This provocative novel looks into the near future of Japan, boldly imagining how society might change if the country’s declining births, rising percentage of people who do not marry, and growing number of “herbivore men” (so named for their relative indifference toward desires of the flesh) continue on their current trajectories. Japan’s total fertility rate in 2013 was just 1.43.
The story is set in 2030, ten years after Tokyo hosted its second Olympic Games. The country has seen a sharp rise in the suicide rate among young people since late 2020, with self-annihilations by those between the ages of 10 and 20 climbing above 100,000 for the year 2029. An academic article titled “Average Life Expectancy for the Post-2000 Generation May Be Less Than 40,” published by a biologist in 2020, is widely blamed for having triggered this trend. Sensing a crisis in the making, the Japanese government had secretly launched a program called “The Red Letter Project” that same year.
Twenty-five-year-old Mitsuki works at a welfare center for the aged as an in-house lawyer. In her student days, a vague sense of unease about the future had led her, like so many of her peers, to attempt suicide by downing sleeping pills at a bar in Shibuya. A mysterious 49-year-old government sex worker named Rogu saved her. Rogu has subsequently become Mitsuki’s sole confidant, the only person to whom she is willing to bare her soul. When Mitsuki was ten, her father walked out on the family with a lover, and since then she has been living with her mother, who suffers from severe depression and has become all but bedridden. Mitsuki must fill the roles of breadwinner, homemaker, and nurse all by herself.
Through her contact with Rogu, who has experienced both marriage and childbirth, Mitsuki begins to wonder more about the possibilities of love, and, at Rogu’s urging, she decides to apply for the Red Letter Project. Only those selected directly by the state or recommended by people in Rogu’s line of work are permitted to apply.
The Red Letter Project, which is named for the color of the notices sent to participants, is a system in which the government matches up compatible young men and women based on all data available and assigns them to live together to foster procreation. The government provides food and shelter to participants, and offers generous benefits to the families they leave behind. Applicants are subjected to an extensive physical examination during a week-long stay at separate male and female “training centers,” and those who pass this health screening receive instructions on how to cultivate love as a family as well as the process of procreation, including sexual techniques.
Upon completion of her training, Mitsuki is given a nice apartment in a Tokyo suburb, and before long a man of about the same age named Satsuki moves in with her. He is a curator at a history museum. The story follows the unusual life that these two share over the next year or so.
Neither Mitsuki nor Satsuki has experienced sex or romance before, but they prove to be well matched: they soon develop a love for each other, and progress in due course from hugs and kisses to sexual intercourse and pregnancy. When the baby’s due date grows nearer and Mitsuki goes on maternity leave, the couple is transferred, without any say in the matter, to a luxury apartment building in central Tokyo—where they are treated as VIPs but held in quarantine while awaiting the onset of labor. Since becoming pregnant, Mitsuki has brushed aside her worries and settled into the idea that she is to become a parent, but Satsuki is having increasing doubts about the Red Letter Project. Then he happens upon a flier produced by a group protesting the project: the flier claims that children born to Red Letter participants are “nationalized” and taken away from their parents to serve government purposes.
Several weeks later Mitsuki gives birth to a baby girl, but she is told she must wait to see her child. A few days after that, a government official appears in her hospital room to declare that her baby has been judged “unsuitable” and all services to the couple will be terminated. They must vacate the premises within three days. The baby was born with six fingers on her left hand.
Mitsuki and Satsuki move out of their apartment without delay. Because Mitsuki is not producing enough milk, the baby is howling with hunger, but both mother and father are smiling. They may no longer enjoy the benefits of a government program, but they have won back their beloved daughter . . .
The process by which this late-developing couple grope their way to love is presented with convincing realism, offering a wholly credible picture of how love and romance could change in the near future. In its portrayal of the tension between a controlling government seeking to reach all the way into individuals’ bodies on the one hand, and the desire of those individuals to escape such control on the other, the work also casts a critical eye on today’s increasingly regulated society.