In Japan, female writers are stars within the country’s literary sphere, even if on the international stage their light seems to pale in comparison to the post-war wave of recognized, male writers such as Yukio Mishima (1925-70) or Haruki Murakami.
The contributions of female writers to Japan’s tradition of literature is immense. Looking through history, there are a number of examples of female writers who have outlasted their male compatriots to embed themselves in the annals of the present. While male writers such as Mishima and Murakami are deserved in their celebration, so too must we look toward Japan’s female canon.
Female Japanese writers have already proved their staying power. The two most famous works in classical literature during the Heian Period (794-1185) were both penned by women: “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu and “The Pillow Book” by Sei Shonagon. As with the beginnings of other literary traditions around the world, Japan, too, has its war epics (most notably the anonymously penned “The Tale of the Heike”), but ultimately it is the work of these women on the sidelines of the era that has proved most enduring.
Both “The Tale of Genji” and “The Pillow Book” illuminate court life; the intrigues and strategic maneuvering off the battlefield that defined the Heian Period in an arguably more complete, more complex rendering than the stark absolutes of war. “The Tale of Genji” is considered the world’s first novel; “The Pillow Book” showcases a distinctive Japanese genre, a blend of essays, lists, poetry and vignettes mimicking fragmented thought called zuihitsu, a style still popular today.
What gives a literary work staying power throughout the centuries? As shown by “The Tale of Genji” and “The Pillow Book,” it is universality, an accurate depiction of the human condition that resonates across space and time. And for that, female Japanese writers unquestioningly deserve more recognition on a global stage.
Take Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-96). So revered in Japan that her face currently graces the ¥5,000 note, her most important works are virtually unknown internationally and she has been mostly ignored for translation. Part of the reason undoubtedly comes from the uniqueness of Higuchi’s language, her skillful melding of classical Japanese language and allusions with realistic, stark depictions of the Meiji Era’s (1868-1912) class and gender distinctions. Her work indeed would be a challenge to modern translators, but more should rise to that challenge.
Classically trained in poetry yet forced to drop out of elementary school, Higuchi’s short life was marked by both opportunity and hardship due to her family’s precarious financial situation. Stylistically loyal to classical Japanese yet thematically concerned with the struggles of the poor, Higuchi’s personal diaries are considered literary treasures in Japan yet have never been fully translated into English.
Despite her vulnerable personal situation, appreciation for Higuchi’s talent as a writer quickly spread among Tokyo’s literary elite with a few published stories just months before her untimely death at the age of 24 from tuberculosis. Higuchi’s reputation continues, and she is acknowledged in her homeland for the universal truths she penned in her short career.
As seen from the short stories of hers that have been translated, Higuchi powerfully illuminates the difficulties of life on the margins of Meiji Era Japan, and reveals a keen awareness of humanity across the social classes. It is a pity that non-Japanese readers cannot access the full oeuvre of this important chronicler of the human condition.
Another Japanese woman who advocated for a better world in her writing is Raicho Hiratsuka (1886-1971). Hiratsuka started the Japanese tradition of being a feminist/writer/activist as a founding member of the 1910s all-women’s literary magazine “Bluestocking” (“Seito”).
Her autobiography, “In the Beginning, Woman was the Sun,” is an important chronicle of turbulent times in Japan from a female perspective, and a vital reminder that Japanese women are, and have always been, much more than “good wives, wise mothers,” as the famous adage says. Hiratsuka herself wrote in her autobiography, “in my wildest dreams, I did not imagine how much my opening statement (in “Seito”) would stir the young women of my generation.”
Moving past World War II, male Japanese writers have taken their place on the world literary stage, not only the aforementioned Mishima and Murakami, but countless others like Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) (awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1968), Shusaku Endo (1923-96), Ryu Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe (awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1994), to name just a few. They are deserving writers, and accordingly the literary world rushed to embrace them. No modern female Japanese writer can boast of the same global recognition.
And yet, within Japan, female writers in the modern era capture humanity in ways that may well outlast the work of their male counterparts, who arguably succeed only within the zeitgeist of their times.
Fumiko Enchi’s (1905-1986) “Masks” is a brilliant commentary on machinations and manipulation across any time period, Kaori Ekuni (“Twinkle Twinkle”) comically captures the social contradictions of a modern marriage of convenience, while Banana Yoshimoto (“Kitchen”) — perhaps the closest to a global female superstar — spins universal truths out of the mundane.
Yuko Tsushima (1947-2016) (“Child of Fortune”) writes honestly and poignantly of the complicated relationships between parent and child, memory and reality. Yoko Ogawa (“The Housekeeper and the Professor”) illuminates the human condition with an understated simplicity.
Mitsuyo Kakuta (“Woman on the Other Shore”) quietly considers success and ambition, and the past’s impact on the future. And, for capturing humanity’s jarringly cruel mental and physical violence, who better than Kanae Minato (“Confessions”), Natsuo Kirino (“Out”) or Hitomi Kanehara (“Snakes and Earrings”)? Despite obvious quality, many of these voices seem forgotten, fallen by the literary wayside.
The imbalance of attention paid to the country’s many worthy female writers should be addressed with more frequent and, frankly, higher-quality translations. But in the meantime, to help amplify these female voices, over the next few months we’ll be highlighting some of the lesser read in translation but equally deserving female writers.
Join us, as we spotlight female Japanese writers in the months to come.
A series exploring female writers of Japan will be published on the third Sunday of the month, starting in June.