sake, salarymen, and japan -- 1/23/18

Today's selection -- from Tales of Old Tokyo by John Darwin van Fleet. The term "salaryman" is widely used in Japan to refer to white-collar employees of large corporations, and it suggests the idea that these workers are expected to value work above all else and devote most aspects of their lives to these corporations, including long hours at work and long hours after work drinking with colleagues. Parents expected their male children to become salarymen, and other job choices were regarded with less prestige -- though some have derided salarymen as lacking in individuality and overly dependent on their employer. Salarymen were expected to spend their entire careers with their employer. Although this term is still in use and gained wide currency after World War II, it became especially prominent during the era of Japan's business dominance in the 1980s. In the following selection, featuring a quote written by Natsume Soseki in 1906, you can see that the negative aspects of being a salaryman were well understood from the outset. Sake was central to the experience of a salaryman; writing in 1921, Julian Street expounds on sake:

"Scholars trace the roots of the 'sala­ryman' concept back centuries, to a time following the end of the nearly two centuries of civil war that end­ed in the early 17th century with the establishment of the shogunate, when, gradually, former samurai were forced to take up non-military occupations. The Meiji Restoration (1868), which ended the shogunate, added impetus to this transition. Modern Japanese salarymen often still consider themselves as some­thing like the samurai of their cor­porate entities.

"Salaryman Story"

"If one becomes a businessman, one has to get to the top. Anywhere lower on the ladder, you have to go around spouting idiotic flatter­ies and drinking sake with the boss when there's nothing you want less. Altogether, it's a stupid way of life.

"'Ever since my school-days I've always taken a scunner to busi­nessmen. They'll do anything for money. They are, after all, what they used to be called in the good old days: the very dregs of society.

-- from I am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki, 1906

"I had heard that sake was extremely intoxicating, but that is not so. It is rice wine, almost white in colour, and is served sometimes at normal temperature and some­times slightly warm. It is rather more like a pale light sherry than any other Oc­cidental beverage, but it lacks the full flavour of sherry, having a mild and not un­pleasant flavour all its own. On the whole I rather liked sake, and I found myself able to detect the difference between ordinary sake and sake that was particularly good. While on this subject I may add that liquor of all sorts flows freely in Japan. Sake is the one alcoholic beverage generally served with meals in the Japanese style, but at the European-style luncheons and dinners I attended two or three kinds of wine were usually served, and there were cocktails before and sometimes liqueurs afterward. The Japanese have also taken up whisky-drinking to some extent. They import Scotch whisky and also make a bad imitation Scotch whisky of their own. But sake still reigns supreme as the national alcoholic drink, and when you see a Japanese intoxicated you may be pretty sure that sake -- a lot of sake -- did it.

-- from Mysterious Japan by Julian Street, 1921"



John Darwin van Fleet


Tales of Old Tokyo: The Remarkable Story of One of the World's Most Fascinating Cities


Earnshaw Books Ltd.


Copyright 2015 John Darwin Van Fleet


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