I’m no stranger to burnout. My day job fills my waking hours with court dates, bureaucracy, secondary trauma, and translating bad news into my second language, such that at night, I can’t even decide what I want for dinner. When I reached for Kikuko Tsumura’s novel There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, instead of simply seeing that reality reflected back to me, I found a surprising source of hope.
“My job was really tough, but I’d always managed to get through the challenges it posed. And yet, I had the sense that another thing would always be following close on its heels. As soon as I crossed one mountain, another would appear, even higher than the first,” says one of Tsumura’s characters. The novel, translated from Japanese by Polly Barton, follows an unnamed, burned-out narrator through a series of “easy,” low-stakes jobs as she takes a break from social work. She spies on a freelance writer, writes bus advertisements, curates trivia on the back of rice cracker packages, hangs up posters, and sits in a hut in an enormous local park, each position increasing in absurdity and the degree of personal investment it requires from the protagonist. It would be easy to write this story depressingly—work and burnout in a continuous cycle, no matter what the job. But Tsumura revels in the absurd, delightful details and infuses her novel with wonder.
In a Japan Times interview, translator Barton says:
The voice… seemed so different from a lot of other voices in Japanese fiction, especially female ones. (It had) qualities that wouldn’t necessarily be seen as conventional positives—dry and wise-cracking, often sarcastic or even acerbic, a bit neurotic, and maybe most importantly, sometimes angry. I felt like that human quality to (the narrator) was very attractive, and important, somehow. Plus I love the sense of humor so much — that kind of off-key deadpan humor is so very much my taste.
Tsumura is an author from Osaka, Japan, who writes about working people. She has won numerous Japanese literary awards, including the Akutagawa Prize, for her 2009 novel Potosu raimu no fune (The Lime Pothos Boat) about precarious work. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job is her first novel to be translated into English.
With the help of Barton, Tsumura and I spoke about burnout, passion, ghosts, and more.
The Rumpus: Though full of delightfully monotonous examples of temp work, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job is more than a novel about labor; at its core is burnout. The narrator’s taxing job in social work has depleted her of “every scrap of energy” that she has, and sends her on a journey through many not-so-easy temp jobs. Many other employees drop like braindead flies throughout the story, most crucially Mr Sugai, whose burnout becomes a lovely little companion to our narrator’s. What was your goal in criticizing, in my view, some of the pitfalls of late capitalism? What did you want to say or highlight about work?
Kikuko Tsumura: In essence, I set out to write this book as a series of practical experiences of a narrator undertaking imaginary jobs. But thinking now about the way that the protagonist drifts between jobs, it strikes me that what I really wanted to say to people was: work isn’t all hardship, and it isn’t all joyous either. Some jobs you’ll be suited to, and others you won’t, so please don’t give up hope.
Rumpus: Mr Sugai’s burnout, to me, felt particularly insidious and like a feeling I have felt before, in a job with very high highs and low lows. You write, “The kind of pressure he had experienced at work was not difficult for me to imagine, yet the high esteem he was held in by his colleagues suggested that it wasn’t just sadness he’d got from his work, but joy also. I could understand how that made it all the more unbearable.” Is that something you’ve experienced before? What does his story say about passion and emotional investment in one’s job as a positive and a negative?
Tsumura: I sometimes get to feeling similarly to Mr Sugai about my job, writing. I think what I was trying to convey through Mr Sugai’s narrative is that joy and hardship are an inextricable part of work—that even if those feelings generate a sense of satisfaction, they can also sometimes engender the wish to run away from it all.
Rumpus: In the About the Author section, there’s a note about your own experience of workplace harassment early on in your career. It’s one of the first things I learned about you—it says, “In her first job out of college, Tsumura experienced workplace harassment and quit after ten months and retrain, an experience that inspired her to write stories about young workers.” Why include that for readers?
Tsumura: Well, if I’m honest, it’s included because the publisher put it in there. But the reason that I don’t hide my having experienced workplace harassment in the past was because I want to show people who are having a hard time with that kind of thing that they’re not alone.
Rumpus: There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job was a wild novel to read during the COVID-19 pandemic, when I and so many others have totally changed our relationships to work. I work at the same table where I eat all my meals, a few hundred feet from my bed. I’m sure the underpaid employee responsible for my surveillance has had to work overtime. I found myself really missing the goofy office politics of the lunch room and workplace dynamics. How has this novel changed for you in its translation into English and republication amid a global pandemic?
Tsumura: I never imagined this book being translated into English, and wrote it very freely in the way that I wanted to, so the very fact that you’ve actually read the book is somehow surprising to me! Part of me didn’t really expect even a Japanese audience to relate to it, so the fact that it’s finding a reception with an overseas audience is making me think that maybe the essence of work is something universal, that doesn’t change between countries. That’s both fascinating to me, and somehow reassuring.
Rumpus: How much of There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job is personal?
Tsumura: Almost none of the novel is based on my personal experience; the large majority is written from my imagination. The background to the fifth and final job—the job in the small hut in the big woods—is that there’s a park in Osaka called the Expo Commemoration Park which is dotted with huts, and I’ve always thought it’d be great to work in one of them.
Rumpus: If you had to take a break from writing and try an “easy job,” is that where you’d go?
Tsumura: Yes, I’d still like to work in a hut in a big wood. Being alone in a quiet place, managing some particular task is my ideal kind of job, and I often fall into reveries about that kind of work. There’s an element to There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job which is about indulging that part of me, and reveling in those enjoyable fantasies.
Rumpus: In a novel that could be deeply depressing, your voice is undeniably fun and funny. At a very important banquet, when the applause starts, we read, “I let out all the sneezes I’d been holding in while the footballers had been speaking.” Yet the book also instills awe, fear, and unease. Was optimism and joy important for you in this writing?
Tsumura: I can’t keep working on a novel if there’s no humor there. Even if I’m not really trying, silly descriptions and events just end up popping up in my work. I didn’t make a conscious effort to be optimistic, I’d say.
Rumpus: I want to talk about some of the devices you used. For instance, we don’t learn your heroine’s name or anything of her personal life; it’s only at the very end that we learn she’s a thirty-six-year-old former medical social worker. In the surveillance job, the first temp job, the narrator’s sense of self becomes fully entwined with that of her subject, buying the food he eats, conflating his tastes with her own. Why make those choices?
Tsumura: I avoided giving the narrator a name because I wanted to write a character that could have been any one of my readers. In the surveillance job, I wanted to write about this curious phenomenon where the person surveilling is influenced by the behavior of the target of her surveillance. I’m fascinated by that idea—that watching someone using these various products has an effect similar to a kind of marketing.
Rumpus: Yours is one of a small contingent of recent books written by women on burnout and gender in the workplace. I’m thinking of My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Severance. Yet, the feminist messaging of There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job is subtle. In each of the protagonist’s temp jobs, her boss is a man, and each asks for more and more of her emotional investment as the novel progresses. What, if anything, were you saying about gender in the workplace?
Tsumura: I didn’t intend to make any big statements about gender in this book, but in the bus advert job and the rice cracker packet job chapters, I wanted to paint a portrait of the positive aspects of female solidarity in the workplace.
Rumpus: You do that really well—there were so many characters who felt like women I’ve known and worked with. Why was focusing on female solidarity important?
Tsumura: In the office where I worked for ten and a half years, I was supported so much, both practically and emotionally, by my female coworkers. For the majority of people, the relationship they have with the people at their workplace is a bigger factor in determining whether or not they want to work there than the salary. Female solidarity at the workplace is something that I can write from personal experience. And when I do, I’m also investing my writing with the hope that women at workplaces all over are showing solidarity with one another.
Rumpus: Were you drawing on any personal experiences in writing women? I’m thinking of the lunch group at the cracker packet job.
Tsumura: Yes. I don’t know if it’s the same in the West, but in Japan it’s pretty common for women to get together and eat their lunch together. At the office where I was working, you were free to enter the lunch room at any time, and the last thirty minutes of each day I’d leave my desk and go there to take a nap.
Rumpus: That sounds lovely. I definitely can’t nap at work, but I absolutely have had my lunch group or work friends who help get me through the day. In the novel, the narrator shares about having felt embarrassed to talk to friends about her burnout. “I’d always felt morally indebted to them in some way, because what they were going through was, in point of fact, tougher,” she says at one point. I have totally felt that feeling myself. Why do you think work evokes such strong feelings, like guilt or shame, in people?
Tsumura: This is just a guess, but I sense that for some people work isn’t just a means of simply earning money, but something that symbolizes their ability, which is why when they’re unable to deal with it well, they experience that as a kind of shame. To give the example you mention in your question, you then descend to feeling that your friends are all there battling these formidable opponents, while you yourself are having trouble fending off far less impressive ones. I don’t think it’s either a good or a bad thing that our minds work this way—these are some of the natural ups and downs that happen when we perform a job, and is one of the kinds of richness of experience that work brings.
Also, I don’t think this is true of everyone, but I think that there are people who attempt to illustrate the meaning of their existence through their work, both to the outside world and to themselves. It’s also a fact that work can bring a sufficient sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that such a thing is possible. I definitely don’t want to negate these kinds of feelings that work can bring, and writing this book for me was a way of thinking through how best to engage with them.
Rumpus: So, maybe talking about your feelings is the answer? Could your narrator solve her problems by opening up about her tiresome job and, maybe, find some solidarity with other workers? As you point out, much of what she feels is a universal experience.
Tsumura: I think that understanding that you’re not the only person worrying about those things or suffering in this way is really crucial. Even if it doesn’t provide a solution to your issues, knowing that you’re not alone in those feelings often allows you to move forward. Gauging the degree of your hardship by comparing your experiences with others also enables you to make a judgment about whether to carry on with that particular job, or to quit.
Rumpus: Is there any room for criticizing the pressures and constraints placed on work and working people? For example, it was pretty obvious to me that, as your narrator moved into new jobs, she was asked to invest more and more of herself. That level of investment and energy takes its toll after a while, no matter how much you enjoy or are suited to a job.
Tsumura: I often think about how the people in high-up positions at companies and organizations take advantage of their employees’ senses of purpose, responsibility, and shame in giving them excessive and unreasonable amounts of work to do. I believe that’s unfair. I’ve also experienced people outside of the executive tier behaving sadistically towards their subordinates and getting joy from exerting control over them. These are all unjust things, and represent failings on a systemic level. I think it’s important for workers to share these experiences with one another and speak out about them, or if that’s not possible, then to set boundaries around their own work, wherever that’s possible.
Of course, both of these things are difficult to do on an individual level, so the best thing would be if the national and local authorities—forces outside of the company—became aware of these problems and applied pressure. The governments might pretend not to know about this stuff, but unregulated cruelty and pressure often causes people to give up their jobs or give up work entirely, to drop out of the system. I can’t imagine that a society where that’s happening all over is good for any country.
Rumpus: Without giving away the ending, it surprised me, and made me wonder whether you think the narrator’s solution would work for others facing burnout.
Tsumura: I’d like for people not to be swayed by socially accepted ideas about work, and instead to find a job that suits them and stick with it. I think that people are happier when they’re doing a job that they’re suited to than when they’re in a job that’s seen as prestigious for whatever reason. I’d also like to say to people that having conflicted feelings towards your work, which comprise both positive and negative elements, isn’t a failing, and can happen to anyone. And sometimes, it sorts itself out with time.
Photograph of Kikuko Tsumura by KODANSHA – Lane Shimada.