The Salaryman Trope

Welcome to Tokyo, performed by World Order, 2013

The Japanese pop band ‘World Order’ just released a visually striking video to their new track ‘Welcome to Tokyo’ written in response to Tokyo’s successful Olympic bid for the year 2020. Lead by Genki Sudo, a martial art specialist, the video consists of a series of clips in which the seven band members contort, move or stretch their body in unusual positions with famous Tokyo landmarks as a colourful backdrop. Similar to their first video ‘Machine Civilization’ from 2011, the band’s movement towards the camera in the opening sequence visually invokes the aesthetics of slow motion most famously explored in a classic scene in ‘The Matrix’. The footage in the music video, however, confirms that all scenes were filmed in real time and that any perceptions about slow motion is visual trickery. This contrast between the real Tokyo surroundings punctuated by the band’s unusual dance moves make for very entertaining viewing also because the behaviour of people passing by stretches from ignoring the men to actually participating in their performance.

The Matrix, 1999

As the men’s suits seek to indicate, the music video taps into the popular trope of the salaryman – a word widely adopted in the Japanese language. After Japan’s capitulation in WWII, it was not samurai or soldiers, but so-called company warriors that were to rebuild the country. As such, in many ways the salaryman has gained the iconic status of a hero who supports his company and his family (in that order). It is of course a phallocentric concept which ignores both the contributions of female co-workers, commonly referred to with the patronising term OL (short for office lady), and other women who clearly contribute to the social and economic wellbeing of the nation.

Ikiru, 1952

Yet the salaryman, despite his heroism and dedication while working and entertaining clients for long hours, is also a vulnerable entity in the Japanese imaginary. Akira Kurosawa’s classic film ‘Ikiru’ (1952) told the touching story of an elderly salarymen fed up with mind-numbing bureaucracy after he was diagnosed with cancer. In one important scene he is depicted on a swing, his life suspended with an uncertain future ahead of him. The salaryman’s position on the swing signified the feelings of a nation uncertain about its future in the years after the war.

Salaryman Hero, figurine

Japan’s ensuing post-war miracle only reinforced the trope of the salaryman as a key force not only to the economy but to society in general. Yet this changed dramatically in the early 1990s when Japan’s economy plummeted into a recession from which it is only recently emerging. An intriguing series of figurines called ‘Salaryman Hero’ appears to subvert or even ridicule the hero status of salarymen in Japanese culture: one figurine shows the hero’s arm being cut by a menacing crablike client while he pores him a drink. The common sight of exhausted salarymen on Tokyo’s train network has led to many blogs and websites featuring photo galleries of salarymen sleeping in the most uncomfortable of positions (here is one example of many).

Sleeping Salaryman

So when ‘World Order’ is moving their bodies in unusual patterns against the busy streets of Tokyo, their actions and their clothing must by analyzed against the salaryman trope. The hero status is clearly invoked by the slow motion visual trickery and by the fact that they come in a group of seven. The viewers sees these as strong, ambitious and eager men ready to take on the next challenge ahead. In the context of the Olympic games, perhaps the video also seeks to instil an element of trust that the organization of the games is in capable hands. Yet apart from celebrating the iconic status of the salaryman, the video also appears to poke a degree of fun at a cultural icon that is not entirely without its flaws.

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One thought on “The Salaryman Trope

  1. Hey, I want to go to Tokyo! I have wanted to visit for years, and each time circumstances conspired against me.

    Maybe if World Order put in a good word for me with the right people(?)

    Leonard Bullock
    Basel, Switzerland

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