The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

To appreciate The 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)

Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun

As the first anthropomorphized gods, Izanami and Izanagi are also Japan’s first sexed and gendered gods. Before they couple, they perform a simple ritual, passing around a pillar and greeting each other in turn. This ritual is presumably why these kami (gods, for lack of a succinct alternative) are He Who Beckoned and She Who Beckoned. When Izanami beckons first, all their offspring are malformed. When Izanagi beckons first, they begin to give birth to the Japanese archipelago and many of the kami behind its more significant natural phenomena.

Eventually, Izanami dies giving birth to the fire god. Izanagi kills his newborn son in rage and grief, then goes to Yomi, the land of the dead, to search for his wife. Sadly, it is too late for Izanami—she has already eaten food from the underworld. Izanagi breaks his promise not to look at her, only to discover that she has become a rotting corpse. He runs away and seals the entrance to Yomi: “as they stood there with the boulder between them, they declared themselves divorced” (The Kojiki).

Enraged, Izanami vows that she will now kill 1,000 people a day; Izanagi counters he will build 1,500 birthing huts every day to thwart her.

Izanagi then rushes to a river to purify himself. (Purification is an important facet of Japanese religion.) Washing the filth from his body begets new kami, including the sun goddess Ametarasu.

Let me note here that Ametarasu is a part of an elite group—the sun anthropomorphized as a female, rather than as a male. Most other mythologies with women as sun deities are what you might call “out of the mainstream” today: early Egyptian, Canaanite, Celtic, pre-Islamic Arabian… In the mythologies familiar to most Westerners, the sun deity is male, often paired with a female moon goddess. The sun as a goddess is just one of the moments in Japanese mythology where a female figure takes on a position of importance, or even supremacy.

Like many creation narratives, The Kojiki takes place long before its people had any means of writing The earliest events of The Kojiki ostensibly take place before or during the Jomon Period. Material evidence of Japan’s prehistorical Jomon culture dates as early as 40k BCE.

Over centuries, a belief system centered on the sun goddess Ametarasu spread from the centers of power. (A ruling family used its purported divine descent from Ametarasu to help consolidate power.) But around the same time, the movement of peoples and culture between Japan and the continent was introducing new ideas to the Japanese:

  • The Kojiki relates that a Chinese emperor sent a Confucian teacher and The Analects to Japan around 400 CE, although this account is often disputed.
  • Recent scholarship has placed the gradual importation of Daoist ideas into Japan between the fifth and eighth centuries (Richey).
  • In the mid-to-late sixth century, a delegation from the Korean Peninsula brought Buddhist priests to Japan.

Imported Patriarchy

In early East Asian histories, here 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 it way to Yomi, where she meets an Izanami who continues to nurse the grudge against Izanagi she has held since the beginning of the world. Namima spends the rest of the novel as Izanagi’s faithful attendant.

Yang and Yin Debasing a Goddess

Recall the importation of Chinese ideas into Japan. One of the most enduring is the Daoist notion of unity and duality often cribbed in the West as yin and yang. Very briefly, this dualism describes how forces that seem opposite or contrary are actually connected and interdependent. Yin is the receptive principle, associated with a host of natural phenomena, including disorder, dark, and water. Yang is the active principle, associated with order, light, fire… Particularly under Confucianism, the yang became associated with the male, and became the greater of the two. Yin and yang have often loaned a philosophical explanation for men’s superior position to women.

On Umihebi, “the dualities found in nature are embodied by women instead of men” (Lianying). Women are mothers or virgins. They deal with life or death. They are objects of worship or pity.

Lianying claims “women are all excluded from the decision-making process of the societies they inhabit,” but this isn’t precisely true on Umihebi. Even though Kamikuu is a woman, she is also yang—masculine and active. She may not choose her fate—which of the villagers of either sex does?—but she takes on an important leadership role on the island for the rest of her life. It is the men on Umihebi who are disposable, who are excluded, not the women.

The ancient Japanese may have recognized this dual, contradictory facet of woman’s nature, even in a woman’s biological functions: “There is some evidence… that in very early times, menstruation and childbirth may have been seen as either polluting or sacred, or both” (King). To Kirino’s Izanami, “there is a deep connection between death and birth.”

Kirino’s Izanami’s provides her own explanation why yin and yang, though equally valuable parts of a whole, are no longer equally respected:

I [Namima] recalled Izanami’s words: “Heaven and earth, man and woman, birth and death, day and night, light and dark, yin and yan. You may wonder why everything was paired in this way, but a single entity would have been insufficient. In the beginning, two became one, and from that union new life came. Whenever a single entity was paired with its oppose, the value of both became clear from the contrast—and the mutual association enriched the meaning of both.”

But once Izanami had died, the value of the pairing was lost and she became associated only with the dark half: earth, woman, death, night, dark, yin and, yes, pollution.

The Japanese are generally more tolerant of ambiguity than English-speakers. But Izanami’s position is also uniquely contradictory. She is a goddess; she has died. She was life; she’s now death. She loathes her position; she also chooses it.

(Lianying claims that being goddess of the underworld is “a role not of [Izanagi’s] choice,” but it is. After Kirino’s Izanagi dies a mortal death, Izanami has an opportunity to let go of her anger. Yet despite continually claiming it has been her fate to become the goddess of the underworld, she finally declares, “It is my lot, my choice to accept all of the world’s defilement.”)

In a world divided between yin ang yang, Izanami doesn’t fit neatly into either category—does she bring life or death? Izanami’s tragedy, Kirino proposes, “lies in her inability to define who she wants to be” (Lianying). 

Who Tells Your Story?

At the novel’s end, Namima claims, “This, then, is Izanami’s story.” Why isn’t Izanami the narrator?

Namima is the narrator of Izanami’s story because her story is Izanami’s. On one level, “the identification with Okami [polite word for kami] is an experiential fulfillment of Shinto teachings on the identity of human nature (once sufficiently purified) with kami nature” (King). On another, the story Namima and Izanami share is the story of all women—their choices limited by the structures the patriarchy imposes because of their biology. After all, as Izanami notes, “It’s always the woman who dies.”

Anesaki Masaharu. History of Japanese Religion.

De Bary, WM, et al. ed. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600, 2nd ed., Columbia, 2001.

Ellwood, Robert. “Patriarchal Revolution in Ancient Japan: Episodes from the ‘Nihonshoki’ Sujin Chronicle” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.

Hemmann, Kathryn. “Dangerous Women and Dangerous Stories: Gendered Narration in Kirino Natsuo’s Grotesque and Real World” in Rethinking Japanese Feminisms.

King, Sallie B. “Egalitarian Philosophies in Sexist Institutions: The Life of Satomi-San, Shinto Miko and Zen Buddhist Nun” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.

Lianying Shan. “Rewriting Women’s Oppression through Myth and Nature—Kirino Natsuo’s Tokyo Island and The Goddess Chronicle” in Japanese Language and Literature.

O No Yasumaro. The Kojiki: An Account of Ancient Matters, translated by Gustav Heldt, Columbia, 2014.

Pregadio, Fabrizio. “Religious Daosim” at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, spring 2017 ed.

Richey, Jefffrey L., ed. Daoism in Japan: Chinese Traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture, Rutledge, 2018.

Toshio Kuroda. “Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion” in Japanese Language and Literature. Translated by James C. Dobbins and Suzanne Gay.

Tucker, John. “Japanese Confucian Philosophy” at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, spring 2018 ed.

More by Natsuo Kirino: Grotesque; Out; Real World; What Remains

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

“The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can do is ask them to do their best per head… although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines.”—Former Japanese Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa

Yanagisawa served under Shinzo Abe, who is currently (summer 2020) serving his fourth term as Prime Minister of Japan.

“Mother and Child with Puppies” by Kitagawa Utamaro

A 2009 study by Scott North found that, “The burden of family work in Japan falls disproportionately on wives, even those who work full time and have relatively high incomes… Couple’s actions continue to be oriented strongly to symbols of patriarchal prestige, such as husband’s birth order position and breadwinner status.”

In 2017, despite several half-hearted public policy attempts, Amnesty International’s East Asia Researcher Hiroka Shoji claimed that Japanese society “still sees household chores and childcare as the main responsibility of women, whether or not they are in paid employment.”

This sort of sexism—assuming a woman is in charge of the domestic sphere—is certainly not foreign to Westerners. But many observers note the special persistence of gender inequality in Japan. Predictably, gender inequality pops up in contemporary Japanese literature.

Published in Japanese just five years ago, Before the Coffee Gets Cold puts forward a regressive vision of happiness for women.

There are certainly any number of anti-feminist best sellers in the US. (Note that the Midnight Sun, an extension of Stephanie Meyer’s famously problematic Twilight universe, is currently an Amazon best seller more than a month before its August publication.) But I think Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a special kind of insidious. 

The premise of the novel is that, for unexplained reasons, one particular chair in a timeless, underground Tokyo café will transport you, once and only once, backwards or forwards in time. You can only travel to other moments within that same café. Nothing you do in the past actually changes the present. And you have to finish your visit before your coffee gets cold or be doomed to become a vengeful ghost.

Sure, the premise is a little camp, but I’ve enjoyed other sentimental Japanese best-sellers like If Cats Disappeared from the World and The Traveling Cat Chronicles. Maybe I just like cats. But the unexplained plot device in Before the Coffee Gets Cold seems to promise women happiness if only they’ll conform to traditional norms about Japanese women’s behavior.

In the first of four chapters, The Lovers, the beautiful and ambitious Fumiko wishes she had asked her long-term partner not to move to the US to pursue his dream job. It’s not that she particularly wants to marry him. It’s more that she is turning twenty-eight this year, “she [has] been interrogated on many occasions by her persistent parents,” and “after her little sister got married…she [has] started to think getting married might be OK if it was to Goro.” With a little help from the café, she meets Goro in the past, and he tells her he’ll be returning to Japan in three years. All this attractive, intelligent woman has to do is wait for him. She’s thrilled.

In Husband and Wife, the reader learns that two of the cafe’s regular patrons are actually married. Kohtake is a nurse. Her husband, Fusagi, is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and has recently begun to forget his wife. Kohtake has resigned herself to the situation: “I will care for him as a nurse. I am a nurse, so I can do that.”

The husband she meets in the past isn’t a rom com hero. He is crotchety and easily annoyed. We find out that he once threw her birthday present away simply because she asks him for it and he hates being told “to do something that he had been meaning to do himself.” Even so, anything he says to Kohtake brings back “waves of nostalgia and happiness.” 

The Fusagi of “back then” gives Kohtake a letter to read in the future. He asks that she leaves him “if life becomes too hard for [her] as [his] wife.” Yet he continues that, even if he loses his memory, he wants “to be together as husband and wife.” In other words, far from releasing her, he’s telling her that a professional relationship between a man and his nurse is not sufficient for him; she must also act like his wife. For the rest of the novel, Kohtake comes into the café each day, greets Fusagi as her husband, and waits to find out whether he will treat her civilly or not. The Notebook in reverse?

The Sisters focuses on another of the café’s regulars. Hirai is the anti-feminist strawman, a woman who is willing to break down in crocodile tears to manipulate a man “because tears are a woman’s weapon.” Flouting her parents’ wishes and expectations, she abandoned the family inn for big city life as the owner of a small hostess club. For years, she has been avoiding her younger sister, now heir-apparent to the family business because surely, Hirai thinks, her sister resents being left holding the inheritance bag.

Then her sister dies. Hirai travels back to speak with her one last time only to discover her sister has never been resentful—she just wants to run the inn together with Hirai. Hirai agrees, though it seems like she is only trying to appease a sister who is fated to die anyway.

Then Hirai’s friends on the café staff find out about her promise. They pressure her to keep it: “How unhappy would your sister be if she knew that your promise was only made for today?” So the free-spirited twenty four year old who left home to become her own person returns to take her place as conventional first born and successor to the inn. A few weeks later, her friends receive a photo:

In the photo, Hirai [is] standing in front of the inn. With her hair in a bun, she [is] wearing a pink kimono, indicating her status as the owner of Takakura… [She is] smiling like she [does]n’t have a care in the world.

Mother and Child is perhaps supposed to be the novel’s most touching episode. Café owner Nagare and his wife Kei are expecting. Even though Kei has a heart condition and may not survive the pregnancy, she is determined to carry the pregnancy to term.

The premise that Kei will die because of her pregnancy is almost implausible. Japan has one of the very lowest maternal mortality rates in the world–five deaths per 100,000 live births. (At fourteen per 100,000 live births, the US nearly triples Japan’s maternal mortality rate.) Nevertheless, before she faces death, Kei is determined to travel to the future to meet her child.

In the future, it soon becomes clear that Kei has not survived the pregnancy. She is overwhelmed not by sorrow or regret, but by a desire to apologize to her daughter that “giving birth to [her] is the only thing [Kei] will ever be able to do for [her].” As if that isn’t enough.

Kei never seems to even consider changing her mind about the pregnancy.

Kei’s choice is certainly a brave one. But in the context of Before the Coffee Gets Cold it is also a symbol of what Japanese society has traditionally asked of women—to put their husband, then their sons, then their daughters all ahead of themselves.

Scott North. “Negotiating What’s ‘Natural’: Persistent Domestic Gender Role Inequality in Japan” in Social Science Japan Journal.

“A Tokyo Medical School Rigged Exam Results to Favour Men. But Japan’s Sexism Problem Runs Even Deeper” at Amnesty International.

“Toward a Society Where All Women Shine: An Intensive Program to Help Women Break through the Glass Ceiling” at Japan.go.jp.

“Yanagisawa Calls Women Child-Bearing Machines” at The Japan Times.

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda

“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

“Bathhouse Women” by Torii Kiyonaga

Where the Wild Ladies Are is 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 Walz, a 2012 romantic comedy staring 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 a 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.

Sento in Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs

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.”

At the beginning of the novel, Natsuko mused that thinness reflects poverty. (Incidentally, that characterization is no more true of Japan than it is of the US, where low incomes correlate with higher BMI…) To Natsuko, her sister’s reedy frame demonstrates that she isn’t making ends meet with her job as (more-or-less) a cocktail waitress. One wonders whether Makiko’s desire for breast augmentation surgery stems also from a desire to appear more prosperous (fleshy) than she really is.

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.

Lily Crossley-Baxter. “Japan’s Naked Art of Body Positivity” at BBC.com.

Scott Clark. “The Japanese Bath: Extraordinarily Ordinary” in Re-Made Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society.

Scott Clark. Japan: A View from the Bath.

Nina Cornyetz. “Matrix and Metramorphosis” in Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers.

Andrew Curry. “Springs Eternal” in Smithsonian Magazine.

Burkay Pasin. “Femaleness, Femininity and Feminotopia: The Female Hamam as a Homosocial Space” in Women 2000.

Mary Louise Pratt. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation.

Emma Woolf. The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control.

Leslie Wynn. “Self-Reflection in the Tub: Japanese Bathing Culture, Identity, and Cultural Nationalism.”

By Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs

Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki

“Tokyo Station” by Onchi Koshiro

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, Shibaski 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 for the narrator of her 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).

Kendall Heitzman. “Shibasaki Tomoka’s Literature of Location.” U.S.—Japan Women’s Journal.

The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl by Tomihiko Morimi

“Shiei Flying on a Carp” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. In The Night Is Short…, koi only fly by tornado.

“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 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 gold fish. 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.

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

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

More by Tomihiko Morimi: Penguin Highway

Penguin Highway by Tomihiko Morimi

Famous Heroes of the Kabuki Stage Played by Frogs by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

One day, a 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 artic 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 5 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 melancholy, 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 out 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

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
( 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, Shirkawa’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.”

Way to stick it to the patriarchy! 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 1st and only time she openly opposes him: “The shock was enough to split his arrogant ego in two.”

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

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

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