In the midst of Showa Era (1926-89) Japan, with patriarchy dominating and imperialism rising, a young female playwright, Fumiko Enchi (1905-86), started a literary career that would eventually lead her to become a passionate advocate for female empowerment, while casting a critical, penetrating eye over her own sex.

Masks, by Fumiko Enchi. Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
160 pages

Born into a wealthy Tokyo family in 1905, Enchi was home-schooled as a child due to ill health. It allowed the young girl to pursue her literary interests fully and, by 13 years old, she had read through many of the giants of Japanese and Western literature, from Ryunosuke Akutagawa to Edgar Allan Poe.

As a young woman, Enchi saw her writing come to life on the stage with several popular plays in production throughout the 1920s.

The war and further ill health sidelined her writing, but the postwar years saw her turn to novel-writing and increasing critical acclaim as a leading feminist voice in Japan. Her work focused on women and their roles in Japanese society, giving a voice to the voiceless while criticizing the guises and manipulations women employ in their own pursuits of power. Despite her impact in Japan, out of over 100 published works in Japanese, only three of her novels have been translated into English.

“The Waiting Years,” set during the Meiji Restoration, details the interplay of relationships between an upper-class wife and her husband’s mistresses. As part of her wifely duties, she must procure young, attractive women as servants into their home to satisfy her husband’s lust. The novel won the coveted Noma Literary Prize in 1957.

“A Tale of False Fortunes,” written in 1965, is an historical imagining of an imperial love affair caught within the political intrigues at court. The short novel showcases Enchi’s scholarly knowledge of Japanese literature; the narrative is built around a fictitious historical document and blends in excerpts from real works like the Heian Period (794-1185) epic “A Tale of Flowering Fortunes.”

Perhaps the best of the three translated novels at showcasing Enchi’s multifarious talents is “Masks” (1958). A triumph on many levels, the novel spins an intricate layering of cultural archetypes using noh masks as its underlying motif, overlaid by allusions to both “The Tale of Genji” and traditional shamaness traditions of spirit possession in a tale of feminine manipulation. Although the story is told from the male characters’ perspective, the women of the novel — a young, beautiful widow, Yasuko, and her devious mother-in-law, Mieko — command the narrative with their machinations, using the men like “puppets.”

For Enchi, the dominance of the patriarchy in Japan forced women to wield their power in the shadows: “The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume.” An important writer to modern Japan, Enchi’s work deserves consideration for her unflinching appraisals of women caught in the web of male dominance and their tenebrous efforts to gain control.

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

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