June 3, 2009, 1:59 PM UTC

360px-Rush_hour_TokyoWe all have to work for a living. The question is how much. On the short end of the scale there are immensely successful and wealthy business executives who consider being available by BlackBerry and cell to be work. “He’s traveling,” their assistants will say, or, if they’re on the west coast, “I don’t have him right now. Can he get back to you?”  I think of Stan O’Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch, out on the golf course jotting jocular notes to himself on his scorecard while Rome burned. 

On the other end of the labor vector are the salarymen of Japan. They rise before dawn, squeeze themselves into their suits, train cars and subways, hit their tiny desks for whatever circumscribed thing it is they do for fourteen or fifteen hours, take the night train home, snoozing on the long ride back to their crowded suburb, grab some fish and noodles before hitting the hay,  rise again a few hours later to start the whole thing over again. They live that way for decades, and then they retire, unless they die of karoshi, which mean “death from overwork.” It’s a word that exists only in Japanese. So far.

I was having a chat with this guy I know. I’ll call him Ryan. He’s a trader at a big financial institution. It was about 7:00 in the evening, and we found ourselves elbow-to-elbow at a local watering hole. We knew each other from someplace neither of us could remember. But that slight association required us to talk a little.

Ryan’s moving out to the suburbs this month after years in the City. His wife wants more room. His kids need a yard. There are two of them, which represents $50,000 per year in tuition, and that’s before they hit grade school. After that, it’s more. In Connecticut, the schools are free. Plus, when you own a house, all you pay is your mortgage, as opposed to his former co-op, where they tack on a monthly maintenance fee of nearly $2000 on top of your mortgage. So he’s moving. I asked him if he was looking forward to it.

“We have a lot more space,” he said. I noticed he was sort of unshaven and there were bags under his eyes.  “That’s what I’ll be thinking about when I’m on the 4:30 train.”

“You get to leave work at 4:30?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “4:30 AM.” This kind of floored me. I pictured Ryan pulling on his socks in the dead of night, his two kids placidly drooling into their pillows, his wife trying to stay asleep while he rummaged about in the dark before dawn, day after day.

“What train do you take home?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The 6:20 usually.” I looked at him. I didn’t know what to say. “I’m a trader,” he said, as if it explained something to me. “I have to be at my desk at 6:30 AM. Also a few months ago they laid off a whole bunch of people during the big crunch. Then all the refinancing action started happening and we were short staffed. There are a lot of people around at my office at, like, 1:00 in the morning.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw Ryan, sleeping on the train going in, sleeping on the train going home. Dragging his butt to a late dinner when his kids had already gone to bed. Hauling his tired body up the stairs for five hours of sleep before the alarm rang again at 3:30, so early it woke the birds before their time.

“I’ve been doing something like this for years,” he added. Then he looked at his watch. “I gotta go,” he said. “I have six minutes to make my train.” And he went, rushing to sit with all the other busy business people. Among them these days are many Japanese, most of them, I believe, headed for Crestwood and Scarsdale. They remain in the States for a few years and then are shipped back to the home office, which wants to make sure they don’t get too soft over here.