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.

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