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Mieko Kawakami: How One Author Is Breaking Barriers

I remember staring at my windowsill with newfound curiosity. In the story I was reading, the narrator claims that those with nice windows, or those concerned with having nice windows, have never experienced poverty. When you’re poor, you don’t take the time to be preoccupied with the size or view of a window. It’s just a fixture you ignore to the point that dust builds along its edges.  After reading this paragraph, I spent the rest of my day working through what I’ll later consider one of the best novels I’ve ever read. 

I was reading Breasts & Eggs, a novel published by Japanese author Mieko Kawakami. Her work shaped me personally, but her impact is even more expansive. Mieko Kawakami is a Japanese writer whose publications have advanced the country’s literary scene tremendously. With her bestselling novels and short stories, Kawakami illuminates aspects of womanhood that Japanese culture often undermines. Beyond that, she also explores themes of morality, compassion, and nihilism, making her a multitalented author. 

Japan is recognized as a nation dedicated to innovation. However, according to  Times writer Pico Iyer, Japanese culture is nationalistic and driven by set traditions. Japan’s traditionalist value system means that social constructs take time to evolve, putting progressive initiatives, like women’s rights, at a disadvantage. According to the World Economic Forum, Japan “sits in 120th place out of 153 countries with a gender equality gap of 34.4%.” 

Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Mishida, has encouraged commitments to promote gender equality. Despite these political advancements, it takes time to mitigate the impact of patriarchy, a social construct that has historically placed men in positions of power.  

In Japan, sexism presents itself as silent expectations. According to a UN policy brief, “the persistence of the traditional gender division of labor in Japanese marriages places heavy obligations on women”. Women are confined to discouraging dynamics within their families, with mothers expected to do most childcare and domestic chores. Kawakami uses her fictional characters to illuminate the unfair division of labor in married households, giving a voice to the millions of women who feel unfairly burdened in their families.

Mieko Kawakami also writes about Japanese beauty standards and the desirability of youth, ideas that perpetuate toxic mindsets in women. In Breasts & Eggs, the protagonist's sister, Makiko, travels from Osaka to Tokyo for a plastic surgery operation. In the process, the main character contemplates the correlation between womanhood and beauty, and how the concepts seem to be forcibly intertwined. Beauty becomes a paradox: beauty is a picturesque ideal that defies concepts like age, but an ideal that women must aspire to all the same, despite its impossibility. Mieko Kawakami presents this struggle with compassion and grace. In the process, her criticism brings valuable perspectives that challenge the standards of her society. Womanhood is messy and painful, and its reality deviates from the expectations society reinforces. 

 According to David McNeill, a reporter for the Asia-Pacific Journal, Mieko was one of the first contemporary authors in Japan to write about sex, menstruation, and motherhood in explicit detail. Kawakami’s commentary on womanhood against the backdrop of Japanese society is an impactful form of awareness, even if Kawakami claims writing feminist literature wasn’t Kawakami’s original intention.

With her bestselling novel, Heaven, Kawakami shifts trajectories. The story radically differs from Breasts & Eggs, and her new themes, simplistic language, and shorter length highlight Kawkami’s versatility. Heaven is an honest portrayal of childhood suffering, with the novel’s protagonists being the targets of relentless schoolyard bullying. 

Meiko Kawakami proposed questions of human suffering, the nature of goodness, and passivity in response to trauma through her endearing protagonists & visceral depictions of their bullying. When I closed my copy of  Heaven, I continued to feel the emotion from Kawakami’s characters. Empathy was inevitable - Mieko Kawakami has a way of transporting her readers to the scenes she carefully crafts. In the process, readers are able to connect with her messages intimately and retrospectively.

Mieko Kawkami helped me realize that seemingly universal roles, like motherhood, can have extraordinarily different implications based on where you are. Her work is grounded in reality and paints an honest picture of grief, growth, and loneliness. By understanding Mieko Kawakami’s literature, we can understand the constructs that shape people's lives on paper and in the real world.


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