Ijime

Originally debuting as a poet in 2006, Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami swept the world of literature with the release of the English translation of her 2019 novel Natsu monogatari. Published in 2020 as Breasts and Eggs, the book was a protracted version of her 2008 Akutagawa Prize-winning short novel, Chichi to ran. It didn’t take long for the book to gain worldwide recognition. Breasts and Eggs kept receiving accolades left and right and was even listed by the New York Times as one of its Notable Books of the Year. It was also included in TIME’s Best 10 Books of 2020. Kawakami was also heralded by her Japanese writers, including popular novelist Haruki Murakami. It was the dawn of a new literary voice in both Japanese and international literature. There was no stopping Kawakami from aiming for those stars.

A singer turned poet turned author, Kawakami’s journey as a novelist began with the publication of her first novella in 2007, My Ego, My Teeth, and the World. Two years later, she published her first full-length novel, Hevun. However, it would take over a decade before Hevun was made available to English-speaking readers. Its translated version, Heaven, was met with the same warm reception that Breasts and Eggs has received. Kawakami’s third novel to be translated into English, Heaven is set in 1991 Japan. It charted the story of an anonymous fourteen-year-old narrator.

Except for a physical affliction, there was nothing about the novel’s primary narrator that made him stand out from the crowd. He was born with amblyopia (or Strabismus), more commonly referred to as the lazy eye syndrome. His affliction made his right eye aim towards a different direction from his left eye. His affliction has earned him the cruel moniker “Eyes.” In Japanese, lazy eye was called Ronpari, a portmanteau of London (Ron) and Paris (Pari), an allusion to one eye looking at the former and another eye at the latter. It was his condition that made Eyes the subject of bullying from his fellow male students at the high school he attended. He was ridiculed for his shy demeanor.

“The paintings here were mystifying. In the reds and greens of the canvases, maidens danced with animals, a goat or something carried a violin in its mouth, and a man and a woman embraced under a gigantic blazing bouquet. This swarm of unrelated images was like a glimpse into a dream. But not a good one. The joy I saw there was ferocious, and the sadness suffocatingly cold. Blues thrown onto the canvas warred with yellows approaching like tornadoes. People gathered round aghast to watch a circus spin to life.”

~ Mieko Kawakami, Heaven

Leading the bullying on Eyes was Ninomiya. The class ace, Ninomiya was the antithesis of Eyes. Ninomiya was athletic and he was also at the top of their class. He was also good-looking and popular. Eyes was compliant and rarely showed any resistance against the acts of bullying that he received. Amidst this bleak atmosphere, a ray of hope made its way through. It came in the form of a note he found on his desk. The note asked him to meet the anonymous note-sender at the park after school. Thinking it was from one of his bullies, Eyes was surprised to learn that the nameless note-sender was Kojima, one of his female classmates. Kojima was the last person Eyes expected to meet.

Everything started to make sense when Kojima explained why she sent him the note. All the dots started to connect. There was something that they both shared; they were both bullied by their classmates. While Eyes was bullied by their male classmates, Kojima, on the other hand, was bullied by their female classmates. She was called Hazmat: “She was short, with kind of dark skin. She never talked at school. Her skirt was always wrinkled, and her uniform looked old. The girls in the class picked on her for being poor and dirty”. With their shared experiences, Kojima and Eyes forged a friendship. The companionship they found in each other provided a private respite from the horrors of their school life. Despite their growing friendship, they acted nonchalant at school and their only means of communication was through notes.

Bullying is a deeply-entrenched social concern that has plagued Japanese schools. Despite the rising conversation on this social dilemma, it remains prevalent in the contemporary. In a 2013 study, 66.2% of students surveyed have experienced different forms of bullying. The bullying came in different forms. The most common form was verbal such as teasing, veiled threats, and other nasty comments. Physical abuse was also a common form of bullying but one of its most prevalent forms of bullying was the exclusion of one member of the same group. Bullying in schools, unfortunately, rarely reaches the school authorities. Most of the time, the bullies ensure that no visible physical marks are left on the bullied. With the advancement of technology, the bullying started taking on a new and pervasive form, cyberbullying.

The Japanese refer to their systematic concept of bullying as “ijime”. Ijime means to torment and carries far more sinister implications than its English translation. Ijime usually involves a child or a student who was different or was seen as weak, just like in the case of Eyes; this is often referred to as the quintessence of Japanese bullying. At the hands of his abusers, Eyes experienced brutal physical abuse but his abusers made sure not to leave any physical marks lest it arouse suspicion. They also made him swallow pond water, toilet water, a goldfish, and even scraps of vegetables from a rabbit cage. The most violent form of bullying that Eyes received was when a soccer ball was placed on his head The attacks were relentless and there was no limit to the imagination of his abusers. The case was the same for Kojima.

“It’s the only thing we can do. And not just for our sake, you know? It’s for the other kids, too, even if they don’t realize it. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is we understand it, you and me. We get it. And, like, in that way, living with this weakness, accepting it completely, that’s the greatest strength in the whole world. It’s not just my dad or them or us. We do it for everyone who’s weak everywhere, in the name of actual strength. Everything we take, all of the abuse, we do it to rise above. We do it for the people who know how important it is.”

~ Mieko Kawakami, Heaven

Through the interactions of the novel’s characters, Heaven explored the trauma that is the offshoot of bullying and exclusion. In each other’s company, Kojima and Eyes tried to make sense of their horrific experiences. Perhaps the most prominent psychological dimensions of bullying are depression and the thoughts of suicide. With no one, or very few to talk to, it all turns into a conversation with one’s self. There was a deep rumination on death and suicide in the novel: “At first, suicide was just a word, a vague idea separate from reality. It pointed at a way that other people chose to die, people I didn’t even know. But once the word became my own, it took on the strangest shape. I could feel it growing deep inside of me. Suicide wasn’t only something that happened to strangers. I could make it happen if I wanted to.”

The discourse on bullying was the novel’s heart and soul. In Heaven, we see different schools of thought in this conversation. Kojima has an interesting philosophy on bullying which drove how she behaved and acted. Kojima indoctrinated Eyes in what she deemed their bullying means. By letting their bullies bully them, they are actually hampering what bullying means. Rather than address the cause of her bullying, Kojima willfully bannered it. She refused to take a bath and kept her hair unkempt. She believed that these “signs”, as she referred to them, which made them vulnerable to bullying are also the very same things that make them unique. These signs define them and by waving them proudly, they are actually winning against the bullies.

Kojima was a firebrand on her beliefs. She fervently believed that being bullied for the things that made her stand out was a rite of passage. By withstanding all that was being thrown her way, she was also sending a message to the people who choose to be silent over the incidents of bullying. In the words of Nobel Laureate in Literature Elie Wiesel, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Kojima’s beliefs, however, were contrasted by Ninomiya’s right hand, Momose. Momose underscored power dynamics as the cause of their bullying and not just because of Eyes’ affliction or Kojima’s poverty. Simply put, they bully people they recognize are weaker than them: “Everywhere you look, the strong walk all over the weak. Even those fools who think they’ve found the answers by coming up with perfect little sayings about how the world ought to be can’t escape it. Because the real world is everywhere.

Eyes, on the other hand, was more passive in his approach to bullying. He understood that the bullying he got was because of his appearance, hence, his subservience to what his bullies asked him to do. There was no other way to escape reality. But despite accepting the follies of his fate, Eyes was also a neutral party who hears and processes these different and opposing notions on bullying. However, one thing was palpable. Eyes wanted the bullying to end, a sentiment he echoed to one of his bullies. It fell to deaf ears. This leaves him in an impasse. Should he, like Kojima, embrace the bullying he received, hence, embrace the signs that made him different? Or should he fight back against the system that has continually oppressed him?

“The paintings here were mystifying. In the reds and greens of the canvases, maidens danced with animals, a goat or something carried a violin in its mouth, and a man and a woman embraced under a gigantic blazing bouquet. This swarm of unrelated images was like a glimpse into a dream. But not a good one. The joy I saw there was ferocious, and the sadness suffocatingly cold. Blues thrown onto the canvas warred with yellows approaching like tornadoes. People gathered round aghast to watch a circus spin to life.”

~ Mieko Kawakami, Heaven

One of the finer points of Kawakami’s prose lay in her ability to produce opposing notions. She brilliantly countered the arguments without sticking up to a particular school of thought. Rather, she let all of these contrasting ideologies collide, and, through the novel’s primary narrator, each ideology was dissected. It was also a brilliant stroke that engages the readers. It also highlighted how Kawakami never shies away from grappling with complex concerns. Despite all the various philosophical intersections, Heaven concluded on a predictable note. While it was predictable, it was also necessary. To reach the conclusion, however, the reader must endure some violent and graphic scenes.

The winner of the 2010 Murasaki Shikibu Prize, Heaven was Kawakami’s grand entry to the world of literature. Deceptively thin, it was packed with powerful and evocative punches. The novel explored several seminal themes, such as bullying, power dynamics, and acceptance. With the depth of the message it carries, the novel also resonates on a global scale. The novel also underlined the power of Kawakami’s scintillating prose. It was simple but it captured powerful scenes with deftness. Tender moments between the characters also abounded. In a gallery was a painting of “two lovers eating cake in a room with a red carpet and a table.” Kojima fondly called it “Heaven” for it was a representation of Kojima’s image of heaven: “After everything, after all the pain, they made it here. It looks like a normal room, but it’s really heaven.

Ratings

81%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

Breasts and Eggs was my first novel by Mieko Kawakami. Despite not knowing much about her back then, I was eager to read the novel. It had such a powerful pull that I can barely resist. Thankfully, the novel lived up to my expectations although I wasn’t impressed by the translation as it somehow missed some of the nuances of language that I expected. Nevertheless, the book made me look forward to reading more of Kawakami’s prose. When I got wind of her latest translated novel, Heaven, to be published in 2021, I was more than excited. When I finished the book, I was really conflicted about how I felt about the novel. I felt like the novel’s main concern was not fully addressed, or that the conclusion reached was ephemeral at best. However, as I tried to understand the facets of bullying through my own experiences and what I have read, the novel started to make more sense. I must say, Kawakami has been impressing me and I can’t wait to read more of her works.

Book Specs

Author: Mieko Kawakami
Translator (from Japanese): Sam Bett and David Boyd
Publisher: Picador
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 167
Genre: Bildungsroman, Literary Fiction

Synopsis

From the bestselling author of Breasts and Eggs and international literary sensation Mieko Kawakami comes a sharp and illuminating novel about the impact of violence and the power of solidarity.

In Heaven, a fourteen-year-old boy is subjected to relentless torment for having a lazy eye. Instead of resisting, he chooses to suffer in silence. The only person who understands what he is going through is a female classmate, Kohima, who experiences similar treatment at the hands of her bullies. Providing each other with immeasurable consolation at a time in their lives when they need it most, the two young friends grow closer than ever. But what, ultimately, is the nature of a friendship when your shared bond is terror.

Unflinching yet tender, sharply observed, intimate and multi-layered, this simple yet profound novel stands as yet another dazzling testament to Mieka Kawakami’s uncontainable talent. There can be little doubt that it has cemented her reputation as one of the most important young authors at work today.

About the Author

To learn more about the Japanese writer, do click here.