Salaryman Lifestyle Blamed For Failing Japanese Companies

Can the Japanese salaryman be blamed for the decline of Japanese businesses?

Can the Japanese salaryman be blamed for the decline of Japanese businesses?

The modest Japanese salaryman has been a permanent fixture in the fauna and flora of Japanese society for decades. But now, some critics are urging a cultural change within Japanese businesses which may do away with the salaryman altogether.

The salaryman lifestyle — get to the company early, stay late, always follow the boss and always appear hard at work — has previously been the bastion of Japanese companies. However, companies that were once competitive and innovative are slowly falling victim to the pittfalls of “a great engineering class but a lousy management class”. This is especially visible in the electronics market where risk-takers like Apple or Samsung are trampling over the old Japanese electronic giants like Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi or Toshiba.

This recent editorial attracted attention by placing the blame for the decline of Japanese businesses firmly on the shoulders of the nation’s over-worked salarymen.


Salaryman Lifestyle the Reason Why Japan Can’t Win On a Global Level

market share of Japanese electronic brands in comparison to Apple

Japanese electronic makers are at a crisis point. Though they hire the best engineers and have been propping up the Japanese economy for years, how can they still be failing?

The biggest problem is that Japanese salarymen “understand machines but don’t understand people”. In other words, they have the technology, but they can’t understand the people who use their machines.

The reason Japanese electronics took the world by storm for many years was because they worked so well. Now, however, as the manufacturing of things like computers, televisions or household appliances becomes ever more globalized, there is actually very little difference between models from different makers.

In the case of computers, for example, CPUs, hard-drives and liquid crystal screens produced by different companies are all packed up together in boxes like the various ingredients in a Makunouchi bento.

Because of this, not many consumers in developed countries chose electronics based on their specs anymore. They decide based on personal preferences on user friendliness, design, brand… The thing that wins consumers over is no longer the technology behind the product.

Therefore, there is little room in the market for products that “may not be particularly attractive or original, but which are high-performance and difficult to break”, products which Japanese industry had prided itself on until now.

Despite this, however, Japan’s biggest electronic makers have not changed their stance on prioritizing technology.This is because Japanese engineers can’t expand their know-how beyond the realm of technology.

The cause of this is the Japanese salaryman lifestyle.

In many Japanese salarymen households, the wife typically takes care of managing everything to do with the house. Food and clothing, household finances, educating the children, managing the family’s health and taking care of important occasions and ceremonies within the family: the wife has control of all the important areas of day-to-day life.

A salaryman's wife typically takes care of his day-to-day life.

A salaryman’s wife typically takes care of his day-to-day life.

Many married salarymen are therefore out of touch with daily life. This system allows them to focus entirely on their work but it also fosters large numbers of simple-minded engineers who can only think about technology.

Focusing solely on conducting in-depth research on technology might be an appropriate attitude for a scientist aiming for a Nobel prize, but they have a hard time making technology people will actually use. If they only focus on technology, they risk making things with no appeal to users.

Japanese electronic makers still have an upper hand in technology, to some extent. Japanese technology contributed to the development of the iPhone, and some people say that electronic makers can stay in business as parts or raw material retailers.

Japanese companies can't compete with falling cost margins for components

Parts makers, however, have a tendency to constantly lower their margins. According to research done by University of California professor Kenneth Kraemer (07/2011), Japanese companies only got 0.5% of the profits from iPhone sales.

Apple itself has a 58.5% profit margin. That means that when you buy an iPhone, more than half of what you pay goes to Apple. The number of Japanese companies aiming to be suppliers for the iPhone 5 has increased, but it’s impossible to deny that companies which don’t offer a final product are much weaker.

Japanese electronic makers will have to invest a little more in order to revive themselves. As mentioned before, the problems have far reaching roots into Japanese culture. Change is not impossible, however.

So what should be done? The salaryman lifestyle of engineers first and foremost, then marketing executives and managers, should be changed. From now on, it’s important that their life should focus on other things than technology.

There are a lot of Japanese salarymen who are indifferent to art and culture because they don’t care much about food and clothes and are oblivious to trends among women and young people. (Obviously there are a lot of exceptions to this as well though)

It isn’t enough to only focus on technology’s potential to create things like the iPhone. They need to prioritize daily life experiences and think about about kinds of things they are missing and what kinds of goods and services they could benefit from.

In order to do this, they should give themselves more time to value the individual and live “like real people” rather than simply always living like subordinates in a group. They should stop working for incredibly long hours and spend less time drinking with their colleagues. They need to ensure they have enough time and space to day-dream, watch TV, or calmly reflect on the world around them.

Comments from


Liking what you’re doing and being interested doesn’t mean you have to spend long hours working on it


That’s the job of the managers and marketing executives


We need to weather the crisis with fighting spirit and determination


Apple is not just strong because they make end-user products. Everyone except Apple is in big trouble even if they make end-user products. Their strong point is iTunes


I think this part is right: “There are a lot of Japanese salarymen who are indifferent to art and culture because they don’t care much about food and clothes and are oblivious to trends among women and young people. (Obviously there are a lot of exceptions to this as well though)” Japanese salarymen have no taste in anything.


It’s ‘cos the yen is so high


Same here, I think it’s because the yen is so high


I think it would be worse to let the engineers do everything from management to design


I agree! All those things are important so the tasks should be split between people


The real reason is that the people who are responsible for thing inside companies don’t take responsibility.


I TOTALLY agree with that!


The Japanese have definitely gotten worse as borders with the rest of the world have started to disappear… The only thing to do is each try our best


The era of engineering and specs has definitely come to an end. We’re now in the era of design and branding


“Because of this, not many consumers in developed countries chose electronics based on their specs anymore.” “They decide based on personal preferences on user friendliness, design, brand…” Umm don’t they decide based on price?


The point is so that they are still competitive against developing countries. They only way they can still win is on brands.


“This is because Japanese engineers can’t expand their know-how beyond the realm of technology.” Isn’t this not the engineers’ problem, but the problem of managers and marketing execs?


In businesses there are plenty of employees who speak out about things, but the higher things go to convince those in management, the more liberally they are interpreted, and the original voices don’t get heard.


Whaa? Isn’t it the fault of businessmen who let our technology leak to other countries?


Isn’t it also cause they work way too much overtime than they need? They don’t use any money because they don’t have any free time to enjoy themselves.


I thought people did pay attention to specs when they bought household electronics… Aren’t the specs, then the user friendliness the first things you look at? I don’t think there is anyone who completely ignores the specs when they are buying things like PCs or fridges/air conditioners/washing machines….

Share This Article
Help us maintain a vibrant and dynamic discussion section that is accessible and enjoyable to the majority of our readers. Please review our Comment Policy »
  • monmon

    I definately pay attention to specs, but… as for the rest it’s pretty much what my friends and I have been saying for ages. The problem is there are too many old people who don’t want things to change.

    Anyway, I hate saleryman culture. They are so tasteless and boring.

  • dim mak

    Hit and miss, and the Japanese commenters don’t seem to get it either

    They had success a few decades ago with the same system, so why not now? Like many of Japan’s problems it’s not so much structural as it is plain demographics

    As in, a bunch of old, out of touch people unable to create new things or even adapt to their competition. Plus being completely insular with no feedback from ethnically loyal immigrants overseas, it’s a disaster in there

    Granted you can’t just pump out a generation of young ppl instantly, but at least look around and see what other countries are doing

    • Exactly.

      Look st Square (later Square Enix). They have tonnes of great people and great minds, but as they grew big they became the typical Japanese company, with management now filled with passionless salarymen. Not only that, back the management team was very in touch with the creative team. Nowadays, no one in Square’s creative team knew anyone in mangement!

      It’s pretty sad, but there are solutions to this. Japanese companies like Square and Sony can change, but it’ll take a generational shift or two.

      • dim mak

        That brings me to a good example: Final Fantasy 14

        That train wreck encapsulates exactly what’s wrong with Japanese companies these days. It’s like they made a product without ever playing any of their competition made in the last 20 years. Now look at Korean MMOs, sure they copy a lot of things from Western games, but at least it keeps them competitive, and not a total joke

        • Erick

          At least they fixed it :)), hopefully.

    • Reila90

      But it’s undeniable there’s a crisis in global scale. For a country like Japan whose relied so much to U.S, If dollar is weaker, Yen obviously will get stronger.

      • Tony

        If they want to hedge against a stronger yen Sony et al. can enter into a FOREX swap.

        It is dead simple to hedge away market-wide risk with the vast array of financial products offered by investment banks.

  • The biggest problem is merely the stubborn refusal for a change in the system.

    Japan has always been more reluctant of change (which is made worse with a bunch of old geezers for their government) and that is and always will be the problem.

  • Justin_kBANG

    tell us how your day goes, mary-ke 🙂

  • TSDown

    Well, according to the article the women who stay at home seem to be doing a good job of juggling priorities in the household. Perhaps they should try to recruit more women rather than treat them like an accessory? Nobody even bothered to suggest it; as if the idea itself is absurd or in the realm of crazy talk.

    Besides, this sounds like a First World Problem when you are only looking at the performance of big companies. Yep, let us weep for the shareholders and lament how citizens do not consume more of what they don’t need. Why be content with just one phone? It would great if everyone just bought more phones! One for each day of the week, perhaps.

    Oh and I blame Canada.

    • A Gawd Dang Mongolian

      I blame Obama. Because someone somewhere will blame him, so it might as well be me.

  • GaryM

    I have 20 years experience as an engineer, 10 years in Japan. The fundamental problem is Japanese culture. Companies are created such that managers go out of their way to make a mistake, and avoid any possibility that they may be blamed for something. This makes them risk averse, which results in a fear of taking the initiative to make other than small incremental improvements. There are some rare exceptions such as Masaru Ibuka and Ken Kutaragi, but they are rare individuals.

  • A Gawd Dang Mongolian

    From business to video games, when things go bad finger-pointing erupts. And nearly always the finger is pointed in the wrong direction.

  • Tony

    Once again the comments have missed the point. To be a successful tech firm now requires you to be fully integrated and in touch with the end user from the get go. Consumers demand user friendliness, aesthetically pleasing design in addition to competitive specs. Technology has gone social, and that means that your networking and ecosystem of products is more important than individual capabilities. The reason why people buy into the Apple ecosystem is because it is seamless and requires almost no work on the user’s end of things to work. You can go from one device to another to suit your use-needs without dedicated knowledge. This means that their target market is a hell of a lot larger than something that NEEDS you to be tech savvy.

    The failure of the Japanese work-culture has been the excessive separation of engineers from design and market knowledge. Overengineering does no end-user any good. It doesn’t matter if the pen can write in space if the end-user isn’t going anywhere near space and wants a more comfortable grip and a smoother writing experience.

    • AnthonyLudovici

      Yeah, I used to think the concept of a professional management class with creative/marketing/communications experience was stupid and pointless, but when you look at a company like Sony, which is basically run by engineers, you realize how necessary it is.

      It may seem harsh, but a lot of engineers are complete spergs with no idea how to actually market products, and complete obliviousness as to basic business practices in general (like the concept of budgeting).

      Having said that, I have immense respect for talented electrical engineers.

  • “they have a hard time making technology people will actually use. If they only focus on technology, they risk making things with no appeal to users.”

    most user looks at the aesthetic of the gadget rather than its performance, like buying a car it no longer matter what kind of engine is install as long as the car shell looks pretty. Like buying a branded bag because its branded not because of what items it can carry. Mostly people who look at specs are enthusiast and already have something specific in mind of what they want to do with the equipment so the equipment becomes an utility rather than just a fancy accessory.

    arent the salary men culture the same all over the world? its not that they are boring its just that they have no opportunity to not be boring. Maybe they can have a competition of throwing papers inside wastebasket when the boss are not around.

    incidentally… did you check out Ni No Kuni wrath of white witch?, its a work of art, I cant tell if its an animation or a video game, its that good. A combination of technology and art. I wish they bring it to pc….

  • Relivash

    High production vs Quality production?

  • prof Kimochi

    Engineer and scientist have to focus on specific thing all the time. Creative and marketing department people have to change every time. they live in different world! don’t mix it! salary man has nothing to do with it.

    • Tony

      The marketers can only do so much with something that is just not what consumers want. The goal of a tech firm is to sell what people want using innovative solutions. R&D cannot concentrate on execution to the exclusion of analysis & comparison of their devices with the competition.

      There has to be dialogue between the ideas and the execution. The reason why Apple is so successful is because they have managed to unify the user experience between all their devices in a simple & intuitive package. Now look at how Windows 8 and the Surface tablet is going for Microsoft and you see the danger of silos in the tech world.

  • Once again I feel the need to butt in with a translation nitpick [and yes, I did refresh this time;)]

    ““Because of this, not many consumers in developed
    countries chose electronics based on their specs anymore.” “They decide
    based on personal preferences on user friendliness, design, brand…”
    What’s the point of that?”

    I think 価格ではないのか? is supposed to mean “Isn’t it price?”or “But what about price?”, not “What’s the point of that?” (if it were the latter the では would be out of place in a question that isn’t yes-no, and besides, translating 価格 as “point” seems like over-thinking a simple word to me). The next comment (which I had to look for in the original article, since its Japanese version doesn’t pop up here for some reason) thus means “If it’s about price, then there’s absolutely no way we can compete with [other] developed countries. The only way we can still win is on brands.”

    • besudesu

      Ah yes, I’ll take a look at that one! (^ – ^)

  • Erick

    I suppose they have their share of problems 😐
    The rise of South Korea and China (and arguably North Korea too) gives an unexpected shock to Japan’s isolationist culture.

  • ChuckRamone

    Salaryman culture is a symptom of the problem, not the cause of it.

    Where do some of these commenters get the idea that people don’t pay attention to specs? When Apple markets newer iPads, it’s all about upgrades in memory and higher resolution screens, Thunderbolt adapters for faster file transfers, faster processor, thinner profile, etc. Japanese companies are not competitive because they create mostly singular, niche products. People these days are buying products that fit into an entire ecosystem, like Apple does with iTunes, iPad, iMac, iPhone, Apple TV, apps, etc. – stuff that all works together easily and with high performance. That’s also what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 8, Surface, XBox, etc. Japanese electronics are too fragmented. I have a Sony DSC-RX100 camera, which I love. But it’s a standalone device. Its main selling point was the specs, because the marketing for it was almost nonexistent. I heard about it through online reviews. Other than that, however, it’s a little complicated to use and doesn’t fit into a larger world of Sony stuff, which would have enhanced its attractiveness. Same can be said of Sony smartphones, PlayStation, Nintendo, etc.

  • mike

    Pretty sure when japs stop being most racist, bigotry, egocentric people on the planet they would “understand” people better

Personals @ chinaSMACK - Meet people, make friends, find lovers? Don't be so serious!»