Mieko Kawakami: From blogger to global novelist

Her latest novel won Japan's top prize for new fiction writers. Kawakami is one of an emerging group of young Japanese women writers.

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    MIEKO KAWAKAMI: She challenges traditional views and is one of an emerging group of young Japanese women writers. Her latest novel won Japan’s Akutagawa Prize.
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Mieko Kawakami hops off her bicycle outside Tokyo's Mamehiko cafe and heads in for some iced tea and conversation. Casually dressed in a jean vest and flouncy skirt, she appears unrushed, despite being one of the most sought-after young authors in Japan this year. When a young man recognizes her, she happily chats briefly with him about the play he is writing.

Ms. Kawakami says that writing hit her life suddenly – much like a traffic collision. A singer and songwriter, she turned to poetry and blogging– not unusual in a country that leads the world with 1.5 million daily blog postings, and whose authors have been adept at parlaying Internet exposure into literary success.

Her first novel was formed from her blogs. Her fourth, "Breasts and Egg," was tapped for the Akutagawa Prize, Japan's top award for new fiction writers. That put her in the company of such internationally renowned authors as Haruki Murakami, whose work includes "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and "Norwegian Wood."

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Kawakami, whose work has been translated into Korean, German, and Chinese (but not yet English), is part of an edgy and unconventional generation of female writers who are tackling women's stories of marriage, divorce, friendship – and finding a receptive audience at home and abroad.

Interest in their work could be a small silver lining of Japan's "lost decade," whose economic doldrums upended long-standing social roles. In the process, says Rolands Kelts, author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.," another phenomenon developed: women unencumbered by traditional expectations and eager to tell stories once sidelined by establishment culture. They were also adept at tapping into new technologies – such as blogs and cellphones – to share them.

"A lot of what these women write feels fresh to Japanese readers and to readers around the world, who have seen Japanese women as eternally submissive and docile," says Mr. Kelts.

Indeed, says Masako Honda, professor emeritus of gender studies at Tokyo's Ochanomizu University, "Japanese women are writing good novels, and they're more aware of being accepted internationally. They created something different and succeeded at it."

In Kawakami's case, her edgy use of dialect made her blog stand out. "I grew up in Osaka, and I use very casual, local words," she says. "The style is difficult to translate – and to understand." But, she notes, she read books by J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut and understood them. "That is the magic that language has."

Motoyuki Shibata, a literature professor at the University of Tokyo, says her language reminds him of rock, or rap, because of its speed – but that her subjects are classical. "One of her most conspicuous qualities is her willingness to deal with big questions, such as what constitutes the self, what kind of relationship the self has with the world," he says.

As her work extends its reach, Kawakami speculates that her willingness to sharply challenge traditional perspectives is attractive. She laments that people don't plumb the depths of what's happening around them. "I'm here to shake that up," she says. "I use my novel as a tool to give others the opportunity to think about things they had never thought about."

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