Find out more about episode 21 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.
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This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher.
Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.
A quick content warning—This episode mentions domestic violence in a novel, but doesn’t describe it in detail. This episode has also been marked mature. Maybe I’m being too cautious? But we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about sex and artificial insemination, but we’re not going to be explicit—or at least we’re only going to use technical medical language. At the end of the episode, I’m also going to repeat an R-rated swear word one of Mieko Kawakami’s characters uses in a novel.
[1:03] While browsing a matchmaking site, Mizuki comes across the perfect listing:
“Seeking a Clean Marriage… an amicable daily routine with someone I get along well with, like brother and sister, without being a slave to sex.”
Mizuki is intrigued. She has never wanted to be “wife, friend, and mother” to the same man. So they get married. Two years later, they decide to have kids.
At a swanky clinic, they make an appointment to use “the Clean Breeder”. It’s a machine that will help them “facilitate, in the purest sense of the word, reproduction”. The doctor promises, “Nowadays, your partner is not necessarily a sex object—this is a wonderful advancement”.
I find the rest of Sayaka Murata’s “A Clean Marriage” hilarious, but maybe my sense of humor is warped. The Clean Breeder helps Mizuki’s husband ejaculate and, hopefully, impregnate his wife without, in his words “any form of sexual contact”. It’s a delightful inversion of the indignity a woman goes through during childbirth. The nurses urge him on:
“Is it OK like this, Mr. Takahashi? Please do your best.”
“Mr. Takahashi, please tell us when life is issuing. Raise your hand!”
“One last little push, Mr. Takahashi!”
Murata’s entire story, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is free to read on Granta’s website. And it’s linked on the episode page.
[2:38] “A Clean Marriage” is just one example of trends I want to explore in contemporary Japanese fiction. Protagonists who don’t have sex. And women who want to have babies anyway. (Maybe I’m a little cynical, but Valentine’s has put me in the mood.)
To take a closer look at these trends, we’re going to ask a couple of questions about contemporary Japan: What is so-called “celibacy syndrome”? Does it even exist? What role does motherhood play in a shrinking society like Japan’s? And how do sexlessness and motherhood play out in Japanese fiction?
We’ll end with a closer look at Mieko Kawakami’s best-selling novel, Breasts and Eggs.
[3:27] Let me start, as I often do, with a caveat: when English-speakers talk about how “sexless” Japan is, there’s a certain amount of cultural blindness involved. And a good bit of exoticism about Japan. Almost everyone in the developed world is having less sex than their elders were having a few decades ago. For example, a 2019 study found that almost 40% of American adults reported having sex once a month or less.
Anyway… starting in the mid-2010s, the Japanese media and then the rest of the world started paying a lot of attention to Japan’s habits in the bedroom. A 2015 study by the Japan Family Planning Association found that almost 50% of respondents reported they hadn’t had sex in the last thirty days. The Japanese media have dubbed this apparent “plague” of sexlessness, sekkusu shinai shokogun or “celibacy syndrome”.
When they were asked why they hadn’t had sex, the respondents to the survey had a lot of reasons. They were tired. They and their partner had lost their spark. There’s also mendokusai.
Mendokusai is a catch-all phrase. Roughly translated, it means something like “I can’t be bothered”. Sex is too much of a hassle.
But what really worried the media… and the government… was that 18% of men said they weren’t interested in sex at all.
You might be asking yourself—why would people care so much about who is having sex? It’s because, as a general principle, people who don’t have sex also don’t have babies.
[5:12] Japan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. You’ve surely noticed by now that the Japanese media likes to have a term for everything—kōrei shoshika means “low birthrate, many elderly”.
Today, Japan has a population of about 126 million people. But that population is expected to shrink to about 110 million by 2040. The “replacement threshold” for a country to maintain its population is about 2.1 births per woman. In other words, the average woman needs to have two-ish children during her lifetime for a country’s population to stay the same size.
Japan’s fertility rate hit a historic low in 2005. It rose again briefly over the next decade and a half, but then the pandemic hit. In 2021, Japan saw its lowest-ever fertility rate—1.3 children born per woman. And so Japan’s Prime Minister, Kishia Fumio, used his New Year’s speech in January to emphasize that Japan is on what he calls “the brink of not being able to maintain a functioning society”.
Now, it’s a little early to make blanket statements, but low birth rates may just be a fact of life in developed, late-stage capitalist economies. For comparison, the birthrate in the US is 1.64 births per woman. Actually, several countries have lower birth rates than Japan including Monaco, South Korea, and Andorra, for example.
But Japan also has a long history of refusing to admit long-term residents and new citizens. (That’s another story for another day.) However, low birth rate plus low immigration equals a population is shrinking faster than almost any other country’s.
[7:11] Japan also has an aging population. It has the second highest median age in the world at 48.6 years. Famously, Japanese companies sell more diapers for incontinent adults than babies.
Together, the low growth and aging population pose huge demographic and economic challenges.
[7:34] The media has tried to tie “celibacy syndrome” (if it exists) to various subcultures. We’re going to take a moment to look at a few examples. Hopefully you’ll see just how silly it is to try to peg Japan’s low birthrate on any small group.
A professor at a well-regarded Tokyo university coined the term parasaito shinguru in 1999. Those are both English loan words. The term translates as “parasite singles”. Parasaito shinguru has become part of Japan’s national vocabulary.
The term refers to a single adult who lives with their parents. A lot of single young adults in Japan in 1999 didn’t have much of a choice. These were people who had come of age after the Economic Bubble burst—the so-called “Lost Generation” or the “Employment Ice Age Generation”. They grew up struggling to meet extremely high educational standards because they thought the reward would be a high paying job. They graduated. There were no jobs.
This narrative might sound familiar to American Millennials.
The connotations are parasaito shinguru are supposed to be negative—who likes a parasite? But today, a lot of young people in Japan like living with their parents. And a lot of parents like living with their adult children. Young people like it because they can save money. Rent, as most adults know, can be expensive.
Parents often like this arrangement because they get to see more of their kids. Sometimes they get to share expenses. And often the kids transition naturally into the role of caregivers as their parents age.
Parasaito shinguru is an exotic sounding term—but there are grown adults living with their parents all over the world. You might recall that the majority of American young adults were living with their parents in July of 2020. And many of them still are.
[9:35] Soshoku danshi or “grass-eating men” are also easy scapegoats for Japan’s low birth rate.(Although the term literally means “grass-eating men” it’s more often translated as “herbivore men”.)
The term was coined by a female Japanese columnist in 2006. It describes men who aren’t that interested in sex—or at least not in actively pursuing sex at the expense of other hobbies and their own peace of mind.
The cultural debate about herbivore Men was more au courant a decade ago, so it was hard to track down more updated statistics in 2023. But a decade ago, one survey found that more than 60% of unmarried men in their 30s happily described themselves as herbivore men. In another survey of one thousand single men in their 20s and 30s, more than 7 self-identified that way. Some commentators even peg herbivore men as an open rebellion against masculinism, materialism, and Westernism in Japan.
[10:38] Hikikomori is another Japanese group that gets endless media attention. The word literally means “pulling inward” or “being confined”. These are people who live in extreme isolation, sometimes refusing to leave their homes. It’s a term that now has an official definition from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare:
Hikikomori is a condition in which the individuals affected refuse to leave their parents’ house, do not work or go to school, and isolate themselves away from society and family in a single room for a period exceeding six months.
No one is quite sure how many hikikomori there are. Estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to over a million.
Again, there’s a certain level of Orientalism here. The Japanese label “hikikomori” sounds more exotic than “recluse” or “hermit” or “shut in”. There are certainly large numbers of people who qualify in many countries, including much of Europe and the United States.
Again, analysts are quick to blame hikikomori for Japan’s low birth rates. But even high estimates of the hikikomori population put them at less than 1% of the population of Japan.
[11:56] I should also mention that people also point fingers at the LGBTQ+ community sometimes gets blamed for Japan’s low birthrate as well. Most LGBTQ+ people aren’t part of the “celibacy syndrome” dialogue, but they are blamed for not having babies. This blame, of course, is highly unjust for a lot of reasons. I’ll just mention the one that is especially relevant for our purposes today. The Japanese government has made it extremely difficult—legally speaking—for members of the LGBTQ+ community to adopt or have biological children. We’ll talk about that a little bit more in a few minutes.
[12:32] There is a lot of celibacy syndrome in contemporary Japanese fiction. Or at least a lot of adults who don’t want to have sex. For example, Kaori Ekuni broke new ground in 1991 with her Twinkle Twinkle. The protagonist is a married asexual woman married to a gay man who is partnered with someone else.
Many of Akutagawa-winning author Sayaka Murata’s works include male and female characters who don’t like sex. We opened with her story “A Clean Marriage”. The protagonists of Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings are just as uninterested.
There’s also ME by Tomoyuki Hoshino. That one features a male protagonist talking with a group of (also male) doppelgangers: “We don’t need marital partners,” one says. “Our mutual understanding far exceeds any that we might have with a girlfriend or wife.” (That excerpt was translated into English by Charles de Wolf.)
There are links to purchase all of these books on the episode page.
[13:41] When people talk about women’s role in “celibacy syndrome”, the question isn’t usually framed as “why aren’t women having sex”—it’s usually framed as “why aren’t women getting married?” Today, about 47% of Japanese women between 15 and 49 are married. “15-49” is a standard, global comparison of “reproductive age”. The legal minimum age for Japanese women to marry was sixteen under the 1947 constitution; it has been 18 since 2022.
In Japan, the average age for a woman’s first marriage is 29. The vast majority of unmarried Japanese women say they plan to marry, but a growing number never do. According to one 2021 survey, 15% of women between 18 and 34 said they had no intention to ever marry. That same survey has been conducted since 1982. And that’s the highest number ever recorded.
[14:45] So… most Japanese women report they plan to marry. But here’s something to think about. Up to 90% of young, unmarried Japanese women also report believing that staying single is preferable to what they imagine marriage is like. The big question is why. The gender gap is often floated as a reason so many Japanese women seem to find marriage… unappealing. And the gender gap almost certainly plays a role.
Here are some examples of how that gender gap is tied to Japanese marriages.
Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates that married women spend seven times as much time on housework as their husbands whether or not they work. (Lest we non-Japanese get too self-righteous—American women still do an average of two extra hours of housework a day.)
It’s also difficult for married Japanese women to keep working outside of the house, regardless of housework. They still fight a cultural expectation that they’ll quit and stay at home when they marry. Married Japanese women are less likely to earn promotions. They also deal with the term oniyome or “devil wife”. It’s a slang insult for married working women.
And if women don’t quit when they marry, they’re often expected to resign when they get pregnant. Constitutionally that expectation is illegal, but that’s almost impossible to enforce. Women who do get pregnant are sometimes hounded out of the workplace. Twenty percent of Japanese women report matahara or maternity harassment. The stats get worse for women who don’t have full-time employment. Nearly half of them report being victims.
[16:37] Given all of this cultural context, it’s not hard to understand why pregnancy in modern Japanese literature is… complicated. Actually, pregnancy has almost always been complicated in Japanese literature. Just like it has almost always been complicated in most literatures. After all, pregnancy is pretty much one of the most basic facts of human life. It’s also pretty horrific, dangerous, and, even when successful, ends in a bloody mess. (I say this as the mother of two.) Worldwide, pregnancy hasn’t always been something readers (or even authors) are excited to think about.
One of Japan’s very oldest written texts, The Kojiki, involves marriage and pregnancy. Izanami, the creator goddess, initiates sex with the creator god, Izanagi. She gets pregnant, and the offspring they bear is misshapen. They bear a misshapen offspring.
They try again. Izanagi initiates this time. They conceive and give birth to the Japanese archipelago and many of the kami behind many of Japan’s more significant natural phenomena. Eventually, Izanami dies giving birth to the fire god. You can learn more in Read Japanese Literature’s very first episode.
Pregnancy and childbirth come up in the great Japanese work The Tale of Genji. The protagonist is a man, but the book was written by a woman. Many of the text’s most poignant moments feature the women in Genji’s life.
[18:08] There isn’t a lot of surviving fiction by or about women for the next thousand years or so. But Meiji-Era women writers took up pregnancy starting around the 1870s. At the time, the Japanese state was invested in the image of mother as ryōsai kenbo—good wife, wise mother.
Early Japanese feminists spent a lot of time debating these ideas. For example, many newspapers carried a series of essays in the late 1910s known as the bosei hogo ronsō—the protection of motherhood debates. The authors took up questions like what does it mean to be a mother? What role, if any, should the state actually have in motherhood? But by the late 1920s and 1930s, questions about the nation and the war overtook more domestic concerns.
[19:00] The 1950s and 1960s were an opportunity for “good wives and wise mothers 2.0”—this time in service to the economy instead of to the state. According to the powers that be, they would stay home to procreate and raise the children. Their husbands could go off to work as salarymen. As units, couples could power Japan’s Economic Miracle.
The 1950s were a relative low point for twentieth-century Japanese women’s writing. And very few Japanese women writers took up sexuality or pregnancy.
In the 1970s and 80s, women’s rights activists started to see more success in Japan. The ūman ribu movement (or “women’s lib movement”) didn’t try to reject motherhood. To quote from the highly-useful book Rethinking Japanese Feminisms, the ūman ribu movement aimed to “build a society in which women might want to have children”.
At the same time, Japanese fiction started to include more nuanced depictions of pregnancy and motherhood. (Actually, Professor Julia Bullock at Emory University makes a fascinating case that fiction writing came first—that a handful of Japanese women writers of the 1960s were some of the first women in Japan to “rewrit[e] femininity through literature”.)
[20:20] Today we’re talking about sexlessness and having sex or without a male partner. The two most relevant writers from this period that I can think of are Yuko Tsushima and Izumi Suzuki.
Yuko Tsushima is one of the first Japanese writers to seriously evaluate the question of single motherhood in Japanese fiction. In novels like Territory of Light and Woman Running in the Mountains, single mothers reject relationships with their babies’ fathers to raise their children on their own. The social stigma these women face is huge. And I should mention that there is still a significant social stigma about single motherhood in Japan today.
Tsushima’s novels are excellent. I’d love to do an entire episode about her work. We’re in 2023 are lucky—phenomenal translations of several of her novels by Geraldine Harcourt have recently been reissued. And you can find links on the episode page.
[21:25] Izumi Suzuki is an extremely idiosyncratic science fiction writer. She’s also an extremely prescient one. Her stories were decades ahead of her time. Her first English-language collection, Terminal Boredom, was published in 2021. (I’m hoping to devote an episode to Japanese sci-fi and Izumi Suzuki when her next collected edition, Hit Parade of Tears, comes out later in the spring.)
Terminal Boredom includes two notable stories for our purposes today. (Both were translated by Daniel Joseph.) The first is called “Women on Women”. In that tale, men no longer rule society through “violence and cunning”. Instead, they live in an “exclusion zone”—and women only visit to get pregnant.
The second is the title story, “Terminal Boredom”. Mendokusai—that “can’t be bothered” attitude—has overrun Japan. Young people can’t be bothered to do just about anything. When they get involved in relationships, it’s out of a feeling of obligation. Some are so bored they forget to eat and just… lay down and die. Most of Japan’s young people are too tired and bored to have sex at all. “Older folks are amazing. They’ve got so much energy, so much stamina. They go to work every day, and somehow they still find it in them to have love affairs”.
[22:56] In the later 1980s—the Bubble Era—the most prominent fiction by women didn’t really take up pregnancy at all. In many of Banana Yoshimoto’s stories, for example, the romantic relationships are almost like the relationships between brother and sister. The people who play maternal roles are often big sisters… part of found families… or transwomen. The role of biological motherhood is significantly absent. Sex and procreation just don’t play a part.
[23:28] In some of the most recent fiction by Japanese women, writers have questioned whether a woman who wants to have a baby can bypass sex altogether. Without resorting to science fiction, the most practical solution for these women is artificial insemination.
Artificial insemination is the process of taking sperm from a male and using it to fertilize a female egg. Not in a lab, in a petri dish—that’s in vitro fertilization or literally “in glass” fertilization. Artificial insemination is just the process of taking sperm and inserting it into a uterus, but not through penetrative sex.
The first recorded successful artificial insemination of a human being was performed in Scotland in 1776. Artificial insemination was introduced to Japan as a Meiji-Era modernizing reform in the 1890s.
Believe it or not, doctors recommended that a couple should actually have sex as part of the artificial insemination process, but they should use a condom. Then the doctor could use the condom to extract a man’s semen, only then they would use it to impregnate the woman. After all, at least according to a paper by scholar Shirai Chiaki at Shizuoka University, contemporary doctors thought masturbation caused a loss of vital energy. Not a good idea if you’re trying to sire children.
The woman in question was also supposed to be a man’s wife. At least officially, the first Japanese baby conceived with the aid of donor sperm wasn’t born until 1949. Many people thought the use of donor sperm was a form of adultery.
For almost seventy years, policy about sperm donation and artificial insemination was set by the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Doctors and hospitals follow their guidelines or they risk losing membership. The government never really intervened.
[25:33] Today, only married couples have legal protections as the parents of their children. A woman who gives birth using a donated egg is legally its mother. Her husband can’t deny he’s the father, even if the couple used donated sperm.
Access to donated sperm is still a problem. In Japan, only married couples have access to fertility treatment. Gay marriage is still not recognized by the Japanese government. So even gay couples who want to marry aren’t eligible. That means there are no legal protections for LGBTQ+ couples when it comes to assisted pregnancy.
In 2021, Japan had only one commercial sperm bank. And it didn’t serve single adults or LGBTQ+ couples.
[26:19] Single women or LGBTQ+ couples have a couple of options—neither of them perfect. It’s generally safer to buy sperm from an overseas sperm bank. Women can either travel abroad or pay to have it shipped to them. If they’re lucky, they can find a domestic doctor to help. Most doctors won’t risk losing their membership in the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology to assist. But overseas donors or travel are expensive. And this process is also time consuming.
Japan also has a thriving sperm donation black market. There are success stories. But there are also women who describe pretty grotesque situations—like men who ask for graphic pictures. And, of course, sperm donation outside of a medical facility carries health risks like spread of bacteria or even STIs. Without legal protections, there’s always a chance a donor might later try to claim a child he helped conceive as his own.
We’re going to come back to artificial insemination when we talk about Breasts and Eggs at the end of the episode.
[27:30] The most extreme example of a book about pregnancy without a father or sex that I can think of is Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void. It was published in English translation last year (2022) by David Boyd and Lucy North. The protagonist, Shibata, is a 34 year old office worker. She’s tired of picking up the slack for her male coworkers just because she’s a woman. She’s the one who has to answer calls, make copies, purchase supplies, sort and distribute packages, replace ink, pick up trash, empty shredders, clean the fridge… So one day, she tells her supervisor she can’t wash the coffee mugs. She’s pregnant. The smell will make her vomit.
Shibata is not pregnant. But she’s now committed herself to a nine-month ruse.
Diary of a Void is the height of sexless pregnancy in contemporary Japanese literature. There’s no sex. There’s no love. And there’s no real baby at all.
[28:40] Mieko Kawakami was born in 1976. That makes her a little more than a decade younger than Banana Yoshimoto… just a little older than Tomihiko Morimi and Sayaka Murata, both of whom we’ve covered on this podcast.
(It also means that Mieko Kawakami is an author of the internet age. I’ve had access to so many author interviews. I’m going to be able to quote from Kawakami a lot. And you can find links on the episode page.)
Like many writers, Kawakami has a diverse resume. Her father wasn’t usually around. By the time she was fourteen, she had lied about her age, and she was working in a factory that made heaters and electric fans. She later worked as a bar hostess, and then as a singer—she debuted on a major label in 2002. Then she began her writing career as a blogger. She started the blog to promote her work as a singing career, but it soon became an outlet. At the height of her blog’s popularity, she was logging about a hundred thousand hits a day. (If you’re old enough to remember blogging culture, those are pretty impressive stats.)
Some of her first published work is poetry. Eventually blog posts developed into her 1st novel, My Ego, My Teeth, and the World. She published that novel in 2007.
A year later, Kawakami won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her novella Chichi to Ran—in English, Breasts and Eggs. (Just as an aside, Mieko Kawakami found inspiration for Chichi to Ran in Ichiyō Higuchi’s story “Takekurabe”—we talked about that story at length in our episode about The Women Writers of Meiji Japan.)
Chichi to Ran is only the starting point for the Breasts and Eggs we’re talking about today.
And I’ll explain more in just a minute.
[30:38] Mieko Kawakami has also become an important feminist voice of her generation. She greatly annoyed Akutagawa winner and then-Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara when she won the Akutagawa Prize. Ishara was, obviously, a writer. But he was also a prominent ultranationalist and famous misogynist views and nasty things to say about Chinese and Koreans. Ishihara was a member of the Akutagawa Selection Committee at the time. (Many former winners serve on this committee.) So the Bungei Shunjū magazine published his comments about Kawakami’s novella when she won the prize:
“The egocentric, self-absorbed rambling of the work [Chichi to Ran] is unpleasant and intolerable.”
(As far as I’m concerned, annoying Ishihara is a praiseworthy accomplishment. And I share that sentiment with a lot of people.)
In 2020, Kawakami told a Guardian reporter that she used to think of feminism as “hysterical old women on TV”. “As you get older,” she continued, “It just seems so obvious for women to get feminist.” She describes her problem with “the patriarchal system” in Japan and the “religious-like pressure that people are put under to conform [there]”. A lot of her work tackles those themes head on—especially Breasts and Eggs.
[32:03] The things Kawakami stands up for—fair treatment of women, equitable marriage, working motherhood—are lived values for Kawakami. She married author Kazushige Abe in 2011.
Kazushige [Abe]’s first novel in English translation [Nipponia Nippon] is expected in fall 2023, translated by Kerim Yasar. The couple also have a young ten year old son together.
None of this is to say Kawakami wants to be pigeon-holed by the label “feminist”. (One of her frequent translators, Sam Bett, remarked, “I would say that if in a hundred years Mieko is remembered only for being a feminist author, she would look back on that and be pissed”.) Kawakami has been somewhat more diplomatic. She’s said she would prefer to be “understood as a human writer”.
[32:50] Mieko Kawakami also has a fascinating and public friendship with Haruki Murakami. Murakami, as you probably know, is one of Japan’s best known writers. He wrote a rave review of Chichi to ran after Kawakami won the Akutagawa Prize.
From 2015 to 2017 the pair had four different conversations totaling sixteen hours. These conversations were later published in a book called The Owl Spreads Its Wings with the Falling of the Dusk. Unfortunately, the whole thing hasn’t been translated into English. There is a short excerpt published on Lit Hub, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. You can find it linked on the episode page.
Bett and Boyd have translated parts of the conversation where Kawakami challenged Murakami about his female characters. Kawakami seems to speak for many women readers when she challenges [him] on some of the claims he makes. Claims like claims like… the narrator of Killing Commendatore is “the sort of person who a twelve year old girl would feel comfortable talking to about her breasts”.
[33:59] What English speakers read when they pick up Breasts and Eggs isn’t the book that won Kawakami the Akutagawa Prize in 2008. Our Breasts and Eggs is a significantly expanded version that Kawakami reworked and published in Japan in 2019 as Natsu Monogatari or Summer Story. I know I have some listeners who are able to read in other languages. You may have encountered Chichi to ran in translation. I know, for example, there’s a French translation of the 2008 Akutagawa winner.
In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Kawakami explained:
I put everything I had into [2008’s] Breasts and Eggs.I put everything I felt into it. But after 10 years, I knew that there was room to build on its philosophy of feminism, and I better understood the changes that women go through.
This is how Kawakami explained the book in an October 2020 English-language Twitter post:
It seems there are some misunderstandings of the facts.
I think it’s important to clear a few things up.
I wrote Breasts and Eggs from scratch in 2019. I used the same characters and settings of the novella I had written ten years ago, but both Book One and Book Two of Breasts and Eggs were written in 2019 and it’s a completely different book from the novella.
In that same post, she also clarified, “Some people wrote that Breasts and Eggs was originally a blog but that’s not true. I have no idea where that rumor came from”.
[35:35] It’s pretty clear to me that those rumors came from 2008 articles about Kawakami’s Akutagawa win. A particularly insulting article in the UK’s Independent is titled “Young Commuter Bloggers Snatch Japan’s Literary Laurels”. The entire article groups a young woman who just won Japan’s top literary award with people writing “cell phone novels”.
But cell phone novels are another story for another day… or maybe even another episode. Breasts and Eggs was not a cell phone novel. It has virtually nothing in common with a cell phone novel. And it didn’t start out as a blog, either.
It’s astonishing to read some of those early reviews of Chichi to ran. They come across as shockingly dismissive. A 2008 Independent article calls her “a Björjk-loving 31-year-old”. It goes on to quote author Roger Pulvers:
[Kawakami’s] popularity is part of the phenomenon of confessional fiction of the chick-lit variety, where the writer is very frank about sex and personal, especially family relationships.
I mean… maybe that’s not supposed to be dismissive, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a work of fiction that just won a coveted literary award labeled “chick-lit”.
Honestly, even some of the press coverage a decade later was pretty insulting. Take The Japan Times headline “‘Breasts and Eggs’: Not Just Some Elevated Piece of Literary Chick-Lit”—the emphasis there is obviously mine. By the time Breasts and Eggs premiered in English, Kawakami had become a global force to be reckoned with. In 2020, Breasts and Eggs was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and one of TIME Magazine’s 10 Best Books of 2020.
[37:47] Breasts and Eggs stars three women. Natsu is our narrator. She’s a writer who lives in Tokyo. In part one, her older sister, Makiko, is visiting from Osaka. And Natsu’s niece—Makiko’s twelve year old daughter—Midoriko has come along as well.
Kawakami establishes in just the first three pages that these women don’t have positive experiences of fatherhood. Natsu and Makiko’s dad didn’t work. He was physically violent. He abandoned them when they were in elementary school. And they fled with their mom before he could come back.
Makiko’s husband left while Makiko was pregnant with Midoriko. And Midorikoknows virtually nothing about her father.
The three women also represent three different attitudes about motherhood. Makiko, the oldest sister, is a mom. Her daughter thinks she regrets having a baby. I don’t think she regrets her daughter so much as the pregnancy itself. She can’t stand what pregnancy has done to her body. Part one of the novel is about how much she resents the way her body has aged, and she has come to Tokyo to consider getting breast implants.
Natsu doesn’t like sex. She’d kind of like to have a baby anyway.
Midoriko, the twelve year old, finds both sex and motherhood repulsive.
[39:12] Natsu has tried—really tried—to make sex work. She had a partner she wanted to spend her life with. But sex made her “so uneasy”, “never enjoyable or comfortable or fulfilling”.
“Opening [her] legs and having him inside [her]… was the worst”. Once her partner was naked on top of her, she says, she “was all alone.”
Gendered expectations made it impossible for her to communicate. She expects he would have listened. But she “just assumed [she] had to go along with him—because it was on [her], as a woman, to fulfill his sexual desires”. Sometimes she wonders if she can even be a woman without sexual desire. She’s come to think that “passion and sex [are] incompatible” for her. And she and her partner broke up some years ago.
It take[s] Natsu a few years to realize that maybe she doesn’t have to be alone just because she doesn’t like sex. One night she sees a report on TV: “Is it possible, without a partner, to get pregnant and raise a child on your own?—Sperm Donation: An In-Depth Report.” In most of what remains of the novel, Natsu researches artificial insemination. Is it right for her? What are the ethical implications?
Eventually, Natsu meets a man named Aizawa. Aizawa is an advocate for people conceived through anonymous sperm donation. In the end, Aizawa is the man who serves as Natsu’s sperm donor. They get around many of the problems with the sperm donation underground that we talked about earlier by lying to a doctor. And that’s not an uncommon solution.
The conclusion and denouement of Breasts and Eggs nicely wraps up some of the main themes of our episode today. Natsu and Aiza sort of fall in love. But they never get together. They never decide to have children together in a conventional way. And they never start a sexual relationship. To Natsu, it’s too important to have a baby. And neither sex nor romantic love are worth the sacrifices they require.
[41:20] What about twelve year old Midoriko? She’s going through puberty. Her friends are going through puberty. And it’s forcing the issue.
Midoriko journals throughout the novel. So even though she’s not the narrator, we get to hear her innermost thoughts. This is kind of a cool way to conduct a novel. She journals about one conversation at school that’s especially noteworthy:
…I forget who, but someone was saying, ‘I was born a girl, so yeah I definitely want to have a baby of my own eventually.’ Where does that come from, though? Does blood coming out of your body make you a woman? A potential mother? What makes that so great anyway?… Life is hard enough with just one body. Why would anyone ever want to make another one? I can’t even imagine why anyone would bother.
[42:13] For Japanese policy makers worried about “celibacy syndrome”, the oldest sister Makiko may offer the most threatening sentiment in the entire novel. As I’ve already mentioned, Makiko has been burned by the men in her life who were supposed to be father figures. She mentions that her ex, Midoriko’s father, claimed to be something of a feminist: “He went around, patting himself on the back, like he’s so much better than all those men,” she said. Then she summarizes the sorts of things he used to say—
I know the pain that women feel. I respect women. I’ve written papers about it, I know where all the landmines are. My favorite author is Virginia Woolf…
She goes on, “So fucking what, though, right? How many times did you clean the house last month? How many times did you cook? How many times did you go grocery shopping”
And then she concludes
There will come a time when women stop having babies. Or, I don’t know, we’ll reach a point where the whole process can be separated from women’s bodies, and we can look back at this time, when women and men tried to live together and raise families, as some unfortunate episode in human history.
[43:34] So why read Mieko Kawakami?
As I’ve mentioned, Mieko Kawakami is one of the most important voices coming out of Japan today. Her work is being widely translated. And her books are some of the most anticipated titles when they are released in English. The people translating her work—Sam Bett, David Boyd, Louise Heal Kawai, Hitomi Yoshio—are some of the most talented translators working between Japanese and English today.
Kawakami is a marvelous writer. And she takes up some of the ideas that are most important to contemporary Japan—really to any late-stage capitalist society. Questions about isolation, motherhood, pregnancy… all in a shrinking society.
Today we looked at Breasts and Eggs. It’s a good book. Not my favorite Mieko Kawakami—I love her novel Heaven. It is a story about the meaning of suffering from the perspective of a bullied middle school boy. Very difficult to read, but worth it—at least from my perspective.
[44:39] I’ve been reading from Sam Bett and David Boyd’s translation of Breasts and Eggs. Buy your books through our link to Bookshop.org to support the podcast.
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