Dilbert with an attitude: Japan'snew 'salaryman'

The young man in the business suit has wound himself into a rage, eyebrows gnarled, mouth torn wide as a screaming infant's.

"Everything you do is to maintain your image!" he bellows at a roomful of elders at a company board meeting. "All Japanese companies cover themselves with lies and produce nonsense results!"

This is not the kind of behavior that usually passes for acceptable Japanese protocol. But "Salaryman Kintaro" is the frustrated corporate worker's fantasy hero. And he's the star of a hot comic-book series that's rocketing to Japanese pop- culture fame with a new television show and a big-screen film.

Kintaro's popularity - think Dilbert gone ballistic - is a measure of dissatisfaction with a system that created Japan Inc. The vaunted "job for life" is increasingly seen as a soul-draining career track that lacks the prestige and profits it once promised to Japan's finest.

"Some decades ago, the salaryman of a big company was the ideal status of most Japanese people," says Daizaburo Hashizume, a sociologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. "Now, the higher-ranked people cannot expect lifetime employment, and the younger people who worked hard to get to be salarymen still often find themselves in some miserable position."

Especially in the heady 1980s, the salaryman was a much-vaunted symbol of the industrialized powerhouse envied by many worldwide. But in the wake of the recession that hit Japan in the early 1990s, a slump from which the country has only recently begun to recover, the image of the salaryman has changed. Young Japanese university graduates are no longer guaranteed lifetime employment at one company, and many don't want it anyway. And with suicide rates creeping higher - a record number of Japanese killed themselves last year, including an 11.6 percent jump in the number of suicides attributed to financial difficulties - the word "salaryman" has become synonymous with a lifetime of stress and subordination.

And in a country where deference to hierarchy means the average salaryman rarely contradicts those above him - a factor which critics say inhibits economic troubleshooting - Kintaro isn't afraid to make a stink.

"Kintaro is an icon for salarymen. I wish I could live like that," says Katsuhiro Kubo, a local government accounting official in his late 20s. "He points out a bad thing as bad and a good thing as good. But in our society ... you can't 'talk back' to your boss."

Hiroshi Motomiya, the creator of the Salaryman comics, says a man like Kintaro wouldn't last a week in a Japanese company. "If Salaryman Kintaro existed in the real world, he'd be sacked in three days," says Mr. Motomiya, who cuts a Dick Tracyesque figure, illuminated beneath a floor lamp, in a surprisingly conservative business suit.

"In that sense, he's an unrealistic character," Motomiya says of Kintaro's angry outbursts. "But when my readers see him doing that, they feel a release."

Indeed, Kintaro, played on TV and in a movie by heartthrob actor Katsunori Takahashi, gets to leap onto boardroom tables to make a point, scream menacingly when he sees greed overtake good, and knock out street thugs who beat up hardworking suits.

All of which is about as believable as his rags-to-riches rehab story. A motorcycle gang roughneck, Kintaro takes pity one day on a hapless executive who has stumbled down the wrong alley. Upon saving the company president from hooligans, the grateful man offers Kintaro a plum white-collar job, usually reserved for those who spent their youth studying in the right juku, or cram school. With his unsophisticated Japanese and raffish good looks, Kintaro turns out to be more honest than most of his well-bred superiors.

Oh, and he's also a single dad.

Left with a young son when his wife died - allowing him maximum allure and freedom to flirt with other corporate co-eds - Kintaro manages to run three-legged races with his pixie-faced boy before big meetings. In Superman style, he changes from little-league dad to suit-and-tie clad salaryman in mid-sprint, an apparent nod to the increasing number of Japanese fathers who are participating in child-rearing.

In fact, in the comic series Kintaro is far gutsier and angrier than he appears on screen. Japanese comics, or manga, are more often oriented for an adult readership than for children. Through fictional characters, manga are sometimes a forum for tackling topics more bluntly than they ever are in the newspapers. Motomiya sees the TV and movie versions as watered-down adaptations. Advertisers don't want to air plots portraying true-to-life corruption, he complains, like those that reveal pervasive, unsavory business practices.

"On TV, the sponsors don't want to bring attention to all of the bid-rigging we have here, so they say, 'Let's just forget about that episode, ' " says Motomiya. He thinks he struck a chord with Kintaro because the workforce is full of people who feel unable to express themselves. "Most Japanese today will have a long, deep thought about something, but not act on it," he says.

He acknowledges that there is also something irreverent and egalitarian about the way Kintaro - an old-fashioned name that means "golden eldest son" - has leapfrogged his way up the corporate ladder. In a country that puts great faith in its ultracompetitive merit system, a salaryman who hasn't gone to college sends a message that "anyone could be a successful salaryman," says Motomiya, "but to be intelligent is something else."

Takashi Shibuya, head of the comic book section at Tokyo's massive Book 1st retailer, says, "Most of our buyers are salaried workers in their 40s who would like to do the things Kintaro does in the story. I think he encourages workers that they can be successful without a certain education or background."

The series has been made into a game for Sony PlayStation, and a second film is on its way. The series sells in Hong Kong and South Korea. But Japan's corporate golden boy has no plans to travel any further west just yet.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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