The Anxiety of Intimacy in Hiromi Kawakami’s “The Nakano Thrift Shop”

November 27, 2017   •   By M. W. Larson

The Nakano Thrift Shop

Hiromi Kawakami

ARTISTS AND WRITERS have long tried to understand how their era is new or different. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that by the time postmodernism marked its 40th birthday, somewhere around the turn of the millennium, the race was on to define the next “cultural dominant,” to borrow a concept from Fredric Jameson. Literary critics and scholars have yet to come together around a new set of terms, but the novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante, and Ben Lerner suggest that an important part of the current literature is a return to autofiction, or writing that blends elements of autobiography and fiction. In Knausgaard’s novels, the Karl Ove character is constantly lighting cigarettes, drinking cups of coffee, and describing each step of cooking dinner for his family, while the Elena of Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels is continually sweeping the floors of her family’s apartment. The contemporary strain of autofiction is remarkable for its obsession with the mundane, the minutiae of everyday life, to the point that the term Twitterlature has even graced the lips of our more serious critics.

Something akin to this autofictional turn is apparent in Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, which appeared earlier this year in a translation by Allison Markin Powell. The novel presents a fine-grained portrayal of its characters’ lives and contains parallels between author and protagonist: Hitomi, the first-person narrator of the novel, enjoys books and works in a second-hand shop in Western Tokyo, the same area where Kawakami makes her home and reportedly enjoys frequenting used bookstores. But there is also fictional machinery at work in the text, which is evident in the way the narrative’s 12 short sections are named after and anchored by items that pass through the shop, such as a paperweight, a dress, or a sewing machine. These sections can sometimes feel self-contained, a structure that previous reviews of the book have described as episodic and meandering. However, as the playfully designed cover of the trade paperback put out by Europa Editions insists, the text is a novel: a clear narrative runs through that focuses on the relationship between Hitomi and Takeo, the titular thrift shop’s pickup and delivery driver.

Yet, the pleasures of The Nakano Thrift Shop are not of the propulsive narrative variety but revolve more around the granular details of the everyday. Hitomi and Takeo become entangled in the affairs of Mr. Nakano, the store’s owner, who, in one of the novel’s early sections, bribes Hitomi into inquiring about the man “shacking up with” his sister Masayo. When Hitomi visits her boss’s sibling, she finds Masayo luxuriating in the experience of taking a lover in late-middle age and listens as Masayo compares the experience of this man’s body to the comforting pressure of a paperweight. Hitomi accepts a competing bribe from Masayo and tells Mr. Nakano just enough to keep him from inquiring further.

Hitomi then uses the Nakano siblings’ money to go out with Takeo; as she drinks, she reflects on the times she herself “had felt like a flimsy piece of paper, being held firmly in place by a paperweight.” Naturally enough, she turns this reflection into a question, asking Takeo if he is heavy. With the beginning of their romance established, the section ends with Hitomi and Takeo at work in the thrift shop, where a customer comes in to buy a rabbit paperweight that is one half of a paired set. After Mr. Nakano makes the sale, he closes the shop’s shutter for the day and invites both his employees to join him for a dinner of katsudon in the back room; Takeo can’t hide his joy at the coincidence of the day’s last sale, but Hitomi’s gaze ends up at the shelf where a turtle paperweight, the other half of the paired set, has been left on its own.

This seemingly innocuous detail foreshadows what becomes one of the novel’s themes: the anxiety of intimacy. For several of the characters, the idea of being emotionally or physically close to another person is inseparable from a paralyzing fear. During one of Hitomi’s early dates with Takeo, he brings his mouth to her ear, but instead of kissing her he says, “I, uh, I’m not one for sex and all. Sorry.” This brings to mind the myriad recent articles — in the Guardian, The Independent, Vice, and even Business Insider — on the relative sexual inactivity of Japanese young people. However, a deeper understanding of culture and sexuality in Japan suggests that the eagerness to understand the country as impotent is likely due to Western perceptions as much as it is to any statistically measurable phenomenon (indeed, birth rates have been falling across the developed world for decades).

Hitomi and Takeo do consummate their relationship, though their communication breaks down after a misunderstanding at the thrift shop. Unable to stand the way Takeo freezes up whenever she approaches him, Hitomi resorts to calling him several times a day, but on the rare occasion that he answers he greets her with a wall of silence. In these moments, Hitomi also finds herself unable to speak: “The fear inside me made me want to run away screaming.” Later, when she confronts him about the phone calls, he tells her he has a hard time with trust, that people scare him. This prompts her to reflect:

When Takeo said the word ‘scare’ the fear that I had been feeling this whole week blew up inside of me all at once. That’s because it is scary. I’m scary. Takeo is scary. Waiting is scary. Tadokoro, Mr. Nakano, Sakiko, Masayo, and even Mr. Crane — they were all scary. Even more frightening was my own self.

The most frightening terrain, according to Hitomi’s narration, is the flimsy stuff of one’s self; her deepest fear is that her subjectivity is not a fixed entity but a flighty, chaotic mass. This realization makes the prospect of intimacy with others, who contain their own unstable subjectivities and act as mirrors for the self, unnerving. In contemporary society, we see the impulse to retreat from the social embodied by hikikomori, or shut-ins; these are typically young people who go days, weeks, or even months without leaving their rooms and spend their hours gaming online, preferring to lose themselves in the virtual. In a culture where the depth and number of interactions in the physical world seem to dwindle year by year, the growing number of people who suffer from social anxiety should not come as a surprise.

In the case of Hitomi, she responds to “the idea of spending the rest of my life like this — going through my days in a fog of anxiety and fear” in an old-fashioned way: by recommitting herself to Takeo. Fittingly, she is able to articulate this idea to herself, but when she tries to express it out loud she is unsure of what to say and instead remains silent. Likewise, when she scrutinizes her ideas of love she finds herself “in a world that [feels] empty.” Given these complications, we might come to the conclusion that Hitomi has actually fallen back on a different strategy for managing her fear: the act of narration. The detailed accounting of her life that makes up the text thus becomes a method for arranging her experience into something comprehensible.

Even as the novel grapples with the nature of social anxiety in the current culture, it also represents something of an asylum from contemporary, urban Japanese life — for the reader as much as it does for the characters. The thrift shop occupies a storefront in a fading shotengai — the shopping districts built during Japan’s postwar boom that can be found all over the country — and over the course of the narrative it serves as an enclave that offers the characters respite from the rough and tumble of late capitalism. In the years since the bursting of the Japanese economic bubble in the early 1990s, these districts have seen their fortunes decline, and now they are just as often known by the term shattagai, a reference to the metal shutters that shopkeepers lower over their doors to indicate they are closed for the day or, as is increasingly the case, for good. But when Mr. Nakano lowers the shutter of his store, more often than not it indicates the characters’ insulation from long commutes and grueling working hours, which are so common for salaried employees in Japanese firms that there is a word for death by overwork: karoshi. The world of the thrift shop is not one of punch clocks and just-in-time scheduling, and the passage of time is measured more by the ebbs and flows in the characters’ relationships and changes in the weather. The contrast between this and the outside world is underlined in an epilogue that shows the kinds of jobs awaiting the characters in contemporary Tokyo:

I made copies, I ran errands, I filed vouchers, I created documents […] Everyone at this company […] was glued to their desk, all of them at their workstations in front of their computer screens. Sometimes you heard a voice ring out, “Oh no,” or “Come on!” […] [W]hen I arrived in the morning, I’d see people who had worked all night, agitatedly peeling the shells off hard-boiled eggs from the convenience store.

By comparison, the work environment of the thrift store, where Hitomi and Takeo form a kind of familial unit with their employers, practically feels like a historical reenactment.

Indeed, in many ways the Nakanos’ world runs on the fumes of a previous generation. Early on, we learn that “the Nakano family had been one of the original landowners in this part of the city […] although their fortune was already considerably in decline by the time of [their] parents’ generation,” and, of course, the thrift shop turns a profit on the material remnants of this same past. Yet even this enclave is not immune to the economic and technological forces that have reshaped Japanese society, as we see when Masayo brings a digital camera to the shop to photograph some of the items, declaring, “From here on, it will be online auctions!” Although the most sweeping changes don’t arrive until the end of the novel, the characters seem to sense that their time in this idyll is not permanent, and as a result their relationships often have the distance of summer flings.

The subtle negotiations of these affairs are admirably captured by Powell’s translation. Still, because of the Japanese context some readers may not pick up on the significance of every interaction; others may simply not have the patience. In any case, first-time readers of Kawakami should keep in mind that The Nakano Thrift Shop only represents one strain of her writing. In other works, such as Manazuru and Record of a Night Too Brief, her plots can be more dramatic and are often accentuated by the surreal and the fantastic. But for existing Kawakami fans, this novel, with its portrayal of a different temporality, where characters are given the time and space to attempt to comes to terms with each other, will come as a welcome change of pace.


M. W. Larson is a writer, editor, and translator based out of Tokyo. His fiction and essays have appeared in Colorado ReviewNinth Letter, and Witness.