Akutagawa Prize #134: Oki de matsu, by Itoyama Akiko

Itoyama Akiko 絲山秋子. Oki de matsu 沖で待つ. 2005.

This won the Akutagawa Prize for the second half of 2005.

The book contains two stories. The second, the title story, won the prize; the first is called “Kinrô Kansha no Hi 勤労感謝の日.” According to the bio in the book, Itoyama (b. 1966) worked in a home-appliances firm for a while before becoming a writer; judging from the stories, if they’re at all autobiographical (and chances are, they are, this being J-lit), she was a career-track employee, part of the first generation of women to be hired as such. In the stories, she seems to be setting herself up as the literary spokesperson for those women.

“Kinrô Kansha no Hi” covers the negative aspects. The narrator is an unemployed woman in her late 30s. Unemployed because she ran up against a particularly nasty case of sexual harrassment and quit, but without reporting it, so she gets nothing but a bad reputation and a rapidly-disappearing meager unemployment allowance from the government. Over the course of the story she goes on a miai arranged by her neighbor; the guy turns out to be a total dweeb, and quite full of himself as a Company Man. This sets up the story’s central tension, between the Company Man who’s constantly boasting about how wonderful it is to be part of a company, and how thankful everybody should be for what companies do for the nation, and the protagonist, who is completely soured on the company life, both from her own experience and from her view that it’s Company Men who have put Japan in the mess it’s in today, economically and socially. It so happens that the day of the miai is Kinrô Kansha no Hi, Labor Thanksgiving Day, an irony the narrator comments on. In the end, she goes to a rundown local bar that she can always depend on to match her mood, and finds herself grateful that the proprietor keeps it open in spite of little business; so maybe there’s something to be grateful to workers for after all, she thinks.

I liked this story. It really represents a fresh voice, I think, and an important one. The critiques of Japanese company life and society aren’t necessarily new, but they’re well done, and voiced by a character who seems new. Great. But this isn’t the one that won the prize.

The one that won is kind of the flipside of the modern career woman’s experience. It concerns one Oikawa, who also comes into a company as a career-track woman, and her friend Futocchan, a guy who came in the same year. They were immediately transferred together to Fukuoka, and later back to the Kantô area. The story traces their travails as new employees, as coworkers, growing older. No romance between – actually he marries someone from the Fukuoka office – but friendship. Then he dies in an accident, and she’s forced to carry out a promise he once extracted from her to destroy the hard drive on his computer. There are things he doesn’t want anybody to see after he dies – it’s not clear what, but it’s suggested that it’s embarrassingly bad love poetry to his wife (at least that’s what Oikawa ends up thinking). The story begins and ends on a note of magical realism, is I guess what you’d call it, as Oikawa confronts Futocchan’s ghost. But there’s no real epiphany, except for friendship, how much she’ll miss him.

It’s a rather generic and rah-rah look at company life. You join, you go where the firm tells you, you learn from your senpai who seem harsh at first but then wise, you gradually learn to take responsibility yourself and feel endless gratitude toward the company and senpai who helped you grow, and the dôki who helped you survive it. Kind of like one of those photocollages in a high school yearbook – “these are the best years of our lives.” I can hardly believe the same person wrote this and the first story, but that’s why I think she’s trying to set herself up as the Career Woman Writer – covering both extremes of the career woman’s experience. To me the only novelty about this is that it seems to be trying to show male readers that women can feel just as dedicated to their employers and coworkers as men can. In a society that still doesn’t fully accept career women, that’s probably a valuable message. But coming after the first story, you have to wonder where this enthusiasm for being transformed into a corporate drone comes from.

Oh, right. Maybe it’s fiction.