Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 6, August 2001

Izumo Marou and Claire Maree

Love Upon the
Chopping Board

North Melbourne: Spinifex, 2000
ISBN 1-875559 82 5, pp. 175, $AU18.95

reviewed by Sharon Chalmers

  1. Love Upon the Chopping Board (Manaita no ue no koi)[1] is a book about the lived experience of two women—one Japanese, one Australian—who cross multiple boundaries including those of race, nationality, age, gender, language, place and time, to name just a few. It is also the first book in English to discuss in any detail the daily lives of same-sex attracted women in contemporary Japan. What impresses me most about this relatively short book is not only the way these women have been able to tell their respective personal experiences, but also the way they have woven these narratives into an incredibly rich text that opens up two cultures without falling into the trap of either cultural relativism or modernist convergence theories. Nor does it follow the usual western 'coming out' story progression that has represented the majority of queer writings from Japan translated into English.[2] For this I am extremely grateful! This book is remarkable because while it is not an academic work it has successfully linked Japanese politics, sexuality, history and cultural anthropology into a complex and nuanced personal story. As such I would highly recommend it to all students and teachers of contemporary Japan studies who are interested in issues of gender, sexuality, the Japanese family system and for a general understanding of a marginalised sector of Japanese society.
  2. In this review I am going to concentrate on Izumo Marou and Claire Maree's encounters in Japan as these figure more prominently throughout the book. The book is divided into fifteen chapters in which each woman tells of her experiences through different phases of their first few years together. Claire Maree and Marou Izumo first met at a lesbian bar in Tokyo in the early 1990s. What initially attracted them to each other was their respective dislike of the typical gaisen (a Japanese person who is interested in foreigners) relationship and right from the start they both disrupted the usual assumptions that tend to be anticipated and often played out in many of these situations. JJ, the pseudonym under which Claire Maree previously wrote, had spent a year in Japan as a senior high-school student and returned on a working holiday visa at which time she met Marou Izumo. Claire felt extremely comfortable in Japan—at this stage more so than in Australia—and after 'falling in love' with Marou, they decided that they wanted to live in Japan together. However, because of visa complications, Claire was forced to return to Perth to complete her undergraduate degree, a minimum requirement necessary to apply for a working visa in Japan. Marou decided to go with her and they spent a year in Australia which is also described in different sections throughout the book
  3. What stands out in this story is the wide breadth of information that the women present through their personal narratives. Marou and Claire take the reader through a myriad of issues that both women and same-sex attracted women face in confronting a sexist and heterosexist Japan. Through their stories Marou and Claire tell of their lives in a small one-room apartment with Marou's cat Nyan Nyan—every good lesbian story has a dog or cat as a member of the family! From different perspectives we are told about some of the pitfalls of living and studying as a white female foreigner in Japan and the fears of coming out or being outed through political activity and how that might affect work and ultimately one's visa status. Marou, on the other hand, has a background in theatre and writing and works freelance, a decision many lesbians opt for so as not to be constrained by a conservative Japanese company system, one in which gender and (hetero)sexuality play such a central and defining role.[3] Yet, this choice to work outside the company system also places Japanese women in a very precarious financial position.
  4. Marou's critique of the conventional Japanese workplace is contextualised by way of explaining her own family background. Her father was a doctor in a small town and his undisputed public and personal influence as a doctor and head of the family is exemplified by the story of her brother's illness and death. This story clearly illustrates the still prevailing 'god-like' status of the medical profession in Japan, particularly in relation to their control over the flow of information to their patients. Indeed, it is only a year after her father's death that Marou is able to introduce Claire to her family and in so doing feels herself to be part of her own biological family, perhaps for the first time in her adult life.
  5. Claire similarly describes the somewhat tenuous relationship with her parents in the sections that tell of their one-year stay in Perth. While having already 'come out' to them, the subtle tensions that still remain weigh heavily on Claire upon her return—thus reminding us that 'coming out' in a western context is always a constant process of (re)negotiation. Of interest is the way these tensions are told from two points of view, Claire's and Marou's, highlights the differences in cultural expectations. Moreover, Marou then incorporates a description of Claire's relationship with her Australian family and their ability to comprehend her sexualtiy which flows into a discussion of the distinctive Japanese and Australian middle-class trajectories.
  6. On returning from Australia they describe their increasing political activism in feminist-lesbian and queer events in Tokyo. Inspired by attending a gay and lesbian march in Perth and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Claire and Marou instigate the building of a float and bring together a disparate group of Japanese and foreign lesbians to form a dancing troupe that become the main spectacle in the first Tokyo Gay and Lesbian Parade held on 28 August 1994. Thus, another shift in the book occurs which covers their involvement and issues around the pride parade, lesbian bars, lesbian and feminist networks, the AIDS poster program and their less than flattering interpretation of the so-called 'gay boom' of the early 1990s.
  7. Their ultimate 'claim to fame' is that of putting together and legally registering the first 'joint living arrangement' document in Japan between a same-sex attracted couple. In doing so, however, they were not exempt from criticism by certain sections of the feminist-lesbian community who saw it simply as a mirroring of heterosexist values. However, Marou and Claire argue that they felt that through registering their wishes they are able to 'subvert the marriage and koseki (family registration) systems which give rights to limited groups in society' (127). Finally, their account of their move from their one room apartment to another small house is one that is all too familiar to those of us who have to set up house in Japan. For Marou and Claire, as for both Japanese and foreign women—this is always fairly difficult, mainly because real estate agents are loathe to rent to those not registered on the same koseki with the majority of landlords describing such an arrangement as 'trouble'. They therefore knew as two (apparently) single women, with the added complication of one being foreign, their search for new accommodation was going to be a long and laborious process and they weren't mistaken. Through their recital of knock backs and circumnavigating various obstacles this section opens up into a fascinating exploration of the difficulties of renting an apartment/house and again brings to the fore the central role that the koseki system continues to play in all areas of Japanese familial-legal relations.
  8. This book does not go into great detail about many of the issues raised—this is not its goal—but it cleverly gives the reader a taste of the complexities that living in Japan as a Japanese woman, a western white woman, a lesbian and as a lesbian couple entails. Throughout the book there is humour while at the same time a real sense of the tensions and contradictions that are faced on a daily basis for those who dare to challenge the boundaries of heteronormative practices both privately and publicly in Japan and to a lesser extent in Australia. Most women in Japan who identify as same-sex attracted are not in a position to come out as Marou and Claire have done and there is a legitimate debate about the assumed inevitability of 'coming out' as a universal 'life course event'. Rather, their story is a personal one and should be read as such. Having said this, Love Upon the Chopping Board creatively opens up a space for a more informed discussion about sexuality, gender and race issues within Japanese society and for this if for nothing else—and there is much more—Marou and Claire should be congratulated.


    [1] The authors explain that the title of the book 'is taken from a word-play on the Japanese proverb manaita no ue no koi; literally 'the carp upon the chopping board'. This proverb expresses situations where there is nothing but to leave it all up to fate. In Japanese koi (carp) and koi (love, passion) are homonyms' (Izumo and Maree 2000: v).

    [2] See for example: Ito Satoru and Yanase Ryuta, trans. Francis Conlan, Coming out in Japan, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press 2001; and Barbara Summerhawk, Cheiron McMahill, and Darren McDonald (eds), Queer Japan: Personal stories of Japanese Lesbians, Gay, Bisexuals and Transsexuals, Norwich: New Victoria Publishers, 1998. For a critique of both books see Mark McLelland's review of Coming Out in Japan in this issue of Intersections.

    [3] Sharon Chalmers, Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan, Richmond: Curzon Press, (forthcoming).


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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