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January 7, 2009

Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling is the imposing, almost Biblical title of a small novel (originally published in 1999) in which Amélie Nothomb describes the experiences of a young Belgian woman who works for a year in a large Japanese office in Tokyo. The protagonist, who is also called Amélie, is a well-intentioned and eager person, who was originally born in Japan - like the author, who is the daughter of a former Belgian ambassador to Japan. Working at the giant (fictional) Yumimoto Corporation, which seems to manufacture, import and export just about everything, on the 44th floor of a skyscraper, is a dream come true for her. Because she speaks Japanese, Amélie looks forward to an opportunity to use her language skills. Until cultures start clashing.

This is the 8th novel in a large oeuvre and not a documentary. So what follows is fiction and often caricature, and should not be taken too literally. All the same, there is insight and truth in the book as well, and some descriptions though seemingly exaggerated, are not far from the reality of Japanese corporate life as it was in the early nineties (the book is situated in 1990) - especially when you are a woman and a foreigner on top of that.

The strict corporate hierarchy is still firmly in existence, though - and that is the main cultural theme of the book. "Fear and Trembling" is the attitude with which to approach your superior in such a highly hierarchical society. At the start of the book, Amélie puts it like this:
"Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one."
Amélie, too, has to observe the intricate, rigorous codes that govern corporate life and especially the relations between employees and their superiors in Japan and from the first day she stumbles. It already starts when she first admires the view over Tokyo from a high window instead of immediately announcing herself at the reception desk.

Also typical for Japanese companies, certainly up to the nineties (and depending on the company, even today) is the fact that she does not have a job description. Nobody tells her what her responsibilities are. Initially, she has nothing to do. So, eager to find a role, Amélie begins to distribute the mail... only to find she is usurping the job of the mailman. Indeed, in Japan you can fill your formless job to a certain extent with own initiatives, but you should in all cases consult your boss... beforehand.

She next starts updating every calendar in the office but is told to stop because it is a distraction. As a punishment Mr Saito (the boss of her boss) fills her time with useless and even sadistic assignments. She has to write a certain letter on his behalf, but he tears up every new draft without even looking at it. Next she has to photocopy the thousand page rulebook of his golf club, a truly Sisyphean task, but he discards every new version (to the detriment of Japan's forests) as the text is not absolutely parallel to the edge of the page. He even forbids her to use the automatic feeder.
Where's the problem?" He smiled. "You didn't have enough to do as it was.
Another funny episode is where she has to serve tea when Mr Omochi (the boss of the boss of the boss) has important guests. She thinks she does it to perfection, uttering the correct phrases in polite Japanese. But she ends up making both Mr Omochi and Mr Saito furious:
"How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understood their language? From now on you will no longer speak Japanese."
But the main theme of this novel are not the cultural clashes. It is the relation between Amélie and her immediate superior, another woman. When Amélie first arrives at Yumimoto, she is fascinated by Miss Mori, whom she initially regards as a friend and protector. Miss Mori  also is an immaculate beauty:
She was ravishingly svelte and graceful despite the stiffness to which she, like all Japanese women, had to sacrifice herself. But what transfixed me was the splendor of her face. [...] She had the most beautiful nose in the world, a Japanese nose, an inimitable nose, whose delicate nostrils would be recognized among a thousand others.
Miss Mori is the highest female in the company. Relations with her quickly go awry, however, especially after Amélie takes on an assignment from the manager of another division, Mr Tenshi. She is asked to write a marketing report about low-fat butter in Belgium and does it to the perfect satisfaction of Mr Tenshi and herself. It is the only meaningful task she has in a whole year of working at Yumimoto, although it was a job above her status. But Mr Omochi is livid and accuses her of sabotaging the company. He is explodes even louder after she, a Westerner and - the hight of injury - individualist, dares talk back to him.
The content was incredibly insulting. [...] I would have been capable of anything to stop the hideous screaming - invade Manchuria, persecute millions of Chinese, commit suicide for the Emperor, hurl my plane into an American battleship, perhaps even work for two Yumimoto Corporations.
But the most shocking thing is that she has been denounced to Mr Omochi by the beautiful Ms Mori, whom she so admired. As Mr Tenshi puts it:
"Miss Mori struggled for years to get the job she has now. She probably found it unbearable for you to get that sort of promotion after being with the company only ten weeks."
By the way, this is something I have observed myself in Japanese surroundings: you sometimes come across small-minded superiors who refuse to give their staff any meaningful work until they prove their loyalty by just sitting at their desk for a number of years. Much human and other capital is wasted in this way. Another thing I have noticed in certain Japanese work environments is that office politics play such a large role - much more than in Holland. Perhaps that is because of the hierarchy and the fact that there is little mobility. This can lead to bitter competition between colleagues, envy, and suspicion. Japanese employees are also quick to build factions.

Amélie tries to talk it out with Miss Mori, but as Miss Mori only asks for an apology which Amélie of course refuses, their relations are on a downward slope from this moment on. Things collapse completely when Amélie makes another "well-intentioned" blunder. At a certain moment it is Miss Mori's turn to get the dressing down of the century from Mr Omochi. All colleagues can hear the terrible shouting of The Obese One and the small whimpering voice of Miss Mori imploring the boss of her boss not to be angry with her. Afterward, Amélie follows Miss Mori to the toilet room, to console her... where she catches her crying. Miss Mori almost kills her, because she has been seen in her moment of weakness and shame.

The story then seems to turn into caricature as Miss Mori puts Amélie through a terrible series of torments and degradations. Amélie herself makes mistakes too - she can't handle numbers and botches a simple accounting task. She thinks that the German abbreviation GmbH (Co., Ltd.) is the name of a company... this is all part of the slapstick.

Any normal person would have quit, but Amélie stays on... she wants to sit out her year, she thinks it is a shame to quit... but above all, although it is nowhere said in so many words, she wants to stay close to the beautful Miss Mori.  Amélie firmly settles in a sadomasochistic relation with her boss:

Eventually she literally gets the lowest position possible: she is assigned to clean the toilets and she spends the last months of her life at Yumimoto changing paper in the loo.

Again it should be emphasized: this is a novel, a work of fiction. It is not a true account of the circumstances in a Japanese company, although some facets are true, as the strict hierarchy, the lack of job description, and the prevalence of office politics. But the main theme is not only Japan, it is just as much the sadomasochistic relation of Amélie and Miss Mori.

As such, it is a perfect little jewel, written in a sparse but concentrated language in which not a word could be changed - in the best tradition of the French novel.
Fear and Trembling was filmed by Alain Corneau with Sylvie Testud as Amélie and Tsuji Kaori as Miss Mori.