Some years ago a sassy Osaka lady asked me to introduce her to the pleasures of Western literature. I duly handed her a variety of classic books, including “The Turn of the Screw,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Lolita” and “A Study in Scarlet.” They were all methodically if unenthusiastically read, but when I presented her with a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” she devoured the book, raved about it, rereading it again and again.
Japan seem to be besotted with the three Bronte sisters: Charlotte, Emily and Anne. It’s a fascination that goes beyond reading and imagining. A disproportionately high number of Japanese women visit the Bronte’s home village of Haworth in the north of England each year, a pilgrimage that has recently been turned into the subject of a novel by Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author Mick Jackson, “Yuki Chan in Bronte Country.”
Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre” may have bewitched generations of Japanese readers, but Emily’s “Wuthering Heights” (rendered as “Arashigaoka” in Japanese) arguably stands as the most influential novel in Japan written by a non-Japanese woman. It inspired a 1988 Japanese film adaptation, which replaces the wild Yorkshire moors with a rocky Japanese volcano, but has also had a profound influence on some of the country’s most important 20th-century women writers, such as Yuko Tsushima and Taeko Kono.
Lucy North, translator of Kono’s collection of stories, “Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories,” says Kono was fascinated by Emily and the other Bronte sisters. The pent-up longing, anger and violence in their writing is reflected in the sexually transgressive desires of Kono’s female protagonists. The Japanese author even wrote a screenplay of “Wuthering Heights,” which has been used in several theater productions, and she made the Haworth pilgrimage in 1985 with fellow writer Taeko Tomioka. A year later, the two published a travelogue, “Arashigaoka Futari-tabi” (“Wuthering Heights, Travelled Together”), based on their experiences.
“The elements of sadomasochism in the writing of the Bronte sisters — and indeed in their lives — is a subject that has only just begun to receive clear-eyed scrutiny in the West, from biographers such as Claire Harman,” North says, “but it was acutely understood by Kono decades before.”
Judith Pascoe, a literature professor at the University of Iowa, has devoted several years to investigating the connection between the Brontes and Japan, and her forthcoming book explores adaptations of ” Wuthering Heights” by local writers. She believes the Japanese fascination with the book is exceptional.
“If you buttonholed a random person in Iowa City and asked them to chat about Tanizaki’s ‘The Makioka Sisters,’ you would not find many takers,” Pascoe says. “But Japanese people, more often than not, are prepared to venture an opinion on (Emily) Bronte’s novel.”
The extravagance of the heroine Catherine’s passionate behavior and her ardor for the enigmatic Heathcliff is one aspect of the novel’s appeal to Japanese female readers, according to Pascoe.
“An older Japanese woman told me that the novel filled her with longing,” she says, “both for the foreign English locale and for the possibility of being a different, less subdued kind of person.”
This year is the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, and Bronte-mania was in full swing at the U.K.’s Bradford Literary Festival in May, where experts gathered to discuss the sisters’ enduring influence.
The latest heavyweight Japanese female author to have rechannelled “Wuthering Heights” in a contemporary Japanese setting is Minae Mizumura, whose 2002 novel “Honkaku Shosetsu” was translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter as “A True Novel” in 2013. The complex narrative in this work, which moves from the streets of New York to the mountains of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, has put Japan at the center of the worldwide reconsideration of the Brontes’ novels. Speaking at the Bradford festival with Carpenter, Mizumura remarked that she read both “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” as a child, but had been more affected by the former. It was only after graduating from university and having shied away from English literature that Mizumura re-read “Wuthering Heights” and was deeply moved by the intensity of Emily’s forceful imagination.
In May, Mizumura and Carpenter journeyed not just to Haworth, but to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester, the former home of Charlotte Bronte’s close friend and biographer.
What is it about the condition of modern Japanese women that made them empathize so strongly with the stories of the Bronte sisters?
“The Brontes were a product of the modernity created by the Industrial Revolution,” says Mizumura, adding that this modernity offered “unprecedented opportunities” for women. “In Japan, too, women in the last few generations have been offered freedoms that they have never known before.” Embracing these freedoms, Mizumura argues, created a conflict between comforting traditional values and the exhilaration of following one’s heart, a theme that the Bronte’s explored in their novels.
Debate still rages as to what extent the Brontes’ works might be termed “feminist”: Charlotte was opposed to voting rights for women and was painfully shy and socially conservative. Yet although she did not hold traditional feminist beliefs, the characters she created are intrinsically feminist because of their individuality and intelligence.
The appeal of the Bronte sisters’ work lies in the way it depicts psychologically complex heroines, who are often burning with anger and disappointment; wishing simultaneously to be liberated from cruel constraints while retaining an erotic desire for masculine strength.
“It’s a mistake to see the Japanese passion for the Brontes as meaning that Japanese women are ‘oppressed,’ ” says North. “That’s too much of a cliche — and a crude generalization. What many Japanese women may feel is, like the Brontes before them, both the desire to be ‘free’ and the contradictory impulse to remain loyal to a comforting patriarchal tradition.”