J-pop singer turned writer

Mieko Kawakami writes about the quiet struggles of Japanese women in an insular and patriarchal society

Mieko Kawakami received the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for promising new writers of serious fiction in 2007 for her novel Breasts And Eggs. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

The Japanese singer-blogger- turned-author Mieko Kawakami may have left showbusiness behind to pursue writing, but she still knows how to work the camera.

The 39-year-old, slender and with high cheek bones, needs no direction at a photo shoot with Life at The Arts House during the Singapore Writers Festival.

Like a professional model, she turns her pristinely made-up face this way and that for the camera.

She tells Life via a translator: "I loved singing and I still like to sing. But comparing my singing and writing careers, I was recognised more quickly as a writer. My personality is more suited to working alone."

Born in 1976 in Osaka, the former bar hostess and bookstore clerk first ventured into singing in 2002. She has released three albums.

Entering the industry at a time when J-pop's popularity was fading, she turned to blogging to market herself.

"I don't have any formal training in writing, but I did blog frequently. I would write down the things I saw in daily life and my thoughts on feminism," she says.

That kind of writing has persisted in Kawakami's oeuvre, which looks at the lives of Japanese women in a patriarchal and insular society, exploring topics such as female sexuality, divorce and mortality.

"There's a certain way that people must behave in society, a common sense that people recognise as 'common'. Through my work, I want to shape those perceptions, maybe even flip them around," says Kawakami, who attempted a distance learning philosophy degree with Nihon University, but did not complete it.

She began writing in 2006, eventually publishing her first novella My Ego %, My Teeth, And The World in 2007, which earned her a Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers.

There, she met fellow prize- winner, the literary giant Haruki Murakami, whom she later interviewed in an edition of Monkey Business, a Japanese literary magazine.

"He is sophisticated, but down- to-earth and funny. We're both from the Kansai region, where people like to make jokes. I was a big fan of his, but I wasn't nervous then. In hindsight, it was a big event for me," she says with a laugh.

She names the American short story writer Lydia Davis and Irish modernist James Joyce as two major influences, singling out Joyce's masterpiece Finnegans Wake as a favourite.

"It is like a flow of consciousness. I like works with the essence of poetry in them."

Many of her works, indeed, read like poetic verses. She writes in the opening line of her 2012 short story A Once-Perfect Day For Bananafish: "The old woman on the bed at the end of her life, the true, absolute end. In a faint flicker, she dreams a dream all in yellow. A yellow, hot summer's day. The old woman lives there, in the faint flicker."

Such prose features in her second novella, Chi Chi To Ran, or Breasts And Eggs, in which a harried club hostess tries to speak with her young daughter who refuses to communicate with her except through writing.

In 2008, the 138-page tome bagged the prestigious Akutagawa prize for promising new writers of serious fiction. It sold 250,000 copies and was translated into languages such as Chinese, French and Spanish. An English translation is in the works.

The book was inspired by childhood curiosities, says Kawakami, who lives in Tokyo with her husband, author Kazushige Abe, 47, and their three-year-old son.

"Since I was little, I'd wondered: 'What's it like to be born? Where did I come from? Where am I going? The book is about a woman, who was born that way, but she never chose to be one. She speaks Kansai-ben dialect, also not a choice of her own, but because she is born there," she adds.

She has published at least seven works so far, including a 2009 full-length novel, Heaven, which addresses bullying in school. She hopes to tackle another novel in the coming year.

"It will be about what it's like to be Japanese. What is that quality that makes us go 'Oh, that's Japanese'? As a Japanese writer, that's what I need to do. Talk about the concept of Japanese and Japan."

  • Mieko Kawakami's translated short stories are available in issues of Monkey Business magazine ($15). Go to monkeybusinessmag. tumblr.com/store

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline J-pop singer turned writer. Subscribe