Just your average, run-of-the-mill salaryman sings the blues


So let me introduce myself. I’m your futsu (run-of-the-mill), heikin (average) salaryman, nothing special. What’s wrong with that? I can remember a time when this particular jiko-shokai (self-introduction) at company functions and karaoke parties was perfectly acceptable — even welcomed.

Then, it indicated a combination of inner confidence and modesty. Now, of course, combining the word “heikin” with the word “salaryman” immediately translates into dasai (uncool), nasakenai (clueless) and oyaji (middle-aged guy). This is unfair. In my younger years, we were taught to keep our heads down, that deru kugi wa utareru (the nail that sticks out gets hammered down).

Now the norm is to stick way out, and it is believed that the more hitting you get, the stronger you become. They call it utarezuyoi (able to take blows). Who do they think we are, Bruce Willis? Plus, we’re expected to be surudoi (scintillating), omoshiroi (interesting) and dokusoteki (individualist). Lately, the company distributed a manual on how to develop these three traits, and it’s mandatory reading. My own feeling on this is: “Kanben shiteyo (Give me a break).”

Things are hardly better at home. Don’t ask me about the 35-year mortgage, prerequisite of salaryman living. Never mind that the contractor gave us a raw deal and that we’re stuck with a kekkan jutaku (flawed house), made partly from mysterious shinkenzai (new building materials), which puts us in the increasing category of people who suffer from “sick-house syndrome.”

We’ve been through some bad allergies, and it’s due to the plastic and glue. But to me, “sick house” also suggests something else. A house where family members don’t communicate and everyone’s shut in their own rooms with their own TVs. A house like mine. Some of the younger women at work said the Japanese family is the unhappiest, most dysfunctional group in the world, and I’m inclined to agree.

But why? It’s true my wife and I don’t talk, but is that all my fault? I feel part of the problem is that society changed too fast in the past 30 years for men to adjust, whereas adjustment seems to come naturally to the fairer sex.

This logic drives my wife nuts. She says I’m copping out, refusing to change, etc. I don’t think I deserve that. I work very hard, commute three hours a day, worry about the children. I remember how my own parents had always gotten along even if they didn’t talk. My mother was immersed in the housework, as all women were in those days, and my father would come home, sit down with the paper and occasionally say things like: “Hmm, Cabinet’s going to fold” and “Okawari (seconds)” and “I’ll have some beer.” Did my mom complain? Not a bit. Her husband was a steady and reliable family man who preferred to drink his beer at home, so things were OK between them.

Now we’re told that if a man said things like that and called it conversation, he’s likely to get sued. During the boom in the ’80s, salarymen were so busy and tired all they could manage to mutter when they got home were what have now become the three absolute taboos: furo (bath), meshi (meal) and neru (sleep).

The wives felt miffed and enrolled en masse in the eki-mae karucha senta (the station-adjacent culture center) to learn stuff like Heian Period literature. They came home with new friends and ideas that eventually led to them asking for divorce. You will recall how jukunen rikon (divorce at a ripe age) became a national phenomenon and terrorized men so that they have trodden softly forever after.

Sad, isn’t it? On top of having to work ourselves to the bone and be scintillating at the office, we have to be extra yasashii (nice) and entertaining at home.

I’m surprised we weren’t handed instruction manuals.