Japanese Women Writers: Fumiko Enchi ‘The Waiting Years’

The-Waiting-YearsFumiko Enchi was a very interesting and iconoclastic woman writer in 1950s-1970s Japan. Her background was quite conventional for the time and place. She was the daughter of a distinguished scholar and was mostly home-schooled. She had some early success as a playwright, married a journalist, had children. Her health, however, had always been frail and it deteriorated during the Second World War, round about the time she lost all of her property in air raids. There are speculations that her domestic life was not entirely happy (certainly in her novels there are a lot of oppressed, unhappy or revengeful women). Perhaps all of this put together enabled Enchi to abandon all caution and become one of the most verbal and realistic writers about the plight of women in a patriarchal society.

This is a book I read in August but left too late to review for ‘Women in Translation’ month. However, in my opinion, ‘Women in Translation’ works equally well all year round! ‘The Waiting Years’ could also have been included in my post about bad marriages, as it’s the very grim and sad story of a Japanese wife at the turn of the 20th century. Tomo Shirakawa is the wife of an ambitious government official who has been tasked to find:

‘… a maid  to take back with me. Aged somewhere between fifteen and, say, seventeen or eighteen. From a respectable family, if possible… but she must be good-looking.’

In other words, a concubine. Tomo is still in love with her womanising husband, but she feels she has no choice but to accept his request to have a live-in mistress. She was born in a low-ranking samurai family, was married off early and had no proper education or social accomplishments, but ‘all the love and wisdom of which she was capable were devoted to the daily lives of her husband and the rest of the Shirakawa family.’ So she finds Suga, brings her home, has to endure her husband’s infatuation with her. Then, a few years later, her husband demands a second concubine and eventually even starts an affair with his daughter-in-law. Under this domestic tyrant, the women in the house have to find a way to accommodate each other, to hide their feelings, not to let the simmering resentments explode. None of them feel they have a choice and the wife’s story is not the only sad one. In fact, over time, Tomo – who has maintained an amazing self-control and stiff upper lip throughout-  begins to feel that the other women are to be pitied rather than envied or resented.

Written over a period of eight years, this novel covers 30-40 years of marriage during one of the most dramatic periods of modernisation and Westernisation in Japanese history. Yet those dramatic external changes do not seem to impact family life as much as one might hope. The author uses a telescopic effect in her narrative: leaping over years, even a decade, between chapter, but then stopping to examine the minutiae of daily life, the barely perceptible gestures and nuanced conversations, where more is left unsaid rather than said.

Unafraid to explore the need for sensuality in the older woman, or sexual manipulation as a weapon of the downtrodden, Enchi is a brave author who continues to feel very modern. This book was a reread – but I’d previously read it when I was 19 and unmarried, so it is with very different eyes that I return to it now. The translator is John Bester – who also translated Black Rain by Ibuse Masuji, one of my favourite Japanese books about the WW2 –   and my copy is a Kodansha International edition from 1980 (bought second-hand). Two other books by Enchi have been translated into English: the bizarre tale of female manipulation and revenge ‘Masks’ and an alternative version of an eleventh century historical romance ‘A Tale of False Fortunes’.

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4 thoughts on “Japanese Women Writers: Fumiko Enchi ‘The Waiting Years’”

  1. Marina Sofia – This sounds like an uncompromising look at that society. I give credit to authors who are willing to explore societal issues like that in an open way. It sometimes takes a lot of courage, but it can make for memorable reading, and it’s honest.

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