I’ve been looking forward to writing a book review for Sumie Kawakami’s Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage, and the Modern Japanese Woman ever since I was about half-way through with the book and realized that I loved it and wanted to do my bit to promote it (not that I’ve got a huge audience yet, but I’m also very patient.). But now I’m staring at the little white box, and I’m surprisingly unsure of how to begin.
Part of me is tempted to introduce the book by reminding everyone how Japan-obsessed Western culture is, and really, has been ever since the Opening of Japan. Back in Jr. High when I had a thing for Japanese rock music, I justified it with art history, pointing to the Japanese prints sneaking into the background of paintings by Manet. I suppose I could introduce this book that way. I could talk about scholarly works such as the Mechademia journal, which collects articles about Japanese anime and the surrounding fan culture both in Japan and abroad (They’re on my to-read list, believe me. They look fascinating.). But, really, Butterfly deserves a better introduction than that because, while it is a work about Japanese culture, it’s not really about the West’s (I really wish there was a better term for “Western” culture than “Western” culture.) obsession with Japan, and though it does offer some thought-provoking tidbits about Japanese culture, is not even really about Japan as some kind of uniform place that can be explained with one book. What makes Butterfly fascinating and beautiful is that, more than anything, it is about the women (and the two men) whom Kawakami interviewed to create it.
Apparently, according to a world-wide survey, Japan has one of the lowest rates of sex within marriage of any country in the world, which may seem odd in a country whose world-famous sex industry appears in film (Who could forget the scene in Lost in Translation when the company who hired Bill Murray to do commercials for them ordered a prostitute up to his room?), Wired Magazine, and (the internationally recognized) Japanese Pop Art (Links to images of Takashi Murakami’s sculpture “Hiropan.” Not work safe.). Journalist and single mother, Sumie Kawakami was no stranger to writing about marriage in Japan. An earlier work of hers, Tsumanokoi: Tatoe Furin To Yobaretemo (Wives in Love: Even If It’s Called Adultery), dealt with wives who commit adultery, an act so taboo when committed by women that its very name in Japanese essentially means immoral, but, as she said in the preface, she felt uncomfortable reducing their stories to single conclusions and, also, the kind of passing judgment that goes along with it. She decided that her next book would be different.
In Goodbye Madame Butterfly, Kawakami decided instead to let the women speak for themselves. It’s the pointed lack of analysis that really makes this book radical and fresh. Instead of being “subjects,” these are the stories of human beings, many of whom have been rejected sexually by the very people who promised to cherish them forever. The approach is a fantastic success–Kawakami has captured her interviewee’s stories beautifully. The essays in this book are personable and page-turning without being sensationalist.
The other beautiful thing about the set-up of Butterfly is that, while it allows Japan to be its own distinct culture, it also allows its readers to recognize a common humanity. I think my favorite example of this was the jolt of recognition I had in reading one particular side comment in the essay “Synchronicity,” where Kawakami explains how many Japanese women are obsessed with Korean pop stars, finding in them a kind of gentlemanly quality that they believe Japanese men to lack. Funnily enough, amongst the Western fan base of Japanese rock and pop stars are women who have the same kind of escapist obsession with Japanese men. While I was discussing the book with my mom (yes, I have feminist book discussions with my mom.), she commented to me that “We have such unhealthy views on sex. Everywhere! Both women and men!” I have to agree with her to a large extent. It was strange, and depressing to read about the women who have access to the men that I know so many American women to fantasize over (perhaps it’s not mainstream, but there’s definitely a niche for it.) seeing the seaweed greener in somebody else’s lake (which is not to say that their frustration with Japanese men isn’t warranted–what depressed me is the way that we all objectify each other through idealization.).
I also want to dedicate a few lines to the book itself (the objet d’arte). I’d recommend purchasing it even over taking it out of the library. Chin Music Press, an independent press out of Seattle, did a phenomenal job designing the book, and it is truly lovely. From the very creative table of contents to the carefully chosen fonts, to the lovely two-tone endpapers, the book (as an object) is a joy to hold and read. It costs only slightly more than an average literary paperback (think from Vintage International) and supports an indie press that is producing high quality work. They have also created a lovely companion website for the book with information about its production. Kawakami mentioned in the Preface that there would be a discussion board up for her book, but I can’t find the link anywhere if it’s up. Hopefully there will be one; I’d love to read other people’s thoughts.
Bottom line: Butterfly is fascinating and expertly crafted in both form and content. Period.