January in Japan: Yuko Tsushima’s Short Stories

A pleasure to take part once more in Meredith’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. My favourite way to start the year, with January in Japan.

Tsushima Yūko: The Shooting Gallery and other stories. (transl. Geraldine Harcourt), The Women’s Press, 1988.

It’s a puzzle to me why Yūko Tsushima is not better known to the English-speaking world. During her life she won pretty much all of the major Japanese literary prizes. She did not produce a huge body of work, but wrote steadily throughout her life. Quite a bit of her earlier work was translated into English in the 1970s and 80s by respected New Zealand translator Geraldine Harcourt, who had a personal connection with the author. Tsushima also fitted in with the feminist preoccupations of the Western world during that period (the time of Spare Rib magazine and Virago Press) – although perhaps she did not fit in well with the narrative of the Japanese economic miracle and boom years. She was not ‘exotic’ enough, not ‘other’ enough. She was not writing about cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums (although she does write about a chrysanthemum beetle). Her protagonists were usually single mothers, struggling to bring up children in a society that was often belittling and marginalising them. Perhaps too relatable the world over… although with additional pressures in Japan.

I am hopeful, however, that after the success in recent years of her novel Territory of Light (which was reissued in 2018 in the Penguin Classics edition), the rest of her work might be discovered. Like her father, she does not have an enormous range in terms of subject matter or stylistics, but what she does write is magnificent, just like her father’s work.

I do realise that perhaps I shouldn’t be allowing her father to enter the conversation, really, even if he is Dazai Osamu, a writer greatly revered in Japan (perhaps less well known abroad, because he too presents too gloomy a view of Japan and of mankind more generally). I certainly don’t think they can or should be compared to each other. After all, Tsushima was just a baby when her father died. However, her father’s highly publicised double suicide with his lover and abandonment of his family clearly had an enormous impact on Tsushima’s worldview and on her work. (She confronts this situation and imagines her mother’s reaction in a short story called ‘The Watery Realm’ which is not part of this collection, but has also been translated by Geraldine Harcourt).

So when Tsushima explores the life of single mothers, she is not only mining her own experiences as a single mother, but also memories of herself growing up in a single parent household. She was bemused by the ‘feminist’ label that often got stuck on her, and it’s perhaps the age-old truth that if a man writes about the very heart of loneliness and lack of communication, even (or perhaps especially) within a family, they are perceived as addressing the great universals of human experience, while if a woman does it, then it’s a domestic theme or less important women’s fiction.

Set against a backdrop of harsh realism, of dirty dishes piled high in the sink, cramped flats, whining children, fluorescent lights with insect corpses piled high, Tsushima’s protagonists, most of them mothers, but some of them young girls or boys, try to escape into their dreamworlds. But reality often comes chasing after them, crushing their carefully constructed alternative worlds.

In the title story, an exhausted mother tries to find the magical seaside memories of her youth once more and recreate them for her sons.

The thought of the sea had come to her suddenly the night before… She’d made up her mind to take the two children to the beach. There she had been, hemmed in by the cracker crumbs, plastci blocks, empty juice cans, underwear and socks that littered the room, the sinkful of dirty dishes, the washing hanging from the ceiling, the sound of the TV, the younger child’s crying, her own voice talking at the office, and the weariness – a weariness that turned her body to a desiccated old sponge. Unable to lie down, she was sitting having a cigarette with her elbows resting on the table when a trasnaprent blue gleam streaked before her eyes… It could only be the sea. It had completely slipped her mind.

Needless to say, once they get to the sea, it does not live up to their expectations at all. No cool, beautiful blue – the sea is grey, the light dull, the beach full of concrete and rubbish and dog poo, the children complain that they are tired, they have to pee, they can’t walk any longer… She closes her eyes and dreams of some sort of release:

… one day my back will sprout a pair of lance-shaped wings which will begin to beat, my body will visibly expand, and when the metamorphosis is complete I’ll be a dragon that ascends spiralling to the heavens. I’ll leave everyone watching astounded on the earth below as I soar aloft. my golden scales gleaming. Refreshed.

In another moving story ‘The Silent Traders’, a walled park in the middle of the city becomes a place for abandoning unwanted animals and develops its own microcosm, becoming a fantasy land for the lonely children growing up around it. People thoughtlessly or casually hurting and neglecting animals is a recurrent motif – undoubtedly a parallel with the way they marginalise and overlook certain people. Another theme that crops up time and again is that of feeling invisible. In ‘Clearing the Thickets’ we seamlessly move from a young woman relinquishing her lover to a woman in a bright red dress and wondering if she is visible at all, to a scene where the wayward daughter returns home to help with clearing the weeds in the family garden and, seemingly out of sight and mind of her mother and older sister, she overhears them viciously gossiping about her.

Yūko Tsushima author photo from The New Yorker.

The mother-daughter relationship in particular is often fraught with problems. All of the characters are flawed, and yet we cannot help but empathise with the yearning of many of them for escape from the everyday worries, their need to be loved and understood and appreciated. But to what extent do they weaken themselves by relying too much on others to be rescued? And when they understand that rescue is not forthcoming, how can they not despair and fnd the strength to carry on? It’s this wonderful rich complexity of each character, this understanding of the contradictory impulses in every one of us, that I find so satisfying in Tsushima’s work.

These are stories to read carefully and savour every word. They move effortlessly between the bland everyday and daydreams or even pure fantasy. I hesitate to call them magical realism, but there is often a strong reliance on symbolism. Stories that will make you uneasy, that will lodge themselves into your mind and never quite leave you.

You can read an excellent review of this story collection here, and thank you also to this blogger for referring me to this very revealing autobiographical essay by Tsushima published in the Chicago Tribune. I will leave you to read it for yourselves, but this paragraph in particular describes her subject matter perfectly:

I have never written about happy women. This is not because I like unhappiness, but it comes from my firm belief that misfortune is not always bad. Happiness can spoil people. Happy people can lose sensitivity, and as a result they become poor in terms of human qualities.