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, 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 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 [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 because of their biology. 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.

Ellwood, Robert. “Patriarchal Revolution in Ancient Japan: Episodes from the ‘Nihonshoki’ Sujin Chronicle” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 1986.

Hemmann, Kathryn. “Dangerous Women and Dangerous Stories: Gendered Narration in Kirino Natsuo’s Grotesque and Real World” in Rethinking Japanese Feminisms, 2019.

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, 1988.

Lianying Shan. “Rewriting Women’s Oppression through Myth and Nature—Kirino Natsuo’s Tokyo Island and The Goddess Chronicle” in Japanese Language and Literature, 2018.

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, 2017.

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

Toshio Kuroda. “Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion” in Japanese Language and Literature, trans. James C. Dobbins and Suzanne Gay, 1981.

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

ME by Tomoyuki Hoshino and Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Futakuchi-Onna from Ehon Hyaku Monogatari (絵本百物語, “Picture Book of a Hundred Stories”)

Like many other countries, Japan has its own body of folklore with cannibalistic monsters. For more than a thousand years, demonic female yamauba have roamed Japan’s mountains, assisting some travelers, eating others. The connotations of cannibalism in Japanese folklore are always negative.

Today, cannibalism is a quietly contentious political issue in Japan. In the early 90s, historian Toshiyuki Tanaka publicized documents that he claims “clearly show that this cannibalism was done by a whole group of Japanese soldiers [during World War II], and in some cases they were not even starving.” He claimed the motive was most often “to consolidate the group feeling of the troops”—what better way to unite troops than to break a strong taboo together?

Tanaka reported that he hadn’t been able to publish his work in Japan because it was deemed “too sensitive.” As recently as 2014, many in Japan were outraged by the depiction of Japanese cannibalism in the WWII biopic Unbroken—“there was absolutely no cannibalism,” one Shinto priest claimed, “That is not our custom.”

There’s also the notorious case of Issei Sagawa, the Japanese man who killed and cannibalized a Dutch woman. He has both horrified and fascinated the public for the last thirty years and developed a kind of cult following not unlike the unsettling hero worship of Ted Bundy in the United States. After a stint in prison of only two years, he’s made a career of his notoriety. His colorful resume includes soft-core porn star and sushi critic.

And don’t forget the internet rumor that Japan passed legislation in 2014 to allow for the consumption of human flesh. (It didn’t, of course.) According to the fake news, you could now eat part of another person for as little as $120.

In each of these cases, the Japanese response to cannibalism is more or less the same as the American response. Cannibalism is perhaps the ultimate taboo, the taboo Sigmund Freud describes, fairly accurately, as the only taboo “to be universally proscribed” and “completely surmounted.”

On the other hand, Elizabeth Kenney sees cannibalistic symbolism in the Shinto funeral—for example “all the eating that goes on during the funeral rites,” including simultaneously with the cremation of the corpse, and the custom of picking through the ashes with chopsticks for bone fragments.

Kenney also claims that, even though Shinto priests aren’t “sympathetic to this practice,” multiple Japanese have reported eating bone or drinking a tea made with ashes: “We drank Grandmother’s ashes in order to keep her with us, to be joined with her.”

In the West, cannibalism as communion isn’t completely unknown either. In a Christian context, for example, it might call to mind the Christian Eucharist, when Jesus instructs his disciples, “Take this bread and eat it, for it is my body.” (Pagan Romans used false accusations against Christians to justify persecution, making Christians into an Other, as I’ll discuss in a minute.)

It’s this second idea, that cannibalism accommodates the joining of two or more people, that I want to explore.

Cannibalism as the Communion

In an influential book on the subject, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, anthropologist William Arens calls into question whether there has ever been firm, substantiable evidence of cultures that accepted the practice of cannibalism. Claims about cannibalism are an almost universal way of marking the Other, dividing the Them who eat people and the Us who do not. Arens’s claim is especially relevant in a post-colonial context because cannibalism historically “acts as a mythic justification for the dominance of colonizer over colonized.”

In ME and Earthlings, cannibalism is inverted. Instead of marking difference, it accommodates the creation of community.

ME by Tomoyuki Hishino

Japanese uses several first-person pronouns (e.g. I, me, or we). Ore, the I used in the original Japanese title of Tomoyuki Hoshino’s ME, is a gruff and almost exclusively male pronoun. The title, Ore Ore, refers to a scam young men pulled on older people, calling them to say, “It’s me,” and ask for urgently-needed money. The Japan Times estimates that, at its height, the “Ore Ore” cost Japan’s elderly $450 million a year.

The “Ore Ore” is really only a launching point for a much broader narrative. After successfully pulling the scam, Hitoshi Nagano discovers that his victim’s mother thinks he really is her son, Daiki Hiyana. Later, Hitoshi’s own mother doesn’t recognize him, and he quickly and inevitably takes on Daiki’s name and family. Thus begins the exploration of the novel’s central themes: “individualism, masculinity and nationalism” (Kidd).

Hitoshi/Daiki now meets two nearly-identical strangers, both also named Hitoshi Nagano. The trio initially form a closely-bonded group. Hitoshi/Daiki thinks, “we couldn’t help believing in ourselves, even though in our heart of hearts, each of us was distrustful of himself.” This distrust of self will become both pathological and deadly later in the novel.

In spite of this friendship, these first three MEs are fundamentally lonely. Only one of them has a girlfriend, and he breaks up with her shortly after meeting the two other MEs. Hitoshi/Daiki assures himself, “We don’t need marital partners. Our mutual understanding far exceeds any that we might have with a girlfriend or wife.” Even though they later discover female MEs, the protagonist never seriously considers a romantic relationship. We are again faced with a protagonist who, like Breasts and Egg’s Natsuko and Convenience Store Woman’s Mizuki, isn’t strongly motivated by sex or relationships.

The bond between the young men continues until their world quickly fills with ever more other MEs. One of the trio feels driven to murder his two companions, a compulsion all the MEs begin to share. The MEs start using the euphemism “to delete” in place of “to murder,” a turn of phrase that dehumanizes and calls to mind something artificial.

The situation soon turns apocalyptic, and Hitoshi/Daiki tries fleeing to the mountains outside of Tokyo. Of course, all of the other MEs have the same thought. The mountains are soon full of MEs, all deathly afraid of each other and competing for very limited sources of food. In a few months, they’re driven to cannibalism to survive.

In the chapter “Transmigration” (reincarnation), the protagonist dies an uncountable number of times. But no matter how often Hitoshi/Daiki is killed by other MEs, he is always rebirthed in the land of the living. The theology here is strongly Buddhist. Like an interminable Groundhog’s Day or some kind of purgatory, he is stuck living the same circumstances over and over again until he reaches enlightenment.

Ultimately, it is cannibalism that leads to Hitoshi/Daiki’s epiphany about the other MEs. On the brink of starvation, he tries to reach a compromise with another ME over a dead ME’s body: 

Share? Why not? Why had I not thought of that before? Why had I convinced myself of the necessity of bringing the other down? Share? Was that not a splendid idea?

It seems like pure habit when he goes back on his word not to harm the other ME—and just retribution when the other ME kills him.

This time, he finds his consciousness reborn into his dead corpse. While he is being eaten (painlessly, thank goodness), he finally comes to a realization: every time he has “deleted” and eaten another ME, he has betrayed himself. Now, though dead and voiceless, he offers himself freely to his companions:

Go ahead and eat me… every bit of me. Give my bones to the beasts anon. See to it that there is not a trace of me remaining. And if my carcass has any nutritional value, I should be grateful. Eat me. Live long and prosper. It is enough if I can contribute to your welfare.

He also realizes that, for the first time in his life, he is useful to someone.

After Hitoshi/Daiki’s consciousness moves into the body of the living ME, he has a plan. He will reconcile with the other MEs, end the “deletions,” start a communal farming project…

But he is now the only ME left on the mountain. Like “an undulating assault [comes] the absolute realization that [he is] the only one left.” The others have all deleted each other. His dreams of entering into a community with all the MEs, to reintegrate his self, cannot be realized.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

I am grateful to Grove Press for their digital review copy of Earthlings. The novel will be released in October 2020. Please note that this analysis does include spoilers.

Fans of Sayaka Murata’s other work in English will find themselves on familiar ground in Earthlings. A first person, female narrator doesn’t quite get society. Keiko (Convenience Store Woman) and Mizuki (“A Clean Marriage”) would likely sympathize with Yuki’s description of her town as “a factory for the production of human babies.” Like Murata’s other women, Yuki finds herself on the periphery of society—not so much by choice as by her failure to understand why she should follow the dictates of her culture. Again like Keiko and Mizuki, she voluntarily enters a non-sexual marriage to get representatives of “the factory” off her back.

But Earthlings is a good deal darker than Murata’s other work in English. Toward the end of the novel, Yuki, her husband, and her cousin retreat from the city for Yuki’s grandfather’s tumble-down estate. None of them are Earthlings, they decide. Instead, they are from the planet Popinpobopia, a fantasy world Yuki’s cousin shared with her when they were children. Over the course of several months, they intentionally shed their humanity. Time loses its meaning as the narrative moves into stream-of-consciousness.

Eventually, Yuki experiences sexual desire for the first time. Ever since a teacher molested her as a child, she hasn’t felt a sense of autonomy over her body and loses her sex drive; she had thought “[her] sexual urge was broken and that [she] would never in [her] life experience it again.” Now, as the boundaries between her self and her companions’ selves begin to dissolve, she begins “to feel a sexual urge forming.” Their relationship remains chaste—at least for the time being.

Then winter arrives. Unable to forage for food, they eventually turn to cannibalism to survive. Yuki realizes that this act is a final act of departure from the human community: if they do this, they will “lose any chance of ever being accepted into the Earthling fold again.”

Although cannibalism begins as a necessity, it becomes a generous act of sharing. Each of the three Popinpobopians volunteers in turn to die to nourish the others. In the end, they decide to cut away small pieces of their bodies so they can taste each other. Their cannibalism becomes a unifying force through a grotesque orgy of consuming and being consumed. It is unclear whether or not there is actual sexual contact, but it’s not actually that important. Through the act of cannibalism, they are literally joining their flesh.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Murata’s cannibalism is that it is generative. When Earthlings finally discover the three, Yuki’s husband and cousin have massively swollen bellies. They claim to be pregnant, and promise they will continue to multiply.

It’s possible Murata may be trying to normalize the practice of cannibalism—at least voluntary cannibalism. Maybe it does, as the Popinbopians claim, make logical sense. But it’s difficult to get past what Tony Milligan calls “the yuck factor.” Could Murata really expect her readers to react differently than the humans do at the end of the novel?: that is, with violent vomiting and cries that “[ring] out to the far corners of the planet, setting the forests trembling.”

So here is the claim of both novels: In an isolating society that increasingly rejects sex and personal relationships, cannibalism is the only way to have meaningful communion.

A grim apocalypse indeed.

Aoyama, Tomoko. “Cannibalism in Modern Japanese Literature” in Reading Food in Modern Japanese Literature, 2008.

Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthrophagy, 1980.

Kenney, Elizabeth. “Shinto Mortuary Rites in Contemporary Japan” in Cashiers d’Extrême-Asie, 1996.

Kidd, James. “A Mind-Bending Exploration of Identity and the Problems of Contemporary Japan” at Post Magazine, 2017.

Mickkelson, David. “Did Tokyo Open the First Human Meat Restaurant?” at Snopes.com, 2017.

Milligan, 2019. “Tokyo Ghoul and the Trouble with Cannibalism” in The Metaphor of the Monster: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Understanding the Monstrous Other in Literature, 2020.

Schmitt, Bill. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, 2018.

Spencer, Geogg. “Japan Hears of World War II Cannibalism a Half-Century Later” at AP.com, 1992.

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, 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).

Heitzman, Kendall. “Shibasaki Tomoka’s Literature of Location,” in U.S.—Japan Women’s Journal, 2017.

Penguin Highway by Tomihiko Morimi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, it is a work of magical realism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One last little push, Mr. Takahashi!”

The story ultimately ends without a clear resolution.

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

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

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

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

More by Mieko Kawakami: Ms Ice Sandwich

The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

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

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

There is no clear protagonist in The Waiting Years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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