by Suzanne Kamata
When I first heard the title of Sumie Kawakami’s new essay collection – Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage, and the Modern Japanese Woman – I assumed it was a volume on the empowerment of Japanese women. Well, it is and it isn’t.
Veteran journalist Kawakami, whose first book, published in Japanese, was on women who commit adultery, was struck by the gap between the highly sexual stereotype of Japanese women – and Japan itself, with its soaplands and strip clubs – and the reports in the media that women weren’t getting any. According to the Global Sex Survey by Durex, the world’s largest condom maker, Japan ranked 41st of 41 countries in terms of sexual activity. Although people had sex an average of 103 times a year, “the Japanese reported having sex an average of forty-five times a year.”
Kawakami was compelled to find out the truth about the sex lives of several Japanese women, including Chami, owner of her own bar, who is mourning the accidental death of her faithless lover; landowner Emi, a polished mother who puts up with her husband’s infidelities; and Mitsuko, a company owner who remained a virgin until the age of 52. Although Mistuko ultimately married a younger man and lost her virginity, her husband went back to his doting mother when he found that Mitsuko was spending more time on her business than taking care of him. In one very interesting essay Kawakami even writes about her own efforts as a divorced single mother trying to break off an affair with a married man after being advised to do so by a Yin Yang Master.
In the West, Kawakami writes, people often turn to therapists to help them with problems. However, in Japan troubled individuals often visit fortune-tellers. “If you say you are going to counseling, it sounds to the Japanese as if you have a mental problem. But if you’re going to have your fortune told or a purification ceremony done, there is no social stigma attached. The Japanese tend to rely on others as they search for a solution. A sense of duty drives them, while issues of responsibility and cause remain vague.”
The Japanese women featured here also seem to be much more pragmatic than their Western counterparts when it comes to men and marriage. When Shoko is forced to choose between two men, she chooses Masanobu, who is destined to become a Shinto priest, over Nobuyuki, whom she loves, because the latter has a weak heart. “I love him,” Shoko says, “so I worried about whether I could bear it if he died or whether I could raise a child alone. It was during these times that I started to realize that love and marriage were two different things.”
For Westerners, who tend to combine the two, these women may appear utterly unromantic. As an American who married for love, I can’t help wondering if in these essays Kawakami has not revealed the truth about a problem in modern Japanese society. Japanese pundits wonder why the birth rate is falling. Perhaps, quite simply, Japanese husbands and wives need to learn how to relate to each other better, and to have more sex.
Kawakami presents a frank portrait of Japanese women today, via these compulsively readable, expertly crafted essays. Further kudos should go to Yuko Enomoto for her seamless translation.
Suzanne Kamata is the author of Losing Kei and the editor of the anthologies The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan and Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs.