~written by Sumie Kawakami
~translated by Yuko Enomoto
Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage, and the Modern Japanese Woman by Sumie Kawakami, published in 2007 with an English translation by Yuko Enomoto, was written specifically for the publisher Chin Music Press. I recently discovered the publisher and happened across Goodbye Madame Butterfly while browsing its backlist. Unfortunately, the volume is no longer in print--a shame since physically the book is quite lovely--but there are plans to release Goodbye Madame Butterfly in a digital edition soon. Chin Music Press was kind enough to send one of the few remaining print copies to me for review. Although there are several examples of Kawakami's writing available in English, Goodbye Madame Butterfly is her first book-length work to be translated. Kawakami, a writer and journalist in Japan, is no stranger to to the subjects of sex and marriage and has written about them before, including coauthoring the book Tsuma no Koi ("Wives in Love") with Taro Ohata.
Japan has a thriving sex industry that is not at all hidden. In fact, it is fairly high profile. And yet at the same time, Japan ranks among one of the lowest countries when it comes to sexual activity and sexual contentment according to a survey conducted by Durex. Despite a prominent and prevalent sex industry, which could either be seen as a symptom or as a cause, the number of sexless couples in Japan has been on the rise. Between 2005 and 2007, Sumie Kawakami interviewed a number of women and a few men about their sex lives and relationships. The results of these interviews form the essays that make up Goodbye Madame Butterfly. Although some details such as names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved, all of the stories in Goodbye Madame Butterfly are true. The women come from a wide variety of backgrounds--some are single, some are married, some are divorced; some are professionals while others are housewives--but they all share some amount of dissatisfaction with their personal lives.
Each of the eleven essays included in Goodbye Madame Butterfly begins with a title and the name being used for the interviewee, as well as their age and profession. From there, Kawakami tells their story. The essays are intimate not just because they touch on sex and other private matters but because it is readily clear that the interviewees were open and honest with their thoughts and feelings while talking with Kawakami. The presence of the women is always felt while reading Goodbye Madame Butterfly, even in the case in which the interviewee is a man. This is especially true for the two essays that have been written in the first person. Kawakami allows the women and their stories to speak for themselves. She makes no attempt to analyze, contradict, or defend them, but simply allows them to be just as they are.
To be completely honest, Goodbye Madame Butterfly can be somewhat depressing with all of the failed marriages and relationships that are revealed. But it just goes to show that life is complicated and messy no matter who the person is. The women whose stories appear in Goodbye Madame Butterfly are real people dealing with real and often unfortunate circumstances. Life is not always happy. Even the author is a divorcée and a single mother, characteristics that she shares with many of the other women in Goodbye Madame Butterfly. One thing I found particularly interesting about the book is that Kawakami made a point to interview women that she personally admired in some way. Even if the decisions they make in their lives aren't always the best ones, these women exhibit strength and perseverance. I may have only caught a brief glimpse of their lives but I, too, found women worthy of admiration.