Friends Don’t Let Friends Become Salarymen

Friends Don’t Let Friends Become Salarymen

Or, how I lost my buddy to the Japanese white-collar employment machine


Originally published on on June 2009

It all started last year, when my friend Jay asked me for help finding a job. Jay’s a bright kid, so I knew he just needed a little pep talk to get him going. Little did I know that the pep talk I gave him that day would set a process in motion that would change him forever.

It was just supposed to be a temporary thing: one or two years gaining business experience and cultural competence before heading back to law school and the real world. An Ivy League grad who was fluent in the ways of the land of the rising yen—what school wouldn’t want him? Alas, in my enthusiasm to help my pal, I forgot a cardinal rule: friends don’t let friends become salarymen.

It never seems like a big deal at first. Your friend joins a Japanese company; so what? He’ll still be the same person—or at least that’s what you think at first. Then you start to notice things, little things. A newfound fondness for yakitori or imojochu. Canceling dinner to practice a song for the upcoming karaoke nomikai. Jay even began spending an hour in the morning doing his hair.

I figured some change was only natural. When I accompanied Jay to what would become his new office, the shacho had said it himself: “If you are going to work in a Japanese company, you must adapt to our customs.” Enthusiastic as he was to understand a foreign culture, Jay immediately emitted a high-pitched “Hai!”

The shacho flashed a big smile. “Ah, Jay-san. Your Japanese is so good! You are more Japanese than a Japanese person!” He laughed and we all joined in. Jay didn’t know it, but the joke was on him.

Illustration by Shane Busato

Illustration by Shane Busato

The little things began to escalate. One day, Jay asked me to come to his apartment so he could give me all of his dress shirts that weren’t solid white. He didn’t need them anymore.

The first time Jay canceled our weekend drinking plans, I didn’t think much of it. Then he did it again, and then a third time in a row. I wondered if it was me until I heard from another friend that Jay had been at the office all of those days.

“Jay, haven’t you been working a lot of Saturdays?” I asked. I had gone over his contract with him and knew he wasn’t getting paid overtime. “Isn’t it unfair to make you work during the weekend if they’re not paying you for it?”

Jay turned to me with a mysterious smile on his face. “The company takes care of me now, Ben. If they need someone to work, it would be unfair of me, who is receiving so much, to refuse. It is an honor to volunteer.” When I heard those words, I knew something was wrong. But by then it was too late.

After a few months, Jay began working Sundays as well, and we gradually fell out of contact. Half a year passed, and then one day I ran into him at Shibuya crossing. Dressed in a black suit and with a glassy look in his eyes, he was a different person. He seemed to recognize me, though, so I asked how he had been. Apparently, the company was working him even harder than before, and he was soon going to be transferred to the China office.

Then I saw it. “Jay, why do you have your cellphone on a strap around your neck?” I asked. “Isn’t it a bit… tacky?”

“This is the most efficient way to use it, Ben,” he replied in a steady, emotionless tone. “That is what I am right now: efficient.” The light turned green and he headed off to his next appointment, briefcase in hand, cellphone dangling from his neck. That was the last time I saw him.

He was such a smart young man, so full of promise! Good grades, captain of the kendo team, fluent in a foreign language, and well on his way to becoming an elite lawyer. Now the samurai sword-wielding friend I used to have is gone, and all that remains is a quivering mass, working from sunrise until sunset every day as it waits to be shipped off to Shanghai.

Readers, don’t make the same mistakes I did. If you see your friends exhibiting any of these warning signs, stop them then and there or risk losing them forever.

Jay, if you can hear me out there, I’m sorry.