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Smooth like Butter: Japanese writer Asako Yuzuki dishes up slice-of-life takes on women issues

Over 23 novels and counting, she has written extensively about issues such as the gender gap and the idealised image of women in Japan through female protagonists.

She lives in Tokyo with her husband and a six-year-old child who “currently identifies as a boy”.

Yuzuki burst onto the literary scene in 2008, when she won a Newcomer Award for the novella Forget Me, Not Blue.

While she wanted to be a writer, she felt unable to live up to the task. “I always thought novels are the realm of a handful of extremely talented people.”

So, she first dabbled in television. But she came to realise that the industry is bound by myriad rules in Japan, where dramas are often produced on a shoestring budget.

Rather than enjoying creative freedoms, she felt pigeonholed into building a story around an in-vogue celebrity whom the talent agency wanted to cast. Sponsors were another consideration.

“This is also why I think Butter will unlikely get dramatised in Japan,” Yuzuki says, pointing to what she sees as general discomfort with the idea of a drama that features characters who do not conform to society’s expectations of beauty.

She then joined the confectioner where, she says, she was hopeless at coming up with product ideas that would sell.

“I was thinking of all kinds of unusual sweets,” she says. “It was then that a senior told me it would be better for me to chase my dreams to be a novelist than to think about sweets and that I would probably be more successful.”

Ironically, Yuzuki has found success in television, with several of her novels adapted for the small screen.

Ito-kun A To E (2013) was dramatised for the eight-part Netflix Original drama The Many Faces Of Ito (2017), about a jaded romcom screenwriter who is out of ideas for her next story. She disguises herself as a romantic adviser to mine stories, only to realise four of her “clients” are in love with the same man.

Nile Perch Girls’ Association (2015), made into a 2021 drama serial of the same title, is about a successful businesswoman who runs into the laid-back writer of her favourite blog. The two become fast friends, though things take a drastic turn when the blog fails to be updated on schedule.

“As a writer, I wanted to depict real-life human relationships, such as about women interacting with one another,” Yuzuki says. “But people suddenly began saying I was writing about sisterhood or feminism. It is not so much that I had changed, but that readers and society changed first.”

She points to the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and the Tokyo Olympic Games, which cast a spotlight on human rights issues in Japan. Yet, the changes do not go far enough.

Married couples are still legally bound to share a surname, a law that has proven detrimental to women who have built up careers by their birth surname. Business lobby groups, among others, are now calling for change.

Japan is also the only advanced country without laws that allow joint custody and this is under debate.

“It is true that on the surface, progress is slow,” Yuzuki says, adding that she will continue to take on gender issues, including through genres like historical fiction. “But at least the social consciousness has changed significantly and that has impacted how issues are reported.”

Yuzuki, a graduate in French Literature from Tokyo’s Rikkyo University, counts herself fortunate to be in an industry where women have been thriving.

She cites such authors as Sayaka Murata (Convenience Store Woman, 2016), Mieko Kawakami (Breasts And Eggs, 2019), Yoko Tawada (The Last Children Of Tokyo, 2014) and Yu Miri (Tokyo Ueno Station, 2014) as having paved the way for her, stressing that she never thought she would ever be read in English.

She has come full circle.

As a child, her reading diet comprised translated Western coming-of-age novels, whose worlds captivated Yuzuki more than Japanese ones. She cites classics such as Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables (1908) and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868 and 1869).

“I used to prefer stories about horse-drawn carriages, the idea of a teatime and people playing dress-up to Japanese stories,” she says.

“In Japan, many children’s novels are about kids who help adults or who strive, endure and overcome hardships. But Western stories are simply about children being children, even during hardship,” she says.

One of her favourite writers is Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, who wrote the Pippi Longstocking series, with the first three books published from 1945 to 1948.

Now, Yuzuki hopes Butter can be both an introduction to unfamiliar cuisines and the state of gender issues in Japan.

She suggests Japan might be decades behind Europe, citing parallels in Butter with the Belgian film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975).

The film, a slice-of-life take on a widowed housewife who morphs into a sex worker when her son is away, had an outsized impact on society at the time.

“Housewives and housework were deemed an invisible burden, but this was made visible for the first time and it was seen as very feminist,” she says.

“The housework was never-ending, the cooking took so long and making a single dish was so difficult. But her son probably ate the dish in about 15 minutes and said nothing about its taste.”

Butter, meanwhile, is peppered with mouthwatering descriptions of food, including the preparation of a 10-person serving of roast turkey. Thus, it is surprising when Yuzuki confesses to never having eaten such a huge turkey before.

The novel was translated into German in 2022 and Yuzuki expresses surprise in finding her book being sold along with a butter knife as a promotional item in Germany.



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