Book Review: “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto

Rating: 2 out of 5.

This slender novella was originally published in Japanese in 1988, and was translated into English by Megan Backus.

The story is told in the first person perspective through the eyes of Mikage, a young woman who had lived with her grandmother in Tokyo until her grandmother’s death. Now alone and directionless, she is taken in by a casual acquaintance, Yuichi, and Yuichi’s transgender parent, Eriko. Mikage finds warmth and comfort while living with these people, and after some time is able to strike out on her own. However, she is called back to Yuichi when the young man suffers his own tragic loss. Through Mikage’s introspection, the novella becomes a reflection on grief and how our loved ones can pull us out of that black pit.

Yoshimoto’s writing is neither grand nor extravagant. Instead, through plain yet gentle language, she directs attention to small, everyday tasks and imbues them with worthiness and respect. I found most of the writing unremarkable in translation, but there was the occasional phrase that forced me to stop, re-read, and savor the entire passage.

The principle characters, Yuichi and Mikage, are largely static and undergo no significant growth in terms of character. Mikage’s growth, such as there is, is often told rather than shown to the reader. In spite of the title, not a great deal of attention is paid to food and cooking, which was a severe disappointment to me.

I found the most troubling aspect of the book to be the treatment of the transwoman character, Eriko. Yuichi and Mikage continually refer to her as a man, and the language they use when speaking about her is highly disrespectful. This is treated as normal. Nevertheless, Eriko is portrayed as extremely beautiful, kind, generous, and charming, and is clearly and sincerely beloved by both Yuichi and Mikage. I feel as though Yoshimoto had been trying for positive representation with this character, but was doing so from a poorly informed place.

Advancement of LGBT+ legal rights and acceptance in Japan is very important. There are currently laws in place in Japan that allow Japanese trans people to change their legal identity only after the transgender individual is sterilized, which is a gross infringement of reproductive rights (source: Human Rights Watch). If you are able, please consider supporting Stonewall Japan, an LGBTQIA+ organization with a focus on aiding non-cishet Japanese people.

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