There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura
A truer sentiment than the title of this work of Japanese fiction could hardly be imagined at this time, but this pre-pandemic piece of writing follows its 36-year-old narrator’s search for a meaningful working life. Having ‘burnt out’ at her last job, we join her as she undertakes a number of jobs found for her by the ever-patient recruiter Mrs Masakado, who has been tasked with the challenge of finding her a job that is ‘very uneventful’. On face value, each of the jobs seems more absurd than the last: our protagonist watches surveillance tapes of a man working at home for some reason; writes trivia to be printed on the packets of a cult brand of rice crackers; works in solitude in the middle of a forest park adding perforations to the park’s museum-entry tickets.
But as time in each position unfolds, the revelations about the working life become something approaching universal. The bonds formed between coworkers appear as one of the satisfactions of life at work while the minutiae of work activities and office politics provide the shape of a collective daily life. At the same time, questions around what is actually created by workers’ labour in late capitalism and how work connects to personal and cultural identity play out in the subtext of this thoroughly entertaining book. A generation’s angst is reflected here too: job precarity is enmeshed with desire for purpose, while the gendered rules of engagement are being rewritten, and the environmental clock ticks on life as we know it.
There’s a lot to laugh at, relate to, and despair about here, all conveyed in a lively translation by Polly Barton. Comparisons to Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman are of course inevitable, but it also made me think of Halle Butler’s The New Me, and both versions of the TV series The Office. This is the first book by award-winning Kikuko Tsumura to be translated into English, and I’d love to read more of her sharp observations.