The only warmth in my life is the heated toilet seat

March 26, 2007   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — Pity the lonely Japanese salaryman, or white-collar worker, who wrote that ode to his electrically warmed commode. The poem was an entry to this year’s annual Salaryman Senryu Contest (senryu is a form of Japanese short poetry).

I had thought the stereotypical salaryman, often mocked as a corporate drone, was a thing of the past. Many fathers at my son’s primary school, after all, show up at dawn on field day to grab prime viewing spots, displaying what seems like a healthy devotion to family life. But the following senryu suggests those dads may have simply extended their corporate servitude to the household.

Dad, please, a ride, save a seat, be in charge of the camera, and take out the trash

The insurance firm Dai-ichi Life runs the contest and recently selected 100 finalists from this year’s 23,179 submissions. The public is currently invited to vote via the company’s Web site (www.dai-ichi-life.co.jp), and the 10 most popular senryu will be announced in May. The contest is now in its 20th year, and the winners’ words have come to be regarded as indicators of the times.

Office politics and family life – or the lack of it – have been mainstay themes over the years, according to Dai-ichi Life, while dieting and high-tech ineptitude are recent topics. This year’s submissions show many aging salarymen finding themselves misfits in their own firms amid increased competition, while years of corporate devotion have left them isolated from their families and communities.

Kicked upstairs at the office From there I regale my subordinates with tales of heroic episodes.

You can bet this next poet probably can’t deal with the latest cell phone technology:

Got it But the features have already been upgraded to the next generation

The salaryman’s waistline is expanding, too.

I’ve stashed away quite a bit Not money but body fat

Another reflects upon Japan’s growing concern with disparity of wealth by ranking his family members in descending order of power.

My wife, the children, me Inequality of the classes in my own home

Chilly marital relations loom strong in this year’s entries as Japan sees the start of the mass retirement of its postwar baby boomers.

Troops of corporate warriors will now replace their hours at the office with time at home. In the following poem, the author has the wife barking out orders to make dinner and tea and to draw a bath, well known here as the few words spoken at home by a chauvinistic Japanese male.

After retirement “dinner, bath, tea. “That’s my wife talking

In a more severe but realistic scenario, many men fear the consequences of a new law taking effect this year that gives spouses the right to a share of each other’s pension payments upon divorce.

My wife is waiting!!until she can grab half of my pension

Can the personal lives of salarymen be so empty? Part of the self-effacing humor is cultural behavior that masks displays of affection that would be considered an embarrassment in public. But the lack of a life outside of work is also a serious consequence of the extreme corporate loyalty that stems from Japan’s lifetime employment system.

While the practice of staying at the same company is gradually crumbling, most businessmen facing retirement in the next few years have come up through such ranks.

Koichi Hasegawa, a 50-year-old manager at a Japanese bank, describes being a lifer as “working in a sort of atmosphere of intimidation.”

“Someone is always watching you,” he says. “It would be out of the question to decline a conference call because it’s your kid’s birthday or because you’re going to the theater with your wife.”

When I worked at an American private-equity fund, I remember executives speaking of such plans gleefully as if boasting that they ran a successful family in addition to the fund. In Japan such a stance would elicit shock and laughter because of the monumental taboos one would be breaking by putting business second and bringing private issues into the office.

It’s no wonder then, that at the end of the day, after 30-odd years of absentee husbandry and fatherhood, the salaryman doesn’t have a warm body to come home to. What else can he do but turn to the latest gadgetry?

Only my navigation system says “well done” and recognizes my services.