The plight of a female office worker.
Fear and Trembling – Amélie Nothomb
The business environment in Japan is decidedly male dominated. Unlike many western countries gender stereotypes in the country still tend to dictate that a woman’s place is within the home. Given this, many women who work in office will do so temporarily, as more of a stop gap before marriage rather than a proper career. A quick internet search will bring up multiple accounts of Japanese women having graduated from top universities merely to end up serving refreshments in a male dominated office. Such is the challenge faced Amélie Nothomb’s main character, also named Amélie, in her hard hitting novel Fear and Trembling.
Amelie is an interesting character, having been born in Japan she moved to Europe with her family at a young age and was raised and educated in Belgium. Fear and Trembling introduces the reader to Amélie at the beginning of her working life, having just finished university she returns to her place of birth to pursue a career which she hopes will begin the offices of the Yumimoto Corporation.
A quick look into the past of Amélie Nothomb enlightens the reader to the fact she is the same Amélie whose story Fear and Trembling tells. Nothomb is Belgian by nationality, was born in Japan, speaks fluent Japanese and returned to Japan following her degree to work as an interpreter in a large Japanese company. In an interview with Paris-Match in 1999, Nothomb was recorded to have said ‘I invented nothing! …I just changed the names. It all happened to me as described.’ Nothomb presents the reader with a no nonsense semi-autobiographical satire on the plights of both the female employee and the westerner working in a Japanese office. Nothomb is critical of the Japanese corporate lifestyle, describing with great detail the soul destroying nature of life as a white collar worker in Japan.
Amélie struggles significantly, being very much stamped down by her superiors. To begin with Amélie is very naive and believes she has a good relationship with her superior Fubuki Mori. She becomes slightly infatuated with Fubuki, whose name translates as snowstorm, leading Amélie to romantically fantasise about Fubuki being born in a snowstorm. Amélie’s difficulties arise when she attempts to climb the ladder too soon, much to Fubuki’s disgust. Amélie makes the mistake of writing an article for Mr Tenshi, head of the dairy products division of Yumimoto. Fubuki responds by reporting the act to Mr Omochi, presenting both Amélie and Mr Tenshi as traitors, and ultimately ruining any chance Amélie has at being promoted. Mr Tenshi explains Fubuki’s reasoning to Amélie:
‘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… All I can say is that she suffered greatly during the first few years she was here.’
This is then further drummed in by Fubuki herself:
‘I’m twenty-nine years old. You’re twenty-two. I’ve been in this position since last year. I fought for it for years. Did you think that you were going to get a comparable job within a matter of weeks?’
This whole exchange highlights the struggles that women face when coming into a male dominated workplace. Fubuki struggled for years to become recognised in the workplace, and because of this she makes sure that Amélie suffers the same fate.
Trust is of key importance in the Japanese corporate culture, and, in fitting with the vile time had by Amélie at the hands of her superiors, there is little to no trust given to her; due to her constant blunders Amélie well and truly loses all trust within the workplace. Following on from failing her tasks of filing and accounting the policy held by her superiors is ‘something along the lines of: “don’t let her do anything anymore.”‘ In the case of Amélie, her superiors do not trust her, and this is largely due to the fact that Fubuki continually gives her tasks that she knows she cannot complete. Amélie more than proved herself as capable when she wrote a report on fat reduced butter; however, Fubuki gives her tasks in accounting that she knows are beyond Amélie’s capabilities. This seems to be largely due to Fubuki’s resentment once again at having struggled for her position for so long. As another female in the office Fubuki is threatened by Amélie, and as such wants to make her life difficult. She does this at least partly by ensuring that Amélie loses all trust.
Amélie resists the urge to leave the Yumimoto Corporation although aware it would be the most logical thing for her to do, while this may seems puzzling to a reader, it is summed up rather eloquently by Amelie when she describes the Japanese trait of maintaining ‘face’ despite everything:
‘To western eyes, there would have been nothing ignominious to this; to Japanese eyes, it meant losing face… leaving after so short a time would have brought disgrace on me – in their eyes as well as in my own.’
When it comes to other members of the Yumimoto Corporation, the only person the reader is aware of ‘losing face’ is Fubuki – a situation Amélie herself compares to witnessing a rape . Comparing the loss of face with rape in this way highlights the plight of the career woman in a male dominated office; Nothomb further accentuates this point, comparing Fubuki’s pleas of ‘Don’t be angry’ to that of a slaughtered gazelle beneath a lion.
Staying late in the office to complete a deadline is very common amongst white collar workers in Japan. However it is presented in a very different light within Fear and Trembling; Amélie stays for days in the office in an attempt to finish the work Fubuki has set her:
‘Three days before the end of the month, I announced my decision not to go home in the evenings. “With your permission, I will spend the night here, at my desk.”…I got her permission without difficulty. It was not unusual for employees to stay at the office all night when deadlines were looming.’
This brings me nicely onto my next point, throughout the novel Nothomb highlights the susceptibility of Japanese white collar workers to nervous breakdowns. This is never more evident than at the time Amélie stays late. Alone in the office and having not slept properly for days Amélie ends up throwing caution to the wind, and strips naked before jumping from desk to desk and finally holding Fubuki’s computer to her naked body. Although not every office worker who suffers from workplace stress in Japan would necessarily behave in the way Amélie did, Nothombs tale nonetheless highlights the extreme pressure under which many Japanese office workers are put. In her own thoughts main character Amélie describes accountants as ‘victims sacrificed on the altar of a divinity wholly bereft of either greatness or mystery.’
Nearing the end of the novel Amélie has clearly become totally disillusioned by the corporate lifestyle; having been driven mad by the accounting tasks assigned to her by Fubuki, and ridiculed to the greatest extent possible, in her demotion to rest room attendant the reader is made more and more aware of Amélie’s thoughts while she stares out of the bay window in the woman’s restroom on the forty-forth floor. In the text Amélie makes it clear she will not divulge information about her private life, however, she speaks constantly of the time she spent gazing out of the ladies restroom window:
‘I spent hours standing before it, pressing my forehead against the glass, imagining again and again throwing myself into the view, letting the feeling permeate my body until I was giddy’
It is almost as if Amélie uses this as a method of escaping the office, imagining herself falling, plummeting through the Tokyo skyline. As if while staring out of the window she could completely forget all that was going on around her, and become absorbed by the view until she was giddy and work did not matter anymore.
Fear and Trembling ends with Amélie resignation from the Yumimoto Corporation to pursue life as a novelist. When tendering her resignation to Fubuki, Amélie declares that ‘Ancient Japanese protocol stipulated that the emperor be addressed with “fear and trembling”… so I put on the mask of terror and started to tremble. I looked into Fubuki’s eyes.’ The only person who shows any sort of humanity towards Amélie when she is resigning is the man Amélie refers to as ‘God’ – Mr Haneda, the president of the Yumimoto Corporation. Presumably because he has worked his way up the corporate ladder to the highest position in the company he understands the plights of those starting out at the bottom. Mr. Haneda is honest with Amélie, not allowing her to take the blame for her resignation:
‘You have been unlucky. You came at the wrong moment. You’re right to leave, but please remember that if someday you change your mind, you would be most welcome to return.’
Amélie leaves the corporation knowing that the business woman lifestyle is not for her, that she does not want to deal with the routine stresses of day in day out office life and working through promotions no one will congratulate her on. Upon leaving Yumimoto Amélie tells the reader that she started to write a novel, which was subsequently published a year later. The novel ends with Amélie informing the reader of a letter she received from Fubuki prior to the publishing of her first novel, saying simply ‘congratulations’. Nothomb describes the letter as bringing Amélie ‘Great happiness’. The reader is aware throughout the novel of Amélie’s respect for Fubuki, and her sadness that they could not be friends. Nothomb describes in great detail throughout the novel the struggles of the female office worker, in both Fubuki and Amélie, and the fact that their lives crossed in such a way that they could not be friends. The corporate lifestyle of a female office worker is too competitive, there is too much to fight for, too much at stake. The fact that Amélie received a letter congratulating her on her success as a novelist brought her great happiness because she respected Fubuki, seeing and understanding from a westerner’s perspective the reasons that Fubuki and she had the relationship that they did. A sign that Fubuki was happy that she had achieved something would naturally be something that Amélie held close to her heart. It is as though Fubuki was able to congratulate Amélie, because they were no longer on the same path.
Overall I really enjoyed reading Fear and Trembling. Amélie’s somewhat tragic story highlights the challenges faced by women, as well as westerners, coming into the Japanese world of work as a minority. I have no doubt that the empathetic reader will feel sympathy towards Amélie’s situation. Despite her best efforts, Amélie was completely unable to fit in with her colleagues. However, this in itself may be seen as a blessing in disguise as Amelie was able to find her place in life elsewhere.