Thirty-four year old Shibata works at a company that makes empty paper cores, the kinds of cardboard tubes used in packaging for plastic wrap of tea canisters. (Reinforcing the impersonality of a culture dominated by work, the narrator never reveals her first name.) It’s a professional job, but her male co-workers have unthinkingly loaded her with the mundane tasks they casually assume must be woman’s work.
I had to answer all incoming calls, make copies for anybody who asked, purchase supplies, sort the packages addressed to the different sections and distribute them, replace the paper and ink in the copy machines when they were running low, write the day’s date on the office whiteboard, pick up any trash that had fallen on the floor, see to the paper shredders that had been left full, throw out the rotten food in the break room fridge, use alcohol to clean off the hardened chunks of chicken, egg, and rice that had exploded in the microwave …
One day, Shibata has simply had enough. Instead of washing coffee mugs left over from a meeting she didn’t attend, she informs her section head she can’t. She’s pregnant. The smell of coffee triggers her morning sickness.
Shibata isn’t pregnant. But for the next nine months she will pretend to be.
Like many contemporary books translated from Japanese, Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void is also a quietly political novel. (In themes and tone, for example, it stands up nicely alongside Natsuko Imamura’s The Woman in the Purple Skirt, also translated by Lucy North, or Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job, translated by Polly Barton.) Diary of a Void addresses the systematic inequalities of Japan’s economy not just based on gender, but also on age, class, and race.
Shibata experiences sexism at her current workplace; she had to leave her last job because of outright sexual harassment. Her old job was at a temp agency. She worked full-time, but her company helped other companies that “needed staff but didn’t want to pay them a decent salary.”
The special accomodation Shibata gets for being pregnant looks an awful lot like basic humanity any employee should be able to expect. Her co-workers must clean up after themselves. She leaves work “two or three hours early”—at five o’clock. When she leaves at five, she has unexpected luxuries like finding unspoiled vegetables to cook for herself at the local supermarket.
And the novel is also a consumerist critique. The pages are littered with a remarkable number of brandnames, both Japanese and foreign. All are a part of the substance of Shibata’s life. Shibata wonders if her job is even necessary—“Sometimes I wonder if the world really needs all these paper cores, but the orders keep coming in, so we keep making them.”
The shape of the narrative follows the shape of a pregnancy. It’s organized into weeks five through forty. According to the note from translators David Boyd and Lucy North, the Japanese title echoes the Maternal and Child Health Handbook. It’s a booklet and diary handed out to all Japanese expectant parents. They can use it to track the development of a baby from pregnancy all the way through a child’s seventh birthday. Shibata writes the story of Diary of a Void in her copy of Maternal and Child Health Handbook and tracks her pregnancy using an app called Baby-N-Me.
For forty weeks, Shibata’s pregnancy exists somewhere between dream and reality. Sometimes she consciously counterfeits a baby belly with scarves or towels; other times, her stomach looks pregnant all on its own. Her center of gravity seems to change. Can she feel a baby kicking? As her “pregnancy” progresses, not just the reader but Shibata herself lose track of where the truth ends and Shibata’s fiction begins. It almost ceases to matter—although the novel’s final chapters leave the reader in nail-biting suspense about exactly how real the pregnancy might have become.
For a reader who has struggled through pregnancy, Shibata’s deception is occasionally uncomfortable. (The myth Shibata buys into early in the book that pregnancy makes a woman’s life easier is patently absurd and stock-in-trade of dangerous misogyny.) Shibata only seems to consider that her actions might cause harm when she speaks to a coworker who has struggled with infertility. Yes, it is empowering to use sexism against men. But it’s also problematic to imply that pregnancy is simple or a ticket to an easier life. For most of the story, pregnant women are their pregnancies to Shibata. She objectifies them the same way the men in Shibata’s life objectify her.
It isn’t until late in the novel that Shibata begins to see the pregnant women she encounters as people with stories of their own. They face hardships beyond the physical discomforts of pregnancy. Unfortunately, Shibata discovers that those hardships include the sexism she has been trying to escape in her workplace by feigning pregnancy. The same kinds of sexist assumptions about who does what are built into marriage and family—“Once the baby’s born,” a desperate friend with a newborn asks her, “why the hell should our roles be so different?”
Some of the novel’s most captivating moments are in Shibata’s internal monologues directed toward Mary, the mother of Jesus. Shibata isn’t a Christian, but she’s drawn toward Mary as a kind of ultimate symbol of motherhood. (Shibata calls her “that famous mother”.) It’s in one of these monologues that Shibata comes to a painful truth about her own body in a patriarchal society: