Over the last decade there has been renewed attention in literature paid to the nature of work, particularly in novels recently translated from Japanese into English. Some of the interest stems from curiosity, as Japan is well-known for its toxic and discriminatory work culture. Most of what is popularly known about what work is like in Japan, however, is based on the corporate model that boomed during the post-WWII era: individuals (most often young men) are recruited straight out of college and make their way up the corporate ladder over decades, remaining with the same company for their entire working lives, often putting in obscene amounts of overtime, and achieving varying levels of success by the time they hit retirement. While some aspects of this model remain firmly embedded to this day, this specific image is also outdated in many ways, and obscures other aspects of labor that deserve just as much scrutiny.
Japanese women writers, in particular, have been at the forefront of reimagining depictions of labor and the workplace, and examining the impact current work pressures have on us. Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016) presents an example of how someone can find purpose and comfort in something that others might consider a “dead-end job.” Conversely, Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory (2013) delves into the alienating nature of labor, regardless of prestige; the characters in the titular factory are situated in different positions and at pay grades, but each finds their job stifling and the repetitive work sends most of them into despair.
Like Murata and Oyamada, Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job (published in English translation by Polly Barton earlier this year) centers on how our working lives impact us, and on the ways our work lives spill messily into our personal lives. The novel follows the unnamed narrator, who has left her fourteen-year career after intense burnout, as she cycles through a series of odd temp jobs. She says, “I’d left my last job because it sucked up every scrap of energy I had until there was not a shred left, but at the same time, I sensed that hanging around doing nothing forever probably wasn’t the answer either.” Unwilling to work in a job that drained her as much as her previous position, the narrator turns to an employment agency, specifically asking for the easiest, most uneventful job possible. The temp positions she ends up taking toe the line between being absurdly specific and just believable enough in their tediousness—working surveillance on a man who may have unknowingly accepted contraband, working as a copywriter for the back of rice cracker packets, developing targeted advertising for specific bus routes, and so on. What makes Tsumura’s novel so insightful is her ability to highlight the ways that our jobs unintentionally leech into our personal lives, dragging us into unhealthy investment in even the most pointless elements of the job.
Each chapter of the novel focuses on one of the narrator’s temp jobs, and each follows a similar structure. Mrs. Masakado, the kindly employment agent, passes the narrator a job description that initially seems straightforward. The narrator accepts the position—she is often the only applicant—and the job goes smoothly for the first few weeks. Over time, however, the narrator begins to run into bizarre situations that disrupt the routine she has created for herself. Sometimes these scenarios have to do with her coworkers or with new responsibilities that unexpectedly pop up. While working as someone who hangs up and replaces posters in various neighborhoods, for instance, she finds herself pulled into the intrigue surrounding a suspicious social club geared towards those who are lonely, called “Lonely No More.” In another role, as someone working “an easy job in the hut in the big forest,” she begins to notice her belongings have been rifled through and some of her food taken, leading her to explore the forest around the hut to find the culprit. Each job promises simplicity and routine but, instead, the narrator finds that no job is ever as straightforward as it seems. Each job has its own challenges and emotional demands; each eventually spins out into an absurd series of events that precipitate her moving on.
Through the narrator’s experience working multiple, widely-varied jobs, the novel explores how quickly an unhealthy relationship with labor can arise, regardless of circumstance. Before she begins a new position, the narrator is adamant about setting up boundaries between herself and her work, but, inevitably, she becomes overly invested each time. One of her managers, Mr. Monaga, even addresses this point with her directly:
‘You do know there’s no need for you to be making this much of an effort?’
‘It’s my job,’ I answered offhandedly.
‘Yes, and that’s exactly why I am saying it.’
Though the narrator quit her old job because it drained so much of her energy, she is ultimately unable to disconnect herself emotionally from any job she is working in, which constantly results in her landing in strange circumstances that are usually far above her pay grade. After she impulsively agrees to another unnecessary and extraneous task at one of her jobs, she comments grimly to herself, “This was what was known as an inappropriate relationship with one’s work.”
After working five temp jobs, the narrator finally decides to take the rest of the year off and then return to her previous career. For a novel that so deftly explores the complex emotional relationship between work, identity, and the ways that capitalist systems shape how individuals understand the nature of a job, the ending feels a little saccharine. The narrator simply decides that there are no easy jobs, that all jobs will take something from you in some way, and that all we can do, as we try our best, is hope for a good outcome. The unsatisfactory emotional arc feels particularly stale and sentimental in contrast to the vibrant, sharply humorous commentary that Tsumura provides throughout the rest of the novel.
Yet, the fact that the narrator herself comes full circle shows that it is impossible, under the current global capitalist system, for the average individual to escape from the demands of labor. While the humor of the novel lies in how the narrator tries to make sense of the varied demands of each position she holds, the joke is in how ludicrous the system is—not necessarily the job itself, or those who do it. This is an important distinction, particularly in a system where certain jobs are considered more important and more desirable than others. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever that the jobs many deemed unworthy of a livable wage are actually the ones necessary to keep the world moving. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job is a smart—and humorous—further exploration into the emotional toll labor can have on individuals in a hyper-consumerist, capitalist system.
This piece was originally published on May 17, 2021.