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Bananas for Boys, Girls, and Everyone Else

Richard Hendrix

Richard Hendrix (Class of 2015) is from Atlanta, Georgia. Although currently undeclared, he plans to major in Political Science and minor in Economics with an eye towards business upon graduation. He has a strong interest in community involvement, preferring a diverse range of activities to compliment his Davidson education. Among them are membership as a brother in the fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta, service as a Class Senator in the Student Government Association, work with the Pre-Business Society, Young Republicans, Dinner at Davidson, and the Eumenean Society. During his free time, his hobbies include backpacking, debating, and technology. Richard’s work was produced for Humanities 161: Cultures and Civilizations with Dr. Jonathan Berkey and Dr. Suzanne Churchill.

Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen epitomizes the political avant-garde. Set in Japan, a country that prides itself for being on the cultural cutting-edge, Kitchen incorporates forward-thinking conceptions of family, food, death, and society that place it in a culturally progressive stance. Perhaps one of the most contemporary cultural elements that the work incorporates is transgendered identity. Eriko is a transgendered character in Kitchen who, along with her family, provides an outlet for readers to identify with someone who is neither fully man nor fully woman. Kitchen articulates the social evolution in gender that has only just begun both in Japan and the rest of the world, suggesting that unconventional genders and gender identities are entirely acceptable and even beneficial to individual and to society.

Lori Girshick, a sociologist and leading voice in the growing movement favoring transgender recognition. In Transgener Voices: Beyond Women and Men, she “takes on the difficult task of describing and explaining the complexity beyond the common labels that transpeople have been struggling with for the past century or more.”1 Girshick thoroughly educates her reader on transgenderedness by first addressing the concept of gender itself, noting that gender is “a conceptual category that a culture assigns to a wide range of phenomena.”2 and that “virtually anything can be gendered.” This analysis is important because it establishes the fact that gender “does not necessarily have anything to do with sex,” but that it is a discrete cultural phenomenon.3

Girshick’s explanation of gender identity is equally critical in understanding transgenderedness; whereas gender is a culturally-ascribed label, gender identity is the extent to which “a person feels masculine or feminine, a bit of both or neither.”4 Girshick politicizes these concepts with her Chrysanthemum-Riceworks2-300x126 Bananas for Boys, Girls, and Everyone Elseanalysis of the plights that transgendered people must endure in today’s society. She states that “given what we know about the remarkable diversity of human beings, it is astounding that this gender binary continues to prevail, and to impair (if not devastate) the lives of millions of people…[who] cannot relate to the binary’s polar opposites [of] male/female.”5 In condensed form, Girshick’s analysis of gender and gender identity illuminate substantial flaws in society’s conceptions thereof, and make a case for a reconsideration in how we deal with people, whether they be man, woman, both, or neither.
Some astute scholars may be quick to suggest that Girshick’s status as a Westerner renders her analysis of transgenderedness moot when applied to non-Western cultures; after all, how could a sociologist from Arizona possibly understand the plight of transpeople in Japan? Fortuantely, anthropologist Erick Laurent, of Gifu Keizai University, Japan had the same questions. His work on LBGT issues in Asia reveals that although much progress has been made in the last ten years, transpersons in 1993 (the of the Kitchen‘s publication) were indeed in a rough spot.Until 1995, transgenderedness was illegal in Japan and considered by the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology to be a mental disorder.6 Laurent observes that “compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and procreation could characterize Japanese sexual life in the 20th century,” and that “fundamentally, the negative view of homosexuality in Japan still refers to a genetic disorder, psychological problems and perverted behavior.”7 Rather than undermine Girshick’s analysis, Laurent reinforces it; transpeople in Japan endure the same political suffrage as those in the United States.
Enter Banana Yoshimot’s Kitchen. Mikage, the protagonist, is taken in by Eriko, a transgendered woman, and Yuichi, her son. Gradually, Mikage comes to understand there is more to Eriko, the “incredibly beautiful woman” than meets the eye. ((Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen (New York: Grove), 1993.)) Initially, Mikage remarks at Eiko’s undoubtedly feminine physical attributes, “hair that rustled like silk to her shoulders; the deep sparkle of her long, narrow eyes; well-formed lips, a nose with a high, straight bridge” concluding oddly that “she didn’t look human.”8  Although some might view this description as dehumanization in the negative sense, I would argue the opposite: Mikage has simply never encountered any person like Eriko before, and so is surprised upon meeting her. Mikage’s initial appraisal of Eriko could be seen as analogous to how Yoshimoto sees society reacting to transpersons in general, with interest and confusion.

In other words, Eriko is not labeled and ostracized for her unique gender and gender identity; rather, she, and the transgendered community, are celebrated for it. In a time and place where such a celebration was far from ordinary, Yoshimoto’s novel stands as a very public vote for progress.

Yoshimoto advances more pressing questions about what it means to be transgendered than Eriko’s appearance. After telling Mikage about his father, Yuichi immediately asks her, “could you call someone who looked like that ‘Dad’?”9 Rhetorical ambiguity aside, the closeness that Yuichi, Mikage, and Eriko share as time progresses answers that question with a resounding “yes.” When Eriko recounts the tale of her her wife (Yuchi’s mothers) dies, Eriko’s worldview and political self-identity as a transperson emerges in a starklyChrysanthemum-Riceworks2-300x126 Bananas for Boys, Girls, and Everyone Else depressing light. She says, “I realized that the world did not exist for my benefit…it became clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman, and here I am.”10 Eriko’s resignation to “muddled cheerfulness” connects well to the plight that Girshick catalogues, where people feel out of place in this world and have to do the best they can to get by. Thus it follows that Eriko serves as a kind of representative to the transgendered community, a rare conduit for the average reader to access a uniquely challenged, obscure community.

Having established Eriko’s amabassadorship to the transgendered community and to the unconventional concepts of gender and gendered identity, analysis of Eriko’s treatment in the novel reveals the political message inherent to the work. Over the course of the novel, Mikage’s initial conclusion about Eriko turns into genuine love. Mikage describes Eriko as “the dazzling sun that lit the place,” ((Yoshimoto, Kitchen, 87.)) while Eriko regarded Mikage as “a very precious child of mine.”11 Yoshimoto’s decision to publish such a touching tale in a world still so intolerant of transpersons is significant; due to its striking unconventionality, it is also political.
Girshick eloquently summarizes what is at stake or transpersons by asserting that “because sex, gender, and sexuality are at the core of our individual identity, to question the binary is to question the very essence of how we see and define ourselves.”12 The loving relationship that Eriko,Mikage, and Yuichi form constitutes Yoshimoto’s challenge to that binary. The reader is made to feel genuinely sentimental about Eriko’s character, and to realize that Eriko was central to the family unit and Mikage’s recovery. In other words, Eriko is not labeled and ostracized. Yoshimoto’s novel stands as a very public vote for progress.

Bibliography

Girshick, Lori. Transgender Voices: Beyond Women and Men. Hanover, NH: University of New England, 2008.

Laurent, Erick. “Sexuality and Human Rights.” Journal of Homosexuality 48 (2005): 163-225.

Yoshimoto, Banana. Kitchen. New York: Grove, 1993. 

  1. Lori B. Girshick, Transgender Voices: Beyond Women and Men. (Hanover, NH: University of New England, 2008),111. []
  2. Transgender Voices, 2. []
  3. Transgender Voices, 2. []
  4. Transgender Voices, 2. []
  5. Transgender Voices, 3. []
  6. Erick Laurent, “Sexuality and Human Rights,” Journal of Homosexuality 48 (2005), 210. []
  7. Laurent, “Sexuality and Human Rights,” 209. []
  8. Yoshimoto, Kitchen, 11. []
  9. Yoshimoto, Kitchen, 13. []
  10. Yoshimoto, Kitchen, 81. []
  11. Yoshimoto, Kitchen,  53. []
  12. Girschick, Transgender Voices, 6. []
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