active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Return to blender

One of my favorite paintings is Aida Makoto’s huge, shocking canvas that depicts hundreds of naked girls in a giant blender. But the artist got one thing wrong.

Makoto’s paintings are purposefully confrontational, merging disturbing, often misogynistic imagery (sexualized schoolgirls disemboweling themselves, mountains of dead female bodies, tentacle porn) with dazzling technical skill. These are glossy atrocities, and the point of this post is not to explore the issues they raise. But I will say that Blender seems to me a critique of Japanese society rather than a glorification of violence against women.

That actually does feed into my subject, since nothing personifies Japanese society more than the manga-reading salariman, and sexualized schoolgirls are exactly the kind of thing he likes to read about. There is a whole industry in Japan, characterized by pubescent poppets AKB48, that indulges the salariman obsession with young girls.

But honestly, what are salarimen for?

You see them everywhere in Tokyo on your morning commute: ranks of cookie-cutter businessmen in cheap dark gray business suits and white shirts. Theirs is a uniform of anonymous belonging, just like all the young executives here seem to sport Ricky Gervais goatees and wear waistcoats and shirtsleeves.

Salarimen (sometimes spelled “salarymen” abroad — I personally prefer the term “shachiku,” meaning “corporate livestock”) shuffle at a snail’s pace to their office, stare at their computer in unproductive intensity for ten hours or more, and then shuffle home. They clog up the roads, clog up public transport, clog up the bars.

They stand, vacantly, on every escalator, step after step of them, stretching up forever.

Like the ebb and flow of scum on a polluted beach, they seem to add nothing of value to the landscape. And yet they consider themselves important.

A few weeks ago, I was waiting to collect my 7-year-old son at the local railway station. The boy came out of the station and walked over the level crossing toward where I was standing. A salariman heading the other way shoved him — literally, and blatantly shoved him — off the level crossing and onto the tracks.

That wasn’t racism. The salariman simply couldn’t give a toss about somebody else’s child.

A few days after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, in which as many as 18,000 people may have died, I was in an office in Tokyo full of giggling salarimen who seemed to have no conception of what had just happened. These, it was confirmed to me in that moment, are adults with the mental arrested development of children.

It’s hard to see why Japan tolerates them, and why the country I love continues to churn them out in such huge numbers, year after year.

There’s a myth about Japan that I need to scotch right now. This is not a beautifully interlocking machine. It is actually a country that suffers from crippling, endemic incompetence.

Just look at the Sasago tunnel collapse in 2012. Nine people were crushed when the suspended concrete roof fell on the roadway. The tunnel, it transpired, was poorly designed and had been almost entirely neglected.

But this is an exporting country. It requires the image of reliable technological advance to sell its cars and trains and cameras abroad.

Having lived in Tokyo for the past decade, I see incompetence all around me. I see a country that runs around like a decapitated chicken whenever there is even the most minor problem.

The 2011 Olympus scandal, which was revealed only because the company made the mistake of employing a foreign CEO, suggests that even the crooks act without sophistication of intent.

There’s a panic that takes over a Japanese chief executive whenever he’s put on the spot. That fabled Japanese inscrutability during business meetings is largely empty-headed vacillation.

I’ve worked with a huge number of Japanese companies. I often interact with people, regardless of their rank, who are all but hopeless at their roles.

Companies employ incompetent salarimen. Those salarimen, by dint merely of long hours drowsing at their desk, rise to positions of power. Incompetence seeps upward to infect everything.

Those who don’t rise are left hanging around the peripheries of the office like human dust.

The whole system is crazy. It might have been excusable in the bubble years, but with Japan slipping down the world rankings, the country should have no more time for it.

Imagine how it could arrest its decline if its businesses got their act together and started acting like, well, professionals.

All those incompetent salarimen could be replaced by robots. Simple robots would do.

To have an entire gender, half its population, that is largely a waste of human flesh seems absurd. To mix in moral bankruptcy and an utter lack of decency, coupled to head-in-the-sand superiority, is all but dazzling in its ineptitude.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Japan already has a population of competent, dedicated office workers who could do the job so much better. I’m referring, of course, to its women.

I am highly impressed by Japanese businesswomen. They have the brains, creativity, and energy that their male counterparts lack. They are motivated to succeed, perhaps because it’s so difficult for them to do so.

If I need bright ideas, I never look to the men. I won’t find any. But the women always deliver. The key, I’ve found, is to exclude men from meetings, so they don’t intimidate the women into clamming up.

Japan’s society isn’t topsy-turvy. It’s not that the women should be working while the men stay at home. Japanese men are hopeless at raising children. While they’re sometimes characterized as effeminate, it’s untrue. They’re not nearly effeminate enough.

If the women got this country moving again, what would all the redundant salarimen do? They’re already an economic burden.

I guess we could shame them into mass suicide. But it’s already a pain in the ass when an overworked salariman throws himself onto the railway line and inconveniences everybody else.

I’ve got it. Giant blenders in every town center, with escalators to the rim. And maybe we can get AKB48 in their pleated schoolgirl skirts to wave them merrily on their way.

Robert Maas’s latest novel The Summoning, published under the pseudonym Catherine Mays, is available to buy on ebook and in paperback at Amazon. Click here for the links.


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