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Big in Japan: Drunken Salarymen

The Japanese working tradition includes long hours, limited vacations, endless rules, tyrant-like bosses and a myriad of other complexities too difficult for the Western brain to comprehend. In this country, the first year of a recent college graduate's working life often consists of seven-day work weeks with few days off during the course of that year. And that's if he or she is lucky enough to get placed with a respectable company.

The Japanese are extremely hardworking and dedicated to their companies (even though many people don't to anything all day long). However, the concept of work here is radically different from what we are used to at home.

I was out to dinner not too long ago with some Japanese friends and, of course, the topic of conversation eventually turned to work. One of the women we were dining with is in the fashion business doing PR for the Tokyo office of a French luxury brand. She enthusiastically told us how much she loved her job, extolling the virtues, benefits and flexibility of her company.

"It's great," she said. "We get two vacation days every month."

"Wow," I said with a little bitterness. "It must be great to have that much time off every month."

"Oh, it is," she replied. "We even get to wear casual clothes on Saturday and Sunday."

Then it dawned on me. The two days to which she was referring were not in addition to her normal weekends; they were her normal weekends. She only got two days off per month, and was completely satisfied with this arrangement.

Totally perplexed and disgusted, I prodded her with a barrage of questions in order to get to the bottom of this travesty. My questions were met with a quizzical look, and she couldn't understand why I was getting so worked up about this issue. The straw that broke the camel's back, and ruined the dinner, was when I pointed out to her that this arrangement was most certainly illegal and suggested she take it up with her boss.

Perhaps this type of work is not so unheard of. People in the States also work long, unreasonable hours and sometimes must sleep in the office as their Japanese counterparts do. However, I know for a fact that karoshi (working to death) is not nearly as common in the United States as it is here.

Another cultural difference that separates the Japanese style of overwork from other countries is the salaryman and his propensity to follow his long working hours with equally long drinking sessions. Many times these drinking bouts last late into the night, often after the "shuden" or last train (usually between midnight and 1 a.m.) home has departed the station.

It is not uncommon to see drunken salarymen propping each other up and stumbling their way to the train station only to lie down and pass out five yards before reaching their destination. Another familiar sight is the salaryman unconscious in an upright position with vomit caked on his shoes and/or briefcase. Sometimes people get emotional, crying their eyes out or stubbornly refusing to board the train home. Even more bizzare is that the next morning they wake up, go to the Don Quijote, buy a new shirt and head into the office early. The boss won't get angry because it is entirely likely that he was the instigator of the previous night's drinking bout.

What makes this all the more interesting is the complete and total social acceptance of this behavior. Rarely will the police bother a drunken salaryman, despite his behavior. Public urination, no problem, as long as you are drunk. Loud, obnoxious arguments, no worries, as long as you are tanked.

If you happen to be headed home around the time of the last train on any given night and must pass through one of Tokyo's major transportation hubs (Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya), chances are high - though higher on Friday - you will encounter a few drunken company workers who have unwillingly tucked in for the night on the steps near the train.

All varieties of drunken experiences are possible. My personal favorite occurred one night this fall. I was on my way home around midnight and was about to pass through the turnstile at Shibuya Station in west Tokyo. Right before the main "hachiko" entrance to the station there is a row of public telephone booths (yes, they still exist here). It was there that I encountered a tiny salaryman so inebriated that he could only have been described as "stupid drunk."

The man was engaged in a losing battle made so much worse by his obvious state of intoxication: He was trying to exit the phone booth.

Time and time again he pushed on the sliding door on which he should have been pulling, all the while uttering unintelligible curses at the booth. When he finally managed, completely by accident, to open the door of the phone booth, he immediately collapsed to the pavement, lying with his legs inside the booth and the upper half of his body on the outside.

Thinking it was over, I began to move towards the station. Just as I passed him, however, the salaryman remembered that he had not actually made his phone call, which was his intention before getting chesty with the door in the first place. The absurd drunken ballet repeated itself and the coda occurred when the man gave up, and slumped down next to the booth for a few hours of much-needed rest.

Fascinating? Disturbing? Most certainly. However, tolerance of this type of behavior is even more curious considering this country's total and complete intolerance of any other kind of intoxication. For example, when a foreign sumo wrestler was found to possess a joint and a pipe with traces of THC, he was kicked out of sumo and deported in less than a week.

The social culture in Japan is passive; aggressiveness is considered offensive. However, when it comes to drinking off the work day, the salaryman gets a pass. I guess a seven-day work week is a small price to pay for the privilege.


Japanese Salary Man Tries To Sober Up


Total Trashoid Salary Man


Completely Trashed Salary Man


Previously in Big in Japan:
* Not Fukudome
* The Yokohama Cubs
* The Chicago Way
* Not The Olympics
* Charisma Man
* Not American Football
* J-Girl Style
* Chicago Blues
* Obama


Posted on November 18, 2008

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