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Ain’t no cure for the salaryman blues

by

Special To The Japan Times

Writer’s note: This is an excerpt from an interview with a salaryman who wishes to remain anonymous.

Kafka’s character woke up one day to discover he’d turned into a giant bug. Often I feel a similar rush of odoroki (驚き, surprise) wash over me as I realize that this year I’ll be 41, a single Japanese male employed by an electronics mēkā (メーカー, manufacturer) on the outskirts of Tokyo.

I may not be a giant bug, but I’ve turned into a statistic, and I feel like I’ll go crazy if I don’t get this stuff off my chest. Actually, two of my dōryō (同僚, colleagues) were diagnosed with utsu (鬱, depression) and took leaves of absence. Very likely they’re not coming back. I don’t want the same thing happening to me, and they do say that hanaseba raku ni naru (話せば楽になる, “Talking about it helps”).

Shall we start with my job? I’m an engineer but I’m actually better with numbers, so I’ve put in an idō negai (異動願い, transfer request) to go to the keiribu (経理部, accounting department). I’m not optimistic about it — these days, everyone wants to go to keiribu because there’s little of the intense kyōsō (競争, competition) and harassment of all kinds that define life in departments such as engineering and sales.

My tedori (手取り, take-home pay) is about ¥280,000 a month, which is hashitagane (はした金, peanuts) compared to other 41-year-olds in hanagata kigyō (花形企業, flamboyant and successful companies), but that’s OK as long as I’m hitori (独り, single) and don’t have to worry about supporting a wife and kids. I have a car — a Honda kei (軽, light vehicle), I can afford to live in a 1LDK manshon (マンション, condominium) in Kawasaki and I go to soccer matches.

Here’s the source of my anxiety: I’m daijōbu (大丈夫, all right) with the fact that I will probably be family-less for the rest of my life, along with 60-plus percent of Japanese males.

But . . . why am I daijōbu?

At my age, my father was supporting two kids and a stay-at-home wife. He was paying the mortgage on a house with three bedrooms. Like every Japanese sarariiman (サラリーマン, salaryman), he was never home but was nice enough to come to the kids’ undōkai (運動会, sports day event) every year, and when I got into a yūmei daigaku (有名大学, prestigious university) he actually wept a little and told me, “Yoku yatta!” (よく やった, “Good job!”).

I like my dad. But I’ve let him down, and we hardly speak anymore. I feel his disappointment and resentment that I’m not more of a man, doing otokorashii (男らしい, manly) stuff like working myself to the bone so my children can buy video games or my sengyō shufu (専業主婦, homemaker) wife can go out for lunch with her friends.

So I get this huge rettō ishiki (劣等意識, inferiority complex) when I compare myself with my father, or even with some of my dōki (同期, people who were employed the same year) who got married and have pictures of babies on their smartphones.

At the same time, I think, Jōdan janai yo (冗談じゃないよ, Who am I kidding?). Marriage is a huge, expensive deal. With no deai (出会い, date) on the horizon, I would have to register at a konkatsu (婚活, “marriage activities”) agency, the initial fees of which add up to an average of ¥300,000.

Even if a woman were to take a shine to my face and not be fazed by my shūnyū (収入, income) and age, it would take at least another year of dating before we could hope to tie the knot. And by the time I’m ready to have my first child, I’d be 44 or 45.

My wife would probably be in her late 30s — that is, if I’m lucky enough to get someone younger than myself. When my child were finally to become a seijin (成人, an adult [at 20 years old]), I’d be retired, and to keep the kid in college I would have to look for a day job — most likely at some construction site, waving a red stick.

Is that all there is to my jinsei (人生, life)? Can’t a sarariiman be allowed to have good times and spend money on himself? Is that so bad?

The short answer to that is “Yes, it’s bad.” I feel the emptiness of a man who has never sacrificed anything for anyone else. Seven years ago I had a girlfriend and she always told me I was jibun katte de tsumetai (自分勝手で冷たい, self-seeking and cold). She left when I told her she would have to keep working after marriage, because there was no way I could support her and a couple of kids on my salary.

Warugi wa nakatta (悪気はなかった, “I meant no harm”), but looking back, I never did anything to give her real joy. I never cooked her a meal, or walked her back to her apartment after a date. My permanent excuse was “Shigoto de tsukareteru” (仕事で疲れている, “I’m tired from work”), which is the classic sarariiman excuse for everything.

It’s too late now to change. I must continue to be the single sarariiman, staring at my phone to avoid noticing any elderly or disabled people in need of my seat on the train.

Gomen nasai (ごめんなさい, I’m sorry), but I’m so tired.

  • Peter Webber

    It doesn’t seem like a real interview to me. Rather, what the writer would assume someone in such a situation would say. So general. Such a generalization.

  • GBR48

    Japan may have lashings of formal etiquette and traditional expectations, but non-conformity doesn’t actually break any laws. The sky will not fall in.

    People may have less money with a partner and a child, but they may well be happier. Would you rather be exhausted having made your child happy, watching them finally sleeping after a long day, or exhausted after making your boss a few extra Yen? All parents make sacrifices for their children, because it is worth it.

    And no, if you are really happier being single, then there is nothing wrong with that. Embrace it, enjoy it, and stop regretting the alternatives.

    If they haven’t seen it, readers may like to check out the enjoyable 2012 Jdrama ‘Wonderful Single Life’ (‘Kekkon Shinai’) which offers a bit of perspective on a number of topical issues in this area.

    Money is an issue for most of us, but the idea that only the comfortably off can be happy, start a relationship or have kids is rubbish. Japan has plenty of single people of both sexes who would really like to be half of a couple, with or without marriage, and with or without children.

    It won’t drop in your lap, though. You have to make an effort.

  • DrHanibalLecter

    I beg to differ….

    This is one of the essential parts of everyday life in Japan, one of those that makes Japan’s quality of life so ridiculous.

    Any people that accept such rules like any herd of sheep will do, deserves to live like that.

    Take responsibility of your life or live that…. in both cases live with the consequences.
    It is better to move into an internet cafe or become a hikikomori.

  • Sacha Salvatore Morgese

    I like the article and living between Japanese people and working with them I kinda understand what the feelings the man is having. What bothers me is that people realize so late in life (when over 40) that they are unhappy with what they are and what they did so far, but the points he makes are definitely legit.
    He could look for a better job though, since he has enough experience to work for a bigger company.

    He probably should have been nicer to his ex girlfriend, but if they broke up because she didn’t want to work after getting married, he didn’t really miss anything IMO. It’s unbelievable the kind of life this poor men have to do just to provide for a family they can’t even spend time with.

    PS: I don’t really like the way the article is written, throwing Japanese words randomly in. Either write it entirely in English or post the entire interview in Japanese, please. It’s a annoying.

    • CTG018

      It’s partially for studying / learning purposes, so I kinda enjoyed the article – both interesting and educational at the same time.

  • marie sissi

    Happiness doesn’t come from filling the expectation of others or following a certain life style that approved by family / society,happiness is an inside job
    Although i wished if he was more nice to his girlfriend,a life for two requires some compromises from both sides :)
    Sir,be happy, u deserve it as much as anyone else !
    (Arigato Gozaimasu for the article,it was helpful)

  • Chris Bartlett

    Sounds like this guy already has depression. At 41 he could still get married and have kids even on a his salary, he might have to cut down or eliminate a few vices he got used to when he was single, but it would be worth it. There are many women in their late 30s, many with good careers that desperately want to have families but can’t find a husband,

    I hope this guy gets treatment for his depression, cleans up his life, possibly changes to a better job at a better company and manages to rebuild his life. He seems to have a grasp of his situation, so I hope he can get out of the rut before its too late.

  • Chris Bartlett

    I think most people are happiest when they are putting other before themselves. I also think people are happy with family and not enough money than no family and better off. It worries me that so many Japanese is early middle age are unable to settle down and have families when in many cases they really want to or are desperate to. It’s a failure of society, and it’s not a problem unique to Japan.

  • tisho

    The cure is liberalized labor market, liberalized economy.

  • redshoulder

    He is correct, ¥280,000 a month is peanuts. When I started as a new graduate for an Japanese engineering company in the Tohoku region, take home pay was ¥235,000 a month. After 2 years I’m glad I transferred out of Japan, now have nearly double the monthly pay (because of exchange rate) and no daily overtime is a huge plus.

    • Shiki Byakko

      He was talking about 手取り (tedori), which is after taxes and all that stuff, so probably his income is about ¥320,000 or more before taxes.
      It is still not much for someone in his 40’s, even more taking into account that by the way he talks about his company, he has never changed jobs.

      He talks about how co-workers have been diagnosed with depression, which is very common on the so called ブラック会社(burakku-gaisha) or black companies, so it is not a surprise that his pay is so small.

      You can make a lot more in japan es engineer, but you need to be clever and non conformist to actually move up, and have the balls to quit and look up for a better job.

    • Shiki Byakko

      He was talking about 手取り (tedori), which is after taxes and all that stuff, so probably his income is about ¥320,000 or more before taxes.
      It is still not much for someone in his 40’s, even more taking into account that by the way he talks about his company, he has never changed jobs.

      He talks about how co-workers have been diagnosed with depression, which is very common on the so called ブラック会社(burakku-gaisha) or black companies, so it is not a surprise that his pay is so small.

      You can make a lot more in japan es engineer, but you need to be clever and non conformist to actually move up, and have the balls to quit and look up for a better job.

  • Nikki Sterling

    By all means, do not feel bad about not being married. Think of yourself on the other end as you did in the article. Working until the day you die, trying to support the wife, barely have time for your kids, always broke, wishing you had more money, even more tired than you are now. Just because others appear to have what you might want, will you really be happy, or are you thinking about living the life others want you to have? Single people always think marriage would make things better, while married people wish they were single again.

  • Gisele

    ” She left when I told her she would have to keep working after marriage, because there was no way I could support her and a couple of kids on my salary.” Good lord. Why don’t women want to work in Japan? What the hell are they thinking? I live in Brazil, and most women must keep working after marriage and kids, because the husband in most cases can’t support their family by themselves. This is not a Japan thing, it happens in the entire world. Also, japanese men, be nicer towards your girlfriends please. Otherwise, you are going to be single for the rest of your lives indeed.

    • Jay

      Well said. There seems to be two 自分勝手 people here: the woman who is looking for a salary, and not a loving partner; and the man, who couldn’t be bothered to do anything nice to win the lady’s affections. My wife (who is Japanese) and I both work hard at full-time jobs, but we share the housework, too. I think it is the only way the relationship can work and the family can function.

  • Krishan Chandar Joshi

    Hi, a very good morning to you! I would like to request you to
    just change your thought process and you will be able to do everything!!

    It is just a matter of imagination to feel like that! Think
    about a person who is even not having a job at your age and already waving a
    red stick at a construction site but still he is very happy & feels that he
    is well settled, having a lovely wife and two kids as well!

    You are fortunate enough to have a job which is enough to live a
    normal life. Just keep thinking positive and try your best and plan to find a
    life partner to live a happily married life ahead! DO NOT think beyond that,
    trust me you will find your way beyond this point if you are positive enough
    about your life. Wish you all the best
    and a fright future ahead!

  • Shiki Byakko

    The is a cure, but it requires changing fundamental concepts of how and why they live their life.

    This person is probably under the impression that his only future is to keep working in that company, because Japanese people are trained to always strive for stability, he is under the notion that the only stable (or at least most stable) way for him to go is to continue like this for the rest of his life.

    This is a narrow-minded and very biased way to see the world, but that’s how the Japanese society in general sees it. That’s why the bubble collapsed in the 80’s, people who lost their jobs after it became homeless or committed suicide, because in this world view this is equivalent to the end of the world.

  • Shiki Byakko

    The is a cure, but it requires changing fundamental concepts of how and why they live their life.

    This person is probably under the impression that his only future is to keep working in that company, because Japanese people are trained to always strive for stability, he is under the notion that the only stable (or at least most stable) way for him to go is to continue like this for the rest of his life.

    This is a narrow-minded and very biased way to see the world, but that’s how the Japanese society in general sees it. That’s why the bubble collapsed in the 80’s, people who lost their jobs after it became homeless or committed suicide, because in this world view this is equivalent to the end of the world.