Continuing our celebration of Granta’s 40th anniversary, here we have an excerpt from ‘A Clean Marriage’ by Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. This is taken from Granta 127, the only time that the story has been published in English. The full version can be read over at Granta.com, where you’ll also find insight from Ginny about the translation challenges.
Please note that this story contains scenes of a sexual nature.
My husband emerged from the bedroom, woken by the beeps at the end of the washing-machine cycle.
‘Morning . . . Sorry I overslept. Shall I take over?’
The weekend laundry was his job, but since he’d had to work late at the bank and came home on the last train, I decided I’d do it that day. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ I said. ‘Oh, I washed your green shirt. Hope you don’t mind.’
‘Not at all. Thanks.’
While I was hanging the washing out on the balcony, he used the bathroom and got dressed. Then he put bread into the toaster, wiped the table and sat down to breakfast.
Living with my husband is like living with an exceedingly clean, smart owl. It’s good to have a tidy animal around the house. We’ve been married three years and that hasn’t changed. A friend who married for love around the same time tells me she’s developed a visceral aversion to her husband, but that’s not at all the case with me. My husband has orderly table manners, and the toilet and bath are never left with evidence of his bodily fluids and excretions. I sometimes wonder whether we shouldn’t have put him in charge of cleaning when we divided up the household chores.
After finishing with the laundry, I mentioned this to him and he laughed. ‘So you’re saying I’m like a Roomba?’ Actually, that wasn’t so far off the mark.
‘On the other hand,’ he said, ‘you, Mizuki, are more like a rabbit, or a squirrel. Quiet, sensitive to noise, and you never jump on me or lose your temper.’
‘Don’t squirrels ever lose their temper?’
‘I don’t think so. You and me, we’re both clean animals and don’t get in each other’s way. Which is a good thing, right?’
It really is. Of course there are little things that bother me about him, like his putting in a new roll of toilet paper before the old one has run out, or stacking the dirty dishes by shape rather than by how greasy they are, the way I like it. But they don’t stress me out, and that’s probably because of the judicious distance between us.
We met through a matchmaking website. As I’d read through the various listings by guys of their ‘ideal marriage’ – ‘I want to raise a loving family’ or ‘I want to have lots of children’ – I’d come across: ‘Seeking a clean marriage.’ When I looked at this man’s profile, this is what it said: ‘I’m seeking an amicable daily routine with someone I get along well with, like brother and sister, without being a slave to sex.’
I was intrigued. We exchanged messages, and eventually decided to meet. His silver-rimmed glasses made him look nervous, and I wondered if a ‘clean marriage’ actually meant an ‘obsession with cleanliness’. When we started talking, though, I learned that ‘clean’ was on another plane altogether.
‘I want my family life to be a calm space, the kind you have hanging out with a room-mate you get on really well with or with your favourite younger sister while the parents are away.’
‘I see. I can identify with that.’
‘The fact is, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of family as an extension of romantic attachment. A family should not have anything to do with feelings of love between man and woman – it should be a simple partnership.’
‘I agree,’ I said. ‘I’ve lived with several men, but there’s always a point where it falls apart. We’re supposed to be family, but they expect me to be both a woman and an understanding friend, which is a contradiction, isn’t it? I’m supposed to be wife, friend and mother . . . I would much rather live as brother and sister.’
‘That’s precisely what I mean. But nobody understands – not even that matchmaking site. They have these questions about the man’s income and what the woman likes cooking – but that’s not what a family is about to me. I want a partner, not all that man-woman stuff.’
He had become quite worked up from this outburst, and took out a blue-striped handkerchief to wipe his forehead. Then he gulped down a glass of water and sighed. ‘I’m happy you understand how I feel. But it may be a bit idealistic . . .’
‘Not at all. We’ll never know unless we try it.’
‘Huh?’ He gulped, pushing his glasses back up his nose.
I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘How about it? Will you enter into a sexless marriage with me?’
‘Isn’t it about time we went to the clinic?’ asked my husband, looking up from the newspaper he was reading while he ate his toast.
‘Ah, the clinic . . .’
‘You’re already thirty-three, Mizuki. It’s about time you had an egg fertilized.’
‘That’s true.’ I nodded, staring at the slice of lemon floating in my tea. I’d been thinking more or less the same thing. ‘Now that things are settling down at work, I suppose the time is right.’
‘Shall I make an appointment for next week?’
‘Hang on a minute. I’m still taking the pill. Even if I stop taking it tomorrow, it’ll take time for my body to prepare for ovulation.’
‘I see, yes, I suppose next week would be premature,’ he said, looking uncharacteristically embarrassed. ‘But then, I don’t think they actually carry out the fertilization on the first visit. You probably have to go through some tests, too, so how about an appointment once you’ve had a bleed?’
I usually had a withdrawal bleed a couple of days after I stopped taking the pill. It would be much lighter than a normal period, and it’d be over within two or three days. I explained this to my husband, and we decided to make an appointment for a Saturday two weeks later.
A marriage that was far removed from sex was more comfortable than I’d ever imagined. I earned a salary of ¥4 million, my husband ¥5 million. We each paid ¥150,000 into the household account every month, and the rest we managed in bank books under our own names. This ¥300,000 covered our living expenses, while the rest went into savings. We decided against owning a home or any other assets jointly.
Since we were contributing equally to the finances, we also decided to split the housework. Unlike money, housework cannot be split in half precisely, but since my husband was good at cooking, he took care of that while I took care of the laundry and cleaning. On weekdays we both worked late, so we took care of our own evening meals. This meant that I had the heavier burden, and to compensate we agreed that he should do the laundry on weekends.
This much was simple. Sexual matters were trickier.
My husband wanted to ban all sex from our home. That was fine by me.
‘As far as I’m concerned, sex is an act you indulge in alone in your own room, or deal with outside. In some homes the partners come home tired from work and have sex together, but I am completely averse to this,’ he said.
‘So am I,’ I said. ‘Sex is fine during the early stages of a love affair, but as time goes on and you’re living together, it’s horrible when your partner feels you up when you’re asleep, or he suddenly comes on to you when you’re relaxing. I want to be able to turn my sexual desires on and off when I please, and to keep the switch off at home.’
‘That’s precisely what I think. I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one who’s abnormal.’
And so from the start ours was a completely sexless and sex-free marriage, but somewhat inconveniently we both wanted children.
Before we married, we had searched the Internet and discovered a clinic that specialized in the needs of sexual minorities: homosexuals wanting children, asexuals seeking to conceive, people unable to afford artificial insemination or to find a doctor sympathetic to their situation.
‘If you decide that you do want children,’ the woman on the phone had said, ‘please do come to see us. We will be happy to work with you.’
‘Um, but we are an asexual couple . . .’
‘Not a problem. We treat many such people here. We have couples coming to us with all kinds of unusual circumstances and tastes. Our service provides sex as a medical treatment for people like this.’
We didn’t have a clue what ‘sex as a medical treatment’ meant, but felt reassured that there were options open to us.
Having finished his toast, my husband started playing a video game. I watched his progress as I dialled the clinic’s number to make an appointment for a consultation.
The clinic was in a well-appointed white building in the exclusive Aoyama area.
The place oozed wealth. The waiting room was lined with plush, pale beige chairs, with relaxing music playing in the background. Besides ourselves there was a woman sitting alone, who eventually received some medication from the receptionist and left.
‘Mr and Mrs Takahashi, please come through,’ the receptionist then announced, and we were ushered in to meet a female doctor with short hair.
‘You’ve made an appointment for our Clean Breeder, I see.’
‘Our Clean Breeder. As the name suggests, it is a means to facilitate, in the purest sense of the word, reproduction. The aim of sex as a medical treatment is not to provide pleasure.’
The doctor glanced over our medical questionnaire and nodded several times. ‘Yes, yes. I see. “Frequency of sex since marriage: zero.” “Reason for interest in the Clean Breeder: we want a child.” So that’s your purpose for coming today, is that correct?’
‘Well, we haven’t decided . . . I mean, we don’t know what the Clean Breeder is, or what it involves, so we’d like you to explain it to us, please,’ my husband said.
The doctor nodded, crossing her legs. ‘Well, if you look at our home page you’ll find it’s pretty well covered there, but I’ll run through it again for you.
‘These days, an increasing number of people experience psychological issues that prevent them from having sex with their partner. The person who suits your sexual orientation is not always the best partner to have a family with, and quite often the reverse is true. Not everyone is sexually aroused by the person with whom the usual conditions are right for them to start a family.
‘For starters, the traditional way of thinking that a couple would have sex to conceive a child is outdated. It is not at all in tune with the times. Sex for pleasure and sex for pregnancy are two completely different concerns, and it’s absurd to lump them together. It’s out of sync with how people live their lives these days.’ With this, the doctor handed each of us a pamphlet bearing the title ‘The Clean Breeder and the New Family Image’.
‘Sexual orientation is becoming much more diverse,’ she went on. ‘Is a man attracted to young girls going to get an erection with his thirty-five-year-old wife? Can a woman who only gets aroused by two-dimensional men have sex with a living three-dimensional man without pain? Nowadays, your partner is not necessarily a sex object – this is a wonderful advancement. It means you can choose to have a family by rational means, thinking with your head, not with your loins. Couples who come to us can avail themselves of our experts and leave their superior genes to posterity by means of the Clean Breeder, our pure facilitator of reproduction . . .’
As the doctor droned on, I leafed through the pamphlet. It contained an endless array of phrases like ‘couples for the new age’ and ‘a graceful, non-erotic experience with our state-of-the-art technology’.
‘According to the questionnaire here, you made the decision to keep sex and marriage separate even before tying the knot. That’s wonderful. It’s precisely what we mean by a state-of-the-art marriage.’
‘Oh, it’s not all that special.’ I really didn’t like women like her, I thought uncomfortably, and glanced at my husband. He looked bored and was focusing on the ballpoint pen the doctor was twirling in her fingers.
‘Our Clean Breeder advanced medical treatment is exactly right for couples like you. It is not covered by national insurance, however, and the fee is 9,500 yen per treatment. Mrs Takahashi, we will ask you to track your basal body temperature, and we’ll carry out the treatment during ovulation. If after several tries you fail to conceive, we suggest infertility counselling. You are still young, and I’m sure that if you keep trying the Clean Breeder you can expect to conceive without infertility treatment. But if you’d like, you can undergo a fertility test before starting.’
‘That’s pretty damn expensive!’ blurted out my husband under his breath.
The doctor beamed at him. ‘We’re using cutting-edge treatment, Mr Takahashi. Even in Japan very few hospitals have it available, and it’s difficult for us to keep up with demand. Just yesterday a couple who came all the way from Tottori told me how so very impressed they were by it. When would you like to make your first appointment? You can try it out now, if you like – in which case you can choose the music you’d like to have playing during the procedure. The normal practice is to make an appointment when your body temperature indicates ovulation, but conception is also possible on other days –’
‘We’re here just for the consultation today,’ I interjected before things could go any further. ‘I’ll talk it over with my husband.’
The doctor nodded, smiling. ‘Of course, please take your time to discuss things. But please bear in mind that the Clean Breeder is extremely popular and an appointment may not be available on your day of ovulation. Things are relatively quiet now, so I suggest you make your decision sooner rather than later.’
‘I understand. We’ll talk it over and call back.’
Sayaka Murata’s work has been awarded the 2009 Noma Prize for New Writers, the 2013 Yukio Mishima Prize and the 2016 Akutagawa Prize. Her novel, Convenience Store Woman, also translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is available in English from Granta Books.
Ginny Tapley Takemori has translated fiction by more than a dozen early modern and contemporary Japanese writers, from bestsellers Sayaka Murata, Ryu Murakami and Kyotaro Nishimura to literary greats Izumi Kyoka and Okamoto Kido. Her publications include Miyuki Miyabe’s Puppet Master and Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass, which was shortlisted for the Marsh Award.