Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-96) revolutionized the world of Japanese literature in the months before her death at the age of 24. Hailed as a true poet and lauded for her humanistic perspective in depicting the seedy underside of the Meiji Restoration, the test of time puts paid to her lasting influence.

In the Shade of Spring Leaves, by Ichiyo Higuchi, Translated by Robert Lyons Danly.
388 pages
W. W. NORTON AND COMPANY, INC., Fiction/Biography.

Only one book in English gives a taste of Higuchi’s brilliance. Translated by Robert Lyons Danly, “In the Shade of Spring Leaves” won the 1982 National Book Award for translation. Danly’s book begins with a thorough, lively biography peppered with extracts from Higuchi’s personal diaries that vividly showcase a vibrant mind. That the diaries themselves are not yet translated in full remains a tragedy; in Japan they are revered literature in their own right. The latter half of Danly’s book collects nine of her best stories complemented by meticulous literary analysis.

While Danly’s scholarship is appreciated, even without biography and analysis, Higuchi’s stories provide incontrovertible proof of genius. Her collected writings span only five years, yet even her earliest works, laden with Heian Period (794-1185) allusions and dripping with sentimentality, reveal genuine talent. Higuchi’s later stories throng with multifaceted characters set against a backdrop of universal themes and rendered in a masterfully layered literary style.

The juxtaposition of her deft, classically inspired technique against the gritty reality of Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s squalid pleasure district, defines her best work. “Troubled Waters” follows a despairing young courtesan and the once-prosperous merchant who can no longer afford her; “Encounters on a Dark Night” considers both redemption and revenge when a downcast young elite befriends a desperate orphan; “Child’s Play,” Higuchi’s novella masterpiece, is a lyrical, voyeuristic peek into the lives of children populating the backstreets. Each of Higuchi’s characters is fully realized and achingly human; her literary wordplay, stage-setting, allusions both classical and colloquial, pivot words, puns and epithets, all combine for an intricate, quicksilver flow of poetic prose that truly mark her genius.

Straddling the middle and lower classes as her family’s fortunes plummeted after her father’s early death, Higuchi’s own experiences provided the material for her best work. Her face now graces the ¥5,000 note, a poignant irony given the privation she faced in her lifetime; her stories celebrated as she became the toast of literary Tokyo in the last months of her brief existence before succumbing to tuberculosis, the same disease that took her father and older brother.

Higuchi turned a profoundly critical eye to the rampant materialism of the age, yet she wrote with a wry humor for the world, what critic Saito Ryokuu (1868-1904) described as “like a sneer after crying.” A new translation of “Child’s Play” into modern Japanese by acclaimed writer Mieko Kawakami demands an English translation, hopefully opening the door to renewed global interest in this important writer. By illuminating the cruel inequalities within teeming Meiji Era Japan (1868-1912), Higuchi captured the zeitgeist and touched the eternal in humanity’s unending struggle between classes.

The English reading world needs more of this genius in print.

This is part two of the series “Works by Japanese Women,” which explores notable female writers of Japan. Read more reviews at www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/books.

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