I’ve long been aware of the many parallels between Mieko Kawakami’s home city of Osaka, Japan, and my own hometown, Manchester in the UK. The third largest cities in their respective countries, they were each central to the industrial revolution, and are still major industrial centers today. Tokyo is Japan’s capital, but Osaka dominates the country’s Western half. So Manchester, the biggest city of England’s North, is to London. The inhabitants of both cities are said to be friendly, down-to-earth, and very outspoken, just as the characters in Breasts and Eggs. And most importantly, the dialect spoken in Osaka and Western Japan is markedly different from that of Tokyo and the East. Often frowned upon as sounding rather rough or unsophisticated, Mancunian (adjective meaning “of Manchester”) is to my ears a perfect rendering of Osaka dialect.
When I read the exchanges between the two sisters as they relax in the sento (public bath), I had a sudden flashback of the Mancunian mothers of my childhood sitting around the edges of the kiddie swimming pool on a Sunday afternoon, loudly catching up on gossip. From that point onward, for me, the characters couldn’t possibly speak any other way. As a British translator accustomed to requests from publishers to translate into American English, it was a rare pleasure for me to be free to portray these characters the way I hear them in my own head. —Louise Heal Kawai
Midoriko and Makiko and Me
Makiko’s my older sister and Midoriko’s her kid so that makes Midoriko my niece and me her unmarried auntie, and because it’s been nearly ten years since Makiko broke up with Midoriko’s dad she doesn’t remember living with him, and I haven’t heard anything about her mum having them meet so she knows sod all about the bloke—but that’s by the by—and we all go by the same name now. So Makiko asked and now the two of them are coming up from Osaka in the summer holidays to stop with me in Tokyo for three days.
It was about a month ago Makiko phoned me to say she was coming.
“Natsuko, I’m thinking of getting me boobs done.”
It was the middle of the night, and she’d just finished her shift at the pub where she worked. I thought she was after my advice, but in the end I don’t think she really wanted to hear it, because she never stopped going on from start to finish. One minute she’d say, “I’m getting them done,” but the next it was all “I haven’t got the bottle,” and for her it all seemed to be about that feeling you get when you’re standing on the edge of a diving board, deciding whether or not to jump. To me it felt like there was some sort of time lag between her end of the phone and mine.
The pile of plastic surgery brochures that Makiko had dug out of her bag were all roughly the same except for the font and colours. There was a bit of variety in what was written, and the price and suchlike, but there were about twenty altogether, and I couldn’t help wondering how she’d managed to get her hands on this lot when she hasn’t even got a computer.
I pick up the one on top of the pile, and I’m sat there pretending to read it while Makiko’s hovering over my shoulder, her eyes glued to the pamphlet. She’s got this little smile on her face.
“Ah no, luv, I’m not going with that one,” she confides in a kind of whisper, and then, “I mean, I already decided, you know, the place. Ever since I started thinking about getting them done I’ve been to loads of different places, I’ve picked up loads of different pamphlets and talked to loads of different people, and of course you know at the end of the day it’s a bloody big deal. They cut you, you know, slice you right open. There’s no getting away from it, but me mind’s made up, I’m going for it.” She pauses for breath. “Tomorrow I’m going for me counselling session, this is what you might call the highlight of the summer for me, and I thought as I was coming up I’d bring them along for you to look at, you know the pamphlets and stuff. Well, just these here—I’ve got piles and piles more of them at home but I thought you’d want to have a look. See, I brought you the fancy ones.”
What does she mean, fancy? I haven’t the faintest what she’s on about.
“This is the one I’ve got me heart set on,” she explains, tapping a black, glossy brochure, the one she’d tried to show me earlier on the train. The paper looks like good quality stuff and it’s not the same style as all the heaps of pink and white ones she’s brought. There’s something more serious about this one, you can see in a flash that it’s different from the rest.
“It doesn’t look very cosmetic, or whatever you call it,” I remark, but Makiko doesn’t stop to listen. Instead she goes off about all the fancy types of boob jobs you can get . . .
Again, I’m getting that awkward feeling that Makiko’s sat right in front of me talking, but it’s not me she’s talking to. I don’t know why she bothers having me here at all. That gap between us is getting bigger and bigger by the minute.
Me and Mum don’t talk much. Well, I’ve stopped speaking to her at all. Every day she’s researching this breast surgery crap, and I pretend not to be looking, but to put fake stuff in your chest just to make your boobs bigger? I can’t get my head around it, what’s it for? For her job? I don’t get it. PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE! I’ve seen it on the telly, and in photos too, they cut you open. Then they shove this thing in and it’s dead painful. Mum doesn’t understand anything. She’s off her trolley, my Mum, daft, barmy, bonkers, thick as two short planks. I heard her say something about being a model. What that means is you let them show your face in a magazine or something and they’ll do the operation for free. And that’s completely daft, too.
This bathhouse was done up about a year ago and the new one makes you feel all clean and refreshed. I don’t know whether they came up with some sort of magical formula or what have you, but the water that springs up from the ground has special powers now—it’s brilliant at curing all sorts of aches and pains, and they say it works wonders if you drink it, so the place has got really popular. I’ve popped in a few times and it’s always full, but thinking that it’s likely to be a bit quieter right before dinnertime we get here to find that you can’t count on anything in the summer hols. You wouldn’t exactly call it chock-a-block but there are just as many customers as usual and the changing room’s filled with the din of crying babies being dried off on them special cot things, and screaming little girls running round like maniacs, and all the while the telly’s blaring full blast. We pay our money, grab a couple of lockers, and get undressed.
Now I’ve never exactly been interested in Makiko’s naked body, but I’m getting a bit concerned, what with all her banging on about boob jobs , so I just have to size up, so to speak, the current state of her breasts. Ah, now she’s got me all obsessed with them too . . . Come to think of it, when was the last time me and Makiko had been naked together in a bathhouse? Well, right after Makiko’s divorce, Midoriko and me and Makiko all lived together for about six years, and I suppose there were plenty of times that we might have seen each other naked, but it wasn’t exactly your everyday type of thing to go to a bathhouse, and back then too her life and mine ran on different timetables, so I realize I haven’t the foggiest any more how she looks naked.
I get my clothes into a locker and sneak a peek at Makiko from the back. I’m gobsmacked to see that she looks twice as skinny without her clothes on. You know that place at the top where your thighs are supposed to touch? Well hers don’t, they’re like a pair of matchsticks, and when she bends down you can see her backbone sticking out. Now Makiko’s turning forty this year but from this angle she could be fifty-odd, easy. And on top of that, her neck’s so scrawny that her head looks massive.
“Let’s get in,” says Makiko and, holding her washcloth in front of her, she slides open the door to the bathing area, letting in a cloud of white steam. Right away my body starts to feel damp. The bathing area is pretty crowded too. It’s unusual for Tokyo but they have a free sauna and a milk bath—they’ve really gone to town here—there’s things like a whirlpool that changes colour, and this high-powered Jacuzzi that’s bloody agony but is supposed to help you burn fat, and then there’s this other one where you lie back and cold water pours over a metal plate to cool off the back of your head.
Clouds of steam curl upwards and disappear, a clunk suddenly echoes somewhere high up near the ceiling, and everywhere are relaxed, glowing faces soaking it all up.
“Posh in’t it?” remarks Makiko. “Yeh, dead posh,” I say, as we go over to the line of mirrors and grab ourselves a stool and wash bowl. Makiko wants to start off with a soak in the bath, so I tie my hair up, scoop some water over me, and we get in the biggest bath, the one with the sign that says 42 degrees in red. Even though it’s common knowledge that you don’t stick your washcloth in the clean bath water (and there’s even a warning notice on the wall) my sister doesn’t seem to give a toss and waltzes right in with hers still hiding all her bits.
“Hey, this isn’t hot,” she whinges. “Is this what they call a hot soak in Tokyo?”
“I don’t think Tokyo’s any different from Osaka or anywhere else when it comes to bathwater,” I tell her.
“But it’s lukewarm. See her over there? Can’t believe she’s got sweat dripping off her.”
“I know,” I say, trying to relax, but to tell the truth it’s not really that hot for me either, and I don’t think I’m ever going to get properly heated up, so we decide to try the milk bath. We put our foot over the stone brim and stick a toe in the milky water, but that’s lukewarm too.
“Bloody freezing,” announces Makiko and heads over to the whirlpool. That one being more to her taste, we end up in there.
The whole time she’s sat in the tub, Makiko’s ogling other women. It’s like being sat next to the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood or something, which I can tell you makes me so uncomfortable that I can’t help whispering “Maki, luv, you’re staring,” to which I get a vague “Oh yeh?” as her eyes continue hungrily to hunt down bodies—bodies soaking in the hot pools, bodies stepping out of the water, bodies deep in bubbles. She’s so caught up in her gawping that for once she has nothing to say. She just lies there watching naked women coming and going, and well I don’t want to look a right idiot by talking to myself in public, so for a while I end up lying there in the bath beside Makiko, staring at women’s bodies with her.
Eventually I ask her, “Hey Maki, luv, what exactly are you looking at?”
“Tits,” she says.
Today I’m going to write about breasts. Why do we start off without them and then they get bigger, swell up like that? Why am I going to end up with two of those things even though I don’t want any? Why do they grow? Where do they come from, and why can’t I just stay like I am? There are some girls who can’t help showing off how big theirs are getting and flirting with the boys, but everyone has them in the end, so I don’t get why they’re so happy about it. Am I weird? I never want my breasts to swell up like that, it’s gross, makes me want to throw up. And there’s my mum on the phone saying she wants to make hers bigger, going on about boob jobs, talking to doctors, and I want to hear everything, so I have a listen. It turns out it’s because she had a baby and because she breast-fed and all that. Every day, every single bloody day she’s on the phone. Those breasts, the ones she fed me with until they were completely gone, she wants to cut them open and stick something in to make them bigger again, she wants them back how they were before she had me. Well, it’d be better if I’d never been born. Mum’s life would be tons better if she’d never had me. If nobody had been born there wouldn’t be all this fuss—happiness, sadness, none of it would exist in the first place. It’s not people’s fault that they have eggs and sperm. I just wish they’d stop putting those eggs and sperm together.
Pointy Cones and Pancakes
We’ve scrubbed off, and this time we’re soaking in the milk bath, when an elderly lady totters slowly in from the changing room. It’s as if a different law of gravity has got its grip on her body.
“Get a load of them pink nipples,” says Makiko under her breath. “Don’t you think they’re too pink? How do you think they got like that?”
“I dunno. Maybe the colour fades when you get old? Maybe she was born like that?”
“You can’t even see them coloured ring thingamajigs around them. There’s no clear line at all.”
“You see that sometimes with young girls too. Course, usually with an unnatural colour loss like that, they’ll be using hydro.”
“What’s that then, hydro?”
“Hydroquinone, it’s a kind of bleach. Or could be Tret.”
“Tretinoin. Your skin peels off like old wallpaper. Those two are the strongest. Mind you, they cost an arm and a leg.”
After a bit, she points out another woman. This one’s quite young, twenty-odd.
“That girl’s still young but she’s got a right pair of socks.”
Makiko slides down so the water comes right up to her chin and lowers her voice. “It’s all well and good to have big tits but at the end of the day it’s just fat, and sometimes when you lose it that happens. There’s all kinds of ways it could go, but you know tits are like water balloons. They look great when they’re full, but depending on the person they can end up like socks. See hers, they’re hanging there like a pair of men’s socks without feet in them.”
Now that she mentions it, I notice that when this woman leans over her breasts sort of go all floppy and swing forward, in other words they’re nice and full lengthwise but have nothing at all in the way of thickness, across like, making them the exact shape of a pair of men’s socks. The power of suggestion and all, now that Makiko had said it, I couldn’t see them as anything but socks. Of course it’s none of my business but as I lie here I begin to wonder what they’d look like if she was lying down, or, again, not my business but how would someone go about rubbing breasts like them? I suppose it’d be more a case of grabbing hold and hanging on . . . and so on, until I realize now I’m the one doing the gawping.
Makiko’s pointing out every single pair that comes into the bath, muttering things like “pointy cones” or “pancakes,” and then when finally a classic pair of melons come proudly thrusting their way into the milky water and smugly pop right out again, she launches into a speech on big breasts and doesn’t stop wittering on about them for quite a while. But when she’s finally done, she goes all quiet and stares down at the milky surface of the bath. Just as I’m thinking it’s about time to get out, she suddenly whips off her towel and shows me her own breasts.
“So?” she asks, looking me straight in the eyes.
“You know. Colour? Size?”
Titchy? Big and brown? All kinds of words run through my head. But I let them run on past and keep my mouth shut.
“OK, I don’t need to hear if they’re small. Just the colour. Do they look dark brown to you? Tell me honestly,” begs Makiko, her face grim and exposed without its usual caked-on makeup.
“No, not dark brown,” I say too quickly.
“But are they in the normal range?”
“Well, I don’t rightly know what you’d call normal…”
“Whatever you’d call normal will do just fine,” she says, getting a bit stroppy now.
I start to say something like, “Look forget about normal, there’s no such thing,” but Makiko interrupts me.
“It’s all right. Never mind,” she says in a flat little voice.
But I keep going.
“Anyhow, you can be dead sure they’re not pink.”
“I flaming well know they’re not pink!”
“Yeh, right!” We didn’t talk any more after that.
“Chichi to ran” © Kawakami Mieko. Translation © 2012 by Louise Heal Kawai. All rights reserved.