📖 🇯🇵 #1: A portrait of womanhood from Japan

Mieko Kawakami’s first novel to be translated into English

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Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami’s first novel to be translated into English, tells a sharp story about three women’s relationships with their bodies. There’s Natsuko Natsume, a thirtysomething writer who lives alone in Tokyo and is exploring the world of sperm donation. There’s her sister Makiko, an aging Osaka hostess who is considering breast augmentation surgery. And then there’s Makiko’s twelve-year-old daughter Midoriko, who is consumed by anxiety over her changing pubescent body. “Does blood coming out of your body make you a woman?” Midoriko writes in her diary. “What makes that so great anyway?”

Breasts and Eggs was originally written as a blog and published as a novella, which won the Akutagawa Prize in 2008. The novel, which immediately became a bestseller in Japan, secured Kawakami a three-book deal with her English language publisher Europa. Kawakami, who quit her career as a singer to focus on writing, counts Haruki Murakami among her fans. When the two met in 2017, Kawakami challenged Murakami to talk about the female characters in his novels “who exist solely to fulfil a sexual function”. Of all the Japanese authors in translation, you can see why I chose to read Kawakami.

The 430-page novel comprises two parts: the first covering just a few days and the second 12 months, ten years later. In part one, Makiko and Midoriko pay Natsuko a visit. They’ve come to Tokyo because Makiko has booked an appointment with a consultant breast surgeon in the city. When the sisters visit a local bathhouse, Makiko reveals that it’s not just the size of her breasts she’s unhappy with: it’s also the colour of her nipples and areolas.

The sisters’ dialogue is interspersed with diary entries by Midoriko, who has refused to speak to her mother for months. Midoriko’s diary details her growing anxieties about becoming a woman. In a scene I haven’t stopped thinking about since finishing the novel, Makiko and Midoriko fight like only mothers and daughters can. “I love you, but I never want to be like you,” says Midoriko, hysterically, as she smashes eggs over her own head. The scene ends with Makiko gently combing the shell out of her daughter’s hair.

Though Makiko and Midoriko also feature in the second part of the novel, it focuses on Natsuko as she looks into sperm donation as a single woman. Unlike the novel’s first part, whose prose is tight and succinct, the second part drifts and rambles as Natsuko meets and forms relationships with new characters and confronts her unexplainable desire to “know” her own child. Kawakami uses these digressive conversations to explore societal and sexual mores. In one especially affecting scene, a colleague tells Natsuko that if there’s one thing she learnt from her parents’ abusive relationship, it’s that men see marriage as “free labour with a pussy”.

Kawakami is a funny writer. Take, for example, Natsuko’s meeting with Onda, a voluntary sperm donor and self-styled saviour of single women who boasts that he was “probably about ten” when he realised sperm donation was his calling. Everything about their meeting—from Onda’s brusque introductory email to his unsolicited, and rather extensive, advice on ovulation—is perfect.

Kawakami’s writing is lively and informal, with sentences spanning many lines and paragraphs many pages. In translation this is a nod to Osaka-ben, the dialect in which the three main characters speak. This interesting blog post compares Louise Heal Kawai’s translation of Breasts and Eggs as a novella with Sam Bett and David Boyd’s translation of the novel. Heal Kawai uses a Mancunian dialect to represent Osaka-ben.

In Breasts and Eggs, Kawakami delves headfirst into issues including single motherhood, artificial insemination, and working class life in contemporary Japan, teasing out the complexities of womanhood and female relationships to great effect. The result is a pointed and subversive look at what it means to be a woman today. If every book I read over the course of this project lives up to Kawakami, I’m in for a great ride.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Europa Editions, 2020)

More books by Japanese authors 

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week. I can vouch for Convenience Store Woman, which I read in a single sitting.

  • Where the Wild Ladies Are by Matsuda Aoko, tr. Polly Barton

  • People from my Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. Ted Goossen

  • Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami, tr. Louise Heal Kawai 

  • The Great Passage by Shion Miura, tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter 

  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori 

  • Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori 

  • The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, tr. Stephen Snyder 

  • The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda, tr. Alison Watts

  • The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, tr. David Boyd

  • Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki, tr. Polly Barton

  • The Emissary by Yōko Tawada, tr. Margaret Mitsutani

  • Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, tr. Megan Backus

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, reply to this email and let me know. For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors. But I won’t be too dogmatic about it—if you’ve read a great book that doesn’t quite fit the bill, let me know anyway! I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list of everything I’ve read here.

Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Sayaka Masumoto from The Japan Foundation, Laura Kaposi, and Mari Yamamoto for their recommendations for this issue.