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Salaryman is the term used to denote Japan’s office workers. Living the corporate life in Japan is treated as a cultural status as it is what the economy relies upon. Understanding an office worker’s background in Japan is helpful to grasping the general picture of Japan’s working culture.
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It is a typical weekday morning in Japan and you encounter a man wearing a buttoned-down shirt, walking briskly towards the nearest train station. You might wonder the urgency behind his body language. It’s a high likelihood that you’ve just encountered a salaryman. A “salaryman” is a term used in Japan to refer to any white-collar employee working in a company. Salarymen perform duties related to administrative tasks, managerial roles, and professional positions in sectors such as business, commerce, and finance, to name a few. Basically, there is no one job that falls under “salaryman”.
One of the defining characteristics of a salaryman, aside from their usual work clothes, is their body language and mannerisms. What we mean by this is that a typical salaryman in Japan puts much value towards the virtues of courtesy, punctuality and respect, highly valued in Japanese culture. We can expect salarymen as strict adherents of advancing these cultural aspects in their daily life, such as rushing to make sure they arrive early for work, meetings and the like. You may also see them on the train late at night, a sign of having worked overtime, an ever present quality in Japanese worklife.
No wonder the image of the individual is socially significant in Japan. Their strong working ethics are believed to be the driver of Japan’s economy and the attention they give in their usual tasks is manifested through the stability of their careers.
The working hours of a salaryman in Japan are set to be 7 to 8 hours. Although in practice, the working hours could last between 10 to 13 hours per working day. One might be easily intimidated by the disparity between these cases. But before creating hasty judgments, it is important to understand first the innate or existing practices of a salaryman. This falls under the appropriate etiquette that must be observed in Japanese workplaces.
Punctuality is deeply valued in Japanese culture. As it translates to the working custom in Japan, salarymen are expected to come as early as possible in their workplace. Especially for junior workers or kouhai, the strong respect for time must be manifested at all costs. This leads us to another facet of our discussion: regard for hierarchy. One aspect of that is the senpai-kouhai relationship. It is a form of a senior employee to the junior employee connection that is manifested in every sector of Japan’s society even in workplaces. The senpai serves as a sort of mentor at work, while the junior holds the senpai in deep regard.
Moreover, the company expects that the salaryman must observe courtesy after office hours. Regardless of one’s schedule, salarymen do not often leave the office premises until their seniors have gone by. During seemingly idle hours, they maximize it by doing additional tasks for an indefinite period of time. Salarymen are expected to put first the interest of the company as well as their seniors before their personal motivations.
This leads to an understanding of how the Japanese workplace differentiates from Western ones in the aspect of seniority. An average employee must strictly comply with the demands of their seniors especially when it comes to larger corporate decisions rather than making decisions on their own.
Another important thing in Japanese workplaces would be their spatial office set up. The open office system is the style offices in Japan have adopted for efficient yet monitored communication among employees. Unlike with cubicle office set-up, group collaboration is fostered in the open office plan, another crucial feature in Japan’s workplace. Salarymen are expected to consult with one another throughout the working hours and the consultation must be done rapidly and effectively.
There is no existing data about the average salary of a salaryman in Japan. But in order to give an idea, the average entry-level salary in the sectors in which salarymen are usually employed, such as commerce and finance, is usually around the 3 million to 4 million yen range, depending on the position, company and location. The bonuses they receive twice a year aren’t included but are usually calculated every summer and winter. As most employees are hired straight out of university, the salary increases by seniority - the longer they work for a company, the higher their salary.
Another thing to consider in discussing the salaryman is the stability in their jobs. Salarymen usually spend their life working for a single company. This is slowly changing, as many young people are creating a culture of “changing jobs” and many companies are now hiring mid-career employees based on experience. However, length of time with one company is still heavily tied with the image of commitment and company loyalty.
The dedication of salarymen is compensated with a huge set of benefits; one of which would be healthcare insurance. Similar to other employees in Japan, hefty healthcare insurance coverage is provided to them under Universal Healthcare Law. In this insurance, they are entitled only to paying 30% of the total hospital bill and the government will shoulder the rest.
Another benefit would be their paid leaves. Although it has been a norm in the corporate culture of Japan for employees not to use their leave schedules, the Abe Government enacted a law mandating employees and their employers to take at least 5 days out of their annual paid leave. This is added to the 16 schedule holiday leave in Japan’s calendar. It is still to be seen whether people have been actually taking these paid leaves, however, as the pressure to not inconvenience co-workers has prevented people in the past.
For foreigners who intend to pursue employment opportunities in Japan, they would be entitled to similar working conditions and similar treatment, especially in a Japanese company. It is up to them how they would adjust to the existing culture in corporate life. This necessitates the practice and strict observance and respect to the aforementioned hierarchical orders within offices as well as the duties and responsibilities that a typical salaryman does - all while maintaining the balance between understanding culture, conforming to social norms while also maintaining a sense of individuality.
The importance of a salaryman in Japan must not be disregarded. The support they provide to the backbone of the Japanese economy is very commendable since the conception of its idea. From legislation to professionals themselves, the working culture in Japan has improved considerably, and it remains in the process of this change. Though traditional and established concepts are difficult to remove, the modern take has decided the melding of old and new into the now gradually forming dynamics in workplaces in Japan. Overtime work and strict seniority by age are no longer the absolute norm, although change is gradual.
Needless to say, the young people, the new and fresh workforce, is benefitting from the change of the deeply attached concept of the salaryman. However, as some of these qualities remain, highlighting the unique features of the workforce may be of interest to many people, especially those considering working as a salaryman or salarywoman in the Land of the Rising Sun.
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