Mieko Kawakami’s new novel, Heaven, has the sweetest opening chapter where, a fourteen-year-old boy, quiet and shy, bullied and beaten at school by the boys in his class for having a lazy eye, finds himself a secret admirer, who leaves him friendly notes in her “little fish-bones” handwriting.
Convinced that the notes are a trap laid by one of his bullies, he ignores them at first. But the sincere warmth of the letters indicates that it’s not a prank, that there might be someone who genuinely wants to be his friend.
Upon reaching the designated meeting spot at the set time – Whale Park – he discovers the sender of those letters to be a girl from his class. Kojima, who he had not really cared to notice until then, is also a victim. She is bullied by the other girls in class.
Heaven begins on a sensitive and somewhat happy note of friendship, where the two pariahs find comfort in each other’s words. But as the story progresses, a deeply disturbing sequence of events begin to play out.
While the protagonist’s mistreatment stems from a visual impairment — his lazy right eye —that results in him being forced to eat chalk, drink toilet water, and swallow a goldfish by a gang led by Ninomiya, the girls take to harassing Kojima by kicking her and dunking her head in a fish tank because she “smelled like fish or worse”.
Fearing more abuse, the two suffer in silence and keep their new friendship a secret. It is a world full of handwritten letters in which they write to each other about their likes and dislikes, about where they can be and who they really are: “In her notes, Kojima was energetic and alive, an entirely different person from the girl I saw in class.”
But bullying and any form of oppression shatters a person’s confidence and self-belief to the extent that the sufferer is scared to admit that they are being wronged, and that they don’t deserve what is being done to them. Retaliation comes much later. The realization that keeping quiet is not an option, that speaking to a trusted ally is an important and crucial first step, is, in fact, the initial hiccup.
When the protagonist comes home from school wearing a blood-stained, torn shirt, he lies to his stepmother and says he was hit by a bike. In reality, he was brutally kicked around like a football for hours by his gang of bullies in the school gymnasium. He stays home and skips school, avoids seeing anyone, and at one point, even considers suicide.
Cases of bullying in Japanese schools aren’t new. In 2013, a study by the Tokyo Metropolitan School Personnel in Service Training Center surveyed approximately 9000 children, out of whom more than 66.2 percent had confirmed being bullied. Another Japan Times article (October 2020) confirmed that in 2019, cases of bullying in elementary and high schools, including special-needs schools, increased by 60,000 in number. It was the sixth consecutive year to record a rise in the cases.
In a recent interview, Mieko Kawakami said, “The highest number of suicides among young people in Japan is around the last day of summer vacation.” She added that with the easy access to internet and growing rage of social media, cyberbullying has become more rampant nowadays.
With Breast and Eggs (June 2020), Kawakami dove deep into the mind of the contemporary working class Japanese woman, her dreams and fears concerning the ever-changing and ever-ageing female body. She gave her 30 year old protagonist a bold voice and the freedom to explore the choice of getting breast implants, and to combat questions around the morality of artificial insemination among single women in the country.
In Heaven, Kawakami contributes to the conversation on high-school bullying. On the surface are the intense, graphic details of the actual abuse. Underneath the physical suffering, there are layers internalized anxiety.
As a reader, you find yourself praying with every turn of the page that it doesn’t get worse. But it does, leaving you sad and helpless.
With each new work of fiction, Kawakami challenges the status quo and her latest offering is a sound appeal to existing social structures and authorities to identify signs of abuse — at school, home, or elsewhere — of any kind, and offer support.
It is necessary to have conversations around mental health and well being. A book like Heaven might be difficult to read, but it is important, timely, and necessary.
Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.