The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl by Tomihiko Morimi

“Shiei Flying on a Carp” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
(via Wikimedia Commons)

“Hooray for God’s plot conveniences! Namu-namu!

The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is an essentially simple story. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy chases girl. Girl is oblivious.

Simple. Until you add in the triple-decker train, a tengu demon, and the God of Used Book Fairs. As in Morimi’s other novel published in English, Penguin Highway, the real in The Night Is Short… is fundamentally magical.

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.

Sutter, Rebecca. “The Artist as a Medium and the Artwork as Metaphor in Murakami Haruki’s Fiction” in Japan Forum, 2020.

Ty, Eleanor. “‘A Universe of Many Worlds’: An Interview with Ruth Ozeki” in Melus, 2013.

More by Tomihiko Morimi: Penguin Highway

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

“I am a Metaphor, nothing more… I only follow orders—acting as a link between phenomena and language. Like a helpless jellyfish adrift on the ocean.”—Long Face

“Hanging Scroll Painting of Sugawara Michizane Praying on Tenpai-Zen” by Eitaku Kobayashi. The scroll is an example of “Japanese-style paining” (via Wikimedia Commons)

As in many novels by Haruki Murakami, 2017’s Killing Commendatore doesn’t have an obvious antagonist. Yes, there are characters with ominous secrets, but, for most of the novel, there isn’t really a “bad guy.” The unnamed narrator doesn’t encounter any serious threats until he undertakes one of Murakami’s signature journeys through a surreal underworld along “the Path of Metaphor” at the novel’s climax.

The narrator’s Beatrice takes the form of Donna Anna, a character from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, as represented in a painting by the fictional Japanese-style painter Tomohiko Amada. She warns the narrator to

Make fast your heart… Do not let it flounder. Should that happen, you will surely fall prey to a Double Metaphor… they are within you… they grab hold of your true thoughts and feelings and devour them one after another, fattening themselves. That is what Double Metaphors are. They have been dwelling in the depth of your psyche since ancient times.

So what the hell is a Double Metaphor?

Looking to the Japanese provides little clarity. Killing Commendatore was originally published in two volumes—顕れるイデア編 (The Idea Made Visible) and ろうメタファー編 (The Shifting Metaphor). Note that both the idea and metaphor are spelled out in katakana; Murakami is invoking two words in English, not referencing native Japanese concepts. What the translators give the reader as Double Metaphor (二重メタファー) is the Japanese kanji for double, followed by the transliterated English word metaphor.

Double Metaphor is hardly a common phrase in English, either.

One Japanese commentary links Double Metaphor to doublethink, as coined by George Orwell in 1984:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word—doublethink—involved the use of doublethink.

(We know Murakami is familiar with 1984 because he plays with his own dystopian ideas in his novel 1Q84, published in 2009-10. Read more about 1Q84.)

It’s a compelling hypothesis. Central to the plot is the role Tomohiko Amada played in an assassination conspiracy against a Nazi figure in Vienna in the 1930s. By bringing WWII and its antecedents into the narrative, Murakami calls to mind Japan’s wartime propaganda. As is characteristic of propaganda, slogans were rife with doublethink. “With the help of Japan, China, and Manchucho, the world can be in Peace.” “One Hundred Million with One Spirit.” “We are all equal”—probably an unintended reference to Orwell’s most famous doublespeak of all, “…but some animals are more equal than others.”

Many of Japan’s most distinguished minds actively supported Japan’s war machine in the lead up to WWII, much like some of America’s Hollywood elites threw tacit support behind German Führer Adolf Hitler.

Especially after Japan’s Peace Preservation Law of 1925, many artists promoted Kokutai, or the uniqueness of Japanese people and emperor-centric culture. Hundreds of fine artists like Tsuhuharu Foujita, Goro Tsuruta, and Ryohei Koiso joined the government’s war art program. Writers, too, joined the cause; for example, poet Yosano Akiko wrote pro-war poetry, including “Citizens of Japan, A Morning Song,” in which she coopted the samurai ethical code Bushido to praise a Japanese soldier for dying for his emperor.

(Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1986 An Artist of the Floating World deals with one artist’s need to accept his small responsibility for the buildup to WWII.)

If the Double Metaphor we are supposed to beware is indeed Orwellian doublethink, Murakami’s warning is a timely one in Japan and abroad. A 2019 survey found that 79% of Japanese people no longer believe Japanese statistics, which the current government has no apparent qualms about fabricating at its convenience. The Reiwa (令和) imperial era began that year; the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers the English translation Beautiful Harmony in place of the more literal and Orwellian Commanded Peace.

In the US, President Donald Trump famously spouts “alternative facts” while calling into question the legitimacy of the country’s journalists. After a recent (summer 2020) spat with social media giant Twitter, Trump tweeted, “…We will strongly regulate, or close [social media platforms] down…”

The transactional reader-response theory of critics Louise Rosenblatt and Wolfgang Iser claims that a text’s meaning comes from the interaction between the text’s inferred meaning (what the author intended to say) and the reader’s unique experience. By experiencing a work (i.e., reading it or viewing it) the reader actively constructs meaning. Reader-response theory is highly fruitful for explaining the work of Haruki Murakami, and I think Killing Commendatore is itself a statement of—even an allegory for—reader-response theory.

In the novel’s first surrealist scene, the narrator finds a two-foot-tall man in the home he’s borrowing from a friend. The man resembles a figure from a painting the narrator has discovered in the attic several days before titled, like the novel, Killing Commendatore. The small man is not the Commendatore from the painting, only an Idea taking the character from the painting’s form. The Commendatore defines his own existence on the basis of “his friends’” experience:

I am no spirit. I am just an Idea. A spirit is basically supernaturally free, which I am not. I live under all sorts of restrictions…

As with Double Metaphor, here Murakami uses the transliterated English word for Idea.

I need some sort of shape in order to speak with my friends…

I can’t take any form I want. There is a limit to the wardrobe.

In other words, it’s the narrator’s experience of the painting Killing Commendatore that gives the Idea shape. Mariye, a young girl in the narrator’s art class, is the only other character to seriously consider the painting; she is also the only other character who meets the Idea as the Commendatore.

Dr. Rebecca Suter identifies characters in Killing Commendatore as “producers of text,” continues that they “invested with the task of rearranging fragments of reality into narrative form…” The narrator and Mariye give the Idea form out of their own experiences. 

Murakami has explained that he approaches his work with this kind of reader-centric experience in mind:

The reader receives [a novel] as it is, and it must be chewed and digested by the reader. If the author, before passing it into the readers’ hands, chews it for them, the meaning of the text is greatly damaged.

It sounds a lot like the way in which readers construct meaning makes everything in the novel a potential Double Metaphor… or Triple Metaphor… or… Nth x Metaphor.

Then why does Donna Anna warn the narrator how dangerous Double Metaphors are? We take for granted that she is a reliable source of information about the “Path of Metaphor.” Is she?

To me, one of the great disappointments of Killing Commendatore is that the dénouement seems to undermine the climax. The narrator undertakes that journey along the “Path of Metaphor” so he can rescue Mariye, who has disappeared. After his own difficult trial, he finds out that Mariye was simply hiding in another character’s basement for four days. The Commendatore insinuates to Mariye that she may have been in danger, but there is no evidence to support his claim. Perhaps the Double Metaphor, too, is less dangerous than it seems.

If Double Metaphor isn’t sinister, if it comes from readers’ own experiences of the novel, the painting Killing Commendatore is the novel’s principle Double Metaphor. Consider Donna Anna.

Donna Anna is first and foremost a character from Mozart’s opera who looks on helplessly as the Commendatore is slain in cold blood.

She is also a figure in Tomohiko Amada’s painting, which transplants Mozart’s early modern Europe to early medieval Japan.

The narrator “has a hunch” that Donna Anna represents one of Amada’s coconspirators, with whom he was in love in his youth.

She might, at the same time, be Mariye’s mother, who died when Mariye was very young.

The narrator even wonders if Donna Anna is also his own long-dead sister.

As the narrator obverses, “Depending on who was looking at her, Donna Anna might embody many things.” I propose that we, the readers, have the right (responsibility?) to find our own meaning in Killing Commendatore as well.

Murakami’s novels are so elusive because he approaches his work with certain themes he wants to explore, perhaps even messages to convey, but he ultimately invites the reader to create meaning for herself.

Murakami, Haruki. Darkness and Forgiveness: Haruki Murakami Reflects on Power and Violence in the World and Literature (interview) in The Japan Times, 2019.

Suter, Rebecca. “The Artist as a Medium and the Artwork as Metaphor in Murakami Haruki’s Fiction” in Japan Forum, 2020.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A Reader-Friendly Guide, Routledge, 2014.

More by Haruki Murakami: After DarkAfter the Quake (short stories); Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: StoriesColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageDance Dance DanceThe Elephant VanishesHard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the WorldKafka on the ShoreMen without Women: StoriesNorwegian WoodSouth of the Border, West of the SunSputnik SweetheartTrilogy of the Rat (series); Wind/Pinball: Two Novels;The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Penguin Highway by Tomihiko Morimi

Famous Heroes of the Kabuki Stage Played by Frogs by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (via Wikimedia Commons)

One day, the residents of an exurban Japanese town wake up to find a field full of penguins. Aside from some gossip, the people in the town essentially dismiss the arctic birds as a fluke. Our 4th-grade protagonist, Aoyama, and his friend, Hamamoto, do some research—impressively coordinated, observation-based research, carefully following the scientific method.

Because of his research, Aoyama is the only person in town to discover that his favorite dental hygienist is making the penguins. From soda cans. And Penguin Highway gets stranger from there.

Wide swaths of readers (and viewers—it was made into a critically acclaimed anime in 2018) consumed the story as science-fiction. It won the Nihon SF Taisho Award in 2010, more or less the equivalent of the Nebula Award in the US. But I think it’s more rewarding to think about Penguin Highway as a work of magical realism.

Wendy B. Faris defines the genre: “very briefly, magical realism combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed.” Penguin Highway meets her five criteria:

  • Its magic is essentially “irreducible.” Even though the book proposes a kind of explanation, it isn’t one that comes from the ordinary rules of the universe. Aoyama’s scientific investigations ultimately turn up many “hows,” but very few “whys.”
  • The realism in the world of Penguin Highway is really real. Aoyama’s is a normal, exurban Japanese town.
  • Readers hesitate between “two contradictory understandings of events.” Especially at the beginning of the novel, we ask ourselves, “How much of this are we supposed to believe is actually happening?” The main characters are kids, after all, and kids are often unreliable narrators.
  • At the climax of Penguin Highway “we experience the closeness or near-merging of two realms, two worlds.” But no spoilers.
  • Finally, the novel brings up questions about time, space, and, to a much lesser extent, identity.

The reason I want to defend Penguin Highway as a piece of magical realism is because I think we get a better sense of author Tomihiko Morimi’s mastery this way.

We’ve come to think of magical realism as an especially appropriate post-colonial medium. Many of the genre’s most important works are, at least in part, political in nature. Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is, among many other things, a stinging rebuke of European and American intervention in South America. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a loose allegory for the partition of India. In Beloved, Toni Morrison presents a community almost torn apart by the long-standing trauma of slavery.

The history of Japan and colonialism is, of course, complicated. Unlike most of its nearest neighbors, Japan has never been a foreign colony and was only briefly occupied by the US after World War II, from 1945-1952. Nevertheless, Japan has also been fertile ground for magical realism. The most visible Japanese writer today in the West is almost certainly Haruki Murakami; many of his most notable works—Kafka on the Shore1Q84Killing Commendatore—are fine examples of the genre.

But post-colonial or not, from Japan or elsewhere, magical realist texts often share similar concerns. New versus old. “Western” versus indigenous. What we gain versus what we leave behind. Isolation. Loneliness. Marginalization. The tone of these works is often melancholic, remorseful, occasionally reproachful.

Penguin Highway takes up virtually none of these concerns. It’s almost entirely apolitical. Aoyama is about as sure of his identity as any character I’ve ever encountered. He isn’t lonely at all—and the magical events draw an even closer-knit community with him as the center. Old Japan is neither destroyed nor resurrected. The novel is simply a tale about a normal city that experiences a series of fantastical events.

And yet, it is a work of magical realism.

The real is magical in Penguin Highway because the novel is a joyful celebration of the possibilities of life. It is rich with what Franz Roh, the art critic who coined the term magical realism, describes as, “the possibility of feeling existence, of making it stand out from the void.”

Our hero is only in the 4th grade. He takes exploring the drainage ditch behind his school as seriously as he does solving the mysteries of the lady and the penguins. To him, they are all marvels. His attitude reminds us that there are discoveries to be made in the realistic world—why shouldn’t some of those discoveries also be magical?

That’s what makes Penguin Highway such an uplifting read. It reminds jaded readers of just how wondrous our world can be.

Credo, Kevin. “The Magical Realism of ‘Penguin Highway.’” The Crescent Magazine.

Faris, Wendy B. “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.

Napier, Susan J. “The Magic of Identity: Magic Realism in Modern Japanese Fiction” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.

Roh, Franz. “Magical Realism: Post-Expressionism” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.

More by Tomihiko Morimi: The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

“Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?”—The Guardian

“In sexless Japan, almost half of single young men and women are virgins”—The Japan Times

“Why aren’t the Japanese fucking?”—VICE

Woman Having Relations with a Dildo by Katsushika Hokusai, circa 1814 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Japan’s purported sexless-ness is a big deal. The country’s population is in a steady decline. With the powers that be in Tokyo reluctant to play permanent host to non-ethnic Japanese, there’s no solid plan to make up the difference. Journalists and social scientists throw out a barrage of potential problems caused by the country’s shrinking population. (For example, did you know Japanese stores now sell more diapers for incontinent adults than for small children?) I’m more interested, though, in how Japan’s so-called セックスしない症候群 (“celibacy syndrome”) shows up in Japanese literature.

First, I’d like to note that the decline in the number of people having sex is not an exclusively Japanese phenomenon. In the US, for example, a 2019 study found that almost 40% of American adults reported having sex once a month or less.

In both Japan and the US, media coverage has tended to focus on 20-something men who aren’t pursuing relationships or having sex. In the US, some of these men self-identify as incels—involuntary celibates—and spend time online in forums with varying levels of toxicity. Several domestic terrorists in North America have posted screeds in incel forums. In a dramatic and perhaps overdue move, Canada recently (spring 2020) charged a teenage incel with terrorism.

In Japan, some of the people who have opted out of the dating market are ひきこもり(hikikomori—“pulling inward, being confined”). These (generally young) people live in extreme isolation from other people, often in their parents’ homes; up to 90% of hikikomori may be men.

Even among adults who live otherwise normal lives, one Japanese sex therapist describes Japan’s abstinence as “a flight from human intimacy.” (Most of her clients are men.)

So we hear a good deal about men avoiding romantic and/or sexual relationships. But what about women?

Some of the causes, of course, are shared. Members of both sexes use the phrase mendokusai, which roughly translates as “I can’t be bothered.”

As in many societies, marriage was once one of the only paths to security for women in Japan. Even into the 1980s, men had a reasonable expectation of lifelong employment with a single company followed by retirement on a generous pension. Their wives could count on a certain degree of wellbeing from marriage until death.

Then the Japanese economy exploded and evolved. Women’s expectations and goals changed, too—but society (men) in many cases hasn’t kept up.

Many Japanese women work and want to keep working, even after they have children. Even so, Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates that married women spend seven times as much time on housework as their husbands. (Lest Americans get too self-righteous, note that American women still do an average of two more hours of housework daily than American men.) Many women follow tradition by taking care of their husbands’ families—a task that, at least in Japanese literature, some mothers-in-law make astoundingly unpleasant. No wonder 90% of young, unmarried Japanese women report believing that staying single is preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like! A character in Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breasts and Eggs fears becoming just another housewife reduced to “free labor with a pussy.”

Recently published in English (spring 2020), Breasts and Eggs asks the question this kind of dating malaise invites: can Japanese women leave men totally out of the picture?

(Let me just note here that the right-wing governor of Tokyo responded to Breasts and Eggs by describing it as “unpleasant and hard to listen to.”)

Natsuko, the novel’s protagonist, distinctly dislikes sex. She’s only had one sexual partner, and their romantic relationship eventually broke down because she didn’t enjoy sleeping with him. “Once [boyfriend] was naked on top of me, I was alone,” she tells the reader. Sometimes, she wonders whether, without sexual desire, she’s even a woman. She has all the parts, but “sex… opening my legs and having him inside of me… was the worst.”

Perhaps it’s telling that “at some point,” she “picked up the idea that when you’re in that situation with a man—your man—it’s your job as the woman to go along.” Not only does Natsuko not like the physical aspect of sex, she’s also deeply ambivalent about the notion that sex is (a woman’s) obligation in a romantic relationship. Why, she asks herself, “did caring about someone need to involve using your body?”

Breasts and Eggs is a two-part novel. Part Two’s primary focus is Natsuko’s decision whether or not to get pregnant without a partner and without sex being involved at all—she initially describes her plan as “childbirth as some sort of do-it-yourself project. DIY insemination.” By finding a sperm donor, she can conceive, carry, bear, and raise a child with nothing more from any man than a small sample of his semen.

A major concern is where this anonymous semen will come from. In a nice ironic touch, one opponent of sperm donation notes that “human beings should not be treated as a means for reproduction.” Hmm… In the end, Natsuko finds a willing donor in Aizawa, an advocate for the rights of those, like him, conceived with the help of an unidentified donor.

Breasts and Eggs is… not the stuff of rom-coms. By the end of the book, Natsuko loves Aizawa. Aizawa loves her. But Natsuko’s desire to have a child completely on her own trumps all that. The two never have sex, but mislead a fertility specialist into artificially inseminating Natsuko with Aizawa’s sperm. Natsuko eventually conceives, and the book ends with the two having virtually no relationship at all.

Sayaka Murata’s short story A Clean Marriage (featured in the British literary magazine Granta) debuted in English in 2014. It addresses many of the same issues as Breasts and Eggs, but with a more darkly comedic touch. 

Mizuki’s future husband, Nobuhiro Takahashi, posted on an online dating site: “Seeking a clean marriage… I’m seeking an amicable daily routine with someone I get along well with, like brother or sister, without being a slave to sex.” Mizuki finds his proposal appealing; previous romantic partners have expected her to be “wife, friend and mother.”

Two years later, the couple prepares to start a family with the same pragmatism. At a swanky clinic, the receptionist introduces them to the Clean Breeder—“a means to facilitate, in the purest sense of the word, reproduction.” The doctor intones, “Nowadays, your partner is not necessarily a sex object—this is a wonderful advancement.”

The actual use of the Clean Breeder turns out to be an elaborate exercise in foreplay made as unerotic as possible. In fact, the entire scene becomes a bizarre reversal, the husband’s machine-assisted ejaculation standing in for a woman’s labor and delivery:

“It is OK like this, Mr. Takahashi? Please do your best.”

“Mr. Takahashi, please tell us when life is issuing. Raise your hand!”

“One last little push, Mr. Takahashi!”

The story ultimately ends without a clear resolution.

Murata has said she is particularly interested in women who don’t want to have sex. She addresses voluntary celibacy in much of her work, though little of it has been translated into English as of summer 2020. Convenience Store Woman—which has been published in English and I strongly recommend!—also involves a couple that decides to pretend they are in a romantic (sexual) relationship so they can fulfill society’s expectations. The novel’s protagonist, Keiko, has never had sex at all.

The youngest character in Breasts and Eggs is Natsuko’s teenaged niece Midoriko. In her journal, she reflects, “The other day at school, between classes, I forget who, but someone was saying, ‘I was born a girl, so I definitely want to have a baby of my own eventually.’ Where does that come from? Does blood coming out of your body [a period] make you a woman? A potential mother? What makes that so great anyway? Does anyone really believe that?”

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

Teo, Alan Robert and Albert C. Gaw. “Hikikomori, A Japanese Culture-Bound Syndrome of Social Withdrawal? A Proposal for DSM-V” in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2010.

More by Mieko Kawakami: Ms Ice Sandwich

The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

The Waiting Years (女坂) is about a group of women peripheral to the Shirakawa, an upper-class family in Meiji Era Japan.

Four Women Displaying Their Hairstyles and Obi
(via Wikimedia Commons)
  • Tomo, the lady of the house, untouched but vitally important
  • Etsuko, the young daughter
  • Suga, the passive concubine adopted in girlhood
  • Yomi, the rival second concubine
  • And Miya, the daughter-in-law who also becomes the master’s mistress

There is no clear protagonist in The Waiting Years.

Tomo, Shirakawa’s wife, is the central character, but she is sometimes protagonist and sometimes antagonist, depending on whose perspective Enchi is narrating. (Jordan Yamaji Smith refers to her as “the main center of narrative consciousness.”) It is Tomo’s struggle with the constraints her husband and their culture impose on her that we’re most aware of. The cultural limitations are no small burden. Enchi notes, Tomo “ha[s] no shield to defend herself other than the existing moral code.”

The Japanese title of the novel translates as “Woman’s Slope”—as in an uphill battle that Tomo and the other women in the novel face. There is even a scene in the novel’s final chapter where Tomo, fatally ill, forces herself to walk home up a steep incline. The metaphor is no less apt for being so direct.

The English title, too, resolves nicely by the end of the novel. As Tomo battles up that hill, she reflects, “At the end of it all a brighter world surely [lies] waiting, like the light when one finally emerges from a tunnel. If it were not there waiting, then nothing [makes] sense.”

On her deathbed, Tomo’s final request is this: “When I die I want no funeral… all [Shirakawa] need do is to take my body out to sea at Shinagawa and dump it in the water.”

Her request is shocking. As in many traditions, a person who has not been buried with the correct ceremony is damned. So why ask such a thing?

As Nina Cornyetz explains, “Tomo has revealed her intention to forfeit salvation so that after she has died she may return as a ghost to seek vengeance on her husband.” Tomo has no power in life, so she will risk hell to assert herself in death.

Shirakawa’s response shows that he understands the enormity of what Tomo has said this first and only time she openly opposes him: “The shock was enough to split his arrogant ego in two.”

Cornyetz, Nina. Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers. Stanford, 1999.

Smith, Jordan A. Yamaji. “Oedipus, Ajase, Enchi Fumiko: A Comparative Psychoanalytic Approach to Feminist Anti-Canonism in Onnazaka [The Waiting Years]” in Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies, 2010.

More by Fumiko Enchi Masks; A Tale of False Fortunes; The Waiting Years

Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima’s death and his politics both remain contentious at best.

By many accounts, Mishima was a man obsessed with the idea of death. Nevertheless, he lied his way into an exemption from military service when he was called up in 1945. He later justified his actions in his semi-autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask, first published in 1949: “I much preferred to think of myself instead as a person who had been forsaken even by Death… I delighted in picturing the curious agonies of a person who wanted to die but had been refused by Death.”

I’ll come back to that idea—that someone could be “refused by Death”—in a minute.

Mishima later formed a paramilitary group called Tatenokai, or “shield society” in English. Reportedly, he liked to refer to it by its English initials. Along with four other would-be soldiers, he briefly held hostage a general of Japan’s National Defense Force. His attempt to harangue the general’s subordinates was not well received. That afternoon, he clumsily committed seppuku—ritual suicide. He was 45 years old.

I wonder whether Life for Sale, published just two years before Mishima’s self-engineered suicide mission, was an attempt to dramatize his fascination with death—specifically that someone might be “refused by death.”

The titular life for sale belongs to Haino Yamada, a twenty-seven-year-old copywriter from Tokyo. With very little provocation, he decides that life his life isn’t worth much. He takes a bottle of sleeping pills, boards the train, and falls asleep. When, to his surprise, he wakes up, he decides to put an advertisement in the newspaper—“Life for sale.”

The novel shares a good deal with G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, published in 1908, which Mishima almost certainly never read. Critics sometimes call it a “metaphysical thriller.” Both involve a bumbling, incoherent crime syndicate with which the erstwhile hero finds himself entangled. In Chesterton’s case, the opaque conclusion reminds the reader of Chesterton’s incarnate, Christian God. Mishima’s metaphysics, on the other hand, are far less hopeful.

For much of the novel, Yamada faces Mafiosi, poisoners, and even a vampire completely without fear. (A woman who tries to marry him, on the other hand…) Each time he takes on a new “client” willing to buy his life, he comes home bemused that he has unexpectedly survived. He has, in effect, been “refused by death.” By my count, he is “refused by death” no fewer than five times.

Finally, Yamada decides he does not wish to die. He wonders if the people around him really know how to value life—they have never come close to losing it. Of course, this epiphany comes at the moment his life is the most threatened. A man, previously wishing for death, now on death’s doorstep—Yamada’s life a setup for the punchline. What would Yamada’s sojourn mean to a man of Mishima’s temperament?

If you Google “Life for Sale,” your front-page results are likely to fall into two categories. Some response to Mishima’s Life for Sale. Or else information on a YouTube series that takes the same title. Life for Sale (the YouTube “reality” show) is about a “400 LB Jewish real estate investor” with “the mouth of Donald Trump, the personality of Larry David, and the presence of Don Corleone” looking for an heir to a $200 million dollar fortune.

What would Mishima make of that?

More by Yukio Mishima: Acts of Worship; After the Banquet; Confessions of a Mask; Death in Midsummer and Other Stories; Forbidden Colors; The Frolic of the Beasts; Patriotism; The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea; The Sea of Fertility series; Silk and Insight; The Sound of Waves; Sun and Steel; Star; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Get Started Reading Japanese Fiction

These aren’t necessarily the “best” or most important Japanese novels, but they are my personal favorites. All ten together can give you a pretty good taste of what Japanese literature has to offer.

The Woman in the Dunes (1962) by Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe’s favorite writers include Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe. It shows. The Woman in the Dunes is about an amateur entyologist who, alongside a mysterious widow, is thrown in a pit of sand. The two spend their days literally digging for their lives so the sand doesn’t bury them in their sleep. At the end of the novel, the reader is left wondering whether a 9-5 lifestyle is really any less futile.

Life for Sale (1968) by Yukio Mishima

A darkly comedic novel by one of Japan’s most important modern writers, Life for Sale is about a twenty-seven-year-old salaryman. After he botches his attempt at suicide, he advertises in the newspaper that his life is up for grabs. Interacting with buyer after buyer, the protagonist discovers that selling his life is more difficult than he thought. (Mishima is as controversial as he is important. Two years after he published Life for Sale, he took a hostage and tried to convince the Japan Self-Defense Forces to overturn Japan’s post-WWII Constitution. When he failed, he committed seppuku—ritual suicide.)

Read more about Life for Sale.

The Samurai (1980) by Shusaku Endo

Endo’s novel Silence is far better known in the West, especially after the 2016 film, but I prefer The Samurai. It’s based on the real-life story of a 17th-century diplomatic mission sent from Japan to Rome. Many of Endo’s stories take up the question of whether East can really co-exist with West.

Hybrid Child (1990) by Mariko Ohara

Hybrid Child is hands down the strangest book on this list—a glimpse into the world of Japanese, feminist sci-fi. A (male) robot ingests the body of a young girl murdered by her mother and incorporates her spirit. Centuries later, Sample B #3 takes on a planet-running, maternal AI system who has gone insane. The novel is not to be confused with the one-shot manga, Hybrid Child by Shungiku Nakamura.

Out (1997) by Natsuo Kirino

Be warned that this novel is not for the faint of heart—or the weak of stomach. In this crime thriller, suburban housewives find themselves running a business disposing of bodies for the Japanese mafia. Although Kirino doesn’t like to be pegged as a feminist, Out certainly highlights the cultural and structural problems that hold women back in contemporary Japan.

In the Miso Soup (1997) by Ryu Murakami

“The Other Murakami” is a literary virtuoso in his own right. The protagonist of In the Miso Soup gives a tour of Tokyo’s red-light district to a very odd American visitor. Gradually, the protagonist begins to suspect his client is actually a serial killer. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a commentary on the “haves and have-nots” in Japanese society as well as how the Japanese think about Americans. Like Out, In the Miso Soup contains scenes of graphic violence.

The Memory Police (1994) by Yoko Ogawa

Originally written in 1994, The Memory Police was only published in English in 2019. It is a dystopian novel with a premise that’s just plain creepy. Some unknown force is making residents of an unnamed island forget things—even themselves. The English translation was a 2019 National Book Award Finalist.

Kafka on the Shore (2002) by Haruki Murakami

At least outside of Japan, Murakami is probably the most famous Japanese author writing today. Some people suggest starting with his debut novel, Norwegian Wood, but I prefer Kafka on the Shore. A magical realist romp, the novel features an oedipal love triangle and talking cats. Be forewarned that many readers, English-speaking and Japanese-speaking, find Murakami inscrutable.

If Cats Disappeared from the World (2012) by Genki Kawamura

Genki Kawamura’s first novel, If Cats Disappeared from the World, sold more than two million copies in Japan. When the protagonist discovers he has only days to live, the Devil shows up to make him an offer: choose one thing to disappear for everyone in the world in exchange for an extra day of life. If you’re looking for a satisfying and uplifting Japanese novel, start here.

Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata

The konbini is a ubiquitous part of Japanese life. Convenience Store Woman is about a thirty-six-year-old woman who fights the societal norms that tell her she can’t keep working at a convenience store, a job she has loved for eighteen years. It’s a humorous look at the cult of success in modern Japan—a cult that probably looks familiar to many American readers.

Read more about Sayaka Murata.

Bonus: A Tale from the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Okay, I’m cheating here. A Tale for the Time Being is written in English by a Japanese-American-Canadian Zen Buddhist priest. As if that weren’t enough qualifications, Ruth Ozeki is also an expert on medieval Japanese literature like The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book, both of which show up in her writing. In A Tale for the Time Being, detritus that washes ashore in Canada in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukishima disaster creates a mystery across time and space.