company listsince all of the companies allow their employees to have a good work-life balance.
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