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.