EPS Review #147 - The Blue-Eyed Salaryman

Blue-Eyed Salaryman: From World Traveller to Lifer at Mitsubishi, by Niall Murtagh, Profile, 2005, 227pp.

Chris at work warmly recommended this title and it is a rare thing: a book about Japan from somebody who has been there for ages and actually knows the language. And I was quite curious to learn of Mr. Murtagh's experiences working such a long time at Mitsubishi. I liked how he had to get permission to cycle to work, and the office dynamics were mildly interesting. In the end, though, I think the book suffers, weirdly, from excessive even-handedness. For example, the author of Fear and Trembling was clearly an unreasonable, naive and irritating person, but it made her Japanese office predicaments memorable (admittedly I only watched the movie; the book seemed like it would be too much). Mr Murtagh, when discussing hobbies, admits that he has sailed only once, and is patronised by his colleagues without admitting that this once involved crossing the Atlantic in a home-made concrete boat. It was very Japanese of him to keep that to himself, but it makes for a duller book when he does not mix it up.

I remember teaching English at Hitachi industrial complexes way back when, and thinking what a miserable life these grey-uniformed people must lead -- only to decide it was even more miserable when I came in one day to see that the uniform color had been changed to peach. Yet some of the students most have had hidden depths -- the guy with the frog-medicine song, or the woman who dreamt in English that she could not understand. Murtagh meets with some regularity a fiendish bat-swinging guy in the factory lot, but if he ever gets to really know him, we do not hear about it. Nor do we hear much about Murtagh's Japanese wife or his children (who, I am guessing, made his life there much more fun). In the end, it is not really clear to me why he stayed a salaryman for fourteen years. And I was not left feeling that Mitsubishi had a hidden core of efficiency. Perhaps a subsequent book on his consulting will be more engaging, although BES was a quick enough read.

Mr Murtagh's favorite memory of his travelling days was of an oasis in the desert of northern Chile: San Pedro di Atacama (thank goodness for Amazon's "search inside"!) This piques my interest. I also like the house-construction pictures on his site: I fantasised about meticulous Japanese workmen back when our house was being extended by Sun-reading, tea-swilling jobsworths. Hey wait, I guess Mitsubishi must have some of that good-job ethic, somewhere.