To Live and To Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 edited by Yukiko Tanaka

21 May, 2010

It’s taken me ages to finish this, not because it was difficult or boring, but simply because I was also reading a handful of other books. I’m not sure whether it’s better to just stick with one book at a time or not. In the end you can only concentrate on the book in hand. But I’ve finished it and I want more! The title is taken from a quotation attributed to Hayashi Fumiko

‘to eat and to write are the two reasons for living’

To Live and to Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers, 1913-1938 edited by Tanaka Yukiko, is a brilliant collection of biographical essays and short stories featuring nine Japanese women writers of the early 20th century. Even though most of the stories were published between 1913 and 1938, I was struck by how immediate the struggles and conflicts the women characters face. The historical setting and material descriptions place the stories in a different era but the realisations and the self-awareness are things which women today still experience. Reading the stories made me ponder deeply about what I myself want to do with my life. And these stories, so varied and unique, left a deep impression on me long after I finished them.

I didn’t sympathise or like all the heroines, and I certainly didn’t warm to the men they fell in love with, but each story and struggle was dynamic and heartbreaking, most happening internally. I was struck time and again by the searingly honest portrayal of the women’s inner struggles as they tried to juggle family life, financial security, love and their work. Their methods in obtaining money and work may not be acceptable to some, but when poverty grinds you down, you can only do what needs to be done to survive. The resilience and the strength portrayed by these characters, who at the same time hurt and were hurt by the people around them, was humbling.

Because of the period in history in which most of these stories were written, there is a strong emphasis on Communism and the harsh experiences these activists underwent at the hand of the authorities. What was also interesting to note was how the women were also let down by the Communist party which they joined in the belief that it would provide equality between men and women but which in reality only mirrored the social structure in wider society. Tanaka Yukiko, who edited this volume, does an admirable job in placing these novelists within their historical and literary context, and her essays shed a light upon their work as a whole. What was interesting was how autobiographical most of the fictional work were in how they mirrored the struggles of the characters and authors.

Although I had only heard of a few of these novelists, mainly Uno Chiyo and Hayashi Fumiko, I finished the volume deeply impressed and wanting to read more stories by all the writers: Tamura Toshiko, Miyamoto Yuriko, Hirabayashi Taiko, Hayashi Fumiko, Nakamoto Takako, Nogami Yaeko, Sata Ineko, Uno Chiyo and Okamoto Kanoko. An interesting aside is that many of these writers wrote for a literary magazine titled Seitō (or ‘bluestocking’). Many were well-read in Japanese and Western literature and were aware of the political and social changes occurring outside Japan.

Tanaka Yukiko has edited a couple of other anthologies which I would love to read: Women Writers of Meiji and Taisho Japan: Their Lives, Works and Critical Reception 1868-1926 and This Kind of Woman: Ten Stories by Japanese Women Writers 1960-1976 edited together with Elizabeth Hanson and Mona Nagai.

I read this for the Women Unbound Challenge.


Uno Chiyo © Minato City 2006

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7 Responses to “To Live and To Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 edited by Yukiko Tanaka”

  1. Mel u Says:

    This sounds like a very valuable book-thanks for posting on it

  2. Nymeth Says:

    This sounds like a fantastic anthology! I hadn’t heard of it before, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. Whenever I read early twentieth-century women writers it really hits me how many of the things they struggled with are the same today.

  3. Iris Says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever read any Japanese literature. It’s not because I don’t want to, but it still hasn’t happened yet. This looks like a great collection and its definitely added it to my wishlist after reading your review.

  4. chasing bawa Says:

    Mel U: It was an absorbing read and certainly made me think.

    Nymeth: That’s one of the things that always surprises me too. Although things have progressed, it still brings home the fact that there are so many things that still need to change.

    Iris: It’s the same for me too. There’s literature from so many countries I haven’t explored yet and I keep meaning to try them but keep getting distracted. One day.

  5. mee Says:

    This sounds really good. It might be a bit hard to find though. I’ll keep it under my radar.

  6. Suko Says:

    Lovely review! This sounds like a truly fascinating collection.


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