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The Absurd World of Hiroko Oyamada

Hiroko Oyamada (小山田 浩子) is one of the boldest writers of her generation and arguably Japan’s most psychologically powerful contemporary writer.

Her unsettling Kafkaesque portrayal of the banality of life forces the reader to hold a mirror up to their own lives – and ask what holds genuine meaning and purpose for them.

With a touch of fantasy and occasional dark humour, Hiroko Oyamada reveals the identity and purpose-consuming effects of capitalism and gender roles, and the restrictive and meaningless lives these cause.

‘I’m doing this work that literally anyone could do, as if nothing I’d ever done in my life even mattered.’ 

Says an unnamed worked in The Factory who proofreads incomprehensible documents for 8 hours a day.

Her two English-translated novels, The Factory and The Hole, were awarded the Shincho Prize for New Writers and Akutagawa Prize respectively. Through the inescapable and absurd existences of her characters, Hiroko Oyamada’s novels leave genuine real-life resonance.

 

The Factory

The Factory is Hiroko Oyamada’s debut novel (2013), translated into English in 2019. She wrote this 116-pager while working at a car factory, having already worked three jobs in five years post-graduation. The result is a disturbing critique of repetitive capitalist wage labour and the ennui it causes.

Told through three first-person narratives, three employees all work at ‘The Factory’ – a gigantic complex with roads, rivers, coffee shops, barbers, a post-office, and more – which serves as a microcosm of society itself. Yoshiko Ushiyama shreds documents as part of the ‘Shredder Squad’; her brother (unnamed) proofreads documents; and Yoshio Furfue must green-roof for the entire factory with moss – an impossible project without a deadline or supervisor. In fact, he even lives on the premises: something which happened ‘without my input, without my knowledge’, highlighting the engulfing force of the factory. 

Hiroko Oyamada focuses on how the factory affects them, rather than how they affect the factory. Working these meaninglessness jobs erases all individuality and purpose for these people – who are insignificant and replaceable cogs in the factory (the purpose and details of which are, ominously, never explained). Yoshiko comes to realise that:

‘From my second day on the job… I never had to use a single brain cell… I’m not even operating the shredder… I’m only assisting it.’

A deep sense of unease builds as we read of their confined existences in which the line between work and life is indistinguishable.

‘everything feels so disconnected. Me and my work, me and the factory, me and society. There’s always something in the way, something thin as paper. It’s like we’re touching, but we’re not. What am I doing here?’ – Yoshiko

Laced with symbolism, a man called the Forrest Panster roams the factory’s grounds trying to pull people’s pants down. Yes, really. Perhaps he represents internal corporate surveillance or capitalism’s tendency to trip us up. It’s no surprise, then, that by the end of the novel we feel ‘as alienated and unmoored from reality as the characters.

Winner of the Shincho Prize for New Writers, you need to get your hands on Hiroko Oyamada’s masterpiece.

 

The Hole

‘Oyamada skilfully blurs the boundaries between animals, plants, insects and humans.’ – Lucy North (Japanese literature translator).

Hiroko Oyamada picked up Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her surreal novel, The Hole (2014), which was translated into English in 2020. A strange and chilling tale about a 29-year-old married woman, ‘Asa’, who loses her sense of self after she moves from the city to a remote rural town due to her husband’s work relocation.

Formerly a part-time office worker, Asa swaps office gossip and her friendships for unfamiliar Alice-in-Wonderland-type surroundings: oppressive heat, screeching cicadas and strange animals that roam through the woods and long grass. Consequently, she’s anxious and unsure of herself.

Oyamada shows how our identity is moulded by our relationship with others as Asa struggles to deal with new-found free time and lack of companionship. 

‘I lost all sense of time. I didn’t have any appointments or deadlines. The days were slipping through my fingers.’

She’s perplexed when those she meets call her ‘the bride’.

‘No one had ever called me that before. When I was working, people always called me Matsura.’

Asa’s flat observations help create an eerie, tension-filled atmosphere. Her feelings are alienation are heightened further by her husband, who never looks up from his phone when responding to her.

They live next door to his parents; and when tasked with an errand from her mother-in law, Asa decides to follow a peculiar black animal along the riverbank...

‘It seemed like nothing around me was moving. The trees were as still as a photograph, and the windows in all the houses were shut tight. There were no people around. No cars, no dogs, no crows. There wasn’t a single sparrow in the sky. My eyes were tingling from the heat… The cries of the cicadas made the air even stickier.’

She then falls into a hole which ‘felt as though it was exactly my size – a trap made just for me.’

She is later rescued by a neighbour, but it’s here that Asa’s annex from reality reaches its symbolic. Falling into a hole in these surreal surroundings may allegorise daily life as a trap in which all of us inevitability fall – stripping us of our freedom and forcing us into leading the same lives as everyone else.

Asa’s meeting with a hikikomori (modern day hermit) conveys this notion further. He says:

‘families are strange things, aren’t they? You have this couple: one man, one woman… They mate, and why? To leave children behind. And what are the children supposed to do? Turn around and do the whole thing over again? Well, what do you do when what you’ve got isn’t worth carrying on?’.

As well as throwing a critical question mark over traditional gender roles within marriage, Hiroko Oyamada presents a fitting metaphor for a restrictive society This 112-pager is weird, unsettling, borderline-horrific – but more than that, emotionally-punchy – and an unforgettable, immersive read.

 

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