Have you heard of Mieko Kawakami? When I first moved to Japan, hundreds of us were housed in the Keio Plaza hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo. None of us knew each other really though a few had met in the pre-departure, so of course we began with the most basic questions – name, where from, etc.. and then the question everyone asks, why did you come to Japan?

We all had different answers of course, but back then in 2004, there seemed to be quite a difference between us Brits and Americans. The former seemed to be on more of an adventure while many of the latter were either deeply into the language or into anime. Now, this is a bit of a long-winded introduction, but for me it was Japanese literature. Specifically it was the two Murakamis – Haruki and Ryu. On reading Norwegian Wood, I had to come and see if Japan was really like that.

Who is Mieko Kawakami?

One of my favourite old writers is Akutagawa Ryunosuke and one of the top literary prizes in Japan is named after him. In 2008, it was won by a former singer and blogger, Mieko Kawakami from Osaka (Yay, go Osaka!). Since her story Breasts and Eggs won the prize, she’s gone on to win several others while publishing a number of novels and other stories.

It’s not been smooth sailing though because Mieko Kawakami is a rare thing in Japan – someone who ignores social rules. Her novel about an air hostess obsessed with her sagging boobs ruffled quite a few feathers including that of the old Tokyo Governor, Ishihara Shintaro. Now 42, she is unrepentant in her determination to not only be a writer’s writer, but someone who challenges social norms.

Despite winning many prizes, having been several albums into a music career, and a blogger with over 200,000 daily hits, life was not easy for her. She grew up in poverty in the industrial city. Relations with her family; especially her father, were difficult, and it’s partly this which has allowed her to be at the forefront of writing from a woman’s perspective. This is especially true for lonely women and those looking for equality for women in Japan.

What Books Has Mieko Kawakami Written?

As well as challenging social norms, Mieko Kawakami fills her novels with the sounds and flavours of Osaka which is a breath of fresh air compared to novels set in Tokyo. After winning the Akutagawa prize with Breasts and Eggs, she went on to publish her first full novel, Heaven in 2009.

She’s gone on to write several other novels, with her latest novella, Ms. Ice Sandwich finding popularity in the English-speaking world. In addition to this, she’s published short stories and essay collections. In one of them, Haruki Murakami: A Long, Long Interview she confronts Japan’s most famous and successful living author on his sexualisation and representation of women.

Is It All in the Translation?

Japanese books naturally translate well into English. From a personal point of view, I often find myself sympathising more with Japanese characters than British ones. Not in terms of culture of course, but in terms of experience. This is especially true of those who find themselves alone or on the outside of mainstream culture.

Of course, there’s a vast difference between the English version and the Japanese version. Our languages have very different. We think we know the direct correlations between words, but there’s subtle differences. Sayonara does not mean “good bye” but means “We might never see each other again” and genki does not mean “well” but means “energetic.” 

It is thought that the translations of Mieko Kawakami, like with other authors, can be the make or break of the works in other languages. These translations can make the novels seem deceptively light. The nuances of the original language, the puns and double meanings, can often be lost. Yet, with Mieko Kawakami, her books still succeed. They feel light and crisp, but can work on both lighter and deeper readings.

My Thoughts on Mieko Kawakami

Her themes are quite different for Japanese authors and she’s definitely worth checking out. It’s nice to see her contribute ideas and thoughts to the Japanese literary world; especially in translation. Our options are growing, but they are still dominated by the dryer, older novels or the works of Murakami and Kawabata.

Hopefully her interview with Murakami Haruki can be translated. At the moment, I have the excellent book by Jay Rubin on Murakami’s themes and ideas, but it would be wonderful to see Mieko Kawakami’s thoughts and questions regarding sexualisation and representation. Too many of his characters seem to treat women as personality-free, consequence-free, sex objects. Though with Naoko in Norwegian Wood this is not always the case.

I’ve not read much of Mieko Kawakami, but I’ll try to get a hold of her book to see what she’s like and the ideas she has. Breasts and Eggs will be translated soon which should be interesting.

So where next? According to Mieko Kawakami, her next novel will look at a world where women can reproduce without men. 

If you’re wondering why I used her full name the whole time, it’s probably because whenever I thick of Kawakami I think of Kawakami Hiromi who has written such wonderful novels like Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop. She’s also worth checking out.

Btw, while researching this, I saw an article in The Economist which called Osaka-ben (the local dialect of the city) “choppy.” It’s not choppy, it’s the dialect of good humour, trade, and fine eating and drinking.