KATHERINE BRABON The Shut Ins. Reviewed by Ann Skea
Katherine Brabon’s timely and thought-provoking second novel explores a phenomenon with resonances beyond its Japanese setting.
There is a world we live in, on this side, and another world, achiragawa, [the other side] that is a place of dreams, death and possibility. The other side may be our unconscious minds, our inner lives, the home of our deepest unspoken beliefs.
In The Shut Ins, Katherine Brabon explores the way achiragawa exists in the lives of four Japanese people – Mai Takeda, Sadako, Hiromi Sato, and her son, Hikaru, who has taken his desire for ‘the other side’ to extremes and has become one of the hikikomori. As the narrator’s Japanese correspondent explains:
They choose another path, but there are not many ways for them to live differently, so they go to another place inside their very rooms. In the world I grew up in, it is hard to untie yourself from society.
The narrator, an Australian woman visiting Japan, is a fifth person experiencing achiragawa, and her ‘Notes’, which link the chapters about each of the characters, may be Katherine Brabon’s own thoughts and experiences, or may be those of a fifth character.
Mai Takeda is a young Japanese woman who, when we first meet her, has been married to J for three months. To this rather quiet, withdrawn woman, J offered ‘what seemed like a chance to participate in life, in a marriage’. The reality, Mai finds, is that everyone expects her to conform to social norms, to leave her job (which they regard as a hobby), support J in his corporate career and in the home, and, especially, to have his children. ‘Mai, when are you going to have a child, hmm? It’s about time,’ says her mother. ‘It’s important … Every husband and wife need a child,’ says her father. J keeps asking her if she is pregnant.
Mai ‘doesn’t have the urge … every woman is expected to have’. She likes her job and does not want to leave it. J is a good husband, industrious and ‘moulded’ to his role of corporate businessman, but she does not want to take care of him and she does not want to have his child. She feels ‘trapped in a current’. ‘Each of us could be living an entirely different life,’ she writes to her old schoolfriend Hikaru, ‘I have been thinking of it more and more lately.’
When Mai bumps into Hikaru’s mother and begins to visit her, a strange relationship is formed with Hikaru, who has retreated from normal life and shut himself away in his room. She gladly becomes ‘a rental sister’, being paid by Hikaru’s mother to write letters to him. For a time this is an important, almost secret, other life for her, but she wants something more.
The second young woman we meet is Sadako. She works as a hostess and is paid to sit with customers, listen to them, tolerate their approaches and, occasionally, to act as an escort or as a ‘pretend wife’ for a businessman who needs to take ‘his wife’ to a company dinner. Sex is not included in her services.
Sadako meets J, Mai’s husband, when she is working as hostess at a businessman’s party in a glamorous hotel. J begins to seek her out when he is on business trips and wants someone to pretend to be the sort of attentive, compliant wife that Mai is not. In a hotel room with J, Sadako feels sad, knowing ‘that she represented something this man wanted but did not have’, and she feels pity for J’s wife,
… who would either be carried along by the life expected of her, or live swimming against its perpetual current. Unless she was able to find another alternative altogether, another side of herself, another life.
At the same time, Sadako is aware that she is always playing a false role, and she, too, dreams of something different. When her father has a heart attack and needs her to visit him, she meets his second wife and her son and has her own experience of ‘the other side’. For her, there seems to be the possibility of a new and ‘real’ life in her father’s home.
Hiromi Sato’s life, too, is full of restrictions, secrets and guilt because of her son’s withdrawal from life. Her husband blames her and insists that she hides the young man’s strange behaviour. ‘We must protect our name,’ he tells her. But when nothing changes, he yells: ‘This is a disgrace. You need to fix him.’
Hiromi, who also has responsibility for her elderly mother who lives in another town, is weighed down with shame.
A Japanese mother raises a little Emperor until he is four, and then brings a crushing weight down on his shoulders, forcing him into a mould that was waiting for him before birth. Hiromi Sato knows that she transferred this weight onto the shoulders of her son. But the act has not relieved her.
‘Her failed son. She loves him.’ She recruits Mai, who visits the house and writes letters to him, but never sees him. Hiromi is distraught when Mai disappears. Ultimately, she must put her son in care so that she can look after her mother: ‘Like a second birth, her son must be cut from her.’
Hikaru’s story is more complex. ‘When I was young my mother warned me about everything,’ he tells us. A school teacher is critical of his work, shaming his mother by directing her criticisms to her: ‘He is slow … not up to standard … lazy, or a poor listener.’ At high school he becomes isolated and begins to think everyone is judging him. He feels something change inside him:
When I was a child it had been the small, light bubble inside me that disappeared. Now it was as though all the energy had been sucked out of me. If I didn’t protect myself I would soon die.
We learn of his struggles to fit in, his briefly held jobs, and his retreat into his room and how he copes there. We learn, too, of his time living with a support group among others who have similar problems, and of a different, enforced method, which ‘breaks the person out of their unhealthy lifestyle’. In the ‘Note’ prefacing this chapter, the narrator writes that a psychiatrist who specialises in the hikikomori condition blames it on the unhappiness of mothers and the war-traumatised parents of these mothers, who ‘created fussy, meticulous households’, and dutifully educated children into conformity. Hikaru himself writes, ‘I wish there was a place that doesn’t scare me. I wish I was not obsessed by mistakes and their consequences.’ He wishes, too, that Mai would come back and that he knew how to live another life.
This is a strange and unsettling book. Each of the characters wonders, as we all do, what their life ‘this side’ is about and what a different life would be like. Many of us, too, due to the Covid 19 pandemic, have been ‘shut in’ and experienced solitude and strangeness. Katherine Brabon’s book is timely and thought-provoking but also fascinating and vividly original and creative.
In an endnote, Brabon quotes the definition of the hikikomori condition as ‘a coping strategy that is achieved in response to the excessive pressure of social realisation typical of modern individualistic societies’. She also quotes Michael Zielenziger’s research, which suggests that ‘some people see the phenomenon as the ultimate expression of passive-aggressive behaviour. It is a rejection of society by inaction, by refusing to participate’. Katherine Brabon’s imaginative and sensitive exploration of achiragawa makes hikikomori a condition we all can understand.
Katherine Brabon The Shut Ins Allen and Unwin 2021 PB 256pp $29.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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