The State of the Modern (Working) Woman
Historically, Japanese literature has been dominated by male writers. At no point was this more palpable than during the 20th century when the translated works of Yukio Mishima, Shūsaku Endō, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and Natsume Sōseki rose to global prominence. Not to mention that Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburō Ōe were both awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature, long held as the zenith of a writer’s career. These victories elevated Japanese literature to even loftier heights. A third Japanese-born writer, Kazuo Ishiguro whose prose flourished during the later half of the 20th century, was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. The contributions of these writers to Japanese literature, and world literature in general, cannot be easily dismissed.
The lack of a prominent female voice was glaring – at least works that were translated into English were concerned – considering that one of the most widely recognized novels, The Tale of Genji, was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court in the Heian period. Female Japanese writers took the proverbial scenic route; Fumiko Enchi and Sawako Ariyoshi held the candle during the mid-20th century. Slowly but surely, they were gathering momentum which paid off toward the end of the century. This was marked by the ascension of writers such as Banana Yoshimoto, Yōko Ogawa, and Yōko Tawada to global recognition. Nowhere is the growing global recognition of female Japanese writers more palpable than in the contemporary.
Sure, Haruki Murakami is a looming presence but recently, the works of writers such as Mieko Kawakami, Sayaka Murata, and Hiromi Kawami, among others, have become household names. Some of their works were even recognized by both local and international literary award-giving bodies. Adding her voice to this growing list is Emi Yagi, the editor of a Japanese women’s magazine. She made her literary debut in December 2020 with her novel 空芯手帳 (Kushin techō). It was a local literary sensation, warmly received by both readers and literary critics alike. The book was even awarded the 2020 Osamu Dazai Prize. In 2022, the book was made available to Anglophone readers as Diary of a Void – the Japanese title roughly translates to “empty core notebook” – through the English translation by David Boyd and Lucy North.
“Even if it’s a lie, it’s a place of my own. That’s why I’m going to keep it. It doesn’t need to be a big lie – just big enough for one person. And if I can hold on to that lie inside my heart, if I can keep repeating it to myself, it might lead me somewhere. Somewhere else, somewhere different. If I can do that, maybe I’ll change a little, and maybe the world will, too.“~ Emi Yagi, Diary of a Void
At the heart of Yagi’s debut novel was Ms. Shibata; her first name was never mentioned in the story. When she was first introduced, Ms. Shibata was just starting her new job at a company that manufactured cardboard tubes for paper towels and toilet paper rolls. She exchanged her previous job for her mundane new job in order to distance herself from the growing dangers of sexual harassment that proliferated in her previous workplace. Shibata stands out in her new workplace as she was the proverbial rose among a sea of thorns. Apart from Ms. Shibata, the company had employed only two other women; one resigned to take care of her parents while the other one left to get married. Being the only woman in the workplace, she was tasked to perform the most menial of tasks. She was also expected to perform tasks that were beyond what was written in her job description.
It would have been fine if her ad hoc works were related to what she was hired for. For instance, she was tasked to prepare coffee for meetings, particularly during client visits. It was also her default job to clean up after every meeting. All the tasks that her male colleagues were unwilling to do she had to perform. There were no prior agreements for her to perform these tasks but it was expected of her. Shibata was the one who tidied the office. She was also the one who replenished the ink of the printer once it runs out. On top of her real job, Ms. Shibata also had to answer calls, purchase supplies, and even sort packages per department and personally distribute them. These were simple tasks but when added up, they can instantly become a second workload. Unfortunately for Ms. Shibata, none of her male colleagues were willing to lend a hand: “Everyone kept their heads down. Of course they did. The dirty cups weren’t their responsibility. I bet the cups had never even crossed their minds.”
Is there a way for Ms. Shibata to avoid escape, or at least avoid her current circumstances? It was palpable that no one was taking a hint from Ms. Shibata. One fateful day, she decided to take things into her own hands. The idea formed in her mind while she was about to clean up after yet another meeting that she did not attend. But on this particular day, Ms. Shibata couldn’t get herself to clean up after the mess. Ms. Shibata announced that she was pregnant. Defiant but keeping her cool, she told her supervisor that she was unable to perform her task because the smell of coffee and cigarettes nauseated her, exacerbating her morning sickness. However, she was not really pregnant and she just wanted to observe how her officemates would respond. As Ms. Shibata tritely put it into perspective: “That’s how I became pregnant”.
Surprisingly, nobody questioned the veracity of her pregnancy. Her supervisor took her word for it, further underscoring how the office and her colleagues were not used to handling the concerns of women. Their human resources department simply asked when she was due. This was despite the fact that Ms. Shibata was not seeing anyone, at least none that her colleagues knew of or heard about. It set into motion a chain of actions that Ms. Shibata did not expect. Sure, her officemates were oblivious to her general condition but Ms. Shibata found that her every request was granted without further thought. But as one digs deeper, what she obtained were no privileges. For instance, she was permitted to leave the office on time, at exactly 5 PM. What she gained was the bare minimum any employee can expect.
“I wondered what all those people were doing under this snow. Maybe they were shivering in a cab they’d finally caught, or making or waiting for dinner, staring out the window, commenting on the snow and sipping hot chocolate. Maybe that’s what making a family is all about: creating an environment in which people make space for one another – maybe without even trying, just naturally, to make sure that nobody’s forgotten.“~ Emi Yagi, Diary of a Void
The novel had an interesting premise with office dynamics in contemporary Japan the overriding theme. The novel endeavored to address the systemic and deeply-ingrained inequalities that persist in the modern workplace, with particular emphasis on subtle sexism and traditional gender roles. The inequity tips against women in the workplace. Historically, the task of preparing and serving tea and coffee fell on the shoulders of female office workers who were then referred to as ochakumi, or tea pourers. Moreover, like in the household, female office workers were expected to tidy up. These are societal expectations, ones that need not be defined by the fine print of any job contract. Ironically, it took Ms. Shibata’s action for her male colleagues to start learning how to perform menial tasks.
Ms. Shibata’s sudden pregnancy news was also a catalyst for palpable changes in how her officemates treated her. Generally, they treated her with “deference” but they were also super annoying. Higashinakano, in particular, has increasingly become very annoying. He was concerned and was trying to be helpful. However, he has no sense of boundary, and his concern for her welfare was turning into an invasion of Ms. Shibata’s personal space. But in a way, his invasiveness was a reminder for Ms. Shibata of her deception. She might have dodged one bullet through her pregnancy new but it also opened an entirely new can of worms. She must now keep up this act lest her deception is uncovered.
To keep up the act, she availed a pamphlet provided by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. This pamphlet takes the form of a diary that expectant mothers can use to track their pregnancy and childbirth. The novel takes the form of a journal that magnified on specific but pivotal weeks of Ms. Shibata’s “pregnancy”. Moreover, as the translator further elucidated in their notes, the book’s Japanese title, Kushin techō, is a play on Boshi techō or the Maternal and Child Health Handbook. Kushin literally translates to an empty core – Ms. Shibata’s new workplace is another subtle reference – but the translator took the liberty of using “void”.
The titular void, however, takes on several layers of allegory. Ms. Shibata’s workplace is one of the direct references. Yagi also subtly incorporated criticism of modern consumerism in the story. Local and global brands were interspersed in the story, several of which were part and parcel of Ms. Shibata’s own life. The titular void was also an allegory for the emptiness of Ms. Shibata’s uterus. But beyond the commentaries on workplace culture, the void also represented the hollowness and the emptiness that Ms. Shibata was experiencing. She lives alone and there were very few mentions of friends or relatives. She struggled to find meaning in what she does and in her relationships with others. Despite the dynamic and fast-moving environment that she was part of, Ms. Shibata felt isolated: “I’m always alone. That’s the way it is from the moment we come into this world, but I’m still not used to it – how alone we all are.”
“There was nothing here dazzling enough to describe as magic, nor was there cutting-edge technology to marvel at. The spell was in the obsession, the relentless intensity. Words summon more words, making space for a new story to come into the world. Solemnly, modestly, reverently. The core had to be hollow. Where else was the story to go?“~ Emi Yagi, Diary of a Void
But even in her deception and her hollowness, Ms. Shibata managed to gain some insights into the lives of other people. To keep up the act, she joined a special aerobics class that catered to pregnant women. Through their stories and their concerns, she started to understand the struggles of pregnant women and women in general. Ms. Shibata also started to see these women beyond the struggles they have during their pregnancies. At her workplace, she was also starting to gain some sympathy and even appreciation for Higashinakano for his efforts; he was shunned by their officemates for his clumsiness. There were light spots in what is otherwise a depressive story.
In writing her debut novel, Emi Yagi credited another work of a female Japanese writer, Kikuko Tsumura’s この世にたやすい仕事はない (Konoyo ni tayasui shigoto wanai, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job), a book that was published in 2015. Sure enough, the multilayered narrative extensively dealt with the same seminal subjects. Readers gravitate toward the narrators and their deadpan narration as they underscore realities that persist, both in the workplace and in life in general. The novel’s feminist overtones – albeit to a lesser extent – were a nod to empowering contemporary works such as Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs.
Despite these parallels with several contemporary works by female Japanese writers, Diary of a Void stands on its own. The novel’s premise alone captures the readers’ imagination and curiosity but it goes beyond stimulating imagination. Yagi’s debut novel grappled substantially with contemporary workaday culture, underscoring the inequalities – from gender, age, and even race – that continue to persist in the modern workplace. Through Shibata’s story, we read about loneliness and the struggles of women, not only in the workplace but beyond it. Traditional gender roles and expectations and consumerism were also explored in this slender novel. It also threads the thin line between fiction and reality. More importantly, Diary of a Void subtly but astutely underscored our understated need for connection in a world that has slowly become fragmented.
“As I wrote in my notebook, I wondered: How many other imaginary children were there in the world? And where were they now? What were they doing? I hoped they were leading happy lives.”~ Emi Yagi, Diary of a Void
Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 18%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
As a growing enthusiast of Japanese literature, it is remarkable to witness how female Japanese writers are slowly gaining global recognition. Indeed, what a fellow book reader has noted, female Japanese writers are dominating the Japanese literary scene. I have been captivated by the works of Banana Yoshimoto, Yōko Ogawa, Sayaka Murata, and Mieko Kawakami. Their works are individually captivating. Meanwhile, Emi Yagi is a writer who I recently came across. I think it was just in late 2022 that I encountered her and her work, Diary of a Void. She sounded new to me, and sure enough, Diary of a Void was her debut novel and it was just released during the pandemic, so it is not that far back into the past. To be honest, I wasn’t really planning on reading the book but my curiosity got the better of me so I obtained a copy of the book and, without more ado, I read it. It was a very quick read; I started it in the morning and finished it after work. The story itself was interesting although the process was quite predictable. The conclusion was another thing. Diary of a Void won me over with its sharp critique of a plethora of subjects that impact everyone. Sure, there were lapses and parts that were lacking. Yagi’s overall message, however, comes across in her deceptively slender debut novel.
Author: Emi Yagi
Translators (from Japanese): David Boyd and Lucy North
Publishing Date: August 9, 2022 (December 2, 2020)
Number of Pages: 213
When thirty-four-year-old Ms. Shibata gets a new job in Tokyo to escape sexual harassment at her old one, she finds that as the only woman at her new workplace – a company that manufactures cardboard tubes for paper towel and toilet paper rolls – she is expected to do all the menial tasks. One day she announces that she can’t clear away her coworkers’ dirty cups – because she’s pregnant and the smell nauseated her. The only thing is. . . Ms. Sibata is not pregnant.
Pregnant Ms. Shibta doesn’t have to serve coffee to anyone. Pregnant Ms. Shibata isn’t forced to work overtime. Pregnant Ms. Shibata rests, watches TV, takes long baths, and even joins an aerobics class for expectant mothers. She’s finally being treated by her colleagues as more than a hollow core. But she has a nine-month ruse to keep up. Before long, it becomes all-absorbing, and with the help of tower-stuffed shirts and a diary app that tracks every stage of her “pregnancy,” the boundary between her lie and her life begins to dissolve.
Surreal and absurdist, and with a winning matter-of-factness, a light touch, and a refreshing sensitivity to mental health, Diary of a Void will keep you turning the pages to see just how far Ms. Shibata will carry her deception for the sake of women, and especially working mothers, everywhere.
About the Author
Emi Yagi was born in 1988 and is currently residing in Tokyo. She is the editor of Japanese women’s magazine. In December 2020, she made her literary debut with 空芯手帳 (Kushin techō). It won the Dazai Osamu Prize which is awarded annually to the best debut work of fiction. In 2022, her debut novel was translated into English as Diary of a Void.