Two novellas are offered together in this book, both of them with fresh voice and subject. The subject is work, office life, at its most banal. Reading those I once again realized that not so many novels represent a faithful image of what we spend most of our days at. The voice is original too. If you tend to think that Japanese fiction is always about delicate feelings and emotionally detached characters, think again. Akiko Itoyama presents two women with straightforward, even blunt voices (with some slang). itoyama’s women are not the cute, Hello-Kitty- or Louis-Vuitton-collecting type we might come across in Japanese clichés.
The title story, “oki de matsu” is about a special kind of friendship between two colleagues, Futo and Oikawa, the woman who tells the story. They have bonded years ago as they have been recruited together and sent to the same provincial office. There share old jokes, intimate details, they know by heart what the other will say and do at work, they help each other, spend most days together and yet they are not friends in the general sense (they don’t see each other outside work) or lovers (there is absolutely nothing sexual in the novella).
It was a kind of a-ah moment for me to realize that I have many such “friends” at work: people I know so much about (if they eat their meat rare or well done, where they put their savings, what secret present they’re preparing for family for Christmas), yet I haven’t met their kids or wife and wouldn’t spend a weekend with them because we don’t share any outside interest. We are loyal to each other, confide each other some stuff, yet there’s a line that protects our “outside persona” from our professional one. (Is it a personal thing or a French thing to keep worlds separate? I don’t know).
In Itoyama’s novella, these two colleagues have kind of crossed the line: they have pledged each other, on one of those alcoholic office parties Japanese favor, that the one who will survive the other will go to the deceased home and destroy his or her computer’s hard drive so as to erase embarrassing details. They have even exchanged keys. So what happens when Futo dies in an accident? Will Oikawa feel her part of the pledge?
The other story present the flip side of the workplace. “Kinrô Kansha no Hi” (Labor Thanksgiving Day) is about a woman in her late 30s who has been unemployed for some time. She worked in one of those nasty male-chauvinistic workplaces ripe with sexual harassment and she quit without reporting it. She only got out of it a bad reputation, and now she’s bitter and quite cynical about the Japanese Big Corporate world. In the novella she is pressed into accepting a blind date, but the guy turns out to be completely full of himself and brown-nosing his way up the corporate ladder. Needless to say, these two are not set for the happily-ever-after ending.
I liked both stories for their strong heroines full of dark humor, matter-of-fact realism (mixed with magical realism!) and would look forward to reading more from Itoyama, but it seems that she hasn’t been much translated beyond these two.
ETA. I misspelled the author’s name: it’s Itoyama and not Toyama. Sorry!