The Universality of Grief

There is no doubt that Japan has produced some of the most influential writers in the world of literature. The most recognized as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written by Lady Murasaki in the 11th century. Fast forward, the country produced two Nobel Prize in Literature winners, Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburō Ōe (1994); three if Kazuo Ishiguro (2017). Japan is also the homeland of popular writers such as Natsume Sōseki, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Shusaku Endo, Yukio Mishima, and Haruki Murakami, one of the contemporary’s most renowned writers. They have written some of the most popular titles such as Silence (Endo), Some Prefer Nettles (Tanizaki), The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy (Mishima), Kokoro (Sōseki), and Kafka on the Shore (Murakami).

Among the female Japanese writers who established a name for themselves is Banana Yoshimoto. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she worked as a waitress. It was during this time that she started working on what would be her first published work, Kitchin (キッチン). It was published in Japanese in 1988 to critical success. It won her several awards and recognitions such as the 16th Izumi Kyoka Literary Prize in 1988 and the 6th Kaien Newcomer Writers Prize in 1987. A new Japanese voice has emerged but it would take a couple more years before it was made available to the English-speaking world in 1993 when it was published as Kitchen. This elevated her as an up-and-coming world literary superstar. The success of Kitchen was followed up with more critically successful works.

Kitchen charted the story of Mikage Sakurai, a young Japanese woman. Since she lost her parents when she was younger, she has been living with her grandparents. With the death of her grandfather when she was in junior high school, her grandmother was the last remaining thread to the family that she had left. Her grandmother’s sudden death left Mikage heartbroken. For months, she struggled emotionally but as she finds herself deeper into her grief, she found her reprieve in the kitchen. After the losses she had gone through, the kitchen was her second home. But as the saying goes, every ending is a new beginning.

“Usually, the first time I go to a house, face to face with people I barely know, I feel an immense loneliness. I saw myself reflected in the glass of the large terrace window while black gloom spread over the rain-hounded night panorama. I was tied by blood to no creature in this world. I could go anywhere, do anything. It was dizzying. Suddenly, to see that the world was so large, the cosmos so black. The unbounded fascination of it, the unbounded loneliness… For the first time, these days, I was touching it with these hands, these eyes. I’ve been looking at the world half-blind, I thought.”

~ Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen

As Mikage started mustering the courage to move on, an unexpected character entered her life. Enters Yuichi Tanabe. Yuichi was a friend of Mikage’s grandmother although she barely had knowledge of him. He was shrouded in a veil of an enigma. He formerly worked at a flower shop that Mikage’s grandmother frequented and was present during her funeral. Nonetheless, Yuichi barged into Mikage’s life and invited her over for dinner, which she reluctantly accepted. During this dinner, Mikage learned why Yuichi invited her to dinner; he wanted to see her through one of the most difficult times in her life. He also told her about how his friendship with Mikage’s grandmother came about.

During the dinner, two things stood out for Mikage. The first one was the Tanabe kitchen which, for Mikage, was an object of curiosity. It was crude and bare, a traditional kitchen populated by appliances and kitchenwares showing years of wear and tear. The second object that caught Mikage’s attention was Yuichi’s mother, Eriko. Eriko arrived home from work and her beauty immediately captivated Mikage. They also instantly hit it off. Eriko, however, was no woman. She was born a man named Yuji and was now running a nightclub. What started in apprehension and doubts ended pleasantly and when Yuichi asked Mikage to live with them, Mikage did not hesitate. In each other, Yuichi and Mikage found a comforting presence.

In her first major work, Yoshimoto explored subjects that are close to the heart of many, death and grief. Death is a universal reality that blankets our existence. Being cognizant of its existence and its inevitability, however, does not blunt the sharp knives that penetrate the hearts of those who are left behind. The passage of time also does not soften the blow of its impact. These were things that Mikage realized as she moved on with her life. There was a heaviness that lingered; the grief, unbearable and self-consuming. It was because of this that we seek comfort in other forms. For Mikage, it was cooking and the kitchen that provided her a form of escape. Food was one of her forms of healing.

Her budding friendship with Yuichi, on the other hand, made her realize the importance of living and moving forward. He was her rock and, in the same manner, she was his rock. Not all hope is lost: “To the extent that I had come to understand that despair does not necessarily result in annihilation, that one can go or as usual in spite of it, I had become hardened. Was that what it means to be an adult, to live with ugly ambiguities? I didn’t like it but it made it easier to go on.” Yuichi also had his share of losses; he lost his mother to cancer when he was younger. Despite the subject, Yoshimoto was able to handle the discourse on death and grief sensibly and insightfully. Her gaze was unflinching, not leaving any stone unturned.

“From the bottom of my heart, I wanted to give up; I wanted to give up on living. There was no denying that tomorrow would come, and the day after tomorrow, and so next week, too. I never thought it would be this hard, but I would go on living in the midst of a glomy depression, and that made me feel sick to the depths of my soul. In spite of the tempest raging within me, I walked the night path calmly.”

~ Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen

Yoshimoto’s insertion of Eriko in the narrative further provided the novel an interesting complexion. This opened the discussion on transsexuality and homosexuality in general, subjects that are rarely encountered in works of Japanese literature. While transsexuality has been openly discussed and widely accepted in Japan, several still view it as a mental disorder, a reference to their conservative culture. The story also contained undertones of hate crimes and transphobia. Unfortunately, abuse and assault toward members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in Japan remain rampant. In a private survey conducted in 2020, nearly four in every ten respondents have responded that they have experienced sexual harassment.1 Most of these cases were unreported.

In each other’s company, Yuichi and Mikage learned more about themselves. Being the emotional backbone of the story, their growth and development was the focus of the narrative. They were like fishes out of the water who was learning to navigate the world of young adulthood. It was an ominous place where one had to grapple with depression, death, and violence. What mattered most was that they had each other. They also had to deal with maturity and the development of their emotions. The overtones of romance were inherent and we read of how the main characters go through the motions. The flourishing of romantic feelings was portrayed in intricate details. Witnessing their coming of age as individuals were one of the major achievements of the novella.

The English translation of the novella was often accompanied by another novella, Moonlight Shadow (ムーンライト・シャドウ, 1986). It was Yoshimoto’s graduation story and an early demonstration of what she was capable of as a writer. The novella won her the 16th Izumi Kyōka Prize for Literature. It charted the story of Satsuki and her budding friendship with Hiragi. Both Satsuki and Hiragi were coping with losses: Satsuki with the death of her boyfriend, Hitoshi, and Hiragi with the death of his girlfriend, Yumiko. Hitoshi and Yumiko died in the same accident. Adding complexity to their relationship was the fact that Hiragi was Hitoshi’s brother. The novella echoed the same subjects as Kitchen but to a far lesser extent. However, it was propped by touchstones in Japanese culture. Elements of magical realism also rendered the novella a distinct texture.

“We all believe we can choose our own path from among the many alternatives. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we make the choice unconsciously. I think I did- but now I knew it, because now I was able to put it into words. But I don’t mean this in the fatalistic sense; we’re constantly making choices. With the breaths we take every day, with the expression in our eyes, with the daily actions we do over and over, we decide as though by instinct.”

~ Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen

One of the finer elements of the book was the quality of Yoshimoto’s writing, with both novellas vividly capturing its landscape. Her writing was effortless. but lyrical Dark subjects were dealt with sensibly and complex emotions were captured in a deceptively simple manner. This simplicity made emotions reverberate with clarity. Despite the simplicity, the voices were engaging. The novellas were also replete with small but beautiful images. The deceptively short stories belie Yoshimoto’s endeavors in capturing a panoramic view of Japan. The cinematic view was done by paying attention to small details. Mundane objects and places, such as the kitchen, kitchenware, and dishes, were transformed into magical and otherworldly objects, enticing the readers further into the heart of Yoshimoto’s writing.

Deceptively slender, Banana Yoshimoto’s first major work, Kitchen, and by extension, Moonlight Shadow, packed a lot of punch. The convergence of depression, death, grief, and emptiness made up for a seemingly heavy read. These complex and dark subjects, however, were sensibly grappled with by Yoshimoto. The simplicity of her writing belied the power it held. It is a slice-of-life story but reverberated with profound messages about life and living, about love and moving on. In the stories of Yuichi and Mikage, and Satsuki and Hiragi, we read about growing up and coping. Their stories showed how our presence can be comforting to those who are silently suffering. At its heart, Kitchen is a compellingly moving and insightful story, not about death, but about finding the heart to live while, at the same time, navigating the uncertainties of life.

“I understand what she was trying to say, and I remember thinking listlessly, is this what it means to be happy? But now I feel it in my gut. Why is it we have so little choice? We live like the lowliest worms. Always defeated – defeated we make dinner, we eat, we sleep. Everyone we love is dying. Still, to cease living is unacceptable.”

~ Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen
Ratings

79%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
21%
Writing (25%) – 
20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

Prior to 2015, my knowledge of Japanese literature was limited but by going through must-read lists, I have encountered several titles that piqued my interest. One of these books was Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen although, at first, I was a little apprehensive about the book thinking it was a cookbook or at least related to cooking. It did take a couple more encounters before I was finally convinced to add the book to my growing reading list and in late 2020, I was lucky enough to obtain a copy of the book. It did help that the book was listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I made it part of my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. What surprised me about the book was its exploration of homosexuality, a subject I wouldn’t expect from a work of Japanese literature. While it was a pleasant surprise, I did find the grappling of the subject a little underwhelming. Yoshimoto could have expounded more on how homosexuality is viewed in the context of contemporary Japanese society. Nevertheless, it was, overall, an interesting literary piece that made me curious about Yoshimoto’s other works.

P.S. Moonlight Shadow was also an interesting and insightful short story about love and loss.

Book Specs

Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Translator (from Japanese): Megan Backus
Publisher: Grove Press
Publishing Date: 1993
Number of Pages: 150
Genre: Literary Fiction, Coming-of-age

Synopsis

When Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen was first published in 1988, “Bananamania” seized the country. Kitchen won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the best-seller list, then remained there for over a year and sold millions of copies. With the appearance of the critically acclaimed Tugumi (1989) and NP (1991), the Japanese literary world realized that in Banana Yoshimoto it was confronted not with a passing fluke but with a full-fledged phenomenon: a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best of twentieth-century Japanese literature

Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book that juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, kitchens, love, tragedy, and the terms they all come to in the minds of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan. Told in a whimsical style that recalls the early Marguerite Duras, “Kitchen” and its companion story, “Moonlight Shadow,” are elegant tales whose seeming simplicity is the ruse of a masterful storyteller. They are the work of a very special new writer whose voice echoes in the mind and the soul.

About the Author

Yoshimoto Mahoko (吉本 真秀子) was born on July 24, 1964, in Tokyo, Japan. Unlike her peers, she grew up in an intellectually progressive family. Her father, Takaaki, is a poet, a critic, and a leader in the radical student movement in the late 1960s. Meanwhile, her sister, Haruno Yoiko was a locally renowned cartoonist. Yoshimoto graduated from the College of Art of Nihon University with a major in literature. Her graduation story, Moonlight Shadow (1986), won her the Izumi Kyoka Prize from the faculty. It was also during this time that she adopted the penname Banana Yoshimoto because of her love for banana flowers and because it sounded androgynous.

It was while working as a waitress that she worked on her first novella, Kitchin (Kitchen) which was published in 1988. It was an immediate success, printed at least 60 times in Japan alone. It was also adapted to the big screen twice. It also won her several accolades such as the 6th Kaien Newcomer Writers Prize and the 39th Minister of Education’s Art Encouragement Prize for New Artists. It was also nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize. In 1994, she published her first full-length novel, Amrita which won the 5th Murasaki Shikibu Prize. Her other works include Tsugumi (Goodbye, Tsugumi, 1989), Amurita (Amrita, 1994), and Hādoboirudo/hādorakku (Hardboiled and Hard Luck, 1999).

She has also published scores of short stories and essays. For her works, she has also received several awards from the rest of the world like the Scanno Literary Prize in 1993, the Fendissime Literary Prize in 1996, the Literary Prize Maschera d’Argento in 1999, and the Capri Award in 2011. In 2011, Mizūmi (The Lake, 2005), was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.

References

1. Kyodo News 27 December 2020, 38% of LGBT people in Japan sexually harassed or assaulted: survey. Accessed 10 May 2022, <https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2020/12/2cfe9ff21ca8-38-of-lgbt-people-sexually-harassed-or-assaulted-survey.html>.