From The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
On March 11, 2011, the coast of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, was rocked by a tsunami that resulted from an underwater earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0. The devastation, centred on the Tohoku region, was staggering and included the fallout from a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant – a direct result of the natural disaster.
Writing in The Guardian, Richard Lloyd Parry sketches the extent of the damage:
The earthquake that struck Japan on Friday 11 March 2011 was the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the Earth six and a half inches off its axis; it moved Japan four metres closer to America. In the tsunami that followed, more than 18,000 people were killed. At its peak, the water was 40 metres high. Half a million people were driven out of their homes. Three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi power station melted down, spilling their radioactivity across the countryside, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The earthquake and tsunami caused more than $210bn of damage, making it the most costly natural disaster ever.
The crisis took a toll on the Japanese psyche like nothing since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the suffering due to death, loss of homes, damage to crops and other food supplies, and the environmental catastrophe from the Fukushima radiation is difficult to calculate and, in some cases, the reverberations are still felt to this day.
Matsuda Aoko does not refer directly to the Tohoku disaster at any point in her brief, surrealistic tale, but the psychological effects of the tsunami are everywhere in this story of a woman who spends her time alone, planting various items she is sent daily via a pair of courier services, Yamato Transport and Sagawa Express. Planting is her full-time job, for which she makes nine hundred yen per hour. She never knows what will be in the boxes for her to plant; items range from band T-shirts to broken crockery to cashmere socks. She plants a dead rat and a severed tongue. She plants other, less tangible things as well: sadness, hatred, anxiety. And fear. Especially and repeatedly, she plants fear.
This is pretty much the entire story: a woman alone receiving boxes from anonymous couriers and planting their contents in the earth. The woman’s name is Makiko, but she calls herself Marguerite and disguises herself with a wig, glasses, and wrinkles she applies to her face with eyebrow pencil. Makiko erases her identity or, more precisely, tries to adopt a different identity, that of an older, more physically decrepit – but perhaps wiser – woman. This may be a kind of buffer between her and the real world; it may be a means of keeping her own emotions and reactions to the things she is charged with planting at bay.
She plants the items she is sent, but expresses a desire to bury them instead; the distinction between putting something in the ground in order to promote life as opposed to secreting it away (along with the intimations of death that attend the act of burial) echoes and chimes for Makiko. “She planted, though she wanted to bury. She wanted to bury everything that came out of the box. She wanted to bury them so deep in the earth that no shoot could ever reach the surface.”
Matsuda’s story, which originally appeared in a special issue of the literary journal Waseda bungaku devoted to fiction about the Tohoku earthquake, is an allegory about the ongoing psychological repercussions from the disaster. In this context, it is easy to understand Makiko’s desire to bury things rather than plant them in the hope that “no shoot could ever reach the surface.” The impulse to forget the pain of the past and never have to repeat it is clearly felt in Makiko’s yearning for burial as opposed to rebirth. It is unsurprising that she longs to inter negative emotions somewhere they might never again see the light of day: “She planted anxiety. She planted regret. She planted fear. She planted fear. She planted fear. She planted fear. She planted fear. Day after day, she planted fear, as though in a game of forfeit.”
That Makiko wants to bury rather than plant is significant; equally significant is that she is thwarted in this desire. Whether she is planting someone’s heart or the accumulated fear of an entire nation, she has in some way been put in a position of caretaker, ensuring that what is still viable remains so with the potential to blossom in the future.
In its repetition, sparseness, and absurdity, “Planting” is reminiscent of Beckett; Matsuda shares with the iconic Irish author a fascination with plumbing the subconscious, which in this case is reflective of a kind of collective unconscious shared throughout all Japan.
At one point late in the story, Makiko breaks down, consumed by a feeling of futility and self-loathing. What allows her to continue in her apparently endless task is an epiphany regarding her ontological situation: “The place she stood was nowhere. Where is this? she thought. Then she realized – she never had a choice. There is no way she could have chosen.” This moment of acceptance resonates with the only possible response to the kind of disaster that overtook Japan in 2011: it was never in anyone’s control, so the thing to do is do press on without blame or recrimination.
What Matsuda has created in “Planting” is strange and at times unsettling, but her story is ultimately hopeful. The final moment is shot through with the promise of the future, even in the face of uncertainty as to what that future will bring. At the story’s close, Makiko/Marguerite accepts another box that she sets aside unopened because working hours are over for the day. “She decided she would open tomorrow’s box tomorrow. Marguerite will be planting again tomorrow.”