Perhaps no other female Japanese writer has traversed the personal and the political so successfully in her work as Yuko Tsushima (1947-2016).
The prolific author burst onto the literary scene in 1967 with her first short story, “A Birth,” while still a university student. Initially, Tsushima garnered media attention as the daughter of famed writer Osamu Dazai (1909-48), but she quickly forged her own independent literary identity and eventually won most of Japan’s top literary accolades, including the Noma Literary Prize, the Yomiuri Prize for Literature and the Tanizaki Prize.
Early on, Tsushima broke the boundaries of the traditional Japanese I-novel genre, giving voice to a voiceless minority by authentically depicting the struggles of single mothers in society as a single mother herself. Tsushima was lauded both at home and in the West as a feminist writer for these early works.
She was represented in the English language with a selection of short stories collected in “The Shooting Gallery” in 1988, and by the novel, “Child of Fortune,” winner of the 1978 Women’s Literature Prize in Japan, both translated by Geraldine Harcourt. Throughout her career, she consistently focused on the universal issues of marginalization and abandonment across society, and her later novels illuminated a range of outcasts from the Ainu, Japan’s indigenous people, to the interracial children born between Japanese women and American soldiers during the American Occupation.
Harcourt recounts a recent conversation with Tsushima’s daughter, the playwright Nen Ishihara, about how her mother’s work has tended to be reduced to I-novel style: “According to Ishihara, Tsushima looked through her own personal circumstances to the underlying social structure and wrote about that, but critics tended to see only the personal dimension. Ishihara suggests it was due to her being a woman.”
Tsushima resisted all stereotypes and boundaries on her writing, and another work that offers proof of that is “Laughing Wolf,” translated in 2011 by Dennis Washburn. A highly ambitious novel in both structure and theme, it features a fatherless girl and a motherless boy as they travel across time and space into the horrors of postwar Japan.
Tsushima’s later works, many not yet published in English, moved fully into the realms of political concern, as in, for example, “All Too Barbarian,” where she explores the aboriginal ruling policy in Japan’s colonization of Taiwan through the letters and diary of a young, marginalized wife.
For English-reading Tsushima fans, the past summer offered three publications from Penguin U.K., all translated by Harcourt. Two short stories were published in February by Penguin Modern in the chapbook, “Of Dogs and Walls,” followed by “Territory of Light,” an early novel that gorgeously reveals the uneven relationship between a mother and child in the aftermath of divorce, as well as a reprint of “Child of Fortune.” Finally, the Asia-Pacific Journal devoted a special issue to Tsushima in June with new translations of short works, available online.
The author of over 35 novels and countless short stories and essays, Tsushima left behind a stunning legacy of stylistically inventive and lyrically fierce prose that continually featured individuals pushed to the edges of society.
This is the sixth installment of the series “Works by Japanese Women,” which explores notable female writers of Japan. Read more at jtimes.jp/womenwriters.