Negotiating the salaryman’s hegemonic masculinity in Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase

Laura Clark, University of South Australia [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 3 (Article 10 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 13 December 2015.


At the height of Japan’s economic boom the dominant masculine ideal was the salaryman (sarariiman). However, while a significant amount of research has been conducted to understand individual experiences of performing this hegemonic masculinity, as well as those marginalised by it, there is very little research on those that live complicit with hegemonic masculinity—those that neither perform the ideal nor rebel against it. By exploring how individuals engage in a gendered performance influenced by and in reference to the sarariiman, we can better understand the constructed nature of this social ideal. This article undertakes a Critical Discourse Analysis of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) to understand how the characters engage and negotiate with the sarariiman hegemonic masculinity in defence of personal agency. This reveals two weaknesses at the heart of the sarariiman’s hegemony: its dependence on its own desirability, and its reliance on willingly dichotomised women.

Keywords: Japan, salaryman, Haruki Murakami, hegemonic masculinity.


Haruki Murakami’s novels have in recent years become a highly popular topic of academic research under a wide range of topics and approaches. This paper seeks to extend the current field and illuminate some fruitful topics of enquiry by focusing on how the characters in Murakami’s debut novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, are depicted as engaging and negotiating with issues of masculinity and its ideals. I argue that although none of the characters are shown to perform the hegemonic model of sarariiman masculinity, they are shown to be engaging in a gendered performance very much influenced by, and in response to, this social ideal. They are not seen however, to act without agency or personal identity, but rather are portrayed as negotiating with and challenging this idea in the bid to escape what Butler (2004, p. 4) called a ‘life unliveable.’

This paper’s analysis is anchored around three key theoretical concepts: hegemonic masculinity, the sarariiman and complicit masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is an aspect of Connell’s theory of the gender order: a social and discursive structure with a particular form of masculinity as the dominant and desired performance, to which all other masculinities and women are subordinate or marginalised. As will be discussed below, the sarariiman has been identified within scholarship as an example of a Japanese hegemonic masculinity. The image of the sarariiman is that of a population of businessmen who work tirelessly for their company, to the detriment of their familial relationships and their health. The sarariiman became a cornerstone of Japan’s economic miracle. Complicit masculinity, an aspect that this article is particularly concerned with, describes the group of men within a society who do not necessarily conform to the hegemonic masculinity, but are close enough to it that they receive dividends and reinforce its dominance. It is this group that is largely absent from Japanese masculinity studies and to which two of the key characters in Murakami’s novel belong. By applying social theories of gender to the specific context of this novel we can better understand how these ideas permeate the social consciousness of authors, and how the author’s work in turn can imagine the range of ways in which individuals might be negotiating these difficulties.

Studies of Japanese Masculinity

Research on masculinity both in English-speaking and Japanese scholarship has followed a relatively similar path over the past decades. There has been a movement toward recognising gender as a problem for both men and women, and a shift toward masculinities as plural, thus bringing marginalised masculinities into view as well as the instability of gender identities (Taga 2005; Connell & Messerschmidt 2005). Likewise there has been similar level of engagement with the works of Connell as a seminal masculinities theorist (Beasley 2005; Tanaka 2015).

In recent years this focus has been on how individuals cope with successfully performing the cultural ideal of the sarariiman, or on those masculinities that are marginalised by this ideal. Researchers have come to understand the sarariiman and its social impact as a case for R.W. Connell’s gender order, with the hegemonic masculinity of the sarariiman dominating other masculinities and women through coercion and the appropriation of social discourses. Within the seminal work, Masculinities (1995), Connell theorised a social structure in which masculinities are historically and graphically situated, with the power and central identity of masculinity dominated by the hegemonic masculinity. Connell’s gender order is maintained through the support of complicit masculinities (Howson 2006, p. 3), as well as the oppression of women, and the devaluing of subordinate and marginalised masculinities (Demetriou 2001, p. 341). However the traditional approach to Connell’s theory, and how it is applied to the sarariiman example, treats women as a single group who act only as objects of oppression (Connell & Messerschmidt 2005, p. 837). Likewise, there is a tendency to ignore the peripheral lives of complicit masculinities despite their essential position in the hierarchy. By its nature, Connell’s hegemonic masculinity can only be enacted by a small number of men (Connell & Messerschmidt 2005, p. 832), whereas the complicit masculinities are a large group of men within the society who cannot fully perform this masculinity, but still receive dividends from this matrix of oppression. However, this suggests that the only role available to complicit masculinities is to uphold the patriarchy, without the ability to perform acts of resistance or agency (Johansson & Ottemo 2013, p. 4). This leaves a large section of the population apparently without agency or a desire for change, a situation that this article will demonstrate is inaccurate about the struggles individuals face. As Aboim (2010, p. 111) puts it: ‘complicit men are not merely passive subjects’. This article will seek to explore this gap in the literature in how complicit masculinities engaged with the sarariiman, and reveal the presence of agency and personal identity within these negotiations. The role of complicit masculinities and women are both essential to the sarariiman’s position, and their silence within the discussion suggests that despite its recent loss of social standing this gendered structure is still dominant. The cracks within this ideal emerge through these peripheral lives, and the sarariiman’s reliance on their compliance and support reveals the unsteady nature of its dominance.

In recent decades the image of the sarariiman has become synonymous with the world of Japanese business and has dominated the nation’s gendered discourse. Sarariiman is typified through men as breadwinners, with absolute commitment to their company demonstrated through exhaustingly long work days and their nondescript black business suits (Dasgupta 2013, p. 1; LeBlanc 2012, p. 862). However, equally important to this image is the private life to which it is tied: the man as the central pillar of the household (daikokubashira) (Dasgupta 2013, p. 5, p. 25), with the housewife who runs the house and raises the children (Holloway 2010, pp. 33-34). With the bursting of the economic bubble and subsequent decades of recession and rising unemployment figures, however, actual achievement of this ideal has fallen both in statistical relevance and desirability (LeBlanc 2012, p. 864).

One of the seminal researchers on masculinity in modern Japanese culture is Romit Dasgupta, highly regarded for his work on Japanese business culture in the wake of the bursting of the economic bubble. Dasgupta (2013) explores how a preferred masculinity is created and conditioned within boys from an early age, then sustained through their indoctrination by companies into businessmen, and henceforth maintained through endless repetition. Dasgupta’s work engages with Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, the idea that the experience of having a gender is the product of continuous performance and institutional gatekeeping. A similarly important piece is Hidaka’s (2010) cross-generational research into how sarariiman masculinity has changed over the span of three generations. Hidaka explores in more detail how men in these workplaces relate to women and the issues that are involved with marriage and childcare. In so doing, Hidaka highlights the temporality of this masculinity, for although the name itself has stayed the same, the sarariiman ideal was understood very differently within each generation. Taking another tack entirely, Roberson and Suzuki (2002) produced an edited volume focusing on the groups in Japanese society subordinated by the sarariiman’s hegemonic masculinity. Each contributor to the volume demonstrates how these groups negotiate their subordination in a range of ways.

However, as observed in both Roberson and Suzuki, and Dasgupta, there are major issues in applying Connell’s theory in a universal fashion. By definition, a hegemonic masculinity is a largely unachievable ideal that looms silently dominant. It must also emerge naturally out of culture and discourse (Howson 2006, p. 3). However, as pointed out by Roberson and Suzuki (2002, p. 1), the sarariiman ideal was purposefully created and sponsored by the state. Furthermore, Dasgupta’s (2013, p. 91) interviewees are fully aware that the sarariiman is a constructed ideal, and consciously undertook changes in their behaviour and beliefs in order more fully to reflect this ideal. As such, there is as yet unresolved friction between this universal theory, and its application to a specific cultural context. As mentioned above, generally a hegemonic masculinity must hide its dominance in order to sustain this position over the rest of the gender order (Reeser 2010, p. 14), whereas the sarariiman is somewhat unique in that it was clearly constructed and prescriptive. This made it highly visible, but also created a ‘static character type’ (Francis 2010, p. 478) performed by those to whom it was available. Due to its highly prescriptive signifiers, gender in the case of the sarariiman is accepted as a sculptured performance, and as such is also unusually visible to observation. Also problematic is the extent to which the concepts of ‘male’ and ‘masculinity’ are conflated in this research, though this is broadly present in masculinity studies as a field. While gender theories increasingly sever the connection between the sexed body and the performance of gender, the sarariiman hegemonic masculinity discursively ties masculinity back to the male body, making any attempt to disconnect the two incoherent.

At the height of its influence the sarariiman was a decidedly achievable, desirable, idealised form of masculinity. However, it is also unique in that it was an invented, prescriptive masculine ideal, created and sustained through the sanction and legislation of the Japanese government at various points in time. Because of this, there was an unusually high rate of individuals successfully performing this masculinity. However, the unanticipated consequence of this visibility is that those individuals who lived beside it, but were not able fully to achieve it, were all the more conscious of their failure.

Methods Employed

The research for this article was undertaken using a Critical Discourse Analysis of Murakami’s novel, based on a critical engagement with social theory. This approach to research seeks to expose the ‘features contributing to the fabric of discourse in which dominant ideologies are adopted or challenged, and in which competing and contradictory ideologies coexist’ (Tenorio 2011, p. 184). It is centrally concerned with exposing the ‘reproduction of power asymmetries’ and the role of ‘hegemonic social practices’ in creating social wrongs (Tenorio 2011, pp. 187-8). This method is also in reference to Widdowson’s (1995, p. 167) claim that discourses within society shape ‘social identities, social relations and systems of knowledge and belief’. Consequently a concept like masculinity is not a single, natural truth, but rather a continuously and discursively negotiated idea that only appears to be stable. Therefore, the discourses and language used in literature do more than describe reality: they actively form and transform the object about which they speak (Fairclough 1992, p. 41), applying assumptions that ‘sustain relations of domination’ (Fairclough 1996, p. 52). As such, the language around masculinity has a material impact on how it is constructed within society and has consequences for relations of power. Following Fairclough’s lead (1992), this research is anchored at multiple levels to ensure that it takes into account a range of contexts and theoretical bases. Approaching the topic in this manner recognises that masculinity is a social and cultural phenomenon, and therefore analysis of discourses within the text will be more valid if grounded in wider social practices.

Considerations of method raise some of the limitations and ethical concerns of research such as this. First of all, I am commenting on a culture to which I do not belong. There is a history of researchers appropriating other cultures and speaking for them to serve their own interests. Should I not, after all, let the Japanese man ‘speak for himself’ (Said 1995, p. 32)? The intention of this article is not to solve or fix masculinity in Japanese culture as an outsider, but rather to contribute to the broader understanding of how different cultures structure masculinity, both as unique social contexts and as part of the wider cross-cultural project of problematising constructions of masculinity. Likewise, it is understood that choosing to look at this novel through the lens of issues of masculinity will skew the results in exploring this particular issue. As such, I am not suggesting here that as a novelist Murakami’s sole intent was to explore masculinity. However, novels are the products of the society in which they are created, and as such will reflect and illuminate particular issues, such as the broadly decisive one of the sarariiman. Murakami is a highly socially critical writer, and as such his fiction is unlikely to reaffirm accepted practices, as will become apparent in the decisions and actions of his characters.

One of the limitations of an article such as this is the choice to analyse discourse within a novel, rather than reveal the lived experiences of others through interviews or ethnographic research. However, a novel with a first-person narrator such as this provides the opportunity for a deeply personal and continuous discourse. Bakhtin’s (1981, p. 315) theory of the polyphonic novel suggests that although the author constructs the text, the characters therein are ‘verbally and semantically autonomous’, and as such at some level speak independently of the author. As such, the novel is not a unified narrative conveying authorial intent (Emerson 1997, p. 127); instead the characters therein are engaged in an unresolved conflict with each other’s world-views and languages (Bakhtin 1981, p. 341). This research treats the language and discourse of each character as his or her own, rather than ultimately belonging to the author, and as such creates the possibility for a much more nuanced engagement with the characters. The novel’s lack of authorial voice, and the ideological debates in which the characters engage, suggest that this novel could be truly polyphonic. (For a more thorough explanation of Bakhtin’s polyphonic novel refer to Steinby and Klapuri’s (2013) Bakhtin and His Others: (inter)subjectivity, chronotope, dialogism.) This approach enables the researcher to focus on the voices of individual characters and what their discourses expose about their point of view. This also makes it possible to explore how each character is depicted and how they experience particular facets of modernity as creations of Murakami but without engaging in a fictional account of the author’s intentions.

Research into Haruki Murakami’s literature has undergone a major boom, with a dramatic increase in the volume of academic output on his works, as well as a broad range of topics. However, there has been very little attention paid to gender within his works, and research that does has tended to focus on connecting issues of gender to Murakami himself (eg. Lo 2004; Nihei 2013). The danger with this sort of approach is that it risks over-extending conclusions about the author based on the limited, or very targeted, information that has been released. Overall, masculinity in Murakami’s work is under-researched; however as a text, A Wild Sheep Chase lends itself to analysis focused on the sarariiman ideal. It was written and set during the height of the sarariiman era; therefore, it responds to the issues caused by this ideal in Japanese society without the foreshadowing of knowing that its position and power were about to come into question. It is also a highly popular novel, commercially successful, and the recipient of Japan’s Noma Literary Newcomer’s Prize in 1982. Murakami is an international success and a critically acclaimed author. This article’s research is undertaken using Alfred Birnbaum’s English translation of A Wild Sheep Chase. It is understood that this limits the scope of linguistic analysis. However, given that this research is anchored in a broader discursive analysis, and the research of English-speaking theorists, it is already somewhat removed from the source text.

The characters within Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase engage with the sarariiman at two different levels. Firstly, they perform their gender in reference to this ideal; second, they negotiate and to some extent challenge the nature of this ideal. It can be seen that although the sarariiman and its associated structures were developed to achieve certain social and economic goals, this created contradictions in people’s lives that led to distress and troubled negotiations. The manner in which these characters experience this problem, and how they seek to resolve it, reveals the presence of two important questions. First, is the sarariiman even a desirable ideal? Second, is submissive victim the only role available to women in this binary?

The Novel

Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase is a surrealist, or magic realist, novel (Strecher 2002, p. 80), set in late 1970s’ Japan. It chronicles the journey of an unnamed protagonist and his quest to find a mysterious and insidious Sheep bent on world domination. Technically A Wild Sheep Chase is part of an unofficial trilogy starring the same narrator and his friend the Rat, referred to as ‘The Trilogy of the Rat’—preceded by Hear The Wind Sing (Murakami 1987) and Pinball, 1973 (Murakami 1985). However, Murakami later released another novel continuing from the plot of A Wild Sheep Chase, called Dance, Dance, Dance (Murakami 1994). A Wild Sheep Chase differs from its predecessors as it was Murakami’s first full-length novel, and has a more traditionally plotted mystery. It was also treated as a stand-alone novel, as for the longest time the first two parts were not available in print. Dance, Dance, Dance also stands somewhat separate due to changes in style and as a number of the characters have gained names since the last installment.

The plot begins with the protagonist-narrator living in Tokyo; he is recently divorced, running a successful, small publishing business with his borderline-alcoholic business partner. The first sign of the surreal is his new girlfriend, a young woman with ‘magical’ and overwhelmingly attractive ears. Subsequently, the black-suited secretary of a shadowy right-wing conglomerate makes contact, and demands that the narrator track down a sheep visible in a photograph he used in a recent publication, or else give the name of the person who provided the photograph. It is believed that the Sheep in the photo is the same shadowy being that the Boss of the conglomerate had been possessed by since the Second World War. Out of loyalty, the protagonist refuses to give up his old friend the Rat, who provided the photo, and so sets out to find this Sheep (who appears to operate in a manner similar to a body-snatcher) with the aid of his magical-eared girlfriend. Upon arriving at the villa in Hokkaido where the Rat was last seen, the girlfriend abruptly disappears and the protagonist meets a man who lives in the mountains dressed as a Sheep. The spectre of the Rat then appears to the protagonist, explaining that he had been infested by the Sheep and as his last bid for freedom had killed himself and taken the Sheep with him. The novel culminates with the black-suited secretary revealing that the chase for the sheep had actually been a manipulation to try to get the Rat to show himself, but the protagonist detonates an explosive which destroys the villa and the secretary in one swoop. The protagonist sets off into the world with his old life behind him—in search, as revealed in Dance, Dance, Dance, of his missing girlfriend.

It should be noted that within this novel no characters are referred to by their proper names. As such, this analysis refers to the narrator of the novel as the protagonist, and the other characters by whatever phrase with which they are identified. The following sections will deal largely with ‘the business partner’ and ‘the ex-wife’.

Complicit and Overshadowed: The business partner and the sarariiman

Through closely examining the business partner in A Wild Sheep Chase, and later the protagonist, we can see a demonstration of how the high expectations associated with the sarariiman might have created tensions and a range of compromises in the lives of individuals. As already discussed, research generally agrees that during Japan’s economic boom (particularly in the 1970s) the sarariiman was a hegemonic masculinity. It defined men by their role as family provider and breadwinner (Morioka 2014, p. 108), and the central pillar of the household (daikokubashira) (Dasgupta 2013, p. 5). However, the sarariiman is in many ways the exception to the rule; it was constructed by the government as central to the economic miracle (Hidaka 2011, p. 113) and the adoption of global capitalism, as well as the national identity in a period of fast growth and globalisation (LeBlanc 2012, p. 860), and was repeatedly sanctioned and legislated by the Japanese government (Roberson & Suzuki 2002, p. 1). This highly prescriptive approach also defined masculinity in both the public sphere and the private (Nihei 2013, p. 64); therefore whilst, generally, masculinity theory introduces a plurality of masculinities through the differing demands of public/private lives, in this case the two are equally prescribed already. However, by definition the sarariiman is at odds with what ‘hegemony’ is understood to be—that is, as a ‘complex discursive field’ (Wood 1998, p. 404) that emerges naturally from within the ‘cultural milieu’ (Howson 2006, p. 3), maintaining its position through ‘consent as much as coercion’ (Lash 2007, p. 55). If the sarariiman is a masculinity that was created and codified, then there is a fundamental problem of uncritically applying the term hegemonic masculinity across cultural contexts. One solution according to Fruhstuck and Walthall (2011, p. 11) is that the sarariiman was serving two different functions: iconic and hegemonic masculinity. Therefore, it was initially created as an icon of masculinity to aspire to, and then later developed into being truly hegemonic within the discourse. As such, it was a highly achievable icon, unlike the usually unachievable hegemony, consequently allowing even those who did not fully fit its definition still to maintain a strong connection with the ideal (Dasgupta 2013, p. 24). It is this achievability that increased the pressure on complicit masculinities to undertake a complete performance beyond their abilities or desire.

However, the existence and influence of a hegemonic masculinity is not simply a matter of certain groups within a society happily receiving dividends whilst they oppress everyone else. As Gardiner (2002, pp. 5-6) puts it, hegemonic masculinity ‘narrowed [men’s] opinions, forced them into confining roles… and doomed them to continual and humiliating fear of failure to live up to the masculine mark’. As already discussed, the position of the sarariiman within Japan’s gender order is a unique case as it both supports and counters certain aspects of Connell’s theory. The manner in which the sarariiman was manufactured and enforced by those in authority paints the gender order as a normalising force, manipulated and driven by those with power. However, Foucault (1980, pp. 93-98) suggested that power does not work this way; it is not an object that can be collected and stored, but rather it is discursively tied to approved knowledge and accepted notions of truth, always circulating. Ideas within a society of what is right or wrong are based on an ever-changing system of accepted discourses and meaning (Phelan 1990, p. 424). An ideal like the sarariiman hijacks the system, shaping what is expected and acceptable—but only sustaining itself through consent and culpability of the whole gender order. Individuals define themselves as normal within the context of this ideal, but there is always the possibility of resistance or rejection (Simons 2013, pp. 204, 311). Without this potential for resistance or rejection the sarariiman would completely dominate the individual. Moreover, Connell’s gender order integrates the role of resistance: not to perform in line with the hegemonic masculinity is to be positioned as a subordinate masculinity, whether this resistant performance is intentional or not. Of course, resistance is not just a hypothetical or theoretical act; it can have very real consequences with the risk of becoming socially outcast, and losing material dividends and opportunities. To be accepted within a social grouping men are expected to ‘display particular characteristics and behaviours’, and therefore not fully to comply is to risk rejection by the group (Paechter 2003, p. 74). Due to its prescriptive nature, the potential for failing at the sarariiman performance is also especially high. Dasgupta (2013, p. 42) makes the point that men as a group are both beneficiaries and victims of the gender order.

There is reasonable evidence to suggest that the business partner is performing a complicit masculinity aligned very closely to the sarariiman, and that he is receiving the rewards that come with it. He dresses in the manner of a responsible businessman: ‘a deep-blue shirt with a black tie, hair neatly combed, cologne’ (Murakami 2003, p. 46). Although he is not clearly described as wearing the ubiquitous business suit (LeBlanc 2012, p. 866), it is a reasonably safe assumption that behind his desk he is wearing business pants and that his jacket is hanging nearby. Likewise, by all appearances his family life is that of a sarariiman. He owns a ‘four-bedroom condominium’ (Murakami 2003, p. 147), has two children who both go to private school (p. 47), and is the breadwinner for his wife (p. 147). In Japan during the late 1970s owning a home was an important marker of middle class wealth (Ronald & Alexy 2011, p. 9). The success of the protagonist and business partner’s small business has given him the ability to fulfill this dream of home ownership, as well as the high standards of a good school, and his position as central pillar of the household appears secure. By definition the business partner cannot be called a sarariiman as he does not work for a large corporation and cannot participate in the homosocial structures that come with it. However, as outward appearances would have it, the business partner’s complicit masculinity is being comfortably and ably performed. However, his engagement with this ideal and his place beside it is much more nuanced than this.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the business partner is actively challenging hegemonic masculinity. However, he undertakes a series of negotiations that reveal a discomfort with the ideal, and a struggle regarding agency. One way to theorise agency is as the co-existence between an individual subject and the structures of society (Parker 2005, p. 8). It is not possible to enact pure agency, as the individual is always acting within a social and cultural context, but in the same way the individual must be more than the powerless victim of these structures. Understanding how a complicit masculinity, like the business partner’s, negotiates individual agency makes it possible better to understand the gap between social norms and the individual (Taga 2005, p. 155), and undercut the homogeneity that the sarariiman ideal purports. Therefore, while the business partner appears to be performing in support of this ideal, at various points within the novel he reveals a trade-off between his personal ethics and normal business practices. This suggests a compromise that is creating tension and reveals the question as to whether the sarariiman lifestyle is even desirable. One of the problems with a hegemonic masculinity is its reliance on others finding it a desirable lifestyle: men must want to be it otherwise it is in danger of losing its dominant position. During a key conversation with the protagonist the business partner expresses concern with the way their business lives have changed as a result of their success, stating that ‘it was more fun in the old days’ (Murakami 2003, p. 48) when they did translation work, and set out to be their own bosses rather than entering directly into the sarariiman rat-race. This early decision to make their own way suggests an initial intention to reject the corporate business models. However, now the kind of work they do feels exploitative, as they are ‘tossing out fluff’ (pg. 48), writing advertisements for products they neither like nor believe in. Moreover, he notes, ‘we don’t even know ourselves how much we really make. A tax accountant comes in and does all that awful paperwork, with exemptions and depreciations and write-off and what not’ (p. 47-8). It is unclear from the dialogue whether he believes different interests are exploiting them, or whether they are the ones doing the exploiting, but either way the business partner is ill-at-ease with the nature of business. Even though the trade-off for this compromise is commercial success, he appears to be expressing tension with the role he undertakes as a modern businessman and is questioning the validity of this lifestyle.

The other major tension he expresses is the necessity to sustain his position and role, and his fear that he is incapable of doing so. This becomes apparent when the protagonist decides to leave the company to the business partner and the business partner vehemently claims that it ‘won’t work’ because ‘[n]othing I’ve tried to do by myself has ever come off’ (p. 147). As the daikokubashira, the business partner has a responsibility to be the sturdy pillar upon which his household rests. His fearful uncertainty suggests not only his unreliability, but also an underlying belief that he is ill-suited to this position. Although the business partner is in a good social position and has access to power and its advantages, he does not believe he is able to sustain it. The sarariiman’s achievability has an unintended effect in this way: an individual may be able to live near this ideal, but it does not necessarily follow that he is comfortable there. However, as already discussed there would be serious consequences for the business partner failing to perform: his lifestyle, wife, children, and his very definition of his manliness are vulnerable in their dependence on his success. The business partner must sustain his performance of complicit masculinity, and the consequence of this is ongoing tension and compromise. In the shadow of the sarariiman hegemonic masculinity there is no truly private life; all aspects of the business partner’s life are governed by the necessity of maintaining this performance. The only real outlet for the business partner, in an echo of the sarariiman he mimics, is his escalating drinking habit. However, this may be only acting as a temporary reprieve from a worsening mental state, for, as the protagonist notes, the business partner has recently begun to drink in the morning. The business partner questions the desirability of success in an exploitative system, but he is also trapped within the system. As the protagonist reminds him: ‘If you wanted to strike out against the world, you don’t go having children’ (p. 148). Not only do his responsibilities limit his options, but also the lifestyle that the business partner has chosen places him squarely within the confines of the sarariiman’s influential ideal and a complicit masculinity.

The Social Contract: The ex-wife and the failing daikokubashira

Researchers of masculinity have a tendency to think of their research as separate to women, as Connell and Messerschmidt (2005, p. 837) phrase it: ‘to proceed as if women were not relevant to the analysis’. But masculinity is not a static object; it is the product of ongoing ‘interaction between men and women’ (Kimmel, cited in Brod 1987, p. 4), and is generally defined in the negative as being not feminine (Cornwall & Lindisfarne 1994, p. 11). Women are central to the structure of the sarariiman masculinity, and as such are equally constrained and defined by the roles and options available to them. Within the novel the protagonist’s ex-wife operates within the context of the sarariiman, both relating to the ideal and its structures, but also being constituted in opposition to it. Within the social structures that allowed the sarariiman ideal to flourish, women played a fundamental role as the recipients of the central pillar’s support, and the wives who ensured the house was run and the children raised. However, the role for women within this structure was also highly prescriptive. Again, this was not a natural development, but a creation of the Japanese government during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). In the same way that later governments legislated an idealised masculinity to build a prosperous nation, the Meiji government adopted the West’s strong division of labour and rigid roles for men and women, and restructured the family unit to reflect this (Beck, cited in Morioka 2014, p. 106; Ronald & Alexy 2011, p. 4; Snyder 2010, p. 2). Within this system, the place of women as imperial subjects was explicitly connected to their ‘service to home and family’ (Burns 2005, p. 52), and to striving to become the ideal ryōsai kenbo, good wife and wise mother (Dasgupta 2013, p. 26). During the post-war period and particularly the 1970s, the household was further encouraged to shrink into a compact unit with a clear division in the roles of men and women. Women were to aspire to be ‘professional housewives’ or sengyō shufu (Holloway 2010, pp. 33-34). It is noted by Bernstein (cited in Holloway 2010, pp. 196-197) that family life has been manipulated to the point that ‘[t]he issue of how women should behave and what they should do and not do has rarely been left either to chance or to individual choice’. As men were struggling with the pressure of the ideal of hegemonic masculinity, women were also struggling with a similar problem. However, women’s struggles also differed as their femininity and success were fundamentally tied to the behaviour of men.

Within the novel the protagonist’s ex-wife appears to experience her gender as fundamentally tied to the idea of sengyō shufu and her ability to conform to this role. Therefore, the tension she experiences is due to her relationship with the protagonist and his failure in the complementary role of daikokubashira. It generally appears that the ex-wife was at ease with performing the housewife role. Even after leaving the protagonist and instigating a divorce she continues to play this part: leaving the protagonist with information for how to run the household, and urging him to call her if he has any questions (Murakami 2003, p. 18). This enforces the idea of the man as completely separate from private sphere concerns (Burns 2005, p. 52), and the wife as the sole manager of the household. There is little to suggest that she experiences the same tensions as the business partner. However, there is an important aspect of the ex-wife’s behaviour which is outside of this structure and must be accounted for: she had a long affair with a friend of the protagonist and divorced him in order to move in with this friend. Within the discourses of marriage at this time, the position of women was enmeshed with loyalty and support to the husband and the home, and as such the affair and divorce are controversial. This said, due to the fundamental nature of the daikokubashira/sengyō shufu binary, this is not necessarily inconsistency or hypocrisy, but rather a response to her own tensions with the structure.

The daikokubashira/sengyō shufu binary is more than a framing discourse for the husband/wife relationship: it is a social contract between two parties. Therefore, if the protagonist breaks the contract (which I argue he does), then his wife is no longer obliged to maintain her side of the deal. The matter of the protagonist’s perspective on the relationship will be explored below, but for the moment I will show how the ex-wife considered the relationship to be a failure. Discourse at the time argued that the purpose of a marriage was to have children (Hidaka 2010, p. 84). This had a range of consequences: the relationship between the husband and wife was centrally concerned with the woman’s position as mother (Hidaka 2010, p. 101), and within the workforce women were less likely to be hired or promoted due to their definition as ‘potential mothers’ (Mackie 2003, p. 181). Given this social situation, it is striking that the protagonist and his ex-wife did not have children. The ex-wife suggests that ‘maybe if we’d had a child it wouldn’t have come to this’ (Murakami 2003, p. 18), demonstrating the socially held belief that a child is at the core of a successful marriage. In response, the protagonist rejects this ideology: ‘[t]here’re lots of couples with kids who get divorced’ (p. 18). This interaction demonstrates that the ex-wife has engaged with this idealised discourse, as well as revealing that the protagonist has rejected it. This coupled with the belief that the relationship was ‘going nowhere’ (p. 21) because of the protagonist’s personal issues, suggest that while the ex-wife had adhered to her part of the script, there is the sense that the marriage has failed as a result of the protagonist’s attitude.

It is interesting to note that the ex-wife’s path runs parallel to that of another character, the Rat’s ex-girlfriend. Although she only makes a brief appearance, when the protagonist visits her to say goodbye on behalf of his old friend the Rat, she still has an important role to play within this discussion. Similarities between the ex-wife and the Rat’s ex-girlfriend are remarked upon within the text: they were both ‘[m]arried at twenty-one, divorced at twenty-two’ (p. 99). If we look closer we can see that their lives have much more in common. Both of these women met their male counterpart and hoped that their lives would be changed for the better: the ex-wife felt she did not fit into modern society (p. 21), while the ex-girlfriend hoped to escape her ‘cold and lonely life’ (pp. 99-100). Although their circumstances outwardly appear different—the ex-wife got married again whereas the Rat left town and his girlfriend—they were left in the same loop of waiting. The ex-wife was waiting for the protagonist to become the daikokubashira of their social contract, while the ex-girlfriend was waiting for the Rat to confirm that he was never coming back. Posing these two characters opposite each other suggests that both situations were equally hopeless, the protagonist could never fulfill his role, and the Rat was caught up in an impossible mystery that led to his death. What is therefore important is that both of these women’s positions were compromised by the failed performances of the men in their lives, and they were left waiting for lives they had been socially promised that they would have as sengyō shufu.

Although it is tempting to paint sengyō shufu as helpless victims within these gender relations, it is important to recognise that they too played a central role in sustaining the ideology of the daikokubashira (Hidaka 2011, p. 120), even though it limited their own choices. The ex-wife demonstrates her own commitment to the gender order and punishes the protagonist for not holding up his side of the bargain when she leaves him. According to the protagonist, during the early stages of their relationship ‘she thought that she was the one unfit for society and made me out to be the socially functioning one’ (Murakami 2003, p. 21). However with time these roles switched; the ex-wife continued down the ‘demarcated life-path’ (Dasgupta 2013, p. 58) and she became more committed to her gendered ideal and better performed its traits. This might mean that part of her choice to have an affair was based on the belief that while she was seeking better to fit this ideal, the protagonist was not making the same compromises. As such, the deal is broken and the ex-wife must make choices for her own happiness. The tale of the ex-wife actually demonstrates an unusual exertion of agency; it was more socially acceptable that a wife would stay with her husband regardless of any failings (Borovoy 2005, p. 14). However, this also demonstrates the hidden, but important, manner in which the sarariiman ideal was tied to the behaviour and gendered choices of women. This gendered ideal not only distorts the gender identity of men, but the expectations and choices of women also.

The Undesired Path: The protagonist against the sarariiman

Given that the business partner and the ex-wife are largely compliant, the protagonist’s portrayal as a character with more complicated, nuanced and contradictory performances in the face of the sarariiman spectre is all the more striking. The protagonist’s difficulties within the novel appear to originate from the disconnect between his noncompliance with the sarariiman ideal’s gender performance, and the expectation of others that he should comply. The sarariiman may carry weight as an ideal, but that does not guarantee its desirability.

Masculinity in the sense of the sarariiman carries with it two important connotations: the struggle for maturity and the successful portrayal of manliness. Historically, masculinity in Japan was understood as the result of a man becoming mature, and as such was something to be ‘struggled for’ (Fruhstuck & Walthall 2011, p. 1). The sarariiman ideal appropriated the concept of maturity and attached to it a ‘demarcated life-path’, with clear makers to achieve, therefore implying that a failure to follow the path demonstrated a lack of maturity (Dasgupta 2013, p. 58). It also appropriated the broader discourses around masculinity/manliness, reflecting more widely on what it meant to ‘be a man’ (Mathews 2002, p. 109). It is striking that these discourses are by and large concerned with successfully becoming a man, whereas Connell’s definition of masculinity is centrally concerned with notions of identity (Beasley 2013, p. 116). Against this backdrop, the protagonist’s engagement with the sarariiman is influenced by a range of discourses: what it means to be a man, how to reach maturity, and his identity in the face of a hegemonic masculinity.

Whereas the business partner seeks by-and-large to comply with his role in the gender order, the distress that the protagonist experiences is due to a fundamental belief that he himself cannot, or should not, comply. In theory, the protagonist should be in a similar position to his business partner and performing a complicit masculinity as close to the sarariiman as possible. However, both he and his ex-wife emphasise that he is failing to do so. While the ex-wife defines this as his failure to fulfil his role as the daikokubashira, the protagonist appears to see it as a mismatch between the demarcated life-path, and where he is or wants to be. As a couple the pair should have been laying the foundations for their future lives together, but instead ‘[a]ll we’d done our four years together was to eat through our savings’ (Murakami 2003, pg. 21). However, he does not term this as a failure to be a man, but rather that it was just the way things went. Likewise, the protagonist confesses that he believes himself to be the wrong kind of person to have children: ‘[w]hat kid would want to have anyone like me for a father’ (p. 140). He is aware that he is meant to have children (p. 140), but he questions the purpose and the value of doing so: ‘I don’t really know if it’s the right thing to do, making new life’ (p. 90). This demonstrates that it is not due to ignorance that the protagonist is out of step with his role, but rather that he is not embracing the discourse upon which the sarariiman’s influence relies. This being said, he is not completely rejecting the sarariiman as an ideal, just questioning his ability to fulfil it.

The protagonist repeatedly compares himself to his more successful and more normal business partner, despite the fact that, as already discussed, the business partner is undergoing his own negotiation and turmoil regarding masculinity. For example, based on their modes of dress the business partner is the ‘regular one’ (p. 59) in his shirt and tie, whereas the protagonist is dressed immaturely in ‘a T-shirt with Snoopy carrying a surfboard, old Levi’s that had been washed colourless and dirty tennis shoes’ (pp. 46-47). By his measure the business partner is the one suited to, and successful at, filling the shoes of the sarariiman, making the business partner’s worsening drinking habits all the more troubling as ‘my betters could fall to pieces before me’ (p. 59). However, there is present within the protagonist’s attitude the sense that following the demarcated life-path is only rewarding if you think it is desirable and admirable. The protagonist does not appear to have fully committed to anything: he got married but did not set up a life, he runs a company but does not think he is involved in actually running it. As the protagonist points out to the black-suited secretary in response to a threat:

What have I got to feel threatened about? Next to nothing. I broke up with my wife, I plan to quite my job today, my apartment is rented, and I have no furnishings worth worrying about… I made no name for myself, have no social credibility, no sex appeal, no talent. I’m not so young anymore, and I’m always saying dumb things that I later regret… What have I got to lose? (p. 139)

In a sense this speech declares the protagonist’s failure at complicit masculinity for all to see: he is not tied to anything valuable, and he has nothing that he values. This draws back to the fundamental issue with the sarariiman: it is a prescriptive, codified ideal, constricting and defining. In a society with a less explicit hegemonic masculinity, the protagonist would be simply out of step, but in a structure such as this his tension and struggle to compromise put him on the path of failure.


It is somewhat problematic to approach the relationship between the sarariiman and those whose complicity helps to maintain its dominance over others. In a sense, those who do not challenge its hegemony are responsible for its ongoing oppression of others who do not live a lifestyle that aligns with its ideal (for example, those not living a heterosexual lifestyle). On the other hand, it has come to be understood that there are also always constraints on ‘those who are dominant’ (Aboim 2010, p. 146). The manner in which these characters are portrayed in A Wild Sheep Chase illuminates for us a range of choices and tensions that suggest that although the sarariiman structure creates some advantages it is not without individual struggles. Murakami’s characters highlight a central problem with the sarariiman ideal: it must be desired, even if it is not necessarily desirable. Likewise, while women are apparently powerless within this structure, it is a mistake to see them merely as its cowed victims. More broadly, individuals seek agency and identity, whether from within or without this gender structure. Sometimes, in the case of the business partner, this leads to an uncertain and fearful sense of personal identity. In the case of the ex-wife, she rejects the protagonist and seeks the possibility of a more successful future. For the protagonist, this tension is unresolved because he does not, or cannot, accept his prescribed place within the gender order, and the expectations that come with it. Strikingly, the sarariiman is not ultimately present within the text, and these characters are not directly living within this lifestyle. Nevertheless, many of their decisions, concerns, and fears still exist in reference to it. This highlights for us the possibility that this ideal affects not only how individuals live their gendered lives, but also the kind of life they can imagine living. Always the spectre of the sarariiman looms over them, challenging them to find a path to a socially acceptable, but livable life.

Despite the strong engagement in Japanese masculinity studies with Connell’s gender theories, the role of complicit masculinity within society has been largely ignored. However, this article sought to demonstrate that depictions of ordinary lives can reveal important and interesting techniques of engagement and resistance. Likewise the tendency to treat women as separate from the issue of the sarariiman has limited our understanding of the nature of these discourses and their impact on individual lives. This article suggests that Murakami’s novels have the potential to invite a more thoughtful consideration of the social context that Murakami is portraying. In the wake of the bursting of the economic bubble the presence of the sarariiman has become comparatively small; however its reverberations in Japanese culture and media continue to be felt. This ideal can be better understood if we continue to approach this topic from a range of perspectives. Likewise, the importance of individual resistance to and negotiation with socially prescribed gender roles can continue to be explored.


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About the Author

Laura Clark graduated from University of South Australia in 2013 having completed a Bachelor of Arts (Writing and Creative Communication) and Associate Degree in Languages and Culture (Japanese), and a recipient of the University Medal. In 2014 she received First Class Honours in a Bachelor of Arts (Honours). Her thesis was entitled “A hopeless sheep chase? Challenging hegemonic masculinity in Japanese culture.” She can be contacted at the permanent email address

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