December 2007

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Goodbye Madam Butterfly: Sex, Marriage, and the Modern Japanese Woman by Sumie Kawakami

With Goodbye Madame Butterfly author Sumie Kawakami addresses the long held myth of the subservient and sexually mysterious Japanese woman. By placing the tape recorder between herself and modern Japanese women, she finds her countrywomen are just as confused, controversial and filled with secret longings as their counterparts in the Desperate Housewives-loving west. In a lot of ways it is this sameness of attitude and circumstance that transforms the title from an exploration of the exotic to a refreshingly intense look at the mundane. These are the stories of Japanese women struggling to find themselves in the 21st century; by reading them westerners will likely see themselves reflected through a prism of shared hopes and disappointments.

Kawakami first wrote on this subject for American writers in the earlier Chin Music Press title, Kuhaku, a contemporary look at Japanese life. Here she has widened her net dramatically and speaks with wives, divorcees, single parents and single women on what it is they want from romance and men. Her look at the sexuality of the average Japanese woman is both unusual and unprecedented and it contradicts the manga and anime figures they are represented as. Neither the subservient figures from old movies nor the sex kittens of international cartoons, they defy all stereotypes and classifications. The one thing that Kawakami’s subjects seem to have in common is their frustration with romance and marriage. In that regard they show themselves to be like many historical depictions of their countrywomen: they are not happy, but they don’t know what to do about it.

Readers meet a lot of fascinating women in Goodbye Madame Butterfly -- from Chami, a party loving twenty-seven year old who owns a bar with several friends and still mourns her abusive fiancé lost to a car accident (“I can be sassy so you can’t blame him for hitting me.”), to forty-seven year old Yazuki, a divorced single parent of two who works in sales promotion and sought companionship with sex volunteers (“Sex without love is generally considered contradictory to happiness. But then no sex and no love would be even less happy.”). Kawakami further explores the concept of “sex volunteers” by interviewing one of them, a man in a sexless marriage himself who has found himself an unlikely therapist and relationship counselor. The truly bizarre part of all this is that he has no idea why his own wife will not have sex with him. Lack of communication sends people into the arms of the strangers, all of them looking for what they want but are unable to ask for from those they live with.

It is sometimes very sad to see how others live, to read about their private disappointments in such a scorching manner. Kawakami has somehow gotten her subjects to be so incredibly honest about themselves and the people they are (or have been) involved with, that at times the reader will feel like a voyeur; as if it is a bit inappropriate to be peeking behind these particular curtains and doors. But you can’t look away from the book even if you feel embarrassed for the subjects, because the stories they are telling are really just too damn interesting.

As a struggling divorcee herself, Kawakami includes intimate accounts of divorcees. For example, one divorcee in the book turns to a fortune teller for personal guidance, explaining "I’d rather have a fortune-teller tell me ‘your fortune is bad’ than hear from a therapist that ‘you have a problem with your past and your character’”. Then there are women like forty-year old Fumiko in her new apartment with her angry daughter struggling to support herself in a world she was totally unprepared for but is determined to embrace rather than remain in a bad marriage. Kawakami is relentless in exposing all the ways in which marriages are propped up by everyone going through motions as if actors in a play that was written thousands of years before. Tradition still plays a big part in Japanese life and many women find themselves torn between their own longing for what they do not have and their need to pretend that they have it. Consider 36-year old Misa, a housewife and mother of two: “Lately, I’ve been trying to look at the bright side of things,” Misa said recently. “I’m quite happy in all other areas besides our marriage. I don’t know if I’ll want to share a gravesite with him though.” After dropping this bomb she leaves to pick her daughter up from kindergarten. Her youngest is only six, and twelve years from high school graduation Kawakami explains that Misa “must find a way to persist for those twelve years.”

Somewhere in America a woman is going to read about Misa and then leave to pick her own child up from school and she will know she is not alone in all her frustrations, dissatisfactions and questions about the future. Whether reading the story of a woman on the other side of the world in the same situation will be a comfort or not is anyone’s guess, but it certainly goes a long way towards showing how much we all live alike regardless of our many different habits and traditions. Disappointment is universal; it’s the cure of change that seems to be so very hard to find.

Goodbye Madame Butterfly by Sumie Kawakami
Chin Music Press
ISBN 978-0-9741995-3-5
220 pages