The Woman in the Purple Skirt | Natsuko Imamura | Granta

The Woman in the Purple Skirt

Natsuko Imamura

Translated by Lucy North

An excerpt from The Woman in the Purple Skirt, which won the 2019 Akutagawa Prize.

There’s a person living not too far from me known as the Woman in the Purple Skirt. She only ever wears a purple-colored skirt – which is why she has this name.

At first I thought the Woman in the Purple Skirt must be a young girl. This is probably because she is small and delicate looking, and because she has long hair that hangs down loosely over her shoulders. From a distance, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was about thirteen. But look carefully, from up close, and you see she’s not young – far from it. She has age spots on her cheeks, and that shoulder-length black hair is not glossy – it’s quite dry and stiff. About once a week, the Woman in the Purple Skirt goes to a bakery in the local shopping district and buys herself a little custard-filled cream bun. I always pretend to be taking my time deciding which pastries to buy, but in reality I’m getting a good look at her. And as I watch, I think to myself: She reminds me of somebody. But who?

There’s even a bench, a special bench in the local park, that’s known as the Woman in the Purple Skirt’s Exclusively Reserved Seat. It’s one of three benches on the park’s south side – the farthest from the entrance.

On certain days, I’ve seen the Woman in the Purple Skirt purchase her cream bun from the bakery, walk through the shopping district, and head straight for the park. The time is just past three in the afternoon. The evergreen oaks that border the south side of the park provide shade for the Exclusively Reserved Seat. The Woman in the Purple Skirt sits down in the middle of the bench and proceeds to eat her cream bun, holding one hand cupped underneath it, in case any of the custard filling spills onto her lap. After gazing for a second or two at the top of the bun, which is decorated with sliced almonds, she pops that too into her mouth, and proceeds to chew her last mouthful particularly slowly and lingeringly.

As I watch her, I think to myself:

I know: the Woman in the Purple Skirt bears a resemblance to my sister! Of course, I’m aware that she is not actually my sister. Their faces are totally different.

But my sister was also one of those people who take their time with that last mouthful. Normally mild mannered, and happy to let me, the younger of the two of us, prevail in any of our sibling squabbles, my sister was a complete obsessive when it came to food. Her favorite was purin – the caramel custard cups available at every supermarket and convenience store. After eating it, she would often stare for ten, even twenty minutes at the caramel sauce, just dip- ping the little plastic spoon into it. I remember once, unable to bear it, swiping the cup out of her hands. ‘Give it to me, if you’re not going to eat it!’ The fight that ensued – stuff pulled to the floor, furniture tipped over . . . I still have scars on my upper arms from her scratches, and I’m sure she still has the teeth marks I left on her thumb. It’s been twenty years since my parents divorced and the family broke apart. I wonder where my sister is now, and what she’s doing. Here I am thinking she still loves purin, but who knows, things change, and she too has probably changed.

If the Woman in the Purple Skirt bears a resemblance to my sister, then maybe that means she is like me . . . ? No? But it’s not as if we have nothing in common. For now, let’s just say she’s the Woman in the Purple Skirt, and I’m the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.

Unfortunately, no one knows or cares about the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. That’s the difference between her and the Woman in the Purple Skirt.

When the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan goes out walking in the shopping district, nobody pays the slightest bit of attention. But when the Woman in the Purple Skirt goes out, it’s impossible not to pay attention. Nobody could ignore her.

Say if she were to appear at the other end of the arcade. Everybody would immediately react – in one of four broad ways. Some people would pretend they hadn’t seen her, and carry on as before. Others would quickly move aside, to give her room to pass. Some would pump their fists, and look happy and hopeful. Others would do the opposite, and look fearful and downcast. (It’s one of the rules that two sightings in a single day means good luck, while three means bad luck.)

The most incredible thing about the Woman in the Purple Skirt is that whatever reaction she gets from people around her, it makes absolutely no difference – she just continues on her way. Maintaining that same steady pace, lightly, quickly, smoothly moving through the crowd. Strangely enough, even on weekends, at peak times when the streets are jam-packed with shoppers, she never walks into anyone, or bumps into anything – she just walks swiftly on, unimpeded. I would say that to be able to do that, either she has to be in possession of superb speed, agility and fitness – or she has an extra eye fixed to her forehead, a third eye skillfully concealed under her bangs, rotating 360 degrees, giving her a good view of whatever’s coming her way. Whichever it is, it’s a trick well beyond the capability of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.

She’s so skillful at avoiding any sort of collision that I can understand why you might get a rather eccentric person coming along who feels provoked – and gets the urge to purposely barge into her. Actually, there was one time when I myself succumbed to just such an urge. But of course, I was no more successful than anyone else. When was it? I think sometime in early spring. I pretended to be walking along innocently, minding my own business, and then, when the Woman in the Purple Skirt was just a few feet ahead of me, I suddenly upped my speed and walked very fast toward her.

A pretty stupid thing to do, as I soon found out. When I was within inches of bumping into her, the Woman in the Purple Skirt simply tilted her body slightly to one side, and I went smack into the meat display cabinet in front of the butcher shop – fortunately escaping any serious physical injury, but still ending up with a huge repair bill from the butcher.

That happened more than six months ago now. I’ve only just paid off the bill. And it wasn’t easy. I had to resort to sneaking my way into the bazaars held at a local primary school, having picked up anything that might possibly sell, to make whatever extra pennies I could. The first few times, I’d be thinking: Now look where your stupidity has landed you. Do not try anything like that ever again. It’s common knowledge that nobody who has attempted to collide with the Woman in the Purple Skirt has ever succeeded – don’t you know that? If not because of that third eye on her forehead, then because of how uncannily quick and fit she is. Even if privately you can’t help feeling that ‘fit’ isn’t quite the right word to describe her. . . Actually, it occurs to me that the way she has of swerving smoothly through the crowds, avoiding all oncoming people, is very much like the way an ice-skater glides around on the ice. She is like that girl who won a bronze medal a couple of years ago at the Winter Olympics –  the one in a blue skating dress who spoke in that strange way, like a little old lady, and who retired from skating to go into television and was selected last year to be a presenter on children’s TV; she was ranked number one in the children’s TV popularity rankings – yes, that girl. Admittedly, the Woman in the Purple Skirt is quite a bit older than she is, but (in my neighborhood, at least) she is every bit as famous.

It’s true. The Woman in the Purple Skirt is a celebrity. In the eyes of everyone – children and adults. From time to time, TV camera crews come by this area to conduct interviews with people on the street. But rather than thrusting a microphone in the faces of housewives and interrogating them about their dinner plans or their opinions on the rising price of vegetables, they should occasionally direct questions at elderly people and children. Have you ever heard of the Woman in the Purple Skirt? I’m sure nearly everyone would say: Yes, of course!

There’s even a new game that the children have taken to playing. Whoever loses at rock-paper-scissors now has to go up to the Woman in the Purple Skirt and give her a light tap. It’s a minor variation on the usual game, but they all get very excited about it. It takes place in the park. Any child who loses a round has to tiptoe up to the Woman in the Purple Skirt as she sits on her Exclusively Reserved Seat and give her a little tap on the shoulder. That’s all it is. Once the child has tapped her, he or she runs away laughing. They do this over and over again.

Originally, the addition involved not touching the Woman in the Purple Skirt but just approaching her and addressing her. The loser had to go over to her as she sat there and just say a few words. ‘Hello!’ ‘Beautiful day!’ Anything. That in itself was the source of huge amusement. Each child would skip up to her, say a word or two, and dash away, cackling with laughter.

It’s only recently that the new twist was devised. The reason seems to have been simply that both sides had grown bored with the previous version. All they could think of to say to her was, ‘Are you well?’ ‘Nice weather!’ Or at best something like ‘Haa waa yuu?’ in English – which of course didn’t get a peep out of her. The Woman in the Purple Skirt sat absolutely still, her eyes lowered, but as time passed, she would yawn or pick at her nails. As I watched her languidly plucking the pilling off her sweater, it almost seemed like she was trying to challenge the children to think of something new.

This new spin on the game, which the children came up with by forming a circle, putting their foreheads together, and thinking hard about how to break out of the old routine, is already showing signs of becoming the go-to version, and so far nobody’s said they’re tired of it. ‘Rock! Paper! Scissors!’ they all yell. Up leaps the winner with a shout of triumph, while the loser wails with a look of misery. Mean- while, there she sits, absolutely still, on her Exclusively Reserved Seat, her eyes lowered, her hands in her lap. It’s possible she’s not comfortable with this new rule. I wonder what’s going through her mind when she gets that little tap on her shoulder.


Photograph © Pulpolux !!!


This is an excerpt from The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura and translated from the Japanese by Lucy North, to be published on 8 June 2021 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Natsuko Imamura. Translation copyright © 2021 by Lucy North. The Woman in the Purple Skirt is published by Faber & Faber in June (£12.99 trade paperback).


Natsuko Imamura

Natsuko Imamura is one of Japan’s most exciting writers. Nominated three times for the Akutagawa Prize, the most prestigious literary award in Japan, she won it in 2019, for The Woman in the Purple Skirt. A self-professed fan of Yoko Ogawa’s, she has been called ‘a second Sayaka Murata’ (the author of Convenience Store Woman) for her use of acerbic humor and satire. Born in Hiroshima, she now lives in Osaka with her husband and their daughter. Like the main character in The Woman in the Purple Skirt, she has worked in a hotel as a housekeeper.

More about the author →

Translated by Lucy North

Lucy North has translated over half a dozen modern and contemporary Japanese writers, including Taeko Kono, Fumiko Enchi, Takako Takahashi, Hiroko Oyamada and Hiromi Kawakami.

More about the translator →