Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, which was written in Japan in the 1980s, questions gender conventions in Yoshimoto’s time through the story’s central characters. Towards the end of the story, the protagonist, Mikage Sakurai, and her love interest, Yuichi Tanabe, poke fun at traditional notions of masculinity by showing that Yuichi’s desire to be “manly” when grieving his mother is damaging. Yuichi’s mother, Eriko Tanabe, is transgender. Her backstory reveals that she was Yuichi’s biological father, but now lives as a woman and as Yuichi’s mother. Yoshimoto emphasizes that Eriko is a woman through and through, highlighting her beauty, femininity, and empowerment throughout. Yoshimoto thus questions cisgender bias by offering a positive representation of transgender womanhood and exposes patriarchal values as banal clichés.
Yoshimoto consistently emphasizes Eriko’s womanhood to show that womanhood is not limited to cisgender people but includes Eriko and, by extension, transgender women in general. All the characters refer to Eriko with feminine pronouns throughout Kitchen. Yuichi always describes Eriko as “she” when referring to a post-transition Eriko. Yuichi even occasionally refers to a pre-transition Eriko by the pronoun “she” as well, to emphasize that this is Eriko’s dominant gender designation. For example, Yuichi says “Eriko quit her job, gathered me up, and asked herself, ‘What do I want to do now?’ What she decided was ‘Become a woman.’” Eriko herself explicitly asserts her womanhood at several points in the story, for example, when she exclaims “it’s not easy being a woman” to Mikage while watering the plants. Similarly, Eriko writes “I’m body and soul a woman” in her will. Yuichi also refers to Eriko as his mother rather than his father as does Eriko herself. Yuichi says to Mikage, “Could you call someone who looked like that ‘Dad?’” Similarly, in her will, Eriko writes, “I am a mother in name and in fact.” Yoshimoto thus asserts that there is no ambiguity in Eriko’s gender designation: she is—in life and in death—a woman.
Yoshimoto reinforces Eriko’s status as a woman by emphasizing her beauty and femininity throughout the plot. Mikage often reflects on how dazzled she is by Eriko’s beauty. For example, Mikage is “stunned” by Eriko’s beauty when she first meets Eriko, and later refers to Eriko as “the beautiful Eriko.” Yoshimoto also emphasizes Eriko’s femininity through Mikage’s frequent descriptions of Eriko’s feminine body. For example, when Eriko is watering the plants, Mikage describes Eriko’s “slender, graceful hands.” In fact, Eriko is so feminine that Mikage often has to remind herself that Eriko used to be a man.
Yoshimoto depicts Eriko as the most empowered character in the story, while depicting Yuichi—the central male character—as somewhat weak, especially in his grief. Through this juxtaposition, Yoshimoto questions patriarchal values that associate masculinity with strength and power. Mikage describes Eriko as a “powerful mother” when they have a heart-to-heart while Eriko waters the plants. Even when Eriko is murdered, her strength is emphasized: she goes down fighting and beats her murderer to death. Yuichi, on the other hand, avoids Mikage after Eriko dies because he doesn’t want Mikage to see his weakness. It’s Mikage, the female protagonist, who springs into action and saves a passive Yuichi when he is at his weakest, which reinforces the association of femininity with power. Simultaneously, Yoshimoto undermines masculine power when Mikage and Yuichi joke about the “tough guy” trope, exposing its absurdity. For example, Yuichi jokes that he should “pick up a car and throw it” to re-establish his masculinity after being saved by Mikage. Through her depictions of the story’s three central characters, Yoshimoto thus questions conventional gender dynamics that privilege patriarchal values and cisgender biases, and offers a potent counter-narrative in which women are the empowered characters, and the transgender woman is the most empowered character of all.
Gender Quotes in Kitchen
This was his mother? Dumbfounded I couldn’t take my eyes off her. 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—the whole of her face gave off a marvelous light that seemed to vibrate with life force.
One night, screaming that he had been made a fool of he lunged at her with a knife. Eriko, wounded, grabbed a barbell off the bar—it was part of the club’s decor—with both hands and beat him to death. “There!” she said. “Self-defense, that makes us even.” Those were her last words.
But right now there’s this katsudon. Go ahead, eat it.