‘If I were young today, I might have already killed myself’

…says Japanese best-selling writer Banana Yoshimoto of the loneliness in today’s Japan, and tells that she hopes her books will give young people something that will make them keep living

Updated - October 18, 2015 04:35 am IST

Published - October 17, 2015 04:15 pm IST

Banana Yoshimoto.

Banana Yoshimoto.

The fictional worlds of Banana Yoshimoto hinge between sleep and waking, fear and dream, loneliness and “the separateness of people.” Her debut novel, Kitchen (1988), sold millions of copies worldwide, and has been made into two feature films. She has since produced over 20 books for adults and children. Yoshimoto changed her name from Mahoko to Banana because of its androgynous qualities and her love for banana flowers. She has consistently rejected male and female stereotypes in her work, opting instead for her own whimsical brand of gender-bending ambiguity. Excerpts from an interview:

In your work, there’s a lot of gender shifting — a man turns into a woman in a subway train, a boy wears his dead girlfriend’s school uniform. Could you speak about your fascination with gender and why it’s important to your work?

I’m interested in the ways in which people can express their souls. In who they really are deep inside. Growing up as a young adult, I had many friends who were undifferentiated gender wise, not totally men, not totally women. They found it difficult to express themselves, so I thought I could write for them… I think the way society is right now is ephemeral; reflections of what humans might be, possibilities, so I try to focus instead on the human soul, rather than how a person appears.

You’ve said that one of the major themes in your novels is the fatigue of contemporary Japanese youth, and you’ve often delved into the generation and communication gap in your country — how does this relate to the idea of death embodied in Japanese culture, if there’s such a relationship?

In traditional Japanese culture, death was an intimate event. People died at home, so you’d watch your ancestors dying and know the ways in which they died. Now it’s completely different. We can say that death is hidden. People don’t really know how it actually happens. But it doesn’t change the fact that when someone loses someone they love, they go through a deeply traumatic experience, and the young generation has lost the ability to communicate this experience… Rather than death itself, I write about grieving and losing people. Everywhere in the world it’s the same, not just in Japan.

You write a lot about suicide. In Japan last year 70 people killed themselves a day, on an average. How does that statistic relate to your storytelling?

The society now and the feeling of loss that people experience is so strong that, if I were young now, maybe I would have already killed myself. That’s how bad the situation is for young people today in Japan. Of course, I don’t think I can stop people from killing themselves, but I’d hope that if they read me they might delay their suicide for maybe 10 minutes or a night. Maybe in this delay these young people would see something they didn’t see before; like a new chance to keep on living.

One of your chief explorations is loneliness. Does that come from living in a big city like Tokyo, or is it something particular to Japan?

I think loneliness is universal and everyone experiences it very strongly. However, I will say that Japan is changing so fast that a lot of people are being left behind without being able to cope with these changes. In these situations when people can’t cope, the loneliness is mixed with some kind of restlessness, so it becomes even harder to escape. This affects all generations in Japan because the changes have been so rapid.

You stated recently that you’re afraid of zombies… What role do you think fear plays in growing up? What is literature’s role in dealing with fear?

I think young people experience fear in a purer way, a more symbolic way, because they have no economic responsibilities, and they are free, more or less, of the fear of being unhealthy or losing a job. Their relationship with fear, as a result, is more intimate. I personally enjoy horror movies, especially Italian horror movies. I’ve had a lot of time to observe people and I believe that people who’ve gone through terrible experiences as a child, who’ve been in survival mode, including myself, they will later look at the world as if it is a horror movie. I think writing about fear can bring comfort to people who look at the world that way. And the role of literature within this is important, because when people read they can escape the way they view the world and their everyday lives. When they read, they are protected.

What do you think is the relationship between literature and politics?

I come at it with the same angle, which I just expressed — of children living in survival mode and growing up into adults who live in a kind of horror movie. Imagine what it must be like for a child to witness his father coming home drunk — this person is a totally different being from the father he knows. Or the mother he loves, who beats him. Reality becomes something hyperbolic, out of a horror film. In the same way, I try not to write directly about politics, but I think there’s an ideological position or characteristic of my writing that resembles the unrealistic, the hyperbolic. In my novels, politics appears more as parable or allegory or fairy tale. For instance, in The Lake , I criticised the kidnapping issues with North Korea, but not by writing directly about it.

Given the contemporary context in Japan, do you think writers should become more directly political?

The society in Japan makes it difficult to write politically. If I wrote directly espousing any kind of political idea or political group, then the leader of this group will come to me and begin a dialogue and ask questions. And it will never stop from there. I won’t have time to think or to write my novels, and I’m quite afraid of that. If I created even the slightest link with a political group I’d have to work for them, write for them — that’s how it works in Japan. I wouldn’t be free to write my own work anymore.

There has recently been a move in Japanese Parliament to amend Article 9 — the peace clause of the constitution, which means that Japan will for the first time since WWII be able to send troops abroad. What do you think of this?

Personally I think Article 9 is fantastic and it was one of the only things that Japan had after the war that was precious for Japan, but I feel that the circumstances are quite different now, probably worse than what I thought previously.

Do you think a majority of Japanese agree with you, that there is no longer the luxury to be pacifist?

As you say, we don’t have this luxury anymore. If we want peace we should start caring more about the situation around us. We need to start thinking about maintaining some kind of individual peace within ourselves. It may not be apparent, but Japan is under crisis, both from the inside and outside, so there’s no way to avoid some sacrifices. As a writer I’m happy to be able to see these changes. The fact that young people are gathering in front of the parliament to protest, it’s really good. It’s a lot better than doing nothing, although I think they were a bit late. It’s made me think of when I went to Argentina, where I met so many parents whose children went to a political protest and never came back. In Japan, young people go to a protest and then tweet about where they went to dinner afterwards. So we do have freedom of speech, which is precious.

You’ve said that you live lazily and slowly. In a country like Japan, where speed and technology are the new gods, how do you manage to do that?

I manage to live slowly by trying very, very hard.

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