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On the last Friday in November, in the afterglow of a literary awards ceremony, the novelist Mieko Kawakami held court in a banquet hall at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, wearing a tweed Gucci dress, clutching an Hermès Birkin handbag and sipping a glass of domestic beer she would never quite finish. Each time she raised the drink to her lips, another writer, editor or publicist came along to distract her from it. Kawakami, who is 46, greeted them each with a degree of warmth that made it hard to tell which were strangers and which were her friends. “I’m a graduate of hostess university,” she said, recalling her years spent working at a bar where she kept men company as they drank. More than two decades later, the skills she honed in the boozy, neon-lit back alleys of Osaka — the ability to observe and to listen with acute curiosity — are still apparent in her best-selling novels. “You can see where that sensitivity arises from in her work,” the translator David Boyd told me. “She sees all the angles.”
The awards ceremony was hosted by Shueisha, a major Japanese publishing house that recruited Kawakami as a judge, confirming her as an arbiter of taste. “One of the reasons my boss pleaded and pleaded for Kawakami-san to judge for our prize is because of her fame and her popularity among young Japanese writers,” said Yuki Kishi, a literary editor at Shueisha. In the time since Kawakami acquiesced to that role, more women had submitted unpublished manuscripts for consideration, Kishi told me, and more of them took risks concerning voice and content. “A lot of people look up to Kawakami-san’s writing and her style and her energy and her buntai (literary style),” Kishi said as we left the banquet hall. “We want to be her.” What Kawakami wants, however, is to confound expectations by writing books that are at times provocatively against type, as if to prove that there is no category that can contain her.
“I’m not an Olympic athlete,” she told me. “Literature doesn’t represent anything.”
Kawakami first shot to fame in 2008 after winning the Akutagawa Prize, a prestigious award for early-career writers, for the novella “Chichi to Ran.” The novella, whose title translates to “Breasts and Eggs,” featured language as stylistically daring as James Joyce’s: Kawakami deploys her native Osaka dialect and often packs six, seven or even eight commas into her frenzied, poetic sentences. The story unfolds over the course of three days when the narrator is visited by her older sister, Makiko, a 39-year-old bar hostess who has come from Osaka to Tokyo for a consultation at a breast-enhancement clinic. With Makiko is her daughter, Midoriko, whose diary entries break up the narrative with prepubescent anxieties over what she has learned about her body, and gender hierarchy, from middle-school health classes. “How is it possible I knew about sperm first?” Midoriko wonders after learning that women have ova, which she compares to the eggs she’s been eating her whole life. “That doesn’t seem fair.”
In Kawakami’s books, characters are alienated from society and themselves. They struggle with physical imperfection and poverty, wrestle with the moral dimension of wanting to change themselves and their circumstances. Often they surrender their inner lives to preoccupations with social norms. Their bodies dissatisfy and disconcert them: Seemingly wary of younger women threatening her position at the bar, Makiko wants the youthful breasts she had before childbirth; Midoriko is aghast at the idea of breast-enhancement surgery, which amplifies her fears that her body will no longer be her own after puberty. For the narrator, talk of surgery revives the sense that her “monolithic expectation of what a woman’s body was supposed to look like had no bearing on what actually happened to my body.” There is a spectral quality to the patriarchal forces haunting these women. We hear little about the men in “Breasts and Eggs,” but misogynist thought persists. A girlfriend from school, not a male bully, tells Midoriko that “when a woman dies, she can’t become a Buddha … basically, to become a Buddha, you have to be reborn as a man first.”
“Chichi to Ran” made its author an overnight sensation and a feminist icon. In a promotional photograph advertising the book, she looked like a pop star, dressed in heels and a short skirt while leaning against a concrete pillar in a parking garage. Her account of contemporary poverty and womanhood resonated deeply in Japan, where single mothers and divorced women are still ostracized, maternity leave is virtually nonexistent and most married women can’t have an abortion without permission from their husbands. In this social context, the book took on a political significance similar to that of Eve Ensler’s 1996 play “The Vagina Monologues” in the United States. It was scorned by conservative establishment figures for daring to make protagonists out of the kind of women typically cast as cautionary tales. Among its detractors was Shintaro Ishihara, a politician and fellow winner of the Akutagawa Prize, whose obsession with improving Japan’s economy by reversing its declining birthrate led him to remark, while serving as governor of Tokyo, that it was “useless” for women to go on living beyond menopause; unsurprisingly, he derided the book as “unpleasant and intolerable.”
In the decade that followed, Kawakami wrote several more novels, including “Heaven” in 2009 and “All the Lovers in the Night” in 2011. Each was a departure from the last, but however varied in style or substance Kawakami’s books are, they share a commitment to realism that will be unfamiliar to many casual readers of contemporary Japanese literature in translation. For nearly three decades, its chief emissary abroad has been Haruki Murakami, whose American influences and penchant for late-20th-century nostalgia and magical realism obscure whatever genuine insights he might offer foreign readers about life in Japan today. The middle-class malaise of Murakami’s protagonists, who are more likely to speak with cats than to have uncomfortable conversations about late rent with their landlord’s wife, is largely absent from Kawakami’s work. That she has found success abroad through novels that look squarely at the times she is living through, with an emphasis on gender and class, suggests that Western readers may once more be ready for contemporary Japanese fiction that embraces the magic of realism itself.
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In 2015, after the powerful literary agent Amanda Urban reached out to Kawakami about introducing her works to American readers, she decided that they should first meet the characters from her award-winning novella. Instead of merely translating it, though, she used the book as a foundation for something new. Called “Natsu Monogatari” in Japan, and “Breasts and Eggs” in the rest of the world, the novel included a retelling of the original novella followed by new material that catches up with its narrator, a novelist named Natsuko, as she approaches middle age and fixates on the idea of artificial insemination as a means of motherhood without sex or romance. “I put everything I had into ‘Breasts and Eggs,’” Kawakami told me. “I put everything I felt into it. But after 10 years, I knew that there was room to build on its philosophy of feminism, and I better understood the changes that women’s bodies go through.” Above all, she better understood motherhood, having had a son in the intervening years. The expanded book was published by Europa Editions in the United States in early 2020 and became one of the most-talked-about books of the summer: The actress Natalie Portman recommended it for her book club, and the Italian author Elena Ferrante included it in a list of her favorite 40 books by female authors.
The following year brought an English translation of “Heaven,” her novel of friendship and teenage bullying, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2022. Next came a translation of “All the Lovers in the Night,” which was recently named a finalist for the 2023 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. These honors have cemented Kawakami’s status as an international literary star, while the books themselves showed her talent for reinvention. Structurally and stylistically, “Heaven” was a complete departure from “Breasts and Eggs,” with an unmistakably allegorical quality that made it feel timeless. “Heaven” also happens to be Kawakami’s only novel with a male protagonist, called Eyes, because of the lazy eye that makes him a target of brutal bullying at his middle school. This, she said, was a deliberate provocation.
“I got tired of being called a feminist author,” Kawakami told me.
I first met Kawakami last September at a cafe near her Tokyo office. She was waiting at a table on the second floor, dressed in Gucci pants and a beige long-sleeved blouse, watching the onset of a late-summer rainstorm through a long row of windows. The scene brought to mind the opening line from “Breasts and Eggs”: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had.”
There were few windows in the danchi — a kind of public-housing block — apartment where Kawakami grew up in Osaka. She and her two siblings were raised by an impoverished single mother who worked at a grocery store. Like so many of the characters in her novels, who are variably haunted by and ambivalent about the absence of their fathers, Kawakami has what she calls a “complicated” relationship with her dad. To help support her family, she lied about her age, starting around 14, so that she could be hired as a part-time worker at a Panasonic factory. “In the summer, I made fans, and in the winter, I made heaters,” she told me. “Even now, I sometimes see that factory when I close my eyes at night.”
Kawakami’s humanity shines through most vividly when she writes about class, a theme she returns to again and again. This is not so much an agenda as a function of how she sees the world.Credit…Osamu Yokonami for The New York Times
When her younger brother showed talent as a rugby player and had the opportunity to attend university, Kawakami took a job at a hostess bar to help pay for his education. Working at an upscale club, Kawakami poured drinks for lonely salarymen and other customers. It was far from the worst job she ever had, and far from the more lurid hostess bars that appear in her stories. But the experience clung to her in ways that other jobs did not and remains a recurring theme in her writing — a setting she returns to again and again, as if sketching a scene from memory and hoping it might reveal some new truth. In her 20s, Kawakami left Osaka to pursue a singing career in Tokyo, where she recorded three albums that sold poorly. She started posting poems and essays on the personal blog that she had started with the intention of promoting her stalled career in music. “Basically I was writing about everyday life,” she told me. “But now that I think about it, I was really experimenting with different writing styles.”
Among Kawakami’s more surprising influences is the work of Haruki Murakami, who has praised her work as “breathtaking” and called her a “genius” and his favorite young author but has also been criticized for writing women as one-dimensional characters who can seem as though they exist for no reason beyond advancing the plot. For Kawakami, though, his novels provided a model for how to think about the individual. “No parents, no family, no soporific preaching, none of the self-conscious struggles or triumphs so common in literature,” she would later write in an essay. “For me, bogged down by situations and circumstances I had never opted into, Murakami’s individualism was shocking.”
This isn’t to say that Kawakami does not differ from Murakami in terms of how she thinks about female characters. When he made himself available for a series of rare public appearances with Kawakami, including a 2017 Q. and A., she broached the obvious incongruity of their mutual admiration by telling him, “It’s common for my female friends to say to me, ‘If you love Haruki Murakami’s work so much, how do you justify his portrayal of women?’” Kawakami chose to highlight an example from his 2017 novel, “Killing Commendatore,” in which a woman introduces herself to the narrator by asking what he thinks of her breasts. Murakami responded by saying this was the woman’s way of suggesting that she viewed the narrator as a kind of eunuch; for Kawakami, though, it seemed like a way of fashioning herself into a sexual object for no obvious reason or benefit.
It’s hard not to feel that Kawakami is caught in the same kind of bind as one of her own characters — forced to justify her interest in reading nonfeminist literature yet unable to shed her image as a feminist author, which she has called limiting. “I would say that if in 100 years Mieko is remembered only for being a feminist author, she would look back on that and be pissed,” Sam Bett, Boyd’s co-translator, told me. Kawakami put it more gently: “I want to be understood as a human writer.” Her humanity shines through most vividly when she writes about class, a theme she returns to again and again. This is not so much an agenda as a function of how she sees the world, as if she is still a young girl wanting to see more of it than the windows of her danchi apartment will allow.
When I met her at the cafe, Kawakami had just finished work on “Sisters in Yellow,” a book that is as hard to categorize as anything she has written. Ostensibly a crime novel, it “explores, from various perspectives, the relationship between facts and memories, victims and perpetrators,” she said. Set in Tokyo at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, it is her most contemporary novel, with four female characters who must contend with the consequences of what drove them apart two decades earlier. “It’s my version of ‘The Makioka Sisters,’” Kawakami told me, referring to Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic novel about four siblings in prewar Osaka struggling against the pull of modernity and the loss of prestige. Instead of World War II, though, it’s economic malaise and the pandemic that pulls at the fabric of society in Kawakami’s novel; instead of nostalgia for the rituals of the wealthy merchant class, its chief concerns are those rituals necessitated by poverty and deprivation. “I was raised in the streets, so I know that there are some people who can only survive in the streets,” Kawakami told me. “I was interested in exploring what a ‘Breaking Bad’ kind of story might be like if it weren’t such a macho drama.”
The result, according to Boyd, who has begun translating a revised version of “Sisters in Yellow,” is a remarkable book that “stays doggedly focused on class,” to an extent that is noteworthy even for Kawakami. In October, Knopf placed a major bet on Kawakami’s ability to sell the reality of contemporary Japan to Americans who have grown accustomed to the more fantastic visions of Murakami’s novels and Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films. The following month, when I returned to Tokyo just before Thanksgiving, Kawakami told me the details of the six-way auction over coffee and reveled in every one of them, until I congratulated her on what I presumed was a very large paycheck. Wincing, she offered just three words, with her eyes downturned, as if in apology. “Yes,” she said. “That’s true.”
The comfortable life she has ended up with — married to another successful novelist, with whom she shares a 10-year-old son and a modest home in Tokyo — doesn’t always fit as well as the designer dresses that disguise her working-class roots. Sitting across from her now, she had a poise that made it hard to imagine she had ever felt judged by society. But at the end of our interview, when I mentioned that I, too, was raised by a single mother, her posture toward me seemed to change. She prodded me — where did my father go, she wondered — and her pitiless curiosity about my life told me all I needed to know: People who have gone through similar hardships tend not to bother with false sympathy. As much as the good life suits her, I sensed a whiff of the shame that arises when climbing out of poverty forces you to look down on the people and places that shaped you. If anything made Kawakami uncomfortable, it seemed to be the idea that her hardest days were probably behind her.
Since flying to Tokyo in June, I’d been reading parts of “Sisters in Yellow” in The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s biggest daily newspaper, which paid for the exclusive rights to publish it in bite-size installments over the course of six months. It will be published by Knopf in 2025. What I read brought to mind the book that Natsuko works on in “Breasts and Eggs”: a story about “a teenage girl whose father belonged to a gang of yakuza” and “another girl the same age who was raised nearby, in a cult led by a group of women.”
Is it even possible for an author to steal her own character’s idea for a book? I remembered what Bett had referred to as Kawakami’s “fearlessness when it comes to revisiting material, revisiting content, revisiting themes.” It reminded him of Truman Capote’s work. “I think that Capote and Mieko — I don’t think either of them have any shame when it comes to going back to things,” Bett told me. “I think it’s about having a real fascination with rubbing a sore spot.”
On the first day of December, when Kawakami and I met in her Tokyo neighborhood, she was carrying the finished manuscript in her oversize purse. She had been avoiding her office because someone recently died in the apartment directly above it. Kawakami said she had reason to suspect that it was a suicide. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” she told me. “But I keep hearing noises going on above me, and it seems too soon for someone else to have moved in.” Instead of going to her office, we walked to a nearby ice-cream parlor.
“I don’t have much interest in religion as a social phenomenon,” Kawakami told me. “I want to write about what faith means in Japan.” Interest in such questions had exploded since the recent assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which was motivated by his ties to a fringe Christian sect that bankrupted the assassin’s mother.
As with many Japanese people of her generation, her fascination dates back to March 1995, when members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out sarin-gas attacks that killed 13 people on the Tokyo subway — one of Murakami’s few forays into nonfiction. Her interest, appropriately, is in what comes next: What kind of religion is possible for Japanese people in the shadow of Aum Shinrikyo? “What I’m interested in, though, is finding some way of making a totally different kind of book from that material,” she said. “I feel like it’s something I have to do.”
On that cold December afternoon, to avoid the ghosts she didn’t believe in, we stood on the sidewalk across the street from her office building, eating our ice-cream cones while Kawakami made small talk with the shopkeeper. I thought of the strangeness of the moment, which I could imagine finding in a Murakami novel: a man and a woman, chased by ghosts to an ice-cream parlor. In this story, though, the woman is the protagonist, and the man exists for no reason beyond advancing the plot. I thought of all the other lives Kawakami had tried on before arriving at this moment and asked her what she thought she might be doing if she hadn’t found success as a novelist.
“An old hostess,” she said. Then, after laughing to herself, she reconsidered. “Not a hostess. A madam.”
Joshua Hunt is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. He has previously worked as a Tokyo-based correspondent for Reuters and an adjunct assistant professor of journalism at Columbia University. Osamu Yokonami is a photographer whose work focuses on identity and cultural homogeneity. His recent book of photography, “After Children,” features the subjects of his earlier work “1000 Children” in restaged portraits at a later age.