Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd

“I could tell how stressed she was by the way that her identity is so connected to her breasts.” This isn’t a line from Mieko Kawakami’s novel; it’s from a series of interviews she did with Haruki Murakami in 2017. Kawakami is referring to a twelve-year-old girl in one of Murakami’s novels, and how she begins a conversation with a man by immediately talking about how small her breasts are. It’s a conversation, Kawakami says, that was “surprising”.

HM: I just imagine there are girls out there who feel this way.
MK: But what about the gap between her and the narrator?…When Mariye starts asking him about her breasts, did you struggle at all over how he should respond?
HM: I know what you’re saying. But the fact that she asks him for his opinion on her breasts suggests that she doesn’t really see him as a man. She doesn’t recognize him as a sexual object…
MK: I see your point, though actually I saw the opposite possibility. As in, Mariye starts things off that way to make him view her sexually. But you’re saying that it purges the air of any kind of sexual tension between them, and strengthens the philosophical aspect of their interaction?

Murakami says yes.

In Kawakami’s own book, Breasts and Eggs, Makiko is similarly obsessed with her breasts. However, there are differences: she’s not twelve, but thirty-eight, and she doesn’t talk to any men about it. Neither is she the only one preoccupied with an aspect of her biologically female body—so is her daughter Midoriko, and her younger sister Natsuko. It’s not that these women hate themselves, but rather that they struggle with bodies that feel beyond their control, just like the systems and constrictions of the world they live in. In this case, it’s modern Japan.

Japan ranked 125th out of 153 countries in this year’s WEF Gender Gap Index. Japanese husbands do the least amount of household work of any developed country in the world. More than half of Japanese single mothers live below the poverty line. Abortion is legal but the father’s consent is required. Single women cannot adopt. Last month the male head of Japan’s ob/gyn association said the morning-after pill should not be available over the counter because women would use it “casually”. The laws and limits on women’s bodily autonomy are why it’s difficult for the narrator, Natsuko, to have a child by herself, with a sperm donor. “It would be different in a freer country,” she notes.

Kawakami herself is intensely aware of the limits of freedom. She articulates them but is not daunted by them. Her interview series with Murakami was held with mutual admiration (Murakami has called her writing “breathtaking”) but this didn’t stop Kawakami from repeatedly challenging him about his female characters, who are generally beautiful and mysterious with nice ears, guiding men out of wells.

MK: I’m talking about the large number of female characters who exist solely to fulfill a sexual function. On the one hand, your work is boundlessly imaginative when it comes to plots, to wells, and to men, but the same can’t be said for their relationships with women. It’s not possible for these women to exist on their own. And while female protagonists, or even supporting characters, may enjoy a moderate degree of self-expression, thanks to their relative independence, there’s a persistent tendency for women to be sacrificed for the sake of the male leads. So the question is, why is it that women are so often called upon to play this role in Murakami novels?
HM: Now I see, okay.
MK: Would you mind sharing your thoughts on that?
HM: This may not be the most satisfying explanation, but I don’t think any of my characters are that complex.

No, it’s not a satisfying explanation but it is a satisfying interview. (So much so that it was published in book form in Japanese, though only portions have been translated into English.) Kawakami does not shirk from critique or complexity, and gives no simple answers—in conversation or in her own writing.

Breasts and Eggs is divided into two books: Book 1, in which Makiko and Midoriko visit Natsuko in Tokyo for a weekend, and Book 2, which is set eight years later and takes place over several years. In Book 1, it’s Natsuko’s older sister Makiko who’s fixated on breast implants. Makiko’s daughter, Midoriko, is repulsed by the changes in her adolescent body. In Book 2, the central issue is Natsuko’s overwhelming desire to have a child, while also wearily trying to write her second novel.

Kawakami presents these frustrations with life and self with a kind of informal clarity. Her descriptions can be precise (“Like a row of white boxes, all lined up, the same shape and the same weight, the days of November came and went”) and lovely (“The sky reached into the past and into obscurity, streaked with strips of cloud like marks left by a tired finger”). There is energy and humour; Natsuko is from Osaka, which has a dialect with a distinctive slang, intonation, and personality not unlike the English spoken in Cork. While a translation of this is particularly difficult, the spirit is there, especially in the conversations between Natsuko, Makiko and Midoriko.

Natsuko has visions or dreams that are dizzying and wonderful and don’t happen enough. The first is in a bathhouse, when an androgynous bather shrugs and their flesh turns into tiny people:

Before I knew it, they had made a circle around me, and one of them was pointing at the ceiling. We were back at school. The panoply of blinking stars consumed our vision, and we cried into the open air. We had never seen anything like it. One of them picked up a shovel and spaded earth. Since coming to the camp, their guilt had died and left behind a husk, whose hair and flesh were crackly like onion skin. We buried the husks and covered them with dirt, each scoop sending them further away, to some far-off place.

It’s in this vision that these tiny people tell Natsuko that “THERE ARE NO MEN AND NO WOMEN AND NOTHING ELSE.” It’s one of the more memorable explorations of gender, but one that only exists, for Natsuko, in her imagination.

And it’s an idea that doesn’t return. These moments come and go, just as the novel itself is full of disappearances and absences. Characters leave and never come back; they contemplate the possibility of disappearing; they reflect on how they disappeared in the past. Book 1 feels more contained, probably because it was first published as a standalone novella, winning the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2007. There’s a sense of omission in the novel, perhaps because of the time lapse between the plot of Book 1 and Book 2, and the disappearance of passages from Midoriko’s journal, which intersperse Natsuko’s narration only in Book 1. Even though Book 2 is significantly longer, some plot points and incidents from Book 1 are never quite resolved. For Mikako and Midoriko, the reconciliations with their bodies they seem to have reached in Book 2 are not fully explained to the reader, though their initial conflicts are. In Book 1, Mikako particularly wants a boob job because of her nipples, which she describes indignantly as, “A couple of Oreos? Not even… They’re the colour of a flatscreen after you turn it off.” Midoriko writes in her journal: “It’s like I’m in there, somewhere inside myself, and the body I’m in keeps on changing… Everything gets dark, and that darkness fills my eyes more and more.”

The conflicts these women feel about their bodies are the beginning; what they go on to reveal are women’s battles, fulfillments, and philosophies. And while society’s measure of female attractiveness is still dominated by the male gaze, their obsessions are not really driven by or for particular men. This is the key difference between Kawakami and Murakami: why women are thinking about their bodies. Makiko doesn’t want new breasts to get a boyfriend; she wants to relive the experience of going into stores to “use their dressing rooms just to look at my own nipples”. It’s a feeling she describes as “heaven”.

In Breasts and Eggs, men are largely absent, often through their own (bad) choices. In a book largely about families and children, men aren’t missed as fathers and they’re not sought after as husbands. Kawakami doesn’t bother with the question of whether a woman needs a man; her characters know they don’t need them. The more pressing questions are how they navigate their lives with this knowledge. After the biological, the hurdles are economical, societal, familial. The book raises questions that go beyond the common one of whether it’s a woman’s biological destiny to have children. Characters prompt debates: Is having children selfless or egotistical? Is it actually a violent act? Perhaps it’s not just a fit of adolescent moodiness that causes us to yell at our parents, “I didn’t ask to be born!” Perhaps it is, in fact, a moral challenge, like the one posed to Natsuko by another woman in a nightmarish analogy:

Imagine… you come to a small house. Slowly, you open the door. Inside, you find ten sleeping children… Now, in that moment, in that small house, there’s no joy, no pain, no happiness, no sadness… So what do you do? Wake them up or let them sleep?… 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… If you bring a new life into the world, that’s exactly what you’re doing… You know what makes you think doing that’s okay?… Because whoever the child is, the one who lives and dies consumed with pain, could never be you.

There are other—less ominous—presentations of parenthood. While Natsuko spends most of the novel pondering and wandering, the characters around her are assured, tenacious and uninhibited. They offer their opinions and experiences, from the recognition of a mother’s sacrifices, to the kindness of a non-biological father, to loving a daughter but feeling like “it won’t be long before she starts to hate me.” Natsuko explains her reason for wanting a baby as the urgent need to meet and know that child, rather than the more usual motivations of having a family, continuing a bloodline, or making a brand new person with someone you love. For her, it’s an act of creation infinitely more fascinating than the novel she’s working on, which is bogged down with research and stymied by her own lack of enthusiasm. But the yearning to meet this tiny stranger conflicts with the necessity of another stranger: the sperm donor. A man who would also be a stranger to his child.

This leads us to another, underlying question: how well can people truly know each other in the first place? Some characters object to sperm donorship because it seems unthinkable to have a child with an unknown person; others doubt how well even married couples truly understand each other. The novel is full of shifts, surprising reactions, unexpected opinions, secrets kept and revealed, that show how easily people can become unknowable. Natsuko ponders her absent father, wondering if he even remembers his family. Another character learns that his father is not the man who raised him, but an anonymous sperm donor; his mother asks him why that fact even matters. People can be unknowable to each other but also—as young Midoriko experiences as she grows—unknowable to themselves.

What can we do when faced with such uncertainty? In an essay Kawakami recently wrote about Covid-19 (in which she notes that Japan is so dominated by male leaders that people have joked “What happened to Japan, did the coronavirus kill off all the women?”) she reflects on the national mindset that follows disaster:

In our society, there is an aspect of forgetting that functions as hope. We must rip hope away from the suspension of thought, and make it exist independently. The only way to cope with forgetting, which has become so thoroughly integrated with Japanese life, is to keep thinking and to keep acting.

Kawakami’s characters live this philosophy. They want to understand, accept, and continue, trying to heal rather than forget. Breasts change. Eggs crack and break, but they also hatch. We don’t always know what’s inside. Some might say there’s only one way to find out, but this book would reply that no, there are many. Natsuko must act; thinking of the worst, hoping for the best, and going on either way.