Out next month from NEW DIRECTIONS
As I opened the basement-level door, I thought I could smell birds. “Hello, I’m here for a two o’clock interview,” I said to the overweight woman seated under a sign that read Print Services Reception. Without looking up, she nodded and lifted the receiver. I watched her mouth the words. Your two o’clock is here. Her lipstick had come off in places. “He’ll be right with you,” she said—and suddenly then there he was, a middle-aged man with a ragged, rectangular face. He couldn’t have been more than a couple of yards away. I immediately recognized what was in his hand. My application packet. “Welcome to the Print Services Branch Office,” he said, “I’m Goto, thanks for coming.” “Thank you, I’m Ushiyama,” I replied. His face was red and his eyes were clouded—the whites were almost yellow, obscuring the boundaries of his irises. Maybe he was drunk. Or maybe this was just how overworked middle managers look, devoid of life and spirit.
Goto led me to what he called the conference room, which wasn’t actually a room at all. It was more like a partitioned space, near the door and facing the reception desk. Goto directed me toward a black leather two-seater and I placed the leatherette bag that I always bring to interviews on the cushion next to me. “I’m Yoshiko Ushiyama, thank you for meeting with me,” I said again. The noise from the basement really sunk in now. But it wasn’t the talking or the ringing phones. It was the constant buzz and hum of the machines. “The pleasure’s mine, and please make yourself comfortable, I hope you don’t mind if I review your application while we speak,” he said, reading off the cover: “First name: Yoshiko. Last name: Ushiyama. Now there’s a name you don’t see too often. Though I guess there was Mei Ushiyama. Ever heard of her?” “No, I don’t think so.” Then Goto started to count: “One, two . . . and this makes six.” I knew what he was getting at. Since graduating, I’d quit five companies. This job would be my sixth. The Education and Work Experience sections of my application spilled into the margins. I’d also attached a separate History of Employment that ran three pages. From my start and end dates, he could see that I hadn’t held onto any job for more than a year. I left most of them after about six months, but never stayed more than ten. “Please allow me to explain,” I said. “I know, it didn’t work out. It’s that simple. Sometimes things click, sometimes they don’t. There are times, though, where you can’t make things happen, try as you might. Trust me, I’ve seen it all . . . Anyway, how about you start by telling me about yourself and why you think you’d be right for this position.” “Of course, well, I was a liberal arts major at university, where my research focused on the Japanese language. Specifically, I’m interested in how people communicate. While pursuing my research, I became more curious about the use of language in print media. I was especially fascinated by the effectiveness of particular expressions and sentence structures. Ideally, I’d like to work in a field that allows me to utilize this background. That’s what led me to apply for this position. I remember being a girl and seeing TV commercials and newspaper ads for the products made here. I was drawn to the idea of working at this company because of its famously high standards, both technologically and ethically speaking . . .” “Yes,” he said, “yes.”
This wasn’t my first time at the factory. I’d come on a field trip when I was in elementary school. A woman in a tiny stewardess hat showed us around the museum and gave us a tour of the factory floor. I went home that day with a box of souvenirs that had a photo of the factory printed on the lid. Inside was a fabric pencil case with a two-color retractable pen and a set of mechanical pencils, as well as a box of cookies that were shaped like dictionaries, race cars, and seashells. Other kids got different shapes. Houses, towers, dinosaurs, and faces. At that time, it felt like the factory was enormous, maybe as big as Disneyland. And the souvenirs were as good as Disneyland’s, too. On the walk from the parking lot to the factory, we saw adults dressed in all kinds of clothes: suits, coveralls, lab coats. Walking between them, I caught glimpses of the factory buildings, but couldn’t see anything beyond that. No matter where you are in this city—the school, the department store, anywhere—you’re always walled in by mountains. But the factory had nothing around it. Or rather, it was as if it were surrounded by something other than the mountains. Something larger, something more distant.
Seeing the factory again as an adult, it didn’t feel any smaller. If anything, it had gotten even bigger. The factory’s influence over the city was too great to ignore. Everyone has at least one family member working for the factory, or one of its partners or subsidiaries. Vans and trucks with its logos can be seen on every street, and ambitious parents start nudging their kids toward a factory career from before they can read. My parents weren’t like that, but when my brother graduated from university, he landed a job at one of the factory’s offices in the heart of the city, doing computer work all day. It was almost strange how I’d managed to go through five jobs in this city without ever working for them. Maybe it looked like I was avoiding it, but I really wasn’t. I’d always seen the factory in a positive light, ever since that childhood field trip. If anything, I thought, maybe unconsciously, that for some reason I didn’t deserve to work somewhere so important.
Yet here I was at the factory for the second time in my life, being interviewed. Goto held in his hands the application that I’d mailed off with no expectation of an answer. It had been my brother’s idea. He’d told me that I didn’t need to worry about chipping in on living expenses, but apparently he hadn’t given up on me finding a real job. He tossed the ad in my lap and said, “Yoshiko, you should apply for this. It’s a permanent position, at the factory. All you need is a four-year degree.”
Goto listened patiently as I explained why I had left each of my five previous jobs. In every case, I admitted, some of the blame was mine, but of course my former employers had also played a role in my premature departures. Goto occasionally threw in a supportive I see or Uh-huh. Then another overweight woman walked in—this one’s lipstick was impeccable—and said, “Goto-saaan, city council, line three.” This, I thought, is why interviews should be conducted in private rooms, to avoid unnecessary interruptions. Goto turned to me and said, “Hold that thought,” then he got up to take the call. I suppose he didn’t have a choice. It was the city council, after all.
“Now, Ushiyama-san,” Goto began again, returning from the call, “How would you feel about coming on as a contract employee? It’s a different listing. One second, I’ll print it out for you . . .” I didn’t know what to say. In that moment, I felt like I’d been tricked. But then I started to feel something else, something like relief—it was as if the world made sense again. The permanent position was too good to be true, a liberal arts degree couldn’t get you a permanent job in a place like this, and I obviously wasn’t the sort of applicant that companies would go out of their way to hire, especially not at this stage in my career. Goto had been really kind to me, too. All the interview manuals I’d read advised that when the interviewer is being too nice, it’s a clear sign that you’re not getting the job, or at least that the conditions won’t be the same as advertised. And that was exactly what was happening.
“You’d still work here in Print Services, but as part of the Staff Support team. They’re currently hiring contract employees. On the bright side, with this position, you can pick your own hours, and the work won’t be very demanding. This honestly seems like the best fit for you, considering your employment history. We can take it from there. If that sounds good, I’ll bring you down to Staff Support and introduce you to the team. They’re down at the far end of the corridor.”
The far end of the corridor had an ominous sound to it, like the place was reserved for dead-end employees. Goto handed me a printout of the new job description. Some of the details were exactly the same as the permanent position, others weren’t. For one, permanent employees had to have at least a BA, but there were no educational requirements for this position. A permanent post meant a fixed monthly salary, but the contract job was hourly. Work hours were different, too. Permanent employees work Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (flex-time available), but this job was for 3 to 7.5 hours daily (at least two days a week), somewhere between the hours of 9 and 5:30. I couldn’t figure out the difference between a monthly salary and hourly pay, at least not on the spot, but I was confident that the latter wouldn’t be as good. Part of me felt undervalued, but they must have seen some promise in me. I mean, they were still offering me a job. In a way, this made things easier. Goto and I were, in fact, much closer to arriving at a decision. If I were being considered for the other position, the interview would end, then I’d say goodbye and head home. Goto would look over my application, and a few days later they would contact me if I made it to the next round. If they’d decided to move forward, there might be a second interview or some test. But with this new contract job, the only question was how I felt about the description that Goto had placed in front of me. It really wasn’t complicated. I only had to decide whether I would give in or hold out. But could you even call that giving in? In times like these, a job’s a job, even if it pays by the hour, even if it isn’t permanent, even if it’s physical labor. This wasn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it could be the best thing for me.
“Specifically, what kind of work would I be handling?” “Support.” At that point, I was assuming that support meant something like unpacking reams of paper and loading them into the printers, or replacing dead toner cartridges.
The job they assigned me was document destruction: operating a shredder all day, as a member of what they called the Shredder Squad. We were stationed at the far end of the basement floor, in a room stocked with machines made for destroying large quantities of paper. That was going to be my job—up to 7.5 hours per day.
At first, I thought the black birds were crows, but I was mistaken. They had to be closer to shags or cormorants. Gathered by the edge of the water, far from where I was standing on the bridge, I could see some of them, clumped together, staring at the factory from the water. They looked slick as oil, like if you wrung one by the neck you’d get black ink all over your hands. They were floating in brackish water, where the river spills into the ocean. But do shags live in places like that? Are they ocean birds? River birds? I wiped the sweat from my forehead.
It was almost evening. After stopping at several sites along the way, the orientation hike—a training and networking event for new hires—was wrapping up for the day. We were close to the factory’s south side now, on a large bridge that stretches over the river separating the north and south zones. The bridge has two lanes of car traffic flanked by wide footpaths. In the time it took our group to cross the bridge, we saw at least five buses, three excavators with their shovels tucked downward like the heads of sleeping giraffes, one concrete mixer, five vehicles loaded with some kind of heavy equipment, and too many cars to count. Maybe half of them were company cars. They were gray, with the factory logo on the side. There were a few jeeps, too. “This bridge feels sturdy, doesn’t it? Even with this wind, and all the buses, it doesn’t even wobble,” said the young man walking next to me, a gifted soul with a knack for communication, hired by the factory straight out of school, which is no easy feat, to be sure. He was refreshingly self-assured, and when I was quiet for too long he’d try to make conversation. Still, he was more interested in the group to his other side, two men and three women, among whom he had already established himself as the leader of the pack. And what a leader he was, refusing to let the silent, brooding types peel away from the group. Can’t blame him for trying. I wonder if he knows I’m ten years older than he is. I was late to join the workforce. But I don’t look my age—probably because I’ve never had to live through the horrors of job-hunting. I’m well aware of how young I look, but I still can’t believe I’m here, walking around with these kids as if I were one of them. It was never something I wanted. Even now, it feels like someone’s playing a trick on me. But why? Who could possibly benefit from that? I kept on walking anyway. “You’re from around here, aren’t you? Any places you’d recommend? We were thinking about going out after the hike. You’re welcome to join us, by the way.” I guess that means he’s not from around here. The finest applicants from all across Japan are dying to work at this factory. I never saw the appeal. Maybe the factory is generous with funding? Granted, a top-tier corporation would be much better funded than some provincial university, but what difference does it make if you can’t do what you want? “Actually, my university’s closer to the mountains. It’s not around the factory. And, I’m sorry to say, I have plans tonight.” I really did. Some guys from school, the elite few who’d managed to land jobs in the area, were throwing me a party.
“Look at you, Furufue. From researcher to corporate scientist, just like that. Looks like you hit the jackpot,” they said, acting like I’d won some sort of huge victory by getting this job. They thought I was lucky, but I didn’t see it that way. This whole situation was nothing but a pain. Honestly, I would’ve rather continued my research at the university. “Taxonomy isn’t exactly a growing field, you know. Genetics, now that’s another story. But what do you do? You classify moss. That just makes you weird. Following a path this narrow doesn’t leave you with many options. No one wants you to get stuck down some dead-end path. I know I don’t. Your parents can’t look after you forever, can they? Your dad may have some influence, but there’s no guarantee that something’s going to open for you at the school, no matter how long you hang around. Things just don’t work that way.” Out of nowhere, my advisor came and asked me if I’d like to get something to eat in the cafeteria. It was ten in the morning and I’d just arrived at the lab. It was too late for breakfast, but too early for lunch. I had to order something, so I went with a bowl of miso soup—the one with no pork—and paid my thirty yen. I walked over to the tea dispenser, poured two cups of hojicha tea, then carried them over to our table. My advisor was already sitting. In front of him was a giant slab of tonkatsu, stir-fried miso-seasoned eggplant and pork liver, an extra-large helping of rice, natto, and seven umeboshi from the condiment island. “Did I tell you about my diet? I’ve been skipping lunch. I stick to two meals a day, no carbs at night. I lost over twenty pounds in the past six months.” Recently, any time he’s had something to drink, or something sweet to eat, in fact, any time he’s put anything in his mouth, he’s given the exact same speech. Everyone in the lab, myself included, had already committed the whole routine to memory. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen him eat rice or noodles at night, but I’d seen him knock back more than a few carb-heavy beers, and he never turned down fried food. Look at him—eating that many umeboshi is too much salt for anyone. As he poured most of his stir-fry over his rice and started digging in, he told me about the factory job. “The offer came through the placement office. They need a bryologist. The office asked me if anybody came to mind and I gave them your name.” Shoveling the stir-fry and rice into his mouth and slurping it down, he got back up to put some thousand island dressing on the shredded cabbage that came with his tonkatsu. I was lost. A bryologist? My advisor returned to his seat and resumed eating. “It’s not a bad gig, this job. You should really think about it.” “Does the factory have some particular interest in moss?” “No clue. They mentioned something about green roofing, though. You should go over to the placement office and see what the description says.” He took the cabbage on his plate, pink with dressing, spackled it over his rice, then crammed it into his mouth. Setting his chopsticks down for a moment, he stuck an umeboshi in his mouth, sucked off the flesh, cracked the stone with his molars, and tongued free the innermost kernel before spitting it back onto his plate. “Green roofing? They should ask a specialist. These days, all you need to do is lay down some sheet, then add water . . .” I took a look at my soup, all the ingredients had settled on the bottom. I didn’t bother eating any. Then I watched my advisor cover his natto in mustard, pour some soy sauce on top, and dump the whole thing over the last of his rice. I remembered him saying another time how much he loved the taste of natto with mayonnaise. I bet the only reason he was holding back now was because the cafeteria charges ten yen per packet. Diet? What bullshit. “I don’t know what to tell you, Furufue. This is a job in the factory—we’re talking big leagues here. What more do you need to know?” he asked, thick strings of natto webbing his mouth. I had a rough idea where the factory was. I knew some of their products, too. I’d even used a few. But why would they need me? It didn’t make sense. “To be honest, I’m not sure I’m ready to leave the program. Isn’t there anyone else?” “No,” he shot back, using his chopsticks to slice through his natto. “Furufue, buddy. The factory went out of their way to ask our university for someone. If we recommend the wrong person, it’ll negatively impact our placements in the future. We need to give them our best and brightest. That’s why it has to be you. Besides, they’re asking for a bryologist . . .” He poured some tea into his bowl, started stirring with his chopsticks, brought it to his mouth, and washed down the natto stuck between his teeth. He inhaled another umeboshi while I thought of at least two talented researchers above me who were more deserving of this post. It’s not like I thought I wasn’t a good enough candidate, but they were older and more qualified. I couldn’t think of one good reason why I should get this job instead of them. I was about to say as much, too, but my advisor spoke first. “Just consider it. Think about how happy it’ll make your folks.” And that was the end of that.
My parents really were overjoyed. Here I’d thought they were perfectly content with my decision to devote myself to research, even if it meant I couldn’t make much money. Apparently, I was wrong: “A man’s mission in life is to make his own way in the world.” It didn’t seem like much of a mission to me, but my father issued that decree over the dinner table while my mother used her napkin to wipe away the tears of joy. The next day, the three of us went suit shopping. “It doesn’t matter if you’re over thirty, you’re just getting started. But you don’t want to make the wrong impression by wearing something too nice.” The suits my father picked out were apparently just right. “You actually look pretty good in a suit,” he said. I thought we were going to get a single suit for the interview and leave it at that, but my father, full of pride now that his son was finally going to work, grabbed ten neckties and shirts, a couple of gray suits, one in navy, and another in black that I could wear to formal events—meanwhile, my mother tracked down ten pairs of socks and ten handkerchiefs. “Don’t touch the summer wear until you’re hired. This should do it for now. You’re lucky, you know. Most interviewees have to do this shopping in the worst heat, over the summer of their third year. Okay, let’s get you some shoes . . .”
My dad looked at the white-haired clerk and told him to hold onto my measurements. At the shoe shop, we bought two pairs while my dad said, “Let’s admit it. You’re an introvert. You’re no good with people. I figured you’d never voluntarily work as part of a team, but this is a real stroke of luck. You better thank your advisor. The factory, too. Be grateful! Now listen, if anything goes wrong, I want you to come straight to me. Don’t complain to your co-workers, okay? If anything’s off, you talk to me. We’ll sort it out. Just don’t try to do anything on your own. Most of all, remember to be thankful.” Thankful for what?
“Hello, everybody. We’re thrilled to have you out here, joining us on this beautiful day. This is our tenth year running the hike. We offer this event to give you guys a chance to learn a little about the factory and your fellow new hires. My name is Goto, from the PR department, and I’ll be your guide during the hike over the next two days. This is my first year in charge of the hike, but I’ve been with the factory for five years now, which means I’m not much older than the rest of you. So please don’t hesitate to reach out. We have three more members from PR joining us today, helping out with the hike. Can I ask you to introduce yourselves?” Two young men and a woman bowed in near-perfect unison, smiles on their faces. “Hello, I’m Sakurai. This is my third year with the factory. It’s nice to meet you.” “I’m Ichihashi. It’s my third year, too.” “I’m Izumi Aoyama, originally from Hokkaido. This is my second year. Nice to meet you.” Goto bowed back at them, then took over again. “There are fifty of us walking today, so we’re going to go ahead and take attendance before we get moving. The order’s a bit strange, based on when you applied for the hike and your department, so listen carefully. Be sure you raise your hand when you hear your name. Once you do, I want you to line up over here, in front of Aoyama-san. Okay, here we go. Furufue-san, Yoshio Furufue.” What? Why me? “He—here,” I said, my voice louder than I’d intended. Nonplussed, I cut through the crowd and stood in front of Aoyama, who smiled at me and said, “Nice to meet you.” Why was I first? I signed up right before the deadline. Besides, my department, if I even had one, should have been last on the list. The Environmental Improvement Division Office for Green Roof Research didn’t even exist before I was hired. I was the entire department.
I went to HQ for the interview, or what I thought was going to be an interview. At the front desk, they told me where to wait. Inside, there was a conference table with a few chairs around it, but I decided to stand. I didn’t want them to offer me the job. Really, I was better off without it, but I was still tense. Not long after I got there, someone came in and thanked me for coming in. “Did it take you long to get here? I’m Goto, from Public Relations. Nice to meet you,” he said, holding out a business card and bowing. I had no card to offer in return, obviously, so I just bowed and introduced myself. “Okay, let’s get right to it,” he said, “You’ll start on the first of April. In the three months between now and then, what we’d like from you is a list of necessary materials. Let us know as soon as you can . . .” What was he saying? “I’m terribly sorry, but I was under the impression I was here for an interview . . .” Goto’s face was completely blank. “This isn’t an interview. No one told me it was an interview. Besides, I’m not in charge of personnel. We’re meeting today to discuss your responsibilities from April onward, and to make sure we have everything you’ll need. I’m sure you’ll need microscopes and things like that, won’t you? We’re going to need a list. Makes, models, part numbers, anything you can give us.” Microscopes? “Will I be working with microscopes? I thought you needed an expert in bryology, to help you with green roofing.” What was I saying? I was just a researcher. I wasn’t an expert in anything, not yet. “That’s right, green roofing. We have a few different organizations taking care of our trees, flowers, roads, and streetlights. Green roofing has been a real blind spot, though, and that’s why HQ finally decided to step in and deal with it on their own.” “They made a new department?” “Correct. And when the factory decided moss would be the best way to go, we sent a call to your university,” he said, blushing through a smile. I tried to piece together what I wanted to say. “When it comes to green roofing, you’d be better off asking a specialist. These days, all you need to do is lay down a sheet and add water. The job would be finished in weeks. Well, considering how large the factory is, I suppose it could take a little longer. Anyway, my point is, there are businesses that specialize in that,” I said. “Yes, we understand. As far as that goes, the factory generally frowns upon outsourcing. Almost everything here is handled by us or our subsidiaries. Likewise, as the EI Division Office for Green Roof Research continues to develop, it could become its own subsidiary. We hope you’ll work toward that goal.” Its own subsidiary? “By the way, can I ask where you got your suit? It’s very nice. Is it imported?” I had no idea. “Um, do you mind if I ask a question first? Is this going to be a team project? To be frank, going on without outside help could take a very, very long time. I’m afraid I don’t see the merit in it, either. Forgive me if I’m overstepping, but . . .” “No, yes, I understand. There’s no need to worry about time. Please proceed at your own pace, whatever you think is feasible. There won’t be anyone telling you to finish by a particular date or anything like that.” And that’s okay? Can they really afford to be this relaxed? Don’t they realize how wasteful this is? “While my research has to do with moss, my interest is primarily taxonomical. Green-roofing requires cultivation knowledge. Will other bryologists be joining the office?” “For the time being, it’s just you,” he said, still smiling, although I thought I detected pity in his eyes. His cheeks were red as ever. “It’s just me?” “That’s correct.” “One person? To get the whole thing going? And why is that?” Unbelievable. I really couldn’t understand what he was saying, it was just too absurd. What idiot dreamt this up? “Well, yes. You see, that’s why we aren’t imposing any hard deadlines. Proceed at whatever pace suits you. We’d like you to begin by collecting samples, moss samples, whatever pops up around the factory, and classifying what you find. In due course, we ask that you work toward greening. At any rate, classification comes first. Do you now see what we have in mind? Oh, here. This is going to be your badge. You’ll need it whenever you enter or exit the factory. As long as you’re on site, we ask that you keep this on you at all times. See how the strap is silver? That gives you access to virtually anywhere on the premises. Needless to say, we don’t want you wandering through the central buildings. When in doubt, be sure to set up an appointment beforehand. Anywhere outside is fine, wherever you need to go to find moss. We’ll laminate the badge soon, but first we’ll need to get your picture. We’ll have this for you on your first day of work, the first of April. Any questions?” “You mean you want me to greenroof the whole factory, on my own, without any real guidance or supervision? Would I go somewhere for training?” “We offer a couple of basic training programs for new hires, one for etiquette and another for phone and email, but you won’t be needing those. For starters, your position doesn’t require much interaction with the outside world. And we have an orientation hike, equal parts training and networking for new hires.” Orientation hike? “I’m sorry, I meant training in terms of cultivating moss, or greenroofing in general.” “Training like that doesn’t really exist. Vocational training tends to be OJT: On the job training. You learn as you go. Individual training is left up to individual sections, if not individual employees, and we’ll sometimes have senior employees partner up with new hires, but there’s really nothing beyond that.” “In that case, how am I supposed to learn about the greenroofing process?” “Well, by utilizing your knowledge of moss. I know how this sounds, but we’ll figure it out as you go.” I just stared at Goto. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. No colleagues, maybe—but no supervisor? Now Goto was smiling even more radiantly than before. “Okay. Any other questions?”
“Okay, everyone. Please take a look at your maps. We’re going to go over today’s route. Right now, we’re here, at the top. This is the north zone. We have our headquarters here, as well as the planning and design departments, which together serve as the main hub for the entire factory. The north gate, right here, is the main entrance to the factory, and this is where we’ll start our hike today. We’ll show you a few buildings on the east side, swing by a couple of shops, then arrive here at the main employee cafeteria for lunch, at around noon. You’re in for a great meal, by the way, the new-hire special . . . Be sure to keep an eye on the time while we walk. If you show up after one o’clock, it’ll mess everything up for the temp workers in charge of cleaning up. Okay? By the way, there are all kinds of other food options around the factory. We have nearly a hundred cafeterias, and a decent number of restaurants, too. If you want, mark your map as we go. To be honest, some places are much better than others. If you want to know about the best places to eat, I refer you to our own Aoyama-san. Ask her anything. Isn’t that right, Aoyama-san? Ehehehehe. Anyway, yes, after we have lunch, we’ll keep heading south, toward the bottom of the map. We’ll finish our day at the bridge, here. The southern area stretches out over the ocean. As you can see, this river divides the factory in two parts: the southwest and the northeast. The bridge that crosses the river, the central bridge, looks much larger in person than it does on the map. When you see it, you’ll be blown away. Once we’re over the bridge, we’ll wrap up for the day. But we won’t abandon you at the bridge, so don’t worry. We’ll get on the bus headed for the south gate, then part ways there. Once you exit the south gate, there’s one bus bound for the station and another that heads into town. Everyone should be able to get home from there. If you’re headed for the dorms, you can just hop on the factory shuttle. Tomorrow morning, we’ll meet up at the south gate. Is that clear? Does anyone have any questions?” No one raised their hands. Looking down at my map, I was overwhelmed. The factory was a world of its own. Only four ways in and out. North, South, East, West. Shouldn’t there be more? Next to the roads on the map were colorful circles—blue, green and orange—and according to the legend in the corner these indicated bus stops: there were several bus lines, running through the factory, all day long. Three giant buildings loomed over the rest: the factory headquarters, the museum, and the main warehouse. The rest of the map was filled with smaller buildings, all roughly the same size, too numerous to count. There were also a few areas marked Residential, and an enormous lot labeled Product Test Site. “Okay then. I’ll start by talking about where we are now, in the north zone. Many people who come to the north zone, including our business partners and visitors, have never been to the factory before, and many of them will never come again. Most high-ranking employees have offices here in the north zone. In that sense, this is a very important sector, where the factory presents itself to the world. Some of you are going to be working here in the north zone, and some of you won’t. Whatever the case, when you’re here, be sure you’re always dressed your best. It’s important that we do everything we can to preserve the factory’s image. Appearance matters.”
In the middle of what I thought was going to be my interview with Goto, I got up to go to the restroom. There was a window right in front of the toilet. It was the sort of window you open by releasing the latch and pushing outward while turning the handle. I felt like I could use a little fresh air. As I went to open it, the sign posted over the faded wallpaper caught my attention: KEEP WINDOW CLOSED IN CASE OF BIRDS. “Okay, what am I supposed to do first?” The first thing they asked me to do was run a moss hunt. “A what?” “A moss hunt. You know—a hunt, for moss.”
I realized it as soon as I opened my eyes. I thought I’d been reading, reading something indecipherable, but I was actually sleeping. As soon as I started feeling tired, I was asleep. Dreaming. I could see shadowy black shapes, even now. I looked around, but I was positive no one saw me. The partitions made sure of that. As long as someone wasn’t looking into my area from directly behind me, there was no way anyone could have seen me. But even if no one had, the whole thing set me on edge. I’d always thought sleeping on the job was a sign of laziness. If you’re feeling tired, you can always stand up, go to the bathroom, rinse your mouth out with water or wash your hands, really scrub them hard. If it’s really bad, you can wash your face or even use a couple of eye drops. That had always done the trick before, not that I usually got tired at work. I almost never did, unless I had to stay up late the night before. That only happened was when I was swamped. My whole life I’d thought that people who drifted off at work were just a bunch of slackers. But here I was. I was that slacker. Only I wasn’t slacking. I’d gone to sleep early the night before. The thing was, the moment I started feeling even remotely tired, that was the end of it, I was gone, but obviously I didn’t notice until I woke up again. When did I fall asleep? How long was I out? I know I’d been reading. Then I was half asleep, then asleep. I must have really passed out. And I thought I had it covered. It was the partitions. Hidden from my coworkers, I let my guard down. I was sweating a little. I had a printout clutched in my hand. The red pen in my other hand had run wild while I slept, leaving jagged lines all over the page. “Crap,” I muttered, then looked around again. But it didn’t seem like Kasumi had noticed. The room was quiet as ever. Irinoi and Glasses were working quietly. Or maybe they were sleeping, too. How would I even know? The makeshift walls between us had ensured a new level of privacy. I looked at the printout again and got back to work.
I’d heard about the crows, the beavers, and the other animals around the factory, but hadn’t seen much of anything myself. Really, I was just happy to have a place to work, a place to go every day. Then again, that relief was not without some sadness. I’d switched jobs, and before I’d even fallen into the rhythm of the new job it was abundantly clear that there would be no need to worry, that it was going to be easy. The work was no big deal. Once that sank in, I realized: I’m a temp worker. Until recently, very recently, I’d been a systems engineer for a small company, when, out of nowhere, everything changed. “Fired?” “Sorry to say it, but yes.” If my girlfriend hadn’t been working as a coordinator for a temp agency, I’d be out of work right now. Unemployed at thirty, going on thirty-one. Instead I’m doing this work that literally anyone could do, as if nothing I’d ever done in my life even mattered. But how could I complain? Having work beats not having work. That goes without saying. Unemployment is hell. Temp work, though? Thanks to my girlfriend, I landed a place in the factory’s Document Division, proofreading printouts by hand. My life had always revolved around computers, and now I wasn’t even using one.
“We already have one temp in the office, and they asked us for one more. It’ll be the perfect fit for you! I’m so glad they weren’t looking for a receptionist or something. Talk about great timing!” I can only imagine how deflated I looked, but my girlfriend was being unreasonably cheerful, tossing her hair back repeatedly. She’d just cut her hair shorter than it’d been in years, and it seemed like she was really enjoying the way it felt against her cheeks and the back of her neck. Tossing her hair around like that made her look like an idiot. But this idiot turned out to be my sole lifeline. “Don’t worry. Just leave it to me.” In the morning, the first thing I’d do is pull one of the packets and grab the paper inside. I’d read it over, looking for errors, making notes as I go. This is the job I was given: “It’s best to go into this assuming everyone makes mistakes. In reality, that’s not how it works. Still, when you find something wrong, leave a note in the margins. Like this. There are marks you’re supposed to use, which are all in this handbook. Look up the right mark, then use that. Except, well, it’s an old system, invented back when we did everything by hand. Feel free to do whatever works for you. You graduated from college, so I’m sure your Japanese is in good shape.” My first day on the job, the middle-aged man in charge of the department showed me to my empty desk—no computer, nothing. Depressing. He handed me a gray sleeve protector, a Japanese dictionary, an English-Japanese dictionary, a character dictionary, and the proofreader’s handbook. After he’d shown me around most of the floor, the man said, “If there’s anything else you want to know, you can ask anyone here.” Then he ran off. By anyone here, he meant the three other proofreaders. All temps, but only one from my girlfriend’s agency. The other two came from somewhere else. The man left without bothering to introduce us, so I took matters into my own hands. “Hello,” I said. The women from the other agency just looked at me, but the one from my girlfriend’s agency, Kasumi (I could see KASUMI written in all caps on the ID hanging around her neck), said hello back, bowing slightly. “You’re the coordinator’s boyfriend, aren’t you? That’s what I heard,” she whispered. She smelled like peaches. Her lips were glistening and she had kind wrinkles under her eyes. Was she older than she looked? “Good for you. She’s a real catch,” she said, still whispering, but I could tell the other women were listening to every single word, grinning at each other. “Sorry? No, it’s not like that. Did she say that?” “Uh-huh.” Gossip already. Why did my girlfriend tell her about us? Doesn’t she know how that looks? They’re going to see me as someone who relies on his girlfriend for work. I know she’s a permanent employee for a well-known agency, but she’s really not that bright. To be honest, all she does is assign temps to posts, which is hardly a skilled profession.
“Okay, let’s go over what you’ll be doing. First, grab one of the packets over here, whichever one you like. You’re going to be checking what’s inside. If you need more pens or Post-its, you can find them on the shelf right there.” Kasumi then showed me the contents of the packet she had opened on her own desk. It was a side-stitched book and a stack of maybe thirty sheets of A3 paper. There were other packets, lots of them, exactly like this one, filed in a cabinet that stood as high as my chest. On the front of each packet was a date and some kind of code, a combination of letters and numbers. Next to that was a space for the supervisor to sign or stamp. I grabbed a handful of packets to take a look. As far as I could tell, they weren’t in any particular order. Some had today’s date while others were from ten years ago. The names in the supervisor box were all new to me. None had been signed by the middle-aged man or Kasumi. Just like Kasumi said, our job was to take whatever we found in the packets—documents of various types and formats—and proof them. In some files, there were additional materials, like manuscripts or newspaper articles. If that was the case, we were supposed to check the document against them for accuracy. When there was nothing else inside, just the one document, we were supposed to use our dictionaries, consult the proofing manual, and correct the Japanese accordingly. “Then, when you’re finished with everything in the packet, you shelve it over there. Once a day, these files are collected.” “So we don’t have to sign them or anything?” “Sign them?” “You know, to prove you checked it.” “Haha, that won’t be necessary, no,” Kasumi said, waving her hand in front of her face like the thought had never crossed her mind. “Ushiyama-san, you’re pretty serious, aren’t you?” Now she smelled like pineapple candy. She spoke quietly, like before, but the other two women were definitely listening. I could feel them looking at us, then at each other, smirking. One was middle-aged with a brownish perm, the other was younger with blue glasses. I wouldn’t call them ugly, but they weren’t exactly memorable. Their attitudes weren’t that great, either. Kasumi was a little on the heavy side, but she was, without a doubt, the most likeable of the three. She almost looked like a preschool teacher. It was good we were from the same agency. I remembered my girlfriend saying Kasumi was like an aunt. That crossed a line, though. It’s not about your age, but your mental state, and Kasumi felt more like an older sister than an aunt. “If you don’t put your name on it, how do they keep track of who’s responsible for what? What if you made some huge mistake?” Why shouldn’t I take this seriously? I don’t want to make mistakes. I don’t want to cause any problems. What’s wrong with that? Kasumi grinned, saying, “You won’t make any mistakes. You can’t.” “What do you mean?” “You’ll see. We proof everything and leave notes, right? So, you do that, send it out, wait a while, and eventually the same thing comes back. Another version of the same document. Sometimes, though, it’s even worse than before. It just makes you ask yourself, what have I been doing? Someone somewhere is probably doing something with our edits, but we don’t even know who it is. Once in a while, you’ll fill a whole page with red marks, but it’s not like you’re really changing the content or anything. You’ll see what I mean. Sometimes you find a typo, a misspelling, or an unindented paragraph. Nothing you’ll find is all that major to begin with, so if you miss something, it’s no big deal.” “You still need to correct everything, though,” said the temp with the perm, looking right at us. We’d been speaking so quietly that I couldn’t believe she’d heard what we’d said, “You don’t have to sign anything. If anything happens, though, it’s everyone’s fault, so don’t screw up.” Kasumi nodded, then turned to me. “Like that, okay? If anything comes up, you can use the phone over there to call the manager. Want some?” She held out a couple pieces of red candy with twisted wrappers. The color matched her nails perfectly. I said thanks, took one, unwrapped it, and popped it in my mouth. I bit into the hard shell and soft chocolate filled my mouth. It was time to start, so I grabbed a packet and pulled out what was inside.
Goodbye to All Your Problems and Mine: A Guide to Mental Health Care. It was a thin B4-size booklet. Beneath its excremental title was a drawing of two smiling gyoza dumplings, basking under a rainbow. On the next sheet was a two-page spread with wide margins, presumably to give us space to provide feedback. The cover looked okay, so I moved on to the table of contents. What the hell was this? From the second chapter onward, every chapter was listed as starting on page seventeen. The leader dots running between the chapter titles and page numbers were a mess, too. I drew in a diagonal red line, then wrote in the correct numbers. As long as you gave them a decent explanation, it was the sort of job even a middle-schooler could handle. Isn’t there something else I could be doing? Something a little more up my alley? I mean, these days, you really have to go out of your way to find a job that has nothing to do with computers. In this economy, it’s unbelievable that the factory was still willing to add new proofreaders to their payroll, even as temps. Anyway, even if it wasn’t a perfect fit, I had to count my blessings. It wasn’t even physical labor—and it was a whole lot easier than working at some convenience store. I should probably be grateful that I can take home 150,000 yen a month doing this. Still, the second the economy turns around, I’ll find something else. I’d thought about asking my girlfriend to find me something where I could use my expertise, but it’d just be another temp job anyway. Why bother? I’d rather be fully employed. Obviously. I wanted to get married at some point. I had my sister to think about, too. She had her contract job, but who knows how long that can last?
Hiroko Oyamada’s debut novella follows the lives of three employees working at a factory in an unnamed city. While their paths intersect at moments, each remains largely detached from the others, living in a world of his or her own making.
The same is true of the sentences that make up the novella. They have a way of not connecting; for the most part, they barely touch. As a result, translating The Factory required self-control. I had to resist the temptation to fill in the blanks. In my mind, it was critical not to spell things out too clearly.
Reading The Factory involves its own form of labor. This is part of what makes the novella enjoyable.
Each worker holds a different position at the factory, but none is really comfortable with his or her role. None of them understands what it is that they’re supposed to be doing. More to the point, they don’t understand what the factory itself does. As one of the workers puts it:
“What the hell is the factory? What’s it making? I thought I knew before, but once I started working here I realized that I had no idea.”
It was this sense of disconnect that drove Oyamada to write The Factory in the first place. She was working at a large automobile factory when she started writing. She explains:
“I could see that most employees were more or less happy. They didn’t find their jobs the least bit strange, but it wasn’t like that for me. Not long after I started, I had to ask myself what I was doing and why. I wasn’t sure what I was being paid to do… The work itself was easy enough. A lot of the time, there wasn’t anything for me to do. Sometimes I’d put in a full day without doing anything that might count as real work. On those days, I tried my best to keep busy. I’d either do some cleaning or ask other employees if they had anything I could do. One day, when I truly had nothing to do, I got on a computer and opened a new file, acting as if I was writing something related to my job. In reality, what I was writing was completely unrelated to the factory.”
What Oyamada started at the factory ultimately became this novella — a factory of her own making.
Partial assembly required.