Contemporary Women Nurturing Family in Urban Dwelling: Yoshimoto


- S. Sridevi


Abstract
This paper aims at studying the novella Kitchen as a metaphysical journey into sustenance and energy creation. The existing criticisms for Yoshimoto’s works read her works as a result of emergence of shojo manga in the 1980s such as ‘ladies comics,’ and globalization. Though Mikage Sakurai, the young woman narrator of the story, is a product of Japanese urbanization, and the novella is seen as a work of popular culture or paraliterature, the fact that Yoshimoto’s work has become a transcultural bestseller reaching out to contemporary readers creates a need to investigate how she projects the domestic space. Is she projecting the sphere of a home as a superior being of metaphysical nature with the capacity to heal? Also, gender construction and contestation and fluid identities are presented in Eriko, the father/mother of Sakurai’s friend Yuichi Tanabe, who becomes a woman to take up the powerful role of a mother. On the superficial level, the story seems to celebrate cooking, and at a deeper level it challenges the conventions of society and uplifts the role of women and attempts to fashion human dwelling and reiterate it as a space for security, comfort and metaphysical bliss without the traditional authority systems. When Ambai puts down the cultural and political position of the kitchen, Yoshimoto appears to celebrate kitchen like a domesticated woman, but presents transgender issues, liberal women and Americanized lifestyles with a smooth poise.

Key words: domestic space, dwelling, Yoshimoto

Bio-Note: Dr. S.Sridevi is an Associate Professor in the Research Department of English at Chevalier T. Thomas Elizabeth College for Women, Chennai-11.

Contemporary Women Nurturing Family in Urban Dwelling: Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto’s writing has been critiqued for being superficial, capitalist text. This paper argues that Yoshimoto’s writing can be read as an example of a paraliterature that is significant because of its exploration of themes of metaphysical nature, usually associated with literariness, using a popular culture style. The domestic space has a politics of survival, and offers its members spiritual sustenance is a major theme operated by Yoshimoto. A home offers a metaphysical locale for the soul to recuperate and reenergize itself, and this space is under the control of women that perhaps male philosophers could not call it theirs and therefore Heideggerian homecoming and Levinas’ hospitality themes are located outside homes. Homes, for men represent something secretive which they consider as limiting their scope and from this dogmatic western philosophical position a home naturally becomes a socially inferior location.
Heidegger suggests that homelessness, or exodus, is a fundamental and necessary element of homecoming. Writing of Holderlin‘s hymn to the Danube, Heidegger describes the river as a place of home and journey. In its essence, the river is the ―locale of human dwelling;… Just so, - coming to be at home in one‘s own itself entails that human beings are initially and for a long time, and sometimes forever, not at home. (Eubanks 27)
In “Introduction to Metaphysics,” Heidegger makes use of philology to construct the ambiguity in the concept of a home. The German word unheimlich is the opposite of heimlich, which means “familiar” and “native.” It also shares a semantic kinship with heimisch, that which belongs to the home. Heimlich can also mean “secret” or “concealed” (Leichter 155).
While human being is secure in its home, such security comes with a price: specifically, security allows human being to hide its own being from itself. The uncanny thus exposes human beings in two senses: it displaces them from their familiar modes of understanding, valuing, and thinking, and it discloses the tendency to hide and find security from one’s very being. (Leichter 157)

Heidegger argues that “modern politics exacerbates the plight of homelessness that ails the modern West.” In Levinas’s terms “the self is compelled to welcome the Other into the public space of the homeland and the private space of the home” (Eubanks10-18).
The private space of the home and the communal space of home land integrate in the domestic space where Yoshimoto does not contest the existing philosophical location of the kitchen. Instead, she delves into understanding the role it plays in maintaining the sanity of people and emphasizes its role in human development. Using a Levinasian angle of thought Sakurai becomes ‘the other’ who is welcomed into the home of Yuichi as a welcome gesture offering solace, but Sakurai takes up a higher role in their friendship guiding him.
Yoshimoto’s writing has brought in two types of criticism: one reads her works as a product of Americanization; the other reads them as postmodern texts moving away from the boundaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Her works present a world portraying a “transitional society polarized by changing ideals of femininity.” A few critics call Yoshimoto’s writing as a “separatist literature of inner space.” Yoshimoto is widely read in Japan and abroad and “can be seen as a trans-cultural writer. Her success is thus helping to redefine contemporary literature both within Japan and overseas” (Martin 8). Internationalization and egalitarianism became goals for Japan in the 1980s. “Trans-border flows of capital, goods, technology and people” reached “new heights.” Cultural diversity, global discourses of gender and multiculturalism became the hallmark of the 1980s (McCormack 2).
Banana Yoshimoto’s original name is Yoshimoto Mahoko, and she was born in 1964, Tokyo, Japan. Her father, Takaaki (Ryūmei), was an intellectual, critic, and a leader in the radical student movement in the late 1960s. Yoshimoto’s graduation story, Moonlight Shadow (1986), earned her the Izumi Kyoka Prize. She gave herself a gender neutral androgynous pen name - Banana (Kuiper).
Yoshimoto wrote Kitchin, Kanashii Yokan (Sad Foreboding) and Utakata/Sankuchuari (Bubble/Sanctuary) in 1988. Kitchin was translated into Chinese in 1989. Her first English translation, which contained both Moonlight Shadow and Kitchin, was published as Kitchen in 1993. Two Japanese directors, Ishikawa Jun (Tsugumi, 1990) and Morita Yoshimitsu (Kitchin, 1990), adapted her novels to the large screen, and in 1997 Hong Kong director Ho Yim made a Cantonese-language version of Kitchin. Yoshimoto continued to write novels like NP (1990 N.P.), Amurita (1994 Amrita), and Hādoboirudo/Hādorakku (1999 Hardboiled & Hard Luck). Yoshimoto also published short stories, including Shirakawa Yofune (1989 Asleep) and Tokage (1993 Lizard), and essays, including Painatsupurin (1989 Pinenuts [or Pineapple] Pudding), Yume ni Tsuite (1994 About a Dream), and Painappuru Heddo (1995 Pineapple Head) (Kuiper).
The period in which Yoshimoto wrote most of her works is an era of Americanization of values, beliefs, and customs, and the economic boom of Japan reflecting globalised trends, pop culture and a confidence in the people. The novella Kitchen captures this positive mood of the Japanese, creating energies of the spirit, drawing sustenance from themselves, from their materials and accepting loss and grief with dignity. Mikage Sakurai has no parents, and has lost her only grandmother; Yuichi has no mother and his father who became a woman also is killed. Yet the novella does not portray angst or existential questions of life reflecting human agony and failure. Instead, the text marches on confidently with not clinging to the past in a negative manner, enjoying the home space, simple things of homes, streets, the sky, light and ordinary people. It celebrates life reflecting the mood of the Japanese presenting their ability to work hard, their perseverance and the tremendous will power the people showed after the Second World War. The novella differs from European postwar writings in its presentation of life. It takes the route of metaphysics as a source of strength and nourishment to revive the human spirit.
The Allied Occupation (1945 - 1952) “dismantled the Japanese empire, abolished the armed forces,” and brought changes in education, the constitution, civil code, family, and economy. The purpose was “to demilitarize Japan and foster democratic institutions, ideologies, and attitudes.” The “Japanese will, know-how, and energy along with American procurements during the Korean War brought about economic recovery by 1955 and a position as the number two economy in the world by the late 1970s.” This period shows high dynamism in society as Japan became an advanced economy. Japanese consumer products had such high quality that there was a demand for them all over the world (Molony 6). From the 1980s, ideas deriving from linguistic and critical theories have influenced Japanese historiography and Japanese gender studies. Themes of gender construction and contestation have characterized research on gender in Japan (Molony 7).
Gender construction is discussed by Yoshimoto in an easy conversation between Mikage Sakurai and Yuichi. Yoshimoto does not present the complexities of transience, the psychological difficulties and the conflict in the son’s mind in accepting the change in the physical makeover of the father into a mother. This scene throws challenges to tradition and swiftly breezes in changes in gender perception and it is located in the domestic space, changing its rooted role-plays and presents the Japanese society as a trans-friendly culture. The post-operative issues of transgenders and their trauma are not described as a reader might expect at this point of the story which suddenly leaps forward informing us that Eriko who gets into a mode of commodified femininity, was actually a man earlier.
In the early 1980s, two new Japanese-English neologisms appeared: 'newhalf’ and 'Mr.Lady' which designated entertainers who had … undergone varying degrees of surgical reconstruction. Creation of the term newhalf dates back to 1981 and is attributed to Betty, the Mama of the Osaka show pub Betty's Mayonnaise… Betty's catchphrase … was 'I'm half man and woman' (otoko to onna no hafu). 'Half' or ‘hafu’ in Japanese language is a term commonly used to refer to individuals of mixed race, usually Japanese and Caucasian. Betty, who styled herself as a 'new half,' was therefore another indeterminate figure, not of mixed race but of mixed gender. This term … was picked up by the media... Suptsu Nippon ran an article about Betty entitled 'Gay singer named Betty is called a newhalf'. However, it was the massive media attention given to 'Roppongi girl' Matsubara Rumiko in May of that year that ensured the new term became widespread. Matsubara, while hiding her biological status as a man, had won a beauty promotion staged by businesses in Roppongi (a popular Tokyo nightlife area), becoming the cover girl for a poster campaign promoting the area's clubs and bars. Once her transgender history was revealed, she was quickly elevated to idol status (McLelland 10).
The Japanese audience obviously did not expect Yoshimoto to get into a detailed description of the trauma of shifting from a male identity to a female. Eriko, legitimated as a woman, speaks in a “slightly husky” voice. Her hair “rustles like silk to her shoulders.” Her “long, narrow eyes” have a “deep sparkle.” Her “lips” are “well formed.” The nose has a “high, straight bridge.” She vibrates with a “marvelous light” and “life force.” She looks like a goddess and Sakurai remembers that “she didn’t look human.” Eriko rushes out and runs to the door in her high heels, her “red dress flying” (Yoshimoto 11). Sakurai is reminded of the warm light emitted by Eriko softly glowing in her heart and is dazed. Yuichi, after dropping Eriko at the night club realizes that Sakurai is overwhelmed:
“Mikage,” he said, “were you a little bit intimidated by my mother?”
“Yes,” I told him frankly. “I’ve never seen a woman that beautiful.”
“Yes. But…” Smiling, he sat down on the floor right in front of me. “She’s had plastic surgery.”
“Oh?” I said, feigning nonchalance. “I wondered why she didn’t look anything like you.”
“And that’s not all. Guess what else – she’s a man.” He could barely contain his amusement.
This was too much. I just stared at him in wide-eyed silence. I expected any second he would say, “just kidding.” Those tapered fingers, those mannerisms, the way she carried herself…I held my breath remembering that beautiful face; he, on the other hand, was enjoying this.
“Yes, but…” My mouth hung open. “You’ve been saying all along, ‘my mother’ this, and ‘my mother’ that…”
“Yes, but. Could you call someone who looked like that ‘Dad?’ he asked calmly. He has a point, I thought. An extremely good answer.
“What about the name Eriko?”
“It’s actually Yuji.” (Yoshimoto 12-13).

In Japan, “Individuals have constructed” their “fluid identities,” resulting in “ambiguity” which has “characterized notions of gender identity as well as gender norms. Variability in gender performance, including performance of sexuality in the early modern period” which “reinforces the salience of ambiguity in constructions of gender” says Molony (8). The 1980s was a time of Americanization of Japanese society with “champagne, garish colors and bubbly disco dance-floor anthems.” The economic boom back then helped draw Japan’s women into the workforce (Saito). The period came to be known as the golden age of idols and a pool of celebrities were indigenized through television programmes. Generally referred to as an era of bubble economy, Japan became a “post-industrialized society organized around information and consumption” (Galbraith). The end of the 1980s was marked by a general interest in Japan because of the country’s ongoing economic boom (Havranek 125).
Yoshimoto has naturally absorbed and inherited the Japanese Seitō (Blue Stockings) movement which has become a legacy. Hiratsuka Raichō (1886–1971), the founder of Seitō; Takamure Itsue (1894–1964), the first feminist women’s historian and poet; and anarchists such as Kanno Sugako (1881–1911) were revolutionary women who defied gender norms (Shigematsu 6) who have laid a path for twentieth century women writers to liberate themselves from Japanese traditional systems of thinking and writing.
The Italian version of Kitchen became a bestseller and won the Scanno Literary Prize in 1993. Nevertheless she is referred to as “the perfect pop-culture disposable author” because she is a typical writer who is completely indifferent to literary tradition and uses a very simple writing style derived from comic books, animation, films, popular songs, and TV (Haga 12). American readers constructed and renewed images of contemporary Japanese women by reading the novels of Banana Yoshimoto as a representation of Japanese shojo-culture at the end of the 1980s. ““Shojo” literally means “girl” in Japanese, and “shojo-culture” is pop-culture mainly consumed by young, Japanese women” and “John Whittier points out that shojo culture is a symbol of contemporary Japanese consumer capitalism, and Yoshimoto’s works are one of the typical representations of shojo-culture” (Haga 71).
Patricia Smith—in order to find out why Yoshimoto’s Kitchen was so popular in Japan, selling more than a million copies—used stereotypical terms or phrases such as “polite in the Japanese manner,” “Japanese literary sensibilities,” and “the author’s delicate strokes,” which were often used by American critics to describe Japanese literature and culture. Other reviewers also mentioned characteristics of traditional Japanese literature and culture in the novel. For example, Scott Shibuya Brown used a classical Japanese phrase “mono no aware,” which means pathos or sensitiveness to beauty feeling the mutability of everything in the world and missing something lost, to explain why this novel had such a great popularity in Japan. Deborah Garrison said that she saw the spirit of Zen in the heroine’s spiritual feeling in a scene in the story … Elizabeth Hanson said that the heroine of the novel was a typical representation of young Japanese women, who were attracted to kitchens and cooking as signs of comfort and womanliness and tried to live independently. (Haga 74)
When Kitchen was first published in Japan, many Japanese critics, especially older males, paid attention to her unique writing style that had been largely influenced by contemporary Japanese comics and light novels for young women, and many of the critics praised the novel as something new in Japanese literature. “Yoshimoto’s writing isn’t itself very complex; it skips lightly over the surface of even Mikage’s darkest hours” (Haga 75).
It also helps to bear in mind that Japanese is a language expressed in brush-stroke kanji images rather than alphabetical and grammatical abstracts... And although every language has its inherent beauty, kanji images evoke an entirely different sensation for the reader than do mere words on the printed page. Therefore, the sensual experience of reading in kanji, not to mention elements such as alliteration, onomatopoeia and honorific language, are often lost in translation. (Heiter)

Yoshimoto’s writing that attempts to heal and its search for spiritual meaning and a reconnection with nature has an added significance at a time when urbanisation is accompanied by the breakdown of community and family structures. “Criticism of Yoshimoto’s writing suggests” that it is “either the product of late capitalism, or else that it reflects the changing nature of Japanese society by showing young women making alternative life-style choices” (Ramsay 13).
The novella Kitchen opens dramatically with a resounding and arresting statement: “The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food.” The kitchen that is described by Yoshimoto has “lots of tea towels” and is “dry and immaculate” with “white tile catching the light (ting! Ting!)” Yoshimoto 3). She presents a mythic world in Jungian sense, acquiring an inner comprehension of peace and solace. Working in the kitchen becomes a ritual act for Mikage Sakurai who narrates the novella that “raises the human individual to the dignity of a metaphysical factor” to quote a phrase from Jung (253). The domestic space lifts the human mind:
This curious behavior of my dreams corresponds, incidentally, to a phenomenon which was noted during the First World War. Soldiers in the field dreamt far less of the war than of their homes. Military psychiatrists considered it a basic principle that a man should be pulled out of the front lines when he started dreaming too much of war scenes, for that meant he no longer possessed any psychic defenses against the impressions from outside. (Jung 273)
The home is then the ‘psychic defense’ for a man confronted with life and death issues like a war. For a woman, inside the home, there is yet another special place which becomes her psychic defense – a metaphysical comfort zone. Yoshimoto is said to create a pathos of transience (Vergänglichkeitspathos) in her works. The motif of transience is described as part of Japanese tradition, related to the realm of fantasy (Havranek 135-8).
Mikage Sakurai is comforted by the hum of a refrigerator as after she loses her only relative in the world, she is still in a daze, unable to sleep. She moves to her “gleaming kitchen” the fridge gives her company. “The long night came on in perfect peace, and morning came,” and she starts sleeping “in the kitchen day and night” (Yoshimoto 5).
The external world has dangers and home is a “safe fold and the warm cocoon” giving “protection from inner stress.” People on “the road to individuation” will soon find themselves “with the positive and negative aspects of human nature.” As “the psyche” possesses its “inner polarity,” which is a prerequisite “for its aliveness,” and “an ego was possible” with the need for “opposites” to “achieve a state of balance.” Jung further describes this energy born out of the opposites:
The energy underlying conscious psychic life is pre-existent to it and therefore at first unconscious. As it approaches consciousness it first appears projected in figures like mana, gods, demons, etc.whose numen seems to be a vital source of energy, and in point of fact is so as long as these supernatural figures are accepted. But as these fade and lose their force, the ego that is, the empirical man seems to come into possession of this source of energy, and does so in the fullest meaning of this ambiguous statement (Jung 346).
Can the domestic space be perceived as an archetypal memory of the cave man to signify safety and security? The men in the novella, Yuichi Tanabe and Eriko bring Mikage Sakurai to create a home environment to heal all three of themselves. Yuichi’s house has all the elements for a spiritual rejuvenation and healing for Sakurai – “a kitchen, some plants, someone sleeping in the next room, perfect quiet.” Gratefully she narrates: “this was the best. This place was …the best” (Yoshimoto 16).
The particular nature of perception portrayed reflects a conditioned consciousness structured as instinctual dynamics. The kitchen creates a spiritual energy in Sakurai giving her strength of will to endure and acquire some kind of godliness – in Jungian sense the superordinate principle. Yoshimoto constructs a spiritual scene playing with a description of light, sky and the kitchen that underplays the shock of accepting Yuichi’s father who has become a woman - Eriko:
The entire apartment was filled with light, like a sun-room. I looked out at the sweet, endless blue of the sky; it was glorious. In the joy of being in a kitchen I liked so well, my head cleared, and suddenly I remembered she was a man. I turned to look at her. Déjà vu overwhelmed me like a flash of flood. (Yoshimoto 17)
Jungian idea of the unconscious wanting to do both the acts of dividing and uniting, the autonomous intelligent unconsciousness of the being unites the shock of itself adjusting with such speed. The soul acts faster creating solace and calmness in accepting the gender change. Deftly, Yoshimoto moves ahead of the story, not pausing to analyse the impact of Eriko’s actions and the next paragraph reads as: “The house smelled of wood. I felt an immense nostalgia, in that downpour of morning light, watching her pull a cushion onto the floor in that dusty living room and curl up to watch TV” (Yoshimoto 17).
Already in one of his earliest lectures, entitled “Some Thoughts on Psychology,” which he delivered in 1897 while a medical student at Basel University, Jung maintains that the “soul” “extends far beyond our consciousness,” and further suggests that this unconscious dimension of the soul is an “intelligence” which is irreducible to conscious intelligence. (Capobianco 50)
Scholars in housing studies describe the domestic space as something connected to a person’s mental and physical well-being and is related to many circumstances, not the least of which is the quality of their dwelling and home environment. An important part of such quality is physical design and layout, and how far it enables the ease of people’s mobility and movement around the dwelling and the use of different rooms and their facilities (Imrie 745).
It has been well established in housing studies that the home is one of the fundamental places that gives shape and meaning to people’s everyday lives …A burgeoning literature has, in various ways, explored the social, health and psychological effects of the home …. For example, Sixsmith & Sixsmith (1991) note that the home is a symbol of oneself or a powerful extension of the psyche. It is a context for social and mental wellbeing or, as Lewin (2001) suggests, a place to engender social psychological and cultural security. For others, the home is the focus for personal control and a place that permits people to fashion in their own image (Saunders, 1990). In this sense, the domestic setting is, for Lewin (2001), a mirror of personal views and values. (Imrie 746)
Homely actions are realistic and vital they acquire symbolic meanings and do become universal sacraments. Ancient symbols have their origins in the commonplace events (Langer 130). Culture begins at home and the significance of a home expands:
The basic character of dwelling is safeguarding. Mortals dwell in the way they safeguard the fourfold in its essential unfolding…In saving the earth, in receiving the sky, in awaiting the divinities, in initiating mortals, dwelling propriates as the fourfold preservation of the fourfold. (Heidegger 352-3)
For Jung, a home became the prime symbol of the past, becoming a sacred ground making one feel safe – an extended psychic body, a manifestation of the soul. Hence the rituals of the home also gain significance. Some male thinkers do find the home as a solace like McLuhan and Yoshimoto reinforces this thinking, as homelessness can lead to anarchy.
For Gilman (2002)… the home was a potential source of repression. In particular, she referred to women’s exclusive confinement to the home as leading to ‘mental myopia’ in which the individual was made into ‘less of a person.’ Likewise, a range of feminist writers have sought to deconstruct ideal images of the home by suggesting that the home, for some women, is a place of captivity and isolation (Allan, 1985; McDowell, 1983). It is, as Goldsack (1999) notes, “less of a castle, and more of a cage.” Others note that the home is as much about the focus for the drudgery of domestic work. (Imrie 747)
Ambai’s story "A Kitchen in the Corner of the House" was written in 1988, a year after Banana Yoshimoto’s novella, Kitchen. Ambai’s story illustrates how the patriarchal centre seeks to silence and marginalize the female. Home is seen as a repository of culture, a space of the narrowness and secrecy, as seen by Heidegger. Ambai sees the limitations of home to an individual and rejects the concept of universal cultural identity. Women are refused the freedom to move around freely and thus are losing the opportunity to wander or be free. The spirit is oppressed as even the skyline can’t be seen from the kitchen that is described. There is no light at the physical and spiritual level and one realizes the significance of the word ‘corner’ in which the kitchen, dark in all aspects is situated.
Right at the end, the kitchen, struck on in a careless manner. Two windows. Underneath one, the tap and basin. The latter was too small to place even a single plate in it. Underneath that, the drainage area, without any ledge. As soon as the taps above were opened, the feet standing beneath would begin to tingle. Within ten minutes there would be a small flood underfoot. Soles and heels would start cracking from that constant wetness…there were green mountains outside the window that looked eastward from the kitchen….The cooking area was beneath this very window. The green mountains might have made one forget one’s chapped heels. But since the clothesline was directly beyond this window, trousers, shirts, pajamas, saris, and petticoats spread out to obscure the view. (Ambai 230-1)
Ambai’s kitchen is the very symbol of female oppression where her metaphysical needs are put down indifferently. The domestic space becomes a restricted sphere where her creativity is strangled. The main character of the story Minakshi is disgusted with the food war that takes place in the kitchen. She realizes that “the kitchen was not a place; it was essentially a set of beliefs” (Ambai 233). Minakshi asks her father-in-law to extend the verandah outside the kitchen. She tells him to remove the clothesline that hides the mountains from being seen. Promptly, more clotheslines are added as if to put her in her place. Female hostility is mirrored through the kitchen and food wars in Ambai’s long story. Ambai’s original name is C.S. Lakshmi, and the pseudonym has tremendous significance as it refers to a powerful woman who takes revenge on Bhishma in Mahabharata, by being born again as a man Shikandi. Her writings have a dynamism and power contesting traditional roles allotted to women by patriarchy.
Heidegger‘s concept of a home refers to rooted communities and differentiates between building and dwelling citing examples of railway stations that do not become dwellings. People do feel comfortable and at home in their places of work, but still these buildings do not connect with their souls. He takes the German word for building – buan which means to dwell. The neighbor is the Nachgebauer, the near-dweller. “When we speak of dwelling we usually think of an activity that man performs alongside many other activities…The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is buan, dwelling.” Dwellings are created out of buildings and they tend “the growth that ripens into fruit of its own accord” (Heidegger 349).
In Tamil veedu is the word used for dwelling. The word also means salvation. Ambai’s story in Tamil reads as “Veettin Moolaiyil Oru Samayal Arai.” The story does not use the meaning of salvation, as it refers only to the house as a building in which the kitchen is pushed to the corner. If we use Heidegger’s theory of language that argues that “it is language that tells us about the essence of a thing, provided that we respect language’s own essence…language remains the master of man…language is the highest and everywhere the first,” (Heidegger 348) we can analyse why Ambai finds fault with the architecture of a house.
Tamil has another word to refer to a dwelling – aham. This word also has another meaning – mind. Tamil literature is divided into two parts – aham and puram. The word puram refers to external elements. Aham literature relates to emotions and puram literature to external activities. Domestic space is defined by Tamil language as a space for emotions and salvation, if we put all the meanings together.
Cultures differ and Rybczynski says that in the 17th century “feminization of the home” was of primary importance in Holland’s domestic interior. “In the Dutch home the kitchen was the most important room” and it was treated with dignity – “something between a temple and a museum.” The cupboards held “linens, china, and silver. Copper and brass utensils, brightly polished, hung on the walls. The chimney piece was enormous and elaborately decorated… the sink was copper, sometimes marble.” Some kitchens even boasted “interior hand pumps” and “supply of hot water.” In Paris, the middle call homes had kitchens that had no direct access to the main rooms. In England, the kitchen was located in the basement until the 19th century (Rybczynski 72-73).
According to our human experience and history, as least as far as I see it, I know that everything essential and everything great originated from the fact that man had a home and was rooted in a tradition. (Martin Heidegger in the interview “Only a God Can Save Us” qtd. By Eubanks 1)
Society’s foundation is the domestic space and by celebrating it, Yoshimoto re-establishes the power of women in the family system, as they are in charge of bringing peace unto its members. Sakurai gets a job as an assistant to a cooking teacher and enacts her identity an independent woman. When she sees women who attend the classes, she re-understands life from another angle:
Those women lived their lives happily. They had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness regardless of what they were doing. But therefore they could never know real joy. Which is better? Who can say? Everyone lives the way she knows best. What I mean by “their happiness” is living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone. That’s not a bad thing. Dressed in their aprons, their smiling faces like flowers, learning to cook, absorbed in their little troubles and perplexities, they fall in love and marry. I think that’s great. I wouldn’t mind that kind of life. Me, when I am exhausted by it all, when my skin breaks out, on those lonely evenings when I call my friends again and again and nobody’s home, then I despise my own life- my birth, my upbringing, everything. I feel only regret for the whole thing. (Yoshimoto 59)
These attitudes of popular culture, reinforcing established systems of thought, pave the way for the likeability of the book and probably explain the popularity across the world.         At the same time Yoshimoto’s Sakurai openly talks about old boyfriends and frankly tells the readers how she loved his hearty robustness, and how now her tastes have changed, and she prefers strange cheerfulness of the Tanabe family and their tranquility. Two contradictory concepts of tradition and modernity that balance each other: presenting the paradox of the human mind and presenting an honest picture of a society at the crossroads of culture and an emerging global economy bringing in trans-cultural negotiations.
After delving into a nostalgic mood for the bygone way of life, Sakurai springs out of this momentary frame of mind and thinks:
But-that one summer of bliss. In that kitchen.
I was not afraid of burns or scars; I didn’t suffer from sleepless nights. Every day I thrilled with pleasure at the challenges tomorrow would bring. Memorizing the recipe, I would make carrot cakes that included a bit of my soul. At the supermarket I would stare at a bright red tomato, loving it for dear life. Having known such joy, there was no going back.
No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive. That is what makes the life I have now possible.
Inching one’s way along a steep cliff in the dark: on reaching the highway, one breathes a sigh of relief. Just when one can’t take any more, one sees the moonlight. Beauty that seems to infuse itself into the heart: I know about that. (Yoshimoto 59-60)    
Carrot cakes and supermarkets and even the highway of Yoshimoto’s descriptions are what a young educated woman of 1980s in the fast developing and westernized Japan would think of and if we ignore this realistic portrayal, we see the moonlight. We meet the young Sakurai who thinks: “in this world there is no place for sadness. No place; not one” (Yoshimoto 23). It is here the novella acquires the metaphysical status described by critics as esoteric. To Sakurai the “blackness of the cosmos” is “total science fiction” (Yoshimoto 4). Sakurai is moving to her friend Yuichi house with her luggage, moving out of her old apartment she had lived with her grandmother until she died. She is dead tired and lonely:
My angry, irritable reaction to the jarring each time the bus lurched to a stop told me how tired I was. Again and again, with each angry stop, I would look outside and watch a dirigible across the far-off sky. Propelled by the wind, it slowly moved along.
Staring at it intently, I felt happy. The dirigible traversed the sky like a pale moonbeam, its tiny lights blinking on and off.
Then and old lady sitting beside her little granddaughter, who was directly in front of me, said in a low voice, “Look, Yuki, a dirigible. Look! Look! Isn’t it beautiful?” (Yoshimoto 33)
The dirigible moves Sakurai and the grandmother reminds her of her own grandmother and the tough Sakurai’s heart melts, softens and tears pour down her cheeks wetting her blouse and she herself is surprised by her tears. The tears are flooding out. She gets down from the bus and sobs for the first time. The moonbeam heals her and washes away her sorrow and purifies her soul in a cathartic manner. She implores to gods: “Please, let me live” (Yoshimoto 35).
Healing and drawing sustenance looks like Yoshimoto’s main engagement and even Eriko is given a dialogue to express her views on becoming independent to face the challenges of life. As she is watering the plants in front of the terrace Eriko tells Sakurai that “it is not easy being a woman.” There are “many, many difficult times.” To enable strength of mind, “if a person wants to stand on her own two feet” it is important to undertake “the care and feeding of something. It could be children, or it could be house plants.” These responsibilities help us “understand” our “own limitations.” Sakurai tells us: “As if chanting a liturgy, she related to me her philosophy of life” (Yoshimoto 41).
The reference to Momoko Kikuchi (the translator Megan Backus calls her Momoko Sakuchi) with a popular romantic song also refers to moonlight and sunshine. Kikuchi’s addition in the novella is fixed in a dream sequence for Sakurai – a popular touch, a local chord, the pulse of the readers. Yoshimoto does not pretend to write only for the highbrow, and consciously puts elements into her text to connect with the public – as an entertainer – the primary purpose of art.
Nature – the sky, air, plants and especially light, emerges as a strong spiritual symbol giving sustenance to Sakurai against black gloom, sometimes emanating from people and sometimes from nature, in Kitchen: “window stars” (4), “I just wanted to sleep under the stars” (5), “I wanted to wake up in the morning light” (5), “He seemed to glow with white light” (Yuichi) (7), “the whole of her gave a marvelous light” (Eriko) (11), “There was a warm light.. softly glowing in my heart” (12), “Their faces shone like buddhas when they smiled” (15), “the atmosphere, sparkling, replete with moisture, refracted the glittering night” (16), “the entire apartment was filled with light, like a sun room. I looked out at the sweet, endless blue of the sky; it was glorious” (17), “little by little, light and air came into my heart” (21), “a warm, golden sunlight filled the empty rooms I had once called home” (32), “the winter moon … was almost full and shed an incredible brightness” (61), Eriko has been the dazzling sun that lit the place (87), I felt strangely light hearted. I was excited. Alone under the stars, in a strange place (89) etc. The connection with natural elements and seeking a spiritual calmness, a kind of Asian spirituality with an American lifestyle brings in a hybridized contemporary transcultural being, who is still located in the domestic space celebrating its components of food and shelter symbolizes the novella Kitchen.
Sakurai is amused that her proximity to nature extends even in her choice of men: “For some reason I keep getting connected to men who have something to do with plants” (Yoshimoto 23). Yuichi has plants in his flat. Sotaro, her old boyfriend loved parks, green places, and open spaces and in school he used to sit among greenery.
There are too many deaths in this story – Sakurai’s parents, and grandmother; Yuichi’s parents (one of them is murdered) – and out of this existential gloom and darkness, Yoshimoto attempts to construct a story of optimism and hope using the Japanese style of writing with kanji images, invoking pictures of nature and trying to live close to the universe – all in the strict and defined domestic space. Now and then the angst thrashes directly especially when Sakurai tells us after the death of Eriko, a victim of hegemonic masculinity of a fan at the nightclub: “A door opened before us that night – the door to the grave” (Yoshimoto 54). Grappling with multiple deaths is a major task of Sakurai and Yuichi and with limited number of characters; the novella negotiates with human frustrations in a limited geographical sphere with a rich scatter of nature’s images. The young Sakurai analyses her loneliness and sad plight after the death of the only relative she had: To the extent that I had come to understand that despair does not necessarily result in annihilation, that one can go on in spite of it, I had become hardened. Was that what it means to be an adult, to live with ugly ambiguities? I didn’t like it, but it made it easier to go on.” (Yoshimoto 56)
Mortals dwell in that they initiate their own essential being – their being capable of death as death-into the use and practice of this capacity, so that there may be a good death. To initiate mortals into the essence of death in no way means to make death, as the empty nothing, the goal… Dwelling itself is always staying with things. Dwelling, as preserving, keeps the fourfold in that with which mortals stay: in things…mortals nurse and nurture the things that grow… (Heidegger 353)
Heideggerian approach to dwelling makes it a space for preserving and womanhood from this position appears to be in charge of preservation. And this dwelling is controlled by women who design the patterns of its operations. Sakurai and Eriko are the women created by Yoshimoto, not as victims of society confined to the domestic sphere, but as preservers and nurturers of the spiritual self and sanity of the members of the domestic space which is fluid and accepts new members with a postmodern ease. The margins of the dwelling are not defined in a fundamental and inflexible manner as one would expect in a supposed to be conservative Japanese society. Yoshimoto re-carves a space for women like Sakurai, who rip open structures, hardly conscious of their unconventional modes of operation in the narrow space of family. The concept of family is expanded including people who are not related to each other through blood, defining a new system of kinship pattern.
Is Sakurai a preserver of dwelling, a maintainer of relationships and a nurturer of life? The novella has a cathartic effect on the general reader, as it has carefully selected components of small doses of elements of healing that communicate with clarity. After the murder of Eriko, after mourning for days, at last in an effort to face death and accept the reality, Sakurai and Yuichi heal themselves by cooking an elaborate meal and eating it well. Nightmares and daydreams haunt their minds and they move in and out of depression, nevertheless fighting with all their spirits to grapple with life. “Living things were connected to the sun,” (Yoshimoto 81) says Eriko explaining why she has a terrace garden, as when she was a man, his sick wife, before her death, wanted some living things inside the house.
Chika is upset about Eriko’s death and Sakurai philosophizes: “It was true that she (Chika) jumped to conclusions and that her life was a mess… but the beauty of her tears was something I would not soon forget. She made me realize that the human heart is very precious.” (Yoshimoto 86)
Also the novella proves another point: “The kitchen, a symbol of female oppression in another age as the domain of the housewife chained to the kitchen sink, is thus reclaimed by Yoshimoto as a place for creativity and self-expression, rather than enforced domesticity.” (Ramsay 102)
Is Sakurai also a modern girl, a product of Japanese feminism, Americanization and with fluid notions of self-identity? Eriko has written a letter to her son Yuichi which is read after her death: “Please tell her (Sakurai) hi. And tell her to stop bleaching on her legs in front of boys. It is indecent” (Yoshimoto 53). The middle class educated women like Sakurai are modern with western ideas of beauty and style, constructing new ways of being carrying new ideals of femininity in an evolving society shaking out of the disasters of the world wars.
The term “Modern Girl” … first appeared in 1923… She was one of the thousands of female factory workers, employees in newly emerging professions, retail workers in both modern department stores and tiny retail shops, bus conductors and telephone operators, café waitresses, highly trained employees in teaching, medicine, and other sectors, and privileged young women who could easily afford international products and fashions. As a media sensation, the Modern Girl was transgressive. Common criticisms focused on her supposed foreignness, frivolousness, and promiscuity. Both Marxist and conservative critics called Modern Girls “hedonistic” and “decadent.” Most, however, were hardworking employees with working-class or middle-class jobs. (Molony (2018) 5)

The hybridized and trans-cultural reality of the 1980s Japan and its new middle class and the new woman are carefully presented by Yoshimoto using a very attractive writing style invoking nature and probably poetic in its original Japanese. The fact that even in translation this quality of literariness is coming through perhaps will explain the way the book has endured rigorous criticism from European countries and America and still manages to be read all over the world. Its positive and enriching way of approaching the domestic space is re-writing the feministic portrayal of domestic space, culinary skills, man’s fundamental need – cuisine and its production, the spiritual role played by victuals and womanhood itself. The urban educated woman is constructed as an individual who is in charge of the dwelling, who creates a sanctuary for man and serves her purpose of life and acts as the foundation of culture and civilization re- viewing the patriarchal notions of “women’s place” and “women’s work” as positions of sustenance and superior. The novella can also be seen as a feminist strategy for domestic reform, not by critiquing existing social systems, but by presenting a globalised model of home in which the educated woman of strong will and intelligence commands and takes care its members inventing a new kind of housekeeping, and probably this aspect makes it a utopian fiction or paraliterature or popular culture to traditional systems.


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