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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Blue-Eyed Salaryman - Book Review

I just finished reading The Blue Eyed Salaryman, a book written by a gaijin born in Ireland named Niall Murtagh who not only decided to work in Japan, he completed his PhD there and then went to work for a host of Japanese multinational corporations - though in the book, he lumps his experiences together as though it all happened at Mitsubishi.

Firstly, this is one fascinating book! It was lent to me by my buddy Vince - and I promise to get all these books back to him when I am done!

The book provides a firsthand look inside life at a Japanese corporation - a deep look, in fact at the Japanese business culture that shows why Japan is either, depending on one's point of view, a superstar in the workplace, or a dinosaur waiting for the meteor to crash down and spill up an explosion of dirt and dust to slowly choke out the life-giving sunshine and cause extinction of life as it was known in Japan.

Really... if you want to know what life in Japan is like for a Japanese person... hmm... well... I'm not sure if this book does it, but it's pretty close.

What it does actually spell out for the reader is a look at how Japanese businesses are run - poorly, I think - as the standard thinking of the Japanese is revealed to be: Why should we change anything... we have always done things this way.

I found that to be a time-honored tradition in Japan, as it often feels that change for the sake of change - or even for the sake of improvement - is not something to be undertaken lightly or even at all.

Murtagh is a very good writer, and enough said about that.

The descriptors on the book's cover indicate that Midweek, BBC Radio 4 called it "Astonishing", which it is.

The Sunday Telegraph called it "Fascinating", which it is.

The Daily Mail called it "Hilarious" - which it isn't. I'm pretty sure I have a reasonable grip on hilarity... and I would have thought the Brits would have to... but they don't.

I have to recall that the Brits think that Monty Python's Flying Circus is the funniest thing ever made on television. But consider if you will, that there were 45 episodes on the telly. There sure as hell were not 45 skits in total that one could rhyme off as funny.

Sure, there was the Blanch Mange, Dinsdale, Twit of the Year, Dead Parrot, Lumberjack, Beethoven, the Cheese Shop, Nudge-Nudge, Can't say my B's, G'day Bruce, Spanish Inquisition, and the Ministry of Silly Walks... but I'll be damned if there were maybe 20 skits that made me crack a smile. So maybe the Brits don't know hilarious as much as one would think.

Now... I do think that the movies were all boffo... but the word 'hilarious' means something more than merely cracking a smile. It means smacked in the face with a salmon, knee-slapping spit my coke out of my nose funny.

The Blue Eyed Salaryman is not that. Not even close. But... it is a damn fine book with some very, very dry keen insights about life as a gaijin pretending to be a salaryman.

Sorry Niall Murtagh and any other foreigner living in Japan... as you no doubt have all discovered... no matter what and no matter how hard you try, one can never become Japanese... which is really what the book is all about.

Now the author doesn't really try to become Japanese - as he is forever thumbing his nose at Japanese culture simply by asking 'why' to a number of situations... so in my opinion, despite marrying a Japanese wife and having a couple of kids born in Japan... three of the four members of his family are forever gaijin.

I'm not saying Muratgh's situation isn't correct... it is... but I am also saying that his situation isn't that unique.

Here in Toronto, Canada - the supposed melting pot at the self-proclaimed center of the universe - not being a white citizen or a white citizen without a Canadian accent (French or English)... well... people sometimes look at you sideways... wondering how I can have a voice devoid of an accent... talk about hockey like I invented it (I didn't, but I know more about its history than the average Canadian - baseball, too, if any Americans are reading this!). And my surname or even my first name... holy crap... no... it is my real name... I didn't change it... and neither did my parents Ron or Lynda change theirs after emigrating from India.

But... I know not everyone isn't like that... I have friends at work who just see me as Andrew and don't see the color of my skin.

Maybe it's changing, though... Canada has been a hotspot for immigration for people from EVERY possible corner of the world for 50 years-plus now. My son Hudson has a white mother... and has a beige complexion... yet no one at his school seems intent on pointing out the color of his skin. My son hasn't experienced racism yet - and I hope he never does.

But Canada has 50 years on Japan... more even.

Japan doesn't really have immigration. And no immigrant can become a Japanese citizen... you can, but outside of a retired sumo wrestler, I can't think of any gaijin who actually became a nihonjin.

And that is why Japan will fail.

Though it isn't stated outright in The Blue Eyed Salaryman, Japan's inability to change... and to accept change is why it will continue a slow freefall in the world's... well... internationalization.

Hilarity or lack of hilarity aside, for those of you with aspirations of traveling to Japan to soak up its culture as a teacher or barkeeper or hostess, if you want a pretty good look at the business culture of Japan, you MUST read The Blue Eyed Salaryman by Niall Murtagh.

I lived in Japan for a mere three-years plus and I didn't know 99% of the stuff Niall Murtagh writes about. Though on the other hand, when it comes to being a gaijin in Japan and Niall's relevant writings on that topic, I probably could have written 100% of it from my own personal experiences.

My copy was published by Profile Books Ltd. of, in case you'd like to purchase a copy for yourself. I know you can also use Amazon, because they have it, too.

Andrew Joseph

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