On March 11, 2011, the 9.0-magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami that swept the Tohoku region in Northeastern Japan. Residents had less than ten minutes to flee from a 133-foot wave that rushed to shore at speeds up to 435 miles an hour.
The earthquake also triggered three meltdowns at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Because of the radioactive fallout, some of the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated will never be able to return home.
Ten years later, anger still simmers beneath the surface about what is widely viewed as Tokyo’s failure to deal with the emergency and its aftermath.
Sacred Cesium Ground
More than other translated works of “Fukushima fiction,” Sacred Cesium Ground is almost a direct allegory for the situation on the ground in Tohoku in the months following the “3/11 Triple Disaster.” Through its use of symbolism, Sacred Cesium Ground is an allegory not only for the aftermath of 3/11, not only for the consequences of generations of neglect of the Tohoku region, but also of the structural problems in Japanese society that left Japan open to a disaster of 3/11’s magnitude in the first place.
The Cows: The people of Tohoku
The novel opens with Nishino (we’re never privy to her first name) beginning a short stint as a volunteer at The Fortress of Hope. The “fortress” is a farm that has taken in irradiated cattle that the government ordered local farmers to cull. These cows are essentially “living debris” leftover when the floodwaters receded.
Using animals to stand in for people is… problematic. Especially when you’re dealing with a group of people who have already been marginalized. In this case, using beef cattle as a symbol for the people of an entire region reminds us that the people of Tohoku were treated as resources—things rather than people—since long before 2011.
In the words of The Fortress of Hope’s ideological leader
“All of us abandoned and forgotten peoples. The thinning out and culling. In the same way that the cattle are being ‘disposed of’: aren’t we too, right now, receiving the same treatment.”
The Fortress of Hope: Tohoku Itself
From the outside, the Fortress of Hope looks like a powerful symbol of Tohoku’s resilience. (The Fortress of Hope is loosely based on the Ranch of Hope, sited within the 20-km Exclusion Zone set by the Japanese government.) Before Nishino arrives, she has imagined it as “some kind of utopia.”
But Nishino discovers the harsh reality about The Fortress of Hope and Tohoku itself soon after she arrives: “this was a space summarily cut loose and left to its own devices.”
Tohoku has a complicated relationship with the rest of Japan. Some scholars even classified the region as an “internal colony.” Tokyo has used the region’s resources and people for centuries, most recently as a site for nuclear power plants. The Fukushima Daiichi Plants were, for example, run by a Tokyo company to meet Tokyo’s electricity needs.
In the weeks that followed 3/11, the Japanese were inundated with calls to “Fight on Japan!” At the time, government leaders presented a united front: all of Japan would work together to recover and rebuild. The messages were messages of hope.
Miko Mari: Opportunistic Japanese politicians
On Nishino’s final day at the farm, she hears that they expect a visitor—the up-and-coming, young and trendy political hotshot Miko Mari. She is “the first politician who had been put on the public stage by a producer, a guy known for promoting bands.” Mari doesn’t expect more from her visit than a photo op with the ranch’s cutest calves and a few soundbites.
Mari herself isn’t really a villain; she doesn’t care enough about the Fortress to be a villain. But her advocacy for Tohoku is all show. The people at the Fotress can’t count on her for any meaningful relief anymore than the people of Tohoku can count on politicians to keep their promises.
“Mudshit”: The radioactive fallout from the Fukushima power plants
Nishino doesn’t resort to profanity often—at least in English translation—but she pulls no punches when she describes the filth at the Fortress of Hope.
This mudshit is no ordinary ranching runoff: it is contaminated by radioactive fallout. The novel’s grotesque climax reminds us that the shit is also made up of the bodies of the dead. One character describes what happened to the cows who starved to death after 3/11: before they could be rescued
Bodies in a big tub, full of piss…There was so many flies the air looked black. So many, when you breathed they came into your nostrils and you couldn’t open your eyes. On the ground at your feet, big fat maggots, everywhere. You couldn’t walk without stepping on them; when you stepped on them they would go pop, pop.
Later, Nishino falls into the muck. She scoops up a handful for the horrified politician. “Take a good look at this,” she insists “This is evidence of life.”
This mudshit, this cesium mudshit, this filled-to-the-brim proof-of-cows-that-had-lived-and-had-been-abandoned—I thrust it before [Mari’s] eyes.
What about Nishino?
Nishino, stands in for all of Japan’s marginalized people.
Rachel DiNitto, author of Fukushima Fiction: The Literary Landscape of Japan’s Triple Disaster observes that “the narrative thrust of the story appropriates the nuclear disaster in order to tell Nishino’s personal narrative.” DiNitto’s criticism is generally more nuanced, but this comment rather misses the point. The long-term cost of the 3/11 disaster—broken communities, irrecoverable careers, mental illness, nuclear fallout—are borne by Tohoku residents precisely because they are, have always been, Japan’s marginalized.
It’s also worth noting that Nishino identifies as a cow herself; she doesn’t just emotionally connect with the cows but is, in a meaningful sense, one of them. She notes how the language of the temp agency she once worked at (“human capital” and “human resources”) connotes that the workers are, like the cattle, merely a means to an end. In a flashback to a scene of domestic abuse, her husband calls her a cow. She simply accepts it:
I had become a cow. With the hooves of my front feet, I was skillfully holding the chopsticks and the rice bowl.
Why, Nishino asks herself, does she always go back to her husband?:
Why did I accept that change each and every time? I knew I was going to be betrayed yet again in the future. What was I hanging on to?
Her quiet resolution to leave her husband at the end of the novel is a hopeful note for Japanese society. Maybe Japan, too, rid itself of a system that leaves so many behind.
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
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.
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.
To appreciateThe Goddess Chronicle, you need to be familiar with The Kojiki, the oldest recorded mythical origin story of Japan. (Kirino provides a good summary in part II, chapters 5-6.)
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 Analectsto 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 opposite, 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 [Kirino’s 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. 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.
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.
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 Twilightuniverse, 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 particularlywants 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 Notebookin 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.
Like many other countries, Japan has its own body of folklore with cannibalistic monsters. For more than a thousand years, demonic female yamauba have roamed Japan’s mountains, assisting some travelers, eating others. The connotations of cannibalism in Japanese folklore are always negative.
Today, cannibalism is a quietly contentious political issue in Japan. In the early 90s, historian Toshiyuki Tanaka publicized documents that he claims “clearly show that this cannibalism was done by a whole group of Japanese soldiers [during World War II], and in some cases they were not even starving.” He claimed the motive was most often “to consolidate the group feeling of the troops”—what better way to unite troops than to break a strong taboo together?
Tanaka reported that he hadn’t been able to publish his work in Japan because it was deemed “too sensitive.” As recently as 2014, many in Japan were outraged by the depiction of Japanese cannibalism in the WWII biopic Unbroken—“there was absolutely no cannibalism,” one Shinto priest claimed, “That is not our custom.”
There’s also the notorious case of Issei Sagawa, the Japanese man who killed and cannibalized a Dutch woman. He has both horrified and fascinated the public for the last thirty years and developed a kind of cult following not unlike the unsettling hero worship of Ted Bundy in the United States. After a stint in prison of only two years, he’s made a career of his notoriety. His colorful resume includes soft-core porn star and sushi critic.
And don’t forget the internet rumor that Japan passed legislation in 2014 to allow for the consumption of human flesh. (It didn’t, of course.) According to the fake news, you could now eat part of another person for as little as $120.
In each of these cases, the Japanese response to cannibalism is more or less the same as the American response. Cannibalism is perhaps the ultimate taboo, the taboo Sigmund Freud describes, fairly accurately, as the only taboo “to be universally proscribed” and “completely surmounted.”
On the other hand, Elizabeth Kenney sees cannibalistic symbolism in the Shinto funeral—for example “all the eating that goes on during the funeral rites,” including simultaneously with the cremation of the corpse, and the custom of picking through the ashes with chopsticks for bone fragments.
Kenney also claims that, even though Shinto priests aren’t “sympathetic to this practice,” multiple Japanese have reported eating bone or drinking a tea made with ashes: “We drank Grandmother’s ashes in order to keep her with us, to be joined with her.”
In the West, cannibalism as communion isn’t completely unknown either. In a Christian context, for example, it might call to mind the Christian Eucharist, when Jesus instructs his disciples, “Take this bread and eat it, for it is my body.” (Pagan Romans used false accusations against Christians to justify persecution, making Christians into an Other, as I’ll discuss in a minute.)
It’s this second idea, that cannibalism accommodates the joining of two or more people, that I want to explore.
Cannibalism as the Communion
In an influential book on the subject, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, anthropologist William Arens calls into question whether there has ever been firm, substantiable evidence of cultures that accepted the practice of cannibalism. Claims about cannibalism are an almost universal way of marking the Other, dividing the Them who eat people and the Us who do not. Arens’s claim is especially relevant in a post-colonial context because cannibalism historically “acts as a mythic justification for the dominance of colonizer over colonized.”
In ME and Earthlings, cannibalism is inverted. Instead of marking difference, it accommodates the creation of community.
ME by Tomoyuki Hishino
Japanese uses several first-person pronouns (e.g. I, me, or we). Ore, the I used in the original Japanese title of Tomoyuki Hoshino’s ME, is a gruff and almost exclusively male pronoun. The title, Ore Ore, refers to a scam young men pulled on older people, calling them to say, “It’s me,” and ask for urgently-needed money. The Japan Times estimates that, at its height, the “Ore Ore” cost Japan’s elderly $450 million a year.
The “Ore Ore” is really only a launching point for a much broader narrative. After successfully pulling the scam, Hitoshi Nagano discovers that his victim’s mother thinks he really is her son, Daiki Hiyana. Later, Hitoshi’s own mother doesn’t recognize him, and he quickly and inevitably takes on Daiki’s name and family. Thus begins the exploration of the novel’s central themes: “individualism, masculinity and nationalism” (Kidd).
Hitoshi/Daiki now meets two nearly-identical strangers, both also named Hitoshi Nagano. The trio initially form a closely-bonded group. Hitoshi/Daiki thinks, “we couldn’t help believing in ourselves, even though in our heart of hearts, each of us was distrustful of himself.” This distrust of self will become both pathological and deadly later in the novel.
In spite of this friendship, these first three MEs are fundamentally lonely. Only one of them has a girlfriend, and he breaks up with her shortly after meeting the two other MEs. Hitoshi/Daiki assures himself, “We don’t need marital partners. Our mutual understanding far exceeds any that we might have with a girlfriend or wife.” Even though they later discover female MEs, the protagonist never seriously considers a romantic relationship. We are again faced with a protagonist who, like Breasts and Egg’s Natsuko and Convenience Store Woman’s Mizuki, isn’t strongly motivated by sex or relationships.
The bond between the young men continues until their world quickly fills with ever more other MEs. One of the trio feels driven to murder his two companions, a compulsion all the MEs begin to share. The MEs start using the euphemism “to delete” in place of “to murder,” a turn of phrase that dehumanizes and calls to mind something artificial.
The situation soon turns apocalyptic, and Hitoshi/Daiki tries fleeing to the mountains outside of Tokyo. Of course, all of the other MEs have the same thought. The mountains are soon full of MEs, all deathly afraid of each other and competing for very limited sources of food. In a few months, they’re driven to cannibalism to survive.
In the chapter “Transmigration” (reincarnation), the protagonist dies an uncountable number of times. But no matter how often Hitoshi/Daiki is killed by other MEs, he is always rebirthed in the land of the living. The theology here is strongly Buddhist. Like an interminable Groundhog’s Day or some kind of purgatory, he is stuck living the same circumstances over and over again until he reaches enlightenment.
Ultimately, it is cannibalism that leads to Hitoshi/Daiki’s epiphany about the other MEs. On the brink of starvation, he tries to reach a compromise with another ME over a dead ME’s body:
Share? Why not? Why had I not thought of that before? Why had I convinced myself of the necessity of bringing the other down? Share? Was that not a splendid idea?
It seems like pure habit when he goes back on his word not to harm the other ME—and just retribution when the other ME kills him.
This time, he finds his consciousness reborn into his dead corpse. While he is being eaten (painlessly, thank goodness), he finally comes to a realization: every time he has “deleted” and eaten another ME, he has betrayed himself. Now, though dead and voiceless, he offers himself freely to his companions:
Go ahead and eat me… every bit of me. Give my bones to the beasts anon. See to it that there is not a trace of me remaining. And if my carcass has any nutritional value, I should be grateful. Eat me. Live long and prosper. It is enough if I can contribute to your welfare.
He also realizes that, for the first time in his life, he is useful to someone.
After Hitoshi/Daiki’s consciousness moves into the body of the living ME, he has a plan. He will reconcile with the other MEs, end the “deletions,” start a communal farming project…
But he is now the only ME left on the mountain. Like “an undulating assault [comes] the absolute realization that [he is] the only one left.” The others have all deleted each other. His dreams of entering into a community with all the MEs, to reintegrate his self, cannot be realized.
Earthlingsby Sayaka Murata
I am grateful to Grove Press for their digital review copy of Earthlings. The novel will be released in October 2020. Please note that this analysis does include spoilers.
Fans of Sayaka Murata’s other work in English will find themselves on familiar ground in Earthlings. A first person, female narrator doesn’t quite get society. Keiko (Convenience Store Woman) and Mizuki (“A Clean Marriage”) would likely sympathize with Yuki’s description of her town as “a factory for the production of human babies.” Like Murata’s other women, Yuki finds herself on the periphery of society—not so much by choice as by her failure to understand why she should follow the dictates of her culture. Again like Keiko and Mizuki, she voluntarily enters a non-sexual marriage to get representatives of “the factory” off her back.
But Earthlings is a good deal darker than Murata’s other work in English. Toward the end of the novel, Yuki, her husband, and her cousin retreat from the city for Yuki’s grandfather’s tumble-down estate. None of them are Earthlings, they decide. Instead, they are from the planet Popinpobopia, a fantasy world Yuki’s cousin shared with her when they were children. Over the course of several months, they intentionally shed their humanity. Time loses its meaning as the narrative moves into stream-of-consciousness.
Eventually, Yuki experiences sexual desire for the first time. Ever since a teacher molested her as a child, she hasn’t felt a sense of autonomy over her body and loses her sex drive; she had thought “[her] sexual urge was broken and that [she] would never in [her] life experience it again.” Now, as the boundaries between her self and her companions’ selves begin to dissolve, she begins “to feel a sexual urge forming.” Their relationship remains chaste—at least for the time being.
Then winter arrives. Unable to forage for food, they eventually turn to cannibalism to survive. Yuki realizes that this act is a final act of departure from the human community: if they do this, they will “lose any chance of ever being accepted into the Earthling fold again.”
Although cannibalism begins as a necessity, it becomes a generous act of sharing. Each of the three Popinpobopians volunteers in turn to die to nourish the others. In the end, they decide to cut away small pieces of their bodies so they can taste each other. Their cannibalism becomes a unifying force through a grotesque orgy of consuming and being consumed. It is unclear whether or not there is actual sexual contact, but it’s not actually that important. Through the act of cannibalism, they are literally joining their flesh.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of Murata’s cannibalism is that it is generative. When Earthlings finally discover the three, Yuki’s husband and cousin have massively swollen bellies. They claim to be pregnant, and promise they will continue to multiply.
It’s possible Murata may be trying to normalize the practice of cannibalism—at least voluntary cannibalism. Maybe it does, as the Popinbopians claim, make logical sense. But it’s difficult to get past what Tony Milligan calls “the yuck factor.” Could Murata really expect her readers to react differently than the humans do at the end of the novel?: that is, with violent vomiting and cries that “[ring] out to the far corners of the planet, setting the forests trembling.”
So here is the claim of both novels: In an isolating society that increasingly rejects sex and personal relationships, cannibalism is the only way to have meaningful communion.
“The Europeans are compelled to take [a] bath in order to clean off the filth… on the contrary, bathing of the Japanese is far beyond the simple object of cleaning their body.”—T Fujimoto, 1914
Where the Wild Ladies Areis a loosely-connected series of short stories taking their inspiration from traditional Japanese ghost stories.
“Smartening Up” opens with an unnamed narrator giving herself a pep talk during a laser hair removal treatment. We find out later that she has been cheated on and dumped, and her coping mechanism is a mini-makeover. Specifically, she is fixated on her hair—the day her boyfriend dumped her, she had forgotten to shave.
Of course, the narrator will never look the way she dreams. She’s fantasizing about an Anglo-American standard of beauty: that she will be blond in her next life and marry “a gorgeous man with blond hair to match” and that they will “fall in love, and talk in English.”
That evening, her aunt comes calling. The visit is especially unexpected—the aunt died a year before. She is back from the grave to forcefully chastise the narrator for “deliberately weakening the power of [her] hair.” Her hair, the ghost aunt tells her, “is the only wild thing left—the one precious crop of wildness remaining to you.”
Together aunt and niece watch Take This Waltz, a 2011 romantic comedy starring Michelle Williams. The film includes a notable shower scene when six women of different ages and ethnicities bathe together. The New York Times noted that they nudity here reminds us that “young flesh will age; old flesh was once young; time wins in the end.” The film introduces bathing as a moment of female bonding, a theme the narrator returns to as the story progresses.
The aunt’s visit ends with a cryptic promise: “Let’s become monsters together.” Then, mysteriously, the narrator’s bath breaks, and she is forced to visit the neighborhood sento.
Sento as Homosocial Spaces
The Japanese have enjoyed their island nation’s hot springs for more than a thousand years. Bathing gradually became a part of most people’s daily lives, and by 1700 or so, most neighborhoods in Tokyo (Edo) had their own sento, or public bath.
As a general rule, Japanese culture has accepted nudity much more nonchalantly than Western culture. Tokugawa-era sento were most often shared between men and women. Some of the first Westerners to enter Japan were scandalized. (The Anglican Bishop of what’s now Hong Kong described sento as “one shameless throng of bathers without signs of modesty or of any apparent sense of moral decorum” and the Japanese as “one of the most licentious races in the world.”) Old Japanese bathing customs gave way to Western norms, and the Meiji government began to crack down on co-ed bathing.
As sentos became more exclusively divided by sex, they took on the role of homosocial spaces.
“Homosociality” describes relationships between people of the same sex that aren’t romantic or sexual. (There’s some argument about whether the term is appropriate for relationships between women, but I think “female bonding” isn’t really equivalent.)
A homosocial space is a physical place that limits or prohibits members of the opposite sex from entering. (We could alternatively use the term “feminotopia,” coined by American critical theorist Mary Louise Pratt for “idealized worlds of female autonomy, empowerment and pleasure.”) Historically, homosocial, women-centered spaces, provided a place of freedom from highly patriarchal contemporary Japanese culture.
Today, the Japanese recognize the importance of sento as homosocial spaces, even if they don’t identify sento that way. The Japanese speak of hadaka no tsukai, or “naked friendship.” It is, in the words of anthropologist Scott Clark, “a belief that sharing the bath and being naked together creates a situation where intimate communication can take place.
For women, nudity in homosocial spaces is particularly important. Cultural critic Emma Woolf notes, “Our visual culture is full of female nudity, but none of it is genuine”; the sento is one of the few spaces left where “real” women routinely see other “real” women, flaws and all.
An ambassador for the Tokyo Sento Association observes that, “Sento are not the Instagram world, but real life. [They’re] the reminder we all need when we’re constantly being crushed with the perfection of the [social media] world.”
Sento As Japanese Spaces
The sento is also marked as a culture-specific space for most Japanese.
Especially since World War II, the Japanese government has supported sento as a part of Japanese cultural heritage. They’re serious about sento—government subsidies keep admission prices are fixed at less than five dollars a visit to keep bathing affordable. Clark writes about the bath in modern Japan as “a reflective discourse on being Japanese.”
There are only about 530 traditional sento in operation in Tokyo today, serving a population of thirteen million. But the idea that public bathing is disappearing is a little disingenuous; health centers, hybrids of Western-style gyms and sento, almost make up the difference.
Nevertheless, Clark notes that, “To many Japanese, the decline of the sentō represents the vanishing of a more public, communal, traditionally Japanese way of life.”
The Sento in “Smartening Up”
The sento as a homosocial space and Japanese space plays a central symbolic role in “Smartening Up.”
At the sento, the narrator remembers the truth of her aunt’s words:
I realized I didn’t think about it as “just hair” after all. Hair was a problem that I carried around with me constantly. However much I shaved or plucked, it would always grow back again… And it wasn’t just me, either—all women were prisoners of their hair.
And then, without explanation, her reverie ends with a dramatic transformation. She becomes the “monster” her aunt promised.
Every inch of her is now covered in glossy black hair.
Her response? Rapture. She has been “this amazing thing” all along.
That this powerful moment of catharsis takes place in a sento, under the gaze of other women, is important. Take This Walz has already provided the narrator with one opportunity to direct her gaze toward unadorned female nudity. As a site for female bonding, the sento has now again granted the narrator a sight of “real” women’s bodies. Away from the glare of air brushed advertisements, she can see again that there is beauty in what her culture would tell her is imperfection.
Her transformation in the sento also marks a return to Japanese-ness, both literally and symbolically. At the sento, the narrator is cursed/blessed, not with the blond hair she dreams of, but with coarser, black hair more typical of the Japanese.
Incidentally, the sisters in Breasts and Eggs visit a sento in the first part of the novel. The description is evocative:
A mom patted her baby dry at a changing table set up in the corner. Little kids darted around. Talking heads were nodding comprehendingly on a brand-new flatscreen, behind a chorus of hairdryers. The manager said hello from her perch between the changing rooms. Grandmas with stooped backs shared a couple of laughs. Women with towels wrapped around their heads sat naked on rattan chairs and chatted—the room was full of women.
The protagonist’s sister Makiko has come to visit Tokyo specifically to consult with a plastic surgeon about breast augmentation surgery. Her goal makes the two sisters hyperaware of their own and other women’s bodies.
For Natsuko, her sister’s naked body is shocking. Now unclothed, Natsuko can “see between [Makiko’s] thighs where they should have been pressed together” and that “her vertebrae and ribs, and the section of her pelvis just above her hips poked out through her skin.”
Regardless, the homosocial space of the sento has given Natsuko a chance to know her sister in a more intimate way.
Makiko also approaches the sento as a way to confirm her own Japanese-ness, although in this instance she doesn’t like her characteristically Japanese features. For example, she notes the pink color of another woman’s nipples and claims it’s “a miracle” for an Asian woman. Makiko has already tried to achieve this Western beauty expectation by bleaching her nipples—“first you use Tretinoin, to peel off the skin…”
The reader also sees the sisters’ hunger for the sight of other “real” women’s bodies—“without the slightest hesitation” Makiko scans the bodies of the other women at the sento “as if devouring them.”
I am grateful for the review copy of Where the Wild Ladies Are provided by the publisher. You can also read my review of Where the Wild Ladies Are at Asian Review of Books.
Recently divorced, Taro lives in a small apartment complex in a Tokyo neighborhood on the cusp of redevelopment. The complex is doomed, fated to be torn down as soon as the current residents’ leases run their course.
To the extent Spring Garden has a central narrative, that narrative revolves around Taro’s budding friendship with a fellow resident who is preoccupied with a house their complex overlooks. Decades before, the home was the setting of a book of beautiful photography.
Pushkin Press describes Spring Garden as “photorealistic.” You can feel Shibasaki’s love of place as she describes Taro’s neighborhood in painstaking detail. (In a conversation with scholar Kendall Heitzman, Shibasaki described how one of her favorite activities “is to conjecture about streets and buildings.”) According to Heitzman, Shibasaki’s work is “nearly always hyperdetailed.”
The way Shibasaki approaches her narrative worlds is very different than, say, Murakami or Morimi. Murakami and Morimi are interested in using narrative to construct meaning; Shibasaki is not. Taro tries and fails to make a cohesive story out of the abandoned buildings in his neighborhood:
The people who constructed these buildings must have had some kind of mission they wished the buildings to fulfil, some form of hope for them, but looking at the area in general, it was hard to see any kind of communality or purpose at all. It seemed more like the place was the result of everyone’s individual ideas and contingent circumstances commingling, all their little details then driving them further from one another over time.
As it is for the narrator of Shibasaki’s short story “Right Here, Right Now,” Taro’s “way forward” is “not in the ability to create a unified narrative, but in the act of remembering and practicing empathy in multiple times and multiple places at once” (Heitzman).
The Night Is Short… is a wonderful novel. It has two strengths I’d like to focus on.
First, The Night Is Short… takes up some of the same themes as Japanese novels more widely recognized as “literary.” In particular, it shares with Harumi Murakami’s Killing Commendatore reflections about the narratives we make of our own lives. As Rebecca Suter writes of Murakami, “the characters are invested with the task of rearranging fragments of reality into narrative form.”
Unlike the unnamed narrator of Killing Commendatore, Morimi’s unnamed hero isn’t tasked with making meaning out of another reality. He must make sense of four separate and interrelated incidents in the course of a college student’s academic year.
In the novel’s opening words, the hero tells us, “This isn’t my story, but hers.” It’s the story of the black-haired maiden with whom he has fallen in love.
We soon learn that the hero isn’t satisfied staying outside of the heroine’s story. He wants to become more than “a pebble by the wayside”—a minor, almost invisible prop in someone else’s tale. He concocts convoluted scheme after scheme to bring himself closer to the woman of his dreams. To him, the events of the novel, particularly at the beginning, are merely random occurrences that get in his way.
Compare the hero with our heroine. While the hero continually tries to “seize [his] happy ending,” the heroine allows events to unfold in front of her. Through her openness to experience, “some wind of fate” has “placed her in a major role.”
You could perhaps call The Night Is Short… a lighthearted romp through Buddhist principles of interdependence, impermanence, and interconnectedness. (Japanese-American author and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki takes up these same themes in her work, including her extraordinary A Tale for the Time Being.) Each event that takes place, each character our romantic leads encounter, brings them together in improbable, fantastical ways.
If the novel has a moral, it is this: life is the chaos that ensues when what’s in our control crashes into what isn’t. To find meaning in life is to find meaning in this chaos. The task of human life is, in the hero’s closing words, “Do all you can and then wait for providence.”
(Of course, in a fictional world, there are no real coincidences, only what Morimi playfully calls “plot conveniences.” The author himself is the “god” Mr. Higuchi describes who is “orchestrating all these mysteries.”)
(And why, we might ask, do all of the novel’s magical elements revolve around a mysterious Mr. Rihaku, who shares his name with one of China’s most celebrated poets?)
A second strength, at least to a Western reader, is the novel’s profuse Japaneseness. I’m hard pressed to think of other Japanese novel so tightly tied to its particular time and place. The Night Is Short… is full of more and less obscure (to a Westerner) references to facts of life unique to Japan and Japanese culture. It’s a novel that demands a certain investment in Japan.
Readers will encounter such features of Japanese life as…
404 Recognized Diseases—A Buddhist idea. The 404 diseases break down into four groups: untreatable diseases resulting from a person’s karma, diseases caused by evil spirits, diseases resulting from childhood experiences, and superficial diseases. As our hero notes, lovesickness isn’t a recognized disease.
Asada Ame—A popular Japanese cough drop brand.
Benkei Musashibo—A late Heian Era warrior monk who withstood an onslaught of hundreds of arrows before dying on his feet (i.e., falling over dead).
Benzaiten—The Japanese goddess of everything that flows. Examples include water, music, and eloquence. She is also associated with femininity and love.
Daruma doll—One of the novel’s most important recurring images, a daruma doll is modeled after the founder of Zen Buddhism. It is a symbol of perseverance and good luck, both of which the hero needs to enter a relationship with the girl he loves. Note the resemblance between the doll and an apple, another important motif.
Duralumin—An alloy of aluminum and copper.
Glass Mask—A highly popular shojo manga about the metaphorical masks actors wear to express emotions that are not their own.
Goemon Ishikawa—A semi-legendary outlaw hero portrayed in many classic kabuki plays.
Hibonsha World Encyclopedia—Now entirely online, this encyclopedia was first published in 1988. It is supposedly the world’s most complete, up-to-date encyclopedia in Japanese.
“I intended to take them with me as a souvenir”—An old samurai saying equivalent to, “If I die, I’m taking you with me.” Side note: souvenirs are an important part of Japanese culture. Vacationers are expected to return home with small tokens for family, friends, and co-workers.
Junpairo—I can find no evidence such a medicine has ever existed.
Kabuki—Popular Japanese theater perfected in the late 17th and mid-18th centuries. It has special ties to Kyoto, Japan’s former capital and the setting of The Night Is Short…
Kamen Rider V3—A 1974, one-season Japanese TV show about a motorcycle-riding cyborg.
Kami—Not explicitly mentioned in the book, but implicit throughout. A kami is a sort of divine presence that infuses everything. Rivers. Lakes. Forces of nature. Used book fairs…
The King of Demons—I’m guessing the Japanese word here is mao. It’s a word Japan’s first “Great Unifier” Odo Nobunaga used to describe himself. It is also the word used for Satan in Japanese translations of the Bible.
Koi—Basically big goldfish. Koi are closely associated with Japanese culture as symbols of prosperity and good fortune. They are not normally sucked up by tornados, which do, believe it or not, strike Japan on occasion.
Lucky cats (maneki-neko)—The little cat statues that beckon you into Japanese restaurants. In modern Japanese superstition, these waving cats are talismans of good fortune. Maneki neko are also popular with many Chinese merchants, leading to the misnomer “Chinese lucky cat.”
Namahage—Demon-like beings who visit children at the New Year to encourage good behavior. The best cultural equivalent is probably the threat of coal in a Westerner’s Christmas stocking. Or the Krampus. Creepy as hell.
Namu-namu—As far as I can tell, a pseudo-religious invocation unique to The Night Is Short… reminiscent of the Nichiren Buddhist prayer “Namu myoho renge kyo” (“devotion to the mystic law of the Lotus Sutra”). Namu-namu also calls to mind Pure Land Buddhism; adherents chant the name (in Japanese) of Amitabha Buddha as a form of meditation. Japanese religious practice is syncretic in the extreme, but Pure Land is considered the most widely practiced tradition by the 70% of Japanese who self-identify as Buddhist.
Netsuke—One of the only “Japanisms” Morimi describes in context: “a small sculpture.” The netsuke was invented in the 17th century to serve the same function as a man-purse.
Obon or Bon Festival—One of Japan’s most important holidays, a kind of Buddhist-Confucian reunion with family, both living and dead.
Ozaki Yutaka—A Japanese pop sensation active in the 80s. He “represented the angst of adolescence” for Japan’s young people until his mysterious death in 1992.
Pocari Sweat—A Japanese sports drink never marketed in the US, perhaps because the name sounds nauseating in English.
Rihaku—The Japanese name for the Classical Chinese poet Li Bai, who lived from 701-762. Many of the novel’s magical elements revolve around the mysterious, bigger-than-life Rihaku. (Incidentally, Rihaku is also an absolutely delicious Junmai ginjo sake sold in the US as Wandering Poet.)
Shayokan—A museum dedicated to the life of Osamu Dazai, one of Japan’s most celebrated modern writers. Like many of Japan’s celebrated writers, Dazai committed suicide at a relatively young age.
Shochu—A Japanese distilled beverage less potent than vodka, but more potent than wine or sake. It’s typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, or brown sugar.
Shunga—Naughty pictures. Proto-porn. Magazines sold behind the counter. Definitely NSFW.
Tatami—Straw mat flooring in Japanese-style rooms. Tatami come in standard sizes, twice as long as they are wide. It’s normal to give square-footage of Japanese rooms by the number of tatami a room would fit.
Tengu(“heavenly sentinel”)—A yokai, or supernatural monster. In most accounts, the tengu has the power to stir up great winds.
Ukiyo-e—“Pictures from the floating world” or maybe “Japanese-style painting.” Subjects include kabuki actors, geisha, landscapes, and shunga (see above).
Yukata—A thin cotton, kimono-like garment worn in the summer. When in Japan, a relatively inexpensive souvenir.
Yuzu Bath—A traditional treat for the Winter Solstice. Yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit resembling a small grapefruit. Bathing with yuzu is supposed to bring good fortune and ward off evil.