Banana Yoshimoto 1988
Kitchen, published in 1988 in Japan, made Mahoko “Banana” Yoshimoto an overnight celebrity and caused “Bananamania” to sweep Japan’s media and youth culture. The book, Yoshimoto’s first, contains two stories about life, love, and loss in contemporary Japan: “Kitchen,” and “Moonlight Shadow.” The originality, style, and subject matter of the stories helped make the book a literary phenomenon, selling over six million copies in its first two years and winning several literary awards in Japan. The book was translated into English and published by Grove Press in 1993 in America, where it reached the best-seller lists and garnered mixed reviews.
“Kitchen,” the title story, is told from the perspective of a young woman in Tokyo; her name is Mikage Sakurai. Her distinctive narrative voice can be serious, ironic, and confidential in turns. This young woman has just lost her grandmother, who was the last living member of her family. She now finds herself all alone in the world and filled with pain. As the story progresses, Mikage thinks about and confronts major issues in life: death, hope, friendship, loneliness, and love. Despite her pain, she is helped along in her healing process by new friendships and a love interest. She also finds that kitchens are particularly positive places for her, and she puts her time and energy into learning how to cook, which becomes a symbolic part of her recovery.
Banana Yoshimoto was born in Tokyo, Japan, on July 24, 1964. She is the daughter of Takaaki “Ryumei” Yoshimoto, a famous philosopher and literary critic in Japan. She graduated from Nihon University and worked as a waitress in Tokyo before establishing herself as a writer.
Yoshimoto came to fame in Japan in 1988 with the publication of Kitchen, a book that contains two short works about life, love, and loss in contemporary Japan: “Kitchen” and “Moonlight Shadow.” The originality, style, and subject matter of the book made it a literary phenomenon, selling over six million copies in Japan during its first two years and winning several literary awards there. Yoshimoto became an overnight celebrity in the media and “Bananamania” swept Japan and its youth culture.
Kitchen was translated into English by Megan Backus and published in 1993 in the United States, where it made appearances on the best-seller charts. Yoshimoto attributes the success of Kitchen to its appeal to young readers, particularly women in their twenties.
Yoshimoto has gone on to publish several novels, a book of short stories, a collection of essays and criticism, and a book of novellas, showing her range as a writer. Among her works translated into English are N. P.: A Novel, published in America in 1994; Lizard, a book of short stories published in 1995; Amrita, a 1997 novel; and Asleep, consisting of three novellas collected in 2000.
Part One: Kitchen
“Kitchen” begins as Mikage Sakurai, a young woman in Japan, is taking refuge in her kitchen. It is a few days after the death of her grandmother, who was her last living relative. Suffering from grief and loneliness, Mikage knows that she must pull herself together and search for a new apartment. Suddenly the doorbell rings, and it is a young man named Yuichi Tanabe, whom Mikage recognizes from the funeral. Yuichi invites her over to his apartment, where he lives with his mother, Eriko.
At Yuichi’s home, Mikage is introduced to Eriko and soon finds out that Yuichi’s mother was once his father; she is a transsexual who runs a club of some sort. Yuichi hints that she has undergone a sex change, when he tells Mikage that she has “had everything ‘done.’” Dazzled by her beauty and sparkling energy, Mikage immediately admires Eriko and identifies with Eriko’s sensitivity and independence. Returning her admiration, Eriko shows care and concern for Mikage and her difficult situation. Mikage accepts Eriko’s invitation to move into their apartment for a while, where Mikage sleeps on a sofa in the living room and cooks food for her new friends in the kitchen. Their kitchen becomes her favorite room in the house, a place where Mikage becomes creative and optimistic.
One day as Mikage is moving her things from her grandmother’s apartment, she gets a call from Sotaro, her ex-boyfriend. They decide to meet in a park, where Sotaro questions Mikage about her life and her new living arrangement. Sotaro distrusts her relationship with Yuichi. Sotaro thinks that Yuichi is a strange young man and also mentions that Yuichi has a girlfriend at school that he has been with for a year. The conversation convinces Mikage that she no longer has feelings for Sotaro, and she also realizes that she must move out of Yuichi’s home in order not to interfere with his life. Later that night, Yuichi helps Mikage make new address cards, which locate the story in Tokyo.
In her new home, Mikage begins to feel better, although she still feels lonely and depressed at times and subject to intense moods. On the bus one day, after she has left her grandmother’s apartment for good, she observes a young girl and a grandmother, which causes her to break down in tears. She gets off the bus in despair and is only cheered up when she looks into the window of a kitchen, which reminds her how much she wants to live.
In the next scene, Mikage has a dream in which Yuichi asks her to stay at their home longer and in which Mikage’s grandmother is still alive. Mikage wakes up to find elements of the dream coming true in real life, and that Yuichi might have had the same dream. While Mikage thinks of this mystical and foreshadowing event as “utterly amazing,” she does not dwell upon it.
As Mikage lives in their home, her friendship deepens with Yuichi and Eriko, and she gets stronger. Still, she understands that she will have to move out one day.
Part Two: Full Moon
The second part of the story begins with a shock: Eriko died in the autumn. A man at her club has stalked and killed her in a hate crime. Mikage finds this out several months after the fact, when Yuichi phones in the middle of an early-winter night to inform her. Mikage has by this time moved out of Eriko and Yuichi’s home, into her own apartment.
Upon hearing of Eriko’s death, Mikage goes immediately to see Yuichi. He tries to explain why he has not told her of his mother’s death because of denial and of not wanting to hurt her. Mikage and Yuichi console each other, realizing that they are both all alone in the world now. Mikage reads Eriko’s will, which contains premonitions of her death.
The next day, Yuichi asks Mikage to stay at his home and cook a big dinner. As Mikage cleans the kitchen, she reminisces over the six months she lived with Eriko and Yuichi. She also reflects on the past summer when she energetically taught herself to cook while living there. She now has a job as an assistant at a cooking school run by a famous teacher. Mikage cooks a feast, and she and Yuichi have a long, deep conversation. Mikage feels close to Yuichi, and he asks her to move back in, although they are both unclear about the nature of their relationship, as it is filled with shared pain.
Mikage goes to her cooking school the next day where she is asked to go on a business trip. During work, Okuno, who identifies herself as Yuichi’s classmate, shows up and angrily confronts Mikage, asking her to leave Yuichi alone, for his own good. That night, Mikage and Yuichi go to a tea shop together, and Mikage tells him that she is leaving town for a few days. She agrees to bring him back something from her trip, and she feels strong emotions for him, including jealousy over Okuno. Later that night, alone, Mikage recalls a conversation she had with Eriko, during which Eriko explained why she became a woman.
While doing laundry before her trip, Mikage runs into Chika, a transsexual from Eriko’s club. They have lunch together and Chika tells Mikage that she is worried about Yuichi, who seems depressed and unhappy. Chika asserts that the two of them must be in love and gives Mikage the address of a hotel to which Yuichi is going away. Chika wants to help Yuichi because she feels that a little help could have saved Eriko’s life.
Mikage goes on her trip and reflects, from a distance, upon her life and its changes. The first night away, she phones Yuichi, who is alone in a hotel room, which makes Mikage feel sad and worried about him and their relationship. After eating a delicious, hot meal that lifts her spirits, Mikage gets an idea. She hires a taxi for the long ride to Yuichi’s hotel and then climbs a balcony to present Yuichi with the same food that she had enjoyed. This moment is a critical point in their relationship; they discuss their situation and their trust for each other deepens. Mikage convinces Yuichi not to disappear or succumb to depression.
Mikage spends the rest of her trip sampling food and walking near the sea. On her last night away, she gets a phone call from Yuichi, who has gone back to Tokyo. Yuichi sounds happy, and both of them look forward to the next day, when they will meet at the train station for Mikage’s return to Tokyo.
Chika (“Chih-KA”), a transsexual, is the head “girl” at Eriko’s club, which Eriko gives her when she dies. Chika is sensitive and confident at the same time, and her cheerful presence makes Mikage happy. Near the climax of the story, Mikage runs into Chika at a laundry. Chika, playing matchmaker, brings up the topics of Yuichi and love, and gives Mikage the address and phone number of Yuichi’s hotel.
Kuri (‘’ KOO-ri”) works with Mikage and Nori at the cooking school. She has a “sunny disposition” that makes her cute and pleasant to work with.
Mikage’s grandmother died a few days before the story begins, so the reader only sees her through Mikage’s narration and memory. Her grandmother had been Mikage’s last living relative and caretaker; “my family consisted of only one other person,” she says. Mikage describes her grandmother as kind and sweet, who was “pretty relaxed” when Mikage wanted her freedom. They would spend time together in the evenings, talking and relaxing over tea and snacks.
The sudden death of her grandmother takes Mikage by surprise. Her grandmother has left her some money and an apartment that is too big and expensive. Her grandmother had loved flowers, and had visited a flower shop a few time per week, where Yuichi Tanabe was working.
Nori (“NOUGH-ree”) works with Mikage and Kuri at the cooking school. Mikage describes her as a “proper young lady,” which means that she is attractive, tastefully dressed, and well-mannered.
Okuno (“oh-KOO-no”) is a young woman who describes herself as a “classmate” of Yuichi’ s. According to Sotaro, she has been Yuichi’s girlfriend for a year. Okuno confronts Mikage with strong emotions one day at the cooking school. She claims that she has helped Yuichi and loves him, and seems threatened by Mikage.
Mikage Sakurai (“MEE-ka-gee Sah-KOO-rye”), a young woman in Tokyo, is the protagonist and narrator; the story is told from her first-person perspective. Mikage has recently lost her grandmother, and has no more living relatives. The sadness about her grandmother’s death, as well as the realization of being alone in the world, threaten to overwhelm Mikage. Indeed, her grandmother’s death causes a “sadness so great” that she “could barely cry.” In the midst of her pain, she also wants to “wake up in the morning light,” free of the despair that plagues her.
Mikage has recently been a student. After her grandmother dies, Mikage moves in with Eriko and Yuichi and sleeps on their couch, a situation that becomes the “talk of the school,” according to Sotaro, her ex-boyfriend. After living with them for six months, she moves into an apartment of her own. By this time, she has a job as an assistant at a cooking school.
Ruminating on death and loneliness frequently, Mikage says in the beginning, “I often think that when it comes to die, I want to breathe my last in a kitchen.” When she hears of Eriko’s death, Mikage states, “I wanted to give up on living.” Sheremarks to Yuichi, “there’s always death around us.” She also sees despair in others; noting Eriko’s beauty and charm, she also sees “an ice-cold loneliness.” Her fear of death is related to her fear of losing loved ones. The minute she realizes that she could fall in love with Yuichi, she decides to move out of his home.
- “Kitchen” has been adapted into film twice. It was made into a Japanese television feature and was produced as a full-length film in 1997 in Hong Kong. Directed by Yim Ho, the film I Love Kitchens has limited availability in English translation.
Despite her pain, Mikage shows elements of strength and independence. She cooks for Eriko and Yuichi. She successfully finds a job and an apartment. She seems to have the stronger position in her relationship with Yuichi, taking the initiative and helping him overcome his difficulties.
Mikage is not religious, but believes in elements of the mystical and superstitious. When she first meets Yuichi, she says, “I think I heard a spirit call my name.” She “can’t believe in the gods,” but for a warm bed, she “thanked the gods—whether they existed or not.” In despair, she “implored the gods: Please, let me live.” She also has a dream that comes partially true.
Mikage relates to American culture; a conversation between Eriko and Yuichi was “like watching Betwitched,” an American sitcom that was frequently re-run in the 1970s. She describes a hotel garden as resembling the “Jungle Cruise at Disneyland.” Mikage mentions Helen Keller, the American author who overcame severe disabilities.
Mikage is ironic and self-conscious. When she hires a taxi, she compares herself to Joan of Arc, the French revolutionary. She looks up to Eriko as an ideal of feminine beauty, charm, and strength, although Eriko was once, or still is, a man. In the midst of a dynamic scene, when Mikage is dangerously climbing a balcony to reach Yuichi, she interrupts her narrative by ironically saying: “Look at you ... You’ve really outdone yourself this time.” Realizing her self-consciousness, she calls herself an “action philosopher,” and goes on to muse about fate and her path in life.
Sensei (“SEN-say”) is the cooking teacher whom Mikage assists. She has impeccable style and manners, and is famous from television and magazine features. She invites Mikage to go away on a business trip.
Sotaro (“soh-TAH-roh”) is Mikage’s old boyfriend, who reaches her over the phone one day when Mikage is visiting her old apartment. Sotaro loves plants and the outdoors, so he and Mikage meet in a park. He is tall, cheerful, and the eldest son of a large family. At one time Mikage loved Sotaro’s “lively frankness,” but his straightforward manners have become “obnoxious.” Sotaro’s aggressive personality bothers Mikage because she “couldn’t keep pace with it.” Sotaro says derogatory things about Yuichi, and informs Mikage that Yuichi has a girlfriend.
Eriko (“Eh-REE-koh Tah-NAH-bee”) is Yuichi’s mother, who invites Mikage to stay at her home. Eriko is a transsexual and had previously been Yuichi’s father. Mikage’s first impression of Eriko is “overwhelming.” Mikage describes her as “an incredibly beautiful woman” who “seemed to vibrate with life force.” Eriko represents an ideal of feminine beauty, charm, and strength for Mikage. At times, Mikage finds it hard to believe that this woman had once been a man, or is still a man—some ambiguities over Eriko’s gender remain, both for the reader and for the characters. Yuichi refers to Eriko as both his mother and father, and other characters refer to Eriko as both “she” and “he.”
Eriko’s unconventional life story is interesting to Mikage and Yuichi. When she was a man, Eriko was taken in by a family whose daughter he married and with whom he had a child, Yuichi. When Yuichi’s mother died, Eriko decided to become a woman. With the money she’d saved, she “had everything ‘done,’” according to Yuichi, implying she’d had a sex change operation, but not stating it outright. She also started a nightclub. Becoming a woman helped her with the pain of her wife’s death, and liberated her. Before developing her charming female personality, she had been “very shy.” In her will, she wrote, “I have cheerfully chosen to make my body my fortune,” taking full responsibility for her life.
Mikage relates with the qualities of despair and perseverance that she sees in Eriko’s beauty, noting that “the brilliance of her charm ... must have condemned her to an ice-cold loneliness.” Eriko gives Mikage sisterly advice, telling her: “It’s not easy being a woman.” She gives Mikage hope in overcoming her own pain, telling her that “if a person hasn’t ever experienced true despair,” they will never understand “what joy really is.” Eriko frequently shows genuine care for Mikage, telling her: “You’re a good kid”; calling her “daughter”; and mentioning her as “a very precious child of mine” in her will.
Other characters share admiration and respect for Eriko. Yuichi takes a gleeful pride in Eriko’s unconventionality and dynamic attitude. He notes that she “hates to do things halfway,” and says that “As soon as she gets an idea in her head, she does it.” Chika says of her: “Eriko always handled her own problems no matter what they were,” although remembering that there was a “dark side of that independence,” which may have led to her death.
Yuichi (“Yoo-EE-chee Tah-NAH-bee”) is a young man who befriends Mikage after her grandmother’s death, and suggests that she move into the apartment he shares with his mother, Eriko. He worked in the flower shop that her grandmother had frequented. Mikage was touched by his grief at the funeral. When he shows up at her door, Mikage is taken by his “bright” smile and describes his appearance as “a long-limbed young man with pretty features.” She feels enough of a connection with him that she sees “a straight road leading from me to him,” foreshadowing their relationship in the story.
Yuichi is a person who is hard to figure out. Mikage notes that he gives an “impression of aloofness” and that “he seemed like a loner.” Eriko tells Mikage that Yuichi is “confused about emotional things and he’s strangely distant with people.” According to Sotaro, Yuichi is “pretty weird,” and his girlfriend at school apparently said that he was “incapable of caring more for a girl than he did for a fountain pen.” Mikage recognizes and respects the depth of Yuichi’s personality, noting that: “If you’re not in love with him, you can understand him.” Because of his ambiguities, she is reluctant to fall in love with him.
When Eriko dies, Yuichi becomes more emotionally distant, and avoids informing Mikage of the death until months later. He also begins drinking and becomes depressed, admitting to Mikage that he’s “in a bad way.” Like his mother, he prefers to handle his problems on his own, telling Mikage that he “was hoping to spare you this misery.” Chika says of him, “That boy has never, ever, let anybody see a weakness in him.” Yuichi goes off by himself to a hotel room to suffer in private.
Yuichi can seem emotionally passive in the story. In their relationship, Mikage takes the initiatives and asks the difficult questions. On the nature of their relationship, Yuichi answers Mikage, “I myself don’t even know.” Okuno tells Mikage that she has so confused Yuichi that he is only “half a man.”
Cooking and Cuisine
Cooking and cuisine are mentioned throughout the story. Kitchens have a special meaning for the protagonist Mikage; they are refuges and sanctuaries. Mikage energetically begins cooking as part of her healing process and to show her appreciation for her new friends Yuichi and Eriko. She eventually gets a job in a cooking school. While eating a delicious meal one night, Mikage is inspired to share it with Yuichi in a climactic scene.
The story begins a few days after Mikage’s grandmother has passed away; death pervades Mikage’s narration. Indeed, much of the action that follows could be seen as Mikage’s response to dealing with the pain and despair of losing her loved ones. Just when Mikage seems to be getting back on her feet, death re-enters her life, when Eriko gets killed. “There’s always death around us,” she exclaims.
Other characters are also plagued with death. Yuichi Tanabe enters the story because Mikage’s grandmother has died and is devastated when he loses his mother, Eriko. Eriko changed her life because of death; when her wife died, she decided to become a woman.
Gender and Identity
Some critics attribute Kitchen’s fame in Japan to the fact that it contains some of the first popular
Topics for Further Study
- Research the traditional religions of Japan. In what ways do the characters in “Kitchen” reflect the values of these religions? In what ways do they go against them?
- Banana Yoshimoto’s book, Kitchen, was so popular in Japan that it caused “Bananamania” to sweep the country, particularly the youth culture. What makes the book appealing to young readers? Should the book be equally appealing to all age groups? Why or why not?
- “Kitchen” raises questions about gender and personality. Consider the main characters of the story. If these characters were not specifically identified in the narrative by name and gender, would the reader still be able to see them as male or female? Find examples of language or description that serve to define, or confuse, gender identification for these characters.
- Suppose you are a writer hired to create the sequel to “Kitchen.” Write an outline of a new story, taking up where this one ends. Feel free to keep the same characters or think of new ones who might make the story interesting.
transsexuals (people who assume the roles and appearance of the opposite gender) in Japanese literature. Eriko represents an ideal of feminine beauty, charm, and strength, but she was once a man. Eriko comes across clearly as a woman, but other characters get confused about her identity. Yuichi thinks of her at times as both his mother and his father, and Mikage refers to her as both a woman and man. Eriko herself claims that she identifies with both genders, when she writes in her will, “even though I’ve lived all these years as a woman, somewhere inside me was my male self.” Eriko’s personality remains consistent, regardless of whether people see her as a man or woman. Eriko is murdered by a crazy man who was “shocked to find out this beautiful woman was a man.”
Chika is another transsexual who is portrayed positively in the story. Although she “was undeniably a man in appearance,” she has the manners and personality of a woman and makes Mikage feel “masculine” around her.
When Mikage loses her last living relative, she realizes her essential loneliness, which she feels throughout the story. She is constantly reminded of how alone she is in the world by encounters with people and places: her old apartment, strangers she sees on the bus, and dark winter nights. Mikage slowly learns that it is important for her to confront her loneliness to find a more joyful life. At one point, she writes that she may never be “happy” because happiness is living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone.
Mikage is attracted to Yuichi, who, described as a “loner,” seems to be more at peace with his loneliness, or equally as aware of it. She also takes strength from Eriko, whose unconventional life has given her the courage of independence.
While Mikage lives in the same home as Yuichi, their friendship develops deeper feelings. Strong emotions caused by love enter into the story when Yuichi’s girlfriend confronts Mikage; when Mikage has feelings of jealousy; and when Mikage spontaneously travels a long distance in the middle of the night to find Yuichi. Through their relationship, Mikage and Yuichi seem to find strength and healing.
The Meaning of Life
In the face of death and loneliness, Mikage searches for meaning in her life. She tries to overcome the “leaden hopelessness” that plagues her. Mikage “can’t believe in the gods,” and thus does not have the religion that gives many people meaning in life. Instead, she looks to the other characters and to herself for meaning. Eriko is a model of strength and gives Mikage advice on how to handle despair and the loss of meaning. Yuichi gives meaning to Mikage in the form of relationship, of having someone to care for.
At times in the story, Mikage thinks about fate and freedom while searching for meaning. Despite believing in premonitions, she does not believe in fate, but in the individual freedom of “constantly making choices.”
Although Mikage does not “believe in the gods,” she sometimes shows a mystical awareness. When she meets Yuichi for the first time, she claims, “I think I heard a spirit call my name.” There is also a scene in which Mikage and Yuichi appear to share the same dream, which comes partially true in real life. Yuichi notes the dream and its relation to real events later in the story, when he says, “something like this happened ... [during] our dream conversation.”
Mikage claims to have premonitions about the future. When she first meets Yuichi, she says that she “saw a straight road leading from me to him.” When she searches for Yuichi in a strange hotel, she is able to find his room by luck. “I had an uneasy premonition and it didn’t prove wrong,” she explains. Eriko’s will contains a premonition of her death.
“Kitchen” is narrated in a manner that leads to a climax, or a dramatic point in which an increasing conflict gets resolved. From the beginning, relationships and events unfold and gain momentum in the story. Mikage acknowledges that the story is approaching a climax when, deliberating over what to do with Yuichi and his seclusion in a hotel room, she states: “I had a thrillingly sharp intuition.... we were just at the point of approaching and negotiating a ... curve.” Conflict has arisen because Mikage and Yuichi must decide what their relationship means. The situation calls for drastic steps, which Mikage takes.
“Kitchen” unfolds chronologically for the most part, although the narrative does jump back and forth in time occasionally. The narrative uses flashbacks to describe characters and events of the past, such as the description of Mikage’s grandmother and her death. The story also speeds up in places; between Part One and Part Two several months have passed and Eriko has died. After this, the narrative relies on flashbacks to inform the reader of the events that have taken place.
Point of View
“Kitchen” is told from the first person point of view, which is the point of view of the protagonist, Mikage Sakurai. The author’s choice of the perspective from which to tell the story has advantages and disadvantages. The first person gives the reader an intimate, personal view of the main character. At the same time, the representation of other characters becomes filtered through the protagonist’s eyes, so objectivity may be sacrificed.
Symbolism appears throughout Yoshimoto’s story. For the protagonist, kitchens symbolize places of contentment, safety, and healing. Mikage claims, “to me a kitchen represents some distant longing engraved on my soul.” When she is despondent, her dreams of kitchens keep her going. She takes to the kitchen and learns cooking as a way of overcoming feelings of meaninglessness and despair; cooking represents her new attitude toward life. Like kitchens and cooking, food also plays a symbolic role in the story. Mikage is constantly presenting her friends with food; her life changes when she takes a job at a cooking school; and the climax of the story occurs when Mikage brings a dish of special food to Yuichi in his secluded hotel room.
When a story is told in the first person, the voice of the main character contributes greatly to the work’s overall style. The voice of Mikage Sakurai can be described as a combination of the urban, sensitive, feminine, young, and open—all the things that Mikage seems to be. Mikage’s voice can be complex as well, which keeps the reader intellectually engaged. She can go from the light and ironic, talking casually about herself and her situation, to the literary and complex, making more formal and generalized statements, such as this musing on fate that begins: “We all believe we can choose our own path from among the many.”
The other characters have voices that reflect and characterize them as well, although their voices are filtered and described by the narrator. Eriko, although a man, has a distinctive voice that is as skillfully portrayed by the author. Like Eriko’s character, her voice blurs the lines of gender and raises questions for the reader; Eriko writes in her will: “Just this once I wanted to write using men’s language... and the pen won’t go.” Yuichi’s voice has a vagueness that can be hard to understand, but this portrayal is effective because his character can be incomprehensible to the narrator, Mikage.
In “Kitchen,” Yoshimoto does not provide an abundance of description of the time and culture in which the story takes place. The reader is casually informed, after several pages, that the setting is Japan, which is narrowed down to Tokyo several pages after that. From the characters and their customs, it can be inferred that the time is contemporary, most likely the mid-1980s, when the story was conceived and written. Yoshimoto may intentionally keep the time and place of the story vague in order to convey a certain effect; critics have remarked on the work’s portrayal of characters who are suffering the alienation and loneliness associated with the modern urban setting.
Tokyo in the mid-1980s is a huge sprawling city of over eight million people. Its architecture is modern and industrial, and the population density of the city has created high costs of living and cramped living conditions. Some of the characters in “Kitchen” reflect this environment. Sotaro, Mikage’s ex-boyfriend, is noted for his uncommon love of green spaces and nature, which pegs him as slightly eccentric to the other students. When Mikage has deep thoughts, she often looks up at the sky, the only direction that supplies her with adequate space.
In the mid-1980s, Japan has a booming industrial economy, bolstered by its exports of automobiles and electronics to the West. Japanese society has become more materialistic than ever, influenced by its wealth and the consumerism imported from America. Mikage acknowledges this consumerism when she says of her friends, “these people had a taste for buying new things that verged on the unhealthy.” Mikage’s generation has been brought up on television and American culture; she mentions an American sitcom and Disneyland in her narrative. One character in the story is wearing “what is practically the national costume, a two-piece warmup suit,” a style imported from America. In Japan, Yoshimoto’s generation is called the shinjinrui, a generation that has grown up in a wealthy, technological society exposed to American values.
Culturally, Japan has undergone tremendous changes in the past century. After World War II, the
Compare & Contrast
- 1980s: Laws are passed in Japan to encourage equal opportunities for women and to help female workers with the demands of motherhood. Women hold one of every forty management positions, and the Japanese workforce is about 35 percent women.
Today: Women make up 40 percent of the Japanese workforce and hold one of every twenty-five managerial positions. Sexual discrimination laws have become more favorable to women. In 1996, the Japanese stock exchange hired its first female floor trader. Japanese women have started a sumo wrestling circuit, a sport that has long been for men only. The birth control pill has recently been legalized in Japan.
- 1980s: Japan is undergoing an economic boom that has lasted several decades, making jobs plentiful, unemployment low, and providing a high quality of life. Consumerism is in style.
Today: A stock market crash in Japan and changing economic conditions in southeast Asia have put a slight damper on the economic optimism of the Japanese. Jobs are less plentiful and unemployment has increased. Consumerism is as stylish as ever, for abundant products ranging from robotic pets to electronic music.
- 1980s: In parts of Japan, particularly smaller cities, children still grow up surrounded by traditional extended families, including their grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Today: As a higher percentage of Japanese have moved to urban areas for employment and because parents are working longer hours, Japanese children are spending less time with family members.
- 1980s: American styles and cultural trends are prized throughout Asia, including Japan.
Today: Japanese style and pop culture has become more innovative and independent. Other Asian countries are increasingly looking to Japan for the latest trends and styles. Japanese pop stars are famous throughout southeast Asia.
Marshall Plan brought Western ideas and a free market economy to what had been an old and traditional culture. Traditional Japan had strict roles and standards of behavior for men and women that have since become more liberal and open. Things have changed, particularly for women. A few generations ago, women were subordinate to men in social status and economic power, not having many career options besides being housewives. Arranged marriages were common, in which young women were given away by their families to husbands.
In the past, Japanese literature was characterized by works of philosophy and poetry. Japanese poets were famous for the haiku, short poems often concerning nature and change. The novel as an art form is relatively new in Japan, imported from Europe in the late 1800s. The novel brought new ideas to an old culture. One Japanese writer, Tanizaki Junichiro, wrote in 1932 that European literature liberated the concept of love for the Japanese. By this, he meant that Western values changed the idea of marriage from an economic arrangement to a romantic possibility between two people. Japanese writers, including Yoshimoto, have continued to explore the theme of love in literature.
By the mid-1980s, Japanese women have much more freedom and power. As one example, at the turn of the last century, women in Japan did not have the right to ask for divorces, but by the late 1980s, more women than men initiated divorce proceedings in Japan. Economic status has changed for Japanese women as well. Modern Japanese women have their own careers and living independently has become socially acceptable.
A few generations ago in Japan, food preparation was considered a lower class occupation; in economically advantaged households, servants frequently provided the cooking. By the mid-1980s, and as reflected in “Kitchen,” food preparation has become a respectable career as well as an art form. Kitchens are now the showcases of Japanese consumer wealth, filled with new technologies and electronic gadgets, and artful cuisine reflects social sophistication.
Sexual roles have become more liberal in contemporary Japan. Young Japanese idolize androgynous Western rock stars like Michael Jackson and David Bowie (who is famous for dressing up as a woman in his concerts). A popular theater company for Japanese girls is the Takarazuka, in which an all-female cast acts out roles of both men and women in a dream-like atmosphere that challenges gender boundaries.
Kitchen was received enthusiastically in Japan, while critics in the English-speaking world gave mixed reviews of the anticipated translation. On the positive side, critics praised the work’s youthful look at modern Japanese life, the author’s blending of Japanese and Western cultures, the charming style, and the eccentric characters. Georgea Kovanis of the Detroit Free Press praised Yoshimoto’s “observation and rich detail” that make the work “sad and witty and introspective and observant and dreamy. And a wonderful read.” Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times lauded Yoshimoto’s “wit, her clarity of observation and her firm control of her story,” as well as her “wonderful tactile ability to convey a mood or a sensation through her description of light and sound and touch.” The New Yorker’s Deborah Garrison wrote that “Yoshimoto’s attraction to weirdness and her unpretentious approach to it—she’s not trying to be hip, just faithful to her sense of people as they are—are what might make Western readers want more of her.” The book was also noted for its portrayal of people who are alienated and lonely in the modern urban setting. Scott Shibuya Brown remarked in the Washington Post that Yoshimoto’s characters are “alienated and withdrawn ... grappling with the transition from order into emotional chaos.”
Some reviewers thought Kitchen was superficial in style and substance, and overly sentimental. Todd Grimson in the Los Angeles Times Book Review wrote that, ‘“Kitchen’ is light as an invisible pancake, charming and forgettable ... The release of information to the reader seems unskilled, or immature, weak in narrative or plot.” Elizabeth Hanson of the New York Times Book Review took issue with the overall effect of the book, writing that “the endearing characters and amusing scenes in Ms. Yoshimoto’s work do not compensate for frequent bouts of sentimentality.” Hanson added that the book’s main appeal for English-language readers “lies in its portrayal of the lives of young Japanese.
Dupler has taught college English and has published numerous articles. In this essay, Dupler discusses how a short story shares ideas with the philosophical movement of existentialism .
Existentialism is a philosophical movement that flourished in Europe after World War II. It is a system of thinking and questioning that arose in response to major changes occurring in European society. These changes included changes in religious belief systems; upheavals in political and economic life; increases in urbanization and the loss of nature; and individuals’ isolation in the modern industrial society. The existential system of philosophy also concerns itself with the question of freedom and the meaning of life, or existence. The ideas of existentialism permeate world literature of the twentieth century, as cultures around the world have faced similar changes and conflicts.
Existentialism was influenced by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the German philosopher who coined the famous phrase that “God is dead” in the late 1800s. By this statement, Nietzsche meant that centuries-old ideas of religion and the meaning of life had changed because of the new ideas of science, rationality, and modernization. These changes caused a crisis in European thinking because people could no longer rely on the old belief systems to provide meaning. At the same time, this new situation called for deeper questioning of existence, and finding new levels of personal freedom. This crisis of religious meaning is echoed by the protagonist of “Kitchen,” Mikage Sakurai. Several times in the story, Mikage mentions that she has trouble accepting the common religious belief in God, although she is confused on the matter.
What Do I Read Next?
- Amrita is Banana Yoshimoto’s second novel published in America (1994). It tells the story of an actress who loses her memory in an accident and struggles to piece her life back together.
- Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1985) is a com-ing-of-age story about a young French woman in Vietnam. Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen” has been compared to this internationally famous French novel.
- “Moonlight Shadow” is the other story in Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. Like the title story, it is set in contemporary Japan and told from the perspective of a young, sensitive woman.
- Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami, was a major bestseller when published in Japan in 1987. This story of love, loss, and cultural change in the early 1970s is narrated by a young Japanese man.
- Shizuko’s Daughter, by Kyoko Mori (1993), is a novel about a young woman facing loneliness and pain in contemporary Japan. It contrasts the present day with glimpses of traditional Japanese culture.
Mikage states, “I can’t believe in the gods,” but at the same time she admits her confusion when she implores the “gods—whether they existed or not,” to “please let me live.” Mikage does not have a solid religious belief system to provide meaning for her life, so she turns to other sources for meaning, including friends and her own inward search.
Existential heroes in literature have often been plagued with despair and profound loneliness. Another philosopher that existentialists have turned to is S0ren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who called this despair “the sickness unto death.” Kierkegaard wrote that the first step toward living a better life, toward overcoming the common “sickness” of despair, was acknowledging that despair may automatically accompany existence. Mikage practically embodies this idea; her journey in “Kitchen” is one of confronting the despair that constantly accompanies her life and fills her with pain. Indeed, everything around her reminds Mikage of her pain and loneliness. One night, looking out her window, she says, “I couldn’t bear it. It oppressed me, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.” “It” is her general feeling for the world. Granted, Mikage has good reasons for her despair—her grandmother’s death and later Eriko Tanabe’s death—but this pain is solidly entwined with her own existence, and she realizes that it is her responsibility.
Existential characters in literature tend to be lonely and find little help from mainstream society for their problems. Mikage, likewise, draws no solace from society when facing her pain and loneliness. She looks at the majority of women and thinks that she is “completely different” because she will never know, or accept, the “happiness” that seems to come easily to other people. This happiness is “living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone.” Mikage does not envy the happiness of the crowd because she has crossed a line that makes it inaccessible to her; she desires “to continue living with the awareness that I will die.” Mikage believes that this attitude may cause her at times to “despise” her life, but it also opens up the possibility of joy because she has more honestly faced her own existence.
The French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), perhaps the most famous existentialist, used the phrase “existence comes before essence” as one description of the existential philosophy. By this, Sartre meant that each person’s existence has the ultimate meaning for them because there are no essential truths that can be handed down. Finding truth, which may vary from person to person, is each person’s responsibility. Sartre urged the personal freedom of choice in the face of life’s unknowns, and claimed that seizing freedom was each person’s duty. These ideas of free will and personal responsibility are also introduced in “Kitchen.” Mikage makes the statement: “People aren’t overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within,” when she begins to realize that she has responsibility for her own life and its pain. Other people can no longer help her; she must take charge of things herself, “with or without” Yuichi.
Toward the climax of the story, when Mikage is climbing a hotel balcony in a daring moment of “utter desperation,” she contemplates the concept of free will. Up to this point in the story, Mikage has tended to believe in fate and in premonitions, which are beliefs that other powers are making decisions for her. She has also stated that “we have so little choice,” and that “we live like the lowliest worms.” Undergoing an existential change, Mikage finally admits to herself and the reader that human beings are ultimately free because “we’re constantly making choices. With the breaths we take every day, with the expression in our eyes, with the daily actions we do over and over, we decide.” She states that even when people think that they are being acted upon by outside forces, they are in reality choosing their situations and actions, sometimes subconsciously.
One person that gives Mikage help and advice is Eriko, whom Mikage idealizes as a figure of feminine strength. Eriko is attractive to Mikage because of her courage and independence, particularly in the face of social convention. Eriko has taken charge of her own existence so much that she has defied the common behaviors of society and become a transsexual. Eriko writes in her will that she has “cheerfully chosen to make my body my fortune.” But the same things that give Eriko her beauty—her courage and individuality—also sentence her, in Mikage’s mind, to “an ice-cold loneliness.” Once again, the existentialist idea appears that personal freedom comes at the expense of going against the mainstream crowd.
Eriko plants the ideas of personal freedom and choice in Mikage’s mind, which ultimately help her overcome her despair. Eriko tells her, “if a person hasn’t ever experienced true despair, she grows old ... never understanding what joy really is.” Furthermore, overcoming the pain of life means making informed, free decisions; for Eriko, a positive choice is the “undertaking the care and feeding
“Existential heroes in literature have often been plagued with despair and profound loneliness.... Mikage practically embodies this idea; her journey in ‘Kitchen’ is one of confronting the despair that constantly accompanies her life and fills her with pain.”
of something.” Doing this, one begins to understand freedom, “or your own limitations,” Eriko tells Mikage.
Mikage makes the free choice of learning how to cook, which is also a step she takes in overcoming her despair. “Angry, fretful, or cheery, I cooked through it all,” Mikage says. Cooking becomes a way in which Mikage can understand her limitations and consciously rebuild herself; “when I finally learned to correct my mistakes coolly,” she states, “it was truly as if I had somehow reformed my own slapdash character.” Cooking also represents an act of freedom for Mikage. “Having known such joy,” or the joy of taking responsibility for her life, Mikage claims that “there was no going back” to the ways of the crowd.
Yoshimoto has written “Kitchen” in a manner that leaves the setting vague, both in time and place. Mikage mentions casually, after a few pages, that the story is taking place in Japan, and then narrows down the setting to Tokyo several pages after that. The time of the story is presumably contemporary, given the customs and habits of the characters. Other than this, the story could be taking place in almost any urban setting and at any time during the past few decades. This has the effect of portraying the alienation that the characters have with their immediate environment. Furthermore, the reader can extrapolate that contemporary Japan is a culture facing many of the factors that Europe faced when existential philosophy developed: it has recovered from a devastating war; political and economic institutions have dramatically changed; old belief systems are being replaced with new ones; and the country is undergoing rapid industrialization and urbanization. The fact that the main characters in “Kitchen” do not speak of these huge cultural trends may be a significant omission; cultural changes have become so large that these characters instead focus on the immediate problems of their own lives. This relates to existentialism because existential characters tend to focus on the personal rather than the political, and existential characters are alienated by the size and scope of the modern state.
The characters in “Kitchen” are also disconnected with nature; the natural world is not frequently mentioned. When Mikage turns to the outside world, she often looks toward the sky, the only direction that affords her space, but at the same time the infinity of the sky increases her feelings of insignificance and loneliness. Sotaro, a minor character, is the only person in the story who has a deep connection with nature, and Mikage considers him slightly eccentric because of this. Still, nature only exists for Sotaro in parks and gardens, which are man-made. Otherwise, the characters in “Kitchen” are mostly concerned with human culture and their lives within this environment.
Source: Douglas Dupler, Critical Essay on “Kitchen,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Yoshimoto’s character Mikage Sakurai begins the short story “Kitchen” with the statement, “The place I like best in this world is the kitchen.” However, as the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the reason why this place of appliances, tableware, and the aroma of cooking is Mikage’s favorite place has nothing to do with the hum of the refrigerator or the cool surface of the linoleum floor and everything to do with food. In this strange story, an orphaned young woman meets an equally orphaned young man; the most prevalent metaphor throughout is that of food as the language of love.
Mikage is emotionally lost when her grandmother, her last surviving relative, dies. Several days after the funeral, Yuichi Tanabe, a somewhat distant acquaintance, invites Mikage to stay at his home, which he shares with his father (who has had a sex change and currently presents himself as Yuichi’s mother). The relationship between these three people quickly develops a bond mostly through Mikage’s cooking. Yuichi and his father/mother, whose name is Eriko, are seldom home at the same time and have grown accustomed to eating out. However, when Eriko suggests, on the first morning that Mikage sleeps over, that they order a take-out brunch, Mikage’s spirits perk up. Up until this point in the story, she has been rather lethargic and depressed; but with the mention of food, she is enlightened, almost as if she had been living in a foreign country and someone finally spoke in a language that she comprehended. “I stood up,” Mikage relates, and then adds: “Would you like me to make something?” With this question, the relationship between Mikage and her newly adopted family is off on a fast but good step. After eating the “cucumber salad and soupy rice with eggs,” Eriko invites Mikage to stay at their home as long as she wants and then suggests that in lieu of rent, “just make us soupy rice once in a while.” The bond is sealed, and Mikage’s use of food as means of expressing her emotions has just begun.
Mikage struggles through her depression in the ensuing weeks, doing not much more than cooking. Cooking is the only thing that gets her out of bed. The meals she prepares are very appreciated by Eriko, who, in a show of gratitude, buys Mikage a pretty glass, which brings Mikage near to tears. “I’m so happy!” she exclaims. Then in an aside to the reader, Mikage confesses that she had wanted to express her emotions to Eriko by stating that even after she moved away, she would like to return “again and again to make soupy rice.” Here, the reader grasps Mikage’s inability to speak her thoughts and to display her emotions. Evert in her thoughts, Mikage is unable to say that she loved or cared for Eriko. Instead, she thinks of food. It is through food, as is shown in this scene and many scenes to follow, that Mikage finds her voice.
As Mikage and Yuichi’s relationship develops, one of the first signs that they are drawing closer is a shared dream that they experience. In the dream, Yuichi tells Mikage that he has a desire to eat ramen, a noodle soup. Shortly after awakening from the dream, Yuichi, in real life, acknowledges his hunger. “I just woke up and I’m starving. I was thinking, hmm, maybe I’ll make some ramen noodles.” Yuichi’s aroused appetite and the coincidental mentioning of ramen soup in both the dream and Yuichi’s awakened state stirs Mikage’s curiosity, as well as a developing compassion, for the young man. She vaguely discusses the elements of the dream with Yuichi while she makes the soup. Then, in a slightly sensuous tone, she tells the readers that there in the “middle-of-the-night kitchen, I slipped the noodles into boiling water.” Things are obviously beginning to heat up.
Eriko is murdered about halfway through the story, and when Mikage remembers the last night that she saw Eriko, she remembers it through food. The two of them had coincidentally met at a convenience store in the middle of the night. Mikage had gone out to buy a “pudding cup,” and Eriko had stopped by after work and was eating “fish balls in broth.” The first thing that Eriko says when she sees Mikage is “you’ve gotten so thin since you left our house!” This statement implies that in moving away from both Eriko and Yuichi, Mikage has obviously lost her appetite for food. While she lived with them, she was happy. She exhibited her happiness by making them great meals. She became so inspired that she tried every recipe she could find, no matter how difficult. She had a need to express her feelings for them through the preparation of food. Having moved back into an apartment of her own, she has no one to share meals with, no one to express her love with, and thus she stops eating well.
When Yuichi telephones Mikage to tell her that Erika has been murdered, Mikage goes over to comfort Yuichi. The first thing that she comments on is the fact that Yuichi has also lost weight. She spends the night at his place. Upon awakening and seeing one another the next day, one of Yuichi’s first comments is to ask Mikage to make him “a professional dinner!” This request excites Mikage, and she decides to “make a dinner to end all dinners.” When she gives a list of ingredients to Yuichi and tells him to go out and buy them, Yuichi chides her with the words: “Ordering me around like a new bride.” Neither of them is willing to admit that they have feelings for one another, but despite their inability to come out and declare their love, they flirt around the edges of the concept by playing house, especially in relationship to food. The “dinner of all dinners” that Mikage and Yuichi create is done with almost as much enthusiasm and relish as a sexual encounter.
After the dinner, Yuichi admits that during the interval when he had not been in touch with Mikage, he had missed her. He confesses that every time he passed a phone booth, it seemed to glow, as if beckoning him to call her. He was afraid to be
“It is through food... that Mikage finds her voice.”
turned down by her, so he did not give in to his urges. Then he tells her, “food, too, was giving off light, like the telephone.” In other words, he describes food in terms of a medium of communication between the two of them, similar to the telephone. Just as he did not respond to the “light” of the telephone, he also stayed away from food, because it was too closely related to Mikage. Instead, he drank and lost weight.
Their relationship grows more intense as Mikage becomes more self-assured. Her confidence is developed through her decision to take her cooking to another level. To do this, she applies for a job with a caterer and upon acceptance, learns the artistry of cooking. Balancing neatly with her growth in the area of preparing food is the growth of her relationship with Yuichi, which Mikage is forced to more clearly define when she is confronted with a young woman who has obviously fallen in love with Yuichi. This woman knows about Mikage and decides to meet her face-to-face at Mikage’s place of employment. It is in this scene that Mikage asserts herself for the first time in the story. Until this point, she is more or less passive in reference to her fate. She goes where the wind blows her, in a matter of speaking. When her grandmother died, she slept in the kitchen and did little to carry on with her life. When Yuichi invited her to stay with him and Eriko, she followed him without question even though she barely knew him. It was her decision, however, to take the job with the caterer; and it is in this position that she has gained a sense of self-identity. So when the young woman, Okuno, who has fallen in love with Yuichi, comes to Mikage’s job, and demands that Mikage stop seeing Yuichi, Mikage takes a rather powerful stand.
Okuno yells at Mikage and describes her as being cold-hearted for toying with Yuichi. Okuno wants to continue berating Mikage, but Mikage finds her nerve and shouts, “Stop!” With her confidence all-aglow, she all but chases Okuno away, but she cannot rid the feelings that Okuno has stirred. In this new position of strength, Mikage must reflect on her true feelings for Yuichi.
Both Mikage and Yuichi, at this point in the story, have been granted opportunities to leave Tokyo, at least temporarily. Mikage takes a business trip to learn about more exotic foods, and Yuichi decides to try to get away from his depression over Eriko’s death by taking a trip to the countryside. As they part, Yuichi, instead of kissing her good-bye or even touching her hand or giving her a hug, asks that Mikage bring something back from her trip for him. Mikage’s response is: “An eel pie.” Yuichi does not like eel pie (a type of pastry) and suggests yet another food: “pickled wasabi root.” Although Mikage “can’t stand the stuff,” she agrees to bring it back for him.
On Mikage’s first day away from the city and also from Yuichi, Mikage has trouble eating. Even though she is on a trip to learn about new foods, she is unable to eat the items that are offered to her. Instead, at the end of the day, she tells her boss that she is starving and then goes off to find something “heavy and filling” to eat. She finds a restaurant and orders “deep-fried pork in broth over rice,” a dish that is very contrary to the vegetarian meals that had been placed in front of her during the day. While her food is cooking, she calls Yuichi, who is staying at an inn that serves only “monk” food, which translated means entrees that are all made with tofu, or soybean curd. Through their conversation, Mikage and Yuichi discover that neither of them has been enjoying the meals that they have encountered. The options available to them have been foods that are marked with a sense of abstinence;—in this case, the omission of meat. Of course, the distance between them also marks an abstinence of physical contact between them. Most of the dialogue of their phone call is focused on food, and when Mikage hangs up and begins to eat her pork dinner, she feels guilty. The next thing she knows, she is requesting a similar meal be prepared to go.
As impossible as it may seem, Mikage takes a cab to where Yuichi is staying, finds the inn, and despite the fact that both the front door and the back door are locked, she intuitively guesses which window belongs to Yuichi’s room, climbs up the first story and knocks on the glass. Mikage, once inside the room, senses that Yuichi does not want to return to the city. She feels that their relationship has reached a point where their paths will slowly stray from one another. She hides her despair, however, and pulls out the take-out dinner and hands it to him; and “Yuichi guiltily took” it. “Although he still looked as if he did not understand what was happening,” Yuichi takes the lid off the carton and begins to eat. Mikage and Yuichi appear to be so unaware of their emotions that it is painful just reading about them. They yearn for something that they cannot describe. However, once Yuichi begins to eat, Mikage states that her “spirit began to lift,” for she had done everything that she could possibly do (mostly through food) to let Yuichi know her feelings. As Yuichi eats, Mikage flashes back to some memorable moments that they have shared. During one of those times, she remembers that Yuichi had once said: “Why is it that everything I eat when I’m with you is so delicious?” Interestingly, Mikage’s response is: “Could it be that you’re satisfying hunger and lust at the same time?”
Yuichi is still eating his dinner when Mikage announces that she must leave. After a brief statement about where she is going, and why she felt she had to come, Yuichi lays down his chop sticks, looks into her eyes and says: “This is the best katsudon I’ve ever had in my life,” referring to the pork dinner that Mikage has just brought him. This is his response to Mikage’s statement that she does not want to lose him. At this point, readers might think that maybe Mikage has put a little too much reliance on food. Maybe she should have been more open and direct about her feelings. However, the story is not quite finished. There is the possibility that Yuichi is just a little slow in understanding. After he has digested the pork dinner, maybe he will comprehend the message that was subtly infused in the meat.
Mikage returns to her hotel depressed. Everything she describes in the following scene is cold and dark. She barely mentions food. Then there is a phone call. Yuichi is calling from Tokyo. He has decided to return to the city; this means there is still hope for Mikage. Her spirits once again lift, as Yuichi asks her what she had to eat that day. She tells him the details of the French cuisine and then informs him that she has mailed a package to her apartment in Tokyo. In the package is both the eel pie and the wasabi root. She then gives Yuichi permission to go to her apartment and pick it up. Yuichi, in turn, teases her. “Why didn’t you send sashimi and prawns?” Mikage insinuates that she could not have sent them because they would have become spoiled as they sat in her apartment, waiting for her return. Continuing in their coded language of food, Yuichi informs her that the food would not have spoiled had she carried them with her instead of mailing them. Then, adding the final words that Mikage was waiting to hear, Yuichi tells her that he will be picking her up at the station upon her arrival.
So ends the story and begins the love affair of Mikage and Yuichi. Readers might imagine that as the affair gains in strength, so might the young couple gain in weight, unless they learn to speak of love through something other than the consumption of food.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on “Kitchen,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Kryhoski is a former English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and is currently a freelance writer. In this essay, Kryhoski considers the symbolic role both food and the kitchen play in Yoshimoto’s work.
“The place I like best in the world is the kitchen”—these are the words of Mikage in the opening of Mahoko “Banana” Yoshimoto’s Kitchen .“If it’s a place where they make food, it’s fine with me,” Mikage adds. Like the kitchen, food becomes a source of comfort for Mikage. At the outset of the story, she embraces a gleaming silver refrigerator “stocked with enough food to get through a winter.” Having enough food instills a sense of confidence, it is safe, and it assures a successful survival. It is also a symbol of activity, of a house filled with inhabitants, a house filled with life. Throughout Yoshimoto’s story, this assertion proves to be consistently true for Mikage. Both the kitchen and the food within it prove to nourish her, body and soul.
The kitchen is a source of communion at the beginning of the novel—communion between Mikage and the spirit of her grandmother. Small traces of life with her grandmother, an “oil-spattered burner” and a “rusty kitchen knife,” comfort her. She states that “now only the kitchen and I are left. It’s just a little nicer than being alone.” Mikage also shares that “the hum of the refrigerator kept me from thinking of my loneliness.” The rusty knife and the drone of the refrigerator are both tangible, real artifacts from a happier past. Memories of another life with her Grandmother in the apartment, replete or overflowing with “the smells of our life there,” are Mikage’s consolation, her means of coping with grief. Such emotive power carries over in her description of the Tanabe kitchen, in which
“Despite their strange reputation, she makes a judgement not on Yuichi’s transvestite father turned mother, but instead chooses to base her feelings for the Tanabes on their kitchen.”
Mikage discovers, “a delightful German-made vegetable peeler—a peeler to make even the laziest grandmother enjoy slip, slipping those skins off.”
The kitchen is also the gauge by which Mikage initially defines the Tanabes’ character. Despite their strange reputation, she makes a judgement not on Yuichi’s transvestite father turned mother, but instead chooses to base her feelings for the Tanabes on their kitchen. She indeed reacts to Yuichi’s story with some reservation as to his true character. In the same breath, however, she adds “but I trusted their kitchen.” To elaborate on her impression, Mikage takes a mental inventory of the Tanabes’ cooking utensils, affirming that “it was [indeed] a good kitchen.” This impression provides Mikage with a sense of stability in an unstable environment. Nowhere is this idea more evident than during her first evening spent in the company of the Tanabes. After taking a shower, Mikage goes to the living room to sleep, but does not go to bed immediately, claiming, “I just had to go back for one more look at the kitchen. It was a really good kitchen.” Her life still swirling from the day’s events, she manages to comment on her proximity or closeness to the kitchen as being the best place that she could possibly be.
Overpowered by her feelings on a final visit to the apartment, Mikage rushes off the bus, tears streaming down her face. What snaps her to her senses is the image of steam rising from a brightly-lit window above her, drawing her attention to the sounds of “happy voices,” and of “pots and pans clanging.” At this moment, the kitchen soothes Mikage. She goes from a place of intense despair to one of happiness in the blink of an eye and marvels at the transformation. The sight of the kitchen revives her. The sight of the kitchen inspires Mikage to go on, as reflected in her plea to the gods that she wants to live. The kitchen proves to be her spiritual connection with the living world. Mikage also shares her thoughts about her “dream kitchens,” either real or born out of fancy or imagination. Some will take shape in her heart—in others she will find comfort in a crowd of people. Likewise, Mikage believes she will continue to have difficulties, that she will suffer, but that her spirit will survive—she will not be defeated. In the juxtaposition or comparison of the kitchen to the struggles in her life, a more concrete idea takes shape. Mikage will always find a kitchen; therefore, she will always find a place of solace, whether she creates one within herself (her heart), a kitchen she can go to in order to feel safe, or a kitchen in the company of others. No matter how often the struggles come, there will always be a safe haven for her somewhere.
One of the first connections Mikage makes with the Tanabe family also involves food. She cooks breakfast for Eriko, stating “I couldn’t have dreamed of having breakfast at the house of someone I had just met, and it felt very strange.” For Mikage, eating is sacred, it is intimate, and demands a deeper relationship between participants, deeper than one between strangers. But her breakfast with Eriko, no matter how awkward, signifies a turning point for Mikage. As a result of a simple morning ritual, Mikage’s heart is transformed, and she begins to feel connected to something or someone again. In another instance, Eriko brings Mikage a juicer as a gift, claiming “I hear fresh-squeezed juice gives you beautiful skin.” For Eriko and for Mikage, food symbolizes vitality, life. In Mikage’s response, she recognizes the spiritual transformation that has taken place within her own heart. After receiving this gift, Mikage vows to never forget the Tanabes. She acknowledges the bond she has formed with the family in her thoughts of coming back “again and again to make soupy rice for them.”
In fact, many if not all of Mikage’s encounters with the Tanabes are related in terms of food, and she often comments on them. Eriko’s story of the pineapple plant that he gives to his dying wife, is a very powerful recollection of Mikage’s. Eriko admits that in choosing the plant for his wife he felt that it was a “plant that I could understand, it had fruit on it and everything.” There is reciprocity or give and take established between both Eriko and the plant in relating to his dying wife. He shares,
In this world, tonight, only the pineapple and I understand each other—that thought came straight from my heart. Closing my eyes, as if against the cold wind, I felt we were the only two living things sharing that loneliness.
Eriko claims to have taken the plant away from the hospital at his wife’s request before it becomes “infused with death.” His relationship with this fruit-bearing plant is a function of the spiritual connection he has with his dying wife. The plant is removed, not as the result of any discussion, but, according to Eriko, because of a certain intuition shared between husband and wife. This special connection will resurface later in communication between Yuichi and Mikage.
Specifically, after ordering katsudon (fried pork served over rice), Mikage has a revelation with regard to Yuichi. The katsudon becomes more than just a meal, it is a means to reach out to Yuichi, to relate to him, to acknowledge both Mikage’s and Yuichi’s connectedness as two lovers starving under the same night sky. Food is a turning point for their relationship because it is this idea of “starving together” that inspires Mikage to make their fate one and the same. She suddenly recognizes by what she describes as “thrilling sharp intuition” that the relationship has come to a fork in the road, that it could blossom into something meaningful or they could remain “forever friends.” Upon delivery of the katsudon she says “I came to deliver the katsudon, it seemed so delicious,” to which Yuichi replies “Our dream conversation. Isn’t this like that?” Accusing him of trying to forget his old life, of an unhealthy escape, Mikage then adds “but right now there’s this katsudon. Go ahead, eat it.” She wants to pull him out of the nightmare, ground him in the reality of what is going on, and she sees food as a way to accomplish this. In a dreamlike state, he eats the katsudon, Mikage stating “my spirits began to lift. I had done all that I could.” She feels that food is the tonic to ground Yuichi, to spark happier memories between the two. It is both Yuichi and Mikage’s solace or comfort, their connection to each other, and quite literally, to life itself.
The idea of sustenance or nourishment as a means for emotional survival intensifies the nature of both Yuichi and Mikage’s grief as being a “life and death” matter, one that impacts the nature of their very souls. There is reciprocity going on between the two of them, as Mikage exchanges food with Yuichi to bring him out of his dreamlike state. So has Yuichi done the same, in a dream, by pulling Mikage away from subconscious thoughts that her grandmother is still alive, to ground her in the reality of the ramen noodle stand, a source of nourishment. Such an activity is one of normalcy, of routine, and signifies that life is moving forward. Symbolically, it is a means of proceeding past a dangerous emotional place for both Yuichi and Mikage.
Mikage also has a flood of memories associated with food at this point, all happy. Yuichi breaks through with “Why is it that everything I eat when I’m with you is so delicious?” Mikage is his sustenance, like the food itself. She breathes life into him, returning him to the most simple of pleasures. Mikage makes an interesting observation, stating “Yuichi eating his katsudon, me drinking my tea, the darkness no longer harboring death.” Yoshimoto, at this point, employs a rather interesting word choice—the word harboring, by definition, is to entertain or to nourish a thought or feeling. The darkness, then, is death’s nourishment. Food, however, represents the nourishment of life, and of the soul. It is as if the katsudon and tea have infused light and life into both Yuichi and Mikage. Earlier in the text, Yuichi also speaks of “food” that “was giving off white light, like the telephone. So I wondered if eating it would put out the light.”
The importance of food in contemporary Japanese culture mirrors many of the sentiments of Yoshimoto’s book. John Ashburne, in “World Food Japan,” emphasizes that Japan is a nation characterized by its obsession with food. He also asserts that an invitation to eat in Japan is more than a simple affair. A Japanese lunch invitation cannot be likened to the statement, “let’s grab a burger.” Ashburne offers the opinion that “it’s an invitation to commune over food, to bond in a primal act of mutual celebration, to reinforce group identities, or welcome outsiders into the fold.”
Preparation and presentation, as well as etiquette figure prominently in the Japanese dining world. In the religious practice of a Zen monk, food and the act of eating also play an important role. The art of cooking, and that of eating, is practiced only by Tenzo, or monks already on a strong spiritual path, and is seen as an opportunity for both meditation as well as learning. Quoting Zen master Dogen-zenji’s “Instructions for the Zen Cook,” (circa 1237), Ashburne relays the words of the great Zen master on the simple act of washing rice and cooking it. Dogen-zenji states, “Keep your eyes open. Do not allow even one grain of rice to be lost. Wash the rice thoroughly, put it in the pot, light the fire and cook it.” He then adds, “There is an old saying that goes, ‘see the pot as your own head; see the water as your life-blood.’” Dogen-zenji also comments on “whipping up a quick lunch,” stating that one should “maintain an attitude that tries to build a temple from ordinary greens ... Handle even a single leaf of green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha.” Dogen-zenji’s ideas form the basis for much of Yoshimoto’s text. Mikage’s process of self-discovery is facilitated or aided by her desire to cook, as is her sense of spirituality and connection with others.
In the end, the infusion of light and life into Yuichi’s soul compels him to return to Tokyo and to track down Mikage. Upon calling Mikage, he asks her if she as eaten “a lot of good things,” and Yuichi then quips jokes that she should have sent “sashimi and prawns” (raw fish or meat) back to Tokyo. This display of lightheartedness between the two signifies a turning point in their relationship, a return to some sort of normalcy, a movement towards the future, and a chance for happier memories, as symbolized yet again by food. Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is simply an elaboration on the idea of spiritual rebirth. Over and over, people begin again, not unlike the chef in a kitchen. A new day, a new dish—it is all in the routine, and in routine comes constant renewal.
Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on “Kitchen,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following essay excerpt, Buruma claims that ’‘Kitchen” draws upon aspects of traditional Japanese literature and current popular tastes.
Japan can easily give the impression of a country of fag hags. Comic books for young girls feature beautiful youths falling in love with aristocratic men, or androgynous rock stars. Japanese girls like David Bowie at his most camp. The film of E. M. Forster’s Maurice played to full houses, mostly of young girls. Luchino Visconti was a teen-age idol, as was his star, Helmut Berger. The most popular theater company for young girls is the all female Takarazuka, based in a dreamlike little spa near Osaka, with pink bridges and pink houses, and a large pink theater. One of the most popular Takarazuka roles—apart from Rhett Butler and Lieutenant Pinkerton—is that of a young woman at the court of Louis XVI, who grows up as a boy named Oscar. As a dashing military officer, Oscar falls in love with a Swedish aristocrat, who is already in love with Marie-Antoinette. But Oscar in turn is adored by her/his groom, who is unaware of his master’s female identity. The play is entitled Rose of Versailles.
“The tone of Yashimoto’s stories is strange, for it veers from childlike naivete to flights of bizarre fancy, which is just like most of Japanese comic books for teenagers.”
All this would be camp, if it were knowing. But it is not. Young Japanese girls appear to find the pink bridges, the gay romances, the rock stars in drag, the girls dressed as boys who fall in love with other boys, beautiful. Akogare, romantic longing, is the term they use for this dream world, far removed from the demands of reality. What would be the highest of camp in another context can become cute in Japan, redolent of childhood. It is rather like the chosen name of [Yoshimoto Banana]. Banana is the kind of sobriquet that would suit a Brazilian drag artist. But the publicity photograph of Yoshimoto Banana, hugging her little puppy dog, is cuteness personified. The fact that her father is the most famous philosopher of the 1960s new left gives her name an extra air of incongruousness, as though there were a young German novelist called Banana Habermas.
Yoshimoto Banana’s extraordinary success—more than six million books were sold in two years, and she is still in her twenties—has made her so famous that the Japanese foreign ministry was handling out copies of her book to foreign visitors at the G-7 Summit in Tokyo. They may not realize what peculiar fantasies lurk behind Yoshimoto’s cute exterior.
Yoshimoto Banana’s stories are clearly related to the androgynous teen-age universe of Takarazuka and girls’ comic. The characters in Kitchen, a book of two short stories, include a transsexual father and a boy who dresses up in his dead girlfriend’s school uniform. Yet there is nothing overtly kinky about these transformations. In the first story, entitled “Kitchen,” a young girl called Mikage, who is left alone in the world after her grandmother dies, goes to live with Eriko, the transsexual, and his/her son, Yuichi. She more or less lives in their kitchen, cooking delicious food, trying to soothe her lonely heart. In a way, the kitchen is to Mikage what drag is to Eriko: a refuge from loneliness after the death of a loved one. Yuichi explains how his father became his mother:
“After my real mother died, Eriko quit her job, gathered me up, and asked herself, ‘What do I want to do now?’ What she decided was, ‘Become a woman.’ She knew she’d never love anybody else. She says that before she became a woman she was very shy.”
In the second story, entitled “Moonlight Shadow,” Hiiragi’s taste for wearing his dead girlfriend’s clothes is equally matter-of-fact. And it, too, is an escape from loneliness. His girlfriend, Yumiko, died in a car crash, together with his brother Hitoshi. Hitoshi’s girlfriend is called Satsuki, and the story is told in her voice. She wants to know why Hiiragi insists on going around in Yumiko’s school uniform:
When I asked him if he wore it for sentimental reasons, he said that wasn’t it. “Things are just things, they can’t bring back the dead. It just makes me feel better.”
What cooking is to Mikage, jogging is to Satsuki. As Satsuki says: “His sailor outfit—my jogging. They served exactly the same purpose... Neither recourse was anything more than a way of trying to lend some life to a shriveled spirit. It was a way to divert our minds, to kill time.”
The Italian scholar Giorgio Amitrano pointed out the connection with girls’ comics in his introduction to the German edition of Kitchen. He wrote that Yashimoto’s stories, with their odd sexual disguises and morbid emotions, are not only like many Japanese girl’s comics, but also owe much to horror movies and the impressionistic style of Kawabata Yasunari’s novels. This is more weight than the book can possibly carry, but the point is well taken. For a fascination for horror and death is as much part of girls’ comics as the cuteness and androgynous fantasies.
The tone of Yashimoto’s stories is strange, for it veers from childlike naivete to flights of bizarre fancy, which is just like most of Japanese comic books for teen-agers. Sometimes her prose is direct and simple, and sometimes it reads like a young girl’s diary, filled with poetic sadness: “Suddenly, to see that the world was so large, the cosmos so black. The unbounded fascination of it, the unbounded loneliness...”
Children often dream of flying out the windows of their bedrooms, following some fairy or another, to a never-never land without parents, to a new family of children and freaks. Yoshimoto’s characters are a bit like the children in such tales—except that they are not children; they just dream like children. Instead of fathers and mothers, there are the surrogate fathers and brothers, dressed in women’s clothes.
But neither of her stories celebrates or even suggests new sexual possibilities, as one might assume. Indeed, sex, like real parents and siblings, is absent. Yuichi never becomes Mikage’s lover, and neither does Hiiragi in Satsuki’s case. Not sex but death permeates both tales: the death of Eriko, stabbed by a mad suitor; the death of Mikage’s grandmother; and the deaths of Satsuki’s boyfriend and Hiiragi’s girlfriend. Death, loss, the melancholy fleetingness of life, these are brooded over endlessly with the feverish sensibility of Victorian children’s tales. This is where Kitchen is both contemporary and very traditional—hence, perhaps, the perceived shades of Kawabata, who, incidentally, wrote some of his stories for an audience of young girls. But is a pop version of Kawabata, as though The lzu Dancer, or Snow Country, were written for the Takarazuka theater.
The two most common phrases in classical Japanese literature, as well as in modern pop songs and in Yoshimoto’s book, are sadness (kanashimi), and nostalgia (natsukashisa). Translated into English, this can sound odd: “The sound of his voice made me want to weep with nostalgia.” Or: “Somewhere deep in my heart I felt I had known her long ago, and the reunion made me feel so nostalgic I wanted to weep tears of joy.” Weeping tears of nostalgia is not something one comes across often in Western literature. Not that the emotion doesn’t exist, but it is not usually so histrionically expressed; or rather, what sounds histrionic in English is perfectly ordinary in Japanese. Perhaps nostalgic isn’t even quite the right word for natusukashii, but I wouldn’t know of a better one.
Nostalgia is closely linked to that other key element of Japanese aesthetics: mono no aware, the sadness of things, lacrimae rerum. Sadness about the transience of life, is, in Japanese art, a thing of beauty. Again, like nostalgia, it is not easy to translate. But you find instances of it all through Yoshimoto’s book: “When I finished reading I carefully refolded the letter. The smell of Eriko’s favorite perfume tugged at my heart. This, too will disappear after the letter is opened a few more times, I thought. That was hardest of all.”
Nostalgia is one reason why so much in Japanese art is about reliving the past, or fixing the flow of time, as in a haiku. The ghosts of the dead appear in Noh plays, rather as Christ did to his disciples after the crucifixion. Sometimes they return to torment or exact their revenge, and sometimes to liberate the living from being haunted by death. And sometimes just to say goodbye. In “Moonlight Shadow,” Satsuki sees her dead boyfriend for one last time, when he appears one night on a river bank: “My tears fell like rain; all I could do was stare at him. Hitoshi looked sadly back at me. I wished time could stop—but with the first rays of the rising sun everything slowly began to fade away.”
The beautiful sadness of things is linked to the Japanese cult of purity, of uncorrupted youth, of the cherry blossom in full bloom. It is the fleetingness of the cherry blossom’s life (about a week in Japan), and the speed at which decay and corruption spoil the pure beauty of a young boy or girl, that bring on the sense of exquisite sadness. Here is where classical Japanese aesthetics meets the world of Takarazuka, girls’ comics, and Yoshimoto’s stories. For in all these instances, there is a deep nostalgia for the purity of youth, before sex roles are clearly defined, before social hypocrisy corrupts, before the rot sets in. In Japanese fiction of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, homosexuality was often celebrated for this reason: boys’ love was considered to be purer than the heterosexual kind; it was uncontaminated by the demands of reproduction and other family duties.
Since family duties are (or at any rate were) particularly onerous in Japan and the sexes so rigidly defined, it is no wonder that young girls so often long to stop time, and retreat into a fantasy world of purity, androgyny, and prepubescence. Yet, of course, women have written about sexual love. Lady Murasaki wrote about little else in her Tale of Genji. But even she, who still enjoyed a high status in the rarefied sphere of the Heian court, was filled with sadness: she pined, she longed, she was nostalgic. Since then the status of Japanese women steadily declined and women’s stories, whether written by women or men, became sadder and sadder. Love so often ended in tragedy, because there was no room in Japanese society for love. Marriage had nothing to do with romantic love. And women who loved outside the home, in fiction and in fact, overstepped their social borders, and their passion had to end in death. Sex, in the fiction of the Edo period (1603-1867), was almost entirely confined to the licensed quarters. But only men wrote about this floating world of paid love. Ihara Saikaku’s The Life of an Amorous Woman (1686) is one of the masterpieces of this genre. Women, being confined to the brothel or the home, hardly wrote anything at all. They were the sacrificial victims of love in the male imagination, and often in reality too.
Love, wrote Tanizaki Junichiro in 1932, was liberated for the Japanese by European literature. He meant that romantic love in modern Japan had become a serious subject, not an excuse for dramatic suicide. Before there was only sex, with prostitutes, actors, boys; now sexual love would strike a blow for individual freedom. Women writers took up this theme too. But it is interesting that one of the greatest literary masterpieces of die early modern period (and indeed of modern Japanese literature tout court) should still be so traditional, in content and in form. It is a novella, entitled Growing Up, written by Higuchi Ichiyo and published in 1895. It is the story of a young girl growing up in a licensed quarter of Tokyo. What makes her sexual awakening, her growing up, so sad is that we know how she will end up, in the brothel with her elder sister. Freedom, as this story shows, belongs to the child. The loss of innocence means bondage not freedom. To become a woman is to enter the prison that society has provided, in this case a whorehouse, but it could just as well have been the home.
Things have changed since 1896, to be sure. Japanese women have more freedom than ever before. One of the most remarkable statistics of modern Japan is that since a few years ago, more women than men initiated divorce proceedings. (In Higuchi Ichiyo’s time, a woman did not even have the right to ask for a divorce.) And yet, as far as sexual love is concerned, things have not changed as much as it may seem. For the alternative to pure sex is still very often a sad nostalgia for lost innocence.
What has changed is that the description of sex, from a predatory point of view, is no longer a male preserve. A young woman writer called Yamada Emi made her reputation by writing novels about working as a dominatrix in an SM club, and her passion for black men. In Bedtime Eyes, she describes her lover, a black GI, as a sweating sex object. His character is as flat and featureless as the courtesans in pornographic wood block prints of the Edo period. Foreigners, and especially black men, have taken the place of prostitutes in the Japanese erotic imagination. A recent nonfiction best seller, entitled Yellow Cab, by Ieda Shoko, featured examples of wild sexual adventures enjoyed by Japanese women visiting New York. This is not the love that Tanizaki talked about. But at least it is women doing all the talking.
Sex with foreigners, in fantasy or in fact, is a long way from the pink dreams of innocent gender-bending. And yet there is a connection. Just as the licensed quarters were a traditional escape for men from the duties of family life, sexual adventurism overseas has become a modern escape for many independent women. Marriage for most Japanese women is still a social trap, commonly known as “the graveyard of life.” It means the end of a career, of economic independence. And since heterosexual love in Japan usually means marriage, an increasing number of career women are stuck with celibacy, with or without trips abroad.
The alternative is of course the sexless intimacy of the fag hag and her chosen friends. The heroines of Yoshimoto’s fiction are not exactly fag hags, nor are they innocent. Mikage and Satsuki are young women. But grown-up sexual relationships are still beyond their grasp. Instead, in the security of their private kitchens, they dream nostalgic dreams, and shed melancholy tears about the passing of time. This is the stuff of great Japanese poetry, and absolute kitsch. Yoshimoto Banana is not yet a mistress of poetry, but she is a past master of kitsch.
Source: Ian Buruma, “Weeping Tears of Nostalgia,” in the New York Review of Books, Vol. XL, No. 14, August 12, 1993, pp. 29–30.
Ashburne, John, and Yoshi Abe, World Food Japan, Lonely Planet, 2002.
Brown, Scott Shibuya, “Adrift in the New Japan,” in Book World—Washington Post, January 10, 1993, p. 8.
Garrison, Deborah, “Day-O!,” in the New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 49, January 25, 1993, pp. 109–10.
Grimson, Todd, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 10, 1993, pp. 3, 7.
Hanson, Elizabeth, “Hold the Tofu,” in the New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1993, p. 18.
Kakutani, Michiko, in the New York Times, January 12, 1993.
Kovanis, Georgea, in the Detroit Free Press, April 2, 1993, pp. 1G–2G.
De Mente, Lafayette, The Japanese Have a Word for It: The Complete Guide to Japanese Thought and Culture, McGraw Hill, 1997.
De Mente provides readable and detailed information to those unfamiliar with life and culture in modern Japan.
Kaufmann, Walter Arnold, ed., Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre, Meridian, 1988.
This collection of essays provides analyses and examples of the themes of loneliness and despair in world literature.
Keene, Donald, ed., Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Grove Press, 1988.
This anthology provides an introduction to and history and selections of Japanese literature.
Tanaka, Yukiko, ed., Unmapped Territories: New Women’s Fiction from Japan, Women in Translation, 1991.
Fresh and innovative writing by contemporary Japanese women is sampled in this anthology.
For Further Study
Kitchen is the title of a novella by Mahoko ("Banana") Yoshimoto, and it is also the name of the book containing that novella along with the novella Moonlight Shadow. When the book was published in Japan in 1988, it was an immediate success, propelling its author to a superstar status in the literary world that she has managed to maintain since then, due in part to her tremendous output, averaging a book a year. With the English release of Kitchen in 1992, her U.S. publisher gambled a fortune on pre-publication publicity, having posters of the author plastered on walls in major American cities. The book went on to be a major best-seller and "Banana-mania" eventually spread across the globe. Yoshimoto's fans tend to be fanatical in their ardor, exchanging testimonials and gossip about the author on the Internet and anxiously speculating about which novel will be the next one translated into their own language.
In the novella Kitchen, the elements of a typical Banana Yoshimoto work can be found. Death, the occult, sexual ambiguity, love, physical beauty, and the trials and tribulations of young adults living in the big city are themes that present themselves, to varying degrees, in most of her works of fiction. It is Yoshimoto's penchant for exploring the same territory time and again, along with her self-professed goal of providing an upbeat ending, that lead to criticism of her work as derivative and saccharine. Yet it is plain to see, from the wide range of her readership and the intensity of their devotion, that Banana Yoshimoto is a writer who has earned respect and serious consideration.
Banana Yoshimoto is a worldwide phenomenon, with millions of fans falling in love with her novels and waiting eagerly for the next one—a circumstance referred to on the many web pages dedicated to her as "Banana-mania." Her rise to fame came quickly and early in her life. She was born Mahoko Yoshimoto in Tokyo in 1964. Her father, Takaaki Yoshimoto, was a famous literary critic, poet, and commentator; his works were extremely influential on Japan's radical youth movement in the 1960s. She majored in arts and literature at Nihon University in Tokyo, graduating in 1987. While there, she won the Izuini Kyoka Prize, which is Nihon's Department of Arts Award, for the novella Moonlight Shadow, which has been published in the same volume as Kitchen.
In 1987, Kitchen was awarded the prestigious Kaien Magazine New Writers' Prize. Upon the book's first publication in 1988, it was an instant hit, selling more than two million copies and earning its author literary awards in Italy and Japan. She was twenty-four, and took the pen name "Banana" because she thought it was cute. For the U.S. edition of Kitchen in 1992, her publisher staged a full-out marketing blitz, which turned out to be a great success, landing the book on the best-seller lists. The book has had over sixty printings in Japan since it premiered, and has been adapted into movies twice: the first version in 1989 was quick and cheap, so in 1997 famed Chinese director Yim Ho created an art-house version that moved the story to Hong Kong and made the male lead the narrator.
Yoshimoto has had eleven novels published in Japan so far, and four have been translated into English: Kitchen, NP, Lizard, and Amrita. Her fans are devoted, but so are her detractors, calling her work slick, superficial, and driven by a standard formula. The author herself denies that her novels follow any set recipe in an attempt to keep up with her early fame. Many of the themes found in her books such as androgyny and psychic phenomena are familiar fixtures in the Japanese literary form known as magna, which are graphic novels similar to the comic books published in America. In Japan, magna account for a third of all works published. Yoshimoto explains that she does not write for editors or readers, that she does not really have anyone in mind when she writes her novels. Her influences, she says, are literary, including Truman Capote and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Section 1: Kitchen
The first half of the story starts with Mikage's praise for kitchens of all kinds, clean or dirty, large or small. This becomes a description of her situation: with the death of her grandmother "the other day," Mikage is alone in the world. That situation, however, lasts only briefly, for the first plot twist appears a few pages into the novella, with the appearance of Yuichi Tanabe at her front door. Mikage does not know Yuichi, but she remembers having seen him at her grandmother's funeral, and she later remembers her grandmother having mentioned him as the nice boy who worked in the flower shop she went to every day. "I just stopped by to ask you something," he explains. "I was talking to my mother, and we were thinking that you ought to come to our house for a while." Mikage agrees to come for supper that night, and while she is there she falls in love with their kitchen and becomes fascinated with Yuichi's mother, Eriko, who was his father before having a sex-change operation. "Dumbfounded, I couldn't take my eyes off her," she says of their first meeting, before knowing of Eriko's male past. She finds that she sleeps well on the sofa, which is next to the kitchen, and the next day when Eriko asks her to come and live in the apartment with her and Yuichi, Mikage accepts.
Once, while removing things from her old apartment, she receives a phone call from Sotaro, her old boyfriend. When they meet, he says that he knows she is living with "that Tanabe guy," that everyone knows it at the school she has dropped out of, that Yuichi's girlfriend slapped him during a loud, jealous argument in the cafeteria. Mikage does not think that it is the big deal that the others do, and when she later asks Yuichi if he doesn't think her living there is "a little weird," he assures her it's not.
Mikage has a dream that is recounted in detail, about her and Yuichi cleaning her old apartment as a final step for her leaving it. In the dream, they sing a love song together, and then Yuichi, who "was suddenly revealed to be a prince," says, "After we finish cleaning up here, I really feel like stopping at the ramen noodle stand in the park." Waking from the dream, Mikage goes into the kitchen and runs into Yuichi, who woke in the night with a hunger for ramen noodles. He correctly guesses the color of the floor tile in the kitchen of the old apartment, indicating that they both had the same dream at the same time. The first section ends with Mikage content and happy with living in the Tanabe apartment, just vaguely aware that she will have to move out some day.
Section 2: Full Moon
The second half of the novella opens with Mikage describing the circumstances under which Eriko died: she was stalked by a patron of the nightclub that she owned, and when he found out that she had once been a man, he stabbed her, although she managed to beat him to death with a barbell before she died. After relating these events, Mikage, as narrator, explains that she had not been living at the Tanabe apartment for months at the time of the murder; in fact, she had found her own apartment and was working as an assistant at a cooking school. Yuichi's call to break the news about Eriko's death comes long after her funeral. Mikage races over to be with him that night and finds that since Eriko's death he has withdrawn into himself, much as she had after her grandmother's death in the beginning of the story. They stay up all night talking about Eriko, and the next morning, before he leaves for school, they decide to have a magnificent meal together, "a dinner to end all dinners," that evening. When he brings home the groceries for the meal, they notice the beauty of the nearly-full moon and speculate about how it affects one's cooking in a non-mystical, "human" sense.
After the meal they discuss the possibility of Mikage moving back into the apartment again, but neither of them can decide if it would be as Yuichi's lover or his friend. In the morning, Mikage is wakened by the phone, but the caller hangs up when she answers, and she assumes it is a jealous girl. Yuichi's old girlfriend Okuno visits her at the cooking school where she works to tell her to stay away from Yuichi: "You say you're not his girlfriend, yet you go over there whenever you want, you spend the night, you do what you please, don't you?" she says with angry tears. "That's worse than living together." Unsure of her relationship with Yuichi, Mikage arranges to go on a business trip in order to avoid deciding which apartment she will live in.
Before leaving, though, she receives a call from Chika, who was one of Eriko's friends. They meet for lunch, at which Chika expresses amusement that Yuichi and Mikage do not realize that they are in love with each other, even though it is obvious. One night on her trip, Mikage phones Yuichi at an inn in Isehara. They complain to each other about the dull food that they have been served at the inns they are staying at, and when Mikage hangs up the phone, she eats some katsudon at the diner she phoned from and finds it delicious. So she gets a take-out order and takes a cab to Isehara, sixty miles away, dropping off the food and then leaving just as mysteriously as she came: "A matter of love, is it?" the cab driver asks, and she responds, "Something along those lines." On the last day of her trip, Yuichi phones Mikage at her hotel. He is over his grief and has returned to Tokyo, and he arranges to pick her up at the train station when she arrives the next day.
The head "girl" at Eriko's club, Chika has more masculine features than Eriko because she is a transvestite who has not had her gender changed surgically. The only thing that Eriko does not leave to Yuichi after her death is the nightclub, which she leaves to Chika. Late in the story, Chika calls Mikage to meet her and tell her something urgent. Chika tells her that she knows that Yuichi and Mikage are in love with one another, even though neither one of them admit it.
One of Mikage's colleagues, Kuri's sunny disposition gives her "an appealing cuteness." She is Nori's best friend.
Nori is described as "a beauty of the 'proper young lady' variety." She works with Mikage as an assistant to the cooking teacher. Mikage admires her open and loving relationship with her mother.
Okuno thinks of herself as Yuichi's girlfriend. She claims to have been the one who comforted Yuichi when Eriko died, although Yuichi never mentions any such thing to Mikage. When she finds out that Mikage has spent the night at Yuichi's apartment, Okuno confronts Mikage at work and threatens her, telling her to stay away from him.
The protagonist and narrator of Kitchen is Mikage, a young student in Tokyo. Her parents died when she was young and she was raised by her grandmother, whose death leaves her depressed, listless, and unable to face the world. When Yuichi Tanabe comes to her door and asks her to move in with his mother and him, she is surprised, because she does not know much about them. Despite this fact, she accepts an invitation to dinner.
At the Tanabe house, she finds comfort, and she falls in love with the kitchen "at first sight." She is overwhelmed upon meeting Eriko, and the feelings that she has are expressed in terms that border on romance: "Still, she was stunning. She made me want to be with her again. There was a warm light, like her afterimage, softly glowing in my heart. That must be what they mean by 'charm.'" In spite of this, she is only slightly shaken by the news that Eriko is a transsexual. Mikage discovers that she is able to sleep well on the couch at the Tanabe home, in part because it is next to the kitchen. She moves in with them, partly because of her loneliness over the death of her grandmother, partly because of her enchantment with Eriko, and partly because she recognizes that Yuichi, raised by Eriko alone as she was raised by her grandmother, has much in common with her.
By the end of the novella, Mikage seems to have found the courage to face life again. After Eriko's death, she moves out of the apartment and finds a job. However, she remains confused about her feelings for Yuichi; are they friends, or are they in love with each other? For all her growth she still needs a third party to tell her what everyone already knows: she is in love with Yuichi. Although the resolution is unclear, the reader does have reason to hope that they will unite and embark on a relationship.
Sotaro is Mikage's old boyfriend. He has always been very cheerful, and when they were together they made a "picture-perfect" couple, but they broke up when her grandmother became seriously ill. He tells her about Yuichi's former girlfriend confronting him in the school cafeteria. Reflecting on Sotaro, Mikage says, "I loved his hearty robustness, I thirsted after it, but in spite of that I couldn't keep pace with it, and it made me hate myself." She realizes, though, that she just is not attracted to Sotaro, and when they part, they part as friends.
Eriko is Yuichi's mother—actually, she is his biological father, but she had a sex-change operation after her young wife's death, and she lives as a woman. She is the owner of a gay nightclub.
When Eriko was young, she was taken in to live with a family and became very attached to the daughter of the family. They eloped when she was young. After her death, Eriko knew she would never love again, and that was when she decided to change over to the female sex. As a woman, Eriko is strong-willed, active, impulsive, and incredibly beautiful. It is her idea to have Mikage move in with Yuichi and her—in light of her past history, she probably recognized the possibility that they could have a romance like she and her dead wife once had. Her life is not easy, but, as she explains to Mikage, she accepts the difficulties that she encounters as a necessary part of the growth process: "But if a person hasn't ever experienced true despair, she grows old never knowing how to evaluate where she is in life; never understanding what joy really is. I'm grateful for it."
Eriko suffers a sudden, violent death. A stalker follows her on the street and becomes fascinated with her. He finds out that she was once a man and, in a rage, stabs her with a knife. Eriko beats him to death before she dies herself. The letter that she leaves behind for Yuichi is full of humor and self-satisfaction with the accomplishments of her life. After her death, Mikage remembers a story that Eriko told her about her wife's death, of how Eriko had brought a pineapple plant to her hospital room to cheer her up but the dying woman, when her time was near, asked that the plant be taken away. Eriko realized from this that the world was unyielding, that nothing could change the unpleasantness we face: "It was clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman, and here I am."
When Yuichi first comes to Mikage to invite her to live with the Tanabes, she remembers him from her grandmother's funeral; initially, she wonders if he was the old woman's lover, because the funeral upset him so much. Then she remembers that he worked at the flower shop that her grandmother had gone to every day.
Yuichi's mother died when he was a child, and Eriko was both mother and father to him. He attaches himself to Mikage, as he had to her grandmother, with total devotion, although he seems incapable of romantic love; the girl that he went out with for a year and then dropped suddenly "said that Yuichi was incapable of caring more for a girl than he did for a fountain pen." Yuichi does not contact Mikage about Eriko's death until a long time after the event because he is so distraught. He does not specifically blame himself for what happened to Eriko, but he does note the fact that there has been a lot of death in his family, as in Mikage's, and he suggests that they go into business as carriers of death—"destruction workers."
Even when he realizes that their relationship is not just friendship, or the brother-and-sister bond that it was when Eriko was alive, he does not change his aloof demeanor. Nor does she. But in the end, when he arranges to pick her up at Tokyo station, it is clear to see that they are in love, even though nothing to that effect is explicitly said.
One of the most notable facets of the story Kitchen is the calm and subtle treatment that it gives to Eriko's gender. When Mikage first meets Eriko, she is smitten with the beauty that she sees. Her fascination indicates a sexual attraction, but as she explains that she came to understand the word "charm" for the first time, it becomes clear that her attraction is not physical, that it is more like magic. When Yuichi tells her that Eriko is actually his biological father, that she has changed her sex, Mikage expresses some surprise—"I just stared at him in wide-eyed silence. I didn't know what to say"—but she is not overwhelmed, and her surprise soon fades as she becomes involved in a conversation about Yuichi's family history.
Raised by Eriko, Yuichi is kind; this can be seen in the way that he treats Mikage and her grandmother. He is a special case, though, and there are only two other males in the book to compare him to: Mikage's old boyfriend Sotaro, who is sensitive to the beauty of plants but ignorant of Mikage (his parting words to her are "Chin up, kid!"), and the anonymous stalker who murders Eriko, "screaming that he has been made a fool of." If Yuichi is shown to have a good balance of male and female characteristics, it is because Eriko went before him and blazed a path; if Mikage is also well-balanced, it is because her suffering and loneliness have introduced her to the harsher elements of masculinity.
To say that death is a catalyst for change in this story would be an understatement. This point is made most obvious in the fact that Yuji/Eriko Tanabe, distraught over the death of his wife after a lingering illness, decided to become a woman, to flee what he had been when she was alive. By becoming a woman he feels closer to her.
Mikage's way of dealing with the loss of her grandmother is similar, if not so extreme; instead, she slides into a state of inertia, unable to respond to the world or deal with the simplest decisions. When Yuichi arrives on her doorstep offering a chance to live in a new place—to in effect become somebody different—it does not take much to convince her to go along.
Topics for Further Study
- What do you think Eriko's transsexuality adds to this story? Explain how you think Mikage's and Yuichi's love affair would have been different if Eriko had just been a mother who worked at a nightclub.
- Make a list of foods that you think would be comforting in a time of grief, and why. Try to determine if there is any physiological basis for your hunch.
- This book has been made into a movie twice in Japan. What problems do you think the scriptwriters would have encountered while adapting it? What scenes would be most effective on the screen? What key scenes would not translate well to movies?
- Write a short story explaining what life is like for Mikage and Yuichi one year, five years, or fifteen years into the future. You can write it from Mikage's point of view, as the book is, or from Yuichi's.
The first effect of Eriko's death is that Mikage and Yuichi see themselves marked by death, surrounded by bad luck: "So I've become an orphan," Yuichi says, and Mikage responds with, "That goes double for me." Their grief brings them together, as Mikage, who suffered through similar circum-stances with the recent loss of her grandmother, takes up the job of nursing Yuichi. She does that by cooking for him but also, less noticeably, just with her loving presence. It is this nurturing relationship that obscures their true romantic love from both of them until the end, when their separation from one another makes their feelings clearer.
The issue at the center of this story, from the beginning to the end, is whether Mikage and Yuichi will become lovers, or if the special bond between them is limited to friendship. This question is raised in the story's first real scene, with Yuichi arriving at Mikage's doorstep and asking her to come and live in his home. In the absence of any preexisting friendship between them, she is confused as to the source of the bond she feels for him. "I saw a straight road leading from me to him," she says of their first encounter. "He seemed to glow with white light. That was the effect he had on me."
She later feels a similar attraction to Eriko, his mother/father, and the delight that all three of them find in each other makes their relationship seem like a very strong friendship. Mikage deflects her old boyfriend's suspicion that she and Yuichi are having an affair by pointing out that his mother lives with them, as proof that their living arrangement is nonsexual. Still, the supernatural aspect of their relationship indicates that they are more than friends, except that Mikage does not allow herself to see it as supernatural at all. After they both have the same dream at the same time, she acknowledges its implausibility at the same time that she denies that there is anything magical about it: "While what had happened was utterly amazing," she says, "it didn't seem so out of the ordinary, really. It was at once a miracle and the most natural thing in the world." For the purposes of this novel, the same miraculous quality can be ascribed to love, while friendship is "the most natural thing in the world."
When Mikage returns to Yuichi after Eriko's death, he asks her to move back into the apartment, and she wonders openly about their relationship for once, questioning whether they would be lovers or friends. He has no answer, though: "You mean, should we sell the sofa and buy a double bed?," he asks. "I myself don't even know." Mikage needs to be told by the transvestite Chika that she is in love with Yuichi, and he with her, before she is able to understand their relationship.
In the opening pages of the novella the significance of the kitchen is explained. Mikage introduces herself and explains that she has been sleeping in the kitchen after her grandmother's death, indicating that the association with warmth and food was what she needed to comfort her worried soul. There is even a reference to Linus, the character in the Peanuts cartoon who carries a "security blanket" that provides him with psychological support against the furies of the world. The symbol of the kitchen makes sporadic, but significant, appearances throughout this novella.
Mikage establishes herself at the Tanabe residence by forming a special bond with their kitchen; her love of the kitchen, or perhaps her love of Eriko and Yuichi, prompts her to understand cooking. This understanding leads her to find her place in the outside world, among the likes of Nori and Kuri and their Sensei, or teacher. Most of the other major symbols in the story have to do with the kitchen too. At Mikage's moment of lowest despair in the first half, after she has been watching a dirigible float away with all her hope, she is brought back to happiness by the sight of a kitchen outside of the bus window. Later in the story the katsudon that breaks down the emotional barriers is only vaguely reminiscent of kitchens, capturing the sense of nurturing that food has without bringing in the kitchen's various physical qualities.
Much of the drama in this story is due to the narration of this particular first-person narrator, Mikage. Another narrator would have emphasized different events—the strangeness of the dream that Mikage and Yuichi have simultaneously, for instance, or even the fact of Eriko's sex change. To Mikage, these events are no more or less mystifying than the juicer that Eriko brings home or the great taste of the katsudon at the late-night diner. She is young enough to be delighted with small, unexpected treats, yet old enough, having lived with her old grandmother, to recognize the joys of traditional, home-based values. She is urbane, both in the sense that she is a product of city life and because she accepts different cultural practices easily, having moved among all of the different sorts of people that compose a metropolis like Tokyo.
Mikage undergoes a huge change from the first part of the novella to the second. In Part 1, "Kitchen," she is consumed by grief, and so is a more passive narrator, observing the things around her without taking a hand in her fate. The Tanabe household is clearly a happier place than before her arrival—both Eriko and Yuichi say so—but life goes on pretty much as it had before. Something, probably the fading of her grief, happens to Mikage between the first part and the second part, called "Full Moon": When she reappears after Eriko's death she is more in charge of her surroundings. She has an apartment and a job. The Mikage of Part 1 may have admired kitchens for their comforting emotional associations, but she would not have trained herself to work in the kitchen the way that the Mikage who appears in the second part has done.
Kitchen does not come to a definitive resolution. The main character's problem is not solved by the end of the story, at least not in any way that gives readers confidence that she will not wake up tomorrow faced with the same problems that she felt free of today. She does come to an implied realization regarding Yuichi.
The Economic Boom
In 1988 the Japanese economy was in the middle of the longest financial boom it had experienced since World War II. After Japan lost the war, the American army occupied the defeated country, taking control of the government and steering it toward a new political and economic structure. The Emperor remained on the throne because the Americans wanted to use his presence to oppose the rise of Communism in southern Asia, but political control was shifted into the hands of elected officials. A new Japanese constitution came into effect in 1946, renouncing war forever and adapting a parliamentary democracy. Sovereignty was restored to the Japanese in 1952, in exchange for Japan's withdrawing from countries it had invaded during the war and paying reparations.
Compare & Contrast
- 1988: Hirohito, who had been Emperor of Japan since 1926, fell violently ill. He died the next year at the age of 87.
Today: In part because of Hirohito's participation in World War II (1939–1945), the Emperor of Japan, Akihito, has mostly symbolic powers, with the real governing done by an elected democracy.
- 1988: George Bush, who was vice-president for eight years during the administration of Ronald Reagan, was elected President of he United States.
Today: Bush's one-term administration is remembered as a time of economic weakness, due in large part to the economic troubles that were inherited from the Reagan administration.
- 1988: Polish workers went out on strike to demand the return of the labor union Solidarity, which had been outlawed since 1981. After three weeks their demand was met.
1990: A new government was elected in Poland, with Lech Walesa, a leader of the Solidarity movement, as president.
1991: Following Poland's lead, a number of countries in the Soviet Union demanded independence. The Soviet Union was dissolved on December 31, 1991.
After that, Japan grew in economic stature. The first big boost was the Korean War (1950 to 1953) during which Japan provided the U.S. Army with many of its vehicles, from jeeps to tanks. Japan established itself as a leader in electronics in the late 1950s and early 1960s, becoming almost synonymous with transistor technology. By the time that Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, the year of Banana Yoshimoto's birth, Japan led the world in economic growth.
Much of its growth was due to foreign trade; in fact, by 1971 Japan was the world's third-leading exporting nation in the world. The Japanese automobile industry expanded even as the rest of the economy suffered in 1973, when a cartel of Arab oil-producing countries raised gasoline prices around the world dramatically. Almost overnight, American-made "gas-guzzlers" went out of fashion and smaller, fuel-efficient models by Nissan, Toyota, and Honda were in demand. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Makasome, who held office from 1982 to 1987, oversaw an economic surge that made Japan a feared economic rival to many Americans.
As the world converted to a global economy in the 1980s, many industrial companies left America in search of a cheaper labor base. Most of these jobs did not go to Japan. American resentment at this situation often focused on Japan and its success in the international economy. In the 1990s, after Nakasome was out of office, the economic expansion in Japan was over. The government was unable to help, suffering through a series of scandals, with the Prime Ministers resigning in 1989 and 1994. For most of the decade, the country was in recession, and in 1998, when the Japanese economy was beginning to stabilize, the collapse of several economies around southeast Asia negatively impacted the recovering Japanese economy.
In Japan, Yoshimoto's books have earned critical and popular success since her first one, Kitchen, was published in 1988. Western reviewers have attempted to explain her immense popularity when they consider her works. "Like comic books for businessmen and green-tea ice cream," David Galef wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "Banana Yoshimoto is a Japanese phenomenon that Americans find difficult to understand."
As much as Yoshimoto's writing may leave many American reviewers unimpressed, she has made a deep impression on millions of readers around the world. Reviewers trying to account for the fact that Yoshimoto is hugely popular both in Japan and with the book-buying public have frequently adjusted their critical standards to compensate for their understanding of her audience. Some have been able to appreciate Yoshimoto by looking at her from someone else's perspective, while other critics simply have not been able to see what all the noise around this author is all about.
Nick Hornsby, reviewing Kitchen for The Times Literary Supplement, appreciated the subtlety of Yoshimoto's work while allowing that it would be easy to misunderstand the true craft involved. "Her stories possess a clarity and simplicity that can seem lightweight," he wrote, going on to speculate that the difficulty of translating Japanese might account for some of the book's lack of artistry. Scott Shibuya Brown, writing for Book World, also saw "a delicacy" in the novella that remained "Kitchen's most beguiling charm." He put the book in the context of the past 120 years of Japanese literature, finding it to be, in contrast to the ultra-modern look at contemporary Japan that many reviewers saw in it, a book that instead was "shaped by the most traditional of aesthetics." To Brown, the Japanese tradition of "beauty as an ever-transitory, perpetually fading bittersweet phenomenon" is something that makes Westerners' experience of this novella incomplete.
While some reviewers have adjusted their expectations of the book to account for its Japanese roots, others have emphasized the youthfulness of the audience that it is aimed for. A review in the New York Times Book Review identified Mikage as the novella's "kooky young woman protagonist," while Deborah Garrison, writing in The New Yorker, appreciated the book as "a tangy, imperfect little snack" that was released in America with "a small but irresistible fanfare of cuteness." Her review goes on to describe Mikage's bright personality: "She keeps telling you she's depressed, listless, and tearful, but she can't hide her essentially sunny nature."
The duality that is noticeable in Garrison's tone—mocking but also fond of the story's harmless pleasantness—can be found in quite a few reviews by writers who like the story but cannot approve of it as art. There have also been reviews by writers who could see the book's appeal but were not willing to let themselves be drawn in by it. Todd Grimson held to the hard line in his 1983 review for the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "Kitchen is light as an invisible pancake," he wrote, "charming and forgettable, showing every sign of having been written when the author was only 23." Grimson described himself as a fan of recent Japanese literature, but he was clearly no fan of Banana Yoshimoto after reading the novella: "The release of information to the reader seems unskilled, or immature, weak in narrative or plot."
Throughout the years, as Yoshimoto's fame has grown, attention has shifted from her works to her celebrity status. In a December 1998 Christian Science Monitor review of Honeymoon, a book not yet available in America, Nichile Gaouette discussed the author, her worldview, and the chronology of her "reader-friendly books" that are "chatty, breezy affairs." It was only after the celebrity profile was done that the book was mentioned. Yoshimoto's detractors depict her as a kind of fiction machine, churning out one novel after another by combining and recombining a few standard elements in a mostly meaningless way. Her fans tend to characterize her detractors as the sort of spoil-sports who would find fault with any popular work just because it is popular, regardless of its true merit.
David J. Kelly
Kelly is a literature and creative writing instructor at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County in Illinois. In this essay, he considers whether Kitchen's happy resolutions constitute shallowness or a legitimate representation of this story's vision.
I think that a lot of the critics who dismiss Kitchen as "lightweight" do so because its characters are just too happy, just as a lot of the novella's devoted fans dismiss the critics as grouches who disliked the story because they have a thing against happiness. The truth, as it always does, must lie somewhere in between.
There is no denying that there is a tendency throughout the story to break up moments of sober reflection with a cheerful shake of the head, an uncaused burst of enthusiasm for whatever life has to offer next. It is also pretty well established that, for reasons I will get into later, writers cannot have their characters just turn on a pin, go from one mood to another with the start of a new sentence—they can do it, that is, just as they can toss in singing toasters and invisible spaceships and anything else they can imagine that does not exist in the common world, but just because they can think it up does not mean it is good artistry. The suspicious thing about a book that always turns happy like this is that happiness is such a crowd-pleaser. If Yoshimoto had turned to misery at the end of every upbeat scene, we might worry about her mental hygiene, but we would be less likely to think she does it for popularity's sake than we are when she gives the public what it wants time and again.
On the other hand, this is not a book that takes place in the reality that anybody lives in, even after we adjust for the cultural differences. This is a fantasy land, where people dream concurrently and the dying go down heroically swinging barbells and cab drivers say "Okay, then, let's get going" when they find out that the hundred-mile trip in the middle of the night is for love. Why should this novella be responsible for maintaining its characters' emotional consistency when it breaks almost all other rules of behavior without blushing? Isn't it allowed to set its own rules, as long as it sticks to them?
"Yuichi went to the refrigerator and got out a couple of grapefruits, then happily took the juicer from its box." That "happily," among all the other happy actions in the book, gets me most. First, because it seems so superfluous there, thrown into the middle of an action that isn't, itself, the sort of thing that makes one happy unless one really likes juice and has a really powerful thirst. A lot of what goes on in the story is like this, spiked with a little burst of enthusiasm. I imagine being able to watch from my window as Yuichi or Mikage comes up the street, and I'm certain that neither one of them could walk for half a block without sneaking in a little skip or a shuffle, forgetting for one step that they are not dancing through life. These people are full of joy. But look at the context in which Yuichi happily takes the juicer from its box, and you have to wonder if there's nothing that can quiet his joy for a few minutes. It is the middle of the night; he has just woken up from a weird dream; he is hungry; and he has just found out that Mikage was experiencing the same dream that he was, at the same time. I think it is fair to say that most of us would be curious about this. I'm not saying that there is an appropriate emotion, such as, oh, terror, required by this paranormal turn of events.
Mikage and Yuichi are so well-suited for each other that they are probably right in being happy to find that they can spend those nighttime, sleeping hours together, eating well and singing, as well as the day. But if there is ever a time when being just "happy" seems like a weak, insensitive reaction, this is it. What is the point of putting something astounding in a novella, if the characters are incapable of reacting to it? When they start to realize that they actually have been experiencing the same dream, Mikage says, "I … I don't believe this." When it is confirmed, she tells the reader, "That was strange," and Yuichi changes the subject. Who is unable to think of the words to address what has happened—the characters, or the author?
The other happy event that stands out is the episode on the bus, with the little girl, her grandmother, and the dirigible. This comes right before the coincidental dream in the story, but it has the opposite structure to it: While Yuichi's happiness when he is reaching for the juicer seemed like an afterthought, like something Yoshimoto felt she should throw in just in case we were distracted by the possibility of a more complex emotion, the whole point of the dirigible scene is that it dissolves into happiness. This scene is slathered with symbolism: The little girl and her grandmother reflect, of course, Mikage and her recently deceased grand-mother; the dirigible is happiness, which Mikage vows to keep in sight just moments before she starts crying. It is the last time that she is leaving the apartment that she and her grandmother shared, and Mikage is torn between grief and that big airborne puff of happiness, and just as grief starts winning, and the tears start falling on her blouse, happiness rallies and presents itself to her in the form of good cooking in the kitchen that the bus is passing at that moment.
What Do I Read Next?
- Many readers have found that Yoshimoto's novels remind them of Mexican writer Laura Es-quivel's best-selling novel Like Water for Chocolate, published by Doubleday in 1992. As in Kitchen, food is the primary cure for love and loss in this book, which is structured like a cookbook.
- At the same time that Banana Yoshimoto's writing was capturing international attention for its portrayals of women in modern Tokyo, Tama Janowitz was establishing the same sort of reputation for her characters in New York City. Her 1986 collection of short stories, Slaves of New York, offers a vastly different look at the other side of the world.
- One of the most famous Japanese novelists to be printed in English is Tanizaki Junichiro, whose novels mainly explored the struggle between traditional values and modern culture. His most famous novel, Some Prefer Nettles, concerns an unhappy marriage in which a westernized wife and a traditional husband try to stay together despite their differences. Published in Japan in 1929, it became an international success when the translation was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1955.
- Kenzaburo Oe is a Japanese author who was the recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature. Like Yoshimoto, he became famous while still quite young. He received national attention when he was twenty-three, with the publication in 1958 of the novella Shiiku, which translates to English as "The Catch." It is available in the collection The Shadow of Sunrise, published in 1966 by Palo Alto Press.
- The dust jacket of Kitchen compares the work to the early writings of French novelist Marguerite Duras, which also create an eerie mood from their tight prose. Her best works can be found in Four Novels by Marguerite Duras, published in 1965.
- The differences between eastern and western cultures have been explored recently in the work of Japanese-American author Ruth Ozeki. Her 1998 novel My Year of Meats, concerns a Japanese couple trying to have a child and contrasts contemporary trends like agribusiness and food additives with Japanese tradition.
Although this scene is sort of adrift in the novella because it could have been wedged in at practically any place in the story, it has a few things going for it that make it more central than the dream. It has a sequence of events—the dirigible causes happiness, the granddaughter causes reminiscence, reminiscence causes sorrow, and food smells cause happiness again—that reflects the general rhythm of cause and effect in this piece. Also, it allows the kitchen to have an integral, active role, while the fact that they ended up in the kitchen within the dream and then after it shows the hand of the author forcing the issue. In the one case, we are led step-by-step to Mikage's happiness, and we have to take it seriously, while in the other case Yuichi's happiness is thrown at us, and it doesn't stick.
In real life, emotions do seem to pop up out of nowhere, although psychiatry is the science of denying this. I'm sure that this would be used as a sort of defense for the incomplete emotional exchanges that take place in this story, usually leading to a hollow happiness. A reader feeling blue doesn't have to worry, happiness will pop up regularly, regardless of what is going on in the story. It announces itself as the replacement for the ignored, unfinished dream; in Mikage's exclamation, upon getting her special glass—"'Wow,' I said on the verge of tears. 'I'm so happy!'"; in the sight of Nori and Kuri giggling in their white aprons that makes Mikage happy ("Working side by side with them was a pleasure that put me at peace with the world"); or in its earliest case, where the narrator drags readers to the brink of despair ("Steeped in a sadness so great I could barely cry, shuffling softly in a gentle drowsiness, I pulled my futon into the deathly silent, gleaming kitchen") and then pops a champagne cork of delight ("However, I couldn't exist like that. Reality is wonderful.") Maybe happiness does show up like this—sometimes.
The unpredictability of life, though, is no excuse for unpredictability in fiction. I often wonder why anyone uses "That's the way it is in life!" as a defense of something that happens in fiction. Fiction isn't life. It certainly would be great to turn from any of life's low points with a feeling that reality is wonderful, the way Mikage does, although to tell you the truth, if I met anyone this happy this often I would bet that they are suppressing something in a most unhealthy way.
I do not think that the constant turns toward happiness in Kitchen reflect life as we live it, nor do I mind that they don't: Fiction's job is to reflect the world in an unreal, fictitious way. The problem is that they draw attention to the teller of the tale, making me wonder why Banana Yoshimoto wants so desperately, even when circumstances do not warrant it, for everything to come out okay. If there is anything worse than fiction that announces to its reader that "The world presented here is unlikely," it's fiction that seems to have some reason, other than basic, unmanageable truth, for wanting you to think one way or another. I sort of like the idea that Kitchen is promoting happiness—or, rather, I would like the idea if I thought there was nothing else needing to be examined, if I thought that happiness in itself was a good thing. The way that potentially grim situations resolve in this novella, though, leaves me with the uneasy feeling that the author is playing with loaded dice.
Source: David J. Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
Albert Howard Carter III
In the following review, Carter offers a brief introduction to Kitchen.
This small volume contains two stories, Kitchen, a novella of about 100 pages and "Moonlight Shadows," a short story of 40. The latter won a prize upon its original publication in 1986, and the former won a magazine prize in 1987 before book publication in 1988. Kitchen has been wildly popular in Japan, selling millions of copies in some 57 printings.
Why is this author popular and why are these tales printed together? Yoshimoto is a young author (b. 1964) with an ear for young people's issues, conflicts, and yearnings. She also writes in a jazzy and often surprising style. The two stories work well as different ways of talking about love, both romantic and familial.
Kitchen begins: "The place I like best in this world is the kitchen." Our narrator, one Mikage Sakurai, is a young woman, an orphan. Symbolically, she is an abandoned child of modern Tokyo, that massive and complex city; a novice, she tries to find her own way, yearning for sustenance of food and love. Fortuitously, Mikage is taken in by a family, who are delighted that she loves to shop, cook, and "make the house a home," we might say. But what on the surface seems an attractive mother and son soon evolves into yet another urban oddity: Mikage learns that the mother is a transsex-ual—formerly the father. This unusual parent runs a nightclub, largely staffed by transsexuals, until she is murdered by a deranged admirer.
In this difficult world, young Mikage feels loneliness, anomie, even despair. Overcome by grief for her recently dead grandmother, she cries on a public street, but suddenly hears "the sound of a happy voice at work, soup boiling, knives and pots and pans clanging." Yes, it is a kitchen, that symbol of hope, order, and sustenance. She even gets a job as an assistant to a cooking teacher.
Meanwhile Mikage and the young man circle each other, neither declaring love nor even romantic interest. They attempt to fabricate their lives in the modern mixtures of Japanese and international culture, a world of takeout food, backpacks, warmup suits, Bewitched on TV, computer games, and an international range of cooking. It is the old standard, katsudn (a fried pork dish), however, that our young heroine takes on a taxi ride of some 100 miles to her mourning friend and, later (we assume), lover.
The style is breezy, whimsical, lyric, maybe even a bit goofy, but it is an appropriate style for a young person dealing with disruptions of family, culture, and love. The first-person narration is reminiscent of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, but without the trenchant satire.
The other story, "Moonlight Shadow," also deals with young love and death; this time the female narrator's boyfriend has been killed in a traffic accident. Through a mysterious woman figure—something like a good fairy—the narrator has a vision of her dead boyfriend, a vision that allows her to say a proper goodbye and continue on with her life. She concludes:
One caravan has stopped, another starts up. There are people I have yet to meet, others I'll never see again. People who are gone before you know it, people who are just passing through. Even as we exchange hellos, they seem to grow transparent. I must keep living with the flowing river before my eyes.
Even this brief quotation suggests the mixtures of realism and fantasy, simple diction and poetic image that give Yoshimoto's writing freshness and novelty.
Source: Albert Howard Carter III, a review of Kitchen, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 614-15.
In the following review, Garrison introduces Banana Yoshimoto to American readers and describes Kitchen as a "tangy, imperfect little snack."
Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen is a tangy, imperfect little snack. The book, though it appears to be a short novel, is really a pair of stories—the first, called Kitchen, is just long enough, at a hundred and three pages, to be classed as a novella. A literary prize-winner and long-running best-seller in Japan a few years ago, it arrives here translated, somewhat doggedly, by Megan Backus and attended by a small but irresistible fanfare of cute-ness. There's a photograph on the mint-and-dark-peach jacket of a bright-eyed Japanese girl in a white eyelet dress, her hair stylishly longer on one side than the other—someone it might be fun to know. She's not Banana, but the packaging doesn't entirely lie. The author was only twenty-four when Kitchen was first published, and reading it, along with its less ambitious companion, "Moonlight Shadow," gives you the sense that you're meeting a real young woman, who is, among other things, cute. Both stories are told by a naïve, occasionally goofy first-person narrator, whose bursts of energetic resolve are as girlish as her cries of passionate despair.
What makes this girlishness palatable—what counterbalances it—is the author's preoccupation with grief. "When my grandmother died the other day, I was taken by surprise," Mikage, the twentyish heroine of Kitchen, explains at the start of her strange tale. "The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me. It was total science fiction. The blackness of the cosmos." An only child whose parents died when she was little, Mikage was brought up by her grandmother. But her musings on her plight are mostly uplifting and practical in nature. She acknowledges, for example, the relief: "To live alone with an old person is terribly nerve-racking, and the healthier he or she is, the more one worries." She confesses the battier aspects of her search for comfort: "Steeped in a sadness so great I could barely cry … I pulled my futon into the deathly silent, gleaming kitchen"—and she sleeps there, curled like a forlorn family pet at the base of the refrigerator.
"However!" she continues. "I couldn't exist like that. Reality is wonderful." She's the opposite of the depressive who masks pain under a noisy (and transparent) cheerfulness; she keeps telling you she's depressed, listless, and tearful, but she can't hide her essentially sunny nature.
Yoshimoto's writing isn't itself very complex; it skips lightly over the surface of even Mikage's darkest hours. But what she's trying to describe—happiness—is complex, and is much trickier to evoke convincingly than misery, maybe because the sources of true contentment are more obscure. Obviously, reality isn't as wonderful as Mikage claims: she is utterly without family, and she has to find a way to manage on her skimpy inheritance. But she is graced with the stubborn happiness of the survivor, which can crop up out of nowhere after a death in the family and thrive like a weed.
What also crops up out of nowhere for Mikage is an invitation to live, rent-free, at the Tanabe residence. Yuichi Tanabe, a reserved young man about Mikage's age, visits her after her grandmother's funeral and proposes that she come to live with him and his mother. (Yoshimoto's way of effecting this and all transitions is so matter-of-fact you can't decide whether it's charming or dopey. "Dingdong. Suddenly the doorbell rang," she writes.) Mikage's reaction to Yuichi's polite appearance on her threshold—"I couldn't take my eyes off him. I think I heard a spirit call my name"—is a bizarre blend of teeny-bopper and Zen: love at first sight, non-Western style. Mikage also takes an instant liking to Yuichi's stunningly pretty mother, who turns out, to the reader's baffled delight, to be a man. Yuichi delicately introduces the subject to Mikage with "Guess what else …" His mother was his father—before plastic surgery. This is a wonderful touch, not because it's played for laughs (it isn't) or because it's a big surprise (strangely, it's not that, either) but because it's a piece of superfluous inventiveness on the author's part; it lends everything around it an air of cheerful unreality that mirrors Mikage's state of mind.
Yoshimoto, for all her narrative exuberance, understands the one-step-forward, two-steps-back emotional indirectness of a young person in crisis. The death of Mikage's grandmother is only the prelude to the more shocking, untimely death of Yuichi's mother, and the news of it causes Mikage, who has since moved into her own place, to appreciate the powerful solace of her days at the Tan-abes': of sleeping on their couch and hearing Yuichi's mom clatter in on her heels, humming a tune; of perfecting her cooking skills in their underutilized kitchen; of waking up in the middle of the night at the same time as Yuichi and comparing dreams with him. The reader learns of these moments only in retrospect because it is only in retrospect that Mikage comes into full possession of their significance. Most of Kitchen occurs not in real time but in mental hyperspace—the virtual rather than chronological aftermath in which events are digested and understanding is gained.
But the story finally seizes on a down-to-earth matter: whether Mikage and Yuichi, in their shared orphanhood, should become lovers or remain fast, sibling-like friends. Yoshimoto can't render it a very compelling question: the intimate rapport between Mikage and Yuichi simply fails to be as interesting as the lively, perfectly achieved completeness of Mikage taken by herself. Her outburst following a good long cry over her grandmother ("I implored the gods: Please, let me live"); her remark at the sight of clouds blowing around in a strong wind ("In this world there is no place for sad-ness")—these rarities will stay with the reader.
Mikage is, throughout, a little bit weird, and so are the other characters. Yoshimoto's attraction to weirdness and her unpretentious approach to it—she's not trying to be hip, just faithful to her sense of people as they are—are what might make Western readers want more of her. (Two novels and two collections of essays have come out in Japan since Kitchen.) And Banana Yoshimoto herself seems an odd one; it's hard to know what genus to put her in. She can't be called a Japanese counterpart of members of the American literary brat pack. She's not jaded enough—she's too adorably nerdy, and she's way too friendly. She's not a brat. In fact, she makes you wonder if bounce-and-shine is still a standard feature in the artistic youth of other nations; you just don't see too much of it around here. Yoshimoto even includes an afterword to the American edition of Kitchen, in which she expresses the hope that the book will be a balm to those who have known setbacks in their lives; there's a generous, therapeutic impulse somewhere inside this fiction writer. "Surely we will meet someday," she closes her message to the reader, "and until that day, I pray that you will live happily." Such graciousness feels weird, too—it's foreign, anyway. But why be wary of a kind wish?
Source: Deborah Garrison, "Dayo!," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 49, January 25, 1993, pp. 109-110.
In the following review, Hanson offers a mixed assessment of Kitchen.
[Text Not Available]
[Text Not Available]
Source: Elizabeth Hanson, "Hold the Tofu," in The New York Times, January 17, 1993.
Scott Shibuya Brown, "Adrift in the New Japan," in Book World-The Washington Post, January 10, 1993, p. 10.
David Galef, "Jinxed," in The New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, p. 23.
Nicole Gaouette, "Hip Novelist Combines Old and New Japan," in The Christian Science Monitor, December 10, 1998, p. 13.
Deborah Garrison, "Day-O!," in The New Yorker, January 25, 1993, pp. 109-10.
Todd Grimson, "The Catcher in the Rice," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 10, 1993, pp. 3, 7.
Elizabeth Hanson, "Hold the Tofu," in The New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1993, p. 18.
Nick Hornby, "Mystical Mundane," in The Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 1983, p. 18.
Anne Allison, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, The University of Chicago Press, 1994.
This sociological study provides a wonderful understanding of Eriko's character.
Donald Keene, The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, Columbia University Press, 1988.
Keene is considered by some to be the leading interpreter of Japanese literature to the West, a frequent translator of criticism and literature. This recent, short book gives a good background on the culture that produced Kitchen.
Jonathan Rauch, The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Japan, Harvard Business School Press, 1992.
The author of this book was young, still in his twenties, when he traveled to Japan in 1990. His insights into the culture provide wonderful, intelligent background.
Edward Seidensticker, Tokyo Rising: The City since the Great Earthquake, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
The earthquake of the title is the one that destroyed most of the city in 1923. His research is thorough, but academic.
Rex Shelley, Culture Shock: Japan, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co., 1993.
This book, part of a series of guidebooks aimed mainly at business travelers, gives a good sense of contemporary Japanese lifestyles, customs, and expectations.
kitch·en / ˈkichən/ • n. 1. a room or area where food is prepared and cooked. ∎ a set of fixtures, cabinets, and appliances that are sold together and installed in such a room or area: a complete kitchen at a bargain price. ∎ cuisine: the dried shrimp pastes of the Thai kitchen. 2. inf. the percussion section of an orchestra. 3. [as adj.] (of a language) in an uneducated or domestic form: kitchen Swahili.
kitchen-sink in art forms, characterized by great realism in the depiction of drab or sordid subjects. The term is most used of post-war British drama, such as John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956), which used working-class domestic settings rather than the drawing rooms of conventional middle-class drama.
See also if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen.