“Minion” is one of those unexpected words possessed of contradictory definitions. On the one hand, “an obsequious follower or sycophant” and on the other, “one who is esteemed or favored.” Therefore, prudent use of the word involves ensuring that all parties to the conversation are in agreement. But, mayhaps the apparent contradiction between the definitions is a consequence of how an individual is viewed by others. Moreover, those who are “esteemed and favored” may achieve such status in consequence of sycophancy of legendary proportions.
Meg Pei’s first novel examines the progression through the corporate maze of Jun Shimada, a mid-level executive for a multinational electronics firm with headquarters in Japan. Therein lies the tale which is SALARYMAN: the seemingly inevitable conflict between the self-effacing dedication required of those employed by Japanese firms and the freedom bordering on license which stands at the core of the American experience.
Jun is torn between the demands of the ultra-traditional head of the firm; his xenophobic wife, whose fear of the unknown is pathological; and his own increasing awareness of alternative modes of behavior. For a time, Jun is able to reconcile the conflicting impulses in his life. On the one hand, he has his friendship with a fellow executive who is less inclined to adhere to the corporate tao. At the same time, Jun finds considerable solace in extramarital encounters fueled by his developing alcoholism.
The ubiquitous Japanese salaryman has been depicted variously in American fiction as a buffoon, as a model for Americans to follow, and as a villain of such magnitude as to cause the hierarchy of the Third Reich to pale into insignificance. SALARYMAN looks behind the facade to reveal a human being who escapes easy classification. If there is a message in this work, and it can only be presumed that such was the motive behind its publication, it is that although both sides to the Japan-bashing controversy recognize differences, those differences are just that, not evidence of superiority or inferiority.