RESTLESS WAVE: My Life in Two Worlds, by Ayako Ishigaki. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2004, 286 pp., $16.95 (paper).

Those who know something about Ayako Ishigaki (or who have cheated and read the afterword to “Restless Wave” before the text proper) will find the first section of Ishigaki’s memoir fraught with anticipation. Watching her proceed through a comfortable girlhood and young womanhood, we find scarcely a hint of the feminist and communist rebel she would become.

This anticipation, though, is probably a symptom of the pop-Freudianism that would have us believe that the only reason one would take exception to the manner in which society is arranged is that, as a child, one suffered a deep personal hurt. Although there was sadness in Ishigaki’s childhood — her mother and stepmother both died — she seems largely to have enjoyed life with her indulgent father, her beloved, if conventional, sister, and even her rather dim brother.

She notes, for example, that on Girls’ Day (March 3) the traditional display of dolls owned by most families is arranged according to a strict feudal hierarchy, and takes no exception to it. Rather, she tells us of the pleasure she found in the “beautifully colored bonbori lanterns” that cast “pink-cherry-blossom color on the faces of the dolls” and in the “sweet wine and candy” the little girls believed they shared with the dolls.

Likewise, she makes it clear that, though her and sister’s New Year kimono were uncomfortable, they were “happy to wear these clothes.” To her the rituals the family took part in on New Year’s Day — including the deep bow to father — may have been highly patriarchal but, in her girlhood, they did not bother her a bit. In writing about her childhood, Ishigaki grinds no axes and thus gives us an excellent account of a Meiji/Taisho girlhood.

When she does begin to think critically, it is not in response to some psychic hurt but rather to a growing awareness of real social inequities.

First among the incidents that would jar her out of her complacency were the rice riots of 1918. Ishigaki’s wealthy aunt felt that it would be better if the hungry “would request things quietly” rather than throwing stones and kicking in the doors of rice warehouses. “In our house,” this aunt complained, “we always contribute to charity and are kind to the people, but still an increasing number of them return evil for good.” Ishigaki, who had earlier described her placid family life as “a quiet world, like the mirrored surface of an ancient pool; without motion, without flow, reflecting the clear blue sky,” experienced, while listening to her aunt, “the faintly ominous feeling one has . . . when in a corner of the sky the rain clouds boil up suddenly and everything is dark.”

It was probably this new awareness that lead her, a year later, to enter Jiyu Gakuen. Although Jiyu Gakuen was the most progressive Japanese high school of its time, Ishigaki was soon disillusioned with the mushy liberalism it offered. “It was the purpose of Jiyu Gakuen to produce women rich in interests, intelligent and cultured,” she explains. “Any serious consideration of what to do about the social setup was left to other people.” As this was unsatisfactory to Ishigaki, she soon embarked on the radical activism that would fill much of her life.

Ishigaki’s activism, however, made things uncomfortable for her in Japan. She became involved with Japan’s Farmer-Labor Party (banned by the government three hours after it was founded) and, thanks to that affiliation, spent a night in jail. One imagines that it was the threat of further persecution that made joining relatives in the United States seem like a good idea.

In America her activism continued, most notably in Japanese immigrant communities. Ishigaki was an opponent of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the increasing militarism that followed. One sees her trying desperately to believe that the Japanese immigrants she worked among “wanted to defend their motherland from being trampled upon and ruined by the militarists,” and one shares her heartbreak when she realizes, observing the response to a speech from a visiting militarist, that “these honest, quiet, working people were engulfed in war spirit.” She comforts herself with the notion that they were only “for the moment carried away.” That they were so easily carried away, however, suggests that their distaste for the war had never run very deep.

“Restless Wave” was written in English and published in 1940. To demonstrate how unfortunate the situation then was, Ishigaki concludes her book with a chapter made up largely of entries from a notebook that had fallen into her hands, the diary of a Japanese soldier in China. Ishigaki reports that when she read the diary, she felt that her “heart was being gouged out and tortured.” One understands, and remembers, that before things got better they got worse.

“Restless Wave,” which Ishigaki has described as “a novelistic semi-autobiographical text,” is, of course, not entirely factual; memoirs seldom are. It is, however, full of interesting information both about what it was like to be a girl in the late Meiji-Taisho eras and what it was like to be a Japanese activist in America in the decades around World War II. We must be grateful to The Feminist Press for making this pioneering memoir available again.

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