Japan's curious passion for the business novel

Japanese businessman Image copyright iStock

When Japanese people want a really good read they may not pick a spy thriller, a sci-fi fantasy or a throbbing romance - they may choose a novel about the world of business, with a besuited middle manager as its hero. Business novels now routinely feature in bestseller lists, and have even made the transition from the printed page to chart-topping TV drama.

With a sharp kick, the young man in a sharp suit dodges a blow from a golf club. His attacker falls to the ground, golf club flying. He recovers and lunges again. But the young man draws a golf club and holds him back.

Meet Hanzawa Naoki, a middle manager in the loans department of a fictional Tokyo bank. A white-collar worker, or "salaryman", who challenges his corrupt bosses and exposes their dodgy loan deals, he's the unlikely and eponymous hero of one of the most successful Japanese TV shows for decades.

"He's sexy, he's savvy he's hardworking, he's on the fast-track to success. He's the can-do icon for young males who think 'Yeah, that's the sort of guy I want to be,'" says Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan.

The series is adapted from a series of novels by Jun Ikeido, who himself once worked in the loans department of a bank.

He insists his stories are entirely fictional, and not closely related to his own experience. He just tries to write entertaining stories, he says, and isn't commenting on the state of banking in Japan.

Image caption An advertisement for satellite TV shows salarymen in a samurai pose

All the same, some readers do take his work seriously.

"When I occasionally do autograph sessions, people come to me and give me their business cards and say, 'Come to me if you're looking for a story - there's a lot I could tell you,'" he says.

Some of these people have had important jobs in finance, and been well-placed to know what is going on below the surface. But he says he never calls them.

On the other hand, the information in business novels is often very well-sourced, according to critic Makoto Sataka, who helped define the emerging genre when he wrote a book about it in the 1980s.

He had developed an appreciation of the novels when he was a young journalist writing for an economics magazine, and was finding it hard to pen critical stories.

"I found that writing about companies in Japan was a taboo. You can't write the truth in the media," he says.

The bigger the business, the harder it is to criticise, Sataka says, as they have well-run public relations departments that do "a great job" to block any critical reports before they are published.

The firms also put a lot of effort into keeping the journalists on side.

"These companies really spoil the journalists, so they don't write anything negative about them."

The wining and dining of journalists happens in many countries but it arguably has an extra dimension in Japan. The concept of harmony is an important feature of the culture, making it harder for journalists to dig far beneath society's smooth surface. Investigations and exposes are not good for harmony.

In his spare time, Makoto Sataka began to go rooting through boxes at the back of bookshops. They were full of cheap paperbacks, which people had read once and thrown away. But in these books, Makoto Sataka, felt like he was finally getting the real story.

"I found that there was no truth in factual stories. But in fiction, there was," he says.

Image caption Jun Ikeido and an advertisement for his latest novel

One early example of the business novel is Supermarket: A Novel by Satoshi Azuchi, published in 1981.

Azuchi started his career in banking but was then brought into a supermarket chain to help turn it around, and this book is based on this experience.

The story first appeared in serial form, published in monthly instalments in an industry magazine, with the name of the author withheld. It caused quite a stir.

In the opening pages, the manager - newly-installed, after a career in a large trading firm - walks into a branch for the first time and discovers rotting fish and meat, and dried-up vegetables. This is just what Azuchi remembers from his first day at work.

The novel follows the intrigues the new manager uncovers - staff taking food from the shelves without putting it through the till, suspect accounting practices, and crumbling premises. All this is the re-imagining of real problems Azuchi himself uncovered when he first entered the retail industry.

"I wrote this book to share my experience with other people. Like this character, I went there from outside and I thought something here is very wrong.

"I solved the problems one after another, just like in a suspense story. So it was like a real-life suspense story going on," he says.

Today the business novel features strongly in Japan's best-seller charts.

In one bookshop, I visited in the Jimbocho district of Tokyo, a novel by Jun Ikeido - The Lost Generation Strikes Back - was placed at number two. On its front cover, two men in suits stand in front of a skyscraper, and the title is a reference to those salarymen who missed the booming economic good times of 1980s Japan, starting their career after the bubble burst, and slogging their way through two decades of stagnant growth.

At number four in the chart was a novel about the failure of a bank.

Image copyright Thinkstock

To understand the popularity of the genre, is in a sense to understand Japan, according to writer and lecturer in modern literature, Marika Nagai of Temple University.

"The Japanese business novel is a micro[cosm] of all the anxieties and questions that Japanese people have," she says.

After Japan's defeat in World War two, she points out, people began to ask questions about the country's future.

"Where is Japan going to be? How can Japan be number one? And they knew that the only way they could be number one, or at least as good as they were, without the military, was through business. And so business embodied Japanese dreams: 'If you work hard you can be successful, you can have a happy life.'"

The business novel, she says, is a natural extension of this outlook.

Jun Ikeido's hero Hanzawa Naoki, who steps out of line to confront and triumph over his bosses, reflects a typical theme in the genre, she says.

"It's a question of how you stay human when the system is so machine-like. That's the consolation - how do you stay human, in spite of it all?"

Handily, paperbacks are just the right size to slip inside a suit pocket, giving the hard-pressed salaryman some mental release from the daily grind.

Image copyright Thinkstock

In another district of Tokyo, novelist Jin Mayama deliberately creates characters in his novels who challenge this model of working. He makes a distinction between the traditional Japanese wage-slave salaryman and the more go-getting "businessman" type.

In his second novel, Hagetake (Vultures ), the main character is a salaryman who is preoccupied with his office romance, while his company is being bought.

"One day he's made redundant and loses his girlfriend - my point being that while the company faces the fatal loss, the employees remain in their usual ignorance," Mayama says.

"In contrast, there's a businessman character in my work, Tajima, who handles a project with the US and who has the ability to tackle situations at work flexibly.

"The young generation wants to become businessmen, rather than salarymen. They realise the importance of using their initiative and it looks as though they are increasing in number. But there is one issue - the bosses don't give them the power. So the older generation is blocking those with potential to become businessmen."

Image caption Business is a popular theme in Japanese comics - here manga artist Hisroshi Motomiya pens his famous Salaryman Kintaro character

Jin Mayama also turned to writing novels after a career as a journalist and coming to the conclusion, like Makoto Sataka, that it would be easier to explore the truth in fiction than as a reporter.

He meticulously researches the subjects of his novels and his writing has a reputation for being remarkably far-sighted.

In one of his novels, he wrote about an accident at a nuclear power plant - three years before the meltdown at Fukushima.

"There was a myth in Japan till March 2011 and the Great Tohoku earthquake - the myth of safety, the myth that a nuclear disaster could not happen," he says.

"I interviewed a number of nuclear experts about what the most serious accident could be, but they kept saying such a thing couldn't happen.

"I kept asking 'What happens if someone makes a mistake?' Seeing their reactions is how I got the sense that an actual disaster might happen."

So if you want to know what is really happening in the world of Japanese finance or industry, don't just read the newspapers - pick up a novel.

Listen to Ruth Alexander's radio documentary the Sexy Salaryman on Radio 4's In Business, or Global Business on the BBC World Service - or click on the programme websites to listen online.

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