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.

Shanghai Baby

 shanghai baby

Shanghai Baby, the controversial novel by Chinese author Zhou Weihui, depicts the glamorous life of Coco (named after Coco Chanel, and based upon the author) – a character who loves shopping, smoking, drinking, and exploring her sexuality. The novel is packed with all the ‘taboos’, such as sex and marital affairs, which offers an insight into contemporary Chinese society for women (as well as acting as a tour guide of all the ”cool” places to eat and shop in Shanghai).

The writing style reflects the character of Coco – it’s basic, has a ‘teenager’ feel, and it’s not very mature. The themes also reflect this: sex, sexuality and becoming aware of one’s self – all of which fit in with young adult and teen fiction. Aside from the obvious, in this case sex which is everywhere in the novel, the book also shows the rapid commercialisation and modernisation of China and its consequences.

Many may argue whether it does reflect the ‘real’ modern China. Living in a very affluent and traditional Chinese city myself, I can see the similarities between Coco’s life and the life of many young Chinese women today. Life to them has three important areas: 1) making money, 2) spending money, 3) having a boyfriend. Note I said boyfriend and not husband; there is certainly an element of ‘try before you buy’ when it comes to modern Chinese women and relationships.

Author Zhou Weihui

Author Zhou Weihui

Obviously, I cannot speak for all Chinese women. The many Chinese women from various parts of China who I have met however, all describe the life of women in Shanghai as being the same as that described in Shanghai Baby. Many openly criticise this, and Shanghai, exclaiming that they hate the city because it’s too ‘Western’ and not ‘Chinese’. These women criticised the women of Shanghai whilst playing on their new iPhones, discussing sex, and describing dreams of moving to the US, Canada, UK and other western countries – embracing ‘modernisation’. Whether they realise it or not, a lot of these women are Coco.

Shanghai Baby‘s sequel, Marrying Buddha, is a lot more mature in terms of writing and themes. There’s still a lot of sex and commercialisation, but the novel feels a lot more ‘adult’ and empowering. Coco is no longer passive and one-dimensional (how I feel she was in Shanghai Baby). Instead, she is much more well-rounded.

marrying buddha

There is also more of an embrace of traditional Chinese culture in the novel too, with Coco spending vast amounts of time in Buddhist temples conversing with monks – informing the reader, and possibly modern China, that modernisation doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning traditions and one’s spiritual self.

Many will say Shanghai Baby empowers women because Coco explores her sexuality. But, she is rarely in control and is passive, being influenced by those around her. Marrying Buddha is  empowering. Coco takes control of her life (although sometimes is still influenced by men), and by the end of the novel she is a strong, powerful woman.

Marrying Buddha, like Shanghai Baby also breaks ‘taboos’, for example, it embraces the Japanese. A lot of modern Chinese people – again, not all – still have contempt for the Japanese due to the history of the two nations (the rape of Nanjing plays a huge part in this feeling, as does continuous territorial disputes over islands). Coco however falls in love with a Japanese man, one who is able to detox and renew her spirit. To the modern Chinese, this may be seen as a betrayal but it does reflect an attitude which needs to be addressed. Coco doesn’t dictate her life and feelings by Chinese history, an idea which contemporary Chinese society is coming to grips with. Indeed, there’s a growing number of Chinese who are embracing the Japanese, but equally there are those who still openly hate the Japanese.

Whilst these are not my favourite Chinese novels, they are definitely novels worth reading for a depiction of modern China.

The Rape and Lies of Cambodia

‘’Let me reassure that the Kingdom of Cambodia a country with independence, neutrality, peace, freedom, democracy and human rights as you all have seen, shall be existing with no end.’’ Prime Minister Hun Sen

Continuing with extracts from my diary.

27th November

Today I met a journalist for the Phnom Penh Post and was given all the gossip about the country. Cambodia has a dark side which no one admits to and no foreigner sees. I was quickly told that journalism is a dangerous profession: some journalists have been sent to prison for ‘slander’. He told me about stories he was working on, stories which would be published abroad. These stories will be on the HIV problem in Cambodia; he found out through NGO contacts, and drunken politicians at functions, that Cambodia has a habit of lying about the number of HIV and AIDS cases: the government have worked out that the higher the number the more money from charities and governments they will get. Also, this aid money was never passed down to those who needed it. The rich kept themselves rich, and the poor remained poor and in poverty.

We continued the conversation over dinner (fried ants are gorgeous) and also learnt that the lake in Phnom Penh, the one that stops the city from flooding every wet season, has been sold to a foreign company who were going to fill it in to make a shopping centre. And to replace the lake, they were going to build a new one and that they picked a place, not outside Phnom Penh, but right over a housing estate where a lot of poor people lived. Another article being written was about how the families and businesses in that area weren’t being given compensation; they were being forced to leave and were being made homeless. Apparently, the company had given the government money for compensation, but surprise surprise, it wasn’t passed down.

We also got chatting about the water festival. The journalist went on to explain about Diamond island, how it used to be full of homes and businesses but (this sounds familiar) was bought by a company who evicted everyone (again left them homeless) and built a theme park. The yearly water festival was to be held there to show off the new renovated island, and the news that the island had changed spread over Cambodia, so more people from across the country turned up than were expected. The main bridge rocks slightly and there were a large number of people from the countryside who didn’t realise the bridge naturally did this, so they got spooked and started the stampede. It wasn’t the story I heard on BBC News before I left about how some people were electrocuted and fainted which caused panic. The journalist then went on to talk about the compensation system that had been put in place for the victims: if a family had one or more person who died in the incident, they got paid $50. If a family had one or more person who got injured, they were paid $100. Compensation wasn’t per person but instead per household, and barely covered medical and funeral costs for one person let alone any additional family members.

From the Daily Telegraph: the aftermath the festival

From the Daily Telegraph: the aftermath the festival

28th November

As I was leaving Phnom Penh the day after next, I decided to pay the tuk-tuk driver for the trip to S-21, the Killing Fields and today’s trip. I was already advised by the guesthouse owner that I should pay no more than $35. The tuk-tuk driver took me to one side and said that for me he would give me a special price. He said that because he hadn’t laid a finger on me I was to pay him what worked out to be £200. I thought he was joking, and he said that if I didn’t pay him I was to remember that he had access to my drinks in the guesthouse (true, as he got them from the kitchen fridge every morning) and that he also had access to my room. He said that if I didn’t pay he wouldn’t hesitate and told me that my embassy wouldn’t care if I was raped and the police wouldn’t care unless I paid them to look into the matter. I still thought he was joking, and he told me to go up to my room as he has made a point. When I unlocked my door my bed was covered with around ten massive spiders (Cambodia doesn’t do normal sized spiders). I was staying in a twin room, and when I have breakfast the owner’s wife makes the bed and has a sweep. I also double check every morning that I have locked the door. Yet, the driver knew exactly which of the two beds I was sleeping on and placed the spiders on the right one. I hate spiders, and these were massive, I went and got the hotel owner who thought I was joking, saw them, then went to get a bucket. Whilst he was sticking them in the bucket he was telling me which ones gave nasty bites, which ones were poisonous and which ones look more harmful than that they actually are. I did however quickly get the driver’s point and decided to pay him. I never saw him again.

Whilst at dinner with my new journalist friend I told him briefly what had happened and they told me about an American girl a few weeks back who was raped – she went to the police and was sent away because she was white and therefore must’ve been asking for it. He also told me white women were targeted upon more, because Cambodians don’t like black skin -white is seen as more exotic and Westerners are seen as incredibly wealthy. It is an easy way for them to make money and if a woman refused to pay then the men would take another form of payment.

Prime Minister Hun Sen

Prime Minister Hun Sen

Cambodia breaks my heart. Politically and socially, it’s completely messed up. The Human Rights Watch have done a number of reports into the political corruption and human rights abuses to Cambodian citizens. Amnesty International have also produced lots of statistics on crime against women in Cambodia. More needs to be done to improve the situation, instead the world are happy to ignore the problem.

Cambodia receives up to $7omillion in aid every year from the World Bank alone. There are over 3,000  NGOs and yet the country has been stuck in a rut since the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Something has to change.

Articles and reports about abuses: http://www.docstoc.com/docs/123212617/Cambodia-Rape-report