What people see: What’s a “salaryman?” “A safe and easy line of work” is how it’s described in one of the lines of a famous song that cemented the “salaryman” concept in the minds of the Japanese decades ago. During the 1970s when the idea of Japan as one big middle-class society became the common belief, comedy films with the ubiquitous salaryman as the main character became popular. Ever since, the everyday joys and sorrows of the salaryman have been the stuff of countless mangas and TV dramas, and had a tremendous influence in shaping the lifestyle and values of Japanese people.
The most recognizable images of the salaryman for many are: the swarm of men in suits during the morning commute, the bowing and exchange of business cards between two company men and the after-work visit to izakayas (Japanese bar-restaurants for common people) after a long day at the office. The oasis they stop to rest—or just slack off—while out of the office on sales or business rounds is the kissaten. The “necessary gear” of the salaryman’s “uniform” is the suit and necktie, the shoulder-strap business bag and a can of coffee in one hand.
The district in Tokyo that comes first on the list of “salaryman areas” is Shimbashi (also written Shinbashi)—often called the seichi (“sacred ground”) of the salaryman. Other districts of Tokyo often mentioned when referring to salarymen are Kanda and Yurakucho (the most representative parts centered around the small eat & drink shops packed under the elevated railway lines), Yaesu and others.
Although the word salaryman is often coupled with expressions like shiganai (lowly) or udatsu ga agaranai (“prosperity that never comes”), everyone knows all too well that “the island nation in the Far East” would never have gotten to where it is today without the sweat and toil of the salaryman. Despite their achievements, however, it’s a well-known fact that the vast majority of people who live the salaryman life will never receive the recognition they deserve. Part of the reason for this is the Japanese culture of humility that would make it embarrassing for them to stand up and talk about their successes, even when they are indeed things to be proud of.
This tradition of unrequited success and humble perseverance may be the reason behind the popularity of fiction with the quiet salaryman as the hero, for they serve as an ointment to soothe the anxieties and uncertainties of real-life salarymen. In fact, in the genres of historical novels and TV dramas as well, the audience that loves stories of the shiganai samurai is just as big as the one that loves stories of heroic samurai. And of course, in the world of anime also, the salaryman is one of the irreplaceable “hero characters” that appear time and again.
In short: “Salaryman” is the common expression used to describe company employees who work under predetermined salaries and employment conditions, and it is used primarily to refer to office workers. It’s a Japanized English term to describe people normally referred to as “office workers” or “white‐collar workers” in English-speaking countries, but it has recently come into use in Europe and North America to mean “a Japanese white‐collar worker.” It’s also used sometimes to mean “the middle-class” or “the average demographic.” Read more The word is also used in Japanese abbreviated or compound words like ri-man (an abbreviation of sarari-man) or datsu-sara (“escaping the salaryman life”). A company’s top management (chairman, president, directors, etc.) are not usually included in the salaryman designation. However, there is a case where a president who is not member of the company’s founding family—and thereby a corporate heir—but one who steadily worked up through the ranks to become president, is referred to as a “salaryman president.”