The salaryman in Japanese business culture
In the previous section on the central role of the company in Japanese business culture, we noted that Japan is the land of the company man, or to use the colloquial Japanese term the ‘salaryman’. Japanese politicians know that understanding Japan’s salarymen and their families is essential to success at the polls: similarly, understanding them is essential to understanding Japanese business culture and succeeding doing business in Japan. In this section, I will try to give you an insider view based on my experience dealing with hundreds of Japan’s salarymen during more than two decades doing business in Japan.
To understand the salaryman, how he influences Japanese business culture and doing business in Japan, we will study Tanaka-san, a 35 year-old ‘rising star’ salaryman who is a departmental manager at a large Japanese corporation. In a sense, Tanaka-san’s business life started when he was just 2 or 3 years old. He is an only child whose parents knew that if he were to become a respectable salaryman working for a secure and respectable Japanese company, that company would only recruit him if he graduated from a top university. Tanaka-san’s father was a general manager at a Japanese multinational consumer electronics company and earned a good salary, but to put two children through a top university would have been beyond his father’s salary, so Tanaka-san, as with many Japanese born after 1980, is an only child.
By the time Tanaka-san was 3, his mother had already investigated which kindergarten, which grade school, which junior-high school, and which high school would best enhance his chances of entering a top university. His father approved the decisions, but it was Tanaka-san’s mother who researched and decided. Tanaka-san’s father left home each weekday at 7:00am for the 1½ hour commute to his office near Tokyo Station. By the time his father returned home to Tama City at 10:00pm each night, he was too tired to do anything but eat his late dinner and sleep. On Saturdays he would also go to his office, so the only time Tanaka-san ever really spent time with his father was on Sundays, when his father would do his family service. So Tanaka-san’s mother researched the decisions and his father approved them.
When Tanaka-san started work at the company, he had no idea (and neither did the company) what job in what department he would eventually occupy. Together with 500 new employees, he entered the six months’ induction course and upon completion HR placed him in a junior job in the company’s accounting division. He made a lot of friends during induction training and even though those friends moved to different divisions and offices, he will stay in contact with them throughout his working life.
During the next 5 years, the company’s HR division rotated Tanaka-san through 5 different departments starting on April 1 each year: one year in accounts, one year in patents and intellectual property, one year in production, one year in purchasing, and one year in sales. Tanaka-san’s supervisors liked that he did not make mistakes, did not take risks, and got on well with his co-workers: at the end of his fifth year, the company put him into a team-leader job in the IT division. He again made many new friends during those rotations and they will also remain his friends throughout his working life, even though they too now work in other departments in other offices.
At 27, Tanaka-san has already begun to build a strong network of relationships in the company. Next we’ll look at how valuable Tanaka-san’s network is as he ascends the corporate ladder.