Out is Natsuo Kirino’s first novel to be translated into English. Kirino isn’t your typical Japanese women’s writer. She doesn’t discuss themes of love and relationships – at least, not in the conventional sense. She uses a predominantly masculine genre (the crime novel) mixed with masculine writing techniques – like grotesque imagery and violence – to tell the story.


Like most crime novels, the plot is easy to follow. It is about four women (the leader Masako, Kuniko, Yoshie and Yayoi) who work in a demeaning, unsatisfying job – a factory – and who all have difficult home lives. When Yayoi’s drunk husband gambles away all their money, her anger leads her to strangling him. Scared, she enlists the help of Masako who convinces the other two to dismember the body and discard the parts all across Tokyo. A body part is discovered by the police, who soon believe a casino owner and criminal was to blame for the murder of Yayoi’s husband. The criminal begins hunting the women down one by one, and the women start disposing of bodies on a regular basis for extra income.

The characters are shallow. They lack depth and intellect. Despite them all leading difficult lives, I struggled to sympathise with any of them as they never try to take control of their situation. The only character who can really think for herself, Masako, is cold and distant. As a reader you can’t empathise with her.

Natsuo Kirino

Natsuo Kirino

Women, the role of women, the treatment of women, a woman’s position in Japanese culture and society is ultimately what the novel is about. On the outset, the women appear to be powerful and in control. They do the ultimate action which is associated with feminism and female empowerment: they kill a nasty man who abuses women. But the book isn’t feminist. The characters are stereotypical women: shallow and one-dimensional. They think they’re in control when actually they are far from in control. They still go to their demeaning job, they are being hunted down one-by-one by a man who proves to be successful.

The ending of the novel further enhances how it’s men who are still dominant and powerful. Masako is brutally raped and tortured, but she appears to begin to enjoy the situation and emotionally connects to her attacker, presumably because she has been given the attention which she has desired for so long. On the other hand, the ending could also be interpreted that Japanese women think rape is acceptable, that they prefer men to be in power, that it’s what women desire.

Out is anything but a simple crime novel. It shows who is still in control of Japanese society – men. I’m very undecided about the novel. A part of me loves it; it’s gritty, grotesque and violent and yet, there’s a deeper message underneath the gore about gender and society. The other part of me doesn’t like the novel: the characters, the ending… I am completely on the fence.

National Day

This week saw National Day in China. On the 1st October 1949,  the PRC (People’s Republic of China) was established by Mao Zedong – an event which is now celebrated as a national holiday.

National Day in 2009, 60 year anniversary

National Day in 2009, 60 year anniversary

For those who do not know how modern China was established, this blog post will describe briefly how National Day came about.

The final Chinese dynasty, Qing, ended in 1911. Its replacement was what is now known as the Warlord Era.  KMT (Kuomintang) leader, Sun Yat-sen wished to see the end of this rule and replaced instead with a democracy, and he attempted to seek assistance from the international community. His appeal was rejected, and Sun Yat-sen moved to the Soviet Union for aid. The Soviet Union granted this aid to the KMT – and to the newly established (and what would soon become) Chinese Communist Party. Both parties wished to end the Warlord Era and gain control of China.

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 from cancer and his military leader, Chiang Kai-shek succeeded.

The fighting between the two parties – and their supporters – began in 1927. The KMT appeared to be stronger and secured most of the east coast of China, including the warlord’s capital in Beijing in 1928, and the KMT became recognised as leaders of China. Meanwhile, the CCP moved underground and into the countryside where they mobilised peasants and slowly began revolting – only to meet suppression from the KMT military.

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

In 1934, the CCP, led by Mao, began a retreat of 12,500km which would be known as The Long March to Shaanxi. Throughout the march they recruited support from the peasants and the poor, leading the CCP to gain mass support of the Chinese people. This event also firmly placed Mao as leader of the CCP.

The civil war was disrupted in 1937 with the second Sino-Japanese War and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The CCP, against Japanese imperialism, immediately began to fight the Japanese army. The KMT however, continued to target the CCP. This lead to compromises with the Japanese, much to the anger of the Chinese people. After the Xi’an Incident, the CCP and KMT united to fight against the Japanese. The CCP relied on guerrilla warfare, which allowed them to gain more support with the Chinese living in Japanese occupied areas.

Chiang Kai-shek

Chiang Kai-shek

After Japanese surrender to the United States, both the CCP and the KMT, who had sustained heavy losses in the second Sino-Japanese War, began peace talks with Mao Zedong meeting Chiang Kai-shek. Despite this, fighting between the two continued. The CCP now controlled almost a quarter of Chinese territory and their forces had increased dramatically. With Soviet support, and its promise of land reform – allowing peasants to free away from landlords – CCP support grew, as did its military.

The CCP was able to gain control of more territories in China, and seized several cities which gave them the military equipment they needed to advance. The civil war ended with the remaining KMT forces, along with Chiang Kai-shek fleeing to Taiwan, and Mao Zedong, on the 1st of October 1949 proclaiming victory and establishing the People’s Republic of China. Although some resistance remained, the CCP were able to control the whole of China by 1950.

If you wish to learn more about modern Chinese history, but don’t fancy reading large history text books on the subject, Rana Mitter’s  Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (2008) is a great, pocket-sized book which covers everything you need to know.


Many Chinese authors have written about this time in history (both fiction and non). I reviewed Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips, which covers from the Boxer rebellion right through until modern-day China. Other writers include: Qu Bo,  Qu Qiubai,  Su Tong, Chi Zijian and Geling Yan.

Snakes and Earrings

Earlier in the week I wrote about Zhou Weihui and her novels Shanghai Baby and Marrying Buddha. Kanehara Hitomi is the Japanese Zhou Weihui and her novel Snakes and Earrings is similar to Shanghai Baby – about a young woman who’s passive and easily influenced by others.

snakes and earrings

The themes however do differ. Instead of shopping and sex, the character Lui explores body art (tattoos and piercings) and sex and uses these to explain her life along with other literary themes which litter contemporary Japanese literature (such as violence and death).

The novel focuses around the character of Lui, a young girl who battles with depression and wishes to create feeling in her empty life. Lui meets Ama, who has a forked tongue and immediately becomes obsessed and starts a relationship with him. Ama introduces Lui to the life of piercings and tattoos and she begins the process of getting her tongue forked as well.

Lui is obsessed with pain. Her piercings, tattoos and alcoholism are all a form of self-harm for her. They enable the character to feel. Pain fills up the void Lui is feeling, and it’s pain and the need for physical pain which draws her into a relationship with Shiba-san, a sadist who is often violent towards her.

Lui doesn’t realise that it’s not pain which makes her happy. It’s love which fulfills the void and it’s not until Ama protects her from violent men which she realises this. This feeling is further reinforced when Ama goes missing, and after a few days the police reveal that he was brutally raped and murdered.  It is here that Lui recovers from the numbness she was previously experiencing and sets about changing her life.

The novel, like Shanghai Baby, is poorly written and has a sloppy and immature feel, but this adds to the characterisation. It’s not elegant, it’s not perfect – just like Lui.

The novel, by embracing topics such as alcoholism, sex, and the very taboo tattoos (which are still associated with the Yakuza in Japanese society), shows Japanese youth culture changing. It’s breaking away from traditional Japan and becoming radical and rebellious due to the pressures on youth from society. This all creates an unstable youth population who use this new youth culture to vent out its frustration.

Snakes and Earrings is a cry for help on behalf of the young people of Japan.

Author Kanehara Hitomi

Author Kanehara Hitomi

The novel won the Akutagawa Prize in 2003 which has cemented its importance in Japanese literature. Like Zhou WeiHui’s novels, I am not a fan of Snakes and Earrings, but I can appreciate it in comparison to other Japanese novels.