Family and Self

Twentieth Century Japanese Fiction

A series developed by Sarah M. Strong

  • The Waiting Years by Enchi Fumiko
  • The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki Junichirô
  • The Setting Sun by Dazai Osamu
  • A Personal Matter by Nobel laureate Ôe Kenzaburô
  • Good-bye Tsugumi by Yoshimoto Banana

The family is an important social unit in any society.  In Japan, with its strong legacy of Confucian values and traditional emphasis of group over the individual, the family plays an exceptionally important role.   Called the ie, Japan’s traditional family took on definitive form during the early modern period (1600-1867) when the government sought to create a stable, if not static, society by requiring that the eldest son inherit and pass on the livelihood of his father.  This traditional family was both a unit of production, in which family members all shared in the work of the family business from farming to papermaking, to shop-keeping, and a genealogical unit in which the three-generational family living together in the family house felt themselves linked conceptually, legally and spiritually to the earlier generations who had worked and lived there before them.  While the traditional family system was usually conceived of as ‘purely’ patrilineal and based on blood relationships, in practice, in the absence of a suitable senior male heir, families could pass on the line to a second son, son-in-law, daughter, or adopted son.

Like so much else, the Japanese family experienced significant transformations and challenges during the tumultuous years of the twentieth century.  Growth of industry, salaried jobs, and the movements of rural populations to industrial centers put strain on the notion of the family as a unit of production.  The importation of Western ideas such as individualism that placed primary value on the self over more collective identities, as well as the notion of “love marriage” that called for matches to be determined not by the ie but by the couple involved, further undermined the authority of the family structure.  Legal reforms, especially in the immediate post-war period, additionally challenged the ie by dissolving the system of primogeniture and treating each nuclear family as a unit rather than a genealogical line.

How do Japanese novelists depict the family with its potential to both define and bind its members?  Do they portray it as a nurturing institution offering the strength of mutual support to all, or as a hierarchal unit that serves the interests of its most privileged members? How do they chronicle the ie’s changes over time?  Is the family they depict different in ways we can define from a family in the West?  What happens to the individual who finds him or herself outside of the family unit?  How do modern-day novelists see the family faring in today’s consumer society?

This series explores five novels–two authored by women and three by men–each engaged with issues of both family and self, but from widely differing perspectives.  The first, Enchi Fumiko’s[1] The Waiting Years was published in 1957 but is set in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) during the years of Japan’s rapid growth as a modern nation state.  The Shirakawa family, whose story spans the forty-year course of the narrative, has property and an outward claim to status and prestige, but the lives of the family’s “inner” members, both wife and concubines, are marked by a poignant emotional suffering occasioned by the power imbalance between male and female roles and the autocratic personality of the current head of household.

While Enchi shows us the potentially dark side of the traditional family structure, Tanizaki Junichirô provides us with a eulogy to its warmth and grace.  Tanizaki wrote his family saga, The Makioka Sisters, between 1942 and 1948 when Japan was either at war or confronting the immediate aftermath of defeat, but he set his narrative in the 1930s in a slow-paced, cultured way of life that he knew had little chance of re-emerging from the ashes of war.  The fictional family whose story is chronicled is an old merchant house in the west of Japan whose fortunes are in decline.  Marriage, in terms of the pursuit of suitable match, is the central subject of this lyrical novel in which the modern world intrudes upon, but never quite overwhelms, traditional life within the ie.

Dazai Osamu wrote and published his novel The Setting Sun while Tanizaki was still at work on The Makioka Sisters, but Dazai’s portrait of a crumbling aristocratic family experiencing sharp financial decline and moral uncertainty is set squarely within the upheaval of the immediate post-war period.  Dazai’s brother and sister characters, each in radically different ways, throw the “old morality” of the ie system to the wind.  The story speaks to a sense of despair over the human condition in modernity but also to a hope in the possibilities of a radically new social order.

Nobel laureate Ôe Kenzaburô published his acclaimed early novel, A Personal Matter in 1964, seventeen years after the appearance of Dazai’s The Setting Sun.  Ôe shows us a bustling, thoroughly modern Tokyo pushing ahead with no backward glances, the upheaval of the early post-war period a thing of the past.  The family he depicts, nuclear, detached from its rural and genealogical roots, seems familiar to us, but its very insularity allows us to experience all the more personally this account of a young father confronting, and coming to terms with, the news that his son has been born with a brain abnormality that will leave him mentally impaired.

The final novel of the list, like the first, is authored by a woman.  Yoshimoto Banana is one of Japan’s most popular contemporary novelists.  Good-bye Tsugumi (1989)was Yoshimoto’s second novel published when she was twenty-five.  The narrator, Maria, is a young woman just finishing high school and heading for university.  In legal terms she inhabits a space outside the family since her mother, who raised her, has lived apart from her father and was never married to him.  But Maria makes up for any lack of “official” family by contributing to and celebrating all the relationships—with both relatives and friends–that nurture her and bring a family-like warmth to her life.  Yoshimoto’s novel articulates a theme often found in popular youth media of an idealized surrogate family shaped more by bonds of friendship than by notions of duty, circumstances of birth, or the formal structures of the ie.

The Waiting Years (Japanese title: Onnazakaby Enchi Fumiko

Enchi Fumiko was born in Tokyo in 1904, the daughter of a noted scholar of Japanese language, Ueda Kazutoshi.  She attended the Japan Women’s University but was lackluster in her achievement as a formal student.  Her intimate acquaintance with Japan’s literary heritage, evident in the richly textured, allusive quality of her prose, was the fruit of long childhood hours spent reading in her father’s library and of frequent trips with her grandmother to the Kabuki and Noh theaters.  As a young woman, Enchi struggled to become established first as a playwright in the 1920s and then, in the mid-1930s, as a novelist.  It was only in the post-war period, however, when she found herself confronted with both poor health and a need to support herself financially as a writer that she began to produce the haunting stories that would win her a national reputation.  She wrote The Waiting Years between 1949 and 1957, publishing it in serialized increments.  The work is typical of Enchi’s fiction in having as its central character a strong woman who accepts a burden of psychological and emotional suffering with outward forbearance but inward anger.  Other book-length works of fiction by Enchi available in English translation are Masks (1958) and the historical novel A Tale of False Fortunes (1959-61).  Enchi died in 1985 having received the imperial Order of Culture the previous year.

Onnazaka, the Japanese title of The Waiting Years, means literally, “women’s slope.”  The word refers to an alternate approach to a shrine or temple, an approach that was set at a gentler angle than the steeper “men’s slope” (otokozaka) and considered suitable for women to use.  At the close of the novel (pp. 188-190) we see the main character, Shirakawa Tomo, in poor health struggling up just such a long, gentle slope through a quiet snowfall.  Her destination at the crest of the hill is not a shrine or temple, but her own home that shelters the household to whose care she has devoted “the strength of her life” (p. 190).  It is her duty as a woman to toil in the service of the family (ie), a service seen as “gentler” than a man’s duty because it is carried out in the domestic rather than the public sphere. But she now, at the end of her life, sees the object of her unstinting care as an “unfeeling, hard, and unassailable fortress”  (p. 190).  This metaphor for the family clearly refers to the chilling emptiness of Tomo’s own experience within the Shirakawa household.   At the same time, it seems also to suggest more generally her indictment of the ie as an oppressive social institution.

In a figurative sense Tomo takes her first painful step up the women’s slope forty years earlier at the novel’s start when she carries out her husband, Shirakawa Yukitomo’s, unfeeling request that she recruit on his behalf some suitably attractive young woman to serve as his live-in concubine. The new concubine, Suga, is soon joined by other women drafted to serve the male family members’ sexual needs and the reproductive interests of the household.  There is Yumi, Yukitomo’s second concubine, and Miya, wife to Tomo and Yukitomo’s loutish son but also Yukitomo’s secret mistress.  As procurer of sexual and reproductive partners for the Shirakawa men, Tomo realizes that she is complicit in causing the suffering of other women. While she feels guilty about this, Tomo also experiences a sense of camaraderie with these fellow female members of the household and she does her best to protect their interests.

The narrator is clear about Tomo’s motivation in toiling up her painful “women’s slope”: “to serve her husband was the creed around which her life revolved, to rebel against his outrages would have been to destroy herself as well” (p. 28).  This allegiance to the creed of wifely service seems to stay with Tomo throughout her life, although her love for her husband, still faintly glowing at the start of the novel, turns eventually “to ash” (p. 78).  The fact that Tomo’s life is one of outward obedience does not mean that she goes to her grave without any expression of resistance towards the individual and the institution that have caused her to suffer.  The final pages of the novel provide us with scenes of quiet but forceful drama as Tomo, in the last hours of her life, delivers two oblique but powerful protests that reveal her lack of faith in her self-indulgent husband and her ultimate unwillingness to have her sense of self subsumed within his family.  The first “apology” leaves Yukitomo “reeling before a force more powerful than himself” (p. 200)  while the second—a request for the disposal of her remains outside of the Shirakawa family tomb–delivers a shock sufficient “to split his arrogant ego in two” (p. 203).

The Makioka Sisters (Japanese title: Sasameyukiby Tanizaki Jun’ichirô

Tanizaki, along with Nobel Laureate Kawabata Yasunari, is the most acclaimed Japanese writer of the first half of the twentieth century.  His long career as a novelist spans the years 1910 to his death in 1965. He was born in Tokyo in 1886 to a family of merchant background.  His earliest works tended to celebrate modernization and Westernization, two very linked topics in early twentieth century Japan.   But when Tanizaki’s western style house in Yokohama was destroyed in the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923 and he was forced to take refuge with family in the Kyoto-Osaka (otherwise known as the Kansai) area, he became engaged by the quieter, more traditional patterns of life he found there.  He felt that the urban merchant culture of the Kansai area represented a purer strain of Japanese tradition than lifestyles in Tokyo where people seemed so eager to accept Western ways.  He also considered Kansai culture to be rooted in the courtly traditions of the ancient Heian (794-1185) aristocracy that had been based in Kyoto.  Virtually all of his fiction from 1928 on expresses this fundamental polarity between Tokyo and Kansai, modern and traditional Japan.  His preference was always for the latter.

Censorship became an increasing problem for writers in Japan during the late 1930s. The government worked to suppress any works of fiction that did promote an ethic of personal sacrifice or inspire a sense of communalism and national pride. Tanizaki responded by undertaking, starting in 1939, a translation into contemporary Japanese of the famous long narrative of Heian court culture, The Tale of Genji.  This was clearly a “safe” thing to do at the time because of the work’s status as a national classic, but the translation project also resonated with Tanizaki’s own goal of confirming Japanese literary and aesthetic traditions.  In 1942, still clearly under the spell of the elegant court narrative, he began to write his novel The Makioka Sisters, a lovingly rendered portrait of a fictional Kansai family loosely based on the family of his own wife, Matsuko.  The novel’s attention to the changing seasons, to the careful carrying out of daily and annual rituals, its meticulous rendering of voice and its smooth access to the interiority of its main characters all hearken back to The Tale of Genji.  The novel is set of course, not in Heian, but in immediately pre-war Japan, chronicling the years 1936 to 1941.  It thus takes us up to, but not into, Japan’s war with the Allied Powers.  Tanizaki wrote The Makioka Sisters between 1942 and 1948 in the midst of war and the U. S. Occupation that followed.  (His effort to publish portions of Book One in 1943 was cut short by the censors).  Caught up in their small, everyday affairs, his characters seem to pay scant attention to national and international events and of course have no knowledge of the national trauma about to unfold; Pearl Harbor, the fire bombings of Tokyo and other major cities, evacuations, food shortages, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not within the sisters’ horizon of experience. But both we, as readers, and Tanizaki, as author, are aware of these events and that knowledge colors and renders more poignant this traditionally told tale of a vanishing way of life.

The Makioka Sisters gives us a meticulously drawn portrait of a traditional ie. The senior Mr. Makioka, the head of an old merchant family of the Semba area of Osaka, is dead before the story begins but an important character nonetheless.   Blessed with four daughters but no sons, he had sought to carry on the family line by bringing Tatsuo into the family as a muko-yoshi (adopted son-in-law) and husband to his eldest daughter Tsuruko.  Tatsuo thus has the Makioka name.  At the time of his farther-in-law’s death he assumed a position as the head of the family (p. 9).   But the senior Mr. Makioka lived large.  He brought in a second adopted son-in-law as the husband of his second daughter, Sachiko.  This second son-in-law, Teinosuke, like Tatsuo, has the Makioka name, but since there can be only one heir within the ie, Teinosuke has the status of head of a branch family (bunke), leaving Tatsuo with the greater responsibility and authority allotted the head of the main family (honke).  The main-family/branch-family structure did not survive the post-war changes to civil law, but the basic paradigm of relationship between main and branch divisions within a larger association survives in Japan today as a model for corporate and commercial organization. The story shows us the tension that can result when the de facto influence of the branch house threatens the theoretically superior influence and authority of the main house in determining family affairs.

Another aspect of traditional family culture that is vividly portrayed by Tanizaki in this novel is the process of arranged marriage, especially the responsibility and role of the senior family members in determining the matrimonial fate of the eligible junior members.  Indeed, as readers, we experience the steps of the arranging process, including the tension-fraught miai (mutual viewing), so many times that the process becomes familiar, even old-hat.  The care and benign concern of the senior family for the wellbeing of its junior members is evident in this process, but so, too, is the function of snobbery and the desire to enhance family prestige, factors that can have little to do with an individual’s marital happiness.  The narrative events also make clear the vulnerability of the most junior family members in this hierarchical process of decision-making.

Tanizaki’s customary privileging of the traditional (and Japanese) over the modern (and Western) is evident in the contrasting personalities and fates of the two youngest Makioka sisters.  Yukiko, the senior of the two, is clearly aligned with the traditional pole.  Her name means literally “snow child” and provides a clue to the meaning of the unusual Japanese title of the novel, an old, literary expression that means “lightly falling snow.”  Snow and indeed winter are scarcely mentioned in the novel, but scattering cherry blossoms, whose traditional literary metaphor is snow, play a central role indeed.  This subtle linkage between Yukiko and the natural image most emblematic of Japanese aesthetic culture confirms her importance as a signifier of positive values within Tanizaki’s cultural spectrum.  Taeko, by contrast, is what Tanizaki and others of his generation termed a “modern girl” (modan-gaaru, or mo-ga for short).  Western, autonomous, sassy, apolitical but offering a clear challenge to traditional morality, the “modern girl” loomed large as a figure in the media, in advertising, and in the male imagination. While few women of the Twenties and Thirties actually identified themselves as “modern girls” they were felt to be everywhere, unsettling harbingers of a new age.  While Taeko might well strike us early twenty-first century readers positively for her independence, capability, and lack of snobbery, her novelist creator seems to offer his rebuke of this junior and most modern member of the family by dealing her the cruelest fate of all of the four sisters.

The Setting Sun (Japanese title: Shayôby Dazai Osamu

Dazai Osamu is the penname of Tsushima Shûji.  Dazai was born in 1909, the eighth surviving child in a large, propertied and politically influential family in Kanagi in Japan’s northern Aomori Prefecture.  Aomori has a special significance for us in Maine as our Japanese “sister state.”   Dazai’s exceptional intelligence and skill as a writer were evident even from early childhood.  As an adolescent, however, he showed signs of unhappiness and while still in high school made an initial attempt at suicide. His subsequent life was troubled by further attempts at suicide, alcoholism, and a period of addiction to narcotic painkillers.  In 1930 Dazai left Aomori for Tokyo to enroll in the French department of the prestigious Imperial University (now Tokyo University).  There is no indication that he attended classes but in Tokyo he took up the dissolute, at times flamboyant, lifestyle that caused his family on more than one occasion to sever relations with him and to cut him off financially.  During these early years in Tokyo he also became interested in communism, a movement the government sought to repress with increasing force.  While still ostensibly a student, Dazai began to write and publish stories. His preferred style was that of the confessional I-novel, a distinctively Japanese form of fiction that creates a sense of intimacy with the narrator  through the use of a loosely structured, diary-like format.  During the war years Dazai returned for periods of time to his family home. His novel Return to Tsugaru (1944) is set in that home province.  He is best known for a set of works including The Setting Sun that he produced in quick succession once back in Tokyo at the end of the war.  These are stories that expressed for many the unsettled, questioning, and at times desperate condition of life in war-ravaged, occupied Japan.  Dazai died in a double suicide in 1948.

“With the end of the war everything changed…we couldn’t go on as we were” (p. 16).  This simple realization of the divorced daughter Kazuko near the start of The Setting Sun speaks to the experience of many people in immediately post-war Japan.  The sense of rupture of the old order was physical, but also moral.  In this new post-war world, “to insist on such virtues as sincerity and respect”– values that the state had used to extract from the populace the sacrifice needed for the war effort but also values that had lent a sense of meaning and coherence to life–was “like pulling on the feet of a dead man hanging by his neck” (p. 143).  The old moral order was dead and it was not clear what would take its place.

The three members of the once privileged family portrayed in The Setting Sun seem especially ill prepared to come to terms with the changed order of life.  The peerage (kazoku) with whom they associate (although it is not clear that they themselves hold this particular rank) was a small aristocratic class created by law in 1869 in order to strengthen the newly restored imperial institution.  It was modeled on European aristocracies with five ranks equivalent to duke, marquis, count, viscount, and baron.  The peerage was abolished with the enactment of the new Japanese Constitution in 1947.  In addition, post-war land reforms affected a broader group of propertied and traditionally privileged families.

In Dazai’s story, coarseness and a willingness to embrace a new moral order are said to be the tickets needed for survival in the changed post-war world.  The refined, childlike mother with her “real” aristocratic nature (p. 4) seems the least likely to survive.  Indeed she grows progressively weaker with each new chapter.  Naoji, the brother, appears to be wrestling with personal demons of addiction and dissipation, but he explains himself in terms of a social vision.  Like many intellectuals of his generation, he understands society to be in the process of a revolution and he accounts for his addictions, as well as his rejection of his family and opposition “to [his] father’s blood,” all in terms of an effort to coarsen himself sufficiently to qualify “as a friend of the people”  (p. 154).   In the end, however, he fails at his attempt “to be strong” and dies acknowledging that he is “after all, an aristocrat” (p. 169).

Kazuko, the divorced sister returned to her birth family, is the only one of the three who seems capable of the strength required for survival in this “transitional period of morality” (p. 173).   Whiles she reads and admires the revolutionary works in her brother’s library, her own revolution is carried out at a personal level by disregarding “the old morality” (p. 172) and bearing a child outside of the family structure.  It is important to note that although she declares that she is happy she nevertheless characterizes both herself and her soon-to-be-born child as “victims” and knows that they will live “in perpetual struggle with the old morality, like the sun” (174).

Dazai tells his story with an elliptical grace that was the hallmark of the best of the I-novel writers.  In this narrative what is unstated, inferred, unresolved, counts for as much, if not more, than what is explicitly expressed.  Here, too, natural things and the everyday world of material objects have a life of their own.  While these non-human things are juxtaposed to, and resonate with, events in the human realm, they are portrayed with an integrity that keeps them from becoming mere symbols of that realm.

A Personal Matter (Japanese title: Kojin-teki na taikenby Ôe Kenzaburô

Ôe Kenzaburô, a prolific and highly respected novelist in Japan with a growing international reputation, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994.  He was born in 1935 in a very rural village on the island of Shikoku.  Shikoku was then accessible only by sea and was considered remote and agricultural by urban Japanese.  Just as Dazai had done three decades earlier, Ôe left his country home for the bustling city, studying French literature at the prestigious Tokyo University.  He began to publish his fiction in 1958 while he was still a student and immediately won national recognition as a writer. Ôe’s subject matter is varied; he moves easily between the small scale and large scale, personal and social, rural and urban.  At the heart of all of his work is a humanistic concern to understand the forces shaping history and the human condition.  In 1963 Ôe’s life was profoundly affected when his first child, Hikari, was born with a congenital abnormality of the skull.  As a consequence, Hikari has suffered all of his life from epilepsy, mental retardation, autism, and partial blindness. Ôe drew on his experiences at the birth of Hikari in writing A Personal Matter (1964), a novel that depicts a young father’s conflicted response to the birth of a child with a pronounced cranial abnormality.  In the years since Hikari’s birth Ôe has repeatedly turned in his fiction to the theme of family and the rearing and nurturing of a handicapped child.  It is an open point of satisfaction for Ôe that in his adulthood Hikari has become a successful composer.  C.D. recordings of Hikari’s music are available in the U.S. as The Music of Hikari Oe.

In the opening pages of A Personal Matter we encounter the main character, Bird, awaiting the birth of his child.  His reflections make clear that he views fatherhood as a form of potential imprisonment.  For Bird family is a cage. While up to this point in his marriage he has felt the door of the cage to be open, he worries that the new baby will “clang that door shut” (p.6).  For Bird at the start of the story the antidote to imprisonment in family responsibility is represented by his dream of a trip to Africa.  Bird fantasizes Africa as a place of adventure where he can “grapple with the perils of death” and “glimpse beyond the horizon of quiescent and chronically frustrated everyday life” (p.19).

The particular family that threatens to cage the aptly named Bird is strikingly small in contrast to the complex late nineteenth and early twentieth century households depicted by Enchi and Tanizaki.  Due to the changes to family law made under the new constitution of 1947, we know that any child born to Bird and his wife will be registered simply as a member of their nuclear family, not as the most recent scion of Bird’s family through the paternal line.  It is perhaps not so surprising, then, that senior members of Bird’s family are not present and, with the exception of a single harsh memory of Bird’s dead father, are unmentioned.   While Bird clearly derives some sense of support from his wife’s father (as his wife does from her mother), he is much more on his own in his encounter with parenthood than were most members of the pre-war generation.

Bird’s anxiety about the responsibility of fatherhood is intensified by the news that his child has been born with an abnormally shaped head and is diagnosed as having a brain hernia.  He seeks escape from this “monster” baby first by anticipating his son’s immanent death, then, when the child proves heartier than expected, by plotting with the doctors to weaken him with substandard nutrition.  For this act of cowardice Bird suffers a heavy burden of shame.  He seeks solace in the arms of an ex-girl-friend, Himiko.  But Himiko, too, is a character in quest of escape, unable to come to terms with her husband’s suicide of the previous year.  Himiko offers to become complicit with Bird in the baby’s death in order to join him in his escape to Africa.

The dark trajectory of escape is reversed only in the last pages of the novel when Bird abruptly decides to stop running, accept his son, and try his best to save his life.  Ironically, it is in trying to save his son that Bird performs the acts of bravery he had once associated with a trip to Africa.  His father-in-law tells him he has matured while his mother-in-law comments that he has the courage and untiring nature of the most emblematic of African animals, the lion (p. 213).

This story of a difficult fatherhood initially feared and ultimately accepted is told in a rich prose style. Ôe’s knowledge of western literature and philosophy and his engagement with contemporary social debates, especially over the testing and proliferation of nuclear weapons, are in clear evidence.  At the same time, his familiarity with the abundant natural life of rural Japan also shines through, especially in his many similes and metaphors.

Good-bye Tsugumi (Japanese title: Tsugumiby Yoshimoto Banana

Yoshimoto Mahoko (Banana is her penname) was born in 1964 and is one of the most popular novelists in Japan today. By Yoshimoto’s own account, her penname of Banana was inspired by a banana plant on a table in a restaurant where she worked as a part-time waitress right after graduating from college.  She says that she chose the name because she liked the flower and found the name Banana to be both cute and androgynous.

Yoshimoto published her sensationally popular first novel Kitchen in 1987, the same year she graduated from university.  It, and her other early novels and short stories, including Good-bye Tsugumi (1989), were considered by many critics to be “young girls’ literature” (shôjo bungaku) because of their themes centering on the lives of teenage girls, the “light” almost conversational tone of their prose, and the author’s grounding in the narrative strategies of comics (manga) and “pulp” fiction.  The fact that Yoshimoto’s stories rarely engage broadly based national or social issues stands in sharp contrast to the work of her father, the essayist Yoshimoto Takaaki, who devoted much of his career to writing about such politically and socially charged topics as the emperor system, the complicity of writers in Japan’s pre-war aggression in Asia, and Japan’s post-war involvement with U.S. militarism.  It was in part this contrast between father and daughter that prompted Ôe Kenzaburô and other established writers to question the quality of Banana’s prose.  But the fact is that Yoshimoto in the late 1980s and 1990s was winning a broad readership (not limited to young girls) and enjoying circulation figures far beyond anything her father’s essays had ever seen.  Her key themes of working through devastating experience, of emotional healing, and of surrogate families composed of people who nurture and support one another, resonate with many readers in Japan and around the globe and have stayed with her as she continues to write.  For us here in Maine it is worth noting that she is an avid fan of Stephen King, especially his non-horror fiction.

As befits her Western saint’s name, Maria, the narrator of Good-bye Tsugumi, has a tolerant and loving personality.  She also has a capacity for happiness, a feeling that for her can be inspired by small, seemingly everyday events.  Above all, it is a sense of being “at home” and with family that prompts the strongest feelings of happiness and contentment in this character.  Maria often experiences this joy retrospectively, mixed with a sense of nostalgia.  For example, while reunited with her birth father and living happily as a family of three with him and her mother in Tokyo, Maria thinks back on her visits to the comfortable old inn that belongs to her aunt’s family and that served as her childhood home.  Simply catching sight of the inn’s sign on a return trip, she recalls, would make her feel relaxed and relieved, while going into the inn itself was like “being welcomed back by something big, something much larger than” herself (p. 31).  While Maria loves her childhood home and its extended family circle, she is also pleased by her newly close (somewhat lover-like p. 107 ) relationship with her father.

In contrast to Maria, Tsugumi, her cousin, is self-centered and seems to enjoy inflicting pain on others.  Maria accepts this meanness in her cousin, seeing it as an expression of spiritedness in the face of poor health.  But Tsugumi has more than poor health to plague her.  Ironically it is Tsugumi, raised at home with her father, and not the “illegitimate” Maria who doubts her father’s love (p. 117).  And it is Tsugumi, not Maria, who is most threatened by the closure of the inn and the loss of her home to development brought on by her own boy friend’s family.  It is typical of Yoshimoto’s habits of storytelling that the final resolution of the narrative is optimistic; Tsugumi is able to prevail even over the consequences of her own acts of violence.  But she does have a near brush with death. The closing lines of the story make just clear how much her near fatal sense of despair has its origins in grief over losing her childhood home.

Suggested Further Reading


Takie Sugiyama Lebra.  Japanese Women: Constraint and Fulfillment.

Yoshio Sugimoto.  An Introduction to Japanese Society.

Merry White.  Perfectly Japanese: Making Families in an Era of Upheaval.


Enchi, Fumiko.  Masks.

Tanizaki, Jun’ichirô.  Some Prefer Nettles.

Tanizaki, Jun’ichirô.  Seven Japanese Tales.

Dazai, Osamu.  Return to Tsugaru.

Dazai, Osamu.  No Longer Human.

Ôe, Kenzaburô.  The Catch and Other War Stories.

Ôe, Kenzaburô.  A Healing Family.

Yoshimoto, Banana.  Kitchen.

Yoshimoto, Banana.  Lizard.

[1] It is important to note that in Japanese the family name comes first with the personal name second, a custom that underlines the traditional importance of family identity over that of the individual.  In referring to authors and characters here I retain this original ordering and give the family name first.