Books

‘Territory of Light’ is a timely translation that sheds light on Japan’s marginalized

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Acclaimed novelist Yuko Tsushima spent her lifetime reflecting light on the shadowed voices in Japan, inspired by her own experiences as a single mother facing the censure of a traditionally patriarchal society. In her later years, Tsushima explored the marginalized in Japanese history, writing from the perspective of ostracized, biracial children during the American Occupation in “Yamaneko Domu” and from that of a part-Ainu girl of the early Edo Period (1603-1868) in “Jakka Duxuni,” following her as she migrates to Macau and Batavia.

Territory of Light, by Yuko Tsushima, Translated by Geraldine Harcourt.
128 pages
PENGUIN CLASSICS, Fiction.

Awarded numerous accolades over her long career, including the Noma, Kawabata and Tanizaki Prizes, Tsushima’s work has been translated into a dozen languages and has a particular following in France. Penguin Classics’ upcoming release of one of her most famous early works, “Territory of Light,” will again illuminate for English readers this powerfully perspicuous author, two years after her untimely passing from lung cancer.

Winner of the 1979 Noma Prize for New Writers and originally published in the Japanese literary monthly, “Gunzo,” “Territory of Light” unfolds as 12 linked stories tracing a year in the life of a young woman, the nameless narrator. The novel opens with light-dappled images of the vacant apartment she will soon move into, starting life anew as a single mother to her two-year-old daughter after her husband leaves them both. The novel ends with the young woman observing a disaffected married couple as they prepare to vacate another apartment the young woman hopes to rent as the next step in her journey. Fully baptized in the harsh light of reality as a single mother, the narrator has nonetheless rebuilt a life with her daughter in the shadows of society, and faces the future with a newfound clarity. The work parallels Tsushima’s own emotional experiences as a single mother.

Nen Ishihara (Kai Tsushima), Tsushima’s daughter and an established playwright in her own right, explained the autobiographical underpinnings of her mother’s work: “I think what she was doing was portraying Japanese society as it appeared to her as a member of a minority herself. She wrote with anger toward an extremely family-oriented, male-dominated society.”

Tsushima’s anger released a humanistic, raw clarity of writing that resonates today with acute authenticity despite the nearly 40 years that have passed since “Territory of Light” was written. Motherhood is revealed with no false sentimentality as the young woman struggles against a disapproving society, her own changing attitudes toward her pending divorce, and her warring feelings of love and resentment, desire and responsibility. We observe scenes of tender, quiet joy when her daughter tosses brightly colored origami paper on the roof below their new home and harsh moments of discord when the exhausted mother finds herself shouting “vile abuse” at her young daughter for waking her in the middle of the night, hysterical from a nightmare. Culturally, the novel allows readers to peek inside everyday Japanese society from a mother’s perspective, observing day care, her work-life routines, outings to the park or local restaurants and the sometimes fumbling attempts she makes to build a community for her daughter and herself.

Part of the novel’s power comes from Tsushima’s cinematic writing style, effortlessly blending memory and present action in vividly lucid prose. As translator Geraldine Harcourt explains: “What I tried to bring across most of all was the clarity of her imagery, as if I were manually adjusting the focus ring on a camera.”

Harcourt first started translating Tsushima over 30 years ago and became close friends with the author. She credits Tsushima’s open willingness to collaborate as a reason for the success of her translations: “It was enormously enjoyable and rewarding to correspond over her work, as she was always willing to discuss her original meanings or offer additional background information; she developed relationships with many of her translators.

“It was also very rewarding to be able to provide Tsushima-san with a different perspective directly from her English readers,” Harcourt adds. “An American friend who reads my translations while still in progress commented on how funny the first chapter of “Territory of Light” is. Japanese critics had never commented on the quiet, wry humor of the novel, as it was originally categorized as a “single mother” story in Japan and so reviewers had looked for pathos and missed the humor.”

The English-language release of “Territory of Light” coincidentally aligns with the raising of marginalized female voices around the world and is an important reminder in Japan that the whispers from the shadows must be revealed and validated. Hopefully the translation will open the door to translations of Tsushima’s later works that are concerned with a wider spectrum of history’s marginalized.

As Ishihara concludes: “In retracing the past, she tried to discover small voices that have been overlooked in the majority’s version of history. While society’s oppression of minorities made my mother angry, she also felt hope in the way that, when seen from minority perspectives, a different view of society emerges as stereotypes are broken down and a wider world unfolds.”