Hiroko Oyamada: 工場 (The Factory)
The eponymous factory is located next to an unnamed city, somewhere in Japan. We will follow the stories of three main characters who start there and seem to be still working there fifteen years later. The first one is Yoshiko Ushiyama. Like the author, she has held various jobs (five). She was a liberal arts major at university, where her research focused on the Japanese language and, specifically, how people communicate. She has come for a job interview at the factory (we never learn the name of the factory/company that owns it). She had applied for a permanent position but is offered a post as a contract employee. She is interviewed by the ubiquitous Mr. Goto who offers her a job in the shredding department. All she has to do is operate a shredding machine. From my second day on the job, barring the occasional jam, I never had to use a single brain cell. She is shown what to do and basically left to her own devices. Indeed, there is initially little communication between the various shredders till the Captain, the person nominally in charge, returns. He had been in hospital. He seems livelier than the others and some of them, Yoshiko included, go out together.
Employee No 2 is Yoshio Furufue. He is an expert on mosses and has been happily working in a research laboratory. When he meets Goto, he assumes he is having a job interview. It turns out that he already has the job. His university has essentially passed him on to the Factory and his boss tells him that the university wants to keep on good terms with the Factory and therefore he has little option. But what is the job? Apparently, they are interested in green-roofing, i.e. having roofs covered in moss. Why? Neither he nor we know. This is not his areas of expertise but he is advised to start by doing a survey of mosses on the site of the Factory (whch is extensive), which he does. he also starts a moss hunt with some of the children and this is a success. He also finds, to his surprise, that he is expected to live on site and he is provided with a house.
We actually meet him on a new staff orientation hike, a tour of the Factory site organised, of course, by Goto.
The third employee joins a bit later and he turns out to be the unnamed brother of Yoshiko Ushiyama. Brother and sister live together, though he has a girlfriend, who works in recruitment and, in fact, got Yoshiko the job. Yoshiko does not like the girlfriend. He had been a systems engineer but had been fired. We do not know why. He is sent to the proofreading unit (by Goto, of course) and given little instruction (like the other two). There are four people, the other three being women. One, Kasumi, assists him, while he does not even know the names of the other two till much later. The proofreaders take packages, which consist of various texts and proofread them. They select random packages, some of which seem very recent but some are ten years old. There is no-one to consult in case of doubt. Kasumi tells him it does not matter. The texts are varied and it is not at all clear what they are for and who is producing and using them.
There are lots of strange things going on. Firstly the Factory seems to be a city of its own, with everything you might expect to find in any Japanese city, except for a cemetery and temple. It has its own environment. The local city is surrounded by mountains. The Factory does not seem to be. It has is own fauna. Indeed, there are three animals which seem to be unique to the Factory. The male Ushiyama has to proofread has to proofread a document about the strange behaviour of these animals and how they are integrated into the environment of the Factory. We encounter them more than once.
What is the Factory? What does it make? We never learn. Goto is head of PR and Printing Services but the printing seems to be for internal use. If they do produce books and other printed material for external use, we do not learn of this. The only external vehicles we see are the TRAN vehicles bringing in the documents to be shredded. Is this an external service or purely internal? If it is on a large scale, why do they not use large mechanical shredders, instead of employing humans to feed a machine?
The jobs of the other wo are also mysterious. After fifteen years Yoshio Furufue seems to have made no headway. There has been some green-roofing but he had nothing to do with it. Indeed, Aoyama, who seems to be Goto’s assistant, tells him that all they really want him to do is organise the annual moss hunt and perhaps do it twice a year. And what is Ushiyama proofreading, for whom and why? And why do they not use computers, which would surely be more efficient?
And who is the Forest Pantser? There is a forest that Furufue is warned not to go in alone because of the Forest Pantser. He is a strange old man who tries to remove the trousers of passers-by, both male and female. Why? We do not know. We do know that he is not dangerous for, as soon as anyone resists, he flees up a tree. Why is he not removed? Because he is not dangerous.
Who is Goto? He seems to do everything. We never meet any other senior manager or even learn of their existence. Goto does everything. We know there is a hierarchy, indicated by the colour of the straps holding their ID cards.
Oyamada’s skill is to show us, essentially, a world, where things, on the surface, seem normal. The employees seem to have fairly normal jobs. They are treated well. Everything works smoothly. However, things are not what they seem. What, in fact, does the Factory produce? What are these jobs for? Why have strange animals developed? Where is the management and what, in fact, are they managing? No answers are given. Maybe the world as a whole is like that, in her view.
First published in 2013 by Shinchosha,
First English translation in 2019 by New Directions
Translated by David Boyd