Thursday 16 May 2002

The Waiting Years

Eleventh century written Japanese is so different from modern Japanese that a novel like The Tale of Genji must be translated for contemporary Japanese readers, as if into a foreign language. In the twentieth century this task was undertaken by the poetess Yosano Akiko and the novelists Tanizaki Junichiro and Enchi Fumiko.

As I become more deeply immersed in my project of reading the three English translations of Genji, I’m taking various side trips by reading Genji-related books such as Edward Seidensticker’s Genji Days and Enchi Fumiko’s A Tale of False Fortunes. The latter brought back memories of discovering Japanese literature.

A long time ago I realized that it would be years before I could achieve my dream of experiencing Japanese novels in Japanese; so I resolved to read whatever was available in English translation and—having purchased J. Thomas Rimer’s A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature—began to work my way systematically through the authors he suggested, reading anything I could find by Ogai, Soseki, Kafu, Shiga, Tanizaki, Ibuse, Kawabata, Inoue, Dazai, Endo, Mishima, Ariyoshi, and Oé, all the acknowledged masters of modern Japanese literature. And, with the exception of Ariyoshi Sawako, all men.

I would not understand until years later that, consciously or not, Rimer was following a long tradition in Japanese literary criticism which—using terms such as “joryu sakka” (woman writer) and “joryu bungaku” (women’s literature)—places most women writers in a separate (and implicitly inferior) category.

Book cover: Enchi Fumiko, The Waiting YearsI must have picked up Enchi Fumiko’s Onnazaka whilst searching for a rare title by the one of writers on Rimer’s list. After reading just a few pages I was at a loss to understand how or why he had excluded her. (She finally rates a mention, along with Kono Taeko, Hayashi Fumiko, and Uno Chiyo, in a later edition of Rimer’s book.)

To be sure, condensing modern Japanese literature into a list of twenty classical and thirty modern works is a close-to-impossible task but I could have easily nominated three or four books that Enchi’s novel deserved to displace.

Set in the Meiji period (1868-1912), Onnazaka was published in installments between 1952 and 1957 and translated by John Bester in 1971 as The Waiting Years. Onnazaka does not mean “the waiting years.” It’s a made-up word, constructed from the characters for “woman” and “hill” or “slope.” It conjures up an image of a woman struggling up an endless incline.

In the novel’s opening scene, Tomo, comes to Tokyo from the north of Japan to find the first of the concubines she will, during the course of her married life, be forced to procure for her husband Shirakawa, a wealthy bureaucrat.

“Should she refuse to accept the task it was almost certain that her husband would simply introduce into the family a woman chosen without consulting her. His leaving the choice to her was a sign of his trust, of the importance he attached, for the family’s sake, to her position.”

Such is Tomo’s devotion to her husband and his ie, or household, that she conceals her resentment of both her husband’s cruel infidelities and the patriarchal family system which makes her an accomplice in the exploitation of other women.

Enchi FumikoBased on stories told to Enchi Fumiko by her grandmother, The Waiting Years is an extraordinary book: beautifully written, filled with wisdom and compassion, sad beyond belief in its careful delineation of Tomo’s repressed emotions.

The year after the English version was published, Enchi Fumiko commenced work on her translation of The Tale of Genji.

As it happened, my former girlfriend Natsuko was reading Enchi Fumiko’s Genji when we first started seeing each other. She’d had to study the novel in high school, much as Western children have to read Shakespeare, and her schoolgirl memory was that it was etchi (lewd or obscene).

We used to sleep late on Sunday mornings: making love, eating breakfast in bed, and reading books or newspapers.

“I must have been so naïve then,” Natsuko said one such morning, balancing Genji on her knees as she tore off a piece of croissant and dipped it in her coffee. “To think Genji was etchi just because it’s about a man who has lots of affairs.”

I thought about Hikaru Genji, the Shining Prince, with his many wives and mistresses; and about Tomo’s husband Shirakawa in The Waiting Years.

A few weeks later in the Kinokuniya bookstore, I found a copy of Onnazaka in the Women’s Literature section and bought it for Natsuko. On the train home I slowly turned the pages and scanned up and down the columns of characters, occasionally encountering a kanji I could understand, wishing with all my heart that I could read Japanese properly, that I could connect directly with Enchi Fumiko’s prose.

Natsuko loved getting presents and she responded as she always did: by wrapping her arms around me and whispering a thank-you in my ear. But the book sat on the shelf for months until one Sunday she plucked it off the shelf on her way back to bed with our coffee.

She finished Onnazaka within a matter of days and when I asked her how she’d liked it, she simply said it was omoshiroi, an adjective that like its English equivalent—interesting—can mean almost anything at all.

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Comments

"All women, as authors, are feeble and tiresome. I wish they were forbidden to write, on pain of having their faces deeply sacrificed with an oyster shell." -- Nathaniel Hawthorne

At least, occidental woman didn't have to learn a separate language. Or did we?

Beautifully written, thought provoking. Which translation of The Tale of the Genji do you recommend?

Posted by Burningbird on 17 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Too early to say yet, I'm enjoying all of them for different reasons. Needless to say I have a post in mind that compares the three and I'll make a recommendation then.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 17 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Tease!

Posted by Burningbird on 17 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (spam)]

Posted by oita on 10 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (spam)]

Posted by tilo on 10 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour