A Gaijin Sarariman – Book Review

Japanese work culture is often discussed for its contrasting characteristics. While for some, it stands for complete dedication to work, others see it as deeply hierarchical and exhausting. As Japanese society is known to put a high value on local traditions and customs, it is rare for an outsider to be able to fully immerse oneself and then reflect upon experiences in eloquent detailing. ‘A Gaijin Sarariman’ is an account of Asif R Chowdhury’s experience in Japan as a working professional. Through his journey, he provides a glimpse into the Japanese work culture and ethics, family dynamics, the role of language and gender in Japanese society, and the aspect of being a gaijin or a foreigner in Japan.

He highlights Japan’s geography, spanning the four main islands, along with an overview of several cities and regions like Yokohama and Nagano, explored during his trips for work and with family. He brings forth to the reader several exciting facets of Japanese cuisine, from Fugu (blowfish or puffer fish) to Bento boxes. The book takes the reader from Ryokans (traditional Japanese-style hotels) to Maanshons (mansions), decoding why Japanese cities like Tokyo have been consistently ranked among the world’s most expensive. A unique Japanese achievement about which the world often wonders, Chowdhury describes his experiences with  Japan’s railway system, which ranks among the world’s best in many categories. 

For those seeking to understand Japan’s societal outlook, the author showcases through several examples and his personal experiences why Japanese politeness is world-renowned and how Japanese society puts a high value on conformity and social harmony, thus placing the country, community, and company over individual self-interests.

This book’s most detailed and significant perspective revolves around the Japanese work culture. Throughout the various chapters, he explains the multiple dimensions of being a ‘salaryman,’ called in Japan as sarariman. In addition, the book presents another interesting perspective, that of working in Japan’s semiconductor industry. In various chapters, the author elaborates on his experience in dealing with clients like Sony, Toshiba, Renesas, and Hitachi, giving a peak into the work culture in these companies.  

While it is widely believed that Japan is a relatively closed society and that outsiders face subtle discrimination and frustration, this book does an impressive job of explaining how understanding the Japanese culture and traditions can help bridge the gap for a gaijin.

Another underlying theme of the book is to distinguish between the two sides of Japanese society – tatemae and honne. While the former is displayed to the outside world, the latter is what a gaijin should seek through willingness and efforts for complete integration with Japanese society. Overall, ‘A Gaijin Sarariman’ is a unique book to understand Japanese society and work culture from an outsider’s perspective.

Published: Oct 2022, Publisher: Penguin Random House SEA, Author: Asif R Chowdhury

Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal is a Researcher on Geopolitics & Tech at NatStrat, India.