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Oases of Discontent: Suburban Space in Takahashi Takako and Abe Kōbō

From: U.S.-Japan Women's Journal
Number 43, 2013
pp. 48-62 | 10.1353/jwj.2013.0000

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On the other side of the wall was a tall smoke stack, climbing high into the sky and belching a column of dark black smoke into the air. There was nothing besides the steel, the concrete, and the color of soot. No one was there.1

In her short story “Byōbō” (A boundless void), published in the collection Kanata no mizu oto (The far-off sound of water), Takahashi Takako writes about a disgruntled woman who, after suffering a miscarriage late in pregnancy, is trying to evade pressure from her husband’s family to get pregnant again. Kiyoko, like many of Takahashi’s characters from this period in her work, rejects childbirth and motherhood, a theme that dominates canonical readings of Takahashi’s stories. In “Byōbō,” however, the encroaching pollution and the radical changes to the Japanese landscape serve not only as an ominous foreshadowing of personal upheaval, but also as sign of what is to come. These new apartment complexes, and by extension the new suburbs that are being built, both destroy the landscape around Kiyoko and force a new realization of her place in society.

Written in the late 1960s and published in 1971, this story, like others in the collection, ties female protagonists to the new spaces of families and motherhood emblematized by the suburbs. While Japanese literature and suburban life have been intimate companions from the moment the latter was created in the early twentieth century, Takahashi Takako and Abe Kōbō brought their very different but equally trenchant artistic visions to bear upon the particularly chaotic and rapid suburban sprawl of the 1960s and 1970s. In both Takahashi’s “Byōbō” and Abe’s 1967 novel Moetsukita chizu (The ruined map), the development of the suburbs plays a central role, its destructive and uneven course framing the narrative trajectory as well as shaping the actions, attitudes, and inner lives of the protagonists. In turn, both Takahashi’s female antihero—a moody loner recovering from a recent miscarriage—and Abe’s nameless detective confront their own versions of suburban alienation, in which the places they know, constituted by “open articulations of connections” between human beings, are replaced by new developments that they experience simply, and disorientingly, as spaces.2

Despite their modern existential qualities, both Takahashi and Abe’s works were heirs to a decades-old literary tradition. As Angela Yiu observes, the growing popularity of “garden cities” such as Den’en Chofu and Sensoku, created from old aristocratic estates beyond the Yamanote Line in the Taishō period (1912–26), was “precipitated by literary works that contributed significantly to the discovery of the aesthetic and poetic qualities of the suburb.”3 Thus, for example, we find the young couple at the heart of Tanizaki Junichiro’s Chijin no ai (known in English translation as Naomi, 1924) house-hunting in the outskirts of Tokyo: they “walked happily on a long, late-spring day, hunted out addresses, gazed at the view, and turned to look at blossoms in a hedge, in a garden, or at the side of the road,” before arriving at one of the trendy new “culture homes” that, in the narrator’s wry estimation, was better to look at than to live in.4

Unlike Japanese cities, where over three-quarters of residents lived in cramped dwellings, these new suburbs offered more space in which to build homes. In this light, Jōji, the protagonist, sees Naomi’s enthusiasm and her “longing for spacious gardens and fields” as a reaction against the narrow, crowded, and dirty streets of Tokyo’s old “downtown” (shitamachi) where she had been raised.5 As the literature of the time suggests, however, the suburbs were seen as more than just spaces—physical landscapes and topographies open to habitation. Instead, these new towns offered contemporaries a new set of places, ones of boundless potential waiting to be filled by the imaginations of their residents as well as by those viewing them from afar. As terms such as “culture home” implied, they were created as sites of self-realization and refinement, in which one could distinguish him- or herself from the “madding crowd’s ignoble strife” in the teeming cities...



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