“The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can do is ask them to do their best per head… although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines.”—Former Japanese Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa
Yanagisawa served under Shinzo Abe, who is currently (summer 2020) serving his fourth term as Prime Minister of Japan.
A 2009 study by Scott North found that, “The burden of family work in Japan falls disproportionately on wives, even those who work full time and have relatively high incomes… Couple’s actions continue to be oriented strongly to symbols of patriarchal prestige, such as husband’s birth order position and breadwinner status.”
In 2017, despite several half-hearted public policy attempts, Amnesty International’s East Asia Researcher Hiroka Shoji claimed that Japanese society “still sees household chores and childcare as the main responsibility of women, whether or not they are in paid employment.”
This sort of sexism—assuming a woman is in charge of the domestic sphere—is certainly not foreign to Westerners. But many observers note the special persistence of gender inequality in Japan. Predictably, gender inequality pops up in contemporary Japanese literature.
Published in Japanese just five years ago, Before the Coffee Gets Cold puts forward a regressive vision of happiness for women.
There are certainly any number of anti-feminist best sellers in the US. (Note that the Midnight Sun, an extension of Stephanie Meyer’s famously problematic Twilight universe, is currently an Amazon best seller more than a month before its August 2020 publication.) But I think Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a special kind of insidious.
The premise of the novel is that, for unexplained reasons, one particular chair in a timeless, underground Tokyo café will transport you, once and only once, backwards or forwards in time. You can only travel to other moments within that same café. Nothing you do in the past actually changes the present. And you have to finish your visit before your coffee gets cold or be doomed to become a vengeful ghost.
Sure, the premise is a little camp, but I’ve enjoyed other sentimental Japanese best-sellers like If Cats Disappeared from the World and The Traveling Cat Chronicles. Maybe I just like cats. But the unexplained plot device in Before the Coffee Gets Cold seems to promise women happiness if only they’ll conform to traditional norms about Japanese women’s behavior.
In the first of four chapters, The Lovers, the beautiful and ambitious Fumiko wishes she had asked her long-term partner not to move to the US to pursue his dream job. It’s not that she particularly wants to marry him. It’s more that she is turning twenty-eight this year, “she [has] been interrogated on many occasions by her persistent parents,” and “after her little sister got married…she [has] started to think getting married might be OK if it was to Goro.” With a little help from the café, she meets Goro in the past, and he tells her he’ll be returning to Japan in three years. All this attractive, intelligent woman has to do is wait for him. She’s thrilled.
In Husband and Wife, the reader learns that two of the cafe’s regular patrons are actually married. Kohtake is a nurse. Her husband, Fusagi, is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and has recently begun to forget his wife. Kohtake has resigned herself to the situation: “I will care for him as a nurse. I am a nurse, so I can do that.”
The husband she meets in the past isn’t a rom com hero. He is crotchety and easily annoyed. We find out that he once threw her birthday present away simply because she asks him for it and he hates being told “to do something that he had been meaning to do himself.” Even so, anything he says to Kohtake brings back “waves of nostalgia and happiness.”
The Fusagi of “back then” gives Kohtake a letter to read in the future. He asks that she leave him “if life becomes too hard for [her] as [his] wife.” Yet he continues that, even if he loses his memory, he wants “to be together as husband and wife.” In other words, far from releasing her, he’s telling her that a professional relationship between a man and his nurse is not sufficient for him; she must also act like his wife. For the rest of the novel, Kohtake comes into the café each day, greets Fusagi as her husband, and waits to find out whether he will treat her civilly or not. The Notebook in reverse?
The Sisters focuses on another of the café’s regulars. Hirai is the anti-feminist strawman, a woman who is willing to break down in crocodile tears to manipulate a man “because tears are a woman’s weapon.” Flouting her parents’ wishes and expectations, she abandoned the family inn for big city life as the owner of a small hostess club. For years, she has been avoiding her younger sister, now heir-apparent to the family business because surely, Hirai thinks, her sister resents being left holding the inheritance bag.
Then her sister dies. Hirai travels back in time to speak with her one last time only to discover her sister has never been resentful—she just wants to run the inn together with Hirai. Hirai agrees, though it seems like she is only trying to appease a sister who is fated to die anyway.
Then Hirai’s friends on the café staff find out about her promise. They pressure her to keep it: “How unhappy would your sister be if she knew that your promise was only made for today?” So the free-spirited twenty four year old who left home to become her own person returns to take her place as conventional first born and successor to the inn. A few weeks later, her friends receive a photo:
In the photo, Hirai [is] standing in front of the inn. With her hair in a bun, she [is] wearing a pink kimono, indicating her status as the owner of Takakura… [She is] smiling like she [does]n’t have a care in the world.
Mother and Child is perhaps supposed to be the novel’s most touching episode. Café owner Nagare and his wife Kei are expecting. Even though Kei has a heart condition and may not survive the pregnancy, she is determined to carry the pregnancy to term.
The premise that Kei will die because of her pregnancy is almost implausible. Japan has one of the very lowest maternal mortality rates in the world—five deaths per 100,000 live births. (At fourteen per 100,000 live births, the US nearly triples Japan’s maternal mortality rate.) Nevertheless, before she faces death, Kei is determined to travel to the future to meet her child.
In the future, it soon becomes clear that Kei has not survived the pregnancy. She is overwhelmed not by sorrow or regret, but by a desire to apologize to her daughter that “giving birth to [her] is the only thing [Kei] will ever be able to do for [her].” As if that isn’t enough.
Kei never seems to even consider changing her mind about the pregnancy.
Kei’s choice is certainly a brave one. But in the context of Before the Coffee Gets Cold it is also a symbol of what Japanese society has traditionally asked of women—to put their husband, then their sons, then their daughters all ahead of themselves.