Thursday, September 15, 2016

"Twinkle Twinkle" by Kaori Ekuni

The book Twinkle Twinkle has a clever dust jacket with cut-outs that
show two of the many faces printed on the actual cover of the book.
The end-papers are also a cartoon-ish design.
Between 1991, the year that the novel Twinkle Twinkle was published, and now, 2016, maybe Japanese marriage customs and expectations have changed. I wonder how much.

Author Kaori Ekuni created an extreme situation to explore how social pressure affected individuals who didn't fit perfectly into the narrow constricted Japanese marriage institution of that time, which probably isn't that different from today.

Mutsuki and Shoko, a recently-married couple, alternate as the narrators of the short book. They live in a pleasant apartment in Tokyo. He's a hospital physician, she sometimes works as a translator from Italian to Japanese, but mostly stays home. Through descriptions of a series of days and nights together and separately, they reveal their efforts to cope with an unusual relationship -- a marriage that's not a real marriage.

Both his parents and her parents are pretty highly involved in their lives, and constantly phone with deeply personal questions and suggestions for how the young couple should act. Obviously parental pressure caused them to decide to marry. And despite their efforts to split up housework and chores in a non-standard way, they are clearly being pressured into a more extreme, Japanese-style set of roles, where the woman stays home and eventually raises children.

Shoko's parents were aware that she was unstable and depended on alcohol, but she didn't tell them why Mutsuki, who seemed a most desirable husband, was willing to marry her. Throughout the chapters Shoko narrates she constantly mentions drinking a wide variety of alcoholic beverages, though she sometimes shares a cup of tea with a house plant in their living room. She has bouts of crying and depression, quarrels with her best/only friend and with Mutsuki, sings songs to a painting, and displays other erratic behavior. Her parents somehow pretend that her mental illness doesn't exist. When she asked for help before, her therapist promised that marriage would solve her problems -- now he says having a child will do it.

Mutsuki's parents are aware of why he didn't want a real marriage: he's gay, with a real soul-mate and partner, a younger man named Kon. And his parents know it. The overall attitude of just about everyone except a few other gay men is extremely negative towards Mutsuki and Kon and towards any form of gay life. Everyone except Shoko and Mutsuki is completely confident that the miracle of marriage will change them, and there's a sense in which they think it might be true.

Mutsuki knew about Shoko's problems before they married. And had a clear knowledge of who he was. Both believed that the marriage, even if it didn't change them, would put them on a more normal footing with society -- particularly, he and his parents felt that he couldn't advance in his profession unless he had a conventional married life, or at least ostensibly had such a life. The surprising thing that happens as the days and nights of terrible drinking and crying by Shoko and deep unhappiness by Mutsuki is that slowly they decide that they actually don't want to give up their odd relationship.

The way that the events of the story highlight the institution of marriage as it was in Japan a quarter of a century ago is very insightful, and I enjoyed reading the book also for the clever characterization of the people in the story, including the several gay friends of Mutsuki. I think the genre "comedy of manners" which some critics apply to the novel is quite apt.

As for the present situation with Japanese marriage compared with 1991: the institution has not changed much, but more and more young people are rejecting it. Perhaps the novel offers a bit of a clue what's wrong. In any case, many young Japanese women currently don't want to be forced into traditional married life and forced out of their careers: "Women are increasingly earning college degrees and pursuing careers, but the country’s policies and company cultures have not kept up. Few employees provide adequate maternity leave or daycare. Women in some companies say it’s impossible to earn a promotion after getting married because bosses assume the woman will soon get pregnant and quit the job." (source)

Statistically, far fewer marriage-age Japanese men and women actually want to get married now, for both social and economic reasons. The percentage of married people in their 20s and 30s and the percentage of unmarried men and women who want to marry eventually are both way down. Consider this study dated June, 2016:
"A study by an affiliate of Tokyo-based Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance shows that the proportion of Japanese men in their 20s who want to marry has slumped to 38.7 percent, down alarmingly from 67.1 percent just three years ago.

"For women in their 20s, the rate fell from 82.2 percent in 2013 to 59 percent." (source)

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