Book Review: Goodbye Madame Butterfly (2007)

With college over until the fall semester, I’ve had time to actually sit down and do some reading for pleasure, a not-so-common event for most college students.

The book is Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman by Author/Journalist Sumie Kawakami. It’s a collection of stories about the lives of different Japanese women (and two men) based off interviews the author conducted herself. Some of the stories include:

  • Joint Venture — Story about Emi, heiress to her family’s extensive estate, who must try to find a man who will take her last name in order to keep the estate under the family name. She eventually marries late, but her husband constantly cheats on her with other women. Despite this, Emi, who is getting older and wary about whether she would be able to find another man this late in life and still hold on to the family estate, sticks with her disloyal husband.
  • Purgatory — Story about Fumiko, whose hard-working husband is never at home, and so she suffers due to a lack of romance and sex. Unable to get a divorce—since her husband will not consent and she has no evidence of an affair—she moves away from her husband and tries to live a normal life as a semi-single mother.
  • The Sex Volunteer — Story about Hideo, a male sex-volunteer working at a clinic that provides women who are inexperienced, or married but no longer having sex, the chance to go on dates and/or have sex.

These and the other stories in the book are all interesting to read, and none of them have definitively happy or sad endings—most tend to end on a melancholy note.

The themes in the book cover  issues like sexless marriages due to working men in Japan seeing their wives as their mothers, how long working hours in japan—for both men and women—affect relationships and the way people live their lives, and how many Japanese people, despite problems or even adultery in their relationships, carry on through 「仮面夫婦」(kamenfuufu), simply making an act out of being husband and wife even if love between them no longer exists.

Good stuff

Overall all the stories are interesting enough, it’s well-written, and the themes covered are the sorts of modern-day issues in Japan that I’m interested in. Many of the stories deal with adultery in relationships, but this is not particularly surprising, given that the author’s other work, Wives in Love: Even if It Is Called Adultery (2003), would seem deal with that very subject.

If you’re even remotely interested in the sorts of modern-day drama that goes on in Japan, this is a good book to pick up. It’s ultimately a light-read, as there are very few facts or figures other than some about sexless marriages. Nonetheless, the lives of some of these women are very dramatic, and unlike your typical JDrama, these don’t usually end conveniently wrapped with with a nice little happy ending.

Bad stuff

One of the things that bugged me about the book comes from its introduction:

I fictionalized some parts of these stories to protect the identities of these women as well as their family members, friends, and lovers.

This is not the end of the world, but it gives me the sense that with this disclaimer she can make up as much or as little as the story as she wants. While reading, I would sometimes wonder if everything described had really happened, or if the part I was reading was actually something of the author’s imagination. If I want to learn about the sorts of things Japanese women go through, I want to know I’m reading something that was at least meant to be true.

Second, in terms of reading things that are true about Japanese culture, even if every story in the book were true, that wouldn’t make these stories an accurate portrayal of Japanese relationship life. The stories were chosen because they were particularly interesting or raunchy, rather than the norm of society.

There are lots of crazy relationship stories from the US, but collecting a few crazy stories about and then subtitling it “Sex, Marriage and the Modern US Woman” would be completely unfair—there’s no way we’d be able to draw anything from a book like that. While I don’t think Kawakami’s work is completely off-the-wall, it seems more suitable for entertainment than anything else.

Nonetheless, because the book does introduce a number of important issues related to Japanese relationship culture, it’s a good, light way to get interested in the subject.

Grade: B+

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Filed under Book review, Japan

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