(Book Review / 感想) Earthlings / Sayaka Murata * 地球星人 / 村田沙耶香

Having lived in London for a long enough now to be able to explain the difference between life in Japan and life in the UK, I’d say the sense of societal peer pressure, in particular, is much stronger in Japan. I’m certain everyone in Japan has the feeling it’s just all too much, at one point or other in their lives. However, the overwhelming conformity gradually pushes you back onto the ‘correct’ track to follow. Society just won’t let you drop off the route you ‘should’ take.


Sayaka Murata’s award-winning novel ‘Convenience Store Woman’ was a big success, even in its English translation. However, I felt at times that the background context discussed above was sometimes not as well understood amongst that English readership as it perhaps could have been. Why did the protagonist feel she had to meet her family’s expectations, to get married and live the life of a ‘normal’ happy woman? As an independent woman, why couldn’t she just do what she wanted? These are all questions and feelings I’ve heard expressed by English readers.


As a woman myself, growing up in Japan and hearing all about these ‘normal’ routes in life, the feeling of pressure from the society around me to follow them was inescapable. The very idea of gender inequality was not even considered a serious issue. Over the years, I’ve heard lots of awful statements from politicians, neighbours, teachers, bosses at work and even relatives. I know there are often similar feelings expressed within the UK as well, but the general sentiment is much stronger and far more overwhelming in Japan.


Sayaka Murata’s newly translated novel ‘Earthlings’ describes similar themes to ‘Convenience Store Woman’, but pairs it with what I felt was an even more convincing and powerful narrative. Natsuki – the protagonist, who we first encounter aged around ten years old – finds it hard to fit in to society. She believes a spaceship is coming to save her, so endures life’s hardships with her soft toy hedgehog (from the Planet Popinpobopia) as her constant companion. She frequently refers to society as a ‘factory’ in which people need to enter either as part of the workforce or as a ‘baby machine’ in order to fully contribute.


This book contains a number of shocking scenes and disturbing descriptions of sexual abuse (so please be mindful of this). The protagonist goes through so many extreme situations, and yet the world as seen through her eyes is always portrayed convincingly and vividly. In the latter half of the book we encounter the protagonist, Natsuki, again as an adult; the core themes expanding to include – amongst other things, married life – along the way to a somewhat crazed but ultimately convincing ending.


Earthlings is definitely not a rosy, wonderful portrayal of Japan, nor a wholly accurate description of the country. Sayaka Murata’s books generally receive a mixed reception in Japan due to the mixture of extraordinary characters and the extreme sense of imagination at play. But one thing is certain, this book will without a doubt help international readers understand more about the ‘trapped’ feeling ever-present within Japanese society, and the struggles of those people who face constant difficulty in trying to fit into it.


More reviews available on my book blog Intermission Ambience
書評ブログの Intermission Ambience にも本のレビューを書いています。あわせてぜひご覧ください!

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