A (Millenial’s) Concern

It is remarkable how novels set in the workplace are slowly becoming in vogue and gaining the attention of many a reader across the globe. One book that easily comes to mind is Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada (2003), a book widely recognized as a depiction of the author’s experience working under Vogue Magazine’s popular but domineering editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. In 2021, Zakiya Dalila Harris made her literary debut with The Other Black Girl, a depiction of a young woman’s experience in the world of publishing. Like Weisberger, Harris worked as part of the world she wrote about. Both books captured the toxic culture that is prevalent in the workplace, from competition to crab mentality to discrimination. For sure, the drama and the diversity that pervades the contemporary workplace provide an interesting backdrop that inspired many a writer.

Workplace novels have also made their presence felt in Japanese literature. Novels like Hiromi Kawakami’s Furudōgu Nakano Shōten (古道具 中野商店, The Nakano Thrift Shop 2005), and Sayaka Murata’s Konbini ningen (コンビニ人間, Convenience Store Woman 2016) have become global sensations. Another literary work that explored the nature of work was Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job. Set in contemporary Japan, the novel followed the story of an unnamed woman who was also the novel’s main narrator. In her mid-thirties, she recently left her old job after experiencing extreme work burnout: “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.”

In the interim, she moved back in with her parents. However, with unemployment insurance money dwindling, she knew that she had to find a new job and earn money. Off she marched to the employment agency where she asked to be assigned to a job that doesn’t require reading, writing, and very little thinking. The novel was divided into five distinct parts, with each part chronicling the anonymous narrator’s experiences in a different job. Mrs. Masakado, the employment agent, provided her with seemingly straightforward jobs. The narrator accepts these jobs without much thought – most of the time, she was the only applicant – trusting that these jobs conformed to her requests.

“I wanted a job that was practically without substance, a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not. The sort of job where there was no chance of a genteel old lady with more time on her hands than she knew how to deal with showing up out of the blue and saying, ‘You look so tired!’ and ‘We’re counting on you!’ Above anything else, I wanted a job I could do alone. I knew that I’d need to leave that stipulation behind me at some point, but at least for the moment, that was how I felt.”

~ Kikuko Tsumura, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job

The first job she accepted involved sitting for hours to monitor video footage from surveillance cameras placed in an author’s house. Unbeknownst to the writer, contraband stored in a DVD container was slipped into him. His apartment was then put under surveillance to catch who was going to pick up the contraband. It seemed easy enough but then things started getting bizarre. What seemed easy at first slowly became mind-numbing. The lines also started blurring when the narrator started questioning her own life and preferences compared to the person she was monitoring. After hours of watching one person’s daily activities, she found her identity slowly merging with his. It was at this point that she knew she had to get out lest she loses the sense of who she is.

What ensued was a cycle of jumping from one job to another, ranging from the mundane to the bizarre. In the second part, she related her experience working for a bus advertising job. The job, again, seemed simple enough: she had to advertise the shops that are on the route of the bus. In her third job, she had to come up with witty, interesting, or useful facts that will be placed on the packet of crackers. Her fourth job, on the other hand, required her to put up posters in neighborhoods. In her fifth job, she found herself working for a national park. Her job comprised of sitting in the hut located on the outskirts of the park and guiding parkgoers who get lost. Just like in her first job, her succeeding jobs ran smoothly during the first few weeks. But just when she was able to establish a routine, an untoward incident takes place, eventually disrupting her rhythm.

On the surface, the jobs that the protagonist found herself in seemed easy. They promised to be routinary, hence, the protagonist can emotionally disconnect from the work she was performing. Her old job left her emotionally drained. However, things were never meant to be. As she would soon realize, each job had its own set of challenges. There were also jobs that can be emotionally demanding. There were realities she cannot seem to escape from. The more she stayed, the more she found herself emotionally invested. She found herself absorbed by her job, her workmates, and the intricacies of workplace politics. Rather than apathy, she cared for her job and the people she worked with. As the book’s title echoed, there is no such thing as an easy job.

It was because she cared too much for her job that she found herself in dire straits and, sometimes, absurd circumstances, some of which would inevitably lead to a switch in career. In her fourth job, for instance, her curiosity was piqued by a dubious social club called “Lonely No More.” It was a club aimed to reel in those who are lonely. In her fifth job, she encountered a man living in seclusion in the park. Like her, he suffered work burnout. It was also these encounters with different characters that rendered the story an interesting milieu. We read of their concerns, both professional and personal.

Nobody’s life was untouched by loneliness; it was just a question of weather or not you were able to accept that loneliness for what it was. Put another way, everyone was lonely, and it was up to them whether they chose to bury that loneliness through relationships with other people, and if so, of what sort of intensity and depth.

~ Kikuko Tsumura, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job

Tsumura did a commendable job of capturing a quandary that many a worker has been experiencing or has experienced. While the experiences of the unnamed narrator resonate primarily with millennials, these experiences nonetheless reflect a growing concern across the world. The novel was originally published in 2015 but the discourse on burnout syndrome reverberates in the contemporary. It has been further amplified by the ongoing pandemic. In a phenomenon that has now become commonly known as the “Great Resignation”, workers have been leaving their jobs for a plethora of reasons, such as low pay, workplace discrimination, and lack of opportunities to grow. Indeed, workers around the world have become weary.

All of these workplace concerns were depicted in the novel. However, one concern that was subtly underscored by Tsumura was how most workplaces are dominated by men. The protagonist repeatedly found herself reporting to a male superior. They had high expectations of the protagonist, expecting her to execute her job well above and beyond the job description. This is another workplace experience many members of the workforce can attest to. It is often advertised that going above and beyond the job description, that giving your job your 101% or your 200% would fast track your promotion into a higher position. Overwork has been overly romanticized. This was something that the novel’s protagonist would also experience.

The universal workplace experience was vividly captured by the novel. Small details, such as the narrator’s indecisions when deciding what to eat for lunch and the rush to quickly purchase some snacks, resonates on a global scale. What makes the workplace experience even more fascinating are the different relationships we make with colleagues. Workplaces abounded with tenuous relationships and uneasy alliances. The diversity in workplace culture, competitions, subtle harassment, and various forms of discrimination were universal experiences also captured by the story. Having an unnamed narrator steer the narrative was to remind the readers that she can be anyone, that we can all be her. She was surrounded by an eclectic group of characters, some likable and some not, that gave the novel different textures.

In these five jobs and the narrator’s various experiences, the influences of capitalism were stamped everywhere. There is no security of tenure because some jobs are impermanent. Meanwhile, some workers are overworked and underpaid. They are stressed out and the only recourse for them is to leave their job. Work-life balance was elusive, particularly for parents who cannot seem to find time for their children as their work occupied all their time. In the novel, we read of how a national park has been turned into a catch basin for litter from a nearby local sports stadium. In another instance, the emotionally vulnerable were scammed under the pretense that they would find a suitable partner.

“After having to leave my old job because of burnout syndrome, I was rationally aware that it wasn’t a good idea to get too emotionally involved in what I was doing, but it was also difficult to prevent myself from taking satisfaction in it. Truthfully, I was happy when people took pleasure in my work, and it made me want to try harder.”

~ Kikuko Tsumura, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job

Interestingly, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job was her first novel to be translated into English despite a prolific career that started as early as 2005. In her native Japan, Tsumura is a highly-heralded writer. She has won several awards for her works. It was easy to understand as her novel was absorbing. She was able to vividly capture the workplace atmosphere with a deadpan gaze. There was also a sprinkling of dry humor, cynicism, and surrealism in the novel. The story echoed on a global scale because some of its elements were derived from the author’s own experiences in her first job.

However, despite the concerns raised in the novel, not all were fully resolved; there were also some mysteries that were never resolved. Tsumura didn’t dive deep into these concerns and just skimmed the surface. Because of the novel’s structure, the five distinct parts read like separate short stories. They were all readable but there were some that were more interesting than the others. The conclusions arrived at were predictable, contrasting the intricate critique of the modern workplace that Tsumura has captured. But while the conclusion can be seen as predictable, it was also inevitable as the narrator submitted herself to her view of the workplace, a palpable offshoot of capitalism.

Despite its blunders, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job did a laudable job of capturing the intricacies of the modern workplace. It grappled with several concerns such as workplace politics, discrimination, underemployment, and the romanticization of overwork. The episodic novel captured the universal workplace experience through the gaze of an unnamed narrator. Tsumura vividly portrayed highly relatable situations, both inside and outside of the workplace. Hovering above all of these concerns are the influences of capitalism. The novel had local flavors but it resonated on a universal scale. While not perfect, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job, as Tsumura’s first English-translate novel, sufficed as a primer for her prose.

“The time had come to embrace the ups and downs again. I had no way of knowing what pitfalls might be lying in wait for me, but what I’d discovered by doing five jobs in such a short span of time was this: the same was true of everything. You never knew what was going to happen, whatever you did. You just had to give it your all, and hope for the best. Hope like anything it would turn out alright.”

~ Kikuko Tsumura, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job
Ratings

61%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 
16%
Writing (25%) – 
15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
8%

It was during one of my random trips to the bookstore that I first came across Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing As An Job. The first thing that captured my interest was the book’s cover. The title was also eyecatching. Despite having no iota of what the book was about – the synopsis, however, did pique my curiosity – I obtained a copy of the book. The fact that it was written by a Japanese writer, to some extent, convinced me to dip my fingers into Tsumura’s first book translated into English. It then became a part of my 2021 Japanese Literature reading journey. To Tsumura’s credit, There’s No Such Thing As An Job was readable and the experiences of the unnamed main character were relatable, especially for millennials like me. What I lamented, however, was the lack of space to expound on the workplace concerns raised in the novel. Most of these concerns were also not fully resolved. Moreover, the different parts never came full circle. It felt like reading five short stories rather than one cohesive whole. I also feel like the nuances of the language were not captured by the translation.

It’s not that it was a bad book but it could have been improved. If more works of Tsumura would be translated into English, I will not hesitate to read them.

Book Specs

Author: Kikuko Tsumura
Translator (from Japanese): Polly Barton
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 399
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

A woman walks into an employment agency and requests a job that requires no reading, no writing, and ideally, very little thinking.

She is sent to a nondescript office building and tasked with watching the hidden-camera feed of an author suspected of storing contraband goods. But watching someone for hours isn’t as easy as it sounds. How will she stay awake? When can she take delivery of her favourite brand of tea? And, perhaps more importantly – how did she find herself in this situation in the first place?

As she moves from job to job, writing adverts for shops that mysteriously disappear and composing advice for rice cracker wrappers that generate thousands of devoted followers, it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not searching for the easiest job at all, but something altogether more meaningful…

About the Author

Kikuko Tsumura (津村 記久子) was born and raised in Osaka, Japan. Her interest in books began at a young age; on her commutes going to school, she read works of science fiction, particularly the works of Willian Gibson, Philip K. Dick, and Kurt Vonnegut. While still a third-year university student, Tsumura started working on a novel, Man’ītā (Maneater). It went on to win the  21st Dazai Osamu Prize in 2005.

It was, however, the workplace harassment she experienced in her first job post-university that made her write stories about young workers. Her 2008 book, Myūjikku buresu yū!! (Music Bless You!!), won her the 30th Noma Literary New Face Prize. Her novel Potosu raimu no fune (The Lime Pothos Boat, 2009) won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. More critical success ensued as her works earned her more literary awards. In 2011, Tsumura’s book Wākāzu daijesuto (Workers’ Digest, 2011), won her 28th Oda Sakunosuke Prize. Her 2015 novel, Konoyoni Tayasui Shigoto Wa Nai (この世にたやすい仕事はない) was her first novel to be translated into English; it was published as There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job in 2020.

Tsumura has also written a score of short stories. Her 2013 short story Kyūsuitō to kame (The Water Tower and the Turtle) won the 39th Kawabata Yasunari Prize. It was also her first work to be translated into English and it won her a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. In 2016, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology recognized her works by awarding her a New Artist award.

Tsumura is currently residing in Osaka.