Mizumura Minae’s An I-Novel begins with a caveat: the author herself once suggested that translating the novel, originally published in Japan in 1995, into English was singularly impossible…
The narrative that most Japanese embrace (or imagine they share) broke down; none of these “common values” proved the least effective in warding off the evil violence that erupted under us.—Haruki Murakami, Underground
New Religions and the Aum Affair
“New Religion” (“new religious movements” or NRM) is a nebulous term for religions founded in roughly the last two centuries. Broadly speaking, they are syncretic (pulling beliefs from multiple religions that predate them), and their teachings often deviate from societal norms. Japan has a particularly fraught relationship with New Religions, especially in the wake of the 1995 “Aum Affair.”
Very briefly, Aum Shinrikyo is a Japanese New Religion that began in the mid-1980s. Founder Shoko Asahara eventually claimed to be a Buddha; a reincarnation of the Hindu God of destroying evil, Shiva; and a Christ Messiah (Gunaratna). Over the course of a decade, the group evolved into a millenarian religious organization with political ambitions and over ten thousand members.
On 20 March 1995, elite figures in Aum leadership carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground train system. The attack killed twenty-seven people and injured thousands. In the aftermath, Japanese media whipped public opinion into an anti-Aum frenzy marked by hundreds of hours of largely anti-Aum programming on national TV. The public response quickly accelerated the century-old Japanese suspicion of New Religions and “permanently transformed concern about new religions into characterizations of these organizations as cults that kill” (McLaughlin).
The popular view in Japan was more or less that “certain types of movements, especially ones that, like Aum, preached a message of rejection of normative social mores and values and that aspired to the formation of a new spiritual order might prove dangerous to society” (Reader). In the words of one researcher, “more than any other new religion in recent history, [Aum] presented itself as the consequence of a perceived demise of modern society, one to be ritually expelled in order to reestablish social equilibrium” (McLaughlin).
But New Religious Movements like Aum have also proven to be a convenient “Other” in Japanese society. (For example, some media outlets and members of government intentionally conflated Aum with Japan’s largest New Religion, Soka Gakkai, to damage its credibility. Already a weakened organization, the group has never really recovered.) For example, The Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper condemned the attackers as “a dark, twisted shadow lurking somewhere in this peaceful and prosperous society” (as qtd. in Ushiyama and Baert).
Here, I want to explore just a few Japanese novels—1Q84, There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job, and Earthlings—that demonstrate an ongoing anxiety about Aum and the impact of New Religions. Haruki Murakami, Kikuko Tsumura, and Sayaka Murata all explore New Religion as a way to deal with alienation in modern Japanese culture.
Haruki Murakami on Aum
Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a non-fiction, genre-bending exploration of the 1995 attacks on the Tokyo metro. In what was published as part II of the English translation, “The Place That Was Promised,” Murakami presents interviews with former and then-current Aum members. One of the issues Murakami highlights is the feelings of “difference,” of “not fitting in” that Aum members feel:
There was a huge gap between the image I had of what an adult should be and the actual adults around me.
There always seemed to be a wall separating me from the rest of the world.
I don’t have any special skills, nothing makes me stand out from the crowd. I don’t even feel like I want to get married.
I felt a deep alienation between my outer and inner Self.
These are also the sorts of refrains repeated by many alienated characters in contemporary Japanese novels.
Murakami’s approach to “New Religions”—in the form of Aum in his non-fiction and in other forms in his fiction—is nuanced. Without ever excusing Aum or its members for the sarin attack, Murakami rejects the narrative of Aum as “foreign” or “Other.” Instead, he suggests that Aum is a response to alienation in contemporary Japanese society. He notes that
They [members of the Aum Science and Technology elite] couldn’t help having grave doubts about the inhumane, utilitarian gristmill of capitalism and the social system in which their own essence and efforts—even their own reasons for being—would be fruitlessly ground down.
To Murakami, Aum isn’t foreign, but a kind of “unwanted outcome” or “repressed subconscious” of an “excessively materialist society that excludes those who do not embrace the norms of capitalism” (Ushiyama and Baert).
Murakami’s conclusion is that it isn’t really helpful to break Aum members into Us and Them. Aum is a decidedly Japanese New Religion that exists within Japanese society, not outside it.
Murakami also explores New Religions in his 2009-10 novel 1Q84. Unlike in Underground, here he is not constrained by material truth; as he describes in his 2009 acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Literary Prize: “By telling skillful lies—which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true—the novelist can bring a truth out to a new place and shine a new light on it.”
Sakigake, the 1Q84’s New Religion, varies from Aum in several important ways. Nevertheless, it echoes Aum, most notably both organizations’ dependence on single charismatic gurus and their willingness to use violence to achieve their aims. (Note also that Aum was founded in 1984.) An act of violence carried out by a Sakigake splinter group seems to be the event that separates the 1984 in which the novel takes place (“1Q84”) from the historical 1984.
The novel’s heroine Aomame grew up in the Society of Witnesses—pretty transparently the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She is the strongest voice in the novel against what she thinks of as “religious fundamentalists”: their “intolerant worldview, their inflated sense of their own superiority, and their callous imposition of their own beliefs on others” fills her with an almost uncontrollable rage. But Murakami’s approach is more modulated.
As a writer, Murakami is deeply interested in metanarrative—stories that stories tell about stories. He is consistently wary of writing “good guys” and “bad guys” into his fiction because our lived reality excludes this kind of dualism. In 1Q84, Murakami considers the role of religion in helping people define the meta narrative of their own lives. In the words of Sakigake’s Leader,
Most people are not looking for provable truths. As you [Aomame] said, truth is often accompanied by intense pain, and almost no one is looking for painful truths. What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have some meaning. Which is where religion comes from.
The words call to mind Underground’s afterword: “Reality is created out of confusion and contradiction, and if you exclude those elements, you’re no longer talking about reality.” In 1Q84 as in the rest of his work, Murakami never creates a fictional “reality” without plenty of “confusion and contradiction.” Religions are harmful when they tell comforting stories that no longer reflect the real world.
One of the more interesting features of 1Q84 is how carefully Aomame and the Dowager who commissions her assassinations toe the line that separates them from any other cult-like organization. They, too, are alienated from society. They, too, make up an insular group. They, too, adopt their own code of morality and consequences. The Dowager insists on paying Aomame for her assassinations to prevent her from “feeling that [she] can do anything [she] want[s] as long as it’s the right thing and [her] feelings are pure.” Leader himself notes that Aomame’s attitude “is itself the very essence of religion.”
Again, for Murakami there is no Us and Them for people who might be attracted to a New Religion.
Lonely No More in There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job
I’d like to thank Bloomsbury for an early review copy of this novel. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job was released in the UK in 2020 and will be released in the US on March 23, 2021.
Kikuko Tsumura’s There No Such Thing as an Easy Job is about a young woman who has burnt herself out through overwork in a beloved first career. “The Postering Job” is the third of four attempts she makes to find less taxing work for herself. This time, she’ll be asking people to put up public service announcements in the front windows of their homes—“Check behind you when turning corners!”, “Make our town greener!”, “Water belongs to everyone”. (Despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to determine whether these sorts of posters are a normal part of life in Japan.)
On her first day of work, the narrator finds many posters that her employer isn’t responsible for. They feature a beautiful young woman, casually dressed, holding out her hand. The text reads “Lonely No More!” and provides the Lonely No More! organization’s contact information. These posters have a more “psychological” emphasis and a different “emotional weight” than the public service announcements the narrator is handing out.
The narrator soon learns that Lonely No More! is aggressively recruiting in the neighborhood. One resident tells her, “They don’t give up. It’s not a job with them, see—it’s a dogma.”
There are, of course, other and timelier Japanese religious organizations that Lonely No More! might call to mind for Japanese readers. Nevertheless, the Aum Affair has, perhaps indelibly, colored the public perception of all New Religions (see McLaughlin), and I feel fairly confident that Tsumura invokes an Aum-related dread in her novel.
Much like Aum, Lonely No More! exploits community members alienation or their feelings that they can’t easily participate in normal social behavior.
Also like Aum, Lonely No More! uses people who are young and attractive as its public face. The narrator reflects on how such an organization might prey on the young; she recognizes how much more vulnerable she would have been to these tactics if she were in her twenties instead of in her thirties.
When the protagonist finally investigates a Lonely No More! meeting, Tsumura’s narration again carries implicit Aum anxiety. She describes the members’ “strangely large pupils that seemed to bleed over into their irises, making their eyes seem either out of focus, or weirdly well in focus.” (Strangely dilated pupils are one of the most well-known symptoms of sarin poisoning.)
She also describes tactics that sound almost like they are pulled from the testimony of a former Aum member interviewed in Underground. He “dropped by” an Aum dojo, caught a sermon, and spoke with an Aum follower. “Later,” he continues, “I realized that was one of Aum’s standard tactics. Usually people who go to these kinds of places are lacking something or seeking something, but the dojo seemed pleasant enough, and being asked to join like that, out of the blue, I just went with the flow…”
The narrator understands the potential impact of this kind of recruitment:
To believe that such tactics wouldn’t work… was overly optimistic. In reality, when issued an invitation by a good-looking youngster who was sympathetic to their predicament, there were a lot of people who would fall for it.
For Tsumura, there’s no easy solution for dealing with groups like Lonely No More! “Helping people feel less lonely doesn’t seem like such a bad aim,” the narrator reflects, “But why do they have to go barging their way into people’s lives like that?” Surely an exploitative group isn’t the answer, but, for many people, there isn’t an obvious alternative. The narrator helps her employer successfully drive Lonely No More! out of the neighborhood, but the organization and then her employer disappear overnight. The rather anodyne conclusion to the chapter doesn’t address how the narrator or Lonely No More! members feel about being abruptly abandoned.
Tsumura, like Murakami, must carefully draw the line between which kind of organizations are threatening and which are not. The posters the narrator has been asked to put up are themselves intended for “the regularization of society.” When the narrator speaks with each homeowner, she has been assigned to ask, “How many people are in your family? Do you have any concerns? Do you have anyone to talk to about your concerns?” This is the kind of personal information Lonely No More! would exploit, and the narrator senses “a certain darkness lurking” behind the questions. Perhaps Tsumura is flirting with the idea that many of us live more closely aligned with cult-like behaviors than we would like to admit.
I’d like to thank Grove Press for a review copy of this novel. Earthlings is available now from your favorite bookseller.
All of Sayaka Murata’s work published in English (“A Clean Marriage,” Convenience Store Woman, and now Earthlings) features women who are alienated—from society, from their families, and even from their own bodies. (Read more about women’s alienation from their bodies in Murata and other contemporary Japanese writers.) Alienation takes a more sinister turn in Earthlings and takes on traits of a New Religion.
Earthlings‘s Natsuki may be one of contemporary Japanese fiction’s most alienated characters. She notes early in the novel that the phrase “close-knit family” describes her parents and her sister; if she “weren’t there,” “the three of them would make a perfect unit.”
Like Murakami, Murata explicitly relates feelings of alienation to late-stage capitalism. Natsuki describes herself as “a tool for the town’s good” who must “study hard to become a good work tool” and “be a good girl, so that [she can] become a reproductive organ for the town.” She expects to be a failure at both, but she knows she will need to be self-sufficient someday—“when you [are] able to buy food for yourself, you [don’t] need to worry about being thrown away.”
Eventually Natsuki marries Tomoya, a man who is as opposed to society’s “Factory” as she is. (The idea that society is a Factory for making babies echoes Murakami’s “utilitarian gristmill.”) Natsuki and Tomoya marry only to avoid external criticism and never consummate the relationship. The couple reunites with Natsuki’s equally alienated cousin Yuu. They aren’t weird, they decide together—they’re all from another planet, Popinpobopia.
Natsuki has always lived by trying to allow society to “brainwash” her so she, too, “would be able to live with a smile on [her] face in the virtual reality world in which everyone [is] living.” With Yuu’s help, the trio decides instead to leave society behind and live as they want.
Living on their own, without the pressures of normative culture, darkens quickly. A few months in, they carry out murder to protect themselves and then cannibalize the corpses to keep themselves fed. When that source of meat fails, they begin cannibalizing each other in a stomach-turning orgy of consuming and being consumed.
Perhaps what makes the Popinpobopians the most frightening group of all is its size. It is a group of only three, farther from society than Aum, Sakigake, or Lonely No More!. That extra separation from society drives them to the most unthinkable (though, frankly, not the most destructive) behaviors of all.
McLaughlin, Levi. “Did Aum Change Everything? What Soka Gakkai Before, During, and After the Aum Shinrikyo Affair Tells Us About the Persistent ‘Otherness’ of New Religions” in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 2012.
Ushiyama, Rin and Patrick Baert. “Cultural Trauma, Counter-Narratives, and Dialogical Intellectuals: the Works of Murakami Haruki and Mori Tatsuya in the Context of the Aum Affair” in Theory and Society, 2016. (Creative Commons Licensed)
The unnamed narrator in Tsumura Kikuko’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job quits a job she loves after developing “burnout syndrome”. Her first career (the reader won’t find out what it was until the novel’s final pages) has sucked up “every scrap of energy” she had. She asks a recruiter to find her an easy job—something along the lines of “sitting all day in a chair overseeing the extraction of collagen for use in skin care products”, she suggests…
People from My Neighborhood is a book about relationships. Kawakami Hiromi’s collection of micro-fiction, itself only 120-pages long, is about the members of the close-knit community in an exurban Tokyo town. For a volume of short stories, the relationships between characters are remarkably strong. Two and three pages at a time, the reader begins to see the tangled network of ties that bind the people from the neighborhood together…
Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch in training, leaves her rural village for a bustling seaside town. With her, she takes only a bento lunchbox, a radio, and her black cat Jiji. She travels by broom, of course. Broom flight is the only magic Kiki has.
Western audiences may know Kiki from the massively popular, heavily-lauded 1989 Studio Ghibli film. Hayao Miyazaki, as always, builds his own world out of his source material. There is still a great deal for readers to discover in author Kadono Eiko’s original, recently released in a charming English translation by Emily Balistrieri…
Asa’s husband has just been transferred, so the couple moves into his parents’ rental house, next door to her in-laws. When they move, Asa must quit her job, but “it’s not really the kind of job that’s worth holding on to” anyway. A coworker assumes Asa must be thrilled to become a housewife. She will be “living the dream”, free to bake or garden. And, of course, to have children. “Once you move out and you have some time on your hands,” her coworker conjectures, “I bet you’ll get pregnant in no time.”
Angry women hold a special place in Japanese folklore. Many of Japan’s best-known tales are about “vengeful ghosts”, almost always women, who wreak havoc on the living for some perceived wrong.
Where the Wild Ladies Are recasts such classic ghost stories for a contemporary audience. Matsuda Aoko reinvents these women, highlighting the strength of will that drives them to become ghosts in the first place. As ghosts, they are no longer victims of fate. By becoming monstrous, they gain power…
In The Kojiki, the first anthropomorphic gods are Izanami (She Who Beckoned) and Izanagi (He Who Beckoned). They quickly notice that their bodies have some key differences:
Now the mighty one [Izanagi] turned to the mighty one [Izanami] and questioned his sister, saying: “How is your body formed?”
She replied, saying: “My body is empty in one place.”
And so the mighty one [Izanagi] proclaimed: “My body sticks out in one place. I would like to thrust the part of my body that sticks out into the part of your body that is empty and fill it up to birth lands. How does birthing them in this way sound to you?”
The mighty one [Izanami] replied, saying: “That sounds good.” (The Kojiki)
As the first anthropomorphized gods, Izanami and Izanagi are also Japan’s first sexed and gendered gods. Before they couple, they perform a simple ritual, passing around a pillar and greeting each other in turn. This ritual is presumably why these kami (gods, for lack of a succinct alternative) are He Who Beckoned and She Who Beckoned. When Izanami beckons first, all their offspring are malformed. When Izanagi beckons first, they begin to give birth to the Japanese archipelago and many of the kami behind its more significant natural phenomena.
Eventually, Izanami dies giving birth to the fire god. Izanagi kills his newborn son in rage and grief, then goes to Yomi, the land of the dead, to search for his wife. Sadly, it is too late for Izanami—she has already eaten food from the underworld. Izanagi breaks his promise not to look at her, only to discover that she has become a rotting corpse. He runs away and seals the entrance to Yomi: “as they stood there with the boulder between them, they declared themselves divorced” (The Kojiki).
Enraged, Izanami vows that she will now kill 1,000 people a day; Izanagi counters he will build 1,500 birthing huts every day to thwart her.
Izanagi then rushes to a river to purify himself. (Purification is an important facet of Japanese religion.) Washing the filth from his body begets new kami, including the sun goddess Ametarasu.
Let me note here that Ametarasu is a part of an elite group—the sun anthropomorphized as a female, rather than as a male. Most other mythologies with women as sun deities are what you might call “out of the mainstream” today: early Egyptian, Canaanite, Celtic, pre-Islamic Arabian… In the mythologies familiar to most Westerners, the sun deity is male, often paired with a female moon goddess. The sun as a goddess is just one of the moments in Japanese mythology where a female figure takes on a position of importance, or even supremacy.
Like many creation narratives, The Kojiki takes place long before its people had any means of writing The earliest events of The Kojiki ostensibly take place before or during the Jomon Period. Material evidence of Japan’s prehistorical Jomon culture dates as early as 40k BCE.
Over centuries, a belief system centered on the sun goddess Ametarasu spread from the centers of power. (A ruling family used its purported divine descent from Ametarasu to help consolidate power.) But around the same time, the movement of peoples and culture between Japan and the continent was introducing new ideas to the Japanese:
- The Kojiki relates that a Chinese emperor sent a Confucian teacher and The Analects to Japan around 400 CE, although this account is often disputed.
- Recent scholarship has placed the gradual importation of Daoist ideas into Japan between the fifth and eighth centuries (Richey).
- In the mid-to-late sixth century, a delegation from the Korean Peninsula brought Buddhist priests to Japan.
In early East Asian histories, there are many accounts of women with political and/or religious power in Japan. In fact, “the earliest Japan of which we have any real historical relic is a time in the third century when the islands were ruled by a priestess and her household” (Ellwood). Notably, we learn about Himiko (also Pimiko or Shingi Wao) in the classical Chinese history Records of the Three Kingdoms. The writer describes her this way:
[Himiko] occupied herself with magic and sorcery and bewitched the populace. Thereupon they placed her on the throne.Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories, as qtd. in De Bary, et al.
This (presumably male) chronicler falls back on that favorite accusation of men threatened by a woman’s power—“she’s a witch.” But this kind of religiopolitical power seems to have been the norm in early Japan, where women held important shamanistic positions and were said to be actually possessed by kami. “Before the importation of Chinese culture,” Sallie B. King claims, “shamanistic miko were sometimes powerful women who served at the highest level of the state.”
Though there is always a difference between theology and institutional practice, King describes Shinto as a set of beliefs in which it is “not possible” to “divide the world into absolute categories of sacred and profane, soul and body, heaven and earth” (note the contradiction with the dualism of Daoism) or to “identify females with the inferior member of each pair.”
Robert Ellwood makes a case that Japan experienced a “patriarchal revolution” that coincided with the introduction of Daoist ideas (especially yin and yang, which I’ll come back to in a minute), Confucianism, and Buddhism. Confucianism, in particular, is a patriarchal tradition: a shared generative force passes down through the male line, giving pride of place to a family’s oldest male offspring. Many schools of Buddhist practice and teaching, moreover, give special emphasis to the role of male monks; even the historical Buddha long resisted creating an order of nuns.
By the time of The Kojiki’s promulgation in the 710s, society was “largely denatured of real female magic, mystery, or personality” (Ellwood, emphasis his). The sun goddess and empresses had become “figureheads in heavenly and earthy patriarchal orders, at best only sanctifying them with matriarchal tokens.”
So, The Kojiki presumably draws on an older tradition that predates Ellwood’s “patriarchal revolution.” The written, eighth century account, though, takes a native, shamanistic, female-(centered?) tradition and superimposes the religious philosophies gradually adopted into Japanese culture. This tension—between older and contemporary attitudes about women—comes across in Natsuo Kirino’s The Goddess Chronicle.
The Goddess Chronicle
On the timeless island of Umihibe in ancient Japan, life revolves around two female shamans. Kamikuu (“Child of the Gods”) takes the role of yang for the island—she is creative, pure, life-giving, fertile.
Kamikuu’s sister—her paired yin—is Namima (“Woman Amid the Waves”). Namima is her sister’s opposite: she watches over the dark and the dead and must remain perpetually a virgin.
Namima is the novel’s central character and narrator. She isn’t aware of her role as “Woman Amid the Waves” until the day she takes on that role. She has already broken the role’s central taboo and secretly become pregnant. She and her lover flee Umihibe in the night. After giving birth to their daughter, Namima wakes up to her lover strangling her to death. Eventually her spirit makes its way to Yomi, where she meets an Izanami who continues to nurse the grudge against Izanagi she has held since the beginning of the world. Namima spends the rest of the novel as Izanagi’s faithful attendant.
Yang and Yin Debasing a Goddess
Recall the importation of Chinese ideas into Japan. One of the most enduring is the Daoist notion of unity and duality often cribbed in the West as yin and yang. Very briefly, this dualism describes how forces that seem opposite or contrary are actually connected and interdependent. Yin is the receptive principle, associated with a host of natural phenomena, including disorder, dark, and water. Yang is the active principle, associated with order, light, fire… Particularly under Confucianism, the yang became associated with the male, and became the greater of the two. Yin and yang have often loaned a philosophical explanation for men’s superior position to women.
On Umihebi, “the dualities found in nature are embodied by women instead of men” (Lianying). Women are mothers or virgins. They deal with life or death. They are objects of worship or pity.
Lianying claims “women are all excluded from the decision-making process of the societies they inhabit,” but this isn’t precisely true on Umihebi. Even though Kamikuu is a woman, she is also yang—masculine and active. She may not choose her fate—which of the villagers of either sex does?—but she takes on an important leadership role on the island for the rest of her life. It is the men on Umihebi who are disposable, who are excluded, not the women.
The ancient Japanese may have recognized this dual, contradictory facet of woman’s nature, even in a woman’s biological functions: “There is some evidence… that in very early times, menstruation and childbirth may have been seen as either polluting or sacred, or both” (King). To Kirino’s Izanami, “there is a deep connection between death and birth.”
Kirino’s Izanami’s provides her own explanation why yin and yang, though equally valuable parts of a whole, are no longer equally respected:
I [Namima] recalled Izanami’s words: “Heaven and earth, man and woman, birth and death, day and night, light and dark, yin and yan. You may wonder why everything was paired in this way, but a single entity would have been insufficient. In the beginning, two became one, and from that union new life came. Whenever a single entity was paired with its oppose, the value of both became clear from the contrast—and the mutual association enriched the meaning of both.”
But once Izanami had died, the value of the pairing was lost and she became associated only with the dark half: earth, woman, death, night, dark, yin and, yes, pollution.
The Japanese are generally more tolerant of ambiguity than English-speakers. But Izanami’s position is also uniquely contradictory. She is a goddess; she has died. She was life; she’s now death. She loathes her position; she also chooses it.
(Lianying claims that being goddess of the underworld is “a role not of [Izanami’s] choice,” but it is. After Kirino’s Izanagi dies a mortal death, Izanami has an opportunity to let go of her anger. Yet despite continually claiming it has been her fate to become the goddess of the underworld, she finally declares, “It is my lot, my choice to accept all of the world’s defilement.”)
In a world divided between yin ang yang, Izanami doesn’t fit neatly into either category—does she bring life or death? Izanami’s tragedy, Kirino proposes, “lies in her inability to define who she wants to be” (Lianying).
Who Tells Your Story?
At the novel’s end, Namima claims, “This, then, is Izanami’s story.” Why isn’t Izanami the narrator?
Namima is the narrator of Izanami’s story because her story is Izanami’s. On one level, “the identification with Okami [polite word for kami] is an experiential fulfillment of Shinto teachings on the identity of human nature (once sufficiently purified) with kami nature” (King). On another, the story Namima and Izanami share is the story of all women—their choices limited by the structures the patriarchy imposes because of their biology. After all, as Izanami notes, “It’s always the woman who dies.”
Anesaki Masaharu. History of Japanese Religion, 2012.
De Bary, WM, et al. ed. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600, 2nd ed., 2001.
Richey, Jefffrey L., ed. Daoism in Japan: Chinese Traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture, 2018.
Each year in Japan, thousands of people disappear. They haven’t been kidnapped. They haven’t been murdered. (Japan has one of the lowest murder rates in the world. An American is almost twenty-seven times more likely to become a homicide victim.)
They are the evaporated—the johatsu.
First, let’s acknowledge that the evocative noun probably creates an exoticism that isn’t entirely deserved. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, there were more than 56,000 Americans over the age of 18 with active missing persons records at the end of 2019. Nevertheless, Japanese privacy laws make the johatsu almost impossible to track down. The government relies on citizens to register in the cities where they live; if they don’t comply, there is no official record of where they are.
Catering to people who want to disappear has become a niche business in Japan. Movers help would-be johatsu vanish into neighborhoods where they can live anonymously—often hotbeds of activity by the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza.
According to Léna Mauger, a French journalist who brought the johatsu to the attention of the Western world with her book, The Vanished: The “Evaporated People” of Japan in Stories and Photographs, people who disappear do so most often because they are ashamed. A student fails an important exam. A woman falls in love with another man. A breadwinner loses his job.
The people left behind often never find out why their loved one has vanished.
Manazuru opens with the protagonist, Kei, taking an unplanned trip to Manazuru, a tiny coastal town in Kanagawa Prefecture of only eight or so thousand residents.
Her husband disappeared “without warning twelve years ago.”
The language Kawakami uses to describe Kei’s complex feelings is evocative and haunting:
After Rei’s disappearance, I had no place. I still didn’t know where to channel what I felt. When the path ahead is still unformed, we lose all sense of our location. The fear in me resembled the inability to tell upstream from downstream, to perceive the direction the water was going.
Only the things we are still holding on to can vanish into the past. If we no longer have it, it can’t be lost that way. Can’t vanish anywhere. Nonexistent, it is nonetheless unable, moreover, to go.
I’ve heard that when you start to dream of what you’ve lost, it means the hurt is healing… I never dream of Rei, even now.
More than a decade in, she is no longer in real mourning. Like a Penelope who will never welcome Odysseus home, what she needs most is closure. Is her husband still alive? Why did he leave? “Did [her] husband want to die? Or did he disappear because he wanted to live?” Will she ever see him again? Maybe most importantly, has the time come to let go of her grief?
Sometimes, of late, I forget him. It’s strange, when his presence used to be so thick. When his sudden departure only made his presence thicker.
Perhaps what most holds Kei back is that she considers first her husband and now their teenaged daughter to be extensions of herself: “I had thought we were family, the borders between our bodies indistinct, Momo and Rei [her husband] and I, the three of us mingling, dissolving.” Kei is unaccountably unable to say Rei’s name even during their marriage, and Kawakami reinforces Kei’s loss of self by exploring Kei and Rei as mirrors of each other.
Kei compares Rei at the beginning of their relationship to “the retreating tide.” “Try to stand your ground,” she says, “still it draws your body in.” With Rei, she “sensed [her]self blurring.” After they marry and have a child together, “even then” her body “blurs.” When he leaves, he destroys the part of her he has figuratively taken into himself. (There’s probably something Freudian to be said about the way Kei, a woman, feels that she has entered Rei, a man.) Later, when Kei reads Rei’s diary after he disappears, she finds it “sickening” because it forces her to acknowledge “he is separate from [her].”
After birth, Kei “did not regard [her daughter Momo] as her own person.” Admitting that Momo is a separate self is terrifying: “It was all right as long as I told myself I was nothing but my own body, but when I let my feelings shift toward Momo’s infant weight in my hands, I became terribly afraid.” Twelve years after her husband’s disappearance, she’s now losing another part of herself—her teenaged daughter is becoming an autonomous person.
Being the wife of a johatsu has inalterably shaped Kei, her expectations for her life, and her relationships with other people. Even twelve years later, it still calls her self into question.
A Man takes up the johatsu from a different angle as an attorney tries to track down the true identity of a client’s dead husband. A Man is about the things that drive people to evaporate—and, on a philosophical level, what questions the life of a johatsu raises about the nature of identity.
Author Keiichiro Hirano claims his novel is inspired by a man he met in a bar—Kido-san, the namesake of the novel’s protagonist. The man introduces himself as one person, then eventually claims to be another. “Do you understand what it’s like to be honest through lies?” the man asks.
Daisuké Taniguchi is the novel’s most important character, though he dies just a few pages in. His mourning widow, Rié, invites his estranged brother to her home. He notices the picture of her late husband on the Buddhist altar: “That isn’t Daisuké,” he reveals.
Rié believes she must now uncover her husband’s true identity. She makes arrangements for a lawyer, Akira Kido, to investigate on her behalf.
Kido soon begins to take the case a little too seriously, to ask himself what it would be like to change identities. Pretending for one night to be someone else, he “feel[s] out the comfort of his new life as though trying on a garment or test-driving a car.” Maybe this will be his new hobby: “synchronizing himself with the life story of another so as to vicariously inhabit their inner world.”
Hirano also raises the role of larger societal problems that make disappearance so tempting to Kido—presumably to an entire group of Japanese. Kido suffers from “a kind of existential anxiety” that has more to do with “Japan’s dark prospects,” the narrator tells us, than they do with his own identity.
Eventually, Kido discovers that “Daisuké Taniguchi,” Rié’s husband, is actually Makoto Hara, the son of a notorious murderer running away from what he considers his tainted family—recall how many of the johatsu disappear because of feelings of shame. With the help of a forger, he has bought Taniguchi’s place on the Taniguchi family register so he could assume a different identity. (A family register is an important document in Japanese culture and government, keeping official track, for example, of births and deaths.)
One of the-character-formerly-known-as-Makoto’s old friends describes him with a notably moving metaphor:
Makoto was, let’s say… Well, you ever heard of gender identity disorder? You know where your body and mind just don’t match up? For Makoto it was something like that. Yup. Like someone’s stuffed you into this disgusting mascot suit and you’re stuck in there for your whole life.
By disappearing, Makoto Hara is able to discover his own identity.
Manazuru and, to a certain extent A Man, both end without a neat resolution. Perhaps that is because, by their very nature, the johatsu and the social conditions that create them are unresolved. We can make guesses about whys and hows, but, as Kido reflects, “It might very well be hubris to believe that you could understand a person’s true thoughts and feelings even when looking straight at them.”
“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.