Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami “We’re all so small, and have such little time, unable to envision the majority of the world.”

Mieko Kawakami, author of “Breasts and Eggs” | YUTO KUDO / MADAME FIGARO JAPON

Breasts and Eggs was not the book I thought it would be. I knew there would be mention of women’s roles, and women’s parts, in contemporary life. I knew it won the Akutagawa Prize and was highly praised by Haruki Murakami. But, I didn’t know we would spend so much time considering identity. Artificial insemination and donor conception. Single parenting and family.

Natsuko Natsume is 38 years old and single. She is a writer, and she begins her story by telling us what it means to be poor. “Maybe you’re poor now. Maybe you were poor in the past. I’m both…“ She lives in Tokyo, while her older sister, Makiko, lives in Osaka. They struggled to raise themselves, as their father left the family, and their mother died when they were girls.

When Makiko comes to visit her younger sister, she is focused on having a breast augmentation. Her make-up is thick, her body is excessively thin, her skin is gray and drawn, but she believes that larger boobs will make her beautiful. Her daughter, Midoriko, will not speak to either her mother, or her aunt. She writes everything on a pad of paper, or in her journal.

Writing is the best. You can do it anywhere, as long as you have a pen and paper. It’s free, too. And you an write whatever you want. How sweet is that.

While I agree that keeping a journal is a marvelous tool to sort one’s thoughts, or keep one’s memories, I couldn’t understand why Midoriko would not speak out loud until I came to this section of her journal:

So I got in another fight with Mom, over money. This one was way worse than the last one. In the middle of everything, I asked, why’d you even have me? I asked myself that all the time, but it’s a horrible thing to say out loud, I know…I thought it would be better if we didn’t talk for a while. I mean, we’d just end up fighting again, and I’d say something mean. (p. 58)

Buried within this quote is the beginning of the theme which Meiko Kawakami establishes throughout the novel: “Why’d you even have me?” In other words, why do parents have children?

While Makiko wishes to have her breasts enlarged, Natsuko longs for a child. Centered around this longing are great moral dilemmas. Does she have the right to bring a child into the world as a single mother? How will the child feel not knowing who the father is, or worse yet, finding out the father they thought was their father was actually not? An even bigger question is, “Is it fair to bring a child into the world, not knowing what kind of pain or disability the child may encounter?”

Meiko Kawakami explores these questions throughout the novel’s plot and within the character’s conversations. Yuriko and Aizawa are two people who discuss the reality of being conceived through donor conception with Natsuko.

“You’re betting that the child you bring into this will be at least as happy as you’ve been, at least as fortunate as you’ve been, or, at a minimum, that they’ll be able to say they’re happy they were born. Everyone says life is both good and bad, but the majority of people think it’s mostly good. That’s why people go through with it. The odds are good. Sure, everyone dies someday, but life has meaning, even pain and suffering have meaning and there’s so much joy. There’s not a doubt in your mind that your child will see it that way, just like you. No one thinks they’ll pull the short straw. They’re convinced everything will work out fine. But that’s just people believing what they want to believe. For their own benefit. The really horrible part is that this bet isn’t yours to make. You’re betting on another person’s life. Not yours. (Yuriko, p. 276)

But, Jun Aizawa has come to terms with the origins of his birth. I loved the realization he makes toward the conclusion of the novel:

I’d been spending all of my time trying to find my father, thinking that was my only hope of discovering who I was. I thought that if I didn’t know him, I couldn’t know myself…Maybe there’s some truth to that, but now I have a sense of what’s really at the heart of it. I realize what’s been bothering me all along, ever since I heard the truth, is that I never got to tell my dad, I mean the dad who raised me, how I felt….I wish I could’ve found out earlier, when he was still alive. I would’ve told him that it didn’t change the way I felt, that he was still my dad, as far as I was concerned.” (Aizawa, p. 320)

Some quotes I found particularly intriguing, which perhaps we could discuss:

  1. “I was young once, but I was never pretty. When something isn’t there, inside or out, how are you supposed to seek it out? (p. 41)
  2. “Start judging people by their genetic profiles, and pretty soon you’re seeing them like handbags, ranking them like brands.” (p. 147)
  3. “Who has the right to have a child? Does not having a partner or not wanting to have sex nullify this right?” (p. 219)

Did you like this novel? Do you agree with the decision Natsume ultimately made? Do you have any thoughts that I did not bring up in this post? I’m eager to know of your reactions to this novel.

Find more reviews at Japan Times, Books & Bao, Tony’s Reading List, and Words Without Borders.

12 thoughts on “Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami “We’re all so small, and have such little time, unable to envision the majority of the world.””

  1. Although I only just read this post (and not the whole novel) I’ve had the beginnings of this discussion with my 25 year only son. You can imagine our contrary positions. I don’t think he is completely dis satisfied with his life but he does express the angst and commitment fears (stereo?)typically associated with millenials which causes him to speak about these life options. That conversation didn’t go any deeper that day; as per usual, I’m happy when my son expresses his opinions to me so I usually just listen not wishing for my verbalized opinions to stop the interaction in its tracks. He knows my opinion. It’s based on old fashioned Biblical mandates that I agree are antiquated but just because they’re old does not deem them erroneous. God tells man in Genesis to be fruitful, multiply and subdue the earth. Plus I remember when my own mother spoke her opinion to me. She said that she thought that if a woman could conceive a child she would feel un fulfilled if she chose not to do so. I wonder what I had said as a twenty something that sparked that response? Always listen to your mother.

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    1. Donor conception opens up so many possibilities, most of which I’m not sure I can agree with, either. One of the places I come from, besides the foundation of Christianity, is the difficulty I saw in my classroom for children with same sex parents. They always struggled with fitting in, with knowing who they are. There are many parallels, I think, between children of artificial insemination and adoption. Both situations raise questions of one’s origin for the child, which often can be so hurtful.

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  2. I was very intrigued by this novel. I started off saying: Pah, it’s nothing much, don’t understand all the fuss… and then got more and more immersed in it and thinking about it. And, even though it’s not perfect, and there is quite a shift between the first and second part (and would have liked to see more of the family in the second part too), it still hasn’t left me.

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    1. I, too, was taken by surprise with this novel. I began thinking it was about life of contemporary women in Japan, not life issues of women everywhere! It was almost deceptively simple, and then by the end I was feeling overcome by the heaviness of the questions Kawakami presents. They surely do not have not simple, one word answers, by any means.

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  3. I have not read this yet, but I think I will. I once read a book by an American author in which she discovered she was the daughter of an anonymous sperm donor and how she dealt with it, so I got interested in the topic. I also have a personal issue with a daughter-in-law (I won’t go into it) around parenting. What I am saying is that I could use more perspective!

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    1. I have a friend who went the artificial insemination route, and I think it made it very complicated for the children, and for her. They were quite small I saw them last, and I hope the issues stay small for that little family. Kawakami doesn’t give us any answers, per se, but she does give us lots to think about. In this age, with same sex-marriages, and lots of other sexual identity issues, not to mention infertility, it is hugely relevant to read. As you say, it helps us develop a sound perspective.

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  4. That’s a lot of emotional vulnerability / emotional courage, all in one book. And that too, a shorter book from the looks of it. So much anguish but also so much wisdom.

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    1. I think you really hit on an accurate point by identifying the emotional vulnerability and courage, Lex! Perhaps so many of our wants, so strong as to feel like needs, cause such pain and need for strength.

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  5. I just read this one and am so glad I did. It was a really memorable and thought-provoking novel, full of small events and very big issues. Thanks for this review, and for your initial mention which prompted me to read it for JLC 14!

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    1. Andrew, I’m so glad you read it with me/us! Your review was insightful, as always, and helped me sort out a novel very heavily laden with real life issues. Sexuality, conception, parenting…it’s hard to get more personal than that! I am intrigued with how Kawakami brought all sorts of perspectives to these issues through her characters’ eyes.

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