The Japanese Office

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.

W. David MARX
May 20, 2008

16 Responses

  1. Mulboyne Says:

    Japanese office life gets skewered quite regularly in manga. Even the TV version of “Shomuni”, which became more saccharine over time, had some nice barbs in its early incarnation.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    Manga is manga. They get away with a lot more, and it’s not an artform that’s supposed to be the “national campfire” of the population like TV is.

    (This is why manga is so important for culture in Japan though… More on that later…)

  3. Mulboyne Says:

    I mentioned it because your final paragraph seemed to suggest that Japanese office life wouldn’t be a sunject for that kind of humour in any medium. You might, of course, just have been joking.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    I didn’t mean to disparage your comment. I think manga is a good counterpoint. Japanese TV makes manga-style irreverence difficult, but I bet American TV in the ’50s was the same.

  5. Aceface Says:

    OK,Marxy.Obviously you never heard about Ueki Hitoshi…

    “The Japanese office “is hilarious.
    Definitely improved Japanese cultural calicature than the days of Belushi’s “Samurai delicatessen”

    This,however wasn’t that funny.
    http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=UGn_E3nywr0

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    Let’s hear about Ueki Hitoshi. I like being wrong when it makes me smarter.

  7. nate Says:

    Hmm….TV is *the* national campfire? I think manga deserves more credit than that.

  8. LS Says:

    I work in the San Francisco office of an environmental advocacy NGO. It’s interesting how the sort of baseline cynicism toward American working life shown on The Office manifests itself when the workers are supposedly ideologically aligned with the organization.

    Here’s a link to a version of the short that still works (albeit with ads):

    http://tinyurl.com/5g2d4w

  9. LS Says:

    Oh, it seems to be working for me now … I got a “This video has been removed.” They do usually take down SNL content fairly quickly.

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    Hmm….TV is *the* national campfire? I think manga deserves more credit than that.

    Are you mad at a toaster for not washing dishes? I think manga serves Japan well, just not as a unifying cultural force that brings together young and old, parent and child, husband and wife, boss and inferior, etc.

  11. nate Says:

    But but but….I thought salarimen had a newspaper under one arm, Business Jump under the other, and didn’t make it home for primetime?

    I guess my point is that you see to be lamenting that salarimen aren’t confronted with (or consumers of) media that send up their workplaces, but at the same time that one of the least salariman-specific media should be the place where that happens.

    I suppose the same argument could be made for OLs a bit more convincingly…. or is the gender divide not relevant? For the mid-to-big ‘mainstream’ companies I would say it still is/was.

  12. W. David MARX Says:

    one of the least salariman-specific media

    This is true and a good piece of irony: Americans are only home to watch The Office because they don’t care enough about their jobs to work pointless overtime.

  13. Aceface Says:

    Can’t find the right You Tube for Ueki.
    Instead I’ve found venerable Foreign Policy blog”FP passport”mentioning the “Japanese Office”.

    http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/node/8887

  14. Don Says:

    Ever heard of NHK’s Salaryman Neo (Neo-Office Chuckles)? It’s been around in one form or another since 2004.

    http://www.nhk.or.jp/neo/ (tonnes of clips on YouTube too)

    Plenty of workplace satire there.

  15. Aceface Says:

    This is one of Ueki’s salary man comedy song.The lyric by Aoshima Yukio,then Tokyo governor.
    http://music.yahoo.co.jp/shop/p/53/63353/Y001871

  16. Aceface Says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5cPVP_llfo

    お辞儀のヘタさから判断して、こいつら日本人じゃないな。