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Prescient work of writer Sawako Ariyoshi begs for rediscovery

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Aug. 30 marked the day, 28 years ago, that Japan and the world lost a writer of immense importance. Sawako Ariyoshi’s works of fiction and nonfiction took up many social issues that came into prominence in the years after her death. To my mind, she is not only one of the greatest authors of modern Japan, but a woman who should be given recognition around the world for her impassioned feminist outlook on the plight of the disadvantaged.

During her lifetime she was a celebrated bestselling novelist whose works were televised and filmed any number of times. She relished the controversy stirred up by the themes she dealt with, themes that were often unpopular at the time, but suffered from insomnia and fatigue, both of which no doubt contributed to the cause of her early death.

Take, for instance, her amazing book about China, “Ariyoshi Sawako no Chūgoku Repōto” (Sawako Ariyoshi’s China Report), written on the occasion of her fifth trip to that country. With an anthropologist’s scruples and a journalist’s scrutiny, she shared what is called sandō seikatsu, or “the three living conditions,” with the Chinese people. These are “sleeping under the same roof, eating the same food, and doing the same work,” conditions which should be prerequisites for any study of a people.

The book, which is full of photos of rural and urban life, describes, with sincere sympathy, farmers and city dwellers, the latter uprooted, as many of them were, due to the ravages of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). She lectured the farmers in the countryside about the dangers of using too much pesticide and forewarned people in Beijing and Shanghai about pollution in general.

Ariyoshi’s book on China is neither diatribe nor politically motivated reportage. She cared deeply about the people she met, and this comes through clearly in the writing.

“The Chinese people must know about (the pollution problem) as soon as possible,” she wrote. “This knowledge must be spread quickly.”

Her book titled “Fukugō Osen” (Complex Pollution) was a pioneering study of the impact, present and future, of chemical fertilizers, detergents, carcinogenic dyes, exhaust fumes from cars and other polluting agents. It was serialized in the Asahi Shimbun in 1974-75 and contributed significantly to the rising consciousness in this country on ecological matters.

Ariyoshi was also decades ahead of her time in her treatment of issues relating to Japanese women and the elderly, race relations, and the developing world.

Her prose works that achieved the greatest acclaim were two novels set in her native Wakayama Prefecture.

The first of these, published in 1966, was “Hanaoka Seishū no Tsuma,” translated as “The Doctor’s Wife.” It is historical fiction that treats the relationship between the mother and wife of Seishu Hanaoka (1760- 1835), the doctor who experimented with anesthesia long before it was used in any country. The book has been televised in six different productions; and the most recent of 23 theatrical stagings took place as late as 2007.

Her other best-selling novel set in Wakayama is “Ki no Kawa,” published as “The River Ki.” Set in the first half of the 20th century, it traces the lives and fates of three generations of women. Written in 1959 and published by Chuo Koronsha, it was turned into an epic TV drama by NHK in 1964 and became a feature film in 1966.

But the work of Ariyoshi that caused the greatest controversy was her novel about dementia and the carer’s burden, “Kōkotsu no Hito,” known in English as “The Twilight Years.” Set in the 1970s, it is the story of Akiko Tachibana who, while holding down a job at a law office, is obliged to care for her senile father-in-law. The father-in-law relies on her for his every need, while his son, Akiko’s husband, a typical 1970s salaryman, is too preoccupied with his work to lift a finger of assistance.

Though the novel sold a million copies in its first year of publication, the generally reactionary literary establishment turned a cold shoulder to it. Perhaps the graphic details of Akiko having to deal with the old man’s incontinence were too much for the wizened literati. Those details were not spared, however, in the brilliant film version, shot in 1973 in black and white by veteran director Shiro Toyoda. This book and film stand as an amazing document of Ariyoshi’s prescience in dealing with an issue that is at the forefront of Japanese concern today.

Her novel that I love the best is “Not Because of Color,” or, in the original, “Hishoku.” I put the titles around this way because Ariyoshi created the English title first, then rendered it into the unusual Japanese one.

Published in 1964, “Hishoku” is the story of a young Japanese woman who, while working in a cabaret cloakroom, meets an African-American GI and marries him, despite vigorous opposition from her parents. He takes her to New York. Living in Harlem, she encounters racial prejudice toward herself and her children. “Hishoku” is a superb study of race relations, a tale of assimilation and hope, and a novel that is even more relevant to Japan now than it was when she wrote it nearly 50 years ago.

Another Ariyoshi book that was years ahead of its time is her travelogue of islands on the periphery of Japan, “Nihon no Shimajima — Ima to Mukashi” (Japanese Islands — Now and in the Past). In this wonderful collection of essays, first serialized in Subaru magazine in 1980-81, she even takes up the story of the disputed rocky outcrops of Takeshima and the Senkaku Islands, proving that she had an eye on history and the shadows it casts on Japan’s future.

After having read a fascinating study of New Guinea she published in 1968, I phoned Ariyoshi and asked her if she would be interested in coming to Australia to give some talks. She said she definitely did not want to go there, as she was critical of Australia’s postcolonial policy in New Guinea. Sadly, I never had the chance to meet her.

Ariyoshi was a Catholic who spent the early years of her childhood in Dutch Indonesia. She travelled widely in her lifetime, enjoying long stints in the United States, at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and the University of Hawaii.

She made her first trip to China in 1961 and went so far as to live in a People’s Commune. She counted famous Chinese novelist and playwright Lao She (1899- 1966) among her close friends. Lao was so assiduously tortured by the Red Guards that he apparently killed himself — if, indeed, his death wasn’t murder. It was his wife, artist Hu Jieqing (1905-2001), who wrote Ariyoshi’s obituary in the mass-circulation Chinese government-owned newspaper, The People’s Daily.

Her death at age 53 from a heart attack deprived Japan and the world of an immense and far-seeing talent, one whose legacy begs for rediscovery and reassessment in our issue-conscious era.

Her wake was conducted at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo. A monument to her memory stands in the precincts of Myohoji Temple at Horinouchi in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, nor far from where she lived in the postwar years.