Casting a literary eye on Japan’s aging society


The sociologist and feminist Ueno Chizuko has released a collection of past essays that examine Japanese literature as primary source material reflecting the society and era in which it was written.

“Ueno Chizuko ga Bungaku o Shakaigaku Suru (Ueno Chizuko Does Sociology on Literature)” (Asahi Shimbunsha) touches on several topics. Among them are gender differences in the language of male and female writers of the 20th century, feminist issues raised by writings on the Red Army, and the relationship between the traditional concept of the mother in Japan and the patriarchal family system. I found particularly interesting her essay on the way in which the issue of kaigo (caring for the elderly) has been treated in literature.

She very effectively compares two autobiographical novels, Ariyoshi Sawako’s “Kokotsu no Hito (The Twilight Years),” published in 1972, and Sae Shuichi’s “Koraku (Falling Leaves),” written over 20 years later in 1995. The former was a pioneering work in taking up the emerging issue of an aging society and sold over 2 million copies. “Koraku” followed up on the same topic, and perhaps partially due to the novelty of it being written from a male perspective, sold some 200,000 copies.

In both novels, the wife of an eldest son has the primary responsibility for looking after her increasingly senile father-in-law after the death of his aged wife. In “Kokotsu no Hito,” the woman is able to make do with the help of a neighboring young couple and some minimal help from her teenage son; her husband provides no assistance whatsoever. Twenty years later in “Koraku,” there are more old-age facilities available for day care and short-time stays, but the author-narrator and his cooking-teacher wife are not well off enough to hire a caretaker. In their 60s, they exemplify the new phenomenon of the early elderly caring for the advanced elderly.

Another difference in the times is that the woman in “Kokotsu no Hito” finds it easier to deal with her father-in-law by thinking of him as a child, while in “Koraku” this is not the case: The sexuality of the elderly is acknowledged, albeit with very mixed feelings. Ueno notes that Japan has a long tradition of treating old age as a return to childhood, as seen in the kanreki celebrations for those who have reached 60. Unlike American culture, which gives the greatest freedom to adults, Japanese culture allows the greatest latitude to those seen as most innocent and least self-responsible, at the beginning and end of the life cycle.

Ueno protests that the elderly should not have to be lovable or cute to deserve respect and care. She sees “Kokotsu no Hito” as Ariyoshi’s challenge to the present-day disposable culture that dismisses anyone or anything that isn’t immediately useful.

In this essay, as well as in an interview in the Asahi Shimbun (Dec. 26) and in a talk with the novelist Tanabe Seiko (Ronza, January issue), Ueno is also preoccupied with the question of why there are so few novels by women dealing with such important female experiences as care of the elderly, childbirth and child-rearing. One factor is that female novelists, by virtue of being novelists, are in a special position within society and will probably not become full-time caretakers. In addition, most of the talented female novelists who emerged in the 1980s and ’90s are still unmarried or married but childless.

More basic, however, in Ueno’s view, is the societal taboo on women openly expressing strong feelings such as hatred of a parent. Sae’s literary stance of novelizing his own personal experiences with a certain distance and control is still difficult for female novelists: Women are still not fully permitted the male shishosetsu (autobiographical novel) writer’s egoism and lack of niceness, or his zurusa (craftiness). What is praised as cool self-analysis in a male is condemned as cold inhumanity in a woman.

Although literature itself has been changing in recent years, the literary establishment remains very conservative, as the following incident cited by Ueno shows. In “Koraku” there is a scene in which the male narrator reflects on why he wasn’t able to thank his wife at his mother’s funeral after she angrily takes him to task for not publicly acknowledging her efforts in caring for the old woman. He decides that male selfishness had a role in his taking her for granted, as well as the common male inability to openly express such an emotion in public. Sae intended this as self-criticism and was shocked when a male reviewer used it as evidence of the selfishness of present-day Japanese women.

Tanabe also talks about her disappointment at the lack of interest among male writers and reviewers in her novelization of a female novelist’s life, “Yume Haruka Yoshiya Nobuko (Beyond the Dreams of Yoshiya Nobuko).” She thinks one solution would be to have a literary prize exclusively for women, as many worthy works by women go unrecognized when men and women contend for the same awards.

“Kokotsu no Hito” is available in a very readable translation by Mildred Tahara. Although it was published in 1972, I found the novel surprisingly undated in its portrayal of the details of daily life and interpersonal relations. For example, there is one classic passive-aggressive scene in which Akiko, who has been awakened in the middle of the night yet again to take her senile father-in-law to the toilet, becomes furious at her obliviously sleeping husband. She hits him with a pillow, but when he rouses and asks “What’s the matter?” she says “Nothing, dear” and he rolls over and goes back to sleep.

Also of possible interest is a book published last year in which a young TV personality relates her experiences studying under Ueno in order to improve her debating skills, “Todai de Ueno Chizuko ni Kenka o Manabu (Learning to Fight From Ueno Chizuko at the University of Tokyo)” by Haruka Yoko (Chikuma Shobo).