A New Literary Voice

The past few decades saw the rise to prominence of several Japanese writers. The works of masterful storytellers such as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburō Ōe, among others, remain relevant and prevalent in the contemporary. Along with the timelessness of their works, new voices started to rise above the din and started creating noises in their own. With their own voices and brand of prose, they are making contemporary Japanese literature soar to newer heights. As they slowly ascent towards prominence and global recognition, this advent of new and excitable voices ensure the future of one of the most beloved parts of the literary world.

One of the voices that rose to prominence of the past couple of years is Mieko Kawakami. Before pursuing a full-time career as a writer, the Osakan native was a singer-songwriter. Her shift towards literature proved to be a turning point for Kawakami. Her debut novella, Watakushi ritsuin hā, mata wa sekai (My Ego Ratio, My Teeth, and the World, 2007), was an instant sensation and was nominated for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. Her second novella, Chichi to ran (Breasts and Eggs, 2008) finally won the said Prize, consolidating Kawakami’s status as a rising star in Japanese literature. In 2020, the English translation of the expanded version of Chichi to ran was published in its original title, Breasts and Eggs. It was warmly received by a global audience aching for a new voice.

Set in contemporary Tokyo, Breasts and Eggs was divided into two distinct parts. Book One introduces the readers to the novel’s primary protagonist, Natsuko Natsume. The narrative commenced with Natsuko rushing to the train station to meet her older sister, Makiko, and her niece, twelve-year-old Midoriko. It was Makiko’s first trip to Tokyo in a long while and, despite their rift, Midoriko tagged along as it was her first trip to the nation’s capital. In travelling to Tokyo, Makiko had one goal in her mind: to look for a breast enhancement clinic. A single mother working as a hostess at a working-class bar, she fervently believed that the medical procedure will be a catalyst in ushering badly needed change to her life. It will help her stand out amongst her younger colleagues, thus, making her earn more.

“I recognize that luck, effort, and ability are often indistinguishable. And I know that, in the end, I’m just another human being, who’s born only to die. I know that in reality, it makes no difference whether I write novels, and it makes no difference if anyone cares. With all the countless books already out there, the world won’t notice if I fail to publish even one book with my name on it. That’s no tragedy. I know that. I get that.”

~ Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs

In Book Two, the narrative moved forward a decade after Makiko and Midoriko’s visit. The heftiest part of the narrative, it focused on Natsuko. When Natsuko left Osaka for Tokyo, she was driven by her dream of becoming a successful writer. Success, however, is rarely instantaneous. When her sister visited, Natsuko was residing in a cramped apartment, and was occasionally missing out on her rental dues. Ten years thence, the proverbial success she yearned for finally happened. Her debut novel, a book she worked on for years, was a commercial and critical success. Riding the wave of her initial success she was working on her second novel. Piecing together a second novel proved to be more challenging than writing the first. Natsuko was facing pressure from all fronts, from the need to come up with another stellar work , to her own internal struggles.

Through the story of a young woman navigating her way around the blind curves of her society, Breasts and Eggs explored several timely and seminal themes in the ambit of contemporary Japanese society. Through the story of Makiko, Kawakami depicted the pressure society places on women’s physical appearance. They suffer from the continuous scrutiny of their looks, and from the need to always look presentable in order to remain relevant, or in Makiko’s case, desirable, in a competitive market. One’s value declines with blemishes, underscoring the dichotomy between men and women. Whilst women had to endure excruciating pain to live up to society’s lofty standards, their male counterparts rarely had to grapple with similar concerns. Fitting into society’s vision also adds burden on what little they earn.

There were other portrayals of conformance to the norms established by society. In most conservative and patriarchal societies, women are often relegated to a limited role they are expected to fulfill. They have very little autonomy to their bodies as they are, most of the times, viewed as vessels for reproduction. This view is deeply-ingrained in most societies that the newer generations have grown conscious of its prevalence, as can be noted in Midoriko’s journal entries that punctuated the first book. It exhibited her growing cognizance of what her role is going to be in society: “Once you get your period, that means your body can fertilize sperm. And that means you can get pregnant. And they we get more people, thinking and eating and filling up the world. It’s overwhelming. I get a little depressed just thinking about. I’ll never do it. I’ll ever have children. Ever.”

The discussion on bodily autonomy percolated in the second part of the novel. A decade after Midoriko ruminated on her eggs, her aunt found herself grappling with the same concerns she once had. Midoriko’s entries about her eggs formed the mantle of the second book. Natsuko, on the cusp of her fortieth birthday, has reached an impasse. She started grappling with the idea of raising her own child. However, she was averse to the idea of sex and intimate contact. Struggling with her autonomy over reproduction, she started the possibility of anonymous sperm donations. Considering this new possibility, she established contact and begun interacting with the children of anonymous sperm donations.

“Beauty meant that you were good. And being good meant being happy. Happiness can be defined all kinds of ways, but human beings, consciously or unconsciously, are always pulling for their own version of happiness. Even people who want to die see death as a kind of solace, and view ending their lives as the only way to make it there. Happiness is the base unit of consciousness, our single greatest motivator.”

~ Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs

Kawakami carefully laid out the discourse on raising a child as a single mother. The primary argument supporting this relied on the timeless idea that motherhood is the zenith of one’s womanhood. One of her friends even said: “You could give women something real. Real hope. Precedent. Empowerment. You don’t need a partner. A woman can make the decision to have a child and go through with it along.” However, there were more resistance to it than there were supporters. Makiko was against it. One of the biggest opposition came from Natsuko’s editor, Sengawa who argued that Natsuko is not financially capable to handle it and that it will only hold her back from realizing her full potential as a writer. From Midoriko’s journal: “Why would anyone ever want to make another one? I can’t even imagine why anyone would bother, but people think it’s the best thing ever. Do they, though? I mean, have they ever really thought about it?”

Through the stories of Aizawa and Yuriko, Kawakami dived deeper into the aspect of sperm donation. Yuriko showed the most resistance to the idea. As a child, she was the victim of sexual abuse by her father and she sternly believes that it is unethical to bring a child into a world where he/she will experience pain and suffering. The child could also end up like Aizawa, who is haunted by the ghost of the biological father he was searching for. However, the arguments against sperm donation does come across as facile. On the other hand, Kawakami did a commendable job of establishing the contrasting cultural differences in Japanese and Wester attitudes towards sperm donation.

The conversations on bodily autonomy was one of the novel’s more interesting facets. However, what propelled the narrative was Natsuko. Even though she was born into poverty and less than stellar circumstances, she never let her disadvantages pull her down. With her drive and passion, she slowly worked her way up to the top of the ladder. Whilst she is reactionary, she refuses to be shackled to the ground, like when she ditched her first editor, a man, who insisted that she will never be a great writer. She further proved her naysayer wrong with her bestselling work. Natsuko was, in a way, Kawakami’s alter ego. Both natives of Osaka, they worked in bars, often lying about their ages, in order to support themselves and their family.

In terms of storylines, Breasts and Eggs offered very little; it is also a quality it shares with several popular works of Japanese literature. Kawakami, however, did a breathtaking job in dissecting the vast and complex interior of Natsuko. Through her conversation with fellow women, the readers were given an intimate peek into how women are perceived by society and their thoughts on it. Whilst male presence was sparse, the narrative was nevertheless brimming with discussions about men as the patriarchal society inevitably trickles into nearly every facet of daily life. At one point, Natsuko ruminated on the privileges men obtain from birth: “They’re on a pedestal from the second they’re born, only they don’t realize it. Whenever they need something, their moms come running. They’re taught to believe that their penises make them superior, and that women are just there for them to use as they see fit. Then they go out into the world, where everything centers around them and their dicks. And it’s women who have to make it work.

“Writing makes me happy. But it goes beyond that. Writing is my life’s work. I am absolutely positive that this is what I’m here to do. Even if it turns out that I don’t have the ability, and no one out there wants to read a single word of it, there’s nothing I can do about this feeling. I can’t make it go away.”

~ Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs

Kawakami also did a brilliant job of weaving the readers into the tapestry of the narrative. In intimate details, the novel reeled the readers in, making them feel what women feel. From the sensation of sanitary napkins between one’s legs to the surprise of menstrual blood when it is least expected, the novel is in itself an experience. The vicarious experience helps the readers understand the characters, empathizing with their pains and the struggles. On the other hand, the narrative does have the tendency to be repetitive and meandering, especially in the second book. Natsuki kept running in circles as she grappled with a life-changing decision. Kawakami redeemed herself with the wonderfully orchestrated conclusion as Natsuki finds herself back to where she started. Predictable, yes, but nevertheless beautiful.

Breast and Eggs was a realistic prognosis of the plights of women in contemporary Japan. However, it does not limit itself to local spectators for it tackled subject and themes that resonate on a universal scale. It expounded on complex subjects such as bodily autonomy, asexuality, conformity, and single parenthood in a patriarchal society. It vividly illustrated how misogyny and poverty adversely affects the female body. It was never perfect. The translation failed to demonstrate the nuances of language. Some discourses came across as ephemeral. But then again, no work is truly perfect. What Kawakami has demonstrated was her ability both as a storyteller and a social critic. She has certainly proven herself as an exciting literary voice on the rise.

Ratings

83%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 23%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%

I admit, I wasn’t initially too keen on Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs. However, the hype it generated early last year did not escape my notice. My interest was further piqued when I came across commendations for the book. Upon doing a bit more a research, I was finally convinced and in late 2020, I finally added it to my growing reading list. I also resolved to read it in 2021 but I waited in the hopes of encountering a hardbound copy of the book. In the end, I had to settle with what is available as I was also hoping to include it in my July 2021 Japanese Literature month. As what I have read from fellow book bloggers, the novel explores what it means to be a woman in contemporary Japan, a timely discussion in a society that remains to be patriarchal and conservative. With its discourse on gaining autonomy of one’s body, it was an impressive feat. What I lament was the lack of nuances on language. The novel reads like it was written originally in English but Breasts and Eggs is still promising work.

Book Specs

Author: Mieko Kawakami
Translators: (From Japanese) Sam Bett and David Boyd
Publisher: Picador
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 430
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

On a hot summer’s day in Tokyo we meet three women: thirty-year-old Natsuko, her older sister Makiko, and Makiko’s twelve-year-old daughter Midoriko. Makiko, an ageing hostess despairing the loss of her looks, has travelled to Tokyo in search of the breast-enhancement surgery she thinks will change her life. She’s accompanied by an anxious Midoriko, who has recently fallen into communicating only in writing. Her silence gradually dominates Natsuko’s small, stuffy apartment, providing a catalyst for an explosive reckoning.

Ten years later, we meet Natsuko again. Now a writer, she finds herself on a journey back to her native city, returning to memories of that summer and her family’s past as she faces her own uncertain future.

In Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami paints a radical portrait of working-class womanhood in contemporary Japan, recounting the heartbreaking journeys of three women in a society where the odds are brutally stacked against them This is an unforgettable debut from a major new international voice.

About the Author

Kawakami Mieko was born on August 29, 1976 in Osaka, Japan.

Prior to pursuing a career in literature, Kawakami worked in various vocations. She was a bar hostess, and a bookstore clerk before she embarked on a singing career. In her stint as a singer-songwriter, she managed to release three albums and three singles. However, she quit her singing career in 2006 to pour her focus in her latest endeavor: a literary career. Even before starting her literary career, Kawakami was already a established blogger, with her blog peaking at 200,000 hits per day.

Her shift towards a full-time literary career proved to be successful. Her debut novella, Watakushi ritsuin hā, mata wa sekai (My Ego Ratio, My Teeth, and the World), published in 2007, was nominated for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and won the 2007 Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers. A year later, her second novella, Chichi to ran (Breasts and Eggs) won the Akutagawa Prize. Her first length novel, Hevun (Heaven, 2009), won the 2010 Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature. In 2019, she published Natsu monogatari, an expanded version of her second novella. It won the 73rd Mainichi Publication Culture Award and its translated version, published in 2020, brought more international acclaim to Kawakami’s growing career.

Kawakami currently resides in Tokyo, Japan.