“Love at Six Thousand Degrees” by Maki Kashimada

Love at Six Thousand Degrees, Maki Kashimada, Haydn Trowell (trans) (Europa, March 2023) Love at Six Thousand Degrees, Maki Kashimada, Haydn Trowell (trans) (Europa, March 2023)

Author Maki Kashimada became a member of the Japanese Orthodox Church when she was in high school. The Orthodox Church in Japan is an autonomous Eastern Orthodox Church within the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, one of fifteen subdivisions within the Orthodox Church. There have been Orthodox Christians in Japan since the 1860s, but they have never been a large group. Today, the Ministry of Culture of Japan puts their number at less than 10,000 registered members in a country of more than 125 million people. (For comparison, there are about 430,000 Roman Catholics. All Christians sects combined make up between 1-2% of Japan’s population.)

Maki Kashimada is also one of several notable Catholic or Orthodox Christian writers globally who have considered their work—sometimes grim or graphic, very often controversial—part and parcel of their faith. In English, the group is made up of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Toni Morrison. It also includes Hisaye Yamamoto, an important American Nisei writer who spent part of her youth in a US internment camp. In Japanese, it includes Shusaku Endo, author of 1966’s Silence, famously made into a 2016 English-language film by Martin Scorsese.

Love at Six Thousand Degrees is very much a Christian work in the same tradition. Her novel was inspired by the 1959 French film Hiroshima mon Amour, the story of a brief and anonymous encounter between a French actress and a Japanese architect. Notably, Kashimada has shifted the setting to Nagasaki. Nagasaki was not only the site of the second atomic bombing by the United States; it has also been a center of Japanese Christianity since St Francis Xavier landed nearby in the mid-16th century.


The action of the novel is convoluted and shot through with flashbacks, but the plot is a simple one: a false emergency alarm causes an unnamed housewife and mother (“the woman”) to have an existential crisis. She abandons her son with a neighbor, packs a bag, and flees her apartment for far-away Nagasaski in southern Japan. There, she embarks on a brief and passionate affair with a half-Japanese, half-Russian young man (“the youth”) who is also visiting Nagasaki on his university graduation trip. (The youth grew up in Japan. His Muscovite mother married his father, a Japanese-Russian interpreter, and the couple moved in the late eighties.)

Interspersed throughout are asides from a first-person, female narrator. The narrator struggles with her memories of a mother who favored her alcoholic, possibly sex-addicted brother. She long harbored desire for her brother—an incestual desire to be with him, as well as a jealous desire to be him. He eventually committed suicide.

It’s difficult to untangle exactly how closely connected the narrator and the unnamed woman are—or, for that matter, how closely either is related to Kashimada herself. (All three, for example, have some relationship with Japanese Orthodoxy.) Early in the novel, the narrator expresses contempt for a version of her self who might write a simple autobiographical I-novel:


A novel featuring a woman just like me would appear on the bookstore shelves, and then someone would buy it. That reader would point to me and say: See, she’s written a novel about herself.


Kashimada published Love at Six Thousand Degrees in Japan in 2005. A translation of is perhaps overdue. In 2016, translator Allison Markin Powell of the group Strong Women, Soft Power published an article about “10 Japanese Books by Women We’d Love to See in English” on Lit Hub, which included Kashimada’s novel. (Strong Women, Soft Power have helped usher in the wave of translated Japanese books by women in the last several years. For example, Ginny Tapley Takemori translated Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. That book went on to become one of the best-selling fiction titles from Japanese in recent memory.) Half of the novels listed in that article have since been translated into English, including Kyoko Nakajima’s The Little House (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori in 2019), Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole (David Boyd in 2020), and Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven (Sam Bett and David Boyd in 2021). Mieko Kawakami’s novels are now among the most anticipated new translations from Japanese into English.

Kashimada is also highly regarded in Japan. She won the coveted Akutagawa Prize in 2012 for her Touring the Land of the Dead, translated, like Love at Six Thousand Degrees, by Hadyn Trowell. Both of Trowell’s translations of Kashimada’s work are lyrical, if less colloquial compared to the work of many of his contemporaries. (Here, that formality may result in part from Kashimada’s use of Orthodox theological and liturgical terms, which Trowell translates and incorporates with aplomb.)


Love at Six Thousand Degrees is a deeply unsettling read in English. Some of the tension comes from its subject matter—existential crisis, death, generational trauma, and nuclear apocalypse. But the novel was also published in Japanese almost twenty years ago. An English-speaking audience in 2023 may find some of the aspects of Love at Six Thousand Degrees almost painfully problematic.

For example, the woman and the first-person narrator insist on describing the youth as “mixed-race” throughout the book: “They do say that the fresh, clean skin of mixed-race Japanese is the most beautiful” or “Your face is so pale. Are all mixed-race people this color?”

The woman is also fixated on his youth and his powerlessness, raising awkward questions about consent in their sexual relationship. Kashimada uses both race and rape as metaphors to explore pain, power, and the interplay between victim and victimizer. But that makes neither racism nor questionable sexual encounters more comfortable to encounter in print.

Metaphor, though, is the greatest strength of Kashimada’s work. At one point, a character comments that, “No one can be as symbolic as God.” Love at Six Thousand Degrees takes full advantage of Christianity’s symbolic possibilities.

The woman’s infidelity with the youth, for example, echoes the Samaritan woman with six husbands that Christ encounters at the well.

The youth’s skin disorder invites comparisons to both the keloid burns that scarred atomic bomb victims and the leprosy cured by Jesus.

Christ imagery collects around the youth as the novel builds toward its climax. He’s perfumed with frankincense. Beggars cling to him, cry out to him for food—want to eat him.

And the novel asks the question: what do the woman and youth do with a faith that insists on the resurrection of the dead while in a city that’s a tomb and memorial to more than 100,000 people?


About halfway through the novel, the woman and the youth discuss Urakami Cathedral and a statue of Mary that survived the bombing. The bust no longer has eyes. It’s “empty”. In the words of the woman, the statue is “a symbol. But an incredibly vague one.” Yet “it isn’t meaningless”.


No, it’s filled with too many meanings. Those meanings keep rolling over each other in turns, never settling… If you decide on just one meaning, you deny everything else.


The novel, like the book, is most rewarding to someone willing to entertain many meanings—perhaps even contradictory ones—at the same time.

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.