Female Loneliness

Japan parades a long and credible list of writers who have conquered the world stage. It is a vast and rich part of the literary world that boasts a literary lineup that includes two Nobel Laureates in Literature: Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburō Ōe (1994). Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2008 Nobel Laureate in Literature, is also ethnically Japanese. This literary trio is joined by a formidable list of highly-heralded and globally renowned writers such as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Natsume Sōseki, and Haruki Murakami, among others. It is glaring, however, to see how, like most of the literary and publishing world, Japanese literature is dominated by male writers. This is also despite the fact that The Tale of Genji, widely regarded as the first if not one of the first published novels, was penned by a lady-in-waiting during the Heian period, Lady Murasaki Shikibu.

Female Japanese writers, however, have taken up the challenge. One by one, they are taking the global stage by storm. The age of globalization made their works more accessible to non-Japanese-speaking readers. Their works are slowly but surely gaining global recognition. They are stamping their marks of excellence with their own merits, some are even being recognized by prestigious award-giving bodies. The remarkable rise of female Japanese writers is astounding to witness, to say the least. Names like Yōko Ogawa, Yoko Tawada, Kikuko Tsumura, Natsuo Kirino, Hiromi Kawakami, Banana Yoshimoto, and Sayaka Murata are leading a new wave of promising Japanese writers, further ensuring the continuity of excellence in one of the literary world’s most revered parts. With their captivating works, they have become household names.

A frontrunner in this recent rise of female Japanese writers is Mieko Kawakami. Since the release of the English translation of her novel  Natsu Monogatari (夏物語, Breasts and Eggs, 2019), she has been making remarkable strides toward global recognition. The original manuscript for the novel, Chichi to ran (2008) earned Kawakami the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. From being a local sensation, Breasts and Eggs stormed into the global literary scene. This has also opened new doors for her, with some of her works eventually translated into English and earning more praise from readers and literary pundits the world over. Recently, the English translation of her 2009 novel Hevun (Heaven) made it to the shortlist of the 2022 International Booker Prize.

“As I passed below the haloes of the green and red traffic signals, I was taken by this strange view of the evening, the city streets full of people – people waiting, the people they were waiting for, people out to eat together, people going somewhere together, people heading home together.  I allowed my thoughts to settle on the brightness filling their hearts and lungs, squinting as I walked along and counted all the players of this game that I would never play.”

Mieko Kawakami, All the Lovers in the Night

Shortly after Heaven’s successful run, another one of Kawakami’s first works, Subete mayonaka no koibito tachi (すべて真夜中の恋人たち), was made available to Anglophone readers in 2022 as All the Lovers in the Night. Deftly translated into English by the same duo who translated Hevun – Sam Bett and David Boyd – the novel was originally published in Japanese in 2011 and, along with Breasts and Eggs and Heaven, forms part of a loosely connected trilogy that grappled with familiar themes. At the heart of Kawakami’s latest novel translated into English is Fuyuko Irie, a woman who was in her early thirties. She was working as a freelance editor in the bustling Tokyo metropolis.

One can easily surmise that Fuyuko is your typical female living in the labyrinths of Tokyo. But in the world of Kawakami, normality is something that one has to suspend as one starts to navigate the real but ugly social realities that surround us. Sure, Fuyuko was an efficient worker and had no scruples about being drowned in manuscripts she must review and edit. She easily finds comfort in her work. But this is where she draws a boundary. Beyond her job, she had a very little semblance of existence. Contrary to what one could expect from a young woman in her mid-thirties, Fuyuko lived a reclusive life. She was asocial and had very few friends, if at all. She had no hobbies beyond her work and lived a virtually isolated existence in her apartment.

As the story moved forward, it was increasingly becoming apparent that Fuyuko was extremely averse to social contact. She was awkward and was easily exasperated by any form of interaction. At the start of her story, we learn that she recently quit her job with a small press. It was a job she held since she graduated from college. While she was not able to exactly point out the reason for her quitting the job she held for over a decade, she attributed this decision to the exhaustion she feels whenever she deals with people. In a way, Fuyuko’s regimented life was a reflection of her work where she was subservient to the conventions of writing, grammar, and spelling. Fact-checking and intensive research also formed a seminal part of her work. Nevertheless, she found comfort in her withdrawal from social duties and in the familiarity of her routine.

Extreme social aversion is a common phenomenon that the Japanese have even coined a term for it: hikikomori. Fuyuko was the epitome of a hikikomori. But even our extreme choices can leave strains on us. In a eureka moment, Fuyuko slowly realized the follies of her resignation from society: “The image of myself that floated to the surface, tinged with blue against a backdrop of the signs, walls, and windows of the nearby buildings, looked absolutely miserable.  Not sad, or tired, but the dictionary definition of a miserable person.” There was, however, very little sign of any change in her life. In an attempt to alter the landscape of her life, she resorted to alcohol. Influenced by Hikiri, she started drinking beer and sake “to let go of my usual self.” Sure enough, alcohol did its work in loosening Fuyuko up. It has become her form of escape but it also marked a new phase in her life. As part of her new phase, she decided to sign up for classes at a cultural center. This would lead to a seminal encounter that would change the trajectory of Fuyuko’s story.

“People act like feminism is a diry word. As if being a strong, hard-working woman has fallen out of fashion. Not that these people have ever thought bout any of that before they say it’s different for me. That not everyone is as strong as I am, that most people are weak or whatever. But that’s not it. They aren’t wek. They are dull. They don’t [ick up on things. And I’m not strong. I’m honest. Anyway, who cares what’s fashionable? How can anybody go through life thinking about crap like that.”

Mieko Kawakami, All the Lovers in the Night

On the way to signing up for the classes, Fuyuko threw up. It was in the midst of her misery that she was rescued by Mitsutsuka, a man older than her who introduced himself as a physics teacher. From this unusual encounter blossomed a friendship they both didn’t know they needed. Weekly, they met at a café where they talked about a plethora of subjects such as string theory, music, and the properties of light. Light, in particular, was a subject that Fuyuko was very interested in. As their bond grew deeper, Fuyuko found herself fantasizing about Mitsutsuka. While she has become comfortable with her solitude, Fuyuko is still just like us. She yearns to be loved, to be cared for, and to be looked after. She yearns for intimacy. However, Mitsutsuka’s growing importance in her life has also upset certain quarters of her persona.

Both Mitsutsuka and Fuyuko were passive characters. They were, in a way, drifters. Mitsutsuka was waiting for Fuyuko to make her move. On the other hand, Fuyuko was not a woman of action. She was the type to just let things happen to her, with her decisions and actions anchored on what other people surrounding her dictate. There is, after all, no perfect love story. Mitsutuska’s presence slowly awakened something that Fuyuko has long buried. As their relationship takes a sharp curve, Fuyuko has to confront a past that has left her psychologically and emotionally scarred. Grappling this traumatic past is a key to Fuyuko reclaiming her own narrative. In order for her to move on, she must confront this trauma.

A traumatic past is a recurring theme in Kawakami’s body of work. It is also of note that there is an indelible link between past traumatic events and hikikomori, as the case of Fuyuko has highlighted. It is also of note that while Fuyuko recognized what a “normal” woman looked like, she refused to change her ways in order to fit into the mold of what society or her fellow expected her to be. Across her works, she has demonstrated an uncanny ability to catch readers by surprise. On the other hand, she showcased her ability to mesh seamlessly these sensitive but seminal subjects into her works without adversely impacting the overall flow of the story. Like in Heaven, details of graphic events can discomfit some readers. As always, do proceed with some level of caution.

But beyond the overtones of romance, the novel also grappled with seminal subjects, with emphasis on the harm that women inflict on one another. In her previous work, Fuyuko was shunned by her colleagues for her refusal to submit to the expectations of society and her fellow women. She doesn’t wear any makeup nor does she endeavor to look physically appealing. The double standards that existed were perfectly captured by Kawakami. For instance, Fuyuko’s decision to seek a job as a freelancer was praised by a former colleague while, in the same breath, this same colleague criticized another colleague for taking the same path. In another instance, Fuyuko’s childhood friend lamented how motherhood has adversely affected her drive for financial independence while, at the same time, she talked about the wonders of motherhood and encouraged Fuyuko to do the same.

“There are people who spend every day immersed in these considerations – like the younger women I saw standing by the shelves – following the trajectories detailed in these books, doing things to become happier, to become better versions of themselves. These women had so many choices, and so many temptations, so many layers of coincidences and incidents, and the choices they made would change the color of their lives. They were surrounded by possibility.”

Mieko Kawakami, All the Lovers in the Night

In a man-eats-man world, rather, a woman-eats-woman world, there was still some light. At the heart of the story was the appraisal of feminine companionship. After Fuyuko left her previous company, her only interaction with the outside world was through her former supervisor, Hijiri Ishikawa. It was an interesting friendship, to say the least, because Hijiri was the antithesis of Fuyuko. Hijiri was good-looking and confident of herself. She was sexually liberated. Their fellow women were daunted by Hijiri’s go-getter attitude and her overall strong personality. Despite the dichotomies between the two women, they strike up an unlikely friendship. They also shared some parallels as they both refuse to be shackled down by conventions and expectations imposed by society on women. The pursuit of female liberation, both in mind and body, is another common theme in Kawakami’s works.

The novel’s most affectionate writing was reserved for the friendship between Hijiri and Fuyuko. Like most people in her life, Hijiri unintentionally took up an important place in Fuyuko’s life. Hijiri became her primary support. Hijiri was the one who encouraged Fuyuko to spread her wings. Hijiri’s presence in Fuyuko’s life proved integral when things again started taking the wrong turn. Despite her past and her experiences, hope springs eternal. As the adage goes, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The light that Fuyuko sought slowly started to manifest as the story approached its inevitable conclusion. Rather than fold, which was the inevitable conclusion considering the preexisting conditions, Fuyuko instead found her footing. She used previous rejections as building blocks for the vision she had of her future.

From winning the Akutagawa Prize, one of the most coveted literary awards for new writers, in 2008 to having her works translated into English, it comes as no surprise that Mieko Kawakami is quickly establishing herself as one of the up-and-coming voices of contemporary Japanese literature. In All the Lovers in the Night, she kept on building from strength to strength. All the Lovers in the Night examined the inner workings of feminine companionship while also unlatching the complications that come along with it. At the same time, Kawakami unraveled the factors that drive these very same complications. It also explored the burden that social norms place on women. While the happily ever after that one expects never materialized, this tender novel ended on a high and positive note.

All the lights of the night.  The red light at the intersection, trembling as if wet, even though it isn’t raining.  Streetlight after streetlight.  Taillights trailing off into the distance.  The soft glow from the windows.  Phones in the hands of people just arriving home, and people just about to go somewhere.  Why is the night so beautiful?  Why does it shine the way it does?  Why is the night made up entirely of light?

Mieko Kawakami, All the Lovers in the Night


Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

It wasn’t long ago when Mieko Kawakami piqued my interest. Back in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, her award-winning work, Natsu Monogatari (夏物語, 2019) translated into English in 2020 as Breasts and Eggs, was ubiquitous. While I was apprehensive at first, it wasn’t long before I was convinced to take a chance on her body of work. I am grateful I did because Kawakami provided me a new perspective from which to explore and observe Japanese literature. This also made me look forward to her other works. Heaven was equally compelling and when news of her newly translated work, All the Lovers in the Night broke, I was looking forward to it. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long because I was able to obtain a copy of her latest novel. Again, Kawakami did not disappoint. One of the novel’s overriding themes, female liberation, reminded me of Breasts and Eggs. Meanwhile, it reverberated with philosophical intersections reminiscent of Heaven. It was, as always, an interesting reading experience. Kawakami’s ability to make the readers inhabit her character’s mind is top-notch.

Book Specs

Author: Mieko Kawakami
Translators (from Japanese): Sam Bett and David Boyd
Publisher: Picador
Publishing Date: 2022
Number of Pages: 219
Genre: Literary


Fuyuko Irie is a freelance proofreader in her thirties. Living alone, and unable to form meaningful relationships, she has little contact with anyone other than Hijiri, someone she works with. When she sees her reflection, she’s confronted with a tired and spiritless woman who has failed to take control of her own life. Her one source of solace: light. Every Christmas Eve, Fuyuko heads out to catch a glimpse of the lights that fill the Tokyo night. But it is a chance encounter with a man named Mitsutsuka that awakens something new in her. And so her life begins to change.

As Fuyuko starts to see the world in a different light, painful memories from her past begin to resurface. Fuyuko needs to be loved, to be heard, and to be seen. But living in a small world of her own making, will she find the strength to bring down the walls that surround her? All The Lovers in the Night is acute and insightful, entertaining and captivating, pulsing and poetic, modern and shocking. It’s another unforgettable novel from Japan’s most exciting writer.

About the Author

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