TOKYO — To explain the pressure felt by women in Japanese society, the novelist Mieko Kawakami recalls a playground prank from elementary school.
The boys would run around and flip up the skirts of certain girls to catch a glimpse of their underwear. That was mortifying enough. Yet it was just as shameful for the girls whose skirts didn’t get flipped.
“It meant you weren’t popular,” said Kawakami, 43, the author of “Breasts and Eggs,” a best-selling novel in Japan that was published in English in April. “It’s a humiliation among women not to be desired by men. That’s a very strong code in Japanese society.”
It’s a code she knows well, but one that she — and her characters — have gone about transcending. “Breasts and Eggs,” which won one of Japan’s most coveted literary prizes in 2008, helped establish her as one of the country’s brightest young stars.
Kawakami has since become something of a literary feminist icon in Japan. Although “Breasts and Eggs” riled some traditionalists with its frank portrayal of women’s lives, those detractors are outnumbered by her fans, many of them younger women.
They relate to Kawakami’s sharp identification of society’s expectations for women and the efforts of her characters to upend them. In “Breasts and Eggs,” the narrator, Natsuko Natsume, muses about the tyranny of beauty as she tries to understand her elder sister’s obsession with breast implants.
“When you’re pretty, everybody wants to look at you, they want to touch you,” Natsuko writes. But she no longer cares if she is attractive to men. Natsuko, also a novelist, is interested in procreation, but not sex. Her editor is a single woman who says not having children feels “perfectly natural.”
Another writer, a divorced mother, skewers the oversize ego of a male peer at a literary reading and declares that “no man will ever understand the things that really matter to a woman.” A former colleague describes her mother — and herself — as little more than “free labor” for their husbands (and uses a vulgarity to describe female anatomy to boot).
Still, there are signs that Japanese women are pursuing their own agendas. They are postponing or forgoing marriage in record numbers. When a woman called for employers to stop making female workers wear high heels, she gathered tens of thousands of signatures on a petition and submitted it to the labor ministry, prompting some businesses to relax their dress codes for women.
In the literary world, too, Japanese women are carving out an increasingly prominent role. “Breasts and Eggs” won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, and Kawakami has joined a growing list of Japanese women whose work is being translated and gaining attention in the West. They include Yoko Ogawa, whose novel “The Memory Police” was a National Book Award finalist last year and is on the shortlist for the International Booker Prize; Sayaka Murata, another Akutagawa Prize winner, for “Convenience Store Woman”; and Hiroko Oyamada, whose debut novel, “The Factory,” was published in English in December.
Kawakami gained even more renown as a feminist voice after a 2017 interview she conducted with Haruki Murakami, perhaps Japan’s most celebrated modern novelist.
In that interview, which recently appeared in translation, Kawakami — whose work Murakami has championed — questioned the “persistent tendency for women to be sacrificed for the sake of the male leads” in his fiction, echoing the frustration of other critics. (Murakami responded to Kawakami’s critique by noting that his focus was not on “individualistic characters,” but on how people interact with the world.)
To be described as a feminist writer in Japan “still has to some extent a negative image,” Kawakami said in an interview via Zoom.
When “Breasts and Eggs” won the Akutagawa Prize, Shintaro Ishihara, then Tokyo’s right-wing governor and a member of the prize committee, described the novel’s tone as “selfish” and “unpleasant and hard to listen to.”
After Kawakami told The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, that women should not have to use the word “shujin” — “master” — to refer to their husbands, critics took issue with her on social media.
But fans have made her works best sellers. “Breasts and Eggs” has sold more than 250,000 copies in Japan, and when Kawakami edited a special edition of a literary magazine, Waseda Bungaku, it sold out within days.
The English edition of “Breasts and Eggs” was published by Europa Editions in a translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd. The novel explores the extent to which women can get along without men, especially in the fundamental act of reproduction. Natsuko, who remains single throughout the novel, explores artificial insemination with a sperm donor, a rare path to motherhood for unmarried women in Japan.
“It’s not accepted among women who are in their 40s who have secure jobs and a certain income to come to a situation where they want to have a family but don’t have a partner,” said Kawakami, who researched the culture of in vitro fertilization while writing. “If they are looking for a sperm bank, they don’t come forward. Japan is so conservative when it comes to women and sex.”
Many of her characters are single mothers or the children of single mothers, as is Kawakami herself.
She grew up in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city, as the middle child of a grocery store worker who still stocks shelves part-time. In “Breasts and Eggs,” she wanted to convey the city’s distinct dialect and humor.
When she was 14, Kawakami said, she lied about her age to secure a part-time job at a factory that made parts for air-conditioners. To help with the family finances, she worked as a convenience store cashier, a restaurant dishwasher, a dental assistant and a bookstore clerk.
Growing up working class, she learned that “in most cases the rich stay rich and the poor remain poor,” she said. “Even with effort you cannot always change your life, and I had this severe lesson as a child.”
From its opening sentence, “Breasts and Eggs” is forthright about class: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had.”
To help support her younger brother when he was in college, Kawakami worked as a bar hostess. She later moved to Tokyo to pursue a music career, but it quickly stalled.
Makiko, Natsuko’s elder sister in “Breasts and Eggs,” works as a hostess at a down-at-the-heels bar. Kawakami depicts the economic insecurity of such work, and the shifting hierarchies among the hostesses, as younger women displace older ones for the favor of customers.
Their concerns are particularly salient in the time of the coronavirus.
With Japan under a state of emergency, several cities have requested the closure of nightclubs and bars associated with the sex industry, to contain the spread of the virus. Women who work in such places are particularly vulnerable, as many of them are estranged from their families and have nowhere to go if they cannot work.
An economic relief package initially excluded workers in the sex industry, but they were later added after an outcry among advocates.
The coronavirus “is widening the gap in society, I must say,” Kawakami said.
She worries about blind spots among the mostly male policymakers who are crafting Japan’s response to the pandemic. The male lawmakers “know nothing about how women are managing child care or housework” with schools closed and office staff working from home, she said.
In that work, narrated by a fourth-grade boy, Kawakami features a female character who may or may not have had cosmetic surgery and is cruelly judged for it.
“She’s foregrounding the things women go through to kind of achieve what would be considered to be a socially acceptable appearance,” said Kathryn Tanaka, an associate professor of cultural and historical studies at Otemae University in Nishinomiya.
“We talk a lot about single motherhood or cosmetic surgery or infertility, but we talk about them on the surface,” she said. “Her works force you to go underneath and think about how these become issues through relationships, and how they are affecting individuals.”
Kawakami said young female fans often approached her at readings, asking for autographs and crying.
Something about the loneliness of her characters, or their desire for something more than what is expected of them, resonates emotionally. Kawakami said she would be pleased if her novels provided solace that readers ultimately outgrow.
“Maybe I will be happy if they look back from the future and say, ‘I used to read Mieko’s books when I was young,’” Kawakami said, “‘but now I don’t have any reason to read them.’”
Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.