Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

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Squeezed in one last read for #JanuaryinJapan, a reading challenge on Instagram. I had read Kawakami’s work before in 2018, Ms Ice Sandwich. Although apparently that was published in 2013 (then in English in 2017?). This book, Breasts and Eggs, was originally published in 2019, then in English in 2020.

Kawakami was known first as a musician, then a blogger. If I’m not wrong, this book was written originally as a blog. It tells the story of three women, the narrator, Natsuko, who is about 30 and unmarried. Then there’s her older sister Makiko, who works as a hostess at a bar, and Makiko’s preteen daughter, Midoriko. Makiko, who is about ten years older than Natsuko, had to work to support them when their grandmother died (their mother had died some years ago). 

Makiko has come to Tokyo with Midoriko to get breast enhancement surgery. They still live in Osaka while Natsuko lives in Tokyo. Midoriko is worried about getting her first period. Natsuko wants to have a baby, but without a partner.

I was confused at first, as I had thought I was reading a novella. It turns out that the first part is originally a novella. The second part is about twice that length, and continues the story some 8 years or so later. It thus felt a bit uneven, the way the two parts were slapped together in one book. Sure, the same characters are there, but it just felt off balance somehow. Maybe because it’s mostly Natsuko’s story in the second part? We hardly see Makiko and Midoriko.

My interest in this title was because of the buzz, the startling title (especially for a Japanese novel), and I liked the exploration of topics such as single motherhood in Japan, as well as artificial insemination. Coming from Singapore, a country which still holds strong to its conservative Asian values, I understand how topics like fertility and artificial insemination are still difficult to talk about. And in both countries, the decrease in the number of births are concerning to its governments. Yet in Singapore, IVF isn’t available for single women, or for women over the age of 45. If I’m not wrong, even egg freezing has its restrictions in Singapore, such as requiring a valid medical condition. The result is some women have gone overseas to freeze their eggs.  

Out of all the Japanese novels I’ve read in January, this was the least strange, despite its title. Perhaps the others have been a bit too out there, and maybe I was expecting that bizarreness that didn’t happen. So it was interesting to finish up January in Japan with all the relative normalcy that happens in this book (other than weasels falling from ceilings). 

So Haruki Murakami praised her writing, but when they met in 2017, she discussed the sexism that she saw in his books. (The interview transcript is available here but here is one quote from the interview: 

“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?”

It is curious though that the translators (two names are listed on the book) for Breasts and Eggs are male. Would it have been translated differently if they were female? Random thought I know, but it does make me wonder. 

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge and the Books in Translation challenge.