A Girl with her Writing Machine: Amebic by Kanehara Hitomi

Rio Otomo

DRAFT – Final version published as a chapter here.

What the media preach through [the discourse of] “kawaii” (cute) are happiness, consumerism, and psychological triumph over biological aging. They also advocate the carnival at hand and secret pleasure of making the “I” that is exceptional and incomparable. What does it suppress, then? … labour, history, and the Other which is outside the closed community of media providers and their audience. (Yomota Inuhiko)[1]


In recent years a number of very young novelists have entered the scene. Among them, Kanehara Hitomi received the 130th Akutagawa Prize (Hebi ni piasu, 2004), sharing the prize with Wataya Risa (Keritai senaka, 2003). They were twenty and nineteen year old girls, the youngest winners of this prize ever, and have since been steadily producing new pieces. While they both skilfully depict the lives of young girls, Kanehara’s narratives draw our attention for their intense and acerbic qualities, which were rife in modernist writing but rarer in contemporary texts. As some critics contend, a more communal psyche, which tends towards narratives of “trauma” and “healing,” emerged in the decade after 1995 – the year of the Great Kansai Earthquake and the Aum Shinrikyô gas attack on the Tokyo underground railways.[2] Kanehara, who spent her teenage years in this period, writes against this trend and reminds us that the prevailing storytelling restores humanity far too hastily.

Her third novella, Amebic (2005),[3] begins with a three-page monologue which she calls sakubun, delusional writing, making a pun on creative writing.[4] The narrator is a young novelist like Kanehara herself who often wakes up to find a piece of sakubun on her desktop. They were obviously written by herself the night before, but she does not remember writing them. Claiming that the sakubun do not reveal the unconscious of her psyche,[5] she, nonetheless, reads them closely in an attempt to get to know more about the writer, that is, herself. At a first glance the structure appears to produce the familiar Doppelgänger plot, or a two-tiered narrative that reflects the body-mind dualist conception of the Self. As we read on, however, we see the Self multiply further, and indeed, we are told that it is only in perceiving such an ameba-like state of her body that the protagonist feels that she is alive.

Using unfettered and agile language, Kanehara thrives in talking about the body and its uncontrollability, which are the constant topics of sakubun. The image of the ungoverned body of the narrator materializes on the text through her idiosyncratic speech style, which creates a non-totalitarian terrain, or the land of carnival, in the textual space. But this same body, as it is revealed to us in time, is a manifestation of the protagonist’s suffering, and the thrust of this novel is on that point. She has stopped having a meal for over a year, trying to manage her skinny body with meticulously self-prescribed nutritional supplements. More anorexia sufferers exist among girls living in affluent societies, and the girl protagonists of Kanehara’s works, living in urban Tokyo, all express feelings of discomfort and uneasiness with their own body. The obsession to control one’s body – to the point of self-harming – is repeatedly discussed in Kanehara’s writing: body-piercing and tattooing (Hebi ni piasu, 2004); refusal to eat meals (Amebic, 2005); chewing and spitting a large amount of junk food without ever swallowing it (Haidora, 2007).

In Haidora Kanehara spells out more clearly than her previous works that the narrator “I” creates her emaciated body on her own volition in order to feel her self-worth. The making of the emaciated body is, according to the narrator of Haidora, driven by the desire to become the “girl with bound feet,” which is a metaphor for a doll-like girl whose “life is fading away” from her body, but not completely gone.[6] With that body, she knows that she can become more desirable to some: “So, I became thinner, as if I could touch the invisible value that I gained by that … The thinner I became, the happier I was. Staring at the bones that were now more noticeable, I would touch them, being entranced by them.”[7] Thus assuming and internalizing others’ desire for her, the protagonist of Haidora is well aware of the masochistic loop she is trapped in, and yet she willingly maintains that loop. The narrator of Amebic is also presented as the product of the same mechanism of desire, although she is yet to arrive at that awareness.

Kanehara recapitulates the Self many times over through the text of Amebic. Slovoj Žižek defines the Self as ‘the center of narrative gravity,” meaning that it can be always revisited and rewritten, whereas “the subject” remains a fixed concept.[8] Kanehara’s enterprise is not dissimilar to that of shishōsetsu writers, who narrativized their “I” as the emerging modern subject, a unique and autonomous entity. While the latter project carried the weight of Japan’s modernisation, Kanehara’s is enmeshed with the late consumerist-capitalism of post-1995 Japan. The kawaii girl-writer of Amebic, who is an embodiment of Yomota’s critique above, is immersed in consumerism, compulsively pursuing the skinny girl body, and sets herself to work on the narrativization of the ‘I’ that is “exceptional and incomparable.” The narrator also refers to her being mad and sustains a light tone of voice in describing her suffering, which in effect buffers against being taken too seriously by the readers, for she is too proud to appeal to others’ sympathy, and her narrative must defy sentimentality. This self-deprecating dry humour runs through Kanehara’s works, taking a stance away from shishosetsu writers such as Dazai Osamu, whose equally self-deprecating narratives do not contain humour, and are constantly begging for readers’ sympathy.

Amebic is a provocative text which takes its readers to the heart of contemporary Tokyo, into a comfortable apartment, shopping at Roppongi Hills,[9] and the dark interior of the kawaii girl-writer who speaks “dirty,” or self-fashions to do so.



Kanehara’s well-crafted narratives in sakubun are difficult to translate. They are not only written in broken grammar but are often deliberately incorrectly typed or wrongly converted from phonetics to kanji, creating hilarious effects in Japanese, but making translation a nightmare.[10] My discussion here, therefore, will focus more on the content and issues, and less on the style of writing, although the latter is a crucial part of reading this text. I leave that task to readers, which I guarantee will be more than enjoyable.

Her body as a terminus

The decade after 1995 saw significant changes in technological advancement in personal communication, and this is when reading and writing on the machine were rapidly popularised. Wataya Risa’s first novel was entitled, Insutôru (install, 2001), in which two young people assume a persona and work in the sex-chat business using an old computer. While Wataya’s text bore a hint of the amazement which people felt for the magic of technology, Kanehara’s Amebic takes that for granted. For the narrator of Amebic, touching the keypad has become second nature, and she types as she speaks even in her delusional state. She also downloads violent images of war news onto her keitai (mobile phone) at psychopathic moments at night when she craves for gruesome body images. The machines in her apartment are more than just communication tools, but are now felt as part of her body. To be more precise, the machines create a closed system which disables her communication with outside, a point which I discuss later.

Kanehara’s protagonist is not an exception in routinely reading and writing through the machine. Many girls are now engaged with screens and keypads which instantly transpose them into the “carnival at hand” where, as Yomota pointed out, they can indulge in the private pleasure of self-fashioning the “I” that is “exceptional and incomparable.” Imagine a girl whose attention is fixed on the screen of her keitai, which has the pearly tint; the smooth texture; the beckoning light; and the weight, neither too heavy nor light, designed to give her just the right level of confidence to keep in her palm. Strings of netsuke-like ornaments are hung from every keitai, as if to do so were a national superstition. A girl by herself is writing messages, a diary, or captions to accompany her phone photos, and there is always the task of re-reading them all in her spare time on the train, or on the bus. Messages arrive and depart, which she manages with the confidence of a station master. She and her keitai, which she feels as an extension of her body, thus become a tanmatsu (terminus), a communication processing station. Her body is the locus of human interaction where she continuously recreates her Self in relation to others on her network.

According to Azuma Hiroki, the Self is the key terminus from which one continuously engages in the tasks of reading and “writing into” the lined-up small narratives which are the data offered for consumption. One constitutes the Self by collecting and processing these data without assuming a pre-determined profile called the “original I”.[11]

Taking this position in which the Self is discursively created, or is a free-floating semiotic construct, I would even argue that the “I” is the surfaces of the body screen, on which multiple stories can be written and read. The girl with her machines is heavily engaged in writing and reading her small narratives which are exclusively about her Self. These various stories keep appearing on her body screen, as she functions as a tanmatsu, an information processing station in the communication network. The picture I draw here should not be mistaken for the human alienation narratives of the mechanical modern times. A girl with her writing machine can put together her small narratives in a particular way to produce her particular Self, in which process she becomes the agent (the speaking subject) and gains the power of authorship. In other words, the popularised acts of reading and writing on the machine are equally empowering girls as they do others. Kanehara’s story does not aim to question that effect, but rather, it is about the girl who has gained the power of authorship, and is still faced with the ambiguity of her existence in the world.

The protagonist of Amebic stares at her computer screen, continuously writing and reading the texts about her. She names each text and saves it in a folder; the desktop will be soon covered by such folders. She is aware of the fact that there is no final word that can conclude the story of her Self. She lives in a comfortable apartment in central Tokyo, one of the most prosperous cities in the world, leading a privileged life as a young and successful writer. She can have everything, and yet, she is miserable and her mind is becoming increasingly vague. Her method of sustenance – endless amount of alcohol, occasional radish or cucumber pickles, and a variety of tablets and bottles of nutritional supplements – warns us that something is going terribly wrong.[12] She lives without meals, which I will return to later, and her body is diminishing in this Kafka-esque setting in which she begins to lose the sense of her body’s contour. The role of the writing machine is both the life support and the poison which automates her body to keep producing texts.

In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf convincingly argued that given a room of her own and a means of living, a woman writer could have achieved as much as a man had done. Woolf also pointed out the subtle ways in which literary texts by some women were hindered by their anger and frustration at not having a life with opportunities, let alone a room of their own. So why the sulk, when this girl in Tokyo has everything she needs for writing? Kanehara’s protagonist cannot answer that question. She instead vomits, which is a metaphor for writing, because she also writes as if she were vomiting, compulsively and without having a solid form. She takes comfort from the warmth of her room which shelters and keeps her away from outside. The heated floor has dried up the vegetable juice she vomited earlier. “I dropped on the spot and touched the stain. It was warm, just as when it came out of my stomach. Maybe, this floor is part of my body and is even looking after the things that come out of me.” [13] Her text that comes out of her is also kept inside the desktop, being looked after and kept warm, as it were.

Proliferation of the “I”

The theme of split-self in this novel is played out on two levels: the implication of multiple personalities on one level and the unstable links between body and senses on another. There are first and foremost the narrator “I” and her alter-ego that writes the sakubun. In addition to these, the protagonist impetuously creates another “I” by assuming the identity of her lover’s fiancée who is a patishie (f. patissier) – a cake chef, one of the media-instigated terms of the day – whenever she is talking to a taxi driver. This act later reveals its darker side when she starts making elaborate cakes and deserts in the assumed role of patishie in her own kitchen, even when there is no other person who needs convincing that she is the patishie, an act which is all the more disturbing for she detests food. In addition to these characters, there is the protagonist/author double in the text. Kanehara Hitomi as a girl writer has been so widely profiled in the press that it is impossible for most readers not to confuse the voice of the protagonist with that of the author, something which Kanehara effectively plays on in her writing.

To split the Self is, from another point of view, to multiply it. The film Matrix gives us a useful image for visualizing the space of the “amebic” body. In the second episode of The Matrix, a character played by Hugo Weaving, “Agent Smith” in the first episode turns into “Mr. Smith” (as customarily used for anonymity) who replicates himself as a virus inside the Matrix.[14] In this process the original “Agent Smith” can no longer be a marker of difference or a reliable source of information. The multiplying selves fill the body (and the room) of the protagonist of Amebic like a virus, which is described as an ameba-like state.[15] She becomes increasingly unreliable as the gaze-holder of the text, and this unreliability is the crucial performative element of the text. The question, “and who is speaking this?” becomes irrelevant, when the multiple voices of the text come together to live in one body. As the protagonist tries to analyze the sakubun on her desktop, she also goes into a delusional state where her own speech style converges with the voice of the author of sakubun. The moment of converging is described as this:

Suddenly, the scope of my vision was doubled, and it happened twice in a row. Click, click, my focal point gets divided and then united. At each click each part of me is “initialised” one at a time, to “Start all over,” as someone, or some non-organic thing is telling me so. It is unpleasant, tremendously unpleasant. …my mind and body are splitting, and this phenomenon goes further. Intestine, skin, and sensorial cells are also splitting, giving me fear, instead of comforting me with the right level of enjoyable uneasiness.[16]

She feels some unknown particles entering her ear, starting to form a gel (she calls it geru) and seeping into her brain. They are the ameba-like substance, “stickier than pudding,” which “would not fall down for a while, even if you tip it on a spoon.”[17] The ameba starts dancing, stimulating her brain with a touch or no touch, trembling like the surface of pudding, spreading across the body, producing desire, and finally reaching her vagina. The delusional “I” describes her inbu (genitals), as if it had its own desire to which her brain fails to relate. While microscopic units of her body keep segmenting into more units, every unit has a say in what it wants. Only in this delusional state has she experienced orgasm, feeling her ameba-like existences that are many inside her body.

This sakubun is entitled “Amîbikku,” from which the book title is taken. It is a masterpiece of erotica, tantalising with excruciating slowness and finally arriving at a breathtaking climax. It entertains readers by articulating the autoerotic female sexuality and the jouissance which does not involve phallic mediation. “Amîbikku” exemplifies what Hélène Cixous calls écriture feminine, a writing which cuts the circuit of logocentrism.[18] Gender difference is used by Cixous as the marker to conceive a writing that overcomes the domination of logos, and the “body” that marks the difference is used as the key vehicle to arrive at such writing. Her message, “Write yourself. Your body must be heard” has not only been taken up by various women writers as their objective, but has become one of the key concepts of the deconstructionist approach to literature. Luce Irigaray for one, using a set of new vocabulary and style of writing, described women’s autoerotic libidinal economy and defied the myth of female sexuality imagined and disseminated by the dominant heterosexualism. Irigaray’s Woman speaks without constructing a solid form to differentiate her Self from other matters, just as Kanehara’s narrator does in “Amîbikku:”

And yet that woman-thing speaks. But not “like,” not “the same,” not “identical with itself”… Not a “subject,” unless transformed by phallocratism. It speaks “fluid”… that it mixes with bodies of a like state, sometimes dilutes itself in them in an almost homogeneous manner, which makes the distinction between the one and the other problematical; and furthermore that it is already diffuse “in itself,” which disconcerts any attempt at static identification … Fluid … by nature, unstable … Woman never speaks the same way. What she emits is flowing, fluctuating. Blurring.[19]

While it is true that the space of feminist defiance emerges in the text of “Amîbikku,” that does not bring the protagonist’s suffering to end. The problem is not Men, Kanehara seems to imply, but it stems more from ontological confusion, that is, the breakdown of the unified Self. In fact, the blissful jouissance described in “Amîbikku” arrives when the speaking agent starts to withdraw, and its centralized body governance is loosened to give away its authority to microscopic elements of the body:

The brain sends a messenger – “I am to reveal my vagina, and have it touched by a finger.” I am more confused now…. If the vagina and the brain are directly connected, I would have already started walking, being pulled by the vagina. Their desire and frustration cannot be solved while I am here. Even though I am connected to everyone and I am the lord who governs them, they seem to cast me out…. Maybe, I don’t have the right to bind them? Amebae, brain, sparks, vagina, these may be much closer to the “I”, myself as a whole, than I am.[20]

One thing that one can do in this condition is, as Amebic demonstrates, to keep speaking in a hope to regain the solidity of the “I.” In doing so, the narrative of Amebic follows its own orbit and always returns to the same place, without meeting the Other, the one that is clearly outside the orbit and should otherwise intervene and disrupt that circuit to free her. Metaphorically, no one enters this room of her own, and neither does she go outside it. The mental seclusion as such creates an obsession with boundaries, in particular, bodily boundaries. The narrator frequently wonders where her body begins and ends, and the “margins” of the body[21]hanamizu (runny nose), kushami (sneezing), kuso or unko (excrement) – are the constant topics of the sakubun. She is fascinated by the thought of getting her blood drawn out at the blood donation centre. She cannot stop talking about what comes out of her body and about the organs that process them.

Interestingly, Kanehara’s body does not evoke a nature which is always-already complete, like a mother who is the all-embracing home to return to. It is instead presented as a symbolic construct that takes part in re-inventing new grammar, a project which is forever incomplete.[22] The cover of her second novella, Asshu Beibî(2004) is a picture from Hans Bellmer’s The Doll (Part II) in which the artist pursued Dadaist experiments on symbolic formation by re-arranging women’s body-parts.[23] While Bellmer’s images are provocative in that they critique established notions such as beauty, unity, and life, there is a stark element of fetishism, and his sadistic gaze is cast upon the body parts of lifeless dolls. In Haidora Kanehara’s narrator asks her photographer-lover, “So, do you like things like the ball-jointed dolls?” Ball-jointed dolls (kyûtai kansetsu ningyô) are increasing in popularity in Japan, sharing their hyper-real beauty with that of shôjo manga characters. They fascinate viewers with their proximity to both life and death – the life is frozen in time, and yet each part of the body gives the illusion of coming alive at any moment. Kanehara is fascinated by the liminal space between life and death, and her narrators have a body that is diminishing day by day. The sober “I” says, “I am not amebic, and it means I am dead, doesn’t it?”[24] The narrator cannot feel alive when her body is centralised and governed by a lord-like “I” who will not stop talking.

Her body is getting skinnier each day and is barely standing, while the delusional “I” continues to write regardless. She had stopped having proper meals for almost a year and lives on an endless supply of alcohol and a cocktail of nutritional supplements. Her hatred of food and her peculiar eating habit border on neurosis, and for that reason even her legitimate criticisms of the food obsession in affluent contemporary life comes across as irrational.[25] While she does not have the vice of gluttony, she shops at Roppongi Hills. Having bought various gadgets for making cakes as a pretend- patishie, she then buys a black velvet coat, the sixth coat this year, at Vitton’s. The body matters to her in so far as she can minimize it or dress it up to create another persona. But after all the shopping and dressing up are done, the sense of falling apart persists in her:

With the Emmanuel Ungaro short skirt, I’ve put on the corset which was said to be order-made in the 1960s with snake skin attached to the surface…but it was not a remedial corset, and the waist size was about fifty centimetres… I had asked for a smaller size, but they told me…. I could only try and find one among antiques or imported goods. I am far too busy for that…It feels safe to be supported by the whale bones of the corset, the twelve pieces of whale bones, which are keeping my sanity, as it were. As if they were bundling up in one unit the fragmented pieces of hundreds, thousands, or millions of me. So, there is a freedom to be bound, I think.[26]

I have so far discussed the key issues which were raised in Amebic: writing on the machine which empowers girls who gain the authorship (the status of the speaking agent) by narrating the Self at their will; articulating a female sexuality which creates feminist defiance against phallogocentrism; writing about the body which enables girls to imagine the spatial boundaries of the Self and to simultaneously expose the fragility of the concept of the Self as a unified whole. The last point – the problem of self-consciousness – is often attributed to the youthful suffering which one will eventually grow out of. Amebic, however, does not evoke the Bildungsroman (coming of age narrative) [27] in which the protagonist completes her journey of uncertainty as the narrative comes to a close.

Placing one of the texts of Bildungsroman against Amebic will further clarify this point. I propose Kanashimiyo konnichiwa (1955), Asabuki Tomiko’s Japanese translation of Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Françoise Sagan. Sagan wrote this novel at the age of eighteen and became an instant success in Paris. Reading protagonist Cecil’s unfettered behaviour and the novel’s overarching atmosphere of ennui, Japanese girls felt empowered by the way this text articulated the realm of shôjo.[28] With half a century between Asabuki-Sagan and Kanehara we find similarities in the way they rebel against the middleclass niceties which no doubt nurtured their radicalism in the first place. Both girl-protagonists describe themselves as excessively skinny in comparison to mature women; they detest food and those who eat in their presence. This tendency is not caused by a body image obsession, but rather it is to do with their refusal to be in line with “full” women. It can be read as a psychosomatic strategy to prolong their girlhood and delay their entry into adulthood. While keeping their childlike body, the protagonists of both texts smoke, drink, and have sex. Their detached and disengaged cool narratives – their “freedom and arrogance” [29] – emanate a power of persuasion and attract readers.

There are, however, crucial differences between them. Sagan’s novel is set during a summer holiday that will inevitably end, and in the closed space of a holiday resort that is away from her everyday space in Paris. Seventeen-year-old Cecil reluctantly but constantly anticipates the end of summer, which is the end of her girlhood, and imagines what will become of her later. She is ambivalent about her father, whose love she would not want to share with another woman, while she is happy to be with a boyfriend of her age. Sagan’s theme is the position of the daughter placed within the Freudian narratives of family romance. The story is, therefore, pre-programmed to complete, albeit with a taste of tragedy.

In comparison to this, the story of Amebic takes place in the girl’s apartment – an urban everyday space – without a foreseeable end point in time. Her apartment is equipped with the floor-heating system which creates the illusion of the room being organic. Whenever the protagonist goes outside this space, she hurries home to it where time circulates like Groundhog Day,[30] without bringing a brand new day each morning. While the comedy of Groundhog Day is transformed into a romance when that repetition ends, Amebic remains in that circuit. The narrator of Amebic has long departed from the position of a daughter; there are no sign of her parents except in her remote memory, in which she hints that they planted the seeds of her present eating disorder.[31] While Sagan ends her novel with Cecil saying “kanashimiyo konnichiwa”, which indicates the girl’s survival and the completion of her Bildungsroman narrative, Kanehara ends hers with a delusional protagonist grumbling on, being unable to stop talking, and obsessively typing into her computer.

Notes from a high-rise apartment

This inability to stop talking is a characteristic shared by all confessional texts. Among them, the confessions of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1864)[32] are unrivalled in their intensity and thoroughness, hence my second proposal for comparison. The nature of Kanehara’s narrative begins to emerge more clearly when we juxtapose it with that of the Underground Man. His monologue begins with this famous opening:

I am a sick man. … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can’t explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “pay out” the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well–let it get worse![33]

His own speech contradicts itself; he cannot make any statement without quickly throwing at it a contradicting view to show how thorough he can anticipate the listener’s negative response. The text thus allows many voices to speak, creating what Bakhtin called a “carnivalesque[34] literary space. Kanehara’s sakubun also contain many voices, often contradicting one another in the same way the Underground Man’s narrative does. Their city scapes have common aspects, too. Living in a culturally flourishing mid-nineteenth century metropolis, St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky’s depressive man lives in spite, obsessively talking about himself in a womb-like apartment on the lower-ground level, in which he takes refuge from the outside world. The Underground Man wants to “make an insect out” of himself, and he recognises that he has a disease of “thinking too much.” It is to him “a real, actual disease” which affects all educated men in the “unhappy nineteenth century,” especially those who have the “misfortune to live in St. Petersburg, the most abstract and intentional city.”[35] Human relationship are hard to nurture in an “intentional city” as opposed to an organically formed township. The Underground Man, like the narrator of Amebic, fails to find a place within the network of human relationship out there and turns his gaze only inwardly. His narrative is forever inconclusive, as if it were set in a fixed orbit,[36] and the narrator of Amebic, who continues her monologue still at the end of the book, is in a deadly circuit akin to that of the Underground Man.

Both narratives are driven by the obsession for the “knowledge of the Self” – an “attitude,” and a “form of living” rooted in Enlightenment Humanism – as Michel Foucault saw in defining modernity:

Now, it becomes a matter of attending to oneself, for oneself: one should be, for oneself and throughout one’s existence, one’s own object. Hence the idea of conversion to oneself … It has no other end or outcome than to settle into oneself, to “take up residence in oneself” and to remain there. The final objective of the conversion to oneself is to establish a certain number of relations with oneself, to be completely “self-possessed”…. [37]

In this paradigm the Self becomes “something to write about, a theme or an object (subject) of writing activity.”[38] Writing and vigilance (self-surveillance) go together in the confessional mode and constitute an entity called “Self.” The brilliance of Dostoevsky lies in that he produced a carnivalesque space in which the single Underground Man talked in polyphony. The messages that the text conveys are many, and he is both hero and anti-hero in the dystopic world that he creates. The narrator of Amebic also talks through many voices, and Kanehara makes sure not to give out any monological message in her writing.

Inventing grammar for gendered experiences

While the Underground Man does not talk about his body, except his face, which he regards as “ugly” but a sign of his intelligence, the Amebic narrator puts forward her gendered body as the determining component of her Self. The protagonist, for example, talks of a physical anxiety that she felt as a primary school girl when a stranger adjusted the hem of her skirt:[39]

One day after school I bumped into an adult man in a black coat … the moment I touched the imaginary line from a white road-sign pole. The man turned his face around and stared at me. I noticed that the hem of the skirt of my favourite chocolate-cookie-coloured dress was turned up a little, but I couldn’t fix that for some reason and just looked down at it before looking up again at him. He walked up to my side and adjusted the hem down. At that very moment his hand brushed my thigh. Walking out in a fast pace without saying a word, I did not look back at all. I was feeling my trembling heart and the painful dryness of my eyeballs which was also feverish for the reason I didn’t know.… I was terribly uncomfortable, sad, and lonely. I felt that I was all alone…. My sadness may have stemmed from the fact that I had wisdom not to talk to anyone about the sensation that I felt….[40]

Even though this cannot be the Trauma that caused her present misery, it is still a gendered memory which most girls can empathize with. The narrator says, “I still have such moments of sadness, loneliness, and discomfort which I cannot talk to anyone about even now. No, rather, they have increased, as I got older.” [41] This fact that the protagonist is unable to talk about It, which will involve accessing her own desire, is the key to unravelling this text. Being in a triangle relationship, she is not able to say that she wants her lover; instead, she pretends that she and his fiancée – the legitimate woman – are the same person. And of course she is not her, because staying in a childlike kawaii body is her conscious choice.

The kawaii body, the determining component of her Self, is materialized in sakubun which, according to her, does not reveal her unconscious. Kanehara creates a style which well represents an analogy between the body without brain and the text free of syntactical governance. All of the sakubun are written in a sprawling style without a paragraph break, but having periods, commas, and exclamation marks at irregular places. Astutely mis-typed or wrongly-word-processed words entertain readers with their comical effects and simultaneously demand a slow and careful reading. Kanehara’s tactical use of the improper (ungrammatical and incoherent) speech in sakubun is crafty and ambitious, being effectively uttered against the law of phallogocentrism in the manner of carnival.[42] This sprawling narrative indeed well exemplifies girls’ recent speech patterns. It performs a balancing act on the gender-specific nature of the Japanese language; the incorporated masculine segments in the first sakubun for example, more clearly highlight the speaker’s femininity.[43] The frequent use of onomatopoeia[44] such as “wâtto” “shuwa shuwatte” in the same sakubun enhances the kawaii, underscoring the speaker’s verbal immaturity. Onomatopoeia is also used in describing abjection, the grotesque of the body, [45] which gives the familiar manga effect.[46]

In post-1995 popular spheres, which are phenomenally carnivalesque,[47] saying the unsayable in public, the grotesque of the body for example, seems more than acceptable. And girls effectively use the contrast between grotesque content and a cute speech form in asserting their girl power.[48] They can shock the listener with provocative speech, and entertain a new image that is a mixture of being cute in appearance, strong in opinion, and knowledgeable in their own sexuality. Kanehara’s writing emerged in this social climate, both reflecting and creating it. Amebic expresses anxiety, frustration, and rage through a Dostevskian dystopic narrative, but is also issuing a princess-in-distress signal, by strategically screaming in the “kawaii” voice. Neither the protagonist of Amebic nor the city she lives in is programmed to meet “labour, history, and the Other” [49] that is outside them, and I would contend that reading this closed system and analysing its relationship to the outside remains a task of literary criticism.



Acts of writing on machines – blogging, chatting, e-mailing on the net or text-messaging on the keitai (mobile phone) – are part of the daily routines of Japanese teenage girls and young women. Writing activities as such give the opportunity to create a persona, or to reinvent the “I” with words; girls can write as someone, just as they dress as someone, if they prefer the kosupure (costume play), in a more explicit manner. Girls have always done that – constructing the Self with narratives– through writing letters and diaries in the past, but instead of pen and paper they now have their own writing machines – a computer with a fast internet connection and a cute keitai which has both word-processing and internet capability. Girls write copiously and liberally, assuming a persona at will, and at the same time reading and responding to the texts written by other girls. They grew up in an affluent post-industrial Japan which affords them the time and the space to engage in writing. Girls can narrativize a selfhood and make it public without waiting for anyone’s approval; their texts are written faster and in greater quantity every day.


In narrativizing her Self, a girl negotiates with various pieces of information, including the imagined girlhood which circulates through otaku products and the media at large.[50] She tries out small narratives through text-messaging and blogging, weaving a web of human relationships and creating her place within it. Although the relationships that she develops through the machine may be called a simulacrum (or a pseudo-reality), this does not diminish the gravity of its role in her life. Indeed, a relationship is something which we always recognise in a narrative form and which we keep re-reading and re-writing. Since the invention of the typewriter in late nineteenth-century Europe, women were encouraged to take part in writing on the machine, which gave them a means of their own income. In return they became a part of the writing machine and diligently reproduced their master’s words; the objectified images of the secretary and her typewriter only highlighted her gender role.[51] The word typewriter was originally used to address the woman who worked as a typist, soon shifting to mean the machine itself. In Japan now girls with keypads can freely exchange their own narratives, her texts, her photos, and her voice messages and not a text prescribed by men, and at the same time they are still imagined and desired by the otaku-like public gaze.[52]

Kanehara writes from within the paradigm of post-1995 Japan, where images of girls as cute idols are fetishized in the mainstream media, not to mention in the less accepted but more prolific pornographic manga. In one sense Kanehara unwillingly reproduces the images of the girl in the text which are ubiquitous in print, on streets, and in virtual space. But she also defies such images by emphasising her protagonist’s corporeality, using bold and unfettered expressions. Furthermore, Kanehara presents the protagonist as paradoxical, vacillating between the defenceless young girl and the articulate individual, which not only serves to contravene the monological representation of the Girl preferred in the popular media, but also offers a possibility of a new style of writing which is more suited for inscribing gendered experiences.



This essay was written with the financial support of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Postdoctoral Fellowship for Foreign Researchers.


[1] Yomota,Kawaii” ron(On “kawaii”), 149. English translation is mine; the term “media” is “magazine” in the original.

[2] The discussion on this is found in Katô (1996) and Azuma (2003).

[3] This US-English spelling is used as the original title and is accompanied by its Japanese reading.

[4] The kanji for these terms are 錯文 and 作文, respectively.

[5] Kanehara, Amebic, 21.

[6] “I thought, what he wants to capture (in his photographs) is the moment of human-beings loosing their essence of being a human, like binding feet and castration. He is fascinated by things like that, I thought.” (Kanehara, Haidora, 125-6)

[7] Kanehara, Haidora, 126.

[8] Žižek, Cogito and the Unconscious, 261.

[9] A locale in central Tokyo where fashionable life styles are pursued by the new urban rich.

[10] For example: 私のくしゃみが泊まらない。なんて事も、今まで胃ぢどもなかったはずだ、。

[11] Azuma presents this “database model” to explain the ways in which the Self is constructed in the postmodern world view in Dôbutsuka suru posutomodan, 50-54. He does not argue that human interaction with the machine has changed the Self. He aims, instead, to demonstrate the postmodernist/poststructuralist approach to the concept of the Self.

[12] Kanehara, Amebic, 117.

[13] Kanehara, Amebic, 15. English translations of Kanehara’s texts are mine throughout this essay.

[14] The Matrix trilogy (directed by the Wachowski brothers) includes The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and The Matrix Revolution (2003).

[15] Kanehara, Amebic, 101.

[16] Kanehara, Amebic, 51-2.

[17] Kanehara, Amebic, 54.

[18] See Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” 875-99.

[19] Irigaray, This Sex which is not One, 111-2, original italics and quotation marks.

[20] Kanehara, Amebic, 56-7

[21] Inspired by anthropologist Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger, 1966), Julia Kristeva developed her theory of abjection (Powers of Horror). Kanehara’s writing is foregrounded by both the images and the sounds of abject matters and confronts the aesthetic norm.

[22] Francis Barker argues that the modern subject is represented through a symbolization of the body, by which the actual body is excluded from discourses, and yet becomes more visible at the margins of the social sphere (Tremulous Private Body). Derrida calls it “supplement.” See Ishimitsu, “Hisuterîteki shintai no yume” for further discussion on this issue.

[23] Kagawa Mayuki relates Bellmer’s works to Walter Benjamin’s theory of allegory and the body as machine, which is, although significant, beyond the scope of this essay.

[24] Kanehara, Amebic, 49

[25] Kanehara, Amebic, 36-7.

[26] Kanehara, Amebic, 149-50.

[27] Satô Toshiki points out the ways in which Bildungsroman is repeatedly produced in contemporary popular narratives in “Hanpuku suru birudungusuroman.”

[28][28] The realm of shôjo (girl) as a unique consciousness is seen as a modern construct (Takahara, Shôjo ryôiki, 18; Honda, Ibunka, 210; Ôtsuka, Shôjo minzokugaku, 42).

[29] Takahara relates the “shôjo consciousness” to “freedom and arrogance” (Shôjo ryôiki, 18).

[30] In Groundhog Day (directed by Harold Ramis, 1993) Bill Murray plays a TV weather man who wakes up in his hotel bed to repeat the same day over and over.

[31] Kanehara, Amebic, 43-4. The father appears one another time when as a young girl she suddenly felt a nauseating aversion towards him, who was brushing his teeth in his pyjamas.

[32] Other notable canonical texts written in the confessional mode are: Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo (397-398AD); Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1782); Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincey (1856); Confessions of a Mask by Mishima Yukio (1949).

[33] Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground, 15.

[34] See Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics for his theory of polyphony and the carnivalesque.

[35] Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground, 17-8.

[36] Refer to Tambling, Confession: Sexuality, Sin, the Subject, for comprehensive analysis of the confessional modes of writing.

[37] Foucault, “The Hermeneutic of the Subject,” 96, original emphasis.

[38] Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,” 232.

[39] Kanehara, Amebic, 10-11.

[40] Kanehara, Amebic, 10-11.

[41] Kanehara, Amebic, 11.

42][ She later develops this into her signature style in her fourth book, Ôtofikushon (2006). It resonates with the style used by Nakagami Kenji, who rebelled against the existing authority of storytelling and pursued a new narrative, although his represents a particular style of masculinity.

[43] One example of masculine speech is: “omae no saibô buchikowashichimatte nêka oi…” (Hey, haven’t you fuckin’ broken up your brain?) Kanehara, Amebic, 3.

Onomatopoeia is written in kana moji (phonetic characters) which were originally created by court women to tell their stories, and hence onomatopoeia can be seen as women’s text (écriture féminine). (Ôtsuka, Shôjo minzokugaku; 65)

[44][45] See Kristeva, Powers of Horror for her thesis of abjection.

[46] For example, they are “daku daku” and “guchari guchari” (Kanehara, Amebic, 58). Saitô Tamaki makes the observation that rather than visual images of cute heroines in the manga-like media, it is the language attached to these characters such as “— nyo, uguu—, hawawa—” which becomes the key vehicle for readers’ fetishism. Because these cute heroines do not exist in reality, their idiosyncratic speech patterns create an illusion of a shared language and reality (“‘Moe’ no shôchôteki mibun” in Azuma, ed., Môjô genron, 74). It is interesting to note that the otaku can then be defined as those who share particular narratives of imagination. (Ôtsuka, “Otaku” no seishinshi, 18; Azuma, Dôbutsuka suru posutomodan, 47-54; Saitô, Sentô bishôjo no seishin bunseki, 18-54).

[47] In the carnivalesque the established social order is temporarily suspended; authority can be undermined; and language restrictions loosened (Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics). Zygmunt Bauman defines the carnivalesque in sociological terms as the phenomenon peculiar to late modernity in which the individual is made responsible for his/her happiness instead of the society which is always already a happy (carnivalesque) entity. (Bauman, Liquid Modernity; Suzuki, Kânibaruka suru shakai)

[48] Yomota describes the effect of the kimokawa (grotesque+cuteness) in Kawaii” ron, 68-89.

[49] Yomota, Kawaii” ron, 149.

[50] For example, Kanehara’s generation of girls (born in the early 1980s) grew up with images created by Miyazaki Hayao’s films in the mainstream media, many of which featured young girls.

[51] For more discussion on this, see Ôkubo, “Ashi to te no modanizumu,” 148-9.

[52] I am using the term “otaku-like” to address the widespread fetishization of girl-images in the public space. See further definitions of otaku in Kotani Mari, “Otakuîn wa otakuia no yume o mitawa” and Saitô, “‘Moe’ no shôchôteki mibun,” both in Azuma, Môjô genron F-kai.



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