Episode 21: Sexlessness in Japanese Fiction

Check out Episode 21 of the Read Literature podcast.

Transcript available.

This episode is marked mature.

Today we’ll explore two trends in contemporary Japanese fiction:

  • Protagonists who don’t want to have sex
  • And women who want to have babies anyway.

To take a closer look at these trends, we’re going to ask a couple of questions about contemporary Japan:

  • What is “celibacy syndrome”? Does it even exist?
  • What role does motherhood play in a shrinking society?
  • And how do sexlessness and motherhood play out in 21st-century Japanese fiction?

We’ll end with a closer look at Mieko Kawakami’s best-selling novel, Breasts and Eggs.

(CW: domestic violence in a novel)

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More by Mieko Kawakami:

Read Mieko Kawakami for free:

This episode also mentions:

Find Out More

More on Japan’s perceived sexlessness. NSFW. This article includes links to most other English-language articles on the same topic when it was on many people’s minds in the mid 2010s.

RJL on sexlessness in contemporary Japanese fiction. NSFW. Includes reflections on the work of Mieko Kawakami and Sayaka Murata. (spoilers)

RJL on ME and Earthlings. (spoilers)

6 Facts about Gender Equality in Japan from Unseen Japan.

More on maternity harassment in Japan.

Translator Daniel Joseph on Izumi Suzuki.

My review of Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void in Asian Review of Books.

Isaac Meyer’s The History of Japan podcast on the history of marriage in Japan. 37 minutes.

“Japanese Generations: Boom Bubble, and Ice Age” at Nippon.com. Nippon.com has translated this article from Japanese into English.

“Osaka vs. Tokyo People: Are They Really That Different” at TheTrueJapan.com. The author is a long-time Tokyo resident.

A quick explanation about the differences between “standard Japanese” and Kansai-ben (Osaka-ben).

Mieko Kawakami’s official website. English.

Mieko Kawakami at Granta. This page also includes links to some stories by Kawakami you can read online for free.

Mieko Kawakami in conversation with David McNeill of The Guardian in 2020.

Mieko Kawakami in conversation with Makenna Goodman of BOMB Magazine in 2021.

Haruki Murakami praises Chichi to Ran.

Mieko Kawakami discusses female characters with Haruki Murakami.

A recent (February 2023) profile of Mieko Kawakami in The New York Times Magazine.

Glynne Walley provides an English-language review of 2008’s Chichi to ran. Walley is a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Oregon.

The Independent responds to Kawakami’s Akutagawa win in 2008.

Mieko Kawakami explains Breasts and Eggs on Twitter in 2020.

Sam Bett and David Boyd talk about translating Breasts and Eggs. This conversation is especially interesting as a look at co-translation.

The New Yorker explains the development and appeal of Japan’s “cell phone novels”.

“Literature” at Japanese Wiki Corpus

Japanese Literature at Facebook

Japanese Literature at Goodreads

Other RJL Episodes of Interest:


Alzate, Juliana Buriticá. “Embodiment and Its Violence in Kawakami Mieko’s Chichi to Ran” in Japanese Language and Literature, 2020.

Bullock, Julia. The Other Women’s Lib: Gender and Body in Japanese Women’s Fiction. U of HI Press, 2010. (free via Open Access)

Bullock, Julia, et al. Rethinking Japanese Feminisms. U of HI Press, 2018. (free via Open Access)  

Shirai Chiaki. “The History of ‘Artificial Insemination’ in Japan During 1890-1948: Issues Concerning Insemination and Donor Sperm” at Shizuoka University Repository, 2017. (free)

Copeland, Rebecca and Melek Ortabasi, eds. The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan, Columbia UP, 2006.

Fincher, Alison. “Cannibalism in Two Contemporary Japanese Novels” at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com, 2020. (free)

–. “Diary of a Void” in Asian Review of Books, 2022. (free)

–. “Sexlessness in the Work of Mieko Kawakami and Sayaka Murata” at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com, 2020. (free)

Frisby, Naomi. “Spotlight on: Mieko Kawakami. The Author You Need to Know” at PanMacMillan.com, 2021. (free)

Harney, Alexandra. “The Herbivore’s Dilemma” in Slate, 2009. (free)

Haworth, Abigail. “Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?” in The Observer, 2013. (free)

Hay, Mark. “Why Aren’t the Japanese Fucking?” in Vice, 2015. (free)

Hernon, Matthew. “Award-Winning Japanese Author Mieko Kawakami: “I Have a Problem with the Patriarchal System in This Country” in Tokyo Weekender, 2020. (free)

Hunt, Joshua. “‘Breasts and Eggs’ Made Her a Feminist Icon. She Has Other Ambitions” in The New York Times Magazine, 2023. (free)

Kagemaya Yuri. “Writer Blogs Her Way to Top Literary Prize” in The Japan Times, 2008.

Kawakami Mieko. “from Breasts and Eggs.” Translated by Louise Heal Kawai at Words without Borders, 2012. (free)

–. “Mieko Kawakami: ‘Women Are no Longer Content to Shut Up.” Interview with David McNeill in The Guardian, 2020. (free)

–. “Strong Lights and Dark Shadows: Mieko Kawakami Interviewed by Makenna Goodman.” Translated by Hitomi Yoshio at BOMB Magazine, 2021. (free)

Kazdin, Cole. “For Women in Japan, Maternity Harassment Is the Mother of All Problems” in Vice, 2016. (free)

Keating, Joshua. “No, Japanese People Haven’t Given Up on Sex” in Slate, 2013. (free)

Kobayashi Jun. “Have Japanese People Become Asexual? Love in Japan” in International Journal of Japanese Sociology, 2017.

Kosaka, Kris. “‘Breasts and Eggs’: Not Just Some Elevated Piece of Literary Chick-Lit” in The Japan Times, 2020.

Montgomery, Hanako. “Japan Won’t Let Them Have Kids, So They Turn to the Black Market for Sperm Instead” in Vice, 2021. (free)

Murakami Haruki. “A Feminist Critique of Murakami Novels, with Murakami Himself: Mieko Kawakami Interviews the Author of Killing Commendatore.” Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd at Literary Hub, 2020. (free)

–. “Haruki Murakami on His Favorite Young Novelist: Mieko Kawakami.” Translated by Philip Gabriel at LitHib.com, 2017. (free)

Nonomiya, Lily, Marika Katanyma and Yuko Takeo. “Japan, in Need of More Babies, Is Helping Pay for Costly IVF” in The Japan Times, 2022.

Kosaka, Kris. “Breasts and Eggs: Not Just Some Elevated Piece of Literary Chick-Lit” in The Japan Times, 2020. (free)

Lim, Louisa. “In Japan, ‘Herbivore’ Boys Subvert Ideas of Manhood” at NPR Morning Edition, 2009. (free)

McCurry, Justin. “Record Number of Young People in Japan Rejecting Marriage, Survey Shows” in The Guardian, 2022. (free)

McNeill, David. “Young Commuter Bloggers Snatch Japan’s Literary Laurels” in The Independent, 2008. (free)

Newcomb, Amelia. “Mieko Kawakami: From Blogger to Global Novelist” in The Christian Science Monitor, 2008. (free)

O no Yasumaro. The Kojiki. Translated by Gustav Heldt, Columbia UP, 2014.

Schawlow, Paul Gordon and Janet A. Walker, eds. The Woman’s Hand: Gender and Theory in Japanese Women’s Writing, Stanford, 1996.

Seaman, Amanda C. Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan. U HI Press, 2017.

Siripala, Thisanka. “Japan’s Population Crisis Nears Point of No Return” at The Diplomat, 2023. (free)

“Yanagisawa Calls Women Child-Bearing Machines” in Japan Times, 2007.

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