The Novels of Natsuo Kirino

Representations of the Politics of Sexual Violence in Japan

Wendy Nakanishi, Shikoku Gakuin University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 4 (Discussion paper 5 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 15 December 2013.

Suggested citation: Wendy Nakanishi, "The Novels of Natsuo Kirino." electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies volume 13 issue 4 (15 December 2013). Available at

Keywords: Kirino Natsuo, contemporary Japanese fiction, violence, domestic abuse, women in the workforce.

The novels of Natsuo Kirino are not for the faint-hearted, nor are they for westerners loath to abandon the cultural stereotype of the Japanese woman as a delicate and cherished oriental flower. Natsuo Kirino is the pen-name of Mariko Hashioka, born in 1951, a prolific crime-writer most famous for her 1997 novel Out, published in English translation in 2004. In its depiction of four Japanese housewives employed on the graveyard shift at a boxed-lunch factory in a dreary suburb of Tokyo, Out presents a land and a people far removed from popular imaginings of a mysterious East of geishas and cherry trees. Out’s female characters are not treasured blossoms of womanhood but four desperate individuals trapped in dysfunctional relationships with men who are predators or parasites, labouring under the burden of heavy chores and responsibilities.

This paper will concentrate on three of Kirino’s seventeen published novels that have been translated into English, looking mostly at Out but also making passing references to Grotesque and Real World, both published in Japanese in 2003, with Grotesque issued in English translation in 2007 and Real World in 2008. It will be the contention of this paper that Kirino’s tales are not simple ‘who-dunnits’ but comprise sociological analyses of a society that can drive its people to commit the most extreme of acts: murder.

Japan’s society has been described as a “purely male-dominated system, typically patriarchal and hierarchical in structure’ that is ‘inherently anti-female”1. With Japanese women historically consigned to second-class citizenship in their own country, it is Kirino’s heroines who bear the heaviest brunt of social injustice. They are characterised as victims of a culture that privileges male experience over female, whose legal system countenances man’s position of “power, authority and sexualised control” over women and does not even recognise as crimes sexual harassment and domestic violence, and as inhabitants of a country inundated with pornography, “much of which depicts violence and degradation against females”2.

Kirino has admitted that she has scant interest in the prototypical murder mystery, asserting that her motivation as an author instead, is with “observing the fabric of human relationships”3. The principal interest of Kirino’s hard-boiled suspense stories derives not from the reader’s being invited to consider how a crime might have been committed but, rather, why.

Out opens by introducing its four unhappy women who are leading lives of quiet desperation in modern-day Japan. Masako Katori, Kuniko Jonouchi, Yoshie Azuma, and Yayoi Yamamoto are not so much friends by choice as by contingency, fellow employees at a factory in a grim industrial wasteland. They must work from midnight until dawn to assemble the bentos that commuters in the vicinity will purchase a few hours later at their local train stations, convenience stores and supermarkets to carry to their place of work for lunch. The bento or boxed lunch is a staple of Japanese life, a single-portion meal in a box-shaped container that usually contains a large section of boiled rice accompanied by a selection of meat or fish, cooked vegetables, fruit and pickles.

Assembling the materials for a bento lunch is gruelling and even hazardous work, the modern equivalent of the sort of low-paid, semi-skilled job requiring manual dexterity, physical stamina, and sustained concentration to which women have been consigned since the Industrial Revolution, when it was discovered that female workers possessed the requisite ability to master dextrous operations in, for example, the textile industry. The majority of the employees in the bento factory are part-timers, housewives in their forties and fifties, with the remaining work-force made up of Brazilian migrant workers and students on their summer holiday. Yayoi is one of the oldest of the workers, in her late fifties.

When they report to work each night, these bento-makers are stripped of their individuality and dignity, required, in effect to take on the role of robots or automata to discharge their duties effectively. On arriving at the factory, they change from their street clothes into white uniforms, hairnets and facemasks, with no separate dressing quarters provided for men and women. Their hands are then rubbed raw and disinfected and inspected: the slightest scratch means they cannot be involved in any job that involves touching food. They enter a room cooled to refrigerator pitch, where they must stand for five hours without a break at a conveyor belt in what is described as the “frenzy of the line,” straining every faculty to perform their single task related to the composition of a boxed lunch4. There is a scramble for the easiest jobs, with smoothing the large portion of rice deposited in each box to a uniform consistency seen as one of the most difficult, and the spooning of a ladle-full of curry sauce on the rice or the placing of a slice of vegetable or pickle, as among the easiest.

On the night on which the story begins, the youngest member of the group of friends, the twenty-nine year old Yayoi is unusually quiet and even melancholy, and she manages to spill a cauldron of a savoury sauce for fried pork cutlets. When her friends question her once their shift is over, she admits that she has just learned that her husband has lost all their savings, amounting to the considerable sum of five million yen, and that he has even beaten her when she complained of his fecklessness.

The mother of two young children, saddled with an untrustworthy and physically abusive husband, struggling to make ends meet, Yayoi’s lot in life is scarcely enviable, but her friends are also losers in life’s lottery as it is played out in Japan. Kuniko feels an outcast as a fat and ugly woman in a society whose standard of female attractiveness promotes an androgynous and gamin appearance. Yoshie is a widow who shares a drab, tiny, cheerless home with her bedridden mother-in-law and Miki, a daughter who refuses to assist her with household chores, including the care of the ill old woman, with Yoshie worrying that Miki, who has taken to dying her hair and truanting school, is in danger of becoming a juvenile delinquent. Masako is trapped in an unhappy family life with a husband and son both leading what Masako thinks of as the existence of a hermit, isolated in his own room, making no effort to reach out to anyone else.

Each of these women has been badly let down by the men in their lives. Although Yayoi is young and attractive, a good wife and mother who contributes to the family income through her part-time job at the boxed-lunch factory, her husband Kenji has not only spent all their money, but she knows he is infatuated with a bar hostess. It is when Yayoi blames their predicament on the woman she calls a ‘slut’ that Kenji strikes her. Yayoi feels she must grin and bear this brutal treatment for the sake of their children. After her beating, she puts on a brave face, concealing her bruises while thinking “It was miserable to be living with such a man” (60).

What is the social context of Yayoi’s predicament in Out? Domestic violence, including the possibility that rape might be perpetrated in the context of marriage, is scarcely addressed by the Japanese legal system, that has been described as one which “reflects and reproduces patriarchal social structures” and which posits man’s aggressive nature as opposed to woman’s perceived passivity in the sexual act5. When Yayoi is attacked by her husband, she never considers contacting the police, content only to try to protect her children from any knowledge of it. She feels there is no one to turn to. Kenji’s taunting her with the loss of all their savings provokes Yayoi into a murderous attack on him. Yayoi strangles Kenji, feeling both surprise and relief when she realises he is dead.

When Yoshie hears of Yayoi’s troubles, she imagines Yayoi’s husband to have been like her own, a “selfish slob” (29). His death has freed her from the necessity of caring for the depressed man who once had shared their home, but she still is shackled to the heavy responsibility of caring for his mother. Yoshie remembers that when she first married, her mother-in-law had exercised a cruel power over her, but age and illness have transformed the former domestic tyrant into ‘a pitiful old woman’ who couldn’t get by without Yoshie’s consenting to assuming the disgusting, exhausting routines of her care: changing her diapers and clothes and feeding her just as though she were a helpless baby (28). At one time, Yoshie’s daughter helped her with such onerous chores, but she is growing increasingly sulky and undependable and seems to require ever-larger sums of money for school activities, with Yoshie suspecting Miki is exaggerating the fees and creaming off anything extra for herself. Yoshie knows that her mother-in-law and daughter depend on her and that however tired or demoralised she may feel, there is no escape from the heavy burdens she shoulders: “even if she felt like a slave, even if it seemed as though she would always be doing the dirty work, who else was there?” (30).

Yoshie’s burden grows even more heavy midway through the novel when her elder daughter, Kazue, who had quit school and run away with a man when she was eighteen, suddenly turns up at her house and leaves her small son in Yoshie’s care (167), an arrangement Yoshie realises might be permanent, as her daughter had not been in touch for three years and might easily disappear again indefinitely. Yoshie remembers Kazue’s lover as a loser who could never hold down a regular job (163).

Masako inhabits a house with her husband and son but, with her two men preferring to shut themselves away, in effect, she is living on her own. The self-imposed isolation of the men in Masako’s life stems in both cases from depression: Masako’s husband Yoshii hates his job while their son Nobuki was unfairly expelled from high school and cannot summon the energy or inclination to embark on a new path. Masako and her husband no longer sleep together and they barely speak to each other. Masako feels her husband has decided to retreat from the world and is busily constructing a cocoon for himself (66).

In this respect, it is a case of ‘like father like son’ and, indeed, Masako is struck by their physical likeness (90). Masako suspects her son Nobuki is drinking and smoking in his bedroom. She scarcely sees him. At only seventeen, he is adrift, with no direction or hope, an example of Japan’s hikikomori phenomenon or “acute social withdrawal,” referring to the trend that became noticeable in Japanese society in the late 1980s, with Japan’s plunge into economic recession following the bursting of the speculative bubble, resulting in the creation of what has been described as Japan’s ‘lost generation’: the estimated nearly half a million young Japanese, mostly male, who choose to retire completely from public life and sequester themselves at home and usually in their own bedrooms6.

The explanations for this phenomenon are various, but Nobuki’s case is typical. He is the only son in a dysfunctional family with a severely-depressed, reclusive father who has abdicated all familial responsibility and a mother who is often absent from the home, needing to work outside to supplement the family income. A traumatic event such as Nobuki experienced in being unfairly expelled from school can trigger a sudden but complete retreat from social life, with the afflicted individual, again, usually male, seeking a retreat from the outside world by secluding himself in his bedroom.

In Kirino’s novels, the women are more resilient and tougher than the men. While Masako’s husband and son, reeling from their own personal disasters, have retreated into a world of their own, Masako feels she must carry on without complaint even though, arguably, the blows life has dealt her are far more grievous than anything Yoshiki or Nobuki have had to endure.

What might be described as Masako’s back story in Out is included a third of the way through the novel, when we learn that Masako was forced to resign a job far superior to the work she subsequently found in the boxed-lunch factory. On graduating from high school, Masako had joined a credit and loan firm and, after working there for twenty-two years, found herself the female senior employee. But her position failed to translate into challenging work or a salary commensurate with her years of experience in the firm. Like many working women in Japan, Masako found herself a victim of the ingrained sexual discrimination of the traditional Japanese workplace, including the implicit rule that women are expected to retire from well-paid office jobs at the age of thirty-five. She was never given anything but the rudimentary clerical work allotted to her on her first day and, naturally, never promoted. She had to make the tea and do all the photocopying and was forced into the menial role of a servant at any company party.

Stung out of her long-suffering passivity on discovering that a male colleague who began working at the company at the same time as her was earning a far greater salary, Masako finally decided to take action. She complained to her section head, asking for promotion to a management position and to be given the same tasks as her male co-workers.

Masako’s one attempt at protest at her lot led to a harassment campaign being launched against her the day following her interview with her section head. Masako found herself increasingly isolated and humiliated, the object of scorn and hostility and, finally, feeling she had no choice, she had resigned. This is the background of her deciding to take on the physically gruelling and mentally deadening job at the boxed-lunch factory. It has been estimated that 23.2 % of all company workers in 2002 were part-time workers and, of that number, that they were predominantly housewives, forced into non-regular employment without benefits or a pension as a cost-cutting measure by Japanese industries7. Such women are seen as peripheral to the core of permanent male workers enrolled in Japan’s lifetime employment schemes.

At the beginning of Out Masako at forty-three years of age is as adrift as her reclusive son Nobuki. Masako feels as if she is occupying a kind of vacuum. There is nothing she wants to do and nowhere she wants to be. While, each night, she hates the idea of having to start her shift at the factory, the prospect of returning to her house—to her loveless marriage and her unhappy, hostile son—is equally repellent. Her friends consider Masako an unusually capable woman, someone they can count on when they are in trouble and, not knowing of the brutal treatment meted out to her by the credit and loan company, they wonder why she is wasting her abilities by working in such a dead-end job.

Kuniko is in turns curious about and envious and critical of Masako, sensing a stylishness, a power and a capability in the older woman that she knows she lacks herself. As the only unmarried woman of the group of four, it may seem Kuniko has a relatively enviable existence, needing only to care for herself, but she is depicted as a rather stupid, lazy and greedy person who is her own worst enemy. At the beginning of the story, she is on the point of breaking up with her live-in lover Tetsuya and, even worse, deeply in debt, she has begun to be threatened by loan sharks demanding repayment.

Violence is an undercurrent of Out, an ever-present threat both for its four female protagonists and, less occasionally, for the men in their lives. The traditional link between Japan’s more cutthroat loan companies and the yakuza gangsters who act as payment enforcers means that Kuniko knows she risks physical assault if not death if she fails to repay her debts. Her feckless ways finally do prove the death of her. She is eventually murdered by Mitsuyoshi Satake, the owner of the bar frequented by Yayoi’s husband, who has been convicted of Kenji’s murder and spent several years in prison after she confides to him the secret that it was Yayoi who, in fact, had killed the man.

Masako not only has to contend with the grim realities of her home and work life but also finds herself stalked when she arrives one night at the bento factory, dragged into some bushes and nearly raped. Like Kuniko, she is raped and nearly killed by Satake after he gets out of prison, looking for vengeance.

If violence is the fate of such women as Kirino’s protagonists in Out, its men are oppressed and almost crippled by depression. Yoshie’s husband died at a relatively young age of cirrhosis, probably brought about through alcoholism. Masako’s husband and son have immured themselves in the prisons of their own rooms to escape the pressures of the outside world. Kuniko’s live-in partner Tetsuya sleeps away any free time he can spare from the responsibilities of his full-time job at a hospital, and he eventually quits and disappears from her life.

While the men in Kirino’s novels brood, the women act. Yayoi kills her husband. Masako and Yoshie help her to dispose of his remains. The women, unable to count on any assistance from the male figures in their lives or from the law, need to club together to help each other.

But not all women are trustworthy. Masako, Yayoi and Yoshie see Kuniko as unreliable. After Masako and Yoshie have managed to dispose of Yayoi’s husband’s remains so effectively that the police initially accept Kenji’s disappearance as unsuspicious, the case of a missing person, Kuniko inadvertently stumbles across their secret when she visits Masako to ask for a loan (123). In return for the loan, Kuniko must leave parts of the dismembered body that Yoshie and Masako have put into black plastic bags at inconspicuous rubbish collection sites. But their instinct was right; Kuniko was not to be trusted. Besides using her knowledge of their guilty secret to blackmail Yayoi, her former friend, she reveals the story to a man named Jumonji, a handsome but ruthless operator who runs ‘Millions Consumers Centre,’ a loan sharking firm, who is trying to collect on Kuniko’s debts (150, 310, 317).

This information inspires Jumonji to branch out in a new business. He realises he can offer an invaluable service to his former school friend, Soga, now a mob boss, and he tells him he can get rid of any unwanted bodies for him (323). In a perverse reversal of the helpless, vulnerable position in which they found themselves before the murder, his proposal to Masako and Yoshie sets them up as successful entrepreneurs, disposing of corpses sent them by Jumonji by cutting them up in Masako’s bathroom and then dispersing the parts of the dismembered body in black plastic bags left at collection sites throughout the city.

What is the significance of the title of Kirino’s novel Out? In a word, it is that nearly every character depicted in her story is an outsider, someone who is outside the cocoon of the comfortable and secure Japanese social networks related to family, schooling and employment. Japan’s is a society that values conformity and consensus. The Japanese are a people in love with the ‘uniform’ in both its senses: as a form of dress and as a standard of behaviour. Kirino’s characters have either been ejected from the uniform and the conventional in Japanese by force or by choice but, in either case, their isolation from the social norms leaves them vulnerable and powerless. They are socially marginalised, excluded from the “urban ‘centers’ of power, wealth, and influence by the attitudes, actions, or absence of men”8.

As women, the female protagonists of Out automatically are consigned to the role of outsiders in the enclaves of male power that dominate Japanese society even though, with the passage of equal opportunity laws on the books since 1987, the “masculine domination of the public sphere has decreased substantially”9. But they are expected to acquiesce to the inevitable with dignity, as Masako learns to her cost, when she complains at her treatment in the credit and loan company where she has worked for so many years and then, ostracized by her fellow-workers, feels forced to resign. As a middle-aged woman re-entering the Japanese workforce after leaving that job, she can expect nothing better than the poorly-paid, physically and mentally strenuous work at the boxed-lunch factory.

The only sympathetic male figure presented in Out is another outsider, Kazuo Miyamori, one of the workers at the boxed-lunch factory, a biracial individual whose mother is Brazilian and father is Japanese, who is considered to have an alarmingly foreign appearance by his co-workers: “[t]he day he realised that his face and physique would forever consign him to the status of a gaijin [a foreigner] Kazuo gave up on Japan” (154). Miyamoto is revealed to have been the potential rapist lurking outside the boxed-lunch factory, and he is the initial suspect identified by police investigating Yayoi’s husband’s death.

The narrator of Grotesque is another such outsider, consigned to second-class status in Japanese society not only because she is a woman but also because she, like Out’s Kazuo Miyamori, is what Japanese call a ‘half,’ an individual who is biracial, with only one ethnic Japanese parent. It is somehow appropriate that this narrator, ignored or considered insignificant by Japanese society, remains unnamed throughout the course of the novel.

Just as violence was a predominant theme of Out, Grotesque is the story related in the first person by this unnamed individual of how her sister and an old school friend became prostitutes and eventually were murdered. While both novels are ostensibly crime stories, it is obvious that Kirino’s true preoccupation as their author is with an examination of a society that can drive its women to acts of desperation.

According to Alice Fordham, Grotesque is a book about women struggling to be taken seriously by men and, disappointed at their lack of success in this aim, their consequent retreat into “coldness, violence and dehumanisation”10. Grotesque has also been seen a brutal analysis and indictment of what has been called Japan’s ‘classist’ society, that drives females to sell their bodies for money, by a reviewer who observes that it is not a crime novel, for Kirino’s concern’s are “social, not criminal”11.

What is the significance of the title of Grotesque? It echoes the Japanese maxim that ‘the nail that sticks up will be hammered down’: in other words, that anyone who fails to conform to Japanese social norms will encounter difficulties in daily life. In Grotesque, the narrator’s sister is described as a woman who is so beautiful that she is almost like a kind of ‘monster,’ an individual possessing an appearance so lovely that she inspires fear in all who see her12. The group-oriented nature of Japanese society means that the Japanese often behave in a collective way and that they try to restrain or avoid people who unconventional or who attract attention. There are four strikes against the narrator’s sister, forcing her into outsider status: her father is a foreigner, she is a woman, she is an unusually attractive individual, and, in the opinion of one of her friends, she has a free spirit (343). All these facts mean she can never fully fit into any group, that she can never be fully integrated into Japanese society.

The narrator’s and Yuriko’s father is a Swiss national of Polish descent. When he returns to Switzerland, their Japanese mother finds the pressure of living as a foreigner there so great that she kills herself. Despite or because of her own oddity, having a foreign father, a mother who has committed suicide, and a sister who is monstrously beautiful, the narrator longs to embrace an ordinary life and to conform as far as possible to Japanese conventions. This urge leads her to attempt to enter an elite high school, one of the most acceptable goals for any young person in Japan. The narrator wants to blend in, to be anonymous, but she manages to attract the friendship of two individuals who are oddities: Kazue Sato, an ugly, ambitious young woman notorious for willing to go any lengths to be accepted by the high school’s exclusive ‘in crowd’ and Mitsuru, an attractive, bright young woman who belongs to this ‘inner circle’ because she has managed to conceal from them the fact that her mother is a bar hostess.

The uchi/soto or ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ takes on special significance in Grotesque, whose plot revolves around the tensions and rivalries between the small group of insiders at the elite high school and all the outsiders who long to be accepted by that small, exclusive clique. Mitsuru is a member of the insiders, but if they knew about her mother’s occupation, she would be bullied and sneered at and derided like the other individuals her so-called friends in the clique condemns as losers.

It is because Mitsuru straddles both sides of the divide that she is an acute critic of the system and wins the love and loyalty of the narrator. Mitsuru explains that the elite high school where they both study is dominated by “the class-based society in all its repugnant glory,” where “[a]ppearance controls everything” (54).

As in Out, the female characters in Grotesque have troubled relations with the male characters in their lives. The narrator freely admits that she hates her father, that she finds men physically disgusting and that she has never loved a man or had sexual relations with one (191). Kazue Sato, on the other hand, adores her father and is completely under his control, while he is jealous of any relationships she might develop with anyone else that could undermine his power over her (211). The beautiful Yuriko early develops nymphomaniac tendencies and becomes a prostitute at the tender age of fifteen, admitting that she loves sex so much she wants to “screw as many men as [she] could” (125, 143).

Yuriko attributes her obsession with sex to her outsider status as a ‘half’ in Japan. After her mother’s suicide, when Yuriko tells her father she has decided to leave Switzerland, to return to Tokyo, he tells her that she will encounter difficulties because of her “Western looks.” Yuriko’s future life in Japan suddenly becomes clear to her: she will be pointed at and called gaijin, other girls will admire her beauty while whispering to each other that ‘halves’ show their age earlier than pure Japanese, and the high school boys will torment her (121). Yuriko feels that her sister, the narrator, has built a thick wall of ordinariness around herself to protect herself from this environment. Yuriko decides she will preoccupy herself with sex.

As in Out, the subtext of Grotesque is violence and, in particular, violence directed at women, who ultimately are forced to retaliate with violence of their own. In Grotesque, the two female students of an elite high school who end up becoming prostitutes inhabit a society that has been described as one in which there is ‘a highly visible mass culture of commodified female bodies, often eroticising their violation and degradation,’ with the very pervasiveness of this culture normalising the “images and practices of sexual violence”13. It is estimated, for example, that videos whose theme is rape account for some twenty per cent of the pornography at video-rental stores in Japan14.

Kazue Sato is a victim of a society whose rigid hierarchy not only divides women into two types—the ‘ordinary’ or ‘good,’ including mothers, wives and daughters, and the ‘bad,’ including prostitutes and bar hostesses—but which also operates against allowing the so-called ‘good’ women from reaching their fullest potential in the Japanese workplace15. Like the narrator’s sister Yuriko, Kazue is a graduate of the elite Q High School who becomes a prostitute. She is a strikingly plain girl who is proud that she once wrote a prize-winning essay for her company and that she has been promoted to the position of assistant manager there, but she feels overlooked and disregarded by her colleagues and takes comfort in the delusion that she is the attractive, sought-after object of sexual desire by the punters who avail themselves of her services.

Kazue Sato once had wished to compete with men on terms of equality, but experience disabuses her of that ambition. At her job, she feels overlooked and underappreciated. As a call girl, she delights in disparaging the men who are her customers. Shortly before she meets her death at the hands of a Chinese immigrant, she muses on the irony of it all:

Doctors and professors were the most lascivious of all. From what I knew of their world, most men who were obedient to authority figures, as well as those who had earned authority positions, were always idiots. When I recall the anxiety I once felt about being at the top of that world, I laugh so bitterly it makes my teeth ache (375).

Kazue describes her descent into prostitution as resulting from a desire for revenge on a society that would not allow her to live successfully as a woman (380). Sex also enabled her to exercises a mastery, however temporary, over the men who failed to recognise her abilities. Yuriko had been Kazue’s inspiration: Yuriko “didn’t have to study; she didn’t even have to work. She was able to bring the world to her feet by one method and one alone—because she was able to make men ejaculate” (419).

Violence is also the theme of Real World, the last of Kirino’s novels I will examine in this paper, but in this work, it is one of Japan’s hundreds of thousands of ‘shut-ins’ or hikikomori who commits it. Real World is a portrait of Japan’s teenagers. A young boy nicknamed ‘Worm,’ feeling pressurised by his mother to perform well in high school exams, kills her with a baseball bat. It has been estimated that half of all hikikomori, of whom 80% are male, treat their parents with some form of violence, with such attacks representing one of the most common forms of domestic violence in Japan16. Japanese households have clearly-defined roles, and it is seen as the duty of the mother to supervise her children’s education and to ensure they enter good schools. Worm, like the narrator of Grotesque and her sister and friend, has succeeded in being admitted to an elite high school. His mother has therefore fulfilled her duty, but it is on her that the brunt of her son’s displeasure falls, quite literally, when he bludgeons her to death.

Real World is told from the standpoint of its narrator, a high school girl named Toshi, grieving over the death of her mother and trying to hide her lesbianism from her friends and family. She is Worm’s next-door neighbour and hears the disturbance created by the murder. Although she and Worm have never been friends, their acquaintance before that time limited to chance encounters on the way to a nearby train station, she takes up his cause when he’s on the run from the police, involving three of her own friends in an attempt to help him.

Like the narrator of Grotesque, Toshi, who tells the story of Real World, is an individual who seeks to hide herself, to avoid attracting any attention because, she thinks, “unless you watch yourself and try to stay under the radar, you get bullied,” a possibility she is particularly wary of because her preferring girls to boys represents a point of vulnerability17. Toshi feels herself to inhabit a dangerous world of which her parents’ generation is ignorant in which young girls like herself are targeted not only by male sexual predators of all ages and backgrounds but also by companies eager to exploit them as a potential, lucrative market for their sales. But she sees her neighbour Worm as another victim: “a typical nerdy guy from a family that pushed its kid too hard to succeed in school—and so he flipped out” (23).

It is Toshi’s sympathy for Worm and his murderous impulses towards controlling, ignorant parents, impulses that she sometimes shares, that leads her to involve her friends in his plight. Toshi’s empathy with the juvenile matricide has disastrous results when one of her friends is involved in a fatal crash as she is fleeing in a taxi with Worm and another ends up committing suicide, remorseful that she had leaked details of Worm’s location to the police, an act that led to her friend’s and to the taxi driver’s deaths (184).

What is the significance of the title of this novel? At one point, Toshi contemplates her state of self-induced depression and remarks that it is this fug of negative feelings that represents her “real world” (148). Terauchi, who kills herself, observes in her suicide note that the deaths of her friend and the taxi driver constitute a kind of ‘meta reality’ she had never imagined, circumstances that can never be glossed over or ignored or forgotten, a situation that is “irreparable” (186).

Death in its most extreme form, murder, is a feature of the three of Kirino’s novels I’ve looked at in this paper. But, again, her books are rather sociological analyses of a society that can drive its inhabitants to kill rather than ‘who-dunnits’ or murder mysteries. In some of her stories, it is men who kill women, in others, it is women murdering men, but, in most cases, it is desperation rather than evil that inspires their violence.

Kirino’s novels represent an indictment of modern-day Japan. Its children are plunged into what has been termed an ‘examination hell’ on entering junior high school, resulting in a “relatively high rate of delinquency and other school-related sociological problems that arise” at that point, continuing into high school, including a sharp increase in reported incidents of bullying, in nervous breakdowns, in violence directed against parents and teachers, and in suicides18. The female students in Japanese secondary schools are particularly vulnerable to these pressures, expected to fulfil impossible standards of behaviour and appearance while bombarded by pornography that reduces them to objects of male desire, fending off sexual harassment from all sides while coping with the diminished expectations they face as women in a sexist society that offers preferential treatment to its men. As Wordsworth once observed, the child becomes the man or, in the case of Japan, such girls become its women and desperate housewives, prey to falling victim to or inspired to commit sexual violence.


[1] Yukiko Tsunoda, ‘Sexual Harassment and Domestic Violence in Japan,’ (

[2] See ‘Woman Uncovered: pornography and power in the detective fiction of Kirino Natsuo’ by Rebecca Copeland, Japan Forum, 16:2, p. 259, on which she includes this quotation by Jane Ussher, and Harriet Gray, ‘Rape and Sexual Assault in Japan: Potential Gender Bias in Pre-Trial Procedures,’ (, p. 3, and Yukiko Tsunoda, ‘Sexual Harassment and Domestic Violence in Japan,’ (

[3] Japan Review interview, Natsuo Kirino.

[4] Natsuo Kirino, Out (London: Vintage, 2004), translation by Stephen Snyder, p. 12 (hereafter, quotations from the book are cited within the text).

[5] Catherine Burns, Sexual Violence and the Law in Japan (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 5, p. 27.

[6] See “The Japanese hikikomori phenomenon: acute social withdrawal among young people by Andy Furlong in The Sociological Review, 65: 2, 2008, and Michael Zielinziger’s book on the topic, Shutting out the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

[7] Helen Macnaughtan, ‘From “Post-war” to “Post-Bubble: Contemporary Issues for Japanese Working Women,’ Perspectives on Work, Employment and Society in Japan, edited by Peter Matanle and Wim Lunsing (Basingston, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 40.

[8] Amanda C. Seaman, “Inside OUT: Space, Gender and Power in Natsuo Kirino, Japanese Language and Literature, Vol. 40, No. 2 (October 2006), 201.

[9] Ibid., 200.

[10] Alice Fordham (2007), “Out of Control,” ( The Times, 24 February 2007.

[11] Benjamin Secher (2007), “It really is a complete fabrication,” (;?xml=arts/2007/03/25/bokir24.xml) The Telegraph, 27 March 2007.

[12] Natsuo Kirino, Grotesque (London: Vintage Books, 2008), translated by Rebecca Copeland, p. 6 (hereafter, quotations from the book are cited within the text).

[13] Burns, p. 2.

[14] Gray, p. 3.

[15] Burns, p. 31.

[16] Zeilinziger, p. 43.

[17] Natsuo Kirino, Real World (London: Vintage Books, 2008), translated by Philip Gabriel, p. 15, (hereafter, quotations from the books are cited within the text).

[18] Merry White, The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children (London: Collier Macmillan, 1987), p. 66.

About the Author

Wendy Nakanishi, an American by birth, spent seven years in Britain, earning her MA in 18th-century English Studies at Lancaster University and her PhD at Edinburgh University, with a doctoral thesis on Alexander Pope's correspondence. She has been a resident in Japan since the spring of 1984, working first for five years as a 'Guest Professor' at Tokushima Bunri University's Shido campus, and since then, as a full-time tenured member of staff in the Department of Language and Culture at Shikoku Gakuin University. She has published widely in her academic field, mainly on the topic of letters, diaries and journals, but recently has also been writing on the topic of her experiences as a foreigner living in Japan, the wife of a farmer and the mother of three sons.

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