Occasionally I discover a writer I wish I could have included in my anthology, such as Belgian Amelie Nothomb. I just finished reading her darkly comic autobiographical novel Fear and Trembling, about a young Western woman who spends a year working in the accounting department of a large Japanese corporation. Early on, Amelie makes the mistake of showing initiative and is severely dressed down by her superior. I felt less bad about all those novels I read at my desk when I had no work to do.
The novel is less about being a foreigner in Japan than the relationship between Amelie and her beautiful but cold supervisor, Miss Fubuki Mori. However, Amelie scatters observations about the country throughout the 136 pages of the book. For example:
“Everyone knows that Japan has the highest suicide rate of any country in the world. What surprised me was that suicides were not more common.
“What awaited these poor number-crunchers outside The Company? The obligatory beer with colleagues undergoing the same kind of gradual lobotomy, hours spent stuffed into an overcrowded subway, a dozing wife, exhausted children, sleep that sucked them down into it like the vortex of a flushing toilet, the occasional day off they never too full advantage of. Nothing that deserved to be called a life.
“The worst part of it all was that they were considered lucky.”
This passage doesn’t strike me as particularly original. In fact, most of the Westerners I know in Japan have voiced similar opinions. I’m always going around saying that Japan is a stressful country and that Japanese people don’t know what it means to be happy, but maybe we’re all wrong. This book was first published in France seven years ago. Since then, women in this country have been delaying marriage (there’s no more talk of Christmas cakes), birth rates have declined, and the divorce rate has increased. I’d like to think that this indicates Japanese women, at least, are choosing happiness.