Hiromi Kawakami’s new novel challenges stereotypes about Japanese women

Do not be fooled by the rituals.
Do not be fooled by the rituals.
Image: Reuters/Issei Kato
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You might be forgiven for thinking that Japanese women are not quite free and equal, if you judge the country by its rules of royal succession. After all, even in the Reiwa era, which began on May 1 with the coronation of Emperor Naruhito, women cannot ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne.

A novel by the popular Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami, however, shows another side of life in the island nation, and one that might surprise if you haven’t had the pleasure of spending an extensive amount of time in Japan hanging out with the ladies in private. In The Ten Loves of Nishino, to be released by Europa Editions in English in June, Kawakami offers a glimpse at the inner lives of 10 women through their encounters with one very attractive man at different points in his existence. It’s a short, subtle, and funny book that quietly upends notions of the demure Japanese woman searching for a salaryman husband.

We first encounter Nishino when he is dead. His ghost comes to rest at the home of a married woman who had an affair with Nishino when she was a young mother and used to, a bit oddly, bring her toddler daughter to their meetings. By beginning this way, Kawakami seems to be signaling that though Nishino is an axle in this tale, connecting the female characters, he is not the star of the story. The man may have the title here, and he may seem like the protagonist, but it is the women who drive the narrative and whose thoughts are explored. Nishino is merely a vehicle.

Kawakami is probably best known outside Japan for her 2005 book The Nakano Thrift Shop, translated into English in 2016. She began her literary career as a science fiction magazine writer and editor, and there is a sense of the surreal or unreal in her work even as the Ten Loves of Nishino moves beyond the man as a ghost haunting gardens and gets into who he was to the women who encountered him in life.

While the writing is subtle, Kawakami’s ideas can be shocking. One young woman falls for Nishino when she spies him drinking his sister’s breastmilk—it’s a tragic moment, and I won’t give more of it away except to say that somehow, with Kawakami’s skill, this scene becomes touching, understandable, sad, and almost sweet rather than disturbingly incestuous.

Still, the most shocking aspects of the story are not plot points. Instead, it’s the casual contemplations of the female characters, the seemingly throwaway thoughts on life, sex, love, and friendship that are anything but predictable. For example, one of Nishino’s many girlfriends, Reiko, describes her first thought upon seeing him as her chapter begins:

I’d really like to have sex with him, I thought. This always happened. When I looked at a boy (no matter how much older they might be, any man who aroused lust in me would always be considered a “boy”), the first thought that entered my mind was almost never, I could fall in love with someone like him. My first thought was likely to be something much more matter-of-fact—such as, I want him to wrap his arms around the nape of my neck, or I’d like to tear a fresh-baked loaf of bread in half and devour it with him or, I’d like to take his fingers in my mouth.

Although Nishino is the playboy in this novel, he is the one who gets played. Women find him attractive but they harbor no delusions about what he can offer them in terms of partnership or love, and they aren’t that interested in him even when he is trying to be reliable. They are cycling through him. He is an experiment, part of their private education, and the women are impervious to his swings of emotion.

Sometimes they want to have sex with him and are very straightforward about their desire. But they don’t care to get to know him even when he opens up. As Ai, one of his young flames, puts it, “I didn’t love Nishino. I might not even have liked him. The thought of his death brought on not a single tear.”

In the various stages of his life, as Nishino interacts with his paramours, the reader starts to see what they do. He is a pitiable side character. He doesn’t understand women, though he spends all his spare time seducing them, and they sometimes give in to his attempts just because they feel a little bad for him. Often, he is just one of many lovers the women are juggling, both male and female, and the women in the book are ambivalent about all of them, never sold on the notion of true love, much less marriage.

Nishino turns out to be the unlikely romantic in this story, and tragic for assuming this role. As Reiko explains, “There was something odd about his smile, as if he knew perfectly well that no woman could truly love him. His smile reminded me of the transparent blue flame of the gas burner on the stove.”