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Tales of Meiji love, lust and drinking tea

by Stephen Mansfield

Mistress Oriku: Stories from a Tokyo Teahouse by Matsutaro Kawaguchi. Tuttle Publishing, 280 pp., 2007, ¥1,785 (paper)

During the middle to late years of the Meiji Era, factories, cement works and commercial shipyards began to spring up like noxious mushrooms along the embankments of Tokyo’s Sumida River. Despite the smokestacks and coal skulls spilling soot into a river where fishermen had until recently drawn water to brew their tea, an exquisite culture of taste was still possible along its eastern banks.

The best teahouses served as venues for the powerful and wealthy, hosting statesmen, business elites, and industrialists. Restaurants and teahouses also played a key role in the cultural life of the city, developing carefully nurtured affinities with the world of kabuki actors, bunraku puppet masters, koto performers, the better off gidayu chanters, and the idly elegant. One of the most celebrated of these establishments was Mistress Oriku’s Shigure Teahouse in Mukojima.

In Kawaguchi’s novel, structured around a series of linked stories, we learn the degree of Oriku’s roots in the capital’s floating world, having been sold into a Yoshiwara brothel at the age of 18. Rejecting the flesh trade, she rebuilds her life at 40 with the construction of the Shigure Teahouse, an establishment as historically real as Kawaguchi’s main character. The enterprise gives her a new lease on life and love. Atypical of her age, she frankly admits that “there are times when I want a man, and at my age I see no reason not to indulge myself.” Urbane in matters pertaining to the arts and popular entertainment, Oriku’s straightforwardness sweeps away the stifling proprieties that thwart female desire.

A reputation for mature beauty and generosity earns her many admirers among the young, gifted but inexperienced men of the entertainment world, who petition her to take on their sexual initiation, a practice apparently quite common at the time. A true daughter of Edo, “Art and men: Those are my pleasures,” she unabashedly declares at one point. Oriku embodies the values of a former age. Devoted to her business and customers, kindhearted and discreet, these the author seems to imply, were the true qualities of Edo that had become increasingly rare by the Meiji Era.

A grim future devoid of the natural beauty and finer aesthetics associated with Mukojima turns out not to be foretold in the tea leaves, but in the appearance of a shoe factory, whose owner buys up land next to the teahouse. Nearby jetties are soon requisitioned for industrial cargoes, and to make matters worse, a new bathhouse and inn beside Chomei-ji temple sticks up a dazzlingly vulgar sign. “It’s what happens when people abuse the invention of electric lighting,” Oriku muses as she passes the advertisement, “They say something invented means something destroyed, and it’s true. I daresay electric lighting will destroy the beauty of Mukojima.”

Dependent for their livelihood on the views of the river and of embankments synonymous with the works of poets and woodblock artists of a previous age, Oriku rightly surmises the situation: “Once the scenery’s gone, we’re through.”

Little remains today of the physical fabric of late Meiji Tokyo, but in descriptive novels like this and in the works of Nagai Kafu and Tayama Katai, writers of a generation similar to Kawaguchi’s, we can not only follow the social trends of the age but also sample its tastes and rarefied moods. Profoundly nostalgic, Kawaguchi’s great gift for storytelling brings together all the social strands of Meiji life in a picture as delicate as a copper filigree.