The Fatherless Family and Woman in Banana Yoshimoto’s Works

As Yoshimoto is a female novelist writing mainly about women in contemporary Japan, it will be interesting and important to explore more deeply the type and role of the women she portrays. While she seems to describe the lives of independent women, she put them into a mostly traditional setting in the house.

As Banana Yoshimoto writes mainly about women’s relationships, feelings, and thoughts in relation to Japanese contemporary society from a woman’s perspective, the paper will research these aspects of her female protagonists’ lives with regard to role of father in a family, family relationships in general and spiritual connection to the world that surrounds them. To comprehend the change that has taken place within the role of women in Japanese literature and possibly Japanese society, we must examine more closely the concept of family as it is in Japan today and in the literature of Banana Yoshimoto.

For example, the family and its values is one of the bases for a society, thus, societal changes often find their reflection in the family concept. The Family and Father in Contemporary Japan Most of her main characters are young women who have graduated from high school and are either on their way into or out of university, and many of them work in part time jobs. This depiction of young and independent women at an age ‘in-between’ main stages of their lives is also typical of shojo culture (Treat 359).

In her stories, the traditional family structure seems to have dissolved, and the women, neither ‘just’ housewives, nor established as equals, are somewhat floating in a diffuse area ‘in-between’. Yoshimoto’s women often do not follow the traditional ways in a society that was changed by the increasing influence from the West. Women in particular are left alone and searching for new ways in a seemingly unstable world. Thus, neither Kazami nor Sui in N. P. , Tsugumi and Maria in Tsugumi, Mikage in Kitchen, Satsuki in Moonlight Shadow nor Yayoi and Yukino in Kanashii Yokan lead a conventional school or work life.

All of them are from unconventional families, most of them fatherless. The narrator in N. P. , Kazami, lives with her mother, an English teacher, after her father died in the US; her sister lives in England. Kazami’s boyfriend, a translator of Japanese literary works into English who was many years her senior, committed suicide. Only her grandparents who live in Yokohama still seem to lead traditional Japanese lives; however, they do not play an important role in the story. The father of Kazami’s mysterious friend Sui, a famous Japanese writer, also committed suicide and leaving Sui to lead most of her life alone.

Both young women are somewhat adrift. They are driven through life by upcoming events, and do not initiate the events that shape their lives. They are lost in this world without guidance or ‘fatherly love’ in their lives. Different surveys conducted in 1983 in Japan revealed that one out of four couples who marry today divorce, and there is a divorce every 2 minutes and 57 seconds (Yamaguchi 246). While divorce in Japan has not reached the high percentages that exist in Western countries, it is obviously becoming more and more common.

However, divorce is only accountable for about half of the households that exist without a father. About 36% of these households are fatherless because of death (Yamaguchi 248). Both factors supply us with insightful background information and a possible explanation for Banana Yoshimoto’s family settings. It has often been assumed that such public display of dissolution of the traditional nuclear family as portrayed in Yoshimoto’s and other women writer’s fiction is still uncommon in contemporary Japan.

However, the statistics prove Yoshimoto’s fiction to be not quite so far removed from reality in this respect and that her work might be considered a reflection on contemporary Japanese society. Another interesting factor in the 189,000 divorces in Japan in 1993, the highest number in history, is the so-called “retirement divorce (Yamaguchi 248). ” Women divorce their husbands, who never spent any time at home while they were working, as soon as the husbands retire and end up spending most of their time at home.

“Couples married twenty years or more represented over 15 percent of the total figure; moreover, in the majority of these cases the divorces were initiated by the wife (Yamaguchi 248). ” Although divorce is a relatively common phenomenon in Japan today, divorced women are still looked upon rather unsympathetically. However, they are at times respected as individuals since the concept of individualism has grown more influential and is slowly replacing the strict and traditional system. Accordingly, a strong position of women – single, married or divorced – has become more common and more public.

Hikami calls this “the emergence of the strong wife – strong to the point of being overpowering — completely sure of herself and quick to give up on her husband for his shortcomings (Yamaguchi 249). ” As a result of seeing uncooperative husbands and of witnessing wives abandon their careers to become full-time housewives in their parents’ generation, many young women are disillusioned and shy away from marriage. The result is an “age of nonmarriage (Yamaguchi 249)”. Thus, Yoshimoto’s characters are not completely in “a fantasy land far removed from reality” as Yokochi Samuel claims (229).

While it is true that “familyless children, lesbianism, incest, telepathy and violent death” are part of many of her stories, these situations are exaggerations that reflect a changing reality in Japan today (Samuel 229). They are set, however, before the background of the emotions of the protagonists, feelings of devastation, of longing and a search for happiness on a personal level. These elements are quite common phenomena not only in fiction but also in real life. In fact, her narrations are popular because many people can very well relate to them and see connections to their own lives.

While Yoshimoto’s fiction is not necessarily a realistic depiction of Japanese everyday life, the observations so far seem to suggest that she captures some essence, undercurrent feelings and ideas, and societal tendencies of life in contemporary Japan in her stories (Samuel). The Fatherless Family in Yoshimoto’s Novels The topic of a lack of a father figure runs through all of Banana Yoshimoto’s fiction. In Kitchen, Mikage is an orphan confronted with the death of her grandmother who had been her last surviving family member.

She is lost and lonely finding the sound of the refrigerator in their kitchen the only consolation – until she meets some people who take her in and thus save her from her immediate (physical) loneliness. Her new host family is not traditional either. Yuichi’s mother is dead and his father had operations done which transformed him into an attractive woman, Eriko. This is not described as something extraordinary, however. Rather this type of family seems to be working quite well and seems to give a loving environment to all members. While the family situation in N. P. is equally uncommon, this is not the case in all of Yoshimoto’s stories.

The main characteristic of the family situations in Amrita, Tsugumi, Kanashii Yokan and Kitchen is still the existence of substitute families that consist mainly of women. There exists a specific connection among the women, which allows for a special way in which they relate to each other. Left alone by the men in their lives (with or without this being their fault) in a world that is confusing, lonely and without guidance, they search for and often seem to find a bond mostly with other women, which provides them with a new support system. This makes them partners in the search for new ways to lead their lives.

When describing Yoshimoto’s unconventional – the so-called dysfunctional -family of which there is a plentitude in her stories, Treat remarks that this concept is very untypical in Japan. In Yoshimoto’s stories “the family is ‘assembled’. — Blood ties and genealogy are less important than circumstance and simple human affinity (Treat 369). ” Traditionally, immense importance was placed on the family as the smallest unit that supports the bigger unit of the state in the Confucian state system and on blood ties within the Japanese society. Considering this Yoshimoto’s concept seems quite revolutionary.

The concept of family that Yoshimoto describes in her novels is strikingly different. Her families are often not created by marriage and procreation and do not prevail because of blood bonds. Everybody can become a member of the family. As Yoshimoto remarks herself: Wherever I go I end up turning people into a ‘family’ of my own. (… ) What I call a family is still a group of fellow-strangers who have come together, and because there’s nothing more to it than that we really form good relations with each other. It’s hard for us to leave each other, and each time it does I think to myself that ‘life is just saying good-bye.

‘ But while it lasts there are a lot of good things, so I put up with it. (Treat 370) These families seem to form almost accidentally, in a casual manner. The real bonds are created through coincidence and through spiritual bonds. These bonds, thus, just like most of the protagonists’ lives in Yoshimoto’s stories, are of the moment. They are created spontaneously or even somewhat accidentally as is the case for Mikage in Kitchen who is taken in by complete strangers. They can also be dissolved spontaneously as Maria’s father’s marriage in Tsugumi.

Without a value judgment ever being made, the close personal bonds, even if deep at the time, are not necessarily lasting. This is how Sakumi, the young female narrator of the novel Amrita, describes her own family: Blood ties seemed unrelated to how we were living. (… ) I believe that as long as there is someone in charge of the household, someone who can maintain order among its members, someone who is clearly mature and established as a person, someone, in other words, like my mother, then eventually all who live under the same roof, despite blood ties or lineage, will at one point become family.

(Amrita 6) But Sakumi goes beyond this realization: “If the same people don’t spend enough time in a home, even if they are connected by blood, their bonds will slowly fade away like a familiar landscape (Amrita 6). ” This hints at the typical Japanese family situation of the 20th century industrialized society in which the husband considers the company he works for his family and spends hardly any time at all at home. People, even those connected by blood ties, are not necessarily an active and real part of a family anymore if they are never at home.

Even if younger men are more open to change, they often are forced to put a preference on the company over their families. “It is the corporate system itself and the culture to which it has given birth which controls the men who work within it. ” (Fujimura-Fanselow 231) As a result, men seem to have faded from family life, the result of which, a strong female community, can be seen in Yoshimoto’s stories. The real families here seem to be non-biological ones, consisting of people who care for each other and are often centered on one central person, who seems to hold everything together, most frequently the mother.

Thus, while men are not necessary anymore for a functioning family apart from their financial support, women are vital to the family. This is also demonstrated in the fact that Yuichi’s father in Kitchen has a sex change after the death of his wife so that he can take on the role of the ‘mother’ for his/her son. The fathers — if existent -are reduced to the role of the bread-winner and are otherwise emotionally and spiritually completely unattached to women’s (or children’s) lives. This in no true recreation of the traditional family.

Members of the ‘new’ families always remain single individuals to some extent, which allows for the spontaneous creation and dissolution of family bonds. This is also the case in Tsugumi where the family of the young female narrator, Maria, consists only of her mother. Together they live with the family of her mother’s sister (husband, wife and two daughters), in Lzu, a small town at the ocean. Maria’s father is married to another woman and lives, separated from her, in Tokyo. However, in this story, the father eventually divorces his wife.

He marries Maria’s mother and moves both Maria and her mother with him to Tokyo, trying hard to make up for the missed family life. Maria’s family consisted mainly of her mother and her aunt’s family in which the husband again played a minor role. It is a family of women who support each other and are best friends at the same time. While Maria and her mother are painfully aware of the fact that their busy and comfortable life among women before the marriage will always be missing from their new life in Tokyo, they both acknowledge the new husband’s efforts to create a comfortable and harmonious family home for all of them.

However, this traditional family consisting of a father, a mother and a daughter appears to be an artificial construct (albeit a happy one) in comparison to the ‘natural’ family both women lived in before. In Tokyo they all must make an effort to be a happy family together while this was a natural given before. Because the three of us were involved in such an uncommon situation, we treated each other so kindly like members of a ‘typical happy family’ on a billboard. Every one of us tried not to show the mash of emotions that actually existed in the depths of our souls. Life is a play. (Tsugumi 42)

Thus, the traditional family is an artificial construct in contrast to the new concept of a family of women or peers, which is presented as the natural one. Again, Yoshimoto plays with the reversal of the ordinary and the extraordinary. The traditional family here is, however, based on love and care and thus, a positive one in this story. Maria’s father explains that such emotions and such constructs as families can be and often are temporary. During the long time that I was separated from you and during which I often felt very lonely, I learned how important to me are the people who are closest to me: my family.

It could happen, of course, that my opinion changed someday and that I will treat you and your mother unkindly — but that’s life! Maybe someday the time will come when our hearts don’t beat so closely together anymore, but exactly because of such times it is important to create many happy memories. (Tsugumi 43) Apart from the traditional family being something of an artificial construct, which all members have to work for in order to make it a happy one, here it also appears to be possibly a temporary one.

Maria’s father talks of the fleetingness of emotions and attachments to other people, similar to the narrator’s remarks on various occasions. Maria’s father concludes that the temporariness of things forces people to live life to the fullest and enjoy the happiness and friendship at the time you have them because they might be gone soon. This is not said with any feeling of bitterness. Rather, it seems to be a simple statement about certain unchangeable facts of life. The happiness or harmony of a good family life, thus, has to be cherished and all members here are clearly aware of this.

In accordance with the life of shojo as a stage in Japanese women’s lives, Maria remarks on the temporariness of friendships and the existence of separate circles in one’s life. She realizes that life consists of different stages and that you have to finish one stage in order to move on. One of these stages is her life at the seaside with Tsugumi and her family. When she returns to Tokyo for good after a wonderful summer with Tsugumi she realizes: “from this point onward my new life will begin (Tsugumi 170). ” The experience of living life in separate stages or episodes is also a topic in Kanashii Yokan.

After Yayoi’s parents die, the first ‘episode’ of her life ends. She is adopted into a family with a younger son, Tetsuo. While Yayoi’s foster parents take good care of her, she also feels drawn towards her ‘aunt’ Yukino, who later reveals herself as her older sister. Yayoi’s following search for the memory of her lost family is a third episode in the life of Yayoi during which she manages to bring the past to closure with the help of Yukino. Yukino herself suffered tremendously from the loss of her parents. She was nearly an adult at the time of the accident and did not want to be adopted into a new family.

After her parents’ death, she was not willing to form close bonds with people anymore. A similar change within the family life takes place in Kitchen and in Amrita. In Kitchen, Mikage goes from having no family at the beginning of the story when her grandmother dies, to a substitute family of a boy, Yuichi, who had befriended Mikage’s grandmother earlier in her flower shop and his father Yuji, who had an operation done which transformed him into a woman, Eriko, after the death of his beloved wife. Eriko works in a nightclub. While highly unconventional, these strangers take Mikage in and make her feel completely at home.

They become her family. The closeness of this family stems from an initial sympathy, compassion and understanding for one another. On the other hand it is the result of a similarity of experiences of the two juveniles, the painful loss of a beloved family member and the difficulty of dealing with the resulting feeling of loss and loneliness. Both end up as orphans when a former customer in the second part of the story stabs Eriko to death. Both young people have to construct their lives completely anew, purely based on their own emotions and intentions. Society does not seem to intrude into these spheres (of the characters’ lives).

Society does not help these lonely young people, nor does it particularly obstruct their way of finding themselves and their way in life. It simply does not seem to exist anymore. There is no such all-embracing concept as a society anymore that has any lasting influence on the protagonists. People (at least the protagonists) exist only as individuals. Although they try to connect to other individuals and thus create new ‘families’, they still remain often lonely individuals. A group identity can rarely be detected, as every individual seems to struggle along their own lonely and sometimes happy path.

The only element in their lives they have in common is the necessity to deal with the death of a loved one and the awareness of their own loneliness. In this context it is remarkable how the news of the sex transformation of Yuichi’s father is received. Mikage is surprised but, in fact, accepts this extraordinary fact quite easily. And Yuichi explains this surgery in a very calm and natural manner: 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 anyone else. She says that before she became a woman she was very shy.

Because she hates to do things halfway, she had everything ‘done’ from her to face to her whatever, and with the money she had left over she bought that nightclub. She raised me a woman alone, as it were. ‘ He smiled. ‘What an amazing life story! ‘ (Kitchen 14) Again in Banana Yoshimoto’s stories, someone was confronted with an extreme situation, the death of a beloved family member, and she shows his unusual way of dealing with it. As a result of this situation, the protagonists once again create a ‘fatherless family’, with Yuichi, his mother/father Eriko and Mikage. Thus, the juveniles are thrown into adulthood.

They “are not children; they just dream like children. Instead of fathers and mothers, there are surrogate fathers and brothers, dressed in women’s clothes” [in Moonlight Shadow] (Buruma 29). Cultural conventions and society are forces that are simply not taken into consideration: the decision to make such an immense change is purely up to the individual. Nowhere is the reaction of society – in form of former co-workers, other family members or friends – ever mentioned. Only Eriko’s death in the second part of the story hints at an unusual life: an angry customer of the nightclub shoots her when he finds out she was formerly a man.

Her violent death can also be related to the extreme extent and permanence of her change. Hiiragi’s cross-dressing in Moonlight Shadow on the other hand is less extreme as it is not permanent. In Kitchen the family life is surely not a traditional one and it does not closely resemble Japanese life in reality. However, it goes beyond reality in a somewhat logical way. The concept of the father- or man-less family also exists in Amrita. In this story a group of women share a household and the only male member is a little boy.

Yukiko lives in an apartment with her daughter from her first marriage, Sakumi (22), and her son from her second marriage, Yoshio (10). Other members of the household are Yukiko’s niece (daughter of her younger sister), Mikiko, who is a student at a nearby women’s college and Junko, a divorced childhood friend of Yukiko. This mostly female cast was created by unconventional situations as both the older adult women, Yukiko and Junko, are divorced single parents. Yukiko even divorced twice. Her first husband, who had died of cerebral thrombosis, was 21 years her senior, and six years after his death she remarried.

Explicit reasons for the split-up with her second husband are hardly given. Just like Eriko’s sexual change in Kitchen, this is simply accepted as a fact of life. The focus of the story, thus, is on the “home brought together nicely like a woman’s paradise. ” And the narrator Sakumi finds herself “attracted to the lifestyle — Blood-ties seemed unrelated to how we were living (Amrita 5). ” While this family situation does not claim to be ideal, it offers an alternative to the traditional lifestyle. The women in this story are not necessarily happier or more successful by living mainly with other women.

It simply seems to be a concept that works better for them and that it is more convenient or harmonic. Premature death is also present in this story. Sakumi’s younger sister Mayu, a beautiful young movie actress, dies in a car accident at 18. It is after her death that the story starts, thus showing the reaction of the other family members to this death and the searching and the healing process connected to it. However, this process is hardly taking place as a group effort. Rather, each person struggles alone and leads his or her life individually and separately from others.

The strain on this family, created by loss and emotional stress, eventually threatens to drive the family members apart. Part of the reason for this is the fact that they hardly ever meet as they did in the past: sitting around the kitchen table in the middle of the night eating or drinking coffee (Simon 34). This fits very well with the concept of the change of the role of the dining table in Japan. In the past (traditionally), all family members would sit around the dining table to communicate, exchange their thoughts and feelings. This exchange holds a family together.

In the postmodern society this concept changed as the traditional family lost its strength. Yoshimoto describes different stages of this connectedness of a family using the symbol of assembling around a table. Each story focuses on a different aspect: Tsugumi shows the more traditional concept, in Amrita the kitchen table as a symbol for the unity of the family is in danger of vanishing and in Kitchen it is virtually nonexistent at first but newly created by the new family member Mikage. Overall this concept reveals the dissolution of traditional, and the new creation of alternative families.

In the search for structures and new institutions, the kitchen table, thus, plays an important role — it leads the way to a new unity among the family members who still stand somewhat alone as individuals. “The desertions are in a sense balanced by new unions, though, ultimately, a sense of longing remains (Galef 23). ” Conclusion As a result of social, historical and economical developments and the internationalization of Japanese society, strict religious beliefs – whether Buddhist or Shintoist – and the Confucian value system are losing their significance within the lives of young Japanese.

This generates a variety of problems including loss of a meaningful context of life and the lack of a social support system for the individual. Banana Yoshimoto describes the resulting feeling of instability in most of her novels, in which the individual often stands alone facing a sometimes threatening world of tragedies to cope with and difficult choices to make. Her characters have to deal with the death of loved ones and other challenging situations without having any support from either family or society. Her real interest is a psychological one.

Banana Yoshimoto’s characters have to endure hardships and suffering. This experience, however, also has its positive component: it initiates the process of searching for one’s own identity and enables the individual to grow mentally. “Coping with problems and growing: I believe, those are the things that shape the mental and spiritual development of a person, with all his hopes and possibilities. “182 Thus, her stories describe a healing process after a tragic incident or difficult situation, which leads to personal growth.

Yoshimoto makes the suffering of people who do not fit into the ‘system’ of Japanese culture and norms and who, therefore, are confined to life at the margin of society, her cause. “I wanted to communicate the notion that such (troubled) people should be able to live as they please, without interference from others. Anyone should, for that matter. ” (N. P. 194) She extends the struggle of her characters to a more general statement about the importance of individualist thinking and the denial of society’s controlling function. By doing so she justifies also the dissolution of traditional gender roles in her stories.

While it is possible in her stories for men and women to remain in the traditional roles, this is merely an option – and not a very desirable one at that. As most of her characters face extreme challenges in their lives, they search for and – eventually expose their innermost feelings, which — as a result – are often appropriately extreme. Without society as a regulating institution, people choose their individual paths, and it turns out that these paths include the discovery of a female side within the personality of some men.

While this is based on purely individualist thought, it incorporates the idea that closer mental contact and understanding between the sexes, which is developing within the younger generations, is also a necessity for interpersonal relationships as young women are not willing anymore to stay within their traditional roles. Accordingly, they do not care to accept men who stick to the traditional male role either. Thus, within her concept of individualism, Banana Yoshimoto supports not a radical but a very strong feminist point of view. Her female characters stand alone and find their own way in life.

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