My chest hair is starting to turn gray. Whitish strands have spread like dead brush into my upper chest. They glisten and wave under my collar in the harsh office light, derailing my efforts to fit in with my utterly hairless Japanese co-workers.
In the US, the next move would be Botox, a love affair and an unwise lease on a Porsche. However, because of the amazing benefits of seniority in Japan, there’s no such thing as mid-life crisis here, a realization I’ve made now that I’m on the brink of one.
You see in Japan, the joys of seniority make a mockery of the doomed pursuit of things like George Clooney’s charming crow’s-nest or the impulse-buy of funny Japanese ab crunchers.
It’s pointless anyway to try to hide your age in a country so crowded that you can’t scratch your head without elbowing somebody in the eye. Every giveaway – the greying chest hair poking out, the gut surging over your belt, the “kareshu” (lit. “middle-aged man smell”: it’s so crowded here that everyone knows the smell personally, hence a word was invented for it) – all this can be more or less concealed if you work hard at it (good luck finding time in workaholic Japan) or are blessed with the personal space that comes with the American car commute and office cubicle.
But in Japan – where you live on those packed trains and at shared office desks with the privacy of baseball dugouts- you age right in the face of your fellow commuters and co-workers, who sit, stand and breathe right on top of you all day.
After finally grasping all this, I realized that blatantly showing your age, and touching those seniority perks, is where the salvation lies.
Perks that are funded by, as I’ve learned painfully in 8 years here serving under older Japanese managers, the sanity of the young.
Perk #1: Public Napping
I’ve actually seen older managers doze off Grandpa Simpson-style in the middle of meeting discussions that THEY started – and everyone just lets it go. In fact, if you’re old enough, you’re GIVEN CREDIT for doing this in Japan: the typical timid, young subordinate here is programmed to take your sloth as a wise, non-verbal cue that you’re happy with the meeting, that you’re relaxed and not upset with them.
Perk #2: Elaborate grunting
Older people in Japan are expected to grunt “yoishou!” whenever doing anything remotely strenuous. In the US, this is equilivant to any number of unofficial, non-word English sounds – “Ahhh”, “ughhh”, “humph”, etc. But of course in Japan even personal strain is formalized: it’s always “yoishou”, and it can be grunted softly, whispered happily with a melody, or even shouted like this:
It’s a fogeyish add-on to a Japanese vocabulary, but I have a theory that it’s also intended to work as a kind of subliminal cue to anyone listening that you’re older, and thus deserving of deep respect.
There’s a precise style to saying “yoishou” in Japan, and it’s all about timing it perfectly with whatever action is excerting you. It’s common to hear old guys here go “Yoishou!” when sliding into a hot public bath, sitting down on a train seat, climbing stairs (multiple “yoishous” in this case), and I’ve even heard the word uttered by a guy in the men’s room at his precise moment of unloading. It’s a fun word to say – try it next time you do any of the above!
Perk #3: Leisurely post-meal use of a toothpick
There’s an old Japanese proverb that says: “A samurai, even when he has not eaten, uses a toothpick like a lord”. It refers to the classic older Japanese male habit of cleaning your teeth with a toothpick after meals. Visit any restaurant here and you’ll see it in action, the modern Japanese “ojisan” (typical middle-aged guy) carrying on this disgusting ancient custom. Current Japanese etiquette calls for you to cup your mouth with your hand as you pick away, like this:
In one small Japanese company I’ve been around, the head guy (he was well into his 60s and on the rough side for a Japanese salaryman) would walk into the office after lunch and when his secretary greeted him with the formal “okairi nasai” (“welcome back”), he’d just nod, light a cigarette and say “Toothpick”. To this she’d run and fetch a toothpick for the “office samurai” to use to stab at the food stuck in his teeth.
Perk #4: Drinking and being drunk in public
Middle-aged salarymen have the public license to crack open a beer on the train home, face-plant themselves next to a sake bottle at bars and in general get falling-over drunk in public.
Not only are they given this freedom, but these lucky men have the magical power to fight off hangovers through greasy bowls of late-night ramen and baths with electrical currents that shock the booze out of their systems.
Perk #5: Lord of the Office
In general, as you age in a traditional Japanese company you get increasingly venerated no matter what you do, and you live increasingly inside a cocoon of manners and ceremony. You’re more like a feudal lord than a businessman. The very top executives are treated almost like royalty, as the below instance illustrates.
I was once part of a conference call with an important American customer where we all were ordered to speak at a hushed, barely audible level the whole time so that we didn’t disturb our company president in the next room. The reason? He was filming his recorded message for the company’s annual employee DVD. We sat there whispering like idiots while the customer railed loudly on the other end that they couldn’t hear us (worst of all, we weren’t allowed to give a reason!), and they ended the call after 10 minutes.