Most people don’t look forward to clocking in at the office. That’s certainly the case in South Korea, which tops global rankings for the longest daily work hours.
But artist Yang Kyung-soo is giving workers something to laugh about. He pokes fun at his country’s office culture with his satirical cartoon series that’s taken off on social media. Jason Strother in Seoul has his story.
For millions of South Koreans, the morning subway ride to the office begins a very long day at work.
Most will be expected to stay at their jobs until late at night, or whenever their bosses say its time to go home.
Artist Yang Kyung-soo says that’s not all workers here are expected to do.
“You also have to follow your boss’s orders without exception. I don’t think office workers have any freedom to express their own opinions at their jobs,” says Yang.
The 32-year-old says Korean office culture is a mix of top-down Confucianism as well as military hierarchy – the result of mandatory conscription for all South Korean men.
And this workplace dynamic is the subject of his popular single frame illustration series called, Yakchikkii, which roughly means pesticide.
An authoritarian, passive aggressive or even creepy boss is a figure many office workers have to deal with, the artist says, or at least, that’s what he’s heard.
“I’ve never worked in an office myself, but I have a lot of friends who do,” explained Yang.
“The only time they can open up about how they feel is after work, when they’re drinking. I ask them why can’t they tell their opinions to their bosses, but they tell me it’s impossible,” he said.
In Yakchikki, Yang gives his office worker characters the power to say things that their real life counterparts could never get away with.
Here’s an example.
In one illustration a boss approaches his employee, holding a big bag with the words ‘Feeling Rewarded’ written on it – it’s in lieu of payment for working long hours.
The employee says, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”
And thinks, “I don’t care about feeling rewarded, just pay me over time”
In another cartoon, a boss leans over a table and touches the arm of a young female employee. Captions over their heads show the man saying, “you remind me of my daughter”
While the female employee responds, “but you only have 2 sons.”
Thanks in part to its humor, Yang’s Yakchikii cartoon has gained hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, many of whom work in offices.
I wanted to find out what some of those fans think of the series.
I met up with 3 office workers during their coffee break.
They didn’t want me to use their names. But the all say they are all big fans of Yakchikii.
“The author shouts out to society what I couldn’t have said to my boss,” said one worker.
“He sympathizes with all the workers in the office. It also kind of reminds me that I am not the only one who is suffering. That’s what’s really good about his cartoons,” the office worker concluded.
The group’s manager says Yakchikki reminds her what not to be like.
“I don’t want to make my junior staff feel that kind of feelings.”
As she said this she turns to her co-workers, asking with a laugh, “I don’t know. Am I doing ok?”
I ask the three if they think she’s a good boss.
“Sure with us she’s good,” they say.
But their manager acknowledges that they probably can’t say anything else. “That’s the culture we have,” she laughs.
But do they think Korean office culture is becoming more liberal?
“The popularity of this comic is one of the signals that Korean office culture is becoming more liberal. ‘Cause before that, we don’t even talk about this stuff.”
Despite the rigors of office life here, cartoonist Yang Kyung-soo says most Koreans are still drawn to these types of jobs because they provide financial stability.
And not having a steady and financially secure job can cause rifts within families, like it did in Yang’s.
His parents are also artists and work on commission. Yet they still disapproved of the path he chose.
“They couldn’t understand why I wanted to study fine arts, they knew it would be hard for me to make money,” he tells me.
“It created a big conflict with them. We haven’t spoken for the past ten years. I doubt they even know about how my career has gone.”
Yang says he can now make a living as an artist.
His Yakchikii drawings were just published in a book and he plans to expand the series to depict other occupations, too.
But the artist says he’s not giving up on his first artistic passion – Buddhist-inspired paintings.
Perhaps its Buddhism in the first place, he says, that led him to ask whether he’s living to work or working to live.