Japanese work culture can be many things: diplomatic, hierarchical, conformist, machine-like, even suffocating. Globally, Japan is known for its hard-working salarymen who work long hours for recognition from the company and little extra pay. Often, they put their jobs before family, friends, and much-needed sleep!
Negative stories about Japan’s work-culture are taboo because they go against the country’s narrative of a strong work ethic. But you can look to these Japanese novels to learn what it can be like to work for a Japanese company.
These workplace protagonists come from all walks of life, from traditional white-collar salarymen to quirky part-time convenience store workers and blue-eyed foreigners. Here are five of the best five books to better understand the Japanese work culture.
1. Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata
Keiko Furukura, a slightly psychopathic child, feels entirely out of place growing up in Japanese society. At 18, she is “reborn” when she finds her purpose in a convenience store (shortened to konbini in Japan). She adores her coworkers’ uniformity, whom she sees as neither male nor female, just “store workers.”
She revels in the repetition of her duties, practices greetings every morning, and falls asleep to the sounds of the store in her mind each night. Years later, Keiko is unmarried, childless, 36 years old, and in the same konbini position.
Sometimes being a misfit in your own special place is better than trying to fit in…
Although she still adores her work, her perfect konbini world starts to crumble when she decides to take steps to normalize her life, the way her friends and family want her to do.
The author, Sayaka Murata, worked in a convenience store herself for nearly eighteen years. She has painted an affectionate picture of hard-working (but sometimes quirky) convenience store workers, while also wagging a finger at the pressures that come from Japan’s often conformist society. According to her, sometimes being a misfit in your own special place is better than trying to “fit in” to make everyone around you happy.
2. Blue-Eyed Salaryman, Niall Murtagh
Author Niall Murtagh is an adventurous Irishman who traveled the world before eventually settling in Japan. He joins Mitsubishi Corporation as a salaryman, adopting the alias “Murata-san.” He buys a fancy suit, moves into the Mitsubishi dorms, and works long hours day after day. His world is ruled by compliance and hierarchy.
Niall and his coworkers do everything asked of them, including the employee with the lowest rank sitting the closest to the door in a meeting room or restaurant because that’s the seat most likely to be attacked if an enemy burst through the door. Basically, employees should be ready to be sacrificed for the sake of the boss “as any loyal employee should do.”
Their sense of identity would be one and the same with their company.
The years tick by, and eventually, he finds himself in the category of becoming a Mitsubishi shūshin-koyō, or “lifer.” In Japan it used to be extremely common, especially for large corporations, to hire graduates straight out of university and employ them until retirement (the term literally means “end-of-life employment”). An employer would instill company loyalty into a worker to the point that their own sense of identity would be one and the same with their role in their company.
This book investigates the Japanese corporate business culture and also reveals struggles faced by foreign workers in Japan.
3. The Stationmaster, Jiro Asada
Everyone who takes the train in Japan will have seen a stationmaster at some point. They are unassuming but always present, and help Japan’s remarkably punctual train system run smoothly.
The Stationmaster is a short story about an elderly, hard-working railway man confronting his rural Hokkaido train station’s closure. Where he was once fiercely devoted and filled with pride for his life’s work, his sense of purpose slowly becomes obsolete with the aging station.
The Stationmaster is the first in a collection of eight short stories by Jiro Asada. These tales examine the links between the past and the future. His characters feel real and explore the extreme mentality of Japan’s “samurai spirit” as they proudly fulfill their life’s calling while enduring modern-day hardships surrounding love and loss.
4. Naoki Hanzawa, Jun Ikeido
Jun Ikeido is known as Japan’s king of oshigoto, or workplace fiction. Many of his novels have been adapted into wildly popular dramas and movies. Before becoming an author, he worked in the loan department of a bank, a similar position held by his main character in the titular Naoki Hanzawa two-part series.
Naoki is a savvy and success-driven salaryman. The kind of character men across Japan look up to for inspiration. However, he finds himself in the middle of a massive scandal and makes a bold move by confronting his powerful and corrupt bosses. By exposing their shady loan deals, Naoki starts the fight of his life.
The novel’s popularity stems from how Japan’s noble salaryman could stay honest and just despite being a cog in the corporate machine. The book was adapted into a series by the same name in 2013.
5. Made in Japan and Other Japanese Business Novels, Tamae Prindle
The seven short stories in this collection are all from old-time kezai shosetsu, or economy novels. All of which had received high praise in Japan between the ‘50s and ‘80s when the sub-genre first emerged.
Tamae Prindle, a professor of East Asian studies at Colby College, translated and compiled these shorts for students, professionals, and international audiences to help them better understand Japanese work culture during that time period.
Each of the stories revolves around Japanese corporate culture, featuring everyday people such as bank employees, salespeople, factory workers, and businessmen. One story involves sokaiyas, a uniquely Japanese phenomenon of gangsters hired to intimidate company management as a form of blackmail. Some plot points may feel outdated, but the stories give insight into the pressures of Japanese business.