Thursday, August 20, 2009

'Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman'

Goodbye Madame Butterflyby Sumie Kawakami
Non-Fiction, 2007
Chin Music Press, hardback, 214 p.
Translated from the Japanese by Yuko Enomoto
Edited by Bruce Rutledge
Kawakami’s interviews and reporting take us into a world where fortune tellers serve as counselors, where a female executive who turns tricks by night is seen as a heroine and where the hot blood of newlyweds quickly grows cold.

Goodbye Madame Butterfly offers a modern twist on the tradition in Japanese literature to revel in tales of sexual exploits. Kawakami’s nonfiction update on this theme offers strands of hope for women struggling to liberate themselves from joyless, sexless relationships.
The book consists of stories told to the author, a journalist, as she was researching the sexuality of women in modern Japan. When I told my Japanese husband about some of the stories, about the many sexless marriages, the affairs, he said that the writer obviously didn’t choose the ‘normal’, or everyday, boring, stories. The scandalous ones are more interesting to read about, he said. Perhaps this is partly true since the book was put together with a Western readership in mind, but I think, and the author suggests in her introduction, that this type of marriage is maybe a lot more common than my husband likes to admit.

Of course not every marriage in Japan is an unhappy one, but there sure do seem to be a lot of them. Many of the situations described in the book weren’t particularly surprising, or shocking, to me as I’ve heard, or read about, similar stories before, but it was still fascinating to be privy to these stories of real women’s personal lives and disappointments. And there were some things that were new to me, like the sex clinic and the sex volunteers, not prostitutes exactly but men, carefully selected, who try to help women feel better about themselves sexually.
“Mature men are hard to find in Japan. They can’t let go of their image of mother as the ideal woman. For them, women are either mothers or lovers, and many say making love to their wives feels like incest,” Mr. Kim [an anthropologist who specializes in sexology and runs a clinic for sexually frustrated women] says.
After I finished reading the book, I was left feeling rather sad about the state of so many marriages and relationships in Japan. How so many women seem to simply endure the situations they are in because society makes it difficult to do otherwise. How marriage in Japan is more like a business contract, or a job, than a friendship or partnership. I know I’m looking at it through a foreigner's eyes but I can’t help feeling that at least in Western countries, there is a strong belief in second chances, and nowadays at least, there tends to be less of a stigma to divorce.

I think anyone interested in sociology, and women’s studies, or cultural studies, or those simply wondering what life is really like for women in Japan, would appreciate this book, and perhaps find it rather eye-opening.

Image © Chin Music Press

The physical book itself is lovely to hold and admire. The obvious care taken with the design, the beautiful endpapers (apparently inspired by old kimono patterns), the font, and the binding, really shows. I’ve read one other Chin Music Press title, Kuhaku & Other Accounts from Japan, which was, to me, even more impressive but then I'm always a fan of illustrations. (To see images of Kuhaku, visit the designer Craig Mod's webpage). There’s just something so appealing about a book that has been thoughtfully put together. It's clear that they are passionate about the books they produce and I certainly look forward to future titles from Chin Music Press.

For more information check out the Goodbye Madame Butterfly website, where you can read the informative preface, a sample story, or purchase the book.
Also interesting is this interview with Sumie Kawakami.

First sentence: (Washoi!) It’s seven PM in Kabukicho and the neon is just beginning to flicker.

You can also buy this book at: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon Canada | The Book Depository UK | The Book Depository US

My Rating: 4/5
(#42 for 2009, Reading Japan Project, Non-Fiction Five Challenge, World Citizen Challenge, Japanese Literature Challenge 3)

If you've reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. I am intrigued by this book, from your review.

    It does look to be beautifully published.

    Thank you for the website link/

  2. It sounds like this would be very eye-opening to me, as I have no idea about how sexuality is viewed in Japanese culture. And I'm definitely interested in women's studies, so I'll keep this one in mind!

  3. I'm sure this book would be very eye-opening for me since I don't know very much about Japan or how family relationships work there. It would be very interesting to learn more about this subject!

  4. I'd like to read this book sometimes. It seems very interesting and an eye opener.
    As far as men who remain attached to their mother to where no marriage can survive, this happens in the West also. I believe the issue is not addressed, we live in a machismo society.

    Have a very nice week Nat

    P.S. I am going to be very busy again these next couple of weeks and also I do read a lot, reviews will have to wait.

  5. Paperback Reader - It certainly was an interesting read, and beautifully put together.

    Nymeth - I think you'd probably enjoy this. I'll just have to remind you once your book-buying ban in over. ;)

    Kim L - I think this would definitely be quite eye-opening for Western readers who aren't familiar with Japan. And because it was personal stories it wasn't some dry text on sexuality and statistics or whatnot.

    Sylvie - That's so true that there are men who idolize their mother's in other cultures too.
    Are you back in court? I hope things go well, or at least better. Hang in there.

  6. Yep, back in court...I am so tired but can't give up on my insurance...

  7. Sylvie - No, you can't just give in to him, and give up on your insurance. I hate that he's making it so hard on you. I'm thinking of you. (((Hugs)))

  8. Thanks for sharing designer Craig Mod's website. That was a really beautiful book and I going to get it just because it looks (and I am sure it feels) good! This book sounds pretty interesting as well. It is true that we, as readers, crave for out-of-the-normal scandalous stories which are sometimes more interesting than mundane descriptions of regular marriages. I guess the market drives authors to write what we are looking for!

  9. Ramya - You're welcome. Kuhaku really is a fun book, I hope you enjoy it. I'm definitely going to have to look for more Chin Music Press titles.

  10. Sounds like a really interesting book, I love reading about other coultures so will keep this one in mind, thanks

  11. katrina - I love reading about different cultures too. I hope you enjoy the book if you get a chance to read it.


Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I love hearing from you and I read every single one!

P.S. In an effort to eliminate spam, I moderate all comments, so there will most likely be a delay between when you submit the comment and when it appears on the post. Please let me know if you have any trouble leaving comments here, and you can also chat with me on Twitter, if you prefer. Happy Reading!