The great irony of Shion Miura’s The Easy Life In Kamusari is that life, of course, initially appears anything but ‘easy’. For young Yuki Hirano, fresh out of high school and enrolled by his parents in a forestry training program up in a remote rural mountainside village, all of the creature comforts of urban living are light-years away from his new reality. No phone, no internet – his village doesn’t even have a post office.
Originally published in Japan in 2009 as Kamusari Naanaa Nichijo, the book begins as a typical fish out of water narrative, as Yuki is forced to get to grips with both his new job and his new home – can he really cut it amongst both the insular locals and with a job where the slightest slip up could see him crushed by falling timber? What follows is a learning process spelled out in glorious, fully-fleshed-out detail – a book that delights in ‘teaching’ both its protagonist, and by extension the reader, what it is like to work in the lumber industry in rural Japan. In much the same manner as Miura’s 2011 mega-seller The Great Passage – which was adapted into both a film and anime series – and its ruminations on a team of individuals going about the ‘making of’ a dictionary, the pleasure and purpose of The Easy Life In Kamusari is to be found singularly in the ‘process’. We learn about how long trees need to grow before they are turned into timber, what kind of trees are used, how to trim them in the right place to promote growth, how to safely transport the lumber once it’s been cut, and how all this figures in terms of business profitability… the list goes on and on. You could even go so far as to call the book a kind of utilisation of fictional narrative as a linking medium by which to best present a pedagogical presentation of non-fictional subject matter.
In this respect, it stands as a stellar example of the shigoto shosetsu or ‘work novel’ form – something which the most obvious mainstream parallel I can immediately think of in the Anglophone literature market is police procedural novels. Of course, the ‘work’ aspect there is slightly obscured by the nature of the popular whodunnit ‘thriller’ as an immensely successful genre in its own right, but if we drill down into the textual conveyance of the day in day out flow of work, there is much in common. In Japan, the work novel even appears in imaginative cross-genre incarnations such as the science-fiction effort Orbital Cloud.
Plunged into this strange rural world, Yuki swiftly discovers that learning the ropes of his new job only gets him so far. Though the villagers are initially welcoming to Yuki, we are reminded at times of the dark isolationism that comes from remoteness too. The village operates a local radio network that broadcasts announcements reminding the locals to lock up their doors when strange cars pass through. When a young kid disappears, the villagers turn inward, showcasing a bluntness previously unseen by Yuki. As the villagers send out a search party, the womenfolk weep, and Yuki is reminded disconcertingly of soldiers being sent off to war. The natural environment is not without its own hazards too; from forest fires to numerous encounters with creepy crawlies, Yuki’s suffering at the hands of pesky bites from leeches and ticks is conveyed with disgusting gross-out realism.
It’s worth noting here that in Japan, The Easy Life In Kamusari was adapted into a film version in 2014 (where it was given the amazingly pun-tastic title ‘WOOD JOB!’) and indeed, in so many ways the novel feels particularly attuned to the episodic rhythms and set pieces of a sit-com. Your mileage will likely vary in terms of the book’s attempts at humour, but if it succeeds at anything, it’s the continued sense of wide-eyed wonder we experience as a reader seeing the world through young Yuki’s eyes. There is a boyish, hormone-charged novelty to everything – most female characters in the story are introduced primarily in terms of their attractiveness and physical features, to the extent that we might start to wonder if he has something of a one-track mind. This is no Light Novel, but at times it reads like one – full of the kinds of tropes, wisecracks and PG-rated rom-com flavours that will be familiar to fans of anime, manga and popular Japanese TV dramas.
There are also some interesting experiments in translating local rural dialect going on here. This is always a tricky matter in terms of that holy grail of translation ‘staying true to the original’ – go too much one way and the result is invariably everyone sounding like they’ve walked straight out of the deep American South or an olde English farm. Too much the other way and readers complain all sense of subtlety and character are erased in service of a ‘clean’ flavourless text. Thankfully, Juliet Winters Carpenter’s efforts on this front find a good balance that feels distinct, but rarely overpowering.
Though much of the book is light-hearted or slapstick in nature, there’s a more serious side for those willing to look for it – most notably in its approach to forestry and its role in relation to nature as a powerful case study in working toward a more nuanced, clued up kind of environmentalism. Time and time again Yuki’s knee jerk, emotion-led feelings toward the natural environment are overturned by the wisdom of the villagers who have been doing this stuff for years. Early on, he is memorably scolded by his superiors for mourning the cutting of weeds, when to the villagers, this is a fundamental stage in cultivating the landscape. This ‘that’s how it really is’ explicatory aspect is not so much didactic as it is a sobering ode to common sense – decisions ruled by the accumulation of years of lived experience on the part of the locals, as opposed to gut reaction. Ultimately the reader must confront head-on the position of forestry and the cutting down of trees as a form of labour and industry, in direct contrast to an age of carbon offsets and planting more trees. Yuki too, poses this question directly, and the fact the book is able to offer a satisfyingly considered answer stands as a powerful tonic to simplified, ‘dumbed down’ versions of environmentalism often presented in popular media narratives.
On finishing the book, I was reminded of the popular cross media franchise Silver Spoon (originating from a 2011 manga series by Hiromu Arakawa of Fullmetal Alchemist fame), which essentially did for the farming industry what The Easy Life In Kamusari does for forestry. I’m always left wondering how much works like these are the author’s genuine interest, and how much they – however inadvertently – start to become a weird kind of domestic ‘soft power’ career drive promotion in the process? Isn’t forestry/farming exciting?! Now you can give it a try too! Of course, examples of this aren’t limited to Japan, and many will recall the notorious example of early 2000s video game America’s Army which was utilised as an entirely overt, direct example of the above to drum up recruitment to the US armed forces.
The Easy Life In Kamusari, of course, doesn’t go this far – but the more I read of the novel, the more I started to ponder the role and nature of work. In the UK, in the midst of the double-threat of both COVID and Brexit, we were bombarded with countless media stories about how British workers had lost the appetite for ‘rural’ jobs like fruit picking. Would an equivalent kind of novel from a big mainstream author here in the UK suddenly drum up floods of applications from job seekers here? Stranger things have happened – lest we forget, Harry Potter led to a boom in applications to the Magic Circle, while the Hunger Games prompted interest in archery classes amongst kids. I wonder…
Over the past year we’ve heard a lot about work life balance, and working from home. But what if work was your life, and your home office was in fact countless acres of verdant woodland in the middle of nowhere? Recently, I saw a set of modern new flats marketed with the key selling point that they’d be just a speedy 30 minute commute away from central London. The ad proclaimed how its invisoned clients longed to, cried out for (‘All we want!’) downing tools and clocking off at 5pm, back home with ‘feet up’ (presumably with Netflix on) by 5.30pm. The ‘easy life’ that Yuki finds in Kamusari is a world away from this, a world where work is truly a vocation.
Ultimately, for those looking for a fascinating insight into what it might be like to work in a rural village in Japan, it’s hard to imagine a better introduction than The Easy Life In Kamusari. The book’s calm, methodical pacing certainly won’t be for everyone, but it also holds the secret to finding that very same ‘easy life’, for the more we immerse ourselves in the lives of these villagers, the more it all comes to resemble a distinct kind of relaxatory experience of its own. In a world without the internet, the simple laws of humans and nature living in sync, attuned to the natural rhythms of each-other, offers a simplicity that quickly becomes addictive. The Easy Life In Kamusari is the map – the instruction manual, even – by which to start down the path.
Many thanks to the publisher, Amazon Crossing, for supplying a review copy.