A novel portraying the challenges young people face in the Japanese labor market today, with action centering largely on multi-level marketing companies.
Yūki Takeda is five years out of college, working in the Sales Support Department of Morishita Engineering, a subsidiary of a major electrical appliance maker. With the company’s mainstay electronic components losing their competitive edge on the global market, revenues have been on the decline ever since he first came aboard. More recently, profits have been plunging at the parent company as well, and pressure is mounting for employees to take early retirement or buyouts. When word comes down that the usual twice-yearly bonuses as well as overtime pay will be suspended next year, Yūki enrolls as a distributor for Ultria, a multi-level marketing (MLM) company his college classmate Shun has been pressuring him to join for some time.
Headquartered in the United States, Ultria has operations in ten countries worldwide. Its product line includes health foods, beauty products, and other daily necessities. The great thing about MLM is that there’s no need to rent an office, maintain stock, or collect bills, and you can do the work without giving up your day job. If you build a team of downline distributors, you receive a share of their profits, which grow with each new recruit you sign up. Becoming a millionaire isn’t just a pipe dream.
Making calls even during work, Yūki takes this pitch to colleagues at the office, classmates from college, and childhood friends back home in Sendai, but they are all too wary and he fails to sign up a single recruit. Since he’s required to purchase a minimum number of products and samples on a regular basis in order to maintain his membership, his expenses continue to rise. Then his boss at work gets wind of his moonlighting, and warns him that such outside work is against company policy. Meanwhile, noting the difficulties Yūki is having, a leader in the Ultria organization helps him land Ryōko Kanemura as a recruit. Not only does Ryōko have a wide network of contacts from being married to a company president and having her own side business running wine classes, but she is also endowed with a silver tongue. Yūki’s team quickly begins to grow, and just two months later it has ballooned to some 250 distributors. His monthly take leaps to over ¥700,000, and he receives an award from the head office. But the truth behind his meteoric rise is that Yūki agreed to sleep with Ryōko in exchange for getting a large block of recruits from her.
At his day job, Yūki butts heads with the deputy section chief over his MLM activities and impulsively submits his resignation. By unfortunate timing, rumors about his relationship with Ryōko begin to circulate among his Ultria recruits, and then Ryōko and her recruits are lured away by another MLM company, causing Yūki’s income to plummet. A year and a half after enrolling, with both his regular job and his friends gone, Yūki has hit rock bottom. Then his one remaining friend from childhood, Takeshi, comes to his rescue and he drops out of Ultria. Leaving behind debts of ¥1.5 million and abandoning a large inventory of Ultria products in his apartment, he retreats to Sendai where his parents still live.
Another year later, Yūki returns to Tokyo and finds work as a temp. While working at a recruiting agency, he meets a client named Kimura, the founder of an MLM company called New Karma. Once again he has a period of success during which he contributes to company growth and becomes Kimura’s right-hand man, but then an allergic reaction to one of the company’s products experienced by a user leads to a firestorm of criticism on the Web. It comes out that New Karma’s flagship product, an herbal extract supposedly sourced from Indonesia, is an imitation without any efficacy being produced with the cheapest available ingredients in a factory run by a major domestic manufacturer.
Though born without a left arm, Takeshi had studied hard, landed a job with a famous foreign-owned firm where he did a stint overseas, returned to Sendai to win a seat on the city council, and then became the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Like his boyhood friend who went into politics because he wanted to change the world, Yūki has always wanted to help others out and contribute to the betterment of society—only to keep making one misstep after another. As the story comes to a close, Yūki appears poised to launch a new MLM business of his own . . .
The novel offers an intimate portrayal of MLM in Japan, where such businesses are legal but have been dogged with problems of one kind and another. Along the way it probes questions of who is actually served by a person’s labor, and how one should go about making a living. It is an illuminating window on today’s labor market in Japan, where the traditional lifetime employment system has crumbled and the proportion of non-regular employees has risen above 40 percent.