Domesticity, Criminality, and Part-Time Work
Female Bodily Economy in Kirino Natsuo’s Auto
Volume 13, Issue 3 (Article 16 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 6 October 2013.
This paper examines depictions of women’s bodies in Kirino Natsuo’s 1997 psychological crime thriller Auto (Out), focusing on the novel’s engagement with the ways in which Japan’s persisting domestic logic has informed contemporary economic structures and, by extension, complicated the question of Japanese female subjectivity. Through an examination of corporeality in the text, this analysis underscores Kirino’s eminent concern with production and consumption not only as economic activities, but also as oppressive ideologies to which her characters are subject within both the productive and reproductive labour spheres. Moreover, it offers a reconsideration of Auto’s brutal culminating scene beyond the scope of conventional discourse regarding rape, and in doing so argues that the novel’s conclusion, while situated around an ostensibly private encounter, seeks to undermine justifications for the very public problem of gender inequality in contemporary Japan. Ultimately, this reading aims to illustrate that the popularity of Japanese crime fiction is embedded not in the genre’s reproduction of literary conventions, but rather in its capacity to politicise the act of reading by offering audiences a critical lens through which to examine reality.
Keywords: gender in Japan, feminism, Japanese genre fiction, women in the workforce.
Kirino Natsuo’s crime fiction paints a complex picture of contemporary Japanese urbanity. Her portraits of the modern Japanese city are gritty, her explorations of the criminal mind compelling, and her depictions of contemporary Japanese social relations unnerving, and often unequivocally bleak. Yet Kirino’s fiction does not merely present a pessimistic vision of humanity—rather, it calls attention to a number of largely invisible cultural conditions, frequently via the voices of characters representing social groups who have been historically relegated to the margins of public discourse. Kirino’s 1997 novel Auto (Out), which earned the writer France’s prestigious Grand Prix for Crime Fiction, is perhaps the most representative example of this quality of Kirino’s work. Via its intimate exploration of the lives of four women who are housewives by day and bentō factory workers by night—and who are propelled by desperation into the criminal underbelly of modern-day Tokyo—the novel illuminates some of the particular ways in which women’s bodies have been positioned as instruments of late Japanese capitalism, and in doing so underscores the gendered logic according to which not only private relations but also grander socio-economic institutions in modern Japan operate.
To date, analyses of Auto conjointly reflect one predominant tendency: to view the work as one concerned first and foremost with domesticity and the immediate financial problems with which housewives in contemporary Japan are faced. While in her own study of the novel Amanda Seaman (2006, p. 197) acknowledges that Kirino presents a “troubling portrait of gender, class, and economic divisions in contemporary urban Japan,” her analysis offers little insight into the novel’s engagement with broader cultural concerns, instead focusing on what she argues to be the intractable situations of its female characters and, ultimately, the exclusively private victory of Masako over her rapist. Similarly, Linda White (2008, pp. 15-16) underscores Kirino’s concern with a domestic sphere shaped by male privilege, arguing that the text offers an “ethnography-like portrayal of the lives of part-time working mothers in the 1990s,” as well as “important sociological insights into the gender dynamics of contemporary middle-class families.” Obayashi Mieko (2008, p. 60) echoes this sentiment, writing that three ‘keywords’—money (kane), housewives (shūfu), and family (kazoku)—represent the primary ideological concepts around which Auto is situated.
The familial troubles that plague Auto’s characters undoubtedly represent some of the work’s most explicit themes; however, to focus exclusively on such matters represents an extremely limited approach to the narrative. In Auto, Kirino positions the domestic sphere at the axiom of what will rapidly expand into a much broader exploration of Japanese identity politics, and particularly the problem of female agency in a society that operates according to a kind of maternal logic, that is, an insistence that female bodily economy is largely defined by women’s propensity for procreation and child-reading. Among the scholars named above, Seaman is the most attuned to this characteristic of the novel, and her reading identifies numerous important connections between Kirino’s portrayals of women’s roles in the domestic sphere and the gendered logic according to which public life unfolds. However, Seaman’s reading of the novel’s conclusion—in which she echoes Kirino herself in likening the work to Kobayashi Takiji’s proletarian novel Kani kōsen—falls short, embracing the rather fallacious distinction between public and private that Auto attempts to dismantle:
Whereas Kobayashi leaves his protagonists preparing to confront their capitalist overlords, Kirino leaves Masako gazing into the sunset, planning to extricate herself from the circuit of home and factory that had defined her. To be sure, Kirino raises the hope that Masako will find a better place and a better life—the same hope that motivates Kobayashi’s characters. These hopes, however, are private ones; fulfilling them allows Masako to escape society’s ills rather than confront them, leaving her erstwhile friends excluded not only from the center, but even from the peripheries that have allowed them some sense of place, of identity, and of belonging in an otherwise hostile world. (2006, p. 214)
Seaman also writes that Kirino, along with fellow female crime writers Miyabe Miyuki and Nonami Asa, “stop short of suggesting any real changes to the status quo. This is perhaps a reflection of the deeply conservative nature of detective fiction itself, with its interest in establishing order and preserving social harmony” (2004, p. 189). In my view, Seaman’s conclusions fail to consider both the symbolic implications of Masako’s defeat of her rapist and, more broadly, the grander role of fiction, and perhaps especially genre fiction, as a vehicle for social critique in contemporary Japan. This is not to suggest that Auto offers its readers an easy answer to the problems posed by gender inequality—if anything, the novel’s bleak conclusion illuminates the complexity of this very issue. Yet in its construction of a fictional landscape for the exploration of female subjectivity, Auto not only underscores some of the real-world implications of Japan’s domestic logic for women, but also invites its readers to witness a dismantling of hegemonic perceptions of female bodily economy vis-à-vis our heroine’s emergence as an autonomous agent of self.
In her essay on Heidegger, the modern novel, and feminism, Mizutani Chizuko (2003, p. 8)alludes to the broader ideological scope of Auto, suggesting that the novel is at its heart concerned with the problem of being. In Heideggerian terms, she explains, ‘the world’ is constituted not by a self-evident, objectively existing reality, but rather by highly subjectivised spheres of being (namely “the self-reflective consciousness” [jiko hansei na ishiki no nai aru mono], “the place in which one is” [jiko no iru basho], and “my home” [wa ga ie], as described in Michael Gelven’s commentary on Being and Time). In Auto, the ontological relationship between space-time and being—that is, the assumption that one’s existence is constituted by her recognition of ‘here’ as ‘my home’—is problematised via the depiction of characters who desire to extricate their self-identifications from the spatio-temporal moments in which they exist.
More pointedly, Auto underscores the problem of subjectivity by presenting the ‘home’ (both literally and in the broader societal sense) as a ‘not-home’—that is, as a site in which the novel’s principle characters are inscribed with meaning by external forces while being denied the agency to fully explore the possibilities of self—a process which for Heidegger (1962, p. 33) constitutes the principle mode by which one understands herself in terms of existence. In Auto this largely philosophical discourse of being is rendered material via Kirino’s depictions of women’s bodies as sites of commerce within both the private and public realms. The present analysis of Auto examines Kirino’s depictions of bodies, devoting particular attention to the novel’s engagement with the implications of Japan’s maternal logic for women, whose perceived value as potential and actual wives and mothers has been employed to legitimise their continued relegation to the margins of the public workforce even into the twenty-first century. In doing so, it will move toward the possibility that the novel’s violent conclusion functions as a metaphor for the sexual politics of capitalism, and thus engages with the issue of female agency in a manner that transcends the ostensibly ‘private’ realm and enters into an interrogation of the gender politics that inform the socio-economic topography of contemporary Japan.
Perhaps the most indisputable evidence of Auto’s predominant concern with labour is located in Kirino’s depiction of the bentō factory in which the novel’s four women are employed. Although a thorough examination of the diverse ways in which this space is portrayed is beyond the scope of this essay, a consideration of a few key passages suggests that the factory is intended to function as a microcosm of the broader economic system within which Japanese social life functions. In the earliest pages of the text, Masako, anticipating a long day of work, realises the profound bleakness of the factory site, positioned here at the crux of a grander urban landscape whose oppressive qualities assault one’s senses:
As she stepped out of her car, she was enveloped by the humid July darkness. Maybe it was the muggy heat, but the darkness seemed incredibly black and heavy. Mixed in with the smell of gasoline fumes coming from the Shin-Oume Express, the stinking odor of deep-fried food hung faintly in the air. It was a smell that emanated from the bentō factory where she was headed for work. (Kirino, 1997, pp. 7-8)
The profound melancholy that “envelopes” [tsutsumareru] this space is further emphasised as Masako makes her way from the parking lot to the factory, reflecting upon the “incurable gloominess” [ukkutsu wa nani o shitemo iyasare wa shinai] of her workplace.
Soon thereafter, the qualities attributed to this space are expressed in more corporeal terms as the narrator describes the efforts of the factory workers who man the production line:
To flatten the cold, solid squares of rice in such a brief moment required a great degree of strength in the wrists and fingers, and moreover, the stooped posture was hard on the lower back. After an hour of this, pain would shoot from the spine through the shoulders, and it became impossible to lift one’s arms. Because of this, the task was passed off to the new employees.(Kirino, 1997, p. 21)
The attention Kirino devotes to the physically demanding aspects of the workers’ labour thrusts the body itself to the forefront of this scene. Her explication of the “wrist and finger strength” [tekubi to yubi no chikara] required to flatten the rice, descriptions of the “shooting back and shoulder pain” [senaka kara jyōnen made itami ga hashiri] that result from such labour, and depiction of the loss of one’s inability to control her own body [ude mo agaranaku naru] within the factory highlight the ways in which the process of manufacturing boxed-lunches for others’ consumption ultimately devours the labourers themselves.
The passage cited above is significant not only as an example of Kirino’s characterisation of the factory space, but also as evidence of the novel’s concern with bodies, and particularly women’s bodies, as sites of production and consumption. This theme should be understood as one heavily embedded in contemporary Japanese labour practices, which in truth have served both to improve upon and complexify the longstanding problem of Japan’s gendered division of labour. On the one hand, Japan has made significant strides toward the inclusion of women in the professional world. Rates of higher education completion and permanent job placement among Japanese women have risen considerably in recent decades, and the number of women who choose to remain single or childless continues to increase. Nevertheless, in Japan domesticity1 and career work remain to a large extent mutually exclusive, a trend that Tomiko Yoda (2000, p. 894) assesses in her discussion of what she describes as the nation’s ‘maternalisation’:
A vast array of ideological and institutional pressures that engender women through their association with domesticity has not shown much sign of abating. Even women’s return to work after marriage and childbirth has been recuperated into the domestic logic. Mother’s paid labour is perceived to be an extension of her maternal function, since it typically supplements the household budget to acquire better housing for the family and better education for children. The persistent maternalisation of home and woman has been a major ideological support for society’s preservation of the gender division of labour and the heterosexist family organisation.
Yoda’s comments underscore a reality with which Auto is eminently concerned: the fact that perceptions of female bodily economy within Japan are guided by an institutionalised maternal logic according to which women are largely excluded from opportunities to gain financial agency within the productive labour sphere in order that they remain tied to the reproductive one. In examining Kirino’s depictions of women’s bodies as sites of production and consumption across multiple realms of labour—private and public, legitimate and illicit—the remainder of this essay attempts to move toward an understanding of the novel as one critically engaged with the sexual politics of late capitalism within Japan.
Auto’s plot is set into motion by the abrupt transformation of the timid wife, mother, and part-time factory worker Yamamoto Yayoi into a violent spouse murderer in a moment that as Kirino herself notes has been a difficult event for Auto’s readers—and men in particular—to come to terms with: “Men were very shocked that a wife could kill her husband. That was really a provocative idea” (Duncan). In her portrayal of Yayoi, Kirino offers an intimate depiction of the psychology of an abused woman whose voice has been brutally silenced. This theme, however, transcends the boundaries of the domestic realm, for the violence enacted upon Yayoi within the household is extended into the productive labour sphere through the persistent deployment of her body as a site affirming the implications of Japan’s domestic logic for women within and across both the private and public arenas. More pointedly, Yayoi is figured as a site of simultaneous production and consumption, her evolving physicality serving as an outward manifestation of her gradually deteriorating psychological state and illuminating the reality that labour functions as the most vital practice around which human identities and relationships are arranged.
Yayoi’s suffering at the hands of Kenji is manifest in the form of an abdominal bruise which comes to signify her tortured psychological state at multiple points in the narrative. Moreover, although the bruise, like Yayoi’s domestic conflicts, remains concealed from all but her co-workers, the mark comes to be associated with a stain on her work uniform, a reminder of the often brutal conditions under which she is employed in the factory. That Yayoi is a victim of domestic abuse is apparent upon her initial appearance in the text, in which she slips on the greasy, sauce-covered factory floor, and Masako, while helping her up, notices the mark:
Underneath Yayoi’s turned up work uniform, Masako noticed a large, blue-black bruise on her abdomen. Was this the reason she was so lifeless? The mark was conspicuous on her white belly, like an ominous mark impressed upon her body by a god. (Kirino, 1997, p. 23)
Forced to work the remainder of her shift wearing a sauce-covered smock, Yayoi, already distracted by her husband’s abuse the night before, is now further humiliated and returns home from the factory in a more fragile state than the one in which she had arrived. It is on this same night that she murders Kenji in a fit of rage. Immediately prior to the killing, the bruise is referenced once again:
Hatred. That’s what you call this feeling, thought Yayoi Yamamoto as she gazed at her body’s reflection in the full-length mirror. Near the center of her thirty-four year old naked body, right in the pit of her stomach, was a conspicuous, blue-black, circular bruise. Her husband Kenji had punched her there last night, and within her a strong feeling had been born. No, it had been there before […] At the moment she had realised it was ‘hatred,’ it had spread like a black rain cloud and possessed her. Now, it was the only thing inside her heart. (Kirino, 1997, p. 83)
This passage suggests that Yayoi’s bruise, as a physical manifestation of the pain she has endured, provides the motivation she needs to finally extricate herself from her unhappy marriage. However, the relief she experiences upon Kenji’s death is temporary, for as the novel progresses the “ominous mark” [fukitsu na shirushi] on her abdomen, like the stain on her work uniform, functions not only as a perpetual reminder of her feelings of hatred toward Kenji, but also as a signifier of the brutality to which she has been subject within both the domestic sphere and her workplace.
After Kenji’s death, Yayoi’s state of mind becomes increasingly fragile as she struggles with, on the one hand, her growing desire to share her pain, and, on the other, her fear that the bruise, if seen, will affirm her guilt. As the women prepare to begin working the day after Kenji’s death, the narrator further parallels Yayoi’s bruise to the stain on her uniform, describing her as absentmindedly gazing down the conveyer belt as Masako meditates upon the conspicuousness of the dried pork sauce on her unwashed smock. Here the stain once again stands in for Yayoi’s bruise, signifying the violence that she must silently endure. Furthermore, the extreme visibility of the stain comes to represent Yayoi’s deepest fear—that the mark on her stomach will be her downfall:
And yet, when she was under the watch of suspicious eyes, Yayoi couldn’t help but to think that they could see through to the bruise on the pit of her stomach. The pain gave her the desire to strip off her clothes and expose her bruise for everyone to see, but to do so would be extremely dangerous. (Kirino, 1997, p. 309)
As Yayoi’s bruise fades she becomes increasingly uncertain that killing Kenji has solved her problems. One day, recalling the early days of their relationship, she is suddenly overwhelmed with sadness and regret. However, her regret subsides as she is once again overcome by anger, removes her wedding ring, and hurls it into the garden. In this scene the narrator again hones in on Yayoi’s body, this time in a description of the pale mark imprinted upon her finger by her wedding band:
Yayoi gazed at the empty ring finger of her left hand, the November afternoon sunlight emphasising its whiteness. The pale band left by the ring that had not been removed once in eight years brought about a suffocating feeling. It was a feeling of loss. However, it was also liberating. At last, a sign that it was all over (Kirino, 1997, p. 221).
In the above scene the narrator suggests that although Yayoi’s bruise has disappeared, the abuse she has endured has left a long-lasting impression on her psyche. The suffering she has undergone is once again manifest corporeally, this time in the form of the “suffocating” [setsunai] imprint left upon her finger by her wedding ring. However, this passage points also to the possibility of recovery as the darkness of Yayoi’s bruise and the pain it represents come to be starkly juxtaposed to the pale band of skin on her finger, a symbol of her newfound “liberation” [kaihō] from the constraints represented by the ring. With her bruise vanished, Yayoi casts away her hatred, along with her fear of being found out. She is determined to start anew with the help of the fifty million yen in insurance money that she is awarded in the wake of Kenji’s death. However, the possibility of her recovery is subsequently stifled when Satake demands that she hand over the money lest he report her deeds to the police.
In her final scene in Auto, Yayoi replaces her wedding band, covering the pale mark she earlier perceived as a sign of freedom and drawing attention once again to the cultural stifling of her voice. Unable to dissociate her self-conceptualisation from either the domestic role that afforded her some sense of economic stability and purpose or the criminal realm within which she had gained a sense of agency, the act that had granted her a temporary sense of freedom is transformed into the cause of her downfall.
While the early pages of Auto offer its readers a complex portrait of Yayoi’s character, her friend and colleague Kuniko is afforded comparatively little development upon her initial appearances in the narrative. Aged twenty-nine and characterised by vapidity and rampant consumerism, Kuniko spends far beyond the means provided by her meager salary at the bentō factory and survives only on the mercy of her many creditors, who become increasingly insistent on being repaid as the narrative progresses. She is obsessed with her own appearance and the appearances of other women, and compensates for her insecurities by going deeper and deeper into debt. However, beneath Kuniko’s lavish spending habits, obsession with looks, and irresponsibility exists a woman whose self-worth, Auto’s narrator reminds us, is tenaciously bound to her perceived labour value.
Kuniko’s over-consumption of material goods drives her into debt (and into the hands of loan sharks), and this same over-consumption is reflected in her relationship with food, which at times functions as Kuniko’s only source of comfort. The attention the narrator devotes to describing Kuniko’s eating habits is significant. While the other women of Auto go to great lengths to ensure that their families are well fed, Kuniko possesses no domestic responsibilities and is depicted time and again devouring hot dogs, cake, and soda, in addition to bentō lunches produced at the very factory in which she is employed.
In my view, Kuniko’s relationships with both food and material goods may be understood as a projection of a deep sense of personal inadequacy that stems from her non-participation in either the ordinary domestic or professional spheres. On the one hand, her lack of family severely limits her opportunities for developing relationships outside of the workplace. On the other, her lack of career skills precludes her from achieving financial stability. She is, in a sense, doubly-silenced, and her body becomes a site of negotiation, functioning as her only means of participating in the consumption of that which her labour produces:
Kuniko got up around noon and turned on the TV. After that, she had a boxed-lunch—one made in the factory where the women worked—that she’d bought from the nearby convenience store. It had probably been made on the next line over from hers. She was pleased to see that the beef lunch had been assembled by some of the newer workers. Because the new ones couldn’t keep up with the speed of the conveyor belt, they didn’t have time to spread the meat properly, so there were far more twisted chunks of beef than usual. This kind of lunch was a lucky sign, she thought. It was going to be a good day. (Kirino, 1997, p. 129)
Although Kuniko experiences exhilaration upon devouring her meal, her reality, like the boxed-lunch’s bloated portion of “twisted beef” [yojireta gyūniku], is a reflection of the vicious cycle of production and consumption upon which the financial success of the bentō factory depends. Just as the factory figuratively consumes its workers, demanding the entirety of their physical strength in order to maintain the highest possible profit, Kuniko consumes in order sustain her perception of her own value: “She bought things to satisfy her desires, and out of these new things more desires were born. It was a gradually escalating cycle. In the end, this chase was the reason for Kuniko’s existence. More than this, it was the entirety of her existence” (Kirino, 1997, p. 131). This comment suggests that Kuniko’s desire to divorce herself from her labour leads only to her participation in the same rampant consumerism that is sustained by the work that she and other precarious labours perform. Furthermore, her desire, or “appetite” [yokubō], is revealed to be her downfall. In a sense, she simultaneously devours and is devoured by her labour—a notion that is taken to an extreme as Kuniko’s story comes to an end.
Kuniko’s quest for autonomy, or at least temporary monetary gain, drives her to participate in the disposal of Kenji’s body and thus enter into the sphere of criminal labour wherein the friendships of Auto’s women ultimately break down. Although initially hesitant to embrace Masako’s businesslike approach to the task at hand, Kuniko soon finds herself quite comfortable with her role as a criminal—that is, until she falls into the unforgiving hands of Satake, who murders her and sends her body to her former co-workers. The narrator’s description of Kuniko’s corpse is strikingly similar to the text’s depiction of the twisted hunks of beef in the boxed-lunch Kuniko had earlier consumed: “Two fat, white legs, their ankles unbound, with bruising on the backs of them. Yoshie screamed and hid behind Masako. Next came a flabby torso that showed no signs of having been wounded. Two blubbery breasts hung at either side. She was fat, but it was the body of one at the peak of womanhood” (Kirino, 1997, p. 200). Subsequently, Kuniko’s former co-workers undertake the task of chopping up her body and packaging it for shipment, just as the women had previously sliced, portioned, and tidily packed strips of meat into boxed-lunches at the factory. In this way, Kuniko’s short-lived sense of freedom is transformed into her ultimate denial of autonomy.
While Kuniko’s problems stem largely from her relegation to the outer fringes of the domestic sphere in which women her age are expected to participate, Azuma Yoshie’s compulsory participation in domestic labour is one of the greatest causes of both her financial instability and her steadily decaying morality and psychological state. A widow, mother of two children (including a delinquent teenage daughter who has a son of her own), and the caretaker of her senile mother-in-law, Yoshie, like Kuniko, represents a kind of doubly marginalised figure in society—namely, a housewife without a husband.
Yoshie spends her days fulfilling her various domestic roles and her nights working at the bentō factory, barely making enough money to survive. In her portrayal of Yoshie, Kirino depicts a woman whose own livelihood, as well as that of her family, depends solely upon her labour both within and outside of the domestic sphere, and whose self-perception is accordingly firmly rooted in her dual roles as mother and wage earner. However, as her family becomes an increasingly burdensome impediment to her desperate struggle for financial autonomy, Yoshie is left with no option but to extricate herself from her identity as homemaker by entering into the realm of criminality and, ultimately, destroying the very family around which her reality revolves.
Kirino deploys heavily visceral imagery in order to juxtapose the domestic and peripheral spheres of labour in which Yoshie participates. Such images begin to emerge early in the narrative, wherein Yoshie arrives home after a night at the factory and is confronted by the odour of her own house: “As she noiselessly opened the door, Yayoi immediately noticed the faint smell of disinfectant mixed with excrement. No matter how often she aired the house or mopped and hung the floor mat, she could never banish the odour” (Kirino, 1997, p. 42). The revolting “smell of disinfectant mixed with excrement” [kurezōru to funnyō no nioi] described here is heavily reminiscent of the aforementioned scene in Auto wherein Masako, standing in the factory’s parking lot, finds herself enveloped by the “stinking odour” [kusai nioi] emanating from the factory (Kirino, 1997, p. 7).
Subsequently, Yoshie is forced to change her ill-tempered mother-in-law’s diaper while simultaneously dealing with her resentful teenage daughter Miki. As Yoshie realises how embarrassed her daughter is of the family’s financial predicament, she finds herself unable to scold Miki for her attitude, thinking to herself, “I’m the most ashamed, the most miserable of all. But there’s no way out. Who else would save them? They had to stay alive. And even if she felt like a slave, even if she always had to do the low work, she thought, she couldn’t quit. There was no other way” (Kirino, 1997, p. 48-49). The notion that Yoshie is a “slave” [dorei] becomes increasingly powerful throughout the remainder of the text, and as her responsibilities begin to weigh increasingly heavily both on her body and mind, her family, much like the factory, comes to represent a suffocating force. Propelled by financial desperation into the sphere of criminality, it is only in embracing her role therein that she is finally able to achieve some degree of autonomy.
When confronted with the first corpse to be disposed of, Yoshie finds herself too frightened to touch it; however, the promise of a large sum of money easily qualms her fears: “Now that it was categorised as a job, Yoshie began barking orders as if she were at the head of the factory assembly line” (Kirino, 1997, p. 144). As the plot thickens, Yoshie is convinced with comparable ease to participate in Jumonji’s new business venture, and in this endeavour, too, she finds herself quite naturally taking charge. An expert when it comes to the slicing and portioning of meat and the assembling of boxed-lunches, Yoshie is equally adept at butchering and parceling corpses. Moreover, she is fully accustomed to her role as a night-time labourer, and this new job opportunity, which must also be conducted in the shadows, in fact entails far less arduous work than the labour in which she is engaged at the factory.
Just as Yoshie is able to achieve some financial stability, however, both her familial relationships and her factory friendships begin to break down. Her daughter steals the money she has earned and runs away from home, and Masako, for the first time, is unwilling to bail her out. Subsequently, a body that the two women have been contracted to cut up is revealed to be none other than their recently murdered co-worker Kuniko—a message from Satake, who is out for revenge. Yoshie is thus rendered both financially and emotionally destitute, and, it would seem, on the brink of being physically devoured entirely by the demands of those around her: “Tonight she was wearing the windbreaker that she wore every winter. Masako remembered how thin and worn its flannel lining had become. It seemed Yoshie would also wear out one day” (Kirino, 1997, p. 284).
In Yoshie’s final struggle for independence, only one option remains: the destruction of everything that has for so long constituted her reality. Overcome by the resentment expressed by her family members, she sets fire to her house (presumably with her mother-in-law still inside), signifying her withdrawal from the domestic sphere and the casting off of her self-identification as homemaker. Subsequently, having become alienated from her former friends, she decides to take her meagre insurance settlement and leave town. “Yoshie found a way out,” thinks Masako, as she bids her friend farewell for the last time (Kirino, 1997, p. 288). Yoshie does find a way out—the fire consumes her home and with it the obligations that consume her. However, her prospects, like those of Yayoi and Kuniko, are grim.
While Katori Masako, like all of Auto’s women, spends her nights working in the bentō factory and her days attempting to impose order upon a crumbling family unit, she differs from the novel’s other female characters in one crucial respect. The other women of Auto are engaged in constant struggles for financial stability, yet Masako, always businesslike, is by comparison financially secure and becomes increasingly so as her skills at corpse-dismemberment are put to use by her yakuza employers. Nevertheless, Masako’s story, like those of Auto’s other female characters, is one of an individual whose womanhood has, for the entirety of her adult life, defined her perceived value in both the private and public spheres.
Masako, we learn, had once been an office worker, but had lost her job during her company’s downsizing after years of enduring the humiliation of being denied pay raises and passed over for promotions in favour of her younger male co-workers. Having vowed never again to work in an office, she had taken on a job at the bentō factory in order to supplement her husband Yoshiki’s income. Although Masako prefers her factory job to the notion of returning to the professional world, as my analysis thus far illustrates, the conditions under which she is employed at the factory reflect the broader historical and economic conditions out of which popular perceptions of women’s labour value in the Japanese home and workforce have emerged. Like the office, wherein perceptions of Masako’s labour value reflected a common assumption that the primary role of women is as homemakers, the factory is a heavily gendered space wherein women are relegated to the menial task of food preparation, which is considered to be appropriate labour for their gender. In turn, the factory is a site of systematised violence not unlike the domestic sphere wherein Masako diligently fulfills her household duties in spite of her loveless marriage and resentful teenaged son. Thus Masako, like Auto’s other women, comes to be defined by the labour in which she is engaged.
Interestingly, however, Masako does not enter into the business of corpse dismemberment out of financial desperation; rather, she is motivated by a different kind of desire for power. While the other housewives of Auto strive for financial independence through the destruction of bodies, as Masako’s longing for autonomy becomes increasingly urgent it is in bodily destruction itself that she comes to locate agency.
One of the most shocking elements of Masako’s character is the enthusiasm with which she approaches the task of corpse dismemberment. When Yayoi calls her to confess that she has murdered Kenji, Masako offers her assistance without hesitation, and, as she prepares to begin the task of chopping up Kenji’s corpse, finds herself frighteningly eager to begin the job: “A person in her right mind couldn’t think about such a thing, but the desire to take on the challenge of figuring out how to surmount these circumstances had already been born” (Kirino, 1997, p. 128). Although Masako experiences a brief moment of repulsion as she and Yoshie prepare to dismember the corpse, her almost obsessive desire to complete the arduous task quickly motivates her to get the job done. Wearing rubber gloves and vinyl aprons pilfered from the factory, and armed with her sharpest sashimi knives, Masako approaches the job quite methodically, finding herself surprisingly calm as “the narrow bathroom became choked with the smell of blood” (Kirino, 1997, p. 145)—much like the air surrounding the factory is saturated with the “stinking odour of fried food” (Kirino, 1997, p. 7).
Masako’s morbid attraction to the mutilation of bodies only intensifies as the novel progresses, and as she and Yoshie find themselves ankle deep in the steaming innards of their first assignment, Masako finds herself strangely numb to the gruesomeness of their endeavour: “As they continued dismantling the corpse, the floor became soaked with blood, the foul smell of entrails filled the air, and the pieces of human body scattered about the room created a scene just like last time. However, this time it felt just like a job—remarkably different, easy” (Kirino, 1997, p. 102). To be sure, Masako’s seemingly innate abilities to dismember and parcel corpses, like those of Yoshie, are broadly contextualised by her years of working with meat and assembling boxed-lunches both in the household kitchen and the bentō factory. However, Masako possesses an ability that Auto’s other housewives do not: the capacity to view corpses that had previously embodied human life as mere “garbage” [gomi]: “Dealing with a corpse was not unlike throwing out the trash. Garbage was an absolute fact of life, and who was throwing away what was no one else’s concern. Of course, one had to resign oneself to being thrown away, too, when the time came” (Kirino, 1997, p. 105-6).
Although Masako’s perception of corpses as garbage appears callous to her friends and business partners, it is soon revealed that her predisposition toward the gloomy darkness that encompasses both the factory and her new labour stems from a desire to extricate herself from the oppressive realities of everyday existence:
Days of living an honest life, free from loneliness and guilt. Days she did not want to go back to. Things are fine as they are now, Masako thought. When pebbles warming in the sun were turned over, the cool, moist earth underneath was exposed. Now, Masako relished this gloom. There was no dampness in this soil, but it was familiar and tranquil. She was like a bug, all curled up. Yes, she had become a bug. (Kirino, 1997, p. 114)
Masako emerges from her self-imposed isolation psychologically transformed. Uninterested in participating any longer in a society that has consumed every ounce of her being, the destruction of others’ bodies comes to constitute her only mode of achieving a sense of power. Furthermore, as Masako grows increasingly comfortable with her new employment, her long-repressed sexual desire begins to reemerge, and does so in a fashion that serves only to further illustrate the extent to which her alienation has altered her perception of the value of life.
As Masako begins to rediscover her sexuality, her desire takes the form of a longing to succumb to the violence that she has struggled against for so long. Following the completion of her first dismemberment job, the exhausted Masako falls asleep only to be awakened by an erotic dream about being strangled by an unknown man. When, upon awakening from this dream, Masako asks her husband Yoshiki why they no longer have sex, he reminds her that she was the one who decided to take a nightshift job as a means of circumventing the potential to be hurt again. It is evident here that just as Masako’s womanhood, which is perceived to embody a predominantly reproductive value, leads to her workplace devaluation, her failure to embrace the roles of wife and mother is the cause of her sexual devaluation at home. In turn, just as the bentō factory functions for Masako as a kind of refuge from the isolating conditions of the full-time professional realm, her yet-to-be-fulfilled desire to be murdered represents a bleak but preferable alternative to her emotionally and sexually unfulfilling domestic life.
When Masako agrees to dismember the corpse of her erstwhile friend and co-worker Kuniko, she is faced with the horrifying reality of her desire. Gazing at Kuniko, whose lacy black panties have been stuffed into her mouth by Satake, Masako realises that death is anything but seductive. Likewise, as the threat of Satake becomes progressively more imminent, Masako, now caught in the criminal web she has spun, begins to realise that this sphere of labour is not, in fact, a source of empowerment, but rather a gruesome iteration of the consuming work in which she participates in the factory and at home: “The yellowish-white fat stuck firmly to the palms of both of her hands and wouldn’t come off. It had made its way deep beneath her fingernails and smeared all over her fingers. No matter how much she scrubbed her hands, how often she washed them, Kuniko’s fat repelled the water, refusing to come off” (Kirino, 1997, p. 245).
The viscous fat that coats Masako’s hands is a heavily symbolic image, functioning not only as a grotesque reminder of the excessive consumption represented by Kuniko’s fleshy body, but also as an abject manifestation of Masako’s inescapable feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, and vulnerability. In her decision to go through with the dismemberment of Kuniko’s corpse, Masako seeks to dismantle that which Kuniko’s body represents, as well as to undermine Satake by demonstrating her lack of fear. Ultimately, however, the insoluble fat proves to be as meaningful as the bruise on Yayoi’s stomach, the twisted hunks of beef in Kuniko’s boxed-lunch, and the noisome odour of Yoshie’s apartment—all of which signify the oppressive conditions of the women’s existence. By this point in the novel, Masako has realised what she has become; however, just as she cannot wash away the fat on her hands, she is far too invested in criminality to extricate herself from her situation—a notion confirmed when Satake captures her and takes her to an abandoned bentō factory, wherein the novel’s tensions are played out in a grisly scene of torture, rape, and death.
In the scenes depicting Satake’s rape of Masako, Kirino starkly contrasts Satake’s physicality with Masako’s wit, persistently countering the rapist’s dreamlike experience of the act with his victim’s capacity to maintain her composure as she seeks to escape her tormenter. Although Satake is a criminal, he is fundamentally weak. Always under the watchful eye of the law, he persistently strives to adhere to mainstream notions of appearance and behaviour in order to maintain the image that the labour in which he participates is legitimate, as well as more or less morally sound. As such, women like Masako—that is, women who have the audacity to traverse the boundaries of social norms, who are unconcerned with maintaining the appearance of normalcy—come to represent a threat to his own sense of autonomy. The one advantage Satake possesses is his brute strength, and so it is only through the destruction of what he perceives to be transgressive bodies that he is able to achieve the recognition he desires. As such, Satake discovers within himself a sadistic enjoyment of “inflicting pain” [kagyaku] and “sharing in death” [shin okyōyūshita], for it is in these fleeting moments that his fantasies of empowerment may be fulfilled (Kirino, 1997, p. 73).
Throughout the course of Auto the defunct bentō factory in which Satake brutalises and rapes Masako is persistently associated with the threat of sexual violence against women via a tangential plotline involving a series of assaults that take place on the site. In her own analysis of the text Seaman (2006, p. 212) comments on this fact, writing that rape is “a form of public violence against women that serves to constrain the behaviour of women in general, since the fear of being attacked turns supposedly ‘public’ spaces into places of private danger.” Although Seaman’s observation is astute, her view of rape as an act circumscribed within the private realm is a problematic one, and particularly in light of the novel’s insistence that ‘private’ endeavours such as family, friendships, and sex are frequently regulated by public value systems and institutions (and vice-versa). In her analysis of Auto’s conclusion Seaman embraces this fallacious distinction, largely divorcing the rape of Masako and its aftermath from the broader cultural conditions with which they engage in order to argue that the work fails to challenge the unjust socio-economic conditions that it exposes. By contrast, I will argue here that the events of the final pages of Auto should be considered in terms of the text’s eminent concern with labouring bodies and as such embodies a number of broader implications concerning the problem of female agency within late capitalist Japan.
After Satake captures Masako, he takes her to the abandoned factory wherein he strips her of her clothing, ties her to a conveyor belt, and repeatedly beats and rapes her. Kirino adopts a compelling method of conveying the scenes that take place in the defunct factory: the reader experiences the rape first from the perspective of Satake and, later, from Masako’s point of view. The impact of this narrative shift is powerful. In placing the reader first in the dominant position of the rapist, Kirino returns to a narrative tactic that she repeatedly employs earlier in the novel by denying the central figure—in this case, Masako—any degree of subjectivity. Instead, she immediately thrusts the reader into the uncomfortable position of identifying, if only for a brief time, with Satake, who, while not a particularly sympathetic character, exhibits an intense longing for affirmation. After Masako fatally wounds Satake, the events leading up to this moment are recounted, this time from Masako’s perspective. In a sense, this second narrative of the events in question is even bleaker than the first, for the reader is already acutely aware of what is in store for our protagonist. However, even more powerful than the feelings of humiliation, fear, and hatred projected by Masako is the manner in which her experience of these events is delicately intertwined with Auto’s overarching concern with the female body as commodity.
Satake’s initial rape of Masako is brief, and the narrator offers little insight into either Satake’s motivations or Masako’s perception of the situation, except to suggest that for Satake the act is a futile exercise in self-control—he ejaculates prematurely—while for Masako it is a matter of life or death that hinges upon her capacity to understand her victimiser:
Satake was in a dream, thought Masako as he raped her. An endless dream that only Satake understands, and within which she was merely a flesh-and-blood implement. It was better not to think about how one might escape another person’s dream. Instead, she needed to figure Satake out. Then she could anticipate what was coming next, so that she could stay alive. (Kirino, 1997, p. 318-19)
The notion that Masako is merely an “implement,” or “tool” [dōgu], for the fulfillment of Satake’s sadistic fantasy alludes to earlier characterizations of Masako, as well as the other characters discussed here, as figures who serve similar functions within their everyday lives. Having realised her role within Satake’s fantasy, Masako initially accuses him of being sexually perverse, but soon thereafter comes to believe that he is neither a deviant nor a madman, but rather someone “wandering in a passionate search for something” that has yet to become apparent to her (Kirino, 1997, p. 319).
Subsequently, Satake resolves to wait for sunrise so that he may perform the act again, this time with the goal of fulfilling his desire for power by watching her face as he rapes and tortures her in the same way that he had his previous victim. At this juncture the interconnectedness of the sexual violence being imposed upon Masako and the brutal conditions endured by the variety of labourers represented throughout the text are paralleled in no uncertain terms:
The ruins of a factory. A concrete casket. When she thought about the two years she had spent her nights working in a place like this, she couldn’t help but wonder if she was fated to die here. Was this the cruel fate that awaited her beyond the door that she herself had opened? (Kirino, 1997, p. 320)
The coffin-like factory in which Masako is imprisoned becomes a powerful allegory, representing the stifling and seemingly inescapable conditions of modern existence. As if to affirm this, Satake subsequently inquires of Masako, who is physically bound to the conveyor belt: “You made those boxed-lunches on this kind of thing, didn’t you?” (Kirino, 1997, p. 308). From Satake’s perspective, this question successfully strengthens Masako’s feelings of hatred toward him. However, the revelation of Masako’s point of view marks this moment as a point of deep introspection as she begins to realise that her desperate quest for freedom has led her down the same dreary road upon which Satake treads:
Masako lay on the conveyor belt like food being transported down the line, trying to conceal her fear. Satake was right—she certainly never would have imagined she’d be tied up here. The factory’s conveyor belt. Yoshie, who determined the speed of the belt, had an out. But her own escape was now blocked by this man. ‘Hey, how did you chop up those bodies?’ Satake asked her, delicately making a line across her neck with the tip of his finger […] ‘You’re exactly like me. You’re on a path from which you can’t turn back.’ (Kirino, 1997, pp. 321-22)
The narrator’s comparison of Masako’s body to “food being transported down the line” [beruto konbeya ni noserareta tabemono] is perhaps the text’s most explicit representation of the female body as a tool of capitalism. Here Masako is, quite literally, bound to the conveyor belt upon which food had previously been sliced, portioned, and packaged for consumption, just as in her everyday life she is bound by socio-economic constraints to her consuming roles as factory labourer and homemaker. Moreover, Satake’s inquiry regarding her dismemberment job, accompanied by his mock decapitation of her own head, affirms that which Masako had already begun to realise: that her most recent endeavour is not, in fact, a way out, but rather yet another dead end. Masako discovers in this moment that she is indeed becoming like Satake—she is emotionally numb and feels empowered by her destruction of others. However, even this knowledge does not dampen her will to survive, and as Satake begins to rape her for the second time, she continues to search for a means of escape.
Satake’s second rape of Masako is depicted in considerably more detail than the first, and moreover delves much deeper into the psychologies of both characters. Of Satake’s perception of the event, the narrator writes:
Satake pulled open her eyelids. He looked for fear, or the hatred that surpassed it. While frantically searching inside of Masako, he held her. But what was he searching for? The other woman? Masako? Or himself? Was this a dream or reality? Though he had no sense of time, the body of the woman he was having sex with seemed to be becoming one with his own. It was okay if he was no longer part of this world—from the beginning he hadn’t ever compromised. (Kirino, 1997, p. 311)
This passage is a quintessential example of Satake’s delusions of power. Having been outwitted by Masako on an intellectual level, he now derives immense pleasure from his ability to physically subdue her, to make her enjoy the rape in spite of the feelings of hatred that he had earlier attempted to arouse. However, Masako’s perception of the rape differs considerably. That which Satake perceives to be pleasure on her part is, in truth, yet another example of Masako’s resilience, her ability to survive in even the most despondent of situations. On the verge of freezing to death in the cold factory, she is reinvigorated by the warmth of his body inside of hers and is able to resume her task of figuring out what it is that Satake is searching for. Here her hatred for Satake becomes intermingled with feelings of pity for her rapist, a man whose pleasure relies on his being despised by others. Although Satake confesses earlier in this scene that he hates her “because she is a woman” [omae ga onna dakara da] (Kirino, 1997, p. 310), as she is being raped Masako begins to realise that it is not merely her womanhood that Satake hates, but rather the fact that she is a woman who has outsmarted him.
Masako subsequently undergoes a perceivable psychological transformation as she is once again confronted with the fact that Satake embodies the same sense of desperation that she does:
Just as she had thought she wouldn’t mind being killed by him, Satake now wished to be destroyed by her. Masako suddenly understood him. She loved him. As she realised this, she felt as though the dream in which Satake was trapped was dissolving, that he was moving closer to reality. Their eyes met, and they became one body. Within his eyes, only she was reflected, and an unbelievable wave of ecstasy took hold of her. She could die like this. But at that moment, the glimmering knife blade reflected the sunlight across her face, and she was thrust back into reality. (Kirino, 1997, p. 324)
In this passage Masako realises that her self-imposed isolation, her embracement of a life like that of a “curled up bug” [maru de marrumatta mushi da], is no different than Satake’s own lonely life of solitude. However, her newfound understanding of Satake extends beyond either a sense of pity or a desire to be understood herself, for while Masako is momentarily pulled into his fantasy, she is quickly “thrust back into reality” [genjitsu ni oshimodosareta] while Satake remains thoroughly trapped within his dream—a dream which, in spite of his own delusions of power, is ultimately revealed to be his weakness. Taking advantage of Satake’s disconnect from reality, Masako seizes the knife with which he had intended to stab her, and Satake is forced to abandon his fantasy a second time. For interrupting his fantasy, he viciously beats her; however, soon thereafter Masako gains the upper hand, fatally wounding Satake by slicing open his face with a scalpel she had earlier hidden in her coat pocket.
While Masako is victorious over Satake, subsequent pages of the novel paint a grim picture of our protagonist as she comes to terms with the fact that she has sentenced Satake to his death:
Now the morning sunlight came pouring in the factory window, radiantly bright. Like the lights of a theater, stripes of dust connected the square windows to the dirty concrete floor. Shaking, Masako followed Satake’s gaze and looked up toward the window. Her trembling was not from the cold. It was because of what she had done. (Kirino, 1997, p. 327)
Here the bright sunlight penetrates the factory, an auspicious sign that there exists a world outside of the concrete casket in which Masako has for the past several years been trapped. However, face-to-face with the disfigured Satake, who is rapidly bleeding to death, Masako has yet to realise that her opportunity for freedom is right outside of the factory door.
As Seaman observes, the fact that Masako’s newfound liberation is somewhat undermined by her identification with her rapist problematises a conventional feminist reading of the text. While Masako’s murder of Satake may be understood as a signifier of her freedom from modern conceptualisations of her value as a woman, she remains tied to her feelings of empathy for Satake, with whom she shares a desperate longing to escape the conditions of modern existence. Moreover, by murdering Satake Masako fulfills his desire, empowering him with the freedom he locates in death.
The troubling ambivalence that pervades these scenes constitutes a remarkable point of departure from the climax of the conventional psychological thriller, which tends to be situated around a relatively normative moral compass and whose quintessentially righteous protagonist either triumphs over, or is destroyed by (often via imprisonment, institutionalisation, or death), the villain. Diverging from orthodox perceptions of good and evil, Kirino momentarily obfuscates the discrepancy between victimiser and victim, pointing to the fact that late capitalism in Japan embodies major implications for all of its participants. However, in the final chapter of Auto Kirino points also to the possibility of Masako’s recovery, which, we find, is located in her refusal to participate any longer in the defining spheres of labour around which her life is situated:
Masako stared at her fingernails, cut short to the quick. Because of her job, she had not allowed them to grow long once in two years. Her hands were thoroughly chapped from the constant disinfectant. Twenty years working at the credit union. Giving birth to a child, doing the household chores, spending time with her family. What had those days meant? In the end these marks that indelibly stained her were undoubtedly no less than who she was. Satake was living an empty dream, and Masako was surviving everything reality had brought her way. Masako realised that her freedom was different than Satake’s[…] Her own freedom—not Satake’s, or Yayoi’s, or Yoshie’s—was surely out there. If one door closed behind her, she had no choice but to find a new one and open it. (Kirino, 1997, p. 334)
While this passage clearly marks a psychological turning point for Masako, Kirino scholars have yet to adequately address Auto’s concluding scenes. Seaman’s analysis offers the most thorough attempt to understand Masako as a rape survivor; however, her notion that Masako’s victory is an exclusively private one, I suggest, detaches Masako’s experience from the overarching thematic concerns of the novel, in effect undermining the implications of the text as whole.
In her essay “Toward a New Feminist Theory of Rape,” Carine Mardorossian (2002, p. 768) draws attention to the counterproductive potentialities of postmodern feminist discourses on rape survivorship, writing that such discussions frequently portray rape victims not as subjects, but as objects who are “irremediably and unidirectionally shaped by the traumatic experience of rape and hence incapable of dealing with anything but their own inner turmoil.” Mardorossian (2002, p. 765) suggests, alternatively, that survivors of sexual assault are empowered not through the highly personal process of reclaiming the self, as Seaman suggests is the case with Masako, but rather through what she calls the “production of narrative”:
The focus is on the potential for the invention of the self this word-shaped reality entails rather than the excavation of a core center. Rape is a reality that feels anything but real to the victim, yet this very same unreality can become the basis of a representation the speaker can manipulate and gain control of, that can command an audience's attention and be made intelligible in other than the available cultural terms. Empowerment in this respect is about accessing one’s life as material rather than depth.
The distinction Mardorossian outlines between ‘material’ and ‘depth’ is exemplified in Auto’s final scene, quoted above. Meditating upon the corporeal signs of her life history—her roles as factory labourer, wife, and mother, her confrontation with Satake, and her relationships with Auto’s other housewives—Masako embraces the reality of her past while simultaneously disallowing the cumulative trauma that she and her companions have endured to dictate her future. In other words, freedom remains a possibility for Masako not because she has discovered, or rediscovered, what Mardorossian (2002, p. 764) calls a “foundational self”—that is, an inner core or former self buried deep beneath trauma—but rather because she emerges from her experiences prepared to grapple with whatever reality hands her and determined to invent herself in her own terms rather than in those of others. To be sure, realising the potential to move forward necessitates the disruption of the family unit and friendships around which Masako’s existence revolves; however, Masako’s detachment from her defining roles in the home and factory does not, as Seaman suggests, imply the impossibility of public resistance. Rather, it signifies her conscious rejection of a patriarchal imaginary that governs both private and public life and which is manifest in Satake—in other words, a system of power relations in which women are bound to participate in the reproduction of a common narrative of victimisation.
Auto is one of a growing number of female-authored Japanese crime novels that beg us to reconsider the implications of the market successes of works of the genre both domestically and across the globe. As this analysis demonstrates, essentialist conceptualisations of crime fiction as a literature reliant upon on the perfunctory reproduction of convention, as well as claims to the effect that crime and other popular genres function predominantly as vehicles of escape from modern existence, reflect a tremendous failure to consider the relationship between writers, readerships, and culture-at-large. As Kirino’s writing illustrates, crime fiction embodies the capacity to grapple with the complex and ever-changing social realities of modernity, and moreover her popularity evidences the reading public’s demand for, and critical engagement with, socially conscious art. As such, works like Auto offer readers a critical lens through which to examine reality, politicising not only the act of writing, but the act of reading, as well.
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Kirino, N., 2007. Auto. Tokyo: Kodansha.
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Mardorossian, C. M., 2002. “Toward a New Feminist Theory of Rape,” Signs 27(3), pp. 743-75.
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 Concerning domesticity in Japan, it is important to understand the role of the shufu, or housewife, within the context of the nation’s discourse on labour. As Mariko Asano Tamanoi (1990, pp. 19-20) notes, from a sociological perspective the urban middle-class housewife has, since the number of urban wage earners and their families began to grow in the late nineteenth century, come to be considered representative of the Japanese woman. Japan’s sexual division of labour, she explains, gives women almost total autonomy within the family domain, and marriage in Japan, whether or not it is a romantic union, in many respects continues to be perceived as a “socially valued female career in which a woman finds self-fulfillment (ikigai).”
Article copyright Raechel Dumas.