Japanese Novel Review: 妊娠カレンダー The Pregnancy Diary by Ogawa Youko (小川洋子)

In 1990, Ogawa won a biannual literary award called the Akutagawa Prize (芥川龍之介賞) for this novel. The Akutagawa Prize is considered one of Japanese’s most prestigious and sought after literary awards. When picking this novel, I was a little bit intimated due to its award winning status. Usually when I pick books based off of awards, I tend to stick to the Bookseller’s award as it seems more accessible. It is true to some extent and this book will be a vocabulary tester as words are used in surreal ways to describe normal situations.

I purchased this novel from USA Kinokuniya’s online store for $8.99. This was part of a bulk order where I wrote a review for shopping online at Kinokuniya here. I decided to purchase this novel after reading a review that described the book as scary and chilling and was curious to see how themes of pregnancy tied into that overall feeling. Also I am weak when it comes to books with cute covers.

Story review:

This book is a collection of 3 short stories: The Pregnancy Diary「妊娠カレンダー」Dormitory「ドミトリ」and The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain「夕暮れの給食室と雨のプール」.

The Pregnancy Diary「妊娠カレンダー」

The Pregnancy Diary「妊娠カレンダー」is written from the perceptive of a nameless young woman who is living with her older sister and brother-in-law in the family home after the death of their parents. The story starts out with the older sister finding out that she is pregnant. She chooses to go the the near by birthing center for her prenatal care as their court yard was a playground for the siblings when they were little. The young sister looks on the life of her older sister with great curiosity as she feels there is so much to adult’s lifestyle that she is still unable to grasp. Pregnancy does not treat the older sister well and she starts to waste away from being unable to eat. Any type of seem at all makes her feel unwell to the point of sobbing for weeks.  The younger sister shares her observations of what is going on with the pregnancy and how it effects her sister in great detail from a unique perceptive to paint an other-worldly picture.

I am going to save this novel and plan to read it again in the future.  I think I will get more out of it during a second reading once my Japanese level is higher then it is right now.  It would be really interesting to read if I ever decide to have a kid one day.

For those who are interested, there is a translation of this story into English by Stephen Snyder that was published in The New Yorker and is available free online to read here.

Dormitory「ドミトリ」

The main character in this story is a bored, lonely housewife who is waiting to move abroad to reunite with her husband. While thinking back about her times in university as a poor student living in cheap student housing, she received a call from a relative she hasn’t seen in forever.  It was a cousin who she used to help take care of during family gatherings. He called to ask for advice about where to live while he was going to school as he had heard that she used to live in a great dorm.  The main character still had the contact information for the student housing and decided to give them a call to see if they were still open. 

On the other end of the line she heard a familiar voice and it is the same house manager that was working at the dorm when she herself was living there.  The young man moves to Tokyo right away to live with her while things get set up at the dorm. While she was excited that her cousin would be able to live in the dorm, she was left somewhat disturbed by the managers cryptic warnings of how the dorm just isn’t what it used to be like.  She would soon learn how true that statement actually was.

This was my favorite story out of the three and it seems like a lot of book lovers at Bookmeter seem to agree.  The main character in this story was easier for me to relate to and I found Dormitory to be an entertaining but creepy short journey.

The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain「夕暮れの給食室と雨のプール」

In this story, the main character is a young women who is about to get married to an older man.  Everyone in her life is against this choice and lets her know about it often.  The guy is old, poor, and divorced.  They all think that she can do better and that since she is so young that she has all the time in the world to think things over before getting married.  She moves into their new apartment 3 weeks before her husband to be is able to.  While she is getting everything set up, a man and young child appear at her door and ask if she is having a hard time.  At first she thought it was just some religious group representative, but that’s not the case and not the last time that they meet.

There is a translation of this story into English by Stephen Snyder that was published in The New Yorker as well and is available free online to read here.

If I had to give it a rating for enjoyment factor, I would say 3/5.  While I did enjoy the book and did not think about giving up while reading it… its not my favorite.  When I was reading Dormitory「ドミトリ」I did find myself immersed in the story at the end and was not able to stop reading.  Just do to my current mood and lifestyle, I guess this isn’t exactly the type of book that I am super into.  I am kinda stuck on a Seo Maiko train right now but I do have other books that are waiting to be read so I don’t want to read all of her books all at once right now.


My experience reading this book:

I really enjoyed Ogawa’s writing style. It truly felt like I was reading someone’s train of thoughts. An idea would be brought up, only for her thoughts to trail off into somewhat related topics before circling around to touch on the previous topic.

This is the first time in Japanese that I have read a book that has placed such a great amount of careful effort into describing various physical setting from both the past and present. In The Pregnancy Diary, I loved when the narrator touched on all of the different areas of the house were she had seen her sister’s daily temperature charts. There was great detail and care given in describing the location of places that were significant to the narrator during her childhood. This attention to detail had me grabbing for my dictionary way more often then I usually do. I was really inspired by the authors attention to detail that I felt like there was an extra level of importance to the exactness of each word choice.

Even tho the word choices in this book seemed so deliberate, I was left with only a vague feeling of who the characters were. The narrator seemed child-like to the point where I thought there might have been a large age gap between the sisters, but then I find that she drinks beer with dinner! The images I was able to create of each of the characters felt fuzzy and almost translucent. While the characters roles in the story are fairly well defined, the lack of names for each one left me feeling like everyone was a ghost or some kind of non-human being despite of the very ‘human-ness’ of the narrators thoughts.

I enjoyed this novel and look forward to reading more of Ogawa’s books in the future. At the moment, none of her novels seem to call out to me in the same way that The Pregnancy Diary「妊娠カレンダー」did, but if anyone has any recommendations please let me know! I am kinda of interested in 密やかな結晶 but I heard that Ogawa’s writing style truly shine in her short stories so I am a bit torn.


Level Preface:

Just to give some background to my current level. I have been using Japanese for a long time now, but just decided somewhat recently to be more serious about gaining fluent literacy. This year I have finished reviewing over JLPT N2 materials and have started on N1. I am planning on taking N1 in 2021. I started reading novels in 2020 and have read over 20 to completion.

Vocabulary: N1 student level

As I touched on earlier in this review, Ogawa’s writing style instilled a strong desire to know that exact particulars for each word used. Recently, I have been more of the type to just look up readings and leave absorbing each words meaning through repeated exposure. But with this book, each word felt too delicate and important to ignore. Due to this, I think I would recommend this novel to those who are at an N1 level or above. For lower level students who are used to reading novels on a regular basis, this book would not be too difficult. But it would really help to have a strong familiarity with all intermediate level words(N1-N2) to be able to spend the effort on looking up the particulars of more advanced words.

The vocabulary repeat value in this book is fairly high.  Any new words you find have a good chance of popping up again to help solidify its meaning in the language learners mind.

One thing that I noticed through out all three stories was that there were colors mentioned that I have never read in Japanese before.  Indigo, ultra-marine… definitely sparked an interest in upping my color game.

In the first story, The Pregnancy Diary, there is obviously a decent amount of vocabulary used that is related to pregnancy. Due to the nature of medical words in Japanese, the meaning of each word should be fairly easy to guess if you are at least somewhat familiar with the female reproductive system. I often watch women’s health related blogger on youtube and was very familiar with the terms used in this novel. 【12人産んだ】 助産師HISAKOの子育て学校 is the name of the channel just in case anyone is interested.

Dormitory「ドミトリ」did not have any specific vocabulary groups that stuck out to me.  Most of the words could be considered general use words.  The main character does have a hobby of sewing, but the words do not seem as important to the story. Like the first story, the unique writing style and word choices could be a challenge for language learners.

The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain「夕暮れの給食室と雨のプール」really just used general vocabulary.  It was the easiest story to read for me out of the 3.

Grammar: N2 student level

This book is rated at my general grammar ranking of N2 student level. N2 level students should not find grammar to be a barrier to understand pretty much any general fiction book. N2 grammar points are used often enough that I would not recommend this book to N3 level students.  Due to the vocabulary used in this book, I would recommend having a good grasp on grammar before reading this book.

All of the characters in this novel speak in standard Japanese dialect so readers should not have to worry about location based words or grammar differences.

Cultural References

For at least the first story, I think that it would be useful to know the culture around pregnancy in Japan to understand fully what the older sister is going through.

It is not normal for pregnant women to work in Japan. In fact. I think the only times I have seen pregnant women at work was at a small family owned vegan restaurant that I visited often. There is an insane amount of pressure put on pregnant women to be extremely gentle with their bodies and Japanese culture as a whole is quick to blame women for any issues that might occur during their pregnancy. In the book the strong control over pregnant women’s body is clear right away as the older sister is encouraged to not even clean her house at 6 weeks pregnant.

Japanese medical professions have created some of the strictest and controversial weight gain limits in the world for Japanese women with the goal of cutting down on gestational hypertension. In Japanese, average weight women are to only gain 7 to 12 kilograms (about 15 to 26 pounds). In comparison, in America it is recommended for the average women to gain 12.5 to 18 kilograms (about 28 to 40 pounds). I cannot really comment on which one is higher as America has a higher mortality rate during labor, but the strictness on pregnant mothers in Japan is extreme and many of my friends and acquaintances reported struggling greatly with their pregnancy diets.

The Maternal and Child Health Handbook(母子手帳) mentioned in the story is something that pretty much all Japanese people would be familiar with.  After pregnancy is confirmed in Japan, the new mother goes to city hall to register her pregnancy.   City hall employees will give her coupons for free prenatal care and she will get a Maternal and Child Health Handbook(母子手帳).  This book places a very important role in the baby’s health care.  Doctors will write notes of the baby’s development and any care that they received.

Who should read this book?

I think this book would be great for those who are looking to test to see how well you know the details behind each Japanese word in your knowledge bank. This novel might inspire you to look into the small details of each word and really refine your knowledge.

For those who are new to reading, I think it would be helpful to be at an N1 level. As a self accessed N2, I did find this book to be a challenge and I used a dictionary often to check the details for even words that I felt I knew.

For those who are still new to reading, I think that its worth looking more into the Bookseller’s Award as I find that those books tend to be easier to read.

For those who are interested in reading an entry level Akutagawa Prize winning book, check out Sayaka Murata’s コンビニ人間 which has a reputation in the language learning world as being an good start to the world of reading Japanese novels.

Length: Short

This novel is fairly short at 191 pages long. It is made to feel even shorter due to the fact that it is split up into 3 different stories. The Pregnancy Diary「妊娠カレンダー」is 65 pages long. Dormitory「ドミトリ」is 71 pages long. The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain「夕暮れの給食室と雨のプール」is 40 pages long.

Author: Kuri

I love reading Japanese novels and have seen that many people want to read them but don't know where to start. I have decided to share my experiences to help people reach their literacy goals.

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