As some may have noticed, I have an “in” at the American version of The Office, so I tend to think about the show a lot. For the last few years, I would often meditate on why the formula would not work in Japan and came to the conclusion that the premise too strongly attacks the sanctity of corporate life.
Sure, there are plenty of office comedies in Japan, and many poke fun at ridiculous bureaucratic conventions. But the UK/US Office centers around the following ideas:
1. Work is an ultimately meaningless set of tasks
2. Your immediate boss is an idiot
3. Your corporate overlords are evil
These concepts are very familiar to anyone who has worked at an office in the United States. “Real life” and individual identity are intentionally kept distant from what happens at work. In the show, the secretary Pam secretly wants to be a graphic designer. Dwight likes his job but wears multiple hats in his afterhours as a beet farmer and a volunteer deputy sheriff. Michael seems to be the only one to unequivocally love his job, and he is basically a walking billboard for the human travesty of “Work.” While not “hippie” or Bohemian in appearance, The Office depends upon a post-’60s, anti-The Organization Man outlook on corporate ennui. Jobs are square, bosses are The Man — no matter how hard they try to be “with it.” Without this anti-corporate framework, The Office cannot create humor.
My guess is that these underlying digs at work life are still too pointed for mainstream Japanese TV. (Imagine Sazae-san incriminating the Japanese government and its corporate allies for presidential assassinations like in The Simpsons.) Just as the SNL parody shows the workers all bowing profusely to the Boss when the Japanese Jim and Dwight argue over the stapler-in-jello, putting the American Office‘s attitudes towards working life on Fuji TV or something would force Japanese TV executives to kowtow towards their advertisers. What is good for giant Japanese corporations is still good for Japan. TV stations, ad agencies, third-rate paper companies — these all contribute to the dignity and vitality of the nation. Being a good citizen means being a good worker.
The Office‘s horribly-boring, sterile “workplace” set is meant to visually represent the environmental blandness of low-level companies. In Japan, all companies essentially use the exact same desk layout, whether cool TV network or leading ad agency or fashion magazine, and this means an attack on a the physical space of selling paper in Scranton, PA is basically an attack on all Japanese companies.
Yes, the SNL parody is “racist” in the sense that they’d never dare dress up their white cast as The Office (Nairobi edition) and that they simplify Japanese customs to easily recognizable punchlines. But this is the closest we will see the Office in Japan. This country is just not burdened with internal contradictions of corporate life like in the West. Yanks and Brits want to bash their day jobs while still showing up every day or justify their own poor performance by placing “reality” outside of the office walls. The Japanese spend 12 hours a day at work and correctly assess that those tasks and affiliations create their “identity.” Debasing the office is not just heresy, it’s an insult to all those good citizen-workers.