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Book Talk: In Japan, the aftermath of a baby's kidnapping

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - When Mitsuyo Kakuta decided to write about motherhood, she chose an unusual angle: a distraught woman who impulsively kidnaps her married lover's baby girl, then raises her for years until apprehended.
/ Source: Reuters

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - When Mitsuyo Kakuta decided to write about motherhood, she chose an unusual angle: a distraught woman who impulsively kidnaps her married lover's baby girl, then raises her for years until apprehended.

Adding a further twist, the second half of "The Eighth Day" -- due to be released as a Japanese movie in April -- centers on the abducted child, who was returned to her family and is now a grown woman, as her life takes on parallels to that of her kidnapper and she goes in search of her past.

It was, Kakuta says, a way to look at the issue from all possible aspects, including the ways that Japanese thinking about motherhood puts modern women under pressure.

The prize-winning Kakuta, who was born in 1967 and has written more than 30 novels, spoke with Reuters about her book and being a writer in Japan.

Q: How did you get the idea for this?

A: "In Japan, there was a real incident where a secretary sneaked into the house of her married lover and set fire to the room where his two children lay sleeping. Both of them died in the fire. I asked myself why she killed the children when it was her lover who'd wronged her, the children were innocent. Wasn't there a way that she could have avoided killing them? That was the start of the story.

Q: You said you emphasize themes when you write. What was the theme for this book?

A: "I wanted to consider what motherhood is. Now in Japan there are many incidents of child abuse, especially where the mother abuses the child. Whenever these are taken up in the newspaper, without fail they start questioning the idea of motherhood. There's a lot of articles asking why the woman is able to abuse the child even though she is its real mother. Motherhood is being seen as something that just comes naturally. This idea is being forced on women, and I thought, was putting women under a lot of pressure. That was the start of the book.

"Kiwako, the kidnapper, wasn't the real mother, but she was really full of maternal feeling. However, the real mother, Etsuko, had given birth to her child but motherhood did not go well for her and she didn't really have any growth of motherly feelings.

"There's a huge emphasis on blood ties here in Japan, and I think this may lead to excessive expectations for maternity from women."

Q: What does motherhood mean in Japan?

A: "Society seems to be forcing women to do things a certain way. It seems it is commonly believed that women have children and think they're incredibly cute, that this alone is enough feeling and knowledge for them to be able to raise their children with. Within this silent pressure, though, there are times when mothers might feel their children aren't cute at all -- maybe they cry a lot -- but because society expects mothers to be only one way, the fact that she doesn't think her baby is cute makes her feel like a failure. I think there are a lot of women like this now.

"There aren't a lot of networks (to help) and now that families are much smaller, women don't have older women around to ask for help. If they ask advice of other women, they just hear very strong messages about how things must be done."

Q: Everybody in this book seems like a victim in the end.

A: The novel isn't a place where you judge people. When I write I don't think that somebody's guilty or not, that somebody's a victim or the victimizer. When something happens, it's not that one person is totally guilty but that lots of things have piled up.

"I don't think any of the books I write have heroes. As a novelist, I don't have any interest in people like that. That sort of person is really strong and so they can live their lives just fine. Novels are about weak people, and that's what I really want to focus on."

Q: How has Japanese literature changed in the past 20 years?

A: "In the past, when novels seemed farther from life, there was the sense that you needed to stretch yourself, perhaps go out and have some new experiences, to read. Readers were interested in things they didn't know. But now so many people say they're bored by anything they don't understand. It seems they just want easy language and easy topics. While I think it's good in one way that literature has gotten closer to daily life, it's unfortunate in others.

"There's a real trend toward things that are easy to understand like tear-jerkers, where somebody has a difficult illness or somebody's lover does, and finally they die. I think this is unfortunate. Peoples' emotions aren't that simple and it worries me that reading is losing its complexity."