Inside the Lives of Japan’s Overworked Salarymen


At one point or another, we’ve all been faced with that dreaded existential question: what the fuck is my purpose? 

The pandemic really turned everything on its head and put that question in the global psyche, leading artist Allegra Pacheco to explore the concept of ‘why am I here’ through the lens of Japanese salarymen. These white-collar office workers clock in day-in and day-out, bustling through train stations and bars in the same monochromatic suits, white shirts, and briefcases. We sat down with Allegra to talk about the impetus behind her documentary and why these Japanese salarymen serve as a conduit for understanding how and why we work. 

I watched the documentary with a friend who grew up in Japan. Her father was a salaryman. 

What did they think?

Her mom is Chinese and her dad is Japanese. They lived in Japan for a long time, with her father constantly working, struggling with the same alcoholism you mention in the film, and never really being home. 

It was probably really special to watch it from that perspective. 

Absolutely. How did this all come about?

Basically, I lost my work in New York due to visa issues between the US and Costa Rica. I said ‘fuck it, I can’t just stay in Costa Rica.’ 

But why Japan?

My boyfriend at the time was modelling in Japan. He suggested I come to Tokyo for a minute and figure it out. The transition from living in New York and moving to Japan really gave me the time and space to be an artist again. In New York, I had a retouching job in an office. They had black velvet curtains so not even one ray of sunlight would come in and affect the screen. It felt like a version of salaryman in New York.  

When I got to Tokyo I bought a camera and started walking around, taking pictures of anything but what really drew me were these men. Originally, I just started noticing their patterns and behaviour; like how they all wore the same suits, commuting at the same time, drinking at the same time. They really stood out to me. They were like one type of animal. 

Once I started zooming in on them, I started to find so many interesting things about them. Like, their overdrinking at times or feeling obliged to drink with their bosses. The deeper I dug, there were many layers. You even see how there are kids that are really pressured into their exams. So, I felt like it was a story that was really close to me. 

Because of New York?

That, and I felt like in a way I got a second opportunity to not follow that same path. It was like, my life wasn’t wanting me to go in that direction, or if I was going in that direction I was faced with questioning: are you sure that you want to do this? Although in Japan, the work level is a little more extreme than in New York. It also brings up the question of how fulfilling your job is. Other than your schedule or your economics, is your job fulfilling to you as an individual or does it have anything to do with your bigger purpose in life or your contribution to society? In the back of my head, I was asking myself all of these questions while exploring a new city and really trying to understand how as a society we get to that point where it’s so normal to work so much that you end up collapsing in the street.

What was the word they used to describe that occurrence?

‘Karoshi.’ Death from overwork. 

That is insane… insane that there’s even a word for it. 

It is insane, but I feel that there’s a lot of death from overwork in other countries they just don’t have a specific term for it. They’ll call it a heart attack, or stress, or hypertension. Yes, it’s appalling there’s a word for it but in a way, it calls attention to it rather than just blaming other factors. 

I know photography played an integral role in the storytelling of these salarymen, especially when you decided to outline their bodies in chalk while they were asleep before photographing them. At what point did you realise you wanted to tell the story through a documentary format?

Both were pretty parallel, but my first intuitive step was through photography, as I’m a visual artist and had never made a film before. It started through photographing these men with a disposable camera, but the more I learned about them I started to notice patterns, one being them falling asleep in the streets, so I decided to observe during an evening shift. I started to go to areas where salarymen work. Then I’d go to the bars where they go, drink where they drink, drink as much as they drink, and try to see how that experience would be. I noticed that very frequently, I’d find men passed out in the streets. It was such a common sight in Tokyo that most people didn’t pay attention to it. I knew there was more to the story than just a drunk person unable to make it home. 

Instead of researching and drawing my own conclusions, I thought the best way to understand these salarymen was to have people tell me in their own words. I had the time and capacity to document this world, and I felt it was more complete than taking photos and sharing them through an exhibition or a book. 

True. That way your information is coming straight from the source. 

Yeah, and in a way when you look at the film I talk about my experience and what I thought and the conclusions that I drew and how those were either confirmed or proven wrong, but I only comment on my experience in my life and then leave the salarymen tell their story. I also made a very conscious choice to include myself in the documentary because I felt that it was a more personal story and how it ties into the idea that we are all in one way or another, a salaryman. 

I wanted to show how our experiences all relate to each other no matter what country we’re in or what culture we have. We all face similar struggles and we all try to live a life that’s in accordance with ourselves. 

It’s interesting now, how with the impacts of COVID, we’re somewhat merging towards something in the middle. 

I think that it was pretty timely that the movie came to end where it did. I think that collectively, we’re all having that opportunity to question where we want to work, and how. As a global society, we’re realising that we can work from home. We don’t have to commute to a cubicle every day. It’s opened a lot of interesting, new opportunities and questions. If there was any objective in the film, it was to create a space where people can question themselves and come to their own conclusions about working culture and their own lives. Even if you end up staying in your same job, or have to do what you have to in order to get by, it’s important to not just go through the motions but to think about them. 

I loved the chalk concept. How did it come about? And did they know you were doing this?

They were asleep. If I outlined them in chalk, it created enough of a shift in the analogy between a dead person and them. I thought it was the least invasive way to show this. I know that it’s a delicate line in crossing a personal boundary but I think it’s part of art to question these things and help people question what they think as well. 

What about these salarymen who spend their free time dressing up in character, like the guy who plays Sailor Moon? What is it about Japanese salaryman that helps tell this story of having a purpose in life? 

I feel like telling this story through the vantage point of Japan really highlights this division of work and play. Japan is beautiful. It’s coloured. It’s nuanced. The Japanese work hard… they also play hard. The lines that divide these things are very stark, which is very different than other countries. If you take off that surface veneer, we all play a role when we’re going to an office. We’re a different person to our parents than we are to our partners than we are to everybody else. I think the lines between work and all of these other aspects of life are a little bit more formal, especially in Japanese corporate culture. 

There is a guy in the film who illustrates this really well. He says that to be a good salaryman, you almost have to be two people. You have to ask yourself, which version is the true me? But, you don’t have to dwell on it. You have to find joy in each of those personas that you inhabit. I feel like that’s true for everyone. 

 

If you’re in LA, check out the live film premiere of SALARYMAN below:

SALARYMAN Premiere, DOC LA
Wed, 20 Oct 2021- 7:45 pm Chaplin Theatre
5300 Melrose Ave LA CA 90038 (Enter at 677 Van Ness Ave)
*Get your tickets at docla.org by clicking on “Salaryman.” 
When you are directed to the payment page make sure you buy the ticket for Wednesday 20th, as that is the only night of the showing.

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