By the book

The Blue-Eyed Salaryman: from world traveller to lifer at Mitsubishi

Niall Murtagh <em>Profile Boo

There are a lot of excellent things in Niall Murtagh's book about being a blue-eyed, brown-haired worker in a Japanese corporation full of people who are not blue-eyed or brown-haired. On the cover, we see Murtagh's European face, set in what appears to be a sea of Japanese faces. He is different. This is a book about what it feels like to work in a culture you don't quite understand - and it is full of lovely anecdotes.

Murtagh is Irish, and he describes himself as a drifter at heart. After university he hitch-hiked around Europe, and then went to China, and then Morocco, where he met a couple of French guys; he sailed across the Atlantic with them on a whim, ending up in the Caribbean. Having applied for a place at university in Japan, he decided to give that a try, too. Murtagh had doubts about the Japanese lifestyle, which "seemed too regimented and group-oriented for me", but he also had doubts about the western lifestyle, which "also seemed too regimented and group-oriented for me".

He describes his life in Japan in simple language, writing with Zen-like calm. When he arrives in the country, he stands out; everybody seems ultra-conservative. Again and again - first at university and then at Mitsubishi, where he gets a job - Murtagh meets people who treat life in the manner of a maiden aunt. Everything is planned to the letter. Nothing is left to chance. He comes across "intelligent toilets that know what you're doing and what you've done". The people here, as Murtagh tells it, have become like the machines they make.

This is where the book is most interesting. At Mitsubishi, office workers - or "salarymen" - sit in large halls at desks facing each other. When they arrive at work, a guard wishes them each a loud good morning, "because it's official company etiquette to greet your colleagues enthusiastically in the morning". Every-body has a company cap. Each worker, man or woman, has a "man-number". ID badges must be worn "at all times". You must not put your hands in your pockets.

There is much, much more in this vein. For instance, there's a whole complicated etiquette of bowing, and another surrounding the presentation of business cards. "Recite your department and name as you offer your card, which should be done with the right hand extended at about chest height." You must answer the phone promptly, but not in too loud a voice; you must use a colleague's title - his company rank - when talking about him to another colleague, but you must not use titles when talking about colleagues to outsiders. Also, "the person of lowest rank should always sit closest to the door" because, in ancient times, he was the most likely to be killed "if a ninja burst in with a dagger".

At this point, you realise, one of two things might happen. Murtagh could rebel, or get sucked in. He is sucked in. After all, this is a place where, if you try to skip your vegetables or rice, the cafeteria staff will remind you to eat one portion of each, it being their duty to ensure that all the workers are properly fed. You can see how such a protective culture, in which few people are demoted or fired, might be attractive. "People at Mitsubishi," Murtagh tells us, "always do what they say they'll do, as long as it is in the rule book."

In the end, this is a story about a man who thought he was seeking adventure but who, in the end, wanted regimentation. I would have liked to know more about the author's early life, and I finished the book with a few questions about the Japanese economy. For instance: did Japanese regimentation suit the 1980s but somehow come unstuck in the more freebooting 1990s? Still, this is a fascinating book; it will make you look at the logos of Japanese products and feel full of wonder.