Magazine article The Spectator

Where Different Means Wrong

Magazine article The Spectator

Where Different Means Wrong

Article excerpt

Where different means wrong THE BLUE-EYED SALARYMAN by Niall Murtagh Profile, £16.99, pp. 216, ISBN 1861977247 £14.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

I was sitting in a Japanese children's home discussing a rock concert. The band members were all from the children's home, the abandoned and abused offspring of yakuza - Japanese gangsters. Being Japan, even the children of yakuza prefer a certain formality to their meetings. The table around which we sat was laid with a clean cloth and decorated with vases of lilies and carnations. Female volunteer workers served sushi and Coca Cola. The band discussed what photographs to project on the wall while they played. The director of the children's home wanted something innocuous like images from nature. The lead drummer, a thin young man with long hair, was more daring. He called for socially relevant photographs, 'of homeless in the Bronx'.'Well, why not homeless right here in Tokyo?,' I added. The director winced. 'We think pine trees and flowers more in keeping,' he said firmly.

After the meeting, the lead drummer thanked me for taking his side. He said, 'We shared the same ideas but they turned out to be wrong.' I tried to reply in Japanese, 'Not wrong - just different.' But it proved impossible. For in Japanese 'chigau' means both wrong and different. They are one and the same. It is quite simple. In Japan if you are different from your group, you are in the wrong.

Why Japanese need to belong to groups and the power of the group over the individual are incomprehensible to most Westerners. Niall Murtagh is a good person to explain. The Blue-Eyed Salaryman describes what it is like to be a Westerner working as a salaryman for a Japanese company. Murtagh seems unlikely material for this most conformist of roles. He spent his twenties hitchhiking to Istanbul, crossing the Atlantic in a home-made yacht and trekking through Patagonia. In 1986 he drifted to Japan and much to his surprise found himself settling down. He joined one of the most traditional and conservative companies in the East, Mitsubishi. He went on to realise the Japanese dream: a pretty, Japanese wife, an apartment in the company housing block and a bicycle to get to work. His book is refreshingly different from most books written by Western men on Japan. There are no mysterious Japanese women, temples (except the small company shrine squashed between the factory and a new office block) or sinister men who practise martial arts. In simple, straightforward language Murtagh tells how it is. This is not a romanticised version of Japan, but a Japan instantly recognisable to the majority of Japanese - the life of the traditional salaryman.

He has to work hard to fit in and to avoid being labelled different and therefore wrong. A bike ride to work, for example, is plainly wrong. The next day he receives a call from Personnel. His bike has been spotted parked 'illegally' in a small side street. He needs a permit to commute by bike. The permit comes with a sheet of rules and a sticker to put on his bike which allows the security men to check: Tm an officially sanctioned bicycle commuter.' The rules state, amongst other things, that he must stop at the gate of the factory before entering or exiting. He must ensure his bike has a front light, rear reflector, a bell and that the brakes are working. Nor is it enough to check. He must submit an annual report on the state of his bicycle. Even so the administration department can spot-check his bike at any time 'to ensure compliance'. …

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