The Josei Thing

on being a woman in the Land of the Rising Sun

Women in Japanese Literature: The Sound of the Mountain

Posted by thejoseithing on February 27, 2009

Note: I haven’t heard from the Feministing folks about my technical problems, so I’ll start posting again and hope the problem fixes itself…

So! I recently finished reading The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no Oto), one of the major works of Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Published in serial form between 1949 and 1954 and set in contemporary postwar Japan, this book portrays the aging of Shingo, a Tokyo businessman. He has begun to have disturbing memory lapses and strange dreams and hallucinations, and to be troubled with questionings about the meaning of things around him.

A few passages in this book stand out to me for their direct address of women’s plight in Japanese society at the time. Shingo fully faces the tragedy of women’s stolen identity, but as with other things that trouble him in his everyday existence, he is pained by an almost too-sharp perception but a feeling of existential powerless to do anything about what he sees.

The first passage below is Shingo’s reflections upon the situation of his daughter Fusako, never his favorite child, who is about to be divorced and has just returned to her parents’ home, her two children in tow. From pp. 96-97 (all quotes are from the Tuttle edition of the 1970 Edward Seidensticker translation):

Fusako’s unhappy marriage…aroused a certain compassion in Shingo, too, but more frequently it was a source of irritation. For nothing could be done about it.

He was astonished at the extent of his helplessness.

No parent could do a great deal about the married life of his children, of course; but what was truly striking, now that matters had reached a point where divorce seemed the only solution, was the helplessness of the daughter herself.

For her parents to take her and the children in after the divorce would solve nothing. It would be no cure, and it would bring her no life of her own.

Was there then no answer at all for a woman whose marriage had failed?

In the next passage, Shingo’s wife Yasuko has just told him about a news story in which a happy and prosperous older couple committed suicide together. The husband left a note stating that he and his wife wished to go quietly away while they were still loved.

From pp. 144-146. Shingo asks: 

“Did the wife leave a note?”

“What?” Yasuko looked up in surprise.

“Didn’t the wife leave a note?”

“The wife? The old woman?”

“Of course. If they went off together, it would have been natural for the wife to leave a note too. Suppose you and I were to commit suicide. You’d have something you wanted to say, and write it down.”

“That wouldn’t be necessary,” said Yasuko briskly. “It’s when young people commit suicide that they both leave notes. They want to talk about the tragedy of being kept apart. What would I have to say? With a husband and wife it’s enough for the husband to leave a note”….

When a couple committed suicide together the husband left a note and the wife did not. Did the wife have the husband substitute for her, or act for the two in concert? The question had puzzled and interested Shingo as Yasuko read from the newspaper.

Living together for long years, had the two become one? Had the old wife lost her identity, was she without a testament to leave behind?

Was it that the woman, with no compulsion to die, went in attendance upon her husband, had her part in the husband’s testament, without bitterness, regrets, hesitation? It all seemed very odd to Shingo.

But his own old wife had said that if they were to commit suicide she would not need to leave a note. It would be enough for him to.

A woman who went uncomplainingly to death with a man—there were times when the opposite was the case, but usually the woman followed the man.

One more passage. Throughout the book, Shingo has been trying to persuade his married son Shuichi to curtail a flamboyant extramarital affair. In this passage, the affair has finally come to an abusive end, but Shingo, having heard that the former mistress is pregnant, finds himself at her house trying to guilt her into an abortion.

From pp. 232-233, again beginning with Shingo speaking:

“You must forgive me for asking, but I believe you are to have a child?”

“Do I have to answer that sort of question? If a woman wants to have a child, are outsiders to step in and prevent it? Do you think a man would understand that sort of thing?” She spoke rapidly and there were tears in her voice.

“Outsiders, you say—but I am Shuichi’s father. I imagine your child will have a father too?”

“It will not. A war widow has decided to have a bastard, that’s all. I have nothing to ask of you except that you leave me alone to have it. Just ignore it, as an act of charity, if you will. The child is inside me, and it is mine.”

“That is true. And when you get married you will have other children. I see no need at this point in having unnatural children.”

“And what’s unnatural about it?”

In this passage, as in others in the book, Shingo seems to know that his own behavior is despicable, but feels pulled along by the current of pre-formed conditions in the world around him–in this case expectations about family honor coming before individual needs.

I highly recommend this novel. It’s a bit slow-moving, but a profound meditation on the human condition. Kawabata’s sharp portrayal of how small, everyday phenomena can suddenly appear strange keeps surprising me.


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