In 'Salary Man' project St. Louis sisters explore Japanese work culture | St. Louis Public Radio

In 'Salary Man' project St. Louis sisters explore Japanese work culture

Oct 8, 2015

This past May, St. Louis-based photographers Sarah-Marie and Andrea Land boarded a plane headed for Tokyo, Japan.

The sisters were looking to investigate the Japanese economic phenomena known as
the “salary man,” a white-collar worker characterized by excessive work hours, little sleep, related health problems, and a high rate of suicide.

“We were both anxious and enthralled to delve into the realm of the Japanese with a specific and fundamental cultural focus,” said Andrea Land, who responded to inquiry via email. 

The Land Sisters turned their visit into the multimedia exhibit “Japan Salary Man Project.” The show primarily features portraits of various salary men presented alongside objects from the subject’s daily life, such as a suit, and facemask worn that comprise the salary man uniform and an interview with one ex-salary man Mitsuhiro Honda who worked for an advertising company. The photographers hope the project confronts American’s with different ideas of work standards and expectations.

Salary man portraits were shot in similar positions with an emphasis on expression and subtle body posture.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

“Every aspect of the salary man's life follows a specific formula and procedure: He works excessive hours; must habitually participate in after-hours leisure activities with colleagues; and is to hold work above everything else,” said Andrea Land.

The salary man developed in the late 20th century as the Japanese economy gained speed. The salary man is characterized by working upward of 12 hours a day, often with 3-5 hour commutes, leaving little time for family interaction or rest. The salary man label is also characterized by a high rate of suicide as well as “karoshi,” a Japanese word for death from overwork. American media has reported on the phenomena throughout the 2000s.

Former salary man Mitsuhiro Honda as photographed by the Land Sisters
Credit The Land Sisters

The Land sister’s fascination with the salary man began over a dinner Andrea shared with former Missouri State University student Kayla Byrd, who had previously studied in Tokyo. Byrd relayed her experience with various Tokyo subway lines’ routine delays caused by the frequent suicides of salary men who chose to jump in front of the commuter trains. 

In Japan, the sisters took out Craigslist ads to initiate contact with salary men, and visited local after hour venues and business districts directly tied to the salary man lifestyle. At one Tokyo McDonald's, the sisters witnessed an entire floor dedicated to serving salary men that included space to rest and work while they ate.

The salary men who agreed to participate in the project were then photographed in similar poses with the hope that individual minute changes in expression and body language capture their individuality even though they all donned the same shirt-and-tie uniform.

The Land Sisters hope their project helps develop cross culture understanding.  By highlighting a part of Japanese culture that prioritizes community health over the health of the individual the two artists hope viewers consider those relationships in their own daily work lives. They also hope the expected rote salary man behavior such as similar dress and behaviors get audiences to reflect on the creativity they are able to express in their own work lives.

A salary man suit hangs in Mad Art Gallery alongside images documenting daily life for white collar workers.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

Mitsuhiro Honda, who goes by Mitsu worked as a salary man at the film promotion company Planning Om before quitting his job because of the stifling environment and health risks. He describes the work expectations as unreal yet uninspiring and the lifestyle as restrictive. The sister photographers met him at the National Arts Center. According to Mitsu the concept of a salary man was produced by longstanding cultural expectations of societal duty coupled with current capitalist trends. 

"Salary man is not normal, they are like slaves because in Japan, mostly you need to follow the people. You need to connect not for yourself, but for others," said Mitsu, "So if you do a different thing, you are going to be ostracized."

His brother currently works as a salary man and Mitsu said their relationship is constrained at best. It's limited by his brother’s chronic exhaustion.

"When I talk with him, he doesn't say anything, just 'Hi,'" Mitsu said. He said his brother sleeps under four hours a night. 

“It's common to be so immersed in one's habitual routine that one doesn't necessarily stop to pause and consider other cultural ideologies and modes of existence,” said Land. 

It’s this type of story that initially attracted the Land sisters to the salary man as a subject for documentation.  Their show runs through Oct. 25 at Mad Art Gallery in Soulard.