Just Another Salaryman on a Tokyo Train

By Shinichi Terada

“Shut down your computer. We’re going for a drink,” my boss, Mr. Takeda, said from across my desk. I leaned forward, my hand under my chin, wishing I had not heard him. My other colleagues switched off their computers. I felt my chest tighten. He patted my shoulder and repeated, “Let’s go for a drink.”

“I still have work to do.” I kept my eyes fixed on the mountain of documents on my desk.

Mr. Takeda grinned and closed my laptop. “Let’s go.” He pointed at the entrance with his chin.

“Okay.” I didn’t feel comfortable saying no. As a new hire, I was at the bottom of the company’s hierarchy. Post-work drinking was mandatory.

After graduating from university with a degree in comparative culture emphasizing international business and economics, I had joined this Tokyo-based newspaper to write about the steel industry. All of the reporters and editors were male, ranging in age from their late thirties to early sixties. At twenty-four, I was by far the youngest, and the only one who was not married. Some had a headful of gray hair; many of them wore a hair style that looked like a bar code. They constituted, I felt, a club of the aging. Each had an ashtray on his desk filled with cigarette butts. There was a clean glass ashtray on mine, too, implying that smoking was strongly recommended. The other reporters puffed on Marlboros, Winstons, and Parliaments, as if the cigarettes were the engines for their survival.

I saw few female employees in the newspaper office except for Ms. Tamada, the secretary, who sat across from me and settled bills, booked hotels, and handled other administrative work. She was short and brisk, in her late fifties. Her hair looked starched and she wore heavy foundation, rouge, and lipstick every day, her full makeup meeting the usual societal expectations for Japanese women. She always picked up the phone within a few ring tones and quickly, efficiently forwarded each call. Every time reporters returned to the office, she spoke words of appreciation for their hard work and gave them rice crackers, peanuts, dried seafood, and chocolate. She took care of the reporters as if she were their mother. And she knew the family problems of all the reporters and editors. “No secrets here,” she laughed loudly. I wondered if I’d have to tell her mine.

On my first day, Mr. Takeda led me to the smoking section of a coffee shop. In his late forties, Mr. Takeda was an ace in the company, often obtaining exclusive news stories. He was a well-built, handsome man with slightly drooping eyes, a tanned face, and rosy cheeks. His smile made him look charming and approachable. As he spoke, the smell of coffee and smoke enveloped my face.

He crossed his legs and puffed on a cigarette. “I heard that you had reporting and writing internships for English publications.”

“Yes, I have basic reporting and writing skills,” I said, careful to use the word “basic” to follow the Japanese tradition of self-effacement.

Mr. Takeda paused, scrutinizing me.

“Forget about everything you learned through such internships,” he said. “I will teach you from scratch.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to digest what he was saying.  

He leaned toward me. “You must learn three things here: how to sing karaoke, play golf, and if possible, smoke.”

“I see.” I did none of them.

He had left out the most important requirement of the job: reporting.

During my three-month probation period, I translated English articles into Japanese and attended press conferences to write spot news. I also tagged along with Mr. Takeda to interview executives from Japan’s steel companies. We didn’t need to make appointments; we directly dashed into their offices, as if we were privileged employees. It seemed impolite to me, but this behavior had become a norm.

I liked my work, as I gained insights about the industry from my boss and other colleagues. Mergers and the acquisitions of steel companies had accelerated in the world and China was rapidly increasing its steel production. I visited steel factories, interviewed executives, and wrote articles about the worldwide dynamics of the industry and how Japanese steel companies were trying to stay ahead of the global race. My boss corrected my mistakes with a red pen, and I admired his knowledge and appreciated his guidance. 

But I quickly realized that reporters here were like a family: they worked together, drank together, smoked together, and sang karaoke together. On weekends they golfed together. Working hours were indeterminate and work obligations were prioritized over family obligations. Men had only one family obligation, after all, understood best by the popular expression: It’s good to have a husband who is healthy, stays out of the house, and brings home a paycheck. An ironic sentiment considering that millions of Japanese wives were fed up with husbands who worked and drank until late at night, did no housework or childrearing, and lay around the house all day on weekends. I knew the pattern well.

Living alone, I had no compelling reason to avoid joining the after-work activities. Nevertheless, I longed to go to dinner with friends, explore my neighborhood, or just spend time at home alone. But I knew that rejecting the constant invitations to socialize with bosses and colleagues would be professional suicide.  

The obligations started around seven in the evening and often continued past midnight. Almost every day, Mr. Takeda and my colleagues, sometimes with the executives and public relations representatives of a steel company, headed to an izakaya or restaurant to drink beer and deepen their relationships.

During my first few weeks of employment, I followed along with Mr. Takeda to drink with a steel company’s public relations representative named Mr. Yamada. In the private room of a Japanese restaurant, my boss and Mr. Yamada talked about the steel industry in Japan and abroad, Mr. Yamada’s company situation, and rumors about who was replacing the top management in Mr. Yamada’s company. Most of the conversations were like a foreign language to me. I remained silent, shifting my eyes from my boss to Mr. Yamada and back again, trying to pick up cues.

While he listened to Mr. Yamada, Mr. Takeda nodded encouragingly, with one hand on his stomach and the other in a fist under his chin. I sat on my knees in a seiza position, showing my respect for Mr. Yamada as a client. I felt my feet growing numb.

Mr. Takeda glared at me, pointing with his chin at Mr. Yamada’s glass. “What are you doing? You should refill his glass.” He scanned me from head to toe and paused. The silence was unnerving.

With the bottle in his hand, Mr. Yamada said, “I can do it.”   

My boss bowed to Mr. Yamada to apologize for my behavior. “I’m really sorry. He recently joined us.”

My face reddened. I understood that in a Japanese business setting, colleagues are considered an in-group (uchi) and clients are an out-group (soto). People in uchi are expected to be humble, and are sometimes criticized in front of people in soto. Still, Mr. Takeda’s reproaches stung.

My boss and Mr. Yamada continued the conversation. I forced a smile every time Mr. Yamada spoke and slowly sipped my brownish, bitter beverage, wishing I could pour it out onto the floor.

“Why are you sipping? You should be drinking, throwing it back,” Mr. Takeda shouted at me.

“I am drinking,” I said in a low voice. But I covered the top of my glass with my hand.  

“Because you’re forever sipping, you can’t finish even one glass!” He brushed away my hand to pour in more beer. 

“It does not matter how I drink,” I protested weakly, my voice trembling.

Mr. Yamada grinned, interpreting my comment as a challenge. “Not many young people resist an order from their boss,” he said. “He’ll be someone.” Mr. Takeda glared at me, bottle in his hand, as if he were going to hit me with it. “No need to force him to drink,” Mr. Yamada added.

He had shown me sympathy. But I didn’t know if I could trust him. I gulped down the contents of the glass and put it back on the table. Then Mr. Takeda poured again.

“You can do it,” he said contentedly, and resumed the conversation with Mr. Yamada as if nothing had happened. Until midnight I kept nodding, sipping, and pouring beer for Mr. Yamada and my boss, engulfed in the cigarette fumes of the two men and surreptitiously massaging my numb feet.

I was expected to join countless outings like this as the weeks went by, often with large, beer-guzzling groups of employees and colleagues, sometimes including rounds of drunken karaoke. I began to dread these evenings. I did not want to force down beer after beer, night after night, or listen to a red-faced Mr. Ito, our company’s director, sing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Nor did I—with no singing voice whatsoever—want to sing myself, despite being told I would need to learn at least three songs to “entertain clients.” My voice might entertain them, but not in the way they expected.

On my taxi rides home late at night, I began to wonder if I should quit. I enjoyed the work and wanted to develop my reporting expertise, but I was tired of being scolded by bosses and colleagues after work. I became more anxious about how I was expected to behave after work and during the drinking sessions. Some nights, I woke up in the middle of the night and stared at the ceiling until the morning, feeling empty.

On weekends, too, I found myself feeling burned out. My gatherings with friends, previously filled with congenial storytelling and laughter, were now confined to the occasional Saturday or Sunday and my sober moods often dampened them.

“You will get used to the drinking,” said one friend, Hiroshi, as we sat together in a crowded café. “I also hated drinking at first but I came to acquire a taste for beer. Perform drunken antics with your colleagues. Show your hidden feelings to your colleagues and bosses,” he urged me. “Otherwise, they won’t trust you. If I had rejected drinking invitations from my boss, my career would have been ruined. Don’t be so different from others.” He smiled and took a sip of his coffee.

“I’ve tried all kinds of alcohol, but never have acquired the taste for any of it,” I said. “And why do I have to conform so completely? As long as everyone talks happily over any drink, that should be fine. What if I get seriously sick?”

He smiled again, crossing his legs. “You won’t get sick. We all went through this.” He stared at me, sipping coffee again, silently indicating that he wanted to end the discussion.

I knew I should not whine, yet I needed my friend’s support. He remained silent. Society taught us to contain our emotions and endure hardships stoically. Only losers asked for help or gave up.

Hiroshi never contacted me again.  

Bad became worse sometime in the middle of the second month. Mr. Takeda told me with a grin that he was going to take me to an “interesting” place. My boss, my colleagues, and I headed to a bar in Tokyo’s neon-glittering Ginza district. When we were greeted by young, slender women at the entrance, I realized it was a hostess bar. Soon the women were sitting next to us, mixing our drinks and sensually stroking our necks and knees. One hostess was assigned to each of us. My hostess’s V-shaped neckline revealed her bulging breasts. I looked around at the other women and saw that their breasts were also big. Was this some kind of request my boss had made? The other men took off their jackets and rolled up their shirtsleeves, and I reluctantly did the same.

Bottles of beer, bottle openers, arrays of ice, snacks, and ashtrays were arranged like a display on the table. Hostesses popped the caps off beer bottles and poured the foamy beer into our glasses. My colleagues beamed at their hostesses goofily, holding each glass with both hands, a gesture of respect for the person who pours, and bowed to each hostess to show gratitude.

Mr. Takeda stood up and looked around. “Thank you for your hard work,” he announced. “We all put in many hours and I am sure that we are all exhausted, so today let’s relax and chill. Kanpai!”

We clinked our glasses. I took a sip, while the others all downed their beers. They wiped their mouths with their hands. “A beer after work is the best!” shouted the colleague next to me. My gaze wandered around the table. Before I drank up, Mr. Takeda gave a toast to congratulate me for having joined the company. “You made the right choice to join our company. Those who command the steel industry will reign over the whole country of Japan.” 

They all looked at me. I realized: I am the target for tonight.

Kanpai!” Everyone said in unison; I forced myself to join in.

They all downed another beer. “I feel so refreshed,” one colleague said. Another colleague produced a resounding belch.

“Oh, nooo!” the hostess assigned to him laughed. The toasts continued for a few more rounds.  

The hostess next to Mr. Takeda hugged him tightly and kissed him. When I saw their tongues intertwined, I turned aside, my face as red as a lantern. I felt hives on my arms.

My hostess looked concerned, frowning. “Are you okay? You don’t drink much?”

“Sorry, I prefer water.” She fetched me a glass of water full of large ice cubes.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Takeda pointed at me.

“I cannot drink anymore,” I said pleadingly.

“I didn’t ask your opinion. Just drink.” He glared at me and went silent as everyone watched. 

“Drink up, drink up, drink up!” The others chanted and clapped their hands.

I took a deep breath and guzzled another beer, surrounded by the sounds of clapping and shouts of “Good job!” My stomach lurched but I managed a few more gulps, suppressing my nausea.

Later—an hour, two hours, I don’t remember—we played a game in which we each picked a card and followed the instructions on it. My drunken boss, his cheeks now dark red from all the alcohol, stood up and read aloud from his card. Dutifully following his instructions, he buried his face into his hostess’s cleavage and shook his head back and forth.

I wondered why these young women ended up working here and if they resented being touched by these hard-drinking middle-aged men. I felt sympathy for them. But eventually I realized an important aspect of their craft: they were communication specialists. Each hostess closely watched the behavior of every man present and tried to meet their expectations. They knew when to nod, when to praise their customers, when to touch their laps. Every time I met the eyes of a hostess in the room, she would smile and study my face, trying to figure out my stance, my thoughts, my motives for being there. I had no motives, other than to avoid disrespecting them and embarrassing myself.

When it was my turn to participate in the card game, I had to think fast. I wanted the hostess to know I didn’t like the game, while tricking my boss and colleagues into thinking I was happy to play along. I drew my card and read the instructions: “Kiss the hostess and put your hand underneath her bra.” Everyone waited, watching. “Let me do it this way,” I whispered in her ear, flopping my body over hers to block the hostess from view. I kissed her on the cheek and forehead. Then I softly touched her breast over her clothing, careful not to touch her nipple. “Sorry,” I whispered.

“That’s okay” she whispered back.

I straightened up, poured beer into my glass, and drank the entire glass in one gulp as the others clapped. Looking at their faces, my college friend Midori’s words echoed in my mind. She had held an office job after graduation, too. “My job was really to drink until late at night three times per week but I was still expected to arrive at the office very early in the morning, with perfect makeup!” And yet she had also told me that drinking helped her have frank conversations with colleagues, strengthening their relationships. Her network had expanded, she said.

I wondered what she would say about the hostess bar if I told her.

Around one in the morning, when we finally left the bar, Mr. Takeda staggered down the street while two colleagues propped him up on either side. I asked him why he felt that he had to get into this state. He didn’t answer.

“He is a nuisance at home,” one colleague said jokingly. “He shouldn’t go home.”         

“Right,” Mr. Takeda said.

I thought of my own father, who was addicted to gambling. He saddled his own parents with hefty debts when he left home for days, weeks, and eventually, months. My strongest memories of my father were seeing him walk away from our house after yet another argument with my mother. When I was nine years old, he left for good.  

“I grew up without my father,” I said, looking directly into Mr. Takeda’s eyes. “Your son must miss you. It’s better to spend time with your family.”

He looked down, a wistful look in his eyes. Then he said, “When you get older, you will understand.” After a moment, he raised his chin and shouted, “Let’s go for another round! The night is still young.” Instead my colleagues and I managed to push Mr. Takeda into a taxi.

I hailed a taxi for myself. On the ride home, as the cab sped through the dark Tokyo streets, I replayed the scenes of the evening. Then I curled up, closed my eyes, and fell asleep.

For the rest of my second month at the newspaper, I dragged myself with colleagues to hostess bars a few more times, in addition to joining regular drinking sessions at izakayas or restaurants three or four times a week. I played the role that was expected in the workplace; I was not Shinichi Terada but Shinichi Terada of the newspaper. Others thought the long working hours were exhausting me, but it was playing the social roles, pretending to be someone else, that knocked me out.

One evening when I had no drinking obligations, I took the subway home. As the train entered a tunnel, I saw my reflection in the window: a 24-year-old young man wearing my company’s uniform—a black suit, white shirt, and blue tie, holding my bag in front of my chest. I was just another salaryman in the packed train. My face looked gaunt and empty.

I thought of my friend Midori again. A human resources staffer had praised her for accepting so many invitations to join drinking parties. “But I started to find it stupid so I quit,” she told me. She was right. It was stupid. Stupid and destructive. But what choice did I have? After the first hostess club experience, Midori and I had met over the weekend at a café and I shared the story. It didn’t surprise her at all. The hostesses symbolized Japanese patriarchy, she told me. “Coercive forces of our male society are really scary. The way your boss forced you to accompany him is typical.”

That meant it would go on and on.

Midori also reminded me of our college life. “You were radiant and full of energy like Ichiro.” Ichiro! He was the best baseball player in Japan. Had I really been like him? “Shinichi, you were always busy, always full of hope about your future as a journalist. Now you look like a stray puppy that is caught in the rain.”

I twirled a plastic straw in my iced café latte over and over, listening to the sounds of ice cubes colliding. Yes, I had worked hard to become a fully-fledged journalist, submitting business stories to complete internships, attending classes at college. I had clear goals then, so I didn’t mind sacrificing sleep. But now I felt beaten up.

During my third month at the newspaper, I found myself in tears when leaving home one morning. I remembered an old Japanese saying: The nail that stands out will be hammered down. In my mind I rephrased the adage: The nail that stands out will not be hammered down.

I started making up excuses for not joining Mr. Takeda and other colleagues for drinks. “My friend is visiting from abroad,” I’d say, or “My friend is sick so I need to help.” The invitations kept coming but I politely rejected them, and left the office as soon as I finished work. After a while, Mr. Takeda and the others stopped asking. They talked to me less and less. My probation period was extended for another three months, a sign that they would ask me to leave if I didn’t change. Mr. Yanai, our human resources manager, gave me a stern warning: I should socialize more with colleagues, and it had better happen in the coming months.

I knew I wouldn’t. And yet I felt too intimidated to tell Mr. Takeda the truth, that I wanted to leave. His criticism, as well as the censure of my fellow reporters, would be hard to bear. I was also worried about my next job. Would excessive drinking be just as important in another company? Did it have to be this way everywhere?

I couldn’t endure the torture. It was time to make a move before I lost my identity. Before I lost myself.

The next morning, I didn’t feel fatigued and sad when leaving home. At the office, all the reporters were out in the field. Ms. Tamada leafed through a celebrity gossip magazine. I began writing an article at my desk, periodically glancing up at Mr. Yanai.  

At last I took a deep, slow breath and stood up, feeling the secretary’s eyes on me. My heart was beating rapidly as I walked the ten steps to Mr. Yanai’s desk. Those few seconds felt like an hour-long hike. “Excuse me,” I said, with my voice low. “I’m sorry for disturbing you. I’d like to submit my resignation letter.” My hands shook as I handed over the envelope. He took it, studied the contents, and then looked at me.

“Well received. Let’s start your resignation process.” That was all. As I expected, he didn’t ask me why I was leaving.

The next morning, Mr. Takeda approached my desk to give me instructions on an assignment. As he spoke, he looked at the papers stacked next to my computer, not directly at me as he had always done before. But he did not harass me. It was over.

When I arrived at work on my last day, my colleague Mr. Sato was the only other reporter in the office, along with the editors and Ms. Tamada, who was folding origami papers to keep busy. I completed my final administrative work and then turned in my computer and employee card to an elderly man in the IT department. He barely glanced up at me as he put away the computer and filed the card. Returning to my desk, I asked Mr. Sato if Mr. Takeda would return to the office later.

“I don’t know. Why don’t you call him and ask him yourself?” he said bluntly, standing up to leave the office for his assignment. “Seeing your number, he might not take the call.”

I knew I wouldn’t call.

Just before reaching the door, Mr. Sato stopped and turned back. “You know, you were expected to become Mr. Takeda’s successor. When he learned of your resignation, he went on a drinking binge. I thought you should know.”

“Thank you for sharing this with me.” I kept my eyes on the floor.

“You are young, and you should have socialized more,” Ms. Tamada scolded me as soon as Mr. Sato was gone, her eyebrows arched while eyeing me up and down.

I left a goodbye note on Mr. Takeda’s desk, next to his ashtray. I thanked Ms. Tamada in a perfunctory way; she made a sulky face. Then I stood by my desk and cleared my throat to thank everyone in the office, as I was supposed to. No words came out. In the silence, I looked around at the men at their desks. They all knew I was leaving but their eyes were glued to their newspapers or computers, as if asking me not to speak.

I understood. Disappearing quietly was the best way to maintain harmony. I put on my black coat and adjusted the collar. Keeping my eyes focused on the floor, I hurriedly escaped.

When I stepped outside, the chill blasted me like an awakening and the sky looked bluer than ever before.

Fourteen years later, I am working as an editor at an accounting firm in Shanghai, China. Tonight, I’m sitting with two Japanese bosses, several Japanese colleagues, one Chinese executive, and a dozen Chinese colleagues at a bar to celebrate the retirement of Mr. Otani, one of our bosses. He looks at everyone around the table, a glass in his hand, his round face glistening.

“Thanks for gathering tonight. I will drink with everyone until the morning.” Everyone laughs at his jokes. “Kanpai,” he toasts. Most hold up a glass of beer, although a few others, like me, hold up a glass of fresh juice.

Kanpai,” everyone says in unison.

A Chinese colleague sitting next to me whispers, “Do we have to stay with him until the morning?” Excessive drinking is commonly seen in China but not as often as in Japan.

“Of course not. You don’t even have to drink alcohol.”

I take a seat across from Mr. Otani. “It’s been a while since we’ve all had a drink together.”

Mr. Otani crosses his arms and grins. “Now young people don’t want to drink with their bosses. We don’t invite them anymore because we know our invitation will probably be rejected.” He leans forward and looks intently at me. “You don’t drink alcohol, do you?”

“No.” I drop my eyes toward the table, hoping he won’t ask me the reason. Mr. Otani has never forced me to drink but I wonder if he used to force his subordinates to do so. I think about his decades-long career as a hard-drinking salaryman. About everything he had to do, and everything he had to give up.

Another Japanese executive in her forties is about to replace Mr. Otani. She sits next to me and addresses our departing team leader, a glass of beer in her hand.

“Thank you for leading the team for such a long time. I admire your leadership,” she says. “I want to become a boss like you but I don’t know if I can fill your shoes.” She raises her glass.

He smiles and speaks with conviction. “It’s all about who you want to be and what you want to do.” He holds her gaze for a moment and then moves his eyes over to me. 

I nod in affirmation as his remark echoes in my mind, making a silent vow never to sacrifice my identity to be like my boss.

A Chinese colleague whispers to me, “Terada-san, do you think it’s okay to leave?”

“Of course, you can.” I stand up. “Otani-san, she needs to go.” Then other Chinese colleagues, one after another, hurriedly stand up and take their coats.

“Me too.” “Me too.” “Me too.” In the end only two Japanese bosses, my Japanese colleagues, one Chinese executive and I stay at the bar. After a series of shots, they suggest going to a karaoke bar. It is eleven at night. We settle the bill and walk to the exit.

Once outside the bar, I bow to Mr. Otani. “Otani-san, I’m heading home. Thank you for giving me advice and encouragement during your time here. All the best back in Tokyo.”

He smiles. “All the best to you too, Terada-san.”

“You’re not coming along?” asks one Chinese executive.  

I smile. “Time to feed my cat.” They laugh.

I adjust the collar of my black coat and walk briskly in the chilly night air, thinking about my partner and my cat at home, and the restful sleep ahead.


(Some names in the story have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.)

Shinichi Terada has a Master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong and has written hundreds of economic and business articles in Japan, China, and India. He is currently writing a set of memoir pieces about family estrangement and his relationship with his mother, set in rural Japan. 

Photo by frank mckenna