Enchi Fumiko – The Waiting Years

Since graduating from college I have moved house five times, hopping from where I grew up on the west coast to Japan, then to the midwest, the east coast and finally setting up what seems to be a semi-permanent life (or at least for a few more years) in Switzerland. All that moving means I’ve carted my possessions across nearly 16,000 miles. As most of you bibliophiles can imagine, those book boxes start to get pretty heavy. So I learned to be very careful about which books I hold on to and which books I don’t mind leaving behind.

 

One of the books I have lugged with me, literally from continent to continent is Enchi Fumiko’s Masks. I first read this book for a Japanese literature class in college and count it as one of my all-time favorites. It’s a dark, gritty book dealing with issues of sexuality, manipulation and the oppression inherent in Japan’s patriarchal culture. The best word I have to describe this novel is intense. Everything about it is intense – structure, theme, intertextuality, social criticism. In short, it can withstand a lot of re-reading.

 

So knowing how I feel about that book, I was not at all surprised to find myself absorbed in another dark, intensely feminist novel by the same author – Enchi’s The Waiting Years. Enchi took over eight years to write The Waiting Years and for it she won Japan‘s highest literary award – no small feat for a novel with such a glaring social critique.

 

The Waiting Years is also a ripping good read. The novel details the life of Tomo, a paragon of wifely submission, and her husband Yukitomo, a paragon of selfish arrogance. Not only does Yukitomo bring a concubine into their household, he has Tomo go to Tokyo to pick the girl out. Later, he seduces (although rape is more likely what happened) one of their servants and makes that woman his second concubine. Eventually, he begins an affair with his daughter-in-law. Tomo must bear each of these insults in silence as well as stamp out any desire for self-assertion or self-fulfillment. Literally, her entire life is lived only to validate her husband’s life. She has nothing, and is nothing, on her own.

 

In exchange for her willing subservience she has what none of the other women in the novel are allowed to have – legitimacy. Enchi dives freely into the minds of the other women, portraying their own stifled unhappiness. As his mistresses, they are assured Yukitomo’s love and consideration but no necessary legal benefits, neither for themselves nor for their children. As his wife, Tomo is guaranteed the outward strappings of happiness (a home, money, the power to do business in her husband’s name, the respect offered to her by strangers in recognition of his status) but Enchi makes it very clear that Tomo remains celibate, and horribly lonely, for almost forty years once Yukitomo has tired of her physically. And she has no right to want anything for herself. None. That the women are offered this choice between two equally miserable fates is, I believe, Enchi’s point. The entire system is inherently flawed.

 

To add to her worries, Tomo has the thankless job of working frantically behind the scenes to ensure the family name (which is only hers through marriage, yet the only name that will ever be associated with her and therefore vitally important) is never blemished by Yukitomo’s indecent behavior.

 

The Waiting Years ends dramatically with Tomo asserting herself for the first and last time. But I won’t say more. Think bittersweet revenge. Think soul-crumbling revelation. Very satisfying.

 

I mentioned in my first post about The Waiting Years that the Japanese title of this novel is 女坂 (Onna zaka) which literally means the woman’s slope. Traditionally, Japanese temples had a men’s path and a women’s path, the second a supposedly gentler, easier walk. Enchi seems to be using this title ironically, because Tomo’s “path” is anything but easy. This title (and the beautiful scene symbolizing it when Tomo struggles up a hill in the snow one evening to get back home) turns the whole concept of (ie – home, household) upside down by suggesting that a woman’s work inside the home is just as dangerous and difficult as a man’s.

 

One of the book’s other ironies is that we rarely see Yukitomo outside the home, unless he’s taken one of his mistresses on some cultural expedition. Tomo on the other hand is often running left and right, arranging financial matters and keeping busy with tradesman to insure the house has all that it needs. Yukitomo’s “life” is focused almost exclusively on his sexual needs and Tomo’s on a denial of that same sexuality. That this might be a hidden meaning behind the concept of and one which destroys its other more positive associations, is a fascinating notion.

 

 

Enchi wrote seven novels in total, all of which have been translated I believe.

 

 

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

11 thoughts on “Enchi Fumiko – The Waiting Years”

  1. I’ve moved as many if not more times in recent years although not nearly as many miles (barely in the hundreds). Hopefully you’ve made better decisions than me because there seems to be a lot of good books I’ve lost along the way, and equally a lot of not so good books I’m always carrying around.

  2. How fascinating! So when were these books written? Do they still depict contemporary social structures? I’d like to read some Japanese literature and have no idea where to begin (and keep holding back – or maybe other projects just jump the queue!).

  3. Yes, I was wondering the same thing as Litlove about when this was written and how representative it is of Japanese life now. My postgrads are back next week and one of those is Japanese I must ask her if she knows Enchi and if so, what she thinks of her work. It would be interesting to get the perspective of a young Japanese woman who has clearly been allowed to develop academically as far as she wishes but who may have other restrictions that don’t become apparent in the university context. I’ve come across this before with Sikh students so wouldn’t be completely surprised if it was the case with Eri.

  4. Stephen – I’ve had my share of book losses along the way, in both directions (lost good books and kept bad books), especially when I left Japan. I just couldn’t take much with me so I had to give away so many of the books I acquired there.

    Litlove & Ann – I forgot to put the date! She published The Waiting Years in 1957 and Masks just a few years before (I think, may need to double check that). The Waiting Years is set at the turn of the century, however.

    Litlove – for your work on motherhood, Enchi might be a fantastic study. It is very much her theme – the double-edged sword of motherhood. Both novels are quick reads, and just full of fascinating information.

    Ann – I’d be very curious what your Japanese student thinks of Enchi. I do have a couple of friends who studied her in college and admire her brave feminist outlook at a time when Japanese women were hardly getting published at all.

  5. Yet another brand-new to me author that you’ve made sound so compelling – thanks verbivore! I shall keep an eye out for her books.

    And I know what it’s like to move so often, deciding which books to keep and which to donate to friends/charity/bookmooch is one of the trickiest part of any house move for me…

  6. Logophile – I’d be very curious to see what you think of Enchi, in many ways her books are old- fashioned but she deals with such contemporary issues at the same time.

  7. I know where I’m coming for recommendations. You really won me with this review. Thanks for telling me about the story and not spoiling it for the reader at the same time.

    I was looking for a while and now I’ve found someone that is a true critic because you are a true reader.

  8. I have recently had to read this novel for my Japanese literature course and I found that this novel is exactly as you described it. I did find the name change between the Japanese title and the English title slightly strange. I found the same thing when reading Yoshimoto Banana’s Kitchen. The front of my novel says 台所 (Daidokoro) however, the Japanese title for the book is simply written in katakana as キッチン (Ki’chin)

    1. Ric – How strange that the English publisher of Kitchen didn’t leave it simply as Kitchen! This happens a lot, and for reasons which appear to be beyond me.

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