Up to his ears in debt and with absolutely no money, Ichiriki Yamamoto made a bold prediction to his wife.
“From now on, I’ll write novels to support the family,” he said in 1994.
Ichiriki, 54, and his wife Eriko, 38, had been involved in a long-running inheritance dispute over land in Tokyo’s Ginza district owned by Eriko’s late father. In 1991, the court ordered her family to pay 1.7 billion yen to her four aunts and to hand over two other plots of land in return for keeping the plot of land in Ginza.
A loan was secured with a nonbank lender after a bank backed off at the last minute, but initial plans to construct a building on the land and repay the debt through rent revenue were no longer deemed viable given the economic circumstances.
In the end, the Yamamotos not only lost the land, but were left with debts of some 200 million yen, which they still owe to friends and acquaintances who tried to help.
Writing was, therefore, the only real option Yamamoto had, given his past experience as a copywriter and editor. As the sole breadwinner of a family of four, it was a risk he had to take.
Three years later he was awarded the “new talent prize” by All Yomimono magazine. In 2002, he won the Naoki Prize — Japan’s most prestigious literary award and the goal for all would-be novelists in Japan. The gamble seems to have paid off.
His Naoki Prize-winning novel, “Akanezora,” is the story of Eikichi, a Kyoto tofu maker who opens Edo’s first Kyoto-style tofu shop. The novel details not only the struggles that Eikichi and his wife needed to overcome to gain the acceptance of the people of Edo but also the deterioration of the couple’s relationship.
But while their son believed that his parents were in discord all their lives, he finds evidence after their deaths that this was not the case and that the couple shared many “common values” that were passed down to their children.
All of Yamamoto’s novels are set in the late Edo Period in the Fukagawa area of today’s Koto Ward, where the writer now resides. Many of the motifs of his novels are based on personal experiences.
The family friction in “Akanezora,” for instance, reflects the divorce of his parents, as well as his own two divorces. He describes his past as consisting of affairs, lies, betrayals and failures in human and business relationships — something he “wants to remove with an eraser.”
“Soryu,” the story that won him his first “new talent prize,” is based on the support given to the budding writer by his wife.
When Yamamoto told Eriko of his outrageous plan to repay their debts by writing novels, “which any normal wife would have instantly rejected,” she not only accepted it but gave him unconditional backing.
“I know you can do it,” she said, words that Yamamoto credits more than anything else in his life with rebuilding his shattered self-esteem.
While Yamamoto was writing “Soryu,” he frantically entered every novel contest possible but received little or no joy.
“I was in a to-hell-with-it-all state when I wrote it, I was kind of trying to provoke the (contest’s) judging committee by mirroring myself in the main character,” he said.
Hoping to escape from poverty, the hero in “Soryu” keeps submitting his designs to a prestigious porcelain design contest. As with Yamamoto’s works, the designs reach the short list every year but never make it to the top.
But the hero’s wife — an exact copy of Eriko, according to Yamamoto — has no doubts about her husband’s success.
One day, while waiting anxiously for the results of another contest, with his financial situation still a shambles, Yamamoto suddenly realized the most important thing in his life.
“If a family unites, any adversity, recession or even a heavy debt, can be overcome.”
At the end of “Soryu,” the main character seems to convey Yamamoto’s own feelings.
“I’ve always resented my unluckiness, but I was wrong. Being able to paint what I want, having nice company, a wife I can count on and a healthy child; we all have enough to eat and everyone’s smiling.
“In the most essential part of my life, I’m extremely lucky.”
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