“Butter: A Novel of Food and Murder” by Asako Yuzuki

Asako Yuzuki Asako Yuzuki

One winter day, Reiko asks her friend Rika to pick up some butter on her way over for dinner. But due to a product shortage, this simple favor turns into a trip to several grocery stores and results only in the purchase of a tub of margarine, setting the stage for a story where just one ingredient can change everything.  

Asako Yuzuki’s novel Butter, recently released in an English translation by Polly Barton, is based on the true story of Kanae Kijima, the Konkatsu Killer, who was convicted of seducing and murdering multiple victims. In the novel, the accused Manako Kajii fascinates a media-hungry public. She is neither young, slim, nor beautiful, so people dwell on one question: how was she able to attract so many romantic partners? As a journalist for the Japanese men’s magazine Shūmei Weekly, Rika pitches an article to approach this question from a different angle.


Rather than trying to find a new lead in her case, what I’m interested in is the social background to it all. I feel that the whole case is steeped in intense misogyny. Everyone in it … seems to have a deep-seated hatred of women. I don’t know whether I can really get that aspect across in a men’s weekly magazine like ours, but I want to try.


Rika requests to visit Kajiiat the Tokyo Detention Center—not to talk about the alleged murders but about her cooking techniques—and to her surprise, she agrees. After all, Kajii used her domestic skills to entice middle-aged men with the promise of home-cooked meals. Having read the accused’s now defunct culinary blog, Rika is curious to find out about her former epicurean lifestyle, which she hopes will provide further insight into her mindset.

During their first meeting, Kajii instructs Rika how to prepare a satiating dish of rice with butter and soy sauce. For this recipe, claims Kajii, there is no substitute: a specific brand of salted French butter from the specialty shop must be used.


So this was the butter that Manako Kajii loved so much – the symbol of all the delicious food she’d eaten with the money she’s extracted from her men. It was the same cruel, bright yellow as the butter that the tigers had melted into in The Story of Little Babaji.


With each visit, Rika becomes increasingly captivated by Kajii. She ventures that other women would feel similarly, and so she coaxes Kajii to divulge more and more details about her life for their benefit.


I think that hearing about your approach to life could offer something like salvation to so many women out there who are struggling…. Japanese women are required to be self-denying, hard-working and ascetic, and in the same breath, to be feminine, soft and caring towards men. Everyone finds that an impossible balance to strike, and they struggle desperately as a result. Even when they do manage to strike it, there’s no redemption to be had. They’re never fully free. That’s what women are feeling.


Kajii doesn’t seem concerned about how these women feel, yet her influence on Rika and her friends is undeniable. As they become increasingly entangled in the mystery of Kajii’s life, their obsession leads them to take great lengths to investigate her background.


Butter: A Novel of Food and Murder, Asako Yuzuki, Polly Barton (trans (Ecco, April 2024; Fourth Estate, February 2024)
Butter: A Novel of Food and Murder, Asako Yuzuki, Polly Barton (trans) (Ecco, April 2024; Fourth Estate, February 2024)

Originally published in 2017, Butter is a novel as much about food as it is about murder. The luscious descriptions of gourmet fare at times overtake the narrative but serve to explore the themes of gender roles and cultural expectations. In one scene, for example, Rika savors Kajii’s recipe for tarako pasta while reflecting on her own behavior earlier in the day.


Cloaked in a coating of minuscule fish eggs and butter, the spaghetti strands sprang around on Rika’s tongue as if in excitement. The dish was adequately salted, but there was a relaxed, mellow quality to its taste. What a wonderful combination pollock roe and butter made! … Rika felt the deep and generous flavour of the dish pushing into the distance her sense of irritation with herself and how gutlessly she’d behaved that day.


Like an expertly prepared dish, each bite of Butter leaves readers craving just a little more.

Mary Hillis (@mhillis) is a teacher and writer based in Japan.