Author: Sri Vidya Reddy Gangidi
Mentor: Jeanne Proust
Phoenix Greens School
Japan has a history of female authors who have written compelling women’s fictions. Many of them have been translated into English and are widely recognised. Having said that, Mieko Kawakami and Sayaka Murata have been a part of a gender shift in literature over the last few decades. This is reflective of the broader workplace changes as women make up half of winners of the Akutagawa Prize for the last 15 years, and nearly Half of the winners of the Naoki prize; many of editors and price judges are women too.
Kawakami and Murata are two most popular stars of contemporary women’s fiction, and what makes them unusual is their bold treatment of the female body. “It is unusual for women to write about reproduction, periods, birth and sex in such explicit detail,” says Tamura Aya, a culture critic with Kyodo News Agency, “That was shocking for some.” Ever since the economic recession in the 1990s, women had been roped into the workforce in record numbers. Yet, they are repeatedly subjected to gendered roles of mothers and housewives. This explains why their work resonates, particularly with women, as they identify and write empathetically about their shared experiences.
It is not often that a book is showered with both lavish praise and laughable criticism. Mieko Kawakami’s best selling novel Breasts and Eggs, which was published in 2008 going on to win the 138th Akutagawa prize, reportedly riled up conservatives and the literary establishment in Japan for its unusual portrayal of womanhood, bodily disgust and motherhood. It was labelled “breathtaking” by Haruki Murakami and “intolerable” by Shintaro Ishihara, a former governor of Tokyo. Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which also won an Akutagawa prize in 2016, received similar political backlash for its themes surrounding asexuality and the non-conforming identity portrayed by its female protagonist.
But then again, Convenience Store Woman and Breasts and Eggs are one of the few literary works that have contributed to discussions surrounding gratuitous glorification of Motherhood and Childbirth. These novels are a long way from mere generalities about the struggles of all thirty-something women, rather, they highlight the ethical problem regarding birth, menstruation and the possibility of becoming a mother through the encapsulated experiences of its unique, iconoclast characters.
Women are often measured and defined by gender and social expectations such as a mother, a wife, and a caretaker, existing merely as numbers in a directory called society. But in reality, these women characters are irreplaceable individuals. Kawakami and Murata’s characters embody this individuality — which is labelled as “abnormal” for being incongruous with the norm.
This paper explores the above-mentioned themes from various perspectives and aims to study the extent to which societal expectations impact female psychology and agency in these two contemporary novels. We will also shed some light, through narrated female experiences, on ways of questioning gendered roles and the function of the female body as interpreted by society.
The Uncanny Vale of Normality
We define “Normal” as any behaviour that is usual, typical, or conforms to a pre-existing standard; a common behaviour in a group or a society. However, normal (or what is considered normal, is an abstract concept) can actually be defined in two different ways: (There are two main aspects to define what is believed to be normal, one of which being descriptive, about the quantitative average) in statistical terms, it then refers to a small amount of deviation from the average demographic, (the other definition is more evaluative, “normative”, and suggests a model to conform to) ‘Being Normal’ in that sense, refers to a valuable way of behaving, deemed good, respectable by society.
We are encouraged to believe that as humans, we have a lot in common – we belong to a norm that maintains the group cohesion: ‘People, for all their differences, are more alike than they are different’. Yet, by eclipsing our attention to our differences, society imposes a uniformization that shuts out a large proportion of the population who cannot easily conform to what is wrongly portrayed as a collective identity. Thus, a society’s definition of normal is used as a general measurement for behaviour, and anything that deviates excessively from what is considered “normal” typically does not survive long. This means that in order to exist or be accepted into such a system, one must sacrifice a part of themselves to fit into the herd. This often results in individuals, who fall outside the category of “normal”, to be labelled and peripheralized; as if it was to punish or cure them.
The struggle for acceptance and resistance to gendered expectations define Meiko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs. She centres the conflicts of her characters around the problematization of agency (free or conditioned) related to their bodies and the extent to which women can change the narratives imposed on them. Similarly, Sayaka Murata, in her novel Convenience Store Woman, explores the absurdity of accepting the precepts dictated by society, but also the alienation and rejection that stems from abiding by a chosen, non conformist lifestyle and identity.
Beauty Standards and Psychological inadequacy
Makiko is an ageing hostess at a bar and is obsessed with the idea of getting breast implants. As a single mother nearing forty, Makiko does not have the financial resources to consider breast surgery, however, it’s all she ever talks about. This creates tensions between Makiko and her daughter as Midoriko refuses to speak to her mother. Natsuko does not understand her sister’s desire either, and pities her sister as a victim of societal beauty standards — her agency, far from being freely manifested, is being shaped, informed by these standards. Unrealistic Ideals regarding beauty and body image are popularised through mass media and western culture by creating templates against which women evaluate themselves, making it necessary to address the ambiguity of normality mentioned earlier. This theme is expressed in a conversation between Makiko and Natsuko at the bathhouse when Makiko asks for Natsuko’s opinion about her breasts:
“Well?”—“Well what?”—“The colour, the shape.” Some words came to mind—small and dark, but big in their own way—but I held off. What would the other bathers think of this exchange? Two women splashing in the tub, one glowering over the other with her arms akimbo, like a warrior. The best I could do was nod repeatedly. “Okay, forget about the size. I already know that,” she said. “What about the color? Do they look dark to you? How dark? Tell me the truth.”—“They’re not dark, not at all,” I said without thinking, or even meaning what I said, but Makiko had more questions. “So they’re basically normal?”—“Well, like, what’s normal?”—“You know, whatever normal is to you.”—“I don’t think that’s going to tell you what you want to know, though, if I’m just talking about what normal is to me.”—“Come on, just tell me,” she said plainly, leaving me little choice but to respond. “Well, I wouldn’t call them pink.”—“I don’t need you to tell me they’re not pink.”—“Oh, right.”—“Right.” The next several minutes, we were quiet.”
Makiko is concerned about the appearance of her breasts, therefore, her insecurity urges her to go under the knife in order for her breasts to appear more “normal”. For Makiko, the notion of normality is associated with the beauty ideal. This juxtaposes Natsuko’s notion of beauty being subjective and diverse.
The impact of these ideal standards are also evident in a previous passage where the two women internalise the male gaze as they stare and scrutinise other womens’ bodies — subjecting them to violent aesthetic judgement. However, their gaze is not meant to sexualise breasts or to objectify women, rather, it pays attention to the heterogeneity of female bodies and contributes to the complex relationships among women — therefore, one could say that it might qualify more appropriately as a female gaze, despite the heteronormative judgement that is clearly at play within it (Buriticá Alzate, 2020).
The concept of inadequacy here is related to the fear of failing or not being able to provide the required services. In Makiko’s case, as a sex worker, her body is her means of sustenance. It is entirely possible that her desire to strive for the beauty ideal, one that requires modifications to her body, is for her own enjoyment of aesthetic corporeal beauty. However, by emphasising the materiality of breasts in a capitalist and patriarchal society (turning them into objects), she highlights the negative emotional connection that she has with her ageing body. Therefore, her comments on breast shape, size, colour and texture showcase the ideal beauty standard for breasts that creates and reinforces insecurities among women.
Keiko Furukura, the protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s novel, is a woman in her mid-thirties who has been working as a part time employee in a convenience store for the past 18 years. Apart from having no ambitions of her own, she lives alone, has a handful of close friends and has never been in a romantic or sexual relationship. Keiko is an eccentrically pragmatic character with a distinctive outlook. Since childhood, she found it difficult to adapt to the norm and was treated differently by society; describing her as a “rather strange child”. The novel depicts several instances of this, however, her childhood is marked by two incidents in particular. First, when two boys were fighting at school, Keiko used a spade from the tool shed to beat up the unruly boys. The teachers were outraged by her violent behaviour, though she could never understand why. Similarly, while playing with the other children, she discovered a dead bird in the garden, and her immediate reaction was that it would make a delicious grilled yakitori dish for her father. It shocked her parents to hear Keiko’s opinion of eating the bird while the other girls wanted to give it a proper burial. This uncanny behaviour placed her outside of existing social conventions, labelling her as a “socially awkward person”. Despite being born into an ordinary suburban family with loving parents, she was ostracised, resulting in her teachers and parents seeking out therapists to help her grapple with normality.
“My parents were at a loss what to do about me, but they were as affectionate to me as ever. I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologising for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home. I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.”
These series of events pressured her to adapt the strategy of imitation that became her doctrine for survival. The Convenience Store becomes her private sanctuary, where she can put on the uniform of normalcy and integrate in its environment of equality (among workers) and repetition (of daily tasks). Keiko is also influenced by the people around her in her quest to reach a “satisfactory level of Normality”. She copies the style of clothing carefully observed in Mrs. Izumi, her supervisor, and she imitates speech patterns, even facial expressions, of another female colleague. By incorporating others’ adequate behaviour to shape her identity, she embodies a socially acceptable form of mimesis as a law of nature — a mechanism to preserve humanity:
“My present self is formed almost completely by the people around me. I am currently made up of 30 percent Mrs. Izumi, 30 percent Sugawara, 20 percent the manager, and the rest absorbed from past colleagues such as Sasaki, who left six months ago, and Okasaki, who was our supervisor until a year ago.
My speech is especially infected by everyone around me and is currently a mix of that of Mrs. Izumi and Sugawara. I think the same goes for most people. When some of Sugawara’s band members came into the store recently they all dressed and spoke just like her. After Mrs. Izumi came, Sasaki started sounding just like her when she said, “Good job, see you tomorrow!” Once a woman who had gotten on well with Mrs. Izumi at her previous store came to help out, and she dressed so much like Mrs. Izumi I almost mistook the two. And I probably infect others with the way I speak too. Infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as humans is what I think.”
Inadequacy, according to Brandon S. Park (2004), can be conceptualised as a negative emotional connection between the perceived performance of an individual and the ideal expectations that society imposes onto them. The constant social pressure and alienation from intimacy pushed Keiko to reject parts of herself that others found strange and become “an ordinary person”. This defence mechanism might have been created in order to escape self discovery, but Keiko doesn’t completely renounce her individuality. Although she artificially sculpts the superficial crust of her attitude, and becomes a modern shape-shifter that “borrows” identities to exist socially, she maintains an inner lucidity that makes her perceive this “loan” as an an “infection”: the others are a disease to her – a plague she is forced to ingest, but that she keeps rejecting internally. By contrast with Makiko, she never expresses a deep desire to become normal – she sees adequacy as a vital necessity that doesn’t profoundly affect her self perception.
Marriage and the Double Standard of Ageing
Being in the sex industry, Makiko is regularly faced with society’s beauty ideals that are meant to provide a standard for attractiveness in women. Much of these standards, not surprisingly, are what men expect (or prefer) in a woman, reinforcing the perception of an male-pleasing ideal; the “perfect” body type supporting the male gaze. And Makiko, much like other women, has internalised these standards, believing that such an ideal can be, and should be pursued. Her stories from work (regarding working hours, wages, and comments from male customers) illustrate the absurdity of male privilege, and the altercations of low paid, physical labour on her body – although Makiko doesn’t necessarily seem to object.
Makiko’s precarious situation as an uneducated single mother, left her with no prospects in terms of marriage or career other than to commodify her body by investing in plastic surgery, with her diminishing pay, in order to retain her sex appeal, and in turn keep her job. Her agency over the narrative of her body, which is mostly conditioned in this case, paints a bigger picture of the impacts of the double standard of ageing, where women are shown to have much more to lose as they age — their physical attractiveness and desirability being fundamental for their individual value.
In the second half of the novel, Murata introduces another main character, Shiraha, who acts as a counterpart to Keiko. He is described as a tall, incredibly thin man — “lanky like a wire coat hanger” — with an arrogant and egoistic personality. Despite being a new employee at the store, he was unenthusiastic and indifferent about the job, before voicing his uncivilised behaviour more explicitly, along with his blatant misogyny. The store deemed his persistent non-compliance as a threat to its stable environment, and he was later expelled for stalking a customer. This reinforces Keiko’s belief that “a convenience store is a forcibly normalised environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated”, further validating her relentless attempts to maintain sufficient levels of normalcy to survive.
As the story progresses, Keiko and Shiraha enter into an agreement to cohabit in order to deflect attention from themselves, to appear “normal”, hoping that they will be left alone. To Keiko’s surprise, everyone around them simply assumes their relationship and approves of their alliance without any questions, cementing Keiko’s belief of the need to conform (or follow the rules) in order to be accepted into society – although she keeps questioning the delusional nature of a dysfunctional society. Keiko’s mother and sister too, seem to be overjoyed upon hearing this, which highlights the role that family expectations play in conformity acceptance, which was already made clear through the parents’ desire for Keiko to be “cured”.
Shiraha, just like Keiko, is a social misfit and a non-conformist, however, not by choice — he is aware of social cues and codes, just doesn’t seem to want to partake in them. The conflict of fitting in is apparent in both their cases, but while Keiko wants to continue to live her scripted life, Shiraha wishes to escape from society:
“I want you to keep me hidden from society. I don’t mind you using my existence here for your own ends, and you can talk about me all you want. I myself want to spend all my time hiding here. I’ve had enough of complete strangers poking their noses into my business.”
Shiraha sipped on his chocolate-melon soda without looking up.
“If I go out, my life will be violated again. When you’re a man, it’s all ‘go to work’ and ‘get married.’ And once you’re married, then it’s ‘earn more’ and ‘have children’! You’re a slave to the village. Society orders you to work your whole life. Even my testicles are the property of the village! Just by having no sexual experience they treat you as though you’re wasting your semen.”
“I can see how stressful that would be.”
“Your uterus belongs to the village too, you know. The only reason the villagers aren’t paying it any attention is because it’s useless. I want to spend my whole life doing nothing. For my whole life, until I die, I want to just breathe without anyone interfering in my life. That’s all I wish for,” he finished.”
Shiraha blames the society for all its faults, however, doesn’t seem to want to accept any level of responsibility for his actions. He states that he wishes to escape from society — but in actuality, his views on marriage seem to point towards a sense of nostalgia for the lost paradise of normality: success, career and marriage. He actually endorses the traditional family-corporate lifestyle of Japan where the male is the breadwinner with a successful career, a full time housewife and children. His frustration and bitterness derives from the fact that he simply doesn’t fit into society’s standards for masculinity, and blames the petrified social hierarchy or the “village” for his inability to achieve his goals.
Furthermore, Keiko’s encounter with Shiraha completely alters her perception of her identity and her role in society as a “part of the machine”. Despite his helpless situation as a homeless man, he remained misogynistic towards Keiko through his endless rants about marriage and society. According to Shiraha, Keiko is a “loser” for being a spinster and a convenience store worker, and that she should consider herself “lucky” to have met him. His comments are indicative of the double standards at play — Keiko, who is a 36 year old woman (single and a virgin) is considered useless by the “village” as she doesn’t have any sexual experiences or a stable job, while Shiraha, who is the same age as Keiko and unemployed, can still hope to become a normal functioning member of the “village”.
Unsettling Dualism and Asexuality
The second part of the novel picks up 8 years later, as we follow Natsuko’s success in her literary career. She seems to be procrastinating with her upcoming novel while simultaneously struggling with a haughty editor, who abandons her, and the usual mansplaining at a literary reading. However, the two parts of the novel are connected through Natsuko’s complex relationship with her body:
“My breasts were in the middle of the mirror. Little, just like Makiko’s. Brown and bumpy nipples. My hips had barely any shape, but there was flesh around my belly button, stretch marks curving around my sides. Through the little bathroom window, unopened as ever, what remained of the summer day mixed gently with the fluorescent light from overhead. I had no idea where it had come from or where it was going, but it felt as if this thing that held my shape, this form before my eyes, would be stuck floating there forever.”
She describes her body as “this thing that contains her”, and she cannot seem to reconcile it with the images of other female bodies around her — “My monolithic expectation of what a woman’s body was supposed to look like had no bearing on what actually happened to my body.” Natsuko’s sense of alienation from her own body, firstly through her gender, and secondly through her asexuality, showcases a dichotomy between body and psyche, where she feels as if she does not identify with her body. Nonetheless, her perception of gender changes when Natsuko comes across a now-grown childhood classmate who seemed to have transitioned:
“Staring at this tomboy’s body, seated right across from me, the feeling that I’d felt so clearly but had never, until now, been able to articulate—this “femininity” I had never sensed from my own body, or from Makiko, or from our mother or my friends, felt like it was radiating from the tomboy.”
Gender, according to Butler (1990) is performative. Gender (and sex, even) is a statement of an Individual’s gender identity performed through a prolonged set of acts, based on artificial and historical conventions. The normative heterosexuality we are conditioned to makes us enact gender norms, making the concept of gender nothing but a social construct. Natsuko refuses to play such a role. Thus, when she removes gender from the picture, the need for perception, or interpretation, is eliminated; the person is able to exist as an Individual. “Femininity” here does not refer to the physical characteristics of a traditionally feminine body, rather it has to do with a “radiating” impression generated by the person’s presence regardless of their gender appearance. For a lack of a better term, Natsuko uses yet gender codified terminology – but the charm or charisma she describes goes beyond the binary divide between the sexes.
This interaction proved to be a key element for her growth as Natsuko exposes the precarity of gender as a reflection of the physical body in society. This also encourages Natsuko to come to terms with her asexuality and renounce the heterosexual dynamic by choosing to remain single and avoid intimacy.
Keiko is not bothered by the connotations associated with her job, in fact, in her opinion, the store precisely embraces what it means to be “normal”. The bond between Keiko and her job is not rational, but corporeal. Her deep connection to her duties at the Convenience Store is evident throughout the novel. She describes the sounds, smells and textures in the store as a part of her biology — as if she were one with the shop:
“As I arrange the display of newly delivered rice balls, my body picks up information from the multitude of sounds around the store.”
“Alerted by a faint clink of coins I turn and look over at the cash register. It’s a sound I’m sensitive to, since customers who come just to buy cigarettes or a newspaper often jingle coins in their hand or pocket. And yes: as I’d thought, a man with a can of coffee in one hand, the other hand in his pocket, is approaching the till.”
“The sound of my chewing was extraordinarily loud. It was probably because I’d been surrounded by the sounds of the convenience store until shortly before. When I closed my eyes and pictured the store, in my mind its sounds came back to life.
That sound flowed through me like music. Swaying to the sounds etched deep within me of the store performing, of the store operating, I stuffed the food before me into my body so that I would be fit to work again tomorrow.”
Keiko essentially adapts her life according to the needs of the store, which is ironic if we consider that it is precisely the excessive need for normality — through her monitored compliance to the rules, that makes her whole lifestyle abnormal. By constantly changing “costumes” to become a different person, her body became estranged from her “self”. Keiko never had any close friends or relationships as she was consistently performing social roles, “playing” a person rather than “being” one. Her reluctance to open herself to others or share her thoughts inclined her to consider herself to be nothing more than “a part in the machine of society”; a “cog” in the village industry.
However, her voluntary abstinence seems to trouble her gender category as she regularly finds herself in situations, especially at social gatherings, where her life choices are questioned for not aligning with societal expectations. At Miho’s barbecue party, everyone introduced themselves in terms of their marital status or successful careers, while Keiko was expected to be apologetic and provide justifications for her “abnormal” situation. Likewise, upon learning of Keiko’s lack of sexual desire, her friends were shocked, and felt compelled to help her out of this unpleasant situation, assuming she must be embarrassed of her “condition”.
“I’d never experienced sex, and I’d never even had any particular awareness of my own sexuality. I was indifferent to the whole thing and had never really given it any thought. And here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t. Even if I had been, though, it didn’t follow that my anguish would be the obvious type of anguish they were all talking about. But they didn’t want to think it through that far. I had the feeling I was being told they wanted to settle the matter this way because that was the easiest option for them.”
Rather than her sexual identity, it was the net of social conventions that made Keiko feel trapped. Throughout the novel, she follows the guidance given to her by others (even when that goes against her direct interests) in order to be reintegrated as a functional member of society that reflects what is expected in terms of age, gender, and class. Therefore, Keiko’s eventual realisation towards the end about her place in the Convenience Store results in her dissolving her human identity — she rejects the social expectations that define a human being to stop being human and instead, turn into a ‘convenience store being’. By breaking away from the confines of being “human”, Keiko completely absorbs the Convenience Store into her body; she becomes one with the store, and frees her “self” from gender associations.
The Multiperspectivity of Mothering
Motherhood has systematically been glorified in our cultures and societies. The ideal image of a “good” and “righteous” mother with a natural desire to bear children, to nurture and raise them responsibly by sacrificing her own hopes and dreams was thrust upon women. Society views marriage and motherhood as a natural progression that is inevitable. We are so conditioned to believe all women are naturally maternal, nurturing, and aspiring to be mothers, that straying from the norm of “a married, heterosexual, woman” is considered unthinkable. Despite years of social progress and development, the idea of hegemonic motherhood still remains a patriarchal construct along with patrilineal succession.
Earlier discourses surrounding motherhood were constructed around maternal instincts, biological clocks, and the morality of making the “right choice” by giving birth. Despite their doubts, guilt, insecurities, and struggles, mothers seldom found a voice in the common narrative. That was until Feminist scholars began examining motherhood from the perspective of women. Murata and Kawakami (particularly) extend the narrow hegemonic debate on pro-choice/pro-life by integrating the concerns of women into the reproductive rights discourse and questioning the bioessentialised maternal instincts. Through this, their novels explore alternative options available for women in Japan, who are willing to break away from the norm.
With the recent popularity of the anti-natalist movement, moral debate about procreation and whether it is justifiable to subject new beings to the struggles of human existence raises questions regarding the purpose and morality of birth. Isbir in their paper “My Birth Story Is like a Dream: A Childbirth Educator’s Childbirth” (2013), mentions that “the experiences a woman has, even those she had inside her own mother’s womb, have an effect on how she gives birth to her child”. Murata and Kawakami explore this theme of childbirth and motherhood further in their respective novels through distinct embodied experiences of their unique and unorthodox characters.
The Disgust Surrounding Menstruation and parturition
Midoriko is the teenage daughter of Makiko, who is currently rebelling by not speaking to her mother. The reason being Makiko’s utter obsession with breast surgery, where she does not seem to be aware of Midoriko’s menarche. In this story, the conventional ideas of celebrating one’s first period and discussing menstruation with one’s mothers is not a reality. Midoriko feels much more comfortable talking about menstruation with her friend, than her mother, leading to a humorous scene between the two friends regarding the misuse of sanitary napkins, which showcases the experience of learning about menstruation for the first time while also highlighting the lack of knowledge among young women when it comes to menstrual hygiene. Through her explicit treatment of menstruation, Kawakami sheds light on tabooed subjects, while she depicts a series of daily practices (regarding one’s interaction with menstrual products), grounding the daily menstrual experience. This displays the transition from childhood to puberty as one of the most mystifying moments in a girl’s life, which greatly affects the relationship they have with themselves, their body and society.
Notably, Kawakami also portrays the difference in attitudes, and experiences, of menstruation through Midoriko and her friend — Midoriko’s horror and Kuni’s excitement. Both of them are curious, however, Kuni seems more excited and willing to share her experiences. This is a stark contrast to Midoriko, whose reluctance is surfaced as she grapples with the changes taking place in her body, making herself conscious and desire privacy. Midoriko’s discomfort and horror can be interpreted as an attempt to understand her feelings about menstruation and the notion of “becoming a woman”. She not only resists society’s expectations by questioning the purpose of “celebrating one’s first period”, but also the imperative correlation between fertility and mothering, and continues to criticise the depiction of idealised motherhood as the sole purpose of female existence:
“The girl is always overjoyed. She goes to her mom with a huge smile on her face. She tells her it happened, and the mom smiles back and says now you’re a woman, congratulations. Please.
In some of those stories, the girls tell their families, or their classmates. There’s one where the mom makes red rice and they eat it as a family, but that’s going way too far. It feels like the books are trying way too hard to make it look like a good thing. These books are for girls who haven’t had their period yet, right? It seems like all they wanna do is make girls think it’s all going to be fine.
The other day at school, between classes, I forgot who, but someone was saying, “I was born a girl, so yeah I definitely want to have a baby of my own eventually.” Where does that come from, though? Does blood coming out of your body make you a woman? A potential mother? What makes that so great anyway? Does anyone really believe that? Just because they make us read these stupid books doesn’t make it true. I hate it so much.”
As Midoriko ponders over the social and biological dimensions of pregnancy and motherhood and what this means about her prospect of being a mother, she begins to feel confined in her body from which her soul (or mind) struggles to escape. This creates a negative image of her body as she struggles with the idea of her gender identity (as a woman) being determined by female reproductive organs. Here, she feels scandalised by the causal associations of women being expected to embrace pregnancy and motherhood and rebels against the expectation of desiring children:
“It feels like I’m trapped inside my body. It decides when I get hungry, and when I’ll get my period. From birth to death, you have to keep eating and making money just to stay alive. I see what working every night does to my mom. It takes it out of her. But what’s it all for? Life is hard enough with just one body. 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? When I’m alone and thinking about this stuff, it makes me so sad. At least for me, I know it’s not the right thing.
Once you get your period, that means your body can fertilise sperm. And that means you can get pregnant. And then we get more people, thinking and eating and filling up the world. It’s overwhelming. I get a little depressed just thinking about it. I’ll never do it. I’ll never have children. Ever.”
Midoriko’s feelings of confinement and limitation are not only attached to the physical body but also to her relationship with her mother; she does not want to be like her mother. At the same time, she is slowly becoming aware of her mother’s sacrifices and economic challenges, developing a sense of understanding between them. Therefore, her contemplations about menstruation and reproduction reveal a more existential question about the purpose of her birth: we come from another person’s body, which makes our beginning a real experience of our body and embodiment during pregnancy and birth. Femininity, to a teenage Midoriko, is a gender impasse, since she struggles with her gender identity being determined by her reproductive organs. However, as an adult, she accepts that her physical body, owing to her cognizance that although its creation was out of her control, her existence is her own — which began in her mother’s womb. This double realisation changes her attitude towards femininity, as Midoriko starts dating a boy in college and seems to be much more comfortable in her body while she embraces her independence and freedom.
Makiko and Midoriko have a complicated relationship, and as a single mother, she works tirelessly to provide for her daughter. However, this does not exempt her from the struggles associated with raising a teenager all by herself. According to Midoriko, Makiko’s obsession with breast augmentation makes her an unreliable guiding figure in her life — which means she cannot talk to her about her first period, or just about anything, so she decides to stop talking at home altogether. Makiko embodies the struggles of motherhood as is unsure about how to communicate with her daughter, while also coming to terms with making alterations to her own transformed (ageing) body.
Makiko’s conception of her breast and the desire for breast surgery also stems from her experience of breastfeeding. As breasts undergo significant transformations during pregnancy, childbirth and lactation periods, Makiko feels a strong dissatisfaction with her breasts which tempts her to get artificial enhancements. In the bathhouse, she expresses her feelings about breastfeeding and warns Natsuko about its altercations:
“They weren’t always like this,” she assured me. “Not until I had a kid. Maybe they haven’t changed that much. I don’t know. But seriously, they were nowhere near this bad. I mean, what the hell are these? A couple of Oreos? Not even. More like black cherries. Black mixed with too much red. But these are worse than a couple of black cherries. They’re the colour of a flatscreen after you turn it off. The other day, I was shopping, and I saw one and I was like, shit, I know that colour. Where have I seen that before? Oh, right. My nipples.
“And don’t even get me started on how big they are. Even the doctor said, ‘I’m not sure your baby will be able to fit her mouth around these.’ No joke. And this is an expert. Do you know how many thousands of boobs this guy’s seen? Then there’s the fact that they’re flat as pancakes. Or the plastic baggies they put goldfish in at festivals. Know how they’re only half full? Like that. They’re deflated. Everyone’s different after childbirth. Some people go back the way they were, some people never even change. But me, I ended up like this”
This image of Makiko being “emptied” by her own daughter can be interpreted as self-denial, even nostalgia, as her body essentially “disappeared” after childbirth. Therefore, it appears as if she partially adheres to societal requirements of an ideal mother by sacrificing her body for her child, however, in reality, she challenges “the notion of a self-sacrificing mother who solely exists to accommodate the needs of others and not herself”. Makiko’s experience also raises the very contradiction at play within the expectations directed towards women: we want them to be motherly, but also attractive, not realising the toll that pregnancy and childbirth obviously take on the female body.
The Morality of Reproduction and the Need for an “Extension” of Self
As the story develops, Natsuko’s yearning for a child becomes the main narrative. Having decided to avoid intimacy, she fears that her choice of solitude may come at a cost. This “fear” most likely stems from missing out. Instead of the more usual motivations, Natsuko explains that her desire for a child was motivated by the urgent need to meet and get to know that child — she finds the act of creating an extension of self far more fascinating. However, the desire to meet this tiny stranger is conflicted with the necessity to meet another stranger: a sperm donor. Natsuko meets Aizawa at an event, whom she develops feelings for but quickly suppresses them upon learning that he has a partner, a woman named Yuriko. Through their interactions, Natsuko learns that Aizawa and Yuriko are both children of artificial insemination. Yuriko is a victim of child abuse and believes that her mother’s choice to have her was selfish. Yuriko’s argument is reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, in which the happiness of a utopian town depends on a single child’s unhappiness:
“Here’s one way of looking at it,” Yuriko said after a pause. “Imagine you’re at the edge of a forest, right before dawn. There’s no one else around, just you. It’s still dark, and you have no idea what you’re doing there. For whatever reason, you make up your mind to walk straight into the forest. After walking for a while, you come to a small house. Slowly, you open the door. Inside, you find ten sleeping children.”
I nodded for her to go on.
“All the children are fast asleep. Now, in that moment, in that small house, there’s no joy, no pain, no happiness, no sadness. There’s nothing, because all the children are asleep. So what do you do? Wake them up or let them sleep? The choice is yours. If you wake them up, nine children will be happy that you did. They’ll smile and thank you. But one won’t. You know this, before you wake them up. You know that one child will feel nothing but pain from the moment they open their eyes until they finally die. Every second of that child’s life will be more horrible than death itself. You know this in advance. You don’t know which child it’s going to be, but you know that’s going to happen to one of them.”
Yuriko clasped her palms together in her lap and blinked once, slowly.
“If you bring a new life into the world, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re waking one of these kids up. You know what makes you think doing that’s okay? Because it’s got nothing to do with you.”
“Nothing to do with me?”
“Because you’re not one of the kids inside that little house. That’s why you can do it. Because whoever the child is, the one who lives and dies consumed with pain, could never be you.”
This presents Natsuko with a dilemma of facing herself and the possible consequences of her choice. She questions her right to be a mother and whether her desire to experience motherhood should override the child’s potential feelings. It has been suggested, by philosopher Alison Stone, that birth is one of the most decisive aspects of human experience, but it is under-discussed. It can be explained, at least to some extent, how a body was conceived, however, that does not explain why the body feels alien to the life that person is experiencing. This further deepens Natsuko’s feeling of being “trapped” inside her body as she reflects on her life, her family and her potential relationship with her pregnant body.
Meanwhile, she begins to take notice of the different kinds of families within her inner circle. Among them are Rika, a single mom who enjoys having a boyfriend occasionally, Sengawa, the rich, busy, and single woman, and Rie, her former bookshop colleague who is married with a depressed spouse. It is clear that Kawakami is far more interested in how relationships between women unfold in patriarchal capitalist societies than in examining their structures, even as her depicted women experience unhappy marriages, divorce, and flight from men. The latter half of the novel illustrates this point even more clearly, as Natsuko discusses mothering, pregnancy, and domestic life with various acquaintances. Their shared stories of childhood, marriage, and childbirth cover vast swathes of time, from women who are different from each other but face the same societal pressures.
Along with ethical dilemmas, concerns are also practical as she begins to doubt her ability to cope. Having a child at the peak might just ruin a career she’s worked her entire life to establish. Here, she receives a conflicting advice from Sengawa:
“Isn’t that the way life is? There’s always something there, demanding all of your attention. Once you start going, the work never ends, especially when you work for a company. Life doesn’t change much except in those pivotal moments, right? If you get sick or, yeah, end up getting pregnant. You know what I mean?” Sengawa massaged the skin under her eyes. “I don’t feel like I ever really made a conscious choice . . . ”
Following the death of Sengawa (due to cancer) later on, she realised that life is too short not to fulfil all your wishes. Thus, she decides to have a child with Aizawa through artificial insemination, though not being interested in a committed relationship. The novel ends with Natsuko giving birth to her daughter. Natsuko’s outlook on life changes drastically towards the end as she expresses to Midoriko that there is a high risk of death, but that she’s not afraid; she also describes having a child inside her as “surreal”, showing that she’s come a long way from feeling conflicted about her sense of alienation from her own body to accommodating another being within the same.
Keiko has no idea how to behave like a normal person outside of the store’s environment. Thus, her sole reason for attending social gatherings is to mingle with “normal” women her age. On the other hand, she visits her sister less frequently, and is puzzled when it upsets her sister. Keiko is unaffiliated with blood relations, and sees no difference between her nephew and a friend’s child in terms of visiting as it doesn’t justify the longer travel time to her sister’s place.
Throughout the novel, Keiko provides insights into her way of thinking. She believes that “human beings” are emotional and they lack proper reasoning — making them slaves not only to foolish notions, but also to their own biological impulses. However, following her resignation, Keiko seems to be conflicted with the very idea of “being human”. Since she has always based her routine and lifestyle around the store, she no longer has the convenience store manual to follow after her departure from it. Upon losing this “standard of living”, Keiko wonders if she should base her judgements on her “animal instincts” like everyone else. This prompts her to question the purpose of reproduction and its value to humanity. During a conversation with Shiraha’s sister-in-law, she advises Keiko to keep her genes away from social turmoil and to avoid procreation:
“Give me a break! How do you think a store worker and an unemployed good for nothing are going to be able to raise children? Please don’t even consider it. You’ll be doing us all a favour by not leaving your genes behind. That’s the best contribution to the human race you could make.” — “Oh, really?” — “Keep those rotten genes to yourself for the course of your lifetime and take them to heaven with you when you die without leaving even a trace of them here on earth. Seriously.” — “I see,” I said, nodding to myself, impressed at her ability to think so rationally.”
According to Sinnott and Yeatman (2018), Childbearing Ambivalence is dynamic and situational, resulting from various socio-cultural frames surrounding childbearing. In many Asian and East-Asian countries, childbearing is viewed as both a natural law and an essential element of relational harmony. The natural law of childbearing refers to the intrinsic drive to have a child — reaching motherhood is seen as an important milestone, and relational harmony achieved and maintained through childbearing helps prevent marriage failure, fulfil filial piety (both authoritative and reciprocal) and establish a sense of normalcy within the family and social circles.
In Keiko’s case, her manifestation of such a thought seems to be connected to her rejection of her human identity, rather than a form of disgust for herself. Instead, this “disgust” is what society perceives as the refusal to adhere to the natural law by not cooperating in procreation. Keiko’s views on motherhood (and the prospect of being a mother), or leaving behind her genes are indifferent to the point where she is relieved when another character validates her view. This shows that Keiko is completely satisfied with her own identity as a “convenience store being” and has no desire to invest in individuals that are meant to be an “extension” of herself.
This paper explored how societal expectations in contemporary Japanese fiction impact female psychology. Through the themes of normality, childbirth and motherhood, Sayaka Murata and Mieko Kawakami question gendered roles and attempt to dismantle the hegemonic norm to expose the unfairness of systematic structures of social oppression.
Normal, or what is considered normal, can only be described as society’s attempt to impose uniformization under the guise of collective identity. Such a norm is established through the inclusion of acceptable standards for beauty, marriage, age and sexuality. The absurdity of this is unveiled through the characters of Makiko, Natsuko and Keiko, who appear to conform to the expectations, only to question and reject them internally. Makiko’s agency repeatedly appears to be conditioned by Societal standards, yet it is possible that her gravitation towards modifications are for her own enjoyment of aesthetic corporeal beauty. Her obsession paints a bigger picture of the impacts of the double standard of ageing, where women are shown to have much more to lose as they age — their physical attractiveness and desirability. Keiko, however, manages to retain her inner lucidity, and unlike Makiko, she never expresses a deep desire to become normal – she sees adequacy as a vital necessity that doesn’t profoundly affect her self perception. Her pragmatic fortitude helps us observe and critique various social conventions of the “village” that label individuals as “abnormal” for not abiding by its rules. Natsuko too provides the reader with a lens into her thoughts that eventually break away from precondition notions regarding gender identity and femininity.
Themes of Motherhood and childbirth are omnipresent in every culture and society. Motherhood is categorised with emotional, mental and physical turmoil, making it a complex and gruelling experience for most mothers. According to Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1949), women, despite being forced into subordinate positions by society, still retain their existential freedom to take control over their own narrative, allowing them to be more than mere “slaves of the home”. However, Japan is still a very conservative country, and Kawakami herself is aware of the limitations in regards to freedom. It is important to remember that these novels are not convenient manuals or manifestos easily encompassing all women’s experiences in Japan. In fact, they very often take a critical stance against the patriarchal conformity of most women in Japan. As a result, their novels go beyond a mere rally of common causes among women. In that regard, they are feminist but in a very peculiar way. They might echo some women’s experiences, but they don’t intend to identify common causes experienced by all women in Japan.
Both the novels end on similar compelling notes as Natsuko finally comes to terms with her gender identity and physical body, looking forward to a new life with her daughter, while Keiko renounces her identity as a human and completely immerses herself into the convenience store until it reverberates through every fibre of her being, turning her into a “convenience store being”. Yet, the climactic confrontation between Makiko and Midoriko at the end of part one of Breasts and Eggs leaves the most lasting impact as a powerful portrayal of symbolism. The Eggs symbolise the female reproductive cells. The smashing of the eggs depict, literally and metaphorically, Midoriko’s dissatisfaction with the world erupting where she is necessarily smashing the obligatory conditions of pregnancy and motherhood. Through this context, Kawakami equips her female characters with the necessary awareness and agency to reject the imperative of motherhood. Makiko and Midoriko smash the patriarchy along with its sociocultural roles that oppress the female body.
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