Check out Episode 21 of the Read Literature podcast.
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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- Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)
- “A Clean Marriage” by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) (read for free via Granta)
- “A Clean Marriage” also appears in editions of Murata’s Life Ceremony published by Granta Press.
More by Mieko Kawakami:
- All the Lovers in the Night (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)
- “Dreams of Love, etc.” (translated by Hitomi Yoshio) featured in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
- “Dreams of Love, etc.” also appears in Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan 3
- Heaven (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)
- “The Little Girl Blows Up Her Pee Anxiety, My Heart Races” (translated by Hitomi Yoshio) in Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan 4
- “March Yarn” (translated by Michael Emmerich) in March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown
- Ms Ice Sandwich (translated by Louise Heal Kawai)
- “My Baby” (translated by Hitomi Yoshio) in Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan 6
- “The Thirteenth Month” (translated by Hitomi Yoshio) in Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan 5
Read Mieko Kawakami for free:
- “About Her and the Memories That Belong to Her” (translated by Hitomi Yoshio) (read for free via Granta)
- “The Flowers Look More Beautiful Now Than Ever” (translated by Hitomi Yoshio) (read for free via Granta)
- “Golden Slumbers” (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) (read for free via The New York Times; article limit)
- “How Much Heart” (translated by David Boyd) (read for free via Granta)
- “Shame” (translated by Louise Heal Kawai and Hitomi Yoshio) (read for free via Granta)
- “Where Have All the Sundays Gone?” (translated by Hitomi Yoshi) (read for free via Words without Borders)
- “Wisteria” (translated by Hitomi Yoshio) (read for free via Astra)
This episode also mentions:
- Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
- Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi (translated by David Boyd and Lucy North)
- Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
- Hit Parade of Tears by Izumi Suzuki (various translators; expected spring 2023)
- ME by Tomoyuki Hoshino (translated by Charles de Wolf)
- Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki (various translators)
- “Smartening Up” in Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda (translated by Polly Barton)
- Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (translated by Geraldine Harcourt)
- Twinkle Twinkle by Kaori Ekuni (translated by Emi Shimokawa)
- Woman Running in the Mountains by Yuko Tsushima (translated by Geraldine Harcourt)
- Nipponia Nippon by Kazushige Abe (translated by Kerim Yasar) is the 1st novel to be translated into English by Mieko Kawakami’s husband. As of February 2023, the anticipated release date for Europe is in late summer 2023. The anticipated release date in the US is fall 2023.
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:
- Episode 1: The Kojiki. The Kojiki includes one of Japanese literature’s first depictions of pregnancy.
- Episode 9: The Women Writers of Meiji Japan. This episode talks about the development of women’s fiction from the 1870s-1910s. Mieko Kawakami finds special inspiration in the work of Ichiyo Higuchi.
- Episode 14: Banana and the Bubble. Protagonists in shojo stories rarely think about pregnancy.
- Episode 15: Translating Japanese Women. This episode talks about the development of women’s fiction, especially from the 1920s-2010s.
- Episode 17: The Smile of the Mountain Witch. Many yama-uba stories explore pregnancy and mother. Minako Oba wrote these themes in her fiction.
- Episode 20: The Akutagawa Prize and Kobo Abe. Mieko Kawakami won the Akutagawa for Chichi to Ran in 2008.
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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