Absolutely Grotesque: Feminist Literature in Japan

Grotesque by Kirino Natsuo

Unlike the West, Japan does not have a history of strong feminist movements – or, at least, Japanese feminism is less focused on individual autonomy than Western feminism. Even today, most ‘feminist’ dialogue takes place within community or civil rights organizations, not feminist activist groups. While the position of women within Japanese society has changed since the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL, AKA ‘Japan’s Toothless Lion’) passed, Japan is still a country characterized by an M-shaped labor curve for women and abortion is still a preferred form of birth control, due both to cultural factors and the difficulty and expense associated with using oral contraceptives. I would also like to point out that many observers believe that low-dose oral contraceptives were finally approved for use in Japan in late 1999 (after 35 years of debate) because that the Diet fast-tracked the approval of Viagra (which took about 6 months). Therefore, one must ask: how successful has women’s suffrage been within Japanese society?

Take, for example, the recent television drama Ohitorisama (2009). Mizuki Alisa plays Akiyama Satomi, a successful 30-something teacher who is still unmarried and prefers to be alone in her messy apartment. Her fashionable work attire notwithstanding, Akiyama-san would rather spend her time and money as she pleases than wasting her energy trying to attract a husband. Superficially, this series seems to affirm that Japanese women are now more capable that ever to live a single, independent existence that doesn’t need to be validated by marriage. The smart, beautiful Akiyama is alone by choice; not due to any personal defect or inability to find a husband. Yet, similar to its 2007 predecessor Hotaru no Hikari, the series makes it clear that there is just something missing in Akiyama’s life. What could it be? Oh yeah, that’s right – a man and a family. Unable to forget the man who proposed to her 5 years ago (she said no because she didn’t want to give up her career) and sporting an inferiority complex towards younger women, Akiyama feels this absence so acutely that she regularly subjects her younger male coworker Kamisaka Shinichi (played by Koike Teppei) to overly-sensitive, one-sided diatribes about how she isn’t too old, doesn’t have problems meeting men, and is perfectly satisfied with her career and personal life. Oh, the lady doth protest too much! Throughout the series, Akiyama and Kamisaka’s blossoming relationship begins to teach her important lessons about life and happiness. Like, the value of companionship… or the satisfaction a woman can feel from cooking a delicious meal for her family… or the importance of saving money while you are single and not wasting it on frivolous objects…and, of course, the benefits of keeping a clean house! Of course, as a romantic comedy geared towards women, Akiyama and Kamisaka have an ‘equal’ relationship (IE she feels free to nag him incessantly) and ultimately Akiyama is loved and accepted for who she is. But, you don’t have to look very deep beneath the surface of Ohitorisama to see that Japanese women are still facing the same societal pressures as before.

From my experience in the Japanese inaka (countryside), the years between graduating from college and getting married might as well be purgatory for the average Japanese girl. Far from being interested in establishing their own independent existence, Japanese women prefer to concentrate on finding a reliable, steadily-employed man who can insure that they continue to enjoy a relatively high standard of living (preferably where the woman doesn’t have to work). … Alright, maybe that generalization is a little extreme. But, the recent revival of ‘old-fashioned’ practices such as omiai (arranged marriage) and arranged group dates attest to the fact that while the age may have moved from 25 (a Christmas cake) to 31 (a New Year’s cake), Japanese women still face an expiration date. (I’m not talking about not go-kon ‘group dating’ here, but another form of omiai where women pay a designated amount of money to meet a group of men from a certain income bracket…the higher the income, the larger the entrance fee. Look inside a Japanese newspaper, you’ll find advertisements for this.)

Furthermore, the Japanese media still likes to uphold the behavior of women as a kind of ‘canary in the coal mine’ for the overall wellness of Japanese society. This has been common throughout Japan’s modern history; from the degenerate Meiji schoolgirl and the café-loving mogas (modern girls) to the black-faced ganguro and brand-crazy kogyaru engaging in enjo kosai (compensated dating).

  • Japan is still facing the specter of a declining birthrate. What will happen to the national pension program? Will Japan have to allow more foreign immigrants into the country (along with the presupposed increase in crime)? Well, if those damn parasaito (parasite singles – coined by Tokyo Gakugei University sociologist Yamada Masahiro) would just get married, quit their jobs and have babies rather than spend all their money on designer handbags, then theses problems would just solve themselves…wouldn’t they? Let’s just fail to point out that Japanese men can be just as guilty as women when it comes to frivolous consumption (golf and $1700 whiskey anyone?). Or the fact that the exorbitant cost of education in Japan makes childrearing a major financial undertaking.
  • Is modern Japanese society riddled with soshokukei-danshi? (lit. ‘vegetarian-stlye men’, they are known for their unassertive, feminine characteristics) Well, if bitchy women (nikushokukei-joshi, lit. ‘carnivorous-style women’) would just stop nagging them all the time then maybe it wouldn’t be such a big issue.

Facing such an environment, it’s not surprising that both men and women have begun forgoing relationships entirely – birth rates, marriage, and sex (yes, even sex) are all on the decline. Enter Kirino Natsuo, a female author who first shot to international recognition with her 1997 novel Out (winner of the Japanese Grand Prix for Crime Fiction and an Edgar Award finalist) and is widely considered one of Japan’s foremost crime novelists.  Kirino, however, is anything but a crime novelist. Though her books do deal with crimes like murder, she is truly an author of feminist literature and her books are seeped in scathing social commentary. But, to label anyone a feminist nowadays means branding them as man-hating ‘femi-nazis’ and dooming their work to subsequent marginalization. So – if we must – let’s call her 2003 novel Grotesque a piece of ‘detective fiction.’ Just keep in mind – if you read Grotesque expecting a detective novel, you will be disappointed. None of the characters, including the murder victims, really care about the identity of the murder(s). This is because Kirino quickly makes it clear that the true culprit in Grotesque, the force that destroys the lives of every character in the book, it not an individual but society.

Reading Grotesque is like experiencing the literary equivalent of a scorched-earth policy. Kirino Natsuo’s callous, merciless, and all-consuming nihilism is what makes Grotesque so intriguing and mysteriously captivating. Nothing is sacred and everything must be torn asunder. Kirino’s bloodlust has an interesting effect on the novel: Grotesque is simultaneously a feminist condemnation of modern Japanese society as well as an unrelenting criticism of the modern feminist movement itself. The novel’s strength springs from this paradox – in Kirino’s world, every character is both victim and aggressor, innocent and criminal.

Grotesque follows the lives and relationships of four women who all attend the prestigious Q Academy for Young Women. Hirata Yuriko is the diabolically beautiful daughter of Japanese mother and Swiss father. Described as a ‘vagina-incarnate,’ Yuriko’s entire existence has been defined by her beauty and she has lived her entire life not as a person but as an object of male desire. The novel follows her decline from high-class call girl to 38-year-old street walker and, finally, a murder victim.

In contrast to her younger sister Yuriko, the nameless narrator is squat, unattractive, and has lived most of her life in her sister’s shadow. This has led her to develop a bizarre fascination with genetic determinism and an intensely malicious hatred for everyone she encounters; “Thanks to Yuriko, I too had been blessed with a certain talent. My talent was the uncompromising ability to feel spite.” Charming.

Next comes Mitsuru, who is blessed with both beauty and intelligence. What she cannot overcome is her low-class origins – her mother is a bar hostess. Mitsuru held the top spot at the high school with relentless hard work, but upon entering Tokyo University’s medical school she realizes that she cannot compete with the crème de la crème of Japanese society. Eventually, Mitsuru’s hostess mother drags both Mitsuru and her husband into a terrorist religious organization (a nod to the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack) and they end up in prison.

And finally Sato Kazue, a workaholic who has been raised to believe that she can achieve anything as long as she works hard enough. Yet, try as she might, Kazue just never comes out on top. Her classmates don’t care about her test scores and Kazue’s ridiculous attempts to become popular, fashionable, and beautiful are met with scorn. Even after she gets a job at a famous engineering consulting firm, people assume it was due to family connections and her achievements are brushed aside. She develops eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) and turns to prostitution to in an attempt to receive the male validation she desires.

The Transformative Force: Japanese Society in Grotesque

To the observant reader, the first theme is obvious – Grotesque is an undeniable portrait of the poisonous effect of Japanese society on women. Kirino depicts society as an inescapable force that seeps into women’s lives like toxic waste, contaminates them, and leaves them transformed into grotesque monsters. Needless to say, Kirino’s portrayal of Japanese society is highly exaggerated. Though the women are very different and society influences them in different ways, the end result is always the same – the women are left alone, miserable, and irreparably damaged. To Kirino, society has become cancerous; it’s stiflingly hierarchical structure, its absurd hypocrisy, and the dominance of male-desire gradually chokes the life out of all the characters. And, within the pages of this novel, the two main culprits of female decay are the Japanese school system and the workplace.

Kirino portrays the Q Academy as a microcosm of Japanese society; despite the school’s reputation for academic achievement, in reality it operates on an intricate system of hierarchy, wealth and elitism. Q Academy is certainly not a meritocracy:

When I first started living with my grandfather, I would dream about what my life would be like as a student at the coveted Q High School for Young Women…But reality tore these dreams apart. Basically, cliques were my undoing. You couldn’t make friends with just anyone, you see. Even the club activities were ranked and ordered into hierarchies of their own, very clearly delineated between the coveted and the peripheral. The basis for all the ranking was of course this sense of elitism…Let’s start with the matriculation ceremonies…The high school freshman were divided into two distinct groups: those who were continuing on from within the Q school system and those who had entered that year. At a glance it was easy to discern which group was which. The length of our school uniform skirts set us apart. Those of us who were entering for the first time – each and every one of us  having successfully passed the entrance exams, had skirts that fell just to the center of our knees, in exact accordance with official regulation. However, the half who had been in the system since elementary or middle school had skirts that rode up high on their thighs…Their legs were long and slender, their hair the color of chestnuts. Delicate gold pierced earrings glistened in their ears. Their hair accessories, and their bags and scarves, were very tasteful, and they all had expensive brand-name items that I’d never before actually seen up close. Their elegant sophistication overwhelmed the newly arrived students…There is no other way to explain it but to say that we new girls lacked what the other girls possessed seemingly by birth: beauty and affluence. We new girls were betrayed by our long skirts and our cropped, lusterless, jet-black hair. Many of us wore thick, unflattering glasses. In a word, the incoming students were uncool…the newcomers, watching the way the insiders behaved, felt all the more anxious. They began to think of the difficult life that stretched ahead of them. Faces froze and expressions grew darker and darker. Confused, they began to suspect that the rules they had followed up to the present were no longer valid.” (Kirino, Grotesque Italics mine)

In other words, rather than being an academic utopia, the Q Academy is a hypocritical and superficial institution. For the new students entering the high school, the Q Academy had come to represent an ideal world where they would be respected for their hard work and academic achievement. The unnamed narrator, though she was not particularly interested in attending Q Academy, studied hard to enter the school into order to escape her beautiful younger sister. Surely, Yuriko was so stupid that she would never be accepted. Unfortunately, like most aspects of society, the Q Academy privileges beauty, wealth, and pedigree over achievement. Despite her appallingly low test scores, a lustful science teacher quickly grants Yuriko admission.

The character who gets hit hardest by the hypocrisy of society is Sato Kazue. Ridiculed in high school, Kazue continued to put all her energy into studying and eventually getting a job at a respected engineering firm after college. Here too, however, Kazue is given little respect and treated as an outsider:

When I attended the after-work gathering, all I saw were my peers and superiors running around drunk. What was particularly distressing was to see the way the male employees were checking out the new females. They were most interested in the women who had attended junior college and were assigned to lower assistantship positions. Amid all the chatter and hoopla, I sat with one other Tokyo University graduate. We both looked other stunned. There were other women around us, but they seemed used to this sort of event and were shrieking with laughter and trading jokes with one another. Before long the men started running a poll to find out who the most popular female employee was…The men who had been voting on women turned and pretended to look awed with respect.

“No, not Ms. Yamamoto. She’s too smart for us!” All the men laughed. Ms. Yamamoto was a beautiful woman, the kind most men found it difficult to approach. Yamamoto stared at them coolly and shrugged her shoulders.

“Well, then what about Ms. Sato?” The speaker pointed to me, and then men from the research department – all my seniors – looked at me, their faces red from alcohol.

“Be careful what you say about Sato. She got her job through connections!”

I had always believed that I’d gotten the job on account of my own abilities and hard work, but I guess that’s not how it looked to the others. I came to realize for the first time in my life that mine was an existence that would never meet the approval of society. (Kirino, Grotesque)

Increasingly unhappy with her position in life and the fact that she never gets the respect that she was supposed to earn through achievement, Kazue eventually resorts to prostitution in search of the male-validification she desires.

In Grotesque, Kirino describes Japanese as “an absolute value system, a system in which one [seeks] to outdo everyone else.” However, there is an intrinsic problem to this system – when everyone works as hard as they can, yet receive no rewards for their effort, then they are “forced to live a life burdened by this weight.” Furthermore, since Kirino sees Japanese society as dominated by male desire, women are hit the hardest by these forces. The Q Academy can spout off all that nonsense about academic achievement, but in the end, Kazue captures the true message of the novel;

Well, I could tell myself that all day long, but at night, on the street, a woman has only one thing going for her. And once she’s past thirty-five, she can’t help but despair over the fact that she is losing it. Men have excessive demands. They want a woman to be educated and to have a proper upbringing and a pretty face, and they want her to have both a submissive character and a taste for sex. They want it all. It is difficult to meet those demands and to live in a world where demands like this take precedence. No, more than that, it’s ridiculous even to expect that one could. And yet women have no choice but to try to manage, searching as they go for some redeeming value to their lives. (Kirino, Grotesque)

Or, as the narrator states;

Mitsuru and Yuriko and Kazue didn’t mutate; they simply decayed…In order to induce the process of decay, water is necessary. I think that, in the case of women, men are the water. (Kirino, Grotesque)

Grotesque Feminism

While Grotesque is clearly a feminist critique of Japanese society, I believe that the novel can also be interpreted as a critique of the modern feminist movement itself. These four women are definitely victims; warped by men as well as modern society. However, as I stated earlier, these women are also complicit in the very crimes that have damaged them. Nothing is sacred to Kirino Natsuo. From senile bonsai-growing grandfathers, to cold over-bearing fathers and incestuous brothers or uncles, men are portrayed as vain, simple-minded cretins who don’t deserve the respect or influence society has granted them. But if Kirino gives the male gender a thorough beating in her book, then she absolutely incinerates the females.

First, Kirino completely rejects the ryosai kenbo ideal. A product of the Meiji era, ryosai kenbo literally means “good wife, wise mother” and is the highest virtue a Japanese woman can aspire to. The family system was considered the most fundamental unit within Japanese society, and women were to maintain this unit by being obedient wives and attentive mothers. Almost 150 years later, this concept of a ‘good wife, wise mother’ is still very much alive within Japanese society. In film, literature, and the news media, problems in Japanese society are frequently connected back to the failure of mothers to instill the correct virtues into their children. However, regardless of the childhood experiences, the women of Grotesque treat their mothers with nothing but scorn;

I was convinced that women who married and became housewives ended up as laughingstocks. I wanted at least to avoid that. Or if I did marry, I’d have to marry a man who was more intelligent, so he could appreciate my abilities. At that time, I didn’t understand that smart men don’t always marry smart women. Because my parents did not get on well, I believed it was because my mother wasn’t very smart and never really tried to apply herself… what did she do, my mother? She just sat at home fussing over the plants in her garden. What a big fat zero. A worthless woman. I looked at my mother in total disgust. (Kirino, Grotesque)

Similarly, the main characters (particularly the narrator and Kazue) treat other women with as much disgust as they treated their mothers. The women in this novel simply lack the ability to interact with each other – they cannot make friends, find lovers, or find someone to whom they can open their hearts. In short, they have no one who can make them feel happy. Instead, the women are bitter and consumed by petty jealousy;

But it was clear the Braid was jealous of me. She had some inkling of the fact that I had a good education and a job in a top-notch firm. That’s right, you little bitch, by day I have an honest job. I graduated from Q University, and I am able to write intelligent and probing essays. In short, I’m nothing like you. (Kirino, Grotesque)

If this is what the female gender is like, I want nothing to do with it.

As can be expected, it doesn’t take long before these women start treating themselves as violently as they treat other women. Kazue is the best example of this self-inflicted violence. Fed a mantra “through hard work you can achieve anything” for her entire life, Kazue first develops an eating disorder to deal with her body image issues;

So I’m thin, so what’s wrong with that? Men like women to be think and have long hair; isn’t that practically a given? I’m five feet five inches tall and I weigh a hundred pounds. I’d say that’s just about perfect. For breakfast I eat a gymnema tablet. For lunch I go to the company cafeteria in the basement and buy a prepared lunch, mostly seaweed salad. Sometimes I just skip lunch, and I hardly ever eat the white rice that comes with it. I will eat the vegetable tempura though. At any rate, anytime I see a fat woman it revolts me. I think she must be stupid to look like that. (Kirino, Grotesque)

Kazue is simultaneously the most disturbing and the most sympathetic character. The depiction of her downfall – from successful salary woman to murdered prostitute – is the closest thing Grotesque has to a climax. It’s the most vivid, disturbing part of the entire novel – and absolutely riveting.


In her review of the novel in The New York Times, Sophie Harrison claims that Kirino “flirts naughtily with the notion of prostitution as feminism:”

“My armor during the day was a flowing cape; at night it became Superman’s cape. By day a businesswoman; by night a whore…I was capable of using both my brains and my body to make money. Ha!” – a declaration that might have more philosophical heft if the prostitute who makes it weren’t murdered shortly after.” (Harrison)

Unfortunately, Harrison has completely missed Kirino’s point. In Grotesque, prostitution is not portrayed as a feminist act of empowerment or liberation. Kazue turns to prostitution as an attempt to fill the insatiable emptiness inside of her, saying;

I suspect there are lots of women who want to become prostitutes. Some see themselves as valued commodities and figure they ought to sell while the price is high. Others feel that sex has no intrinsic meaning in and of itself except for allowing individuals to feel the reality of their own bodies. A few women despise their existence and the insignificance of their meager lives and want to affirm themselves by controlling sex much as a man would. Then there are those who engage in violent, self-destructive behavior. And finally we have those who want to offer comfort. (Kirino, Grotesque)

There is nothing ‘empowering’ about this statement. This is not prostitution as feminism, but just another form of self-inflicted violence and an example of the elaborate, layered delusions that the women have cloaked themselves in to survive. Unfortunately, such actions only facilitate their transformations into grotesquely twisted psychological monsters. None of the women (or men for that matter) in Grotesque are empowered – not the prostitutes, the wives, the mothers, the beauties, or the brains.

I believe the biggest failure of the modern feminist movement in America has been its inability to create a sense of camaraderie among women. If modern-day Japan is anything like the image painted in Grotesque, then it’s fairly obvious Japan has failed at this as well. There is something profoundly sad and disturbing about how poorly the women in this novel treat each other. And, as much as I’d like to say it’s an exaggeration, it really isn’t that different from how women treat each other in real life.

Grotesque is a nihilistic critique of Japanese society and of feminism in general. It paints a grisly picture of the violence – physical and psychological – that people are capable of inflicting on each other. Leaving no rock unturned and no window unmasked, Kirino sets out to destroy her characters and the entire world with Grotesque. However, at the end of the novel no one has escaped the damaging forces of society and Kirino doesn’t offer the reader the slightest glimpse of a possible solution. I’m sure many people think that Gloria Steinem was right, that ‘women need men like fish need bicycles.’ But, this certainly doesn’t mean that women don’t need each other.

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Comments (8)

  1. lol u mad?

    lol u mad?

    May 19, 2012
  2. Christine

    Thank you for writing this! I came across it today while researching for my JET Interview later this week. I was looking for some resources on what feminism in Japan looks like. Will have to check it out.

    February 16, 2013
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