Angry women hold a special place in Japanese folklore. Many of Japan’s best-known tales are about “vengeful ghosts”, almost always women, who wreak havoc on the living for some perceived wrong.
Where the Wild Ladies Are recasts such classic ghost stories for a contemporary audience. Matsuda Aoko reinvents these women, highlighting the strength of will that drives them to become ghosts in the first place. As ghosts, they are no longer victims of fate. By becoming monstrous, they gain power…
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.
“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.
“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
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.
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.
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 Shore, 1Q84, Killing 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.
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.
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?”