The most telling outburst of Japanese office frustration you’ll ever see is the poetry contest held every year by The Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company. Dai-Ichi awards cash prizes to the salarymen who submit the best senryū, a genre of traditional ultra-short poems that wax on the human condition (it’s a close cousin to the more famous, nature-oriented haiku).
The Dai-Ichi senryu are slices of real salaryman life: laughably banal, full of subtle cries-for-help and bitter irony. The best ones have that same Japanese Zen, less-is-more effect of a good haiku. Their emotion and brevity begs you to try to feel the depth behind it.
No doubt the insurance company likes the two-way goodwill generated here: lowering the blood pressure of its potential policy holders via literary therapy.
I also find it all an impressive display of mainstream Japanese literacy – Dai-Ichi gets more than 25,000 submissions from salarymen-poets each year. And for me, a fellow salaryman sufferer, damn it if the senryu’s 3-line metre and no-frills accuracy doesn’t move me at my core.
Below (in the right column-side) are some of my all-time favorite verses, which I translated and sorted by cultural themes, with some cultural context for the poems on the left:
Theme #1: Rules, Meetings and the Shackles of Confucius
Two things dominate a traditional Japanese office: rules and meetings. Due to some kind of ancient Confucian concept, ingrained in the circuits of the Japanese mind, the enforced etiquette created by meetings and rules supercedes everything else. And for many, it’s hard to complain. In deflationary Japan, many middle-aged guys have a stark choice: it’s either lifetime employment or the unemployment office.
Point-in-case of the lifetime employee condition is my office, where every morning at 8:15am SHARP, we all stand and recite in monotone unison two rules from the company handbook (“I will not wear flashy clothes to the office.”…”I will not disobey my boss.”, etc., etc.). It all gives the salaryman pause when contemptlating the state of his condition:
会議して 次の会議の 日を決める: A meeting to decide the next meeting’s date
残業を するなといって 五時会議: No overtime, they say, then set the meeting for 5pm
結論を 決めているのに なぜ会議: Why a meeting when the outcome’s already known?
さあ五時だ 誰が最初に 席を立つ: It’s 5 o’clock. Who’ll be the first to leave their seat?
久しぶり ハローワークで 同窓会 : Hey it’s been a long time! – at the unemployment office – a class reunion.
フレッシュマン 教育後には イエスマン: Freshman. After training, Yes-man.
床屋代 半額ですかと 部下が聞き : My assistant asks if the barber only charges me half-price
何になる？ 子供の答えは 正社員: What do you want to be when you grow up? The child answers “a lifetime employee”
Theme #2: Terrible Bosses
In a Japanese office, sometimes the 20-year migration to the exalted position of “Section Chief”, “Line Manager” or “Divison Manager”, is merely a move into an ivory tower governed by manners, with nary a thought about actual productivity. To often, judging from the senryu, Japanese executivism is all about being official and managerial, enforcing pointless rules, reaping the benefits of a seniority-based “old boy” system, and avoiding responsibility:
二メートル 先の椅子まで 十五年 : 15 years to move the 2 metres to that chair
商談に 上司加わり 即破談 : The minute the boss joins us, negotiations break down
お願いだ 手を出さないで 課長さん : Please, Section Chief, don’t help…
休めよと 言って上司が 書類おき : Take a break, says the boss as he dumps a pile of papers
権限を 与えて責任 押しつける : They give us authority only to pass the buck
運動会 抜くなその子は課長の子 : Sports meet. No, don’t beat that kid. His dad’s the Section Chief
上役の スコア気にして ミスショット : Muffed my shot worrying about the boss’s score
上司には 嫌われぬよう 好かれぬよう: Not to be disliked, or liked, by the boss
「早くやれ」 そういうことは 早く言え : “Do it quickly!” Well, say so quickly
フレックス 届け出しても 「何故遅い}: Even though I’ve given them flextime notice, “Why’s he late?”
Theme #3: Family Service
What’s the mental effect of this lifestyle on the pysche of the salaryman? Well he becomes repressed from his 8-7 gig, and even more so during his long 90-minute train commute – which is so crowded he can’t move his arms. He returns home a vegetable, if he even gets there (even then, rarely before the kids are asleep). Many salarymen refer to their weekend time with their families as “family service”, as in duty, not out of any natural inclination, but due to the aftereffects of the inhumane weekday office grind. Many senryu show just how isolating and de-personalizing this effect is:
日曜日 二歳の娘に あなた誰？ Sunday. My two-year old daughter. “Who’re you?”
早く帰り 今日は泊まりと 子に聞かれ: Go home early. My kid asks, “Stopping here today?”
節電で 早く帰ると なげく妻: To conserve electricity – I’ve been sent home from work early – my wife sighs.
妻不機嫌, お米と味噌汁,「お・か・ず・な・し」: Wife’s feeling cranky. Dinner’s just rice and miso soup. But no main dishes
沸きました 妻よりやさしい 風呂の声: “The bath is ready.” It’s the gentle voice of the bath sensor. Much nicer than my wife’s.
記念日に 「今日は何の日?」 「燃えるゴミ！？」: On the wedding anniversary, I ask my wife, “What day is it today?’’ She answers, “It’s the day for throwing out burnable garbage.”
有給休暇 人間ドックで 暇つぶす: Kill time on my paid leave with a medical checkup
仕事より 連休こなす むずかし：Handling a long weekend, much harder than work
子育てが やっと終わって 次は親: Raised the kids, next is become a parent
Theme #4: The impersonation of good manners
Confrontation is a huge taboo. It’s safe to say a Japanese will walk a mile out of the way to avoid walking into a direct conflict. Office conflicts, taking personal vacation too conspiciously, prioritizing your health. Directly or seriously engaging any of these life issues is an enormous hassle to the addled salaryman, who usually has the energy to only offer “tatemae“: not real effort or good manners, but an impersonation of effort and good manners (which by Western standards, is impressive enough). Tatemae is the glue that makes the salaryman world go round.
風邪ひいて 三日休んで 小麦肌 : Caught a cold, three days off, come back tanned
ライバルが 注いだお酒は そっと捨て : Quietly throw out the sake my rival poured
「何かある？」 手伝う気のない 帰りぎわ : No intention of helping. “Anything need doing?” on his way out
酒やめた 健康診断 終るまで: I’ve stopped drinking – until after my health check-up.
Theme #5: The Commute from Hell
Then there’s the dehumanizing, booze-inducing, convenience store-binging, sardine-can-like daily train commute into the city center from the affordable suburbs, where most deflationary salarymen must live:
定期券 五枚も使う マイホーム : Five commuter passes to reach home
マイホーム 電車でちょっと 三県め : Home. Just a short train ride across three prefectures
睨むなよ あんたも誰かを 押している : Don’t glare at me. You’re pushing someone too
両手上げ 痴漢じゃないと 日々かよい : The daily commute. Both arms raised. I’m not a groper.
コンビニで 整いました 母の味: At the convenience store, “the taste of Mom’s cooking”
我が家どこ 飲まずに帰って 道迷う : Went home sober and got lost