People from My Neighborhood is a book about relationships. Kawakami Hiromi’s collection of micro-fiction, itself only 120-pages long, is about the members of the close-knit community in an exurban Tokyo town. For a volume of short stories, the relationships between characters are remarkably strong. Two and three pages at a time, the reader begins to see the tangled network of ties that bind the people from the neighborhood together…
Each year in Japan, thousands of people disappear. They haven’t been kidnapped. They haven’t been murdered. (Japan has one of the lowest murder rates in the world. An American is almost twenty-seven times more likely to become a homicide victim.)
They are the evaporated—the johatsu.
First, let’s acknowledge that the evocative noun probably creates an exoticism that isn’t entirely deserved. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, there were more than 56,000 Americans over the age of 18 with active missing persons records at the end of 2019. Nevertheless, Japanese privacy laws make the johatsu almost impossible to track down. The government relies on citizens to register in the cities where they live; if they don’t comply, there is no official record of where they are.
Catering to people who want to disappear has become a niche business in Japan. Movers help would-be johatsu vanish into neighborhoods where they can live anonymously—often hotbeds of activity by the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza.
According to Léna Mauger, a French journalist who brought the johatsu to the attention of the Western world with her book, The Vanished: The “Evaporated People” of Japan in Stories and Photographs, people who disappear do so most often because they are ashamed. A student fails an important exam. A woman falls in love with another man. A breadwinner loses his job.
The people left behind often never find out why their loved one has vanished.
Manazuru opens with the protagonist, Kei, taking an unplanned trip to Manazuru, a tiny coastal town in Kanagawa Prefecture of only eight or so thousand residents.
Her husband disappeared “without warning twelve years ago.”
The language Kawakami uses to describe Kei’s complex feelings is evocative and haunting:
After Rei’s disappearance, I had no place. I still didn’t know where to channel what I felt. When the path ahead is still unformed, we lose all sense of our location. The fear in me resembled the inability to tell upstream from downstream, to perceive the direction the water was going.
Only the things we are still holding on to can vanish into the past. If we no longer have it, it can’t be lost that way. Can’t vanish anywhere. Nonexistent, it is nonetheless unable, moreover, to go.
I’ve heard that when you start to dream of what you’ve lost, it means the hurt is healing… I never dream of Rei, even now.
More than a decade in, she is no longer in real mourning. Like a Penelope who will never welcome Odysseus home, what she needs most is closure. Is her husband still alive? Why did he leave? “Did [her] husband want to die? Or did he disappear because he wanted to live?” Will she ever see him again? Maybe most importantly, has the time come to let go of her grief?
Sometimes, of late, I forget him. It’s strange, when his presence used to be so thick. When his sudden departure only made his presence thicker.
Perhaps what most holds Kei back is that she considers first her husband and now their teenaged daughter to be extensions of herself: “I had thought we were family, the borders between our bodies indistinct, Momo and Rei [her husband] and I, the three of us mingling, dissolving.” Kei is unaccountably unable to say Rei’s name even during their marriage, and Kawakami reinforces Kei’s loss of self by exploring Kei and Rei as mirrors of each other.
Kei compares Rei at the beginning of their relationship to “the retreating tide.” “Try to stand your ground,” she says, “still it draws your body in.” With Rei, she “sensed [her]self blurring.” After they marry and have a child together, “even then” her body “blurs.” When he leaves, he destroys the part of her he has figuratively taken into himself. (There’s probably something Freudian to be said about the way Kei, a woman, feels that she has entered Rei, a man.) Later, when Kei reads Rei’s diary after he disappears, she finds it “sickening” because it forces her to acknowledge “he is separate from [her].”
After birth, Kei “did not regard [her daughter Momo] as her own person.” Admitting that Momo is a separate self is terrifying: “It was all right as long as I told myself I was nothing but my own body, but when I let my feelings shift toward Momo’s infant weight in my hands, I became terribly afraid.” Twelve years after her husband’s disappearance, she’s now losing another part of herself—her teenaged daughter is becoming an autonomous person.
Being the wife of a johatsu has inalterably shaped Kei, her expectations for her life, and her relationships with other people. Even twelve years later, it still calls her self into question.
A Man takes up the johatsu from a different angle as an attorney tries to track down the true identity of a client’s dead husband. A Man is about the things that drive people to evaporate—and, on a philosophical level, what questions the life of a johatsu raises about the nature of identity.
Author Keiichiro Hirano claims his novel is inspired by a man he met in a bar—Kido-san, the namesake of the novel’s protagonist. The man introduces himself as one person, then eventually claims to be another. “Do you understand what it’s like to be honest through lies?” the man asks.
Daisuké Taniguchi is the novel’s most important character, though he dies just a few pages in. His mourning widow, Rié, invites his estranged brother to her home. He notices the picture of her late husband on the Buddhist altar: “That isn’t Daisuké,” he reveals.
Rié believes she must now uncover her husband’s true identity. She makes arrangements for a lawyer, Akira Kido, to investigate on her behalf.
Kido soon begins to take the case a little too seriously, to ask himself what it would be like to change identities. Pretending for one night to be someone else, he “feel[s] out the comfort of his new life as though trying on a garment or test-driving a car.” Maybe this will be his new hobby: “synchronizing himself with the life story of another so as to vicariously inhabit their inner world.”
Hirano also raises the role of larger societal problems that make disappearance so tempting to Kido—presumably to an entire group of Japanese. Kido suffers from “a kind of existential anxiety” that has more to do with “Japan’s dark prospects,” the narrator tells us, than they do with his own identity.
Eventually, Kido discovers that “Daisuké Taniguchi,” Rié’s husband, is actually Makoto Hara, the son of a notorious murderer running away from what he considers his tainted family—recall how many of the johatsu disappear because of feelings of shame. With the help of a forger, he has bought Taniguchi’s place on the Taniguchi family register so he could assume a different identity. (A family register is an important document in Japanese culture and government, keeping official track, for example, of births and deaths.)
One of the-character-formerly-known-as-Makoto’s old friends describes him with a notably moving metaphor:
Makoto was, let’s say… Well, you ever heard of gender identity disorder? You know where your body and mind just don’t match up? For Makoto it was something like that. Yup. Like someone’s stuffed you into this disgusting mascot suit and you’re stuck in there for your whole life.
By disappearing, Makoto Hara is able to discover his own identity.
Manazuru and, to a certain extent A Man, both end without a neat resolution. Perhaps that is because, by their very nature, the johatsu and the social conditions that create them are unresolved. We can make guesses about whys and hows, but, as Kido reflects, “It might very well be hubris to believe that you could understand a person’s true thoughts and feelings even when looking straight at them.”
“The 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 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 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.
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. You can also read my review of Where the Wild Ladies Are at Asian Review of Books.
Cornyetz, Nina. “Matrix and Metramorphosis” in Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers, 1999.
Pasin, Burkay. “Femaleness, Femininity and Feminotopia: The Female Hamam as a Homosocial Space” in Women 2000, 2013.
“Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?”—The Guardian
“In sexless Japan, almost half of single young men and women are virgins”—The Japan Times
“Why aren’t the Japanese fucking?”—VICE
Japan’s purported sexless-ness is a big deal. The country’s population is in a steady decline. With the powers that be in Tokyo reluctant to play permanent host to non-ethnic Japanese, there’s no solid plan to make up the difference. Journalists and social scientists throw out a barrage of potential problems caused by the country’s shrinking population. (For example, did you know Japanese stores now sell more diapers for incontinent adults than for small children?) I’m more interested, though, in how Japan’s so-called セックスしない症候群 (“celibacy syndrome”) shows up in Japanese literature.
First, I’d like to note that the decline in the number of people having sex is not an exclusively Japanese phenomenon. In the US, for example, a 2019 study found that almost 40% of American adults reported having sex once a month or less.
In both Japan and the US, media coverage has tended to focus on 20-something men who aren’t pursuing relationships or having sex. In the US, some of these men self-identify as incels—involuntary celibates—and spend time online in forums with varying levels of toxicity. Several domestic terrorists in North America have posted screeds in incel forums. In a dramatic and perhaps overdue move, Canada recently (spring 2020) charged a teenage incel with terrorism.
In Japan, some of the people who have opted out of the dating market are ひきこもり(hikikomori—“pulling inward, being confined”). These (generally young) people live in extreme isolation from other people, often in their parents’ homes; up to 90% of hikikomori may be men.
Even among adults who live otherwise normal lives, one Japanese sex therapist describes Japan’s abstinence as “a flight from human intimacy.” (Most of her clients are men.)
So we hear a good deal about men avoiding romantic and/or sexual relationships. But what about women?
Some of the causes, of course, are shared. Members of both sexes use the phrase mendokusai, which roughly translates as “I can’t be bothered.”
As in many societies, marriage was once one of the only paths to security for women in Japan. Even into the 1980s, men had a reasonable expectation of lifelong employment with a single company followed by retirement on a generous pension. Their wives could count on a certain degree of wellbeing from marriage until death.
Then the Japanese economy exploded and evolved. Women’s expectations and goals changed, too—but society (men) in many cases hasn’t kept up.
Many Japanese women work and want to keep working, even after they have children. Even so, Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates that married women spend seven times as much time on housework as their husbands. (Lest Americans get too self-righteous, note that American women still do an average of two more hours of housework daily than American men.) Many women follow tradition by taking care of their husbands’ families—a task that, at least in Japanese literature, some mothers-in-law make astoundingly unpleasant. No wonder 90% of young, unmarried Japanese women report believing that staying single is preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like! A character in Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breasts and Eggs fears becoming just another housewife reduced to “free labor with a pussy.”
Recently published in English (spring 2020), Breasts and Eggs asks the question this kind of dating malaise invites: can Japanese women leave men totally out of the picture?
(Let me just note here that the right-wing governor of Tokyo responded to Breasts and Eggs by describing it as “unpleasant and hard to listen to.”)
Natsuko, the novel’s protagonist, distinctly dislikes sex. She’s only had one sexual partner, and their romantic relationship eventually broke down because she didn’t enjoy sleeping with him. “Once [boyfriend] was naked on top of me, I was alone,” she tells the reader. Sometimes, she wonders whether, without sexual desire, she’s even a woman. She has all the parts, but “sex… opening my legs and having him inside of me… was the worst.”
Perhaps it’s telling that “at some point,” she “picked up the idea that when you’re in that situation with a man—your man—it’s your job as the woman to go along.” Not only does Natsuko not like the physical aspect of sex, she’s also deeply ambivalent about the notion that sex is (a woman’s) obligation in a romantic relationship. Why, she asks herself, “did caring about someone need to involve using your body?”
Breasts and Eggs is a two-part novel. Part Two’s primary focus is Natsuko’s decision whether or not to get pregnant without a partner and without sex being involved at all—she initially describes her plan as “childbirth as some sort of do-it-yourself project. DIY insemination.” By finding a sperm donor, she can conceive, carry, bear, and raise a child with nothing more from any man than a small sample of his semen.
A major concern is where this anonymous semen will come from. In a nice ironic touch, one opponent of sperm donation notes that “human beings should not be treated as a means for reproduction.” Hmm… In the end, Natsuko finds a willing donor in Aizawa, an advocate for the rights of those, like him, conceived with the help of an unidentified donor.
Breasts and Eggs is… not the stuff of rom-coms. By the end of the book, Natsuko loves Aizawa. Aizawa loves her. But Natsuko’s desire to have a child completely on her own trumps all that. The two never have sex, but mislead a fertility specialist into artificially inseminating Natsuko with Aizawa’s sperm. Natsuko eventually conceives, and the book ends with the two having virtually no relationship at all.
Sayaka Murata’s short story A Clean Marriage (featured in the British literary magazine Granta) debuted in English in 2014. It addresses many of the same issues as Breasts and Eggs, but with a more darkly comedic touch.
Mizuki’s future husband, Nobuhiro Takahashi, posted on an online dating site: “Seeking a clean marriage… I’m seeking an amicable daily routine with someone I get along well with, like brother or sister, without being a slave to sex.” Mizuki finds his proposal appealing; previous romantic partners have expected her to be “wife, friend and mother.”
Two years later, the couple prepares to start a family with the same pragmatism. At a swanky clinic, the receptionist introduces them to the Clean Breeder—“a means to facilitate, in the purest sense of the word, reproduction.” The doctor intones, “Nowadays, your partner is not necessarily a sex object—this is a wonderful advancement.”
The actual use of the Clean Breeder turns out to be an elaborate exercise in foreplay made as unerotic as possible. In fact, the entire scene becomes a bizarre reversal, the husband’s machine-assisted ejaculation standing in for a woman’s labor and delivery:
“It is OK like this, Mr. Takahashi? Please do your best.”
“Mr. Takahashi, please tell us when life is issuing. Raise your hand!”
“One last little push, Mr. Takahashi!”
The story ultimately ends without a clear resolution.
Murata has said she is particularly interested in women who don’t want to have sex. She addresses voluntary celibacy in much of her work, though little of it has been translated into English as of summer 2020. Convenience Store Woman—which has been published in English and I strongly recommend!—also involves a couple that decides to pretend they are in a romantic (sexual) relationship so they can fulfill society’s expectations. The novel’s protagonist, Keiko, has never had sex at all.
The youngest character in Breasts and Eggs is Natsuko’s teenaged niece Midoriko. In her journal, she reflects, “The other day at school, between classes, I forget who, but someone was saying, ‘I was born a girl, so I definitely want to have a baby of my own eventually.’ Where does that come from? Does blood coming out of your body [a period] make you a woman? A potential mother? What makes that so great anyway? Does anyone really believe that?”
More by Mieko Kawakami: Ms Ice Sandwich