“The Third Love” by Hiromi Kawakami

Hiromi Kawakami Hiromi Kawakami

Riko, the first-person narrator of Hiromi Kawakami’s densely intertextual The Third Love, is a forty-year old woman in contemporary, Reiwa Era Japan recalling her life. Riko isn’t even two years old when she falls in love with her cousin, Naruya Harada (“Naa-chan”). It’s almost a fated love, and it has shaped the narrative of her life. When the couple become engaged in Riko’s early twenties, her mother warns her, “Naruya is a charming man… but he will cause you hardship, too.”

Even though Riko already has reason to suspect Naa-chan won’t be emotionally or physically faithful, she naively brushes her mother aside. “With Naa-chan beside me, I could endure any sadness. How could hardship enter into it?” she thinks.

At first, life as a housewife suits Riko. She even endures Naa-chan’s early infidelities—only to find herself heartbroken when one of his trysts comes to an abrupt end. In the aftermath, it becomes clear to Riko that her husband has “lost the love of his life.” And it isn’t her.


The Third Love, Hiromi Kawakami, Ted Goossen (trans) (Granta, June 2024
The Third Love, Hiromi Kawakami, Ted Goossen (trans) (Granta, June 2024)

There is a second important man in Riko’s life—Mr Takaoka. Mr Takaoka was once the janitor at her primary school. Riko encounters him again shortly after her marriage begins to fall apart. As a response to her heartbreak, Mr Takaoka promises to teach Riko the magic of dreaming herself into the past. These dreams are what give The Third Love both its narrative and philosophical punch.

Riko’s dream adventures are protracted. Every night, for months at a time, she lives a second life that took place centuries before. Time passes faster in her dream life. She begins her first series of dreams as a little girl in Tokugawa-Era Japan (1603-1868) soon to be sold to an Edo (now Tokyo) brothel. There she trains to become an oiran (high-ranking courtesan) and is given the trade name Shungetsu. Later, after Riko bears a child with Naa-chan, she dreams a second dream life, this time as a lady-in-waiting to a Heian Era (794-1185) princess.

Notably, the character of Mr Takaoka owes his existence to the title character of Tatsuhiko Shibusawa’s 1989 novel Takaoka’s Travels. (Kawakami has explicitly linked her love for Shibusawa’s book to her own Mr Takaoka.) Shibusawa’s Takaoka is also a great dreamer—in fact, the narrator of Takaoka’s Travels describes his dreams as “memory itself”. Takaoka’s Travels, itself loosely based on the life of the historical Prince Takaoka of 9th century Japan, blends dreams and reality in a fantastically post-modern way that provides important (though not truly necessary) background information for The Third Love.


In many ways, The Third Love is a novel about the ways stories shape human life—a fitting theme for such an intertextual novel. Mr Takaoka observes to Riko that the narrative of her life is, indeed, a tale.


Yes, your tale. The real world consists of separate fragments, so many it’s almost impossible to get an overall view, yet we are able to create our stories by stringing a few of those fragments together in some sort of order, right?


Riko counters, “My story isn’t worth much to this point… it’s just boring.”

“You’re wrong,” he replies, “People’s stories tend to be simple. A man and woman meet, fall in love, then separate.” That simple narrative is certainly the pattern most of Riko’s most important encounters follow.

If life is, indeed, a tale, certain characters and narrative patterns in Riko’s life seem destined to be repeated over and over again. Mr Takaoka, for example, is himself. But he is also the historical Prince Takaoka and Prince Takaoka as presented by Shibusawa—a man of dreams. Riko’s husband Naa-chan is himself. He never dreams himself into the past, but Riko also sees elements of Naa-chan’s personality in the husband of the Heian-era princess she serves.

At several occasions in the novel, too, the narrative repeats a series of events from The Tales of Ise, a work of classical Japanese prose and poetry from the early Heian period that predates even The Tale of Genji. The “Akutagawa Episode” of The Tale of Ise relates the story of two eloping lovers caught in a rainstorm. The man hides his lover in an abandoned storehouse, only for her to be devoured by a demon while he is standing guard outside. The same pattern of events—or something very like it—seems fated to repeat itself in Ise, in Riko’s dream Edo, and even in modern Tokyo.

The Third Love, and Takaoka’s Travels before it, also recall even the two-millennia old the Zhuangzi, one of the foundational texts of Taoism, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou.  In the Zhuangzi, Zhaung Zhou famously recalls a dream that he was once a butterfly, in the words of translator Burton Watson, “flitting and fluttering, happy with himself and doing as he pleased”. When he awoke, he was no longer sure if he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming of life as a butterfly—or a butterfly now dreaming of life as Zhuang Zhou.


It is perhaps worth commenting with some gratitude that it is partially thanks to the recent boom in translated Japanese literature that complex, intertextual stories like The Third Love are even accessible to English-language readers. Background reading isn’t necessary, but The Third Love is a richer story if a reader is passably familiar not only with The Tales of Ise and Takaoka’s Travels, but also, to a lesser extent, with The Tales of Genji. All three of these important Japanese texts are now available in English—The Tale of Genji since 1933, The Tales of Ise since 1968, and Takaoka’s Travels only since David Boyd’s translation was published in March 2024. (Michiko Aoyama’s What You Are Looking for Is in the Library, published last year in Alison Watts’s English translation, achieved something like the same effect on a much smaller scale when an enigmatic librarian recommends Reiko Nakagawa and Yuriko Yamawaki’s children’s book Guri and Gura, already available in Peter Howlett’s English translation.)

The translation of The Third Love is artfully accomplished by Ted Goossen. Goossen does a truly extraordinary job recreating the antiquated world Riko encounters in her dreamed pasts. Along with Riko, the reader experiences the uncanniness of an unfamiliar tongue—Classical Japanese as a spoken language.


To be honest, my modern self had done very poorly in classical Japanese at school. For the life of me, I couldn’t get my head around all those unfamiliar verb endings: keri, for example, or haberi and eumajiu. It was all gibberish to me. Perhaps that was why I was overly impressed with quite run-of-the-mill samurai …


The reader learns the vocabulary of the Yoshiwara District along with Riko—oiran, kamuro, daiyo… She learns when a word means one thing in Japanese today, but meant something entirely different 1300 years ago. The word nyobo, for example, now means “wife” but meant “a women who served a noble princess as one of her ladies in waiting” during the Heian Era. Japanese also allows considerable freedom to change tense mid-narrative, much more so than in standard English. It’s a freedom particularly appropriate in The Third Love and which Goossen exercises here.


At its heart, The Third Love is a woman’s bildungsroman—the story of a once innocent young girl learning what it means to be a woman, wife, and mother. These kinds of decades-long coming-of-age stories, by and about women, are surprisingly rare, which makes Kawakami’s long meditation on love, marriage, and womanhood especially worth reading. Riko begins her marriage to Naa-chan with notable naivete. Marriage sours her rosy outlook. Early coparenting, in which her husband barely participates, makes things even worse. She eventually reaches an angle of repose, “where simple words like ‘love’ and ‘hate’ no longer make sense” in their relationship.

Riko’s two dream lives are key to her evolving sense of self and evolving sense of what it means to love. Neither Kawakami nor Riko ever idealizes the past. Rather, through Riko, Kawakami invites the reader to consider what lessons might have been lost in the last 1300 years. Time travel gives Riko insights into her relationships with men—into all gendered relationships. The past helps illuminate the present.

For example, the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters of Tokugawa Japan were


an elegant, mysterious world that took as its sole purpose the gratification of male desire, a world whose mores transcended any moral judgement about the rights or wrongs of selling women’s bodies.


At the same time, though, she learns more about sex as a courtesan—being treated as “a beautiful object, lovingly created by a highly skilled artisan” rather than as a human being—than she ever did making love to an affectionate husband.

Similarly, women’s lives in Heian Japan were heavily proscribed. Yet Riko reflects that there might be some benefit to the “single path” charted for Heian aristocratic marriages to follow. She notes that “a modern marriage follows no set pattern … it contains a host of individual variations” that partners must navigate together. She thinks her princess can express her feelings freely to her husband because her role is so strictly regulated—“a freedom born from a lack of freedom”.  Perhaps, she considers, she isn’t properly exercising her freedom in her marriage to Naa-chan.

Maybe more importantly, as Riko philosophizes,


Women’s emotional attachments to their husbands and lovers today are somewhat different from Heian times, when aristocratic men were permitted numerous lovers. Back then, women were far more pragmatic and down to earth, whereas today those feelings are couched in terms from Western ideas of romantic love, which entered Japan during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Maybe the kind of all-encompassing love she once felt for Naa-chan, which once blinded her to all of Naa-chan’s faults, was its own kind of trap.

Whether intentional or not, the juxtaposition of romantic and sexual norms of the Heian, Tokugawa, and Reiwa eras of Japanese history also highlights the issue of age difference between partners. Kawakami in particular has been known to unsettle Anglo-American readers who come to her work in translation. (Her most famous novel in English, translated by Allison Markin Powell as Strange Weather in Tokyo, features a woman who forms an attachment with a former teacher long after she has graduated.) In The Third Love, the Heian princess is significantly younger than her husband, and Shungetsu is much younger than any of her clients. A reader might even approach Naa-chan or Mr Takaoka’s early encounters with Riko as grooming. Any discomfort, though, can also serve as a reminder that reading in translation challenges reading to confront different ways of looking at the world. In the context of The Third Love, a thoughtful consideration of different social norms across time and space is even more appropriate.

The Third Love is an extraordinarily rich and complex novel. Although the novel raises many questions for both the protagonist and the reader, it provides no easy answers. It is a coming-of-age narrative, but to truly come of age, Riko must take her new insights and face the rest of her life—her marriage, her family, her occupation—beyond the pages of the novel. And she must define what love can—ought to—look like in a society still dominated by men if a woman wishes to remain herself. Kawakami has provided the reader with the means to do the same.

Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction. Read Japanese Literature is her podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.