AYA KODA

Feminist and dutiful daughter

by Donald Richie

MIRROR: The Fiction and Essays of Koda Aya, by Ann Sherif. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 1999, 224 pp., $42 (cloth), $16.95 (paper).

Koda Aya (1904-1990), the youngest daughter of the Meiji novelist Koda Rohan, began her writing career late, after the death of her famous father. Her first works, written when she was 43, were about him — more particularly, about what life had been like with him.

These articles and essays, which brought her early fame, were seen as those of a dutiful daughter, though she called them “the grumblings of a woman blinded by the light of death.”

Life with father, however, was not easy. He apparently once told her that the best way to communicate with him was without words and there are many scenes of similar reserve. Nonetheless, or consequently, she — as Alan Tansman has written — “spent her career attempting to communicate with him — and in some way rejoin him.”

These attempts have attracted the attention of a number of scholars. Tansman’s excellent “The Writings of Koda Aya” (Yale, 1993, reviewed here May 18, 1993) locates her precisely in the subtitle: “A Japanese Literary Daughter.” Ann Sherif, on the other hand, in this new study, is critical of such a psychological approach. For her, Aya is a voice in the feminist debate.

She finds that “the resilience, strength and maturity of the [Aya] persona differ sharply from the masochistic, self-sacrificial . . . attitude prescribed for women — an attitude of persevering and not complaining about the oppression of patriarchy, the exploitation of the brutal capitalist, the barrenness of Japan’s rural landscape, the bankruptcy of unexamined habits of heterosexual marriage.”

Yet, Koda Aya is not to be fitted into the ideal feminist mold and Sherif is quite aware of this. Indeed, her present popularity (and she is far more popular than her once more famous father) seems to rest upon her perceived ability to, in herself, suggest a kind of compromise. Though a dutiful daughter, she was also an independent person.

The independence is seen not in the essays about her father and herself, but in the autobiographical fiction that she began writing later in life — in particular, the 1955 novel “Flowing (Nagareru).” Here the father vanishes and the daughter takes his place as an autonomous artist who imparts her darkly beautiful view of women’s lives.

Though this seminal work remains untranslated, Tansman’s book gives many passages, and Sherif provides a few as well. Both authors have chosen the same format: a biographical introduction supported by full translations from the works. Neither, however, gives many, and so the translations seem more to support the introductions.

Tansman offers four stories, “The Medal (Kunsho),” “Hair (Kami),” “Dolls (Hina)” and “Black Hems (Kuroi Suso).” This last had already been translated by Edward Seidensticker. Sherif offers two essays, “Fragments (Kakera)” and “A Friend for Life (Mono Iwanu Issho no Tomo)” and two short stories — “Dolls” and “The Medal” — both already translated by Tansman.

Such duplication seems wasteful and in any event we are in both books given a lot of opinions about Koda Aya, but not much proof. While it is undoubtedly true that she is her father’s spiritual heir and at the same time some kind of proto-feminist, it is the work that is important, not the writer.