Japan’s tireless salaryman, archetype of corporate conformism, gave way to a new phenomenon after economic collapse in the 1990s. So-called “freeters” — named for the English word free and German Arbeiter (workers) — entered the national psyche instead, a “non-regular” type of casual worker.
Those who shun long hours for greater freedoms are now finding electric voice in Japanese fiction. Following Sayaka Murata’s unlikely hit, Convenience Store Woman, whose heroine takes her shop job supremely seriously, Kikuko Tsumura provides the antithesis in There’s No Such Thing as An Easy Job, a novel about workplace nihilism.
Far from having it all, these protagonists eschew lovers, children and high-powered careers in favour of seemingly simple, repetitive jobs. The twist is that they are not so much victims as people forming their own choices.
Burnt out from a previous engagement that is only explained at the end of the book, Tsumura’s “heroine” wants an easy job. “Ideally, something along the lines of sitting all day in a chair overseeing the extraction of collagen for use in skincare products,” she tells the recruitment agent. The novel, translated into English by Polly Barton, coalesces around five chapters, each based on a new job, but characters and buildings hop around in different guises.
The assignments are ostensibly undemanding — putting up posters, writing slogans on rice cracker packets — but elide into a world of gentle, unthreatening strangeness. There are shops that appear and disappear, signs that never quite point to where they should and several lurches into the absurd.
Tsumura’s is an irreverent but thoughtful voice, with light echoes of Haruki Murakami. A pervert stalks the streets, lonely old people are preyed upon and even inoffensive questions in a community survey carry “a certain darkness”. But the more pronounced darkness of an earlier generation of Japanese authors, led by Murakami, is not present here.
In fact, Tsumura’s world has plenty of goodness, true to her protagonist’s thesis that if people had any residual energy “they preferred to put it to use either in doing their job, or in their private life, rather than in being cruel to others”. Not only are her colleagues kindly, the damaged and exhausted are also capable of self-repair. At the extreme is the man who, gutted by the demands of his job, reverts to living outdoors.
Like the freeters who flit from job to job, no one seems especially tethered down. Living arrangements and relationships have a temporary feel to them and even the food eaten — crisps, crackers, cake, instant noodles — is insubstantial.
As a disquisition on the value of work, the book is uncannily timely — working from home has left many questioning their employment. The first “easy” job entails surveilling a novelist who spends much of his day napping or making coffee; his novel is ridden with holes. There’s No Such Thing as An Easy Job avoids that pitfall by recourse to the magical, but it is not without flaws. The ending, neat and didactic, is clunky. Tsumura, who herself quit her first job after workplace harassment, has nonetheless produced a novel as smart as is quietly funny.
There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job, by Kikuko Tsumura, translated by Polly Barton, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99, 416 pages
Louise Lucas is an FT Lex writer
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