Japanese Female Novelists Get to Work

The year 2020 has brought, along with the cataclysms of COVID-19, police brutality, and the U.S. presidential election, at least one consolation: a bento box full of translated novels by Japanese women. Mieko Kawakami’s Breast and Eggs dropped along with the cherry blossoms this past spring, and in October, Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are will infuse Japanese folktales with feminism while Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole tumbles down fantastical rabbit holes. I just finished another novel by Oyamada, The Factory, and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which both appeared last year in English after being published and celebrated in Japan earlier in the twenty-tens. Using different styles and tones, the two books take stock of one of the many things COVID-19 has altered, perhaps forever: the workplace.

An international bestseller, Convenience Store Woman welcomes the reader into the brightly-lit embrace of that revered Japanese institution: the 24-hour convini. Just glimpsing the title flooded me with nostalgia for my years spent in Japan. Whether you live in Tokyo or some backwater town, the local 7-Eleven or Family Mart is the neighborhood cynosure. When I first lived in Tokyo a quarter century ago, before the smartphone era, one of the few ways to navigate a city of 14 million that lacked well-planned streets and sequentially numbered houses was by detailed maps. Convenience stores took pride of place on them, guiding lost travelers like lighthouse beacons. Even today, any rental listing in Japan will include the distance to the nearest convenience store.

Murata frequently compares these glassy oases to aquariums, but when you’re stumbling home from the last train, drunk and world-weary, and are greeted by one of their tinny-voiced salespeople while you purchase your Pocari Sweat, they take on the status of something more elemental and comforting—the quick-stop as bear hug. All is right within them because, as one customer keeps commenting in Convenience Store Woman, “This place really doesn’t ever change, does it?” In this way, convenience stores are the antithesis of the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware, an appreciation of beauty that changes and decays, which has supercharged the literary canon for centuries.

The book’s Japanese title could be read as “Convenience Store Human,” but its translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, was wise to bring gender to the forefront. Its heroine and narrator, Miss Furukura, is an endearing oddball and a horror to her society: a single woman who loves her part-time job above all else. She wants nothing more than to flog the mango-chocolate buns and corn dogs of Smile Mart with the ardor of a woman in love. As someone who has always struggled to appear normal, even incorporating the fashion sense and speech patterns of those around her to “pass” as one of the group, Furukura finds solace in the strictures of convenience store rituals, where a bow and a voice must be pitched just so. Like she says, “A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated.” She feels safe in its artificiality and rules.

Of course, everyone in her life is aghast as she passes the twenty-year mark at her job and glides toward the threshold of middle age—and, especially in Japanese society, her sell-by date. Enter new co-worker Shiraha, a grotesque stalker and leech who looks like a cross between Slender Man and Iggy Pop and rants endlessly about how society hasn’t changed since the Stone Age. He warns her, “People who don’t fit into the village are expelled: men who don’t hunt, women who don’t give birth to children.”

He does have a point there, Furukura realizes, so she concocts a plan to live with him in her tiny apartment (he couches himself in the bathtub) and present him to her family, friends, and co-workers as her fiancé so they’ll get off her back. With this idea, the convenience store woman enters into a pretend marriage of convenience—or at least a common-law relationship. Sure enough, even this repellant man is more acceptable, in the minds of those who know Furukura, than the thought of her living alone.

Convenience Store Woman sells a wicked critique of capitalism, social mores, and women’s roles, in which a female body exists for no purpose but to fulfill its work duties and bear children. After Shiraha pressures her to quit her beloved job and look for better compensated employment, Furukura observes, “Until now, my body had belonged to the convenience store, even when I wasn’t working. Sleeping, keeping in good physical shape, and eating nutritiously were all part of my job. I had to stay healthy for work.” Now, her body is extraneous. She sleeps all day in the closet meant to store her futon. Eventually, though, Furukura finds a happy ending, completely on her own terms, and the reader breathes a sigh of relief.

The Factory also chronicles the lives of precarious workers—temps at a huge business conglomerate identified only as “The Factory.” But unlike Furukura, the characters in Oyamada’s novel find no joy or even sense in their jobs. Nihilistic fabulism abounds on the Factory’s premises, which comprise a whole city, boasting countless restaurants that seem to appear out of nowhere, employee housing, its own bus service, and forests and rivers. It even spawns endemic wildlife: oversized rodents dubbed “grayback corfu,” cormorant-like black birds called “factory shags,” and the “washer lizards” that inhabit the laundry facilities.

Two of the novel’s three protagonists are a brother and sister who live together, yet the latter doesn’t even know that her sibling is also a Factory temp until she overhears his conversation at an on-site café. The third, a male bryologist named Furufue hired for some vaguely outlined green-roofing project, spends fifteen years accomplishing nothing but an annual “moss hunt” with the children of Factory employees. In fact, it seems like the green-roofing project has been executed without him, but Furufue can’t figure out who is responsible. There’s humor amidst the uncanniness, with characters’ inner monologues taking savage shots at those around them—colleagues, a brother’s girlfriend, children on moss hunts—while their outward behavior performs politeness.

Oyamada’s style perfectly embodies her theme of disorientation in the workplace. Her stream-of-consciousness narration includes jarring, mid-paragraph jump cuts between different scenes and timelines. On a macro level, it only becomes obvious toward the end of the slim book that we have been reading two different timelines. Translated by David Boyd, who also worked on Breasts and Eggs and Oyamada’s The Hole, The Factory is thus written in a style that might be alienating to some readers—but that alienation will help indoctrinate readers into its world if they let it.

The Factory has invited comparisons to Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” also about the absurdism of the workplace, and particularly its passive-aggressive etiquette. Oyamada credits Franz Kafka and Mario Vargas Llosa as inspirations, but the novel also has an antecedent in 1930’s “Machine,” a key text of Japanese modernism by male author Riichi Yokomitsu. Set in a family-owned factory that churns out nameplates, the narrator of this story gradually loses his grip on reality, albeit in a more violent way than the protagonists of The Factory: “I no longer understand myself. I only felt the sharp menace of an approaching machine aimed at me.” Like Oyamada, Yokomitsu made sure form matched content; in Japanese, his tone is cold and brutal, the lines massed with kanji visually reminiscent of a machine’s intricate levers and knobs.

Yokomitsu’s narrator feels persecuted, but Oyamada’s are just dazed and demoralized. And while both works are told through first-person narration, the chorus of three voices in The Factory confirms that we are not merely witnessing one person’s descent into madness. Either circumstances at the Factory really are this surreal, or its atmosphere somehow corrodes the minds of all of its employees.

Still, there’s a delightfully old-fashioned feel to both Convenience Store Woman and The Factory that would not have been felt when they debuted in English last year. Lockdowns and social distancing have changed everything. Who can complain about any kind of work during our current pandemic? For those of us lucky enough to be able to do our jobs remotely, who doesn’t occasionally miss their annoying colleagues? If we’re searching for analogues in Japanese literature, I’d say that since COVID-19 consumed our way of life, millions of us have been transformed from Oyamada’s factory workers into protagonists of a Haruki Murakami novel. Murakami’s narrators are often unemployed, taking some kind of absence not just from work but the world. In Kafka on the Shore, a teenage boy runs away to find his mother, playing hookey from school in a library. In IQ84, a female assassin passes hundreds of pages in a safehouse. Those low-profile existences once seemed exotic and, in a way, desirable to me—who doesn’t want to hide from the world now and then? But these days, the fellowship of the workplace, however dreary or repetitious, has become the impossible dream.

One aspect of these two books did anticipate preoccupations of the COVID-19 age: the focus on temporary or otherwise precarious workers. Will we soon see more literary works in English on the subject of part-timers who have no choice but to work the front lines as long as they can? Given the spotlight the coronavirus has thrown on those who cash out our groceries and deliver our food for low pay and no benefits, it’s hard to imagine we won’t. Bring on the perspectives of the millions of such workers who are trying to maintain their dignity, their agency, their sanity, and their health.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2020