Language | BILINGUAL

For a salaryman in summertime, the living ain't easy

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

This first-person account by a 43-year-old company employee comes from a personal interview by the writer, who has edited and translated the man’s words.

いやな時代だなあ (Iyana jidai da nā, “These are bad times”), said my boss the other day, during 昼休み (hiruyasumi, lunch break) at the neighborhood 居酒屋 (izakaya, Japanese pub) that has a lunch menu ranging from ¥650 (the curry rice) to ¥1,000 (the “steak-don,” or slices of steak on a bowl of rice).

He was talking about the horrific events in Dhaka, in which seven Japanese nationals had been killed. I work for a 大手旅行代理店 (ōteryokōdairiten, major travel agency) so this sort of news gets everyone down and the gloom envelops the office for days.

The conversation shifted to other venues as we got up after downing a really bad アイスコーヒー (aisu kōhii, iced coffee) that came with our meals. And then we walked among the car fumes and under a blazing sun back to the office. 暑いなあ!! (Atsui nā!, “God, it’s hot!”), we say almost in unison, and then laugh with self-deprecation. To avoid sweat stains, we’ve left our suit jackets back at the office but must put them on during 会議 (kaigi, conferences) with お客さん (o-kyaku-san, clients) or slogging through the heat on 外回り (sotomawari, making the rounds of visiting old clients or trying to get new contracts).

Personally, I feel like times are always kind of bad — ever since I graduated from university and got my first job in IT. The hours were hellish, but the term ブラック企業 (burakku kigyō, “black company,” referring to companies guilty of exploitation and mistreatment of employees) wasn’t around in the Japanese media yet and I, with the rest of my 同期 (dōki, colleagues who got into the company the same year), accepted it as the norm.

Ten years later the company went bankrupt, but I managed to line up another job in the nick of time. This was for lower pay, but I have a wife to support, and back then we were serious about having children. The 不妊治療 (funin chiryō, fertility treatments) were breathtakingly expensive, so in the end we decided to call it quits.

To supplement my income, my wife took a part-time job in Ginza at a shoe shop a few years back. Her main job now is to sell sneakers to Chinese tourists, who come in hordes and treat her like a piece of dirt to be trampled on. Her co-workers look away and pretend not to notice. No one wants to deal with the Chinese anymore, but my wife has great people skills and the kind of patience typical to Japanese women over a certain age.

For the past three years we’ve spent our 夏季休暇 (kakikyūka, summer vacations) separately, as the holidays only come up to a total of three days anyway. She goes to an 温泉 (onsen, hot spring) to unwind with her friends in an extended 女子会 (joshikai, girl’s night out) and I stay at home in our condo, drinking beer and watching TV.

By now you’ve caught on that I’m a full-fledged おじさん (ojisan, middle-aged man). I’m saddled with all the familiar ojisan traits: 腰痛 (yōtsū, lower back pain), 加齢臭 (kareishū, body odor of the middle-aged and elderly) and mild 鬱 (utsu, depression). I trudge along, trying to be thankful for the good things in life: nights I can get to the gym; the knowledge that my 両親 (ryōshin, parents) in Yamanashi are all right and can look after themselves; and the fact that I’m on good terms with everyone in my 部 (bu, section), including the young women.

This has become a very important factor in the Japanese workplace. Get on the wrong side of any woman under 30 and you’re deep fried in yesterday’s grease. As a mid-level manager, I’m expected to sit through six コンプライアンス会議 (konpuraiansu kaigi (compliance lectures) a year, just to learn the fine distinctions between セクハラ (sekuhara, sexual harassment), モラハラ (morahara, moral harassment) and パワハラ (pawahara, power harassment), and am well-aware how a 不用意な発言 (fuyōina hatsugen, a casual, unguarded remark) about the length of a woman’s skirt can put me on the blacklist.

But I can’t shake off the inexplicable feeling of ムカつき (mukatsuki, anger) in the mornings as I get ready for work, listening to the weather report informing us that it’s yet another 猛暑日 (mōshobi, extremely hot day).

Back when I was a teen, summers in Japan were more comfortable, or was it just because I was a lithe youth with excellent metabolism? Back then, I loved summers. I was on the school baseball team and we would practice every single day in a hot, dusty field, board trains to impossibly distant locations for tournaments and chug down many liters of 麦茶 (mugicha, barley tea) — which, to this day, evokes memories of joyful, healthy summers.

But then as my wife tells me, 昔を懐かしがるのはおじさんになった証拠 (Mukashi o natsukashigaru no wa ojisan ni natta shōko, “Waxing nostalgic about the past is proof that you’re growing old”). Still, I feel 騙された (damasareta, like I’ve been been played for a fool). Is it fate, or just the realities of Japanese adulthood?