Books / Reviews

Looking at Westerners' accounts of the salaryman blues

by Chris Bamforth

THE BLUE-EYED SALARYMAN by Niall Murtagh. Profile Books, 2006, 228 pp., £7.99 (paper).

The phenomenon didn’t start with Lafcadio Hearn, but in his day he became best known for it — the foreigner who comes to Japan and writes a book about his experiences. His female contemporary, Isabella Bird, was a remarkable Victorian explorer who took herself off on great treks to then-obscure spots of the globe, among them Japan in 1878. Bird traveled Japan’s little-known back country and Hearn deeply studied Japanese culture, but now, apparently, all you need do to find material for a book is come to Japan and get yourself a job.

Laura Kriska’s 1997 “The Accidental Office Lady” recounts her two years at Honda. Darius Mehri’s 2005 “Notes from Toyota-Land” chronicles his three years with that automaker. Niall Murtagh’s “The Blue-Eyed Salaryman,” also published in 2005, describes how he went, according to the subtitle, “from world traveller to lifer at Mitsubishi.” Since Murtagh bailed out of the firm after 15 years, though, that “lifer” epithet sounds a little strained.

Murtagh relates how he took his Ph.D. in computing at Tokyo’s Tokodai University and got hired by Mitsubishi. He then covers the well-trodden turf of the foreigner coping with Japanese society — foreigner-averse real-estate agents, life in a wooden-frame building, neighbors complaining about the noise — all, of course, mundane matter to anyone who has spent any time in Japan.

His book is at its best when detailing the banal bureaucracy that is probably endemic to most large-scale organizations but somehow seems to flourish extraordinarily well in Japanese corporations. At one mandatory safety meeting, Murtagh and colleagues have to identify potentially dangerous areas in the workplace and end up straight-facedly discussing the perils posed by suddenly opening toilet doors and nicking one’s fingers on sheets of paper.

Murtagh is also good when depicting the hypocrisy at work in Mitsubishi. He feels rightly indignant when, following a scandal in which senior management got caught for having dealt with sokaiya (corporate racketeers), Head Office tries to displace some of its guilt by lecturing employees on the ills of indulging in unethical behavior.

Landing upon such areas, though, demands quite some dedication on the part of the reader. Little really happens in this episodic narrative: Murtagh gets a couple of promotions and gets married; he has a couple of kids and is forcibly transferred from Yokohama to Osaka; he almost takes part in a strike.

All this is the stuff of blogs and not that entertaining. The book would certainly also make for a more agreeable read if the author had managed to avoid the autobiographical weakness of casting himself constantly in the most favorable light — as the sole vessel of sense and sanity in a sea of fools.

Among the three aforementioned titles, Kriska’s has the merit of observing the male-dominated company world from the perspective of a woman. Mehri’s book tackles the darker side of Japan’s industrial machine, addressing such issues as employee bullying, death from overwork, racial discrimination against Bangladeshi, Iranian and Korean workers, and the dangerous tendency to emphasize production speed and efficiency over safety.

Murtagh talks mainly about himself, the projects he worked on, the endless strings of meetings he attended and his involvement in such company practices as emergency drills. Reading one of these books is instructive in certain ways. But after having tackled one, it would take considerable stamina to plow through another.