Japan's Mieko Kawakami Wants to 'Stir Things up'

Mieko Kawakami. (AFP)
Mieko Kawakami. (AFP)

Japan's Mieko Kawakami Wants to 'Stir Things up'

Mieko Kawakami. (AFP)
Mieko Kawakami. (AFP)

Mieko Kawakami has called out cliched depictions of women by one of her country's most feted writers, and seen her own bold style attacked by a top politician.

But the award-winning Japanese author says she is happy to "stir things up" in her drive to depict the world as she sees it, as well as the experiences of people who might otherwise go unnoticed.

And it's a formula she's confident readers want.

"There is a growing desire to hear the real voices of Asian women," the 44-year-old told AFP, describing her desire to shed light on a broader sweep of Japanese society.

"(My focus) is the voices that would not be brought to the surface if they weren't written."

Kawakami shot to fame in her home country when "Breasts and Eggs", her second novel, was given Japan's most prestigious literary prize in 2008.

Not everyone was impressed by its experimental style, with Tokyo's then-governor, who is also a novelist and has often been critical of young Japanese writers, denouncing it as "unpleasant" and "self-centered rambling."

But her exploration of the discomfort and confusion women sometimes feel with their bodies was a big hit among the public.

A reworked and expanded version was published in English last year, becoming a fixture of the book club circuit and winning its author international acclaim.

'Not a feminist writer'
Its dissection of sexuality and reproductive ethics has seen Kawakami cast a feminist writer. But that wasn't her intention.

"I'm a feminist, but I'm not a feminist writer," she said.

"I want to write about women as a part of humanity as a whole."

But she is critical of persistent inequalities in her society, slamming traditional gender roles in Japan she says are so ingrained that "it's hard to even put it into words."

"There's a social structure that makes it difficult for women to be independent," she argues.

Outdated views on gender in Japan have been back in the spotlight since former Tokyo Olympic chief Yoshiro Mori last month declared that women speak too much in meetings.

For many in Japan, the comments were shocking, but not surprising.

"It's a human rights issue, but that seems to be something (he) didn't understand at all," Kawakami said.

"That's the most problematic thing."

Still, she sees hope in the fact that an outcry over the remarks eventually forced the 83-year-old to step down, while it "probably would have been overlooked as a gaffe, say, five or 10 years ago."

'I'm on their side'
Kawakami has been praised by her literary peers, but she hasn't been afraid to ask questions about their depictions of women.

She made waves with an interview published in 2017 where she asked one of Japan's most famous writers, Haruki Murakami, why so many women in his novels seemed to serve a purely sexual function.

Her upbringing has also made her sensitive to the importance of class and economic inequality.

Raised in a working-class family in Osaka, Kawakami has felt keenly the difference in her background compared to many in Japan's literary world.

"I will never forget the town, the people and their voices, that shaped me," adds Kawakami, who sometimes writes in the western city's distinctive dialect.

"Now I'm surrounded by highly educated people from the middle and upper classes in the publishing industry, but I'm working class... and I'm on their side," she said.

She was raised by a single mother in a poor household where "you had to work, it didn't matter if you were female or male" and she lied about her age so she could work at a factory during school holidays.

From music to poetry
Scouted as a singer in her early 20s, she pursued music for five years without a hit, and says she felt free when her record deal ended.

A poem she submitted to a magazine caught the eye of an editor, who encouraged her to write longer stories.

Her debut novella, "My Ego Ratio, My Teeth, and the World", told the story of a female dental assistant who believes her consciousness resides not in her brain, but her molars.

It was nominated in 2007 for the biannual Akutagawa Prize, the award she later won for "Breasts and Eggs."

This year will bring the English-language release of her 2009 novel "Heaven", about a 14-year-old who is bullied at school -- a work that grapples with questions of good and evil, with no easy answers.

And she's now working on a project about the day that precedes a life-changing event.

"I have an obsession with the day before something happens," she said.

"None of us knows what will happen tomorrow, that is natural, but it is also a wonder -- and terrifying to me."

The High-Tech Art Lab Hidden Underneath Paris

A bronze statue is tested with the center particle accelerator. JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP
A bronze statue is tested with the center particle accelerator. JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP

The High-Tech Art Lab Hidden Underneath Paris

A bronze statue is tested with the center particle accelerator. JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP
A bronze statue is tested with the center particle accelerator. JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP

It looks like the lair of a Bond villain: behind armored doors, buried underground below the Louvre in Paris, lies one of the most high-tech art labs in the world.
Across three floors and nearly 6,000 square meters, the Centre for Research and Restoration of Museums of France (C2RMF) includes its own particle accelerator called AGLAE, and is bustling with radiologists, chemists, geologists, metallurgists, archaeologists and engineers, said AFP.

The 150-strong team examines around 1,000 artworks per year, discovering precisely which materials and methods went into making them, their origin and age, and how the years have altered them.
Their analyses inform restoration teams within the center, at the Louvre, Versailles and beyond.
Many great artworks have passed through the lab since its creation in 1999, including the Mona Lisa, the stained-glass windows of Notre-Dame Cathedral or Napoleon's sabre.
Like 'CSI'
When AFP was granted a rare visit recently, an 11th century bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Vishnu had recently arrived from Cambodia ahead of exhibitions in France and the United States next year.
A masterpiece of Khmer art, the "Vishnu of Western Mebon" was found at Angkor Wat in 1936, a rare reclining depiction of the Hindu god that would have measured some six meters when it was complete.
Behind thick, lead doors, a team of 10 specialists was carrying out X-rays and 3D scanning on the statue.
Certain parts would then be tested with techniques such as X-ray fluorescence and spectrometry that bombard it with gamma rays and electrons to discover its detailed chemical and molecular composition.
"We're a bit like NASA, each with our own skills, or 'CSI: Miami', the scientific police," said team leader David Bourgarit, an archaeo-metallurgical research engineer.
"Our crime scenes are archaeological discoveries. We try to understand who made them, how and why, like a police investigation," he added.
He pointed to little white dots around the eyebrows of the statue that he said were another metal, "denser than copper", which will require further analysis to identify.
The team also wants to identify the clay used to make the initial mould for the statue, traces of which are still inside.
That should allow them to pinpoint exactly where it was made by comparing it to earth samples.
Some fragments may also pass through AGLAE (the French acronym for the Grand Louvre Accelerator of Elemental Analysis), installed in the 1990s and the only one in the world to work exclusively on artworks.
In a room packed with machinery, the straight-line accelerator gives off a powerful roar as it creates and blasts particles at artworks and artifacts.
It allows the scientists to ascertain the amounts and combinations of elements in the objects, adding another layer of analysis for dating and verifying their authenticity.