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  • An Experiment in Gendered Reading:Enchi Fumiko's "A Bond for Two Lifetimes—Gleanings"
  • Junko Umemoto (bio)

Japanese women writers entered the canon of world literature about a decade ago, when Anglo-American critics, who had long been seeking to recover a feminine tradition of literature, extended their project to Japanese women's literature and began treating them from a gender studies point of view. The Woman's Hand: Gender and Theory in Japanese Women's Writing (1996), a seminal volume that emerged from a 1993 Rutgers conference on Japanese women writers, consists of essays anchored in the idea of gendered reading, and it proves how theories derived from Western discursive practice can be fruitfully applied to the analysis of Japanese women's writing—and, conversely, shows how Japanese women's writing can make a contribution to discussions of world literature by women writers.1

Enchi Fumiko (1905-86) is one of the Japanese women writers analyzed in the Rutgers conference volume. Her work stretches from the 1936 novel 散文恋愛 (Sambun ren'ai) [Her Love Diary] to an autobiographical trilogy finished in 1968 and includes the 1957 and 1958 novels 女坂 (Onnazaka) (translated as The Waiting Years) and 女面 (Onnamen) (translated as Masks). Enchi did not reject Japanese traditional values, but she did try to anatomize women's bodies in terms that suggested sensuality and mystery. Her writings and thought were the forerunners of the modern feminist writers who described the sensual and physiological aspects of women. She skillfully treats sensitive and psychological problems derived from physical troubles, thereby challenging the old taboo of directly describing the female body. In so doing, she realized her mission as a female writer in the postwar period.

The most distinctive features of feminist writing are seen in Enchi's works relating to the sexuality of middle-aged women. Why did Enchi focus [End Page 369] on middle-aged women? Many scholars believe that she was influenced strongly by the loss of her womb to cancer.

二世の縁 拾遺 ("Nise no en—Shui") ["A Bond for Two Lifetimes—Gleanings"], published in 1957, is only a short novel, but it is one of Enchi's most representative works in the way it reproduces Japanese classics from the Edo period (as reinterpreted by her).2 In addition, no other work more clearly depicts Enchi's obsession with female organs than this one. It includes the unusual expression "shikyu ga dokiri to natta" ("My very womb cried out in longing" in Phyllis Birnbaum's translation), which Doris Bargen, one of the contributors to the Rutgers conference, among other scholars, was taken with.3 Enchi makes the heroine realize her sexuality through the dull pain of her womb. It is a challenging description that shocks readers, underscoring as it does the tenacity of Enchi's consciousness as a woman. Enchi's obsession with her lost womb is heightened by her use of onomatopoeia: "dokiri" indicates a throbbing sound (Birnbaum's English translation does not replicate the onomatopoeia). Enchi thus spoke out using the female parts of the body as a symbol of "womanliness" and might be fairly described as a warrior armed with female consciousness.

One of the most distinctive features of Enchi's literature is her reinterpretation of the Japanese classics. Enchi, the only daughter of a famous linguist and professor at Tokyo Imperial University, was well versed in Japanese classics, from the 源氏物語 (Genji monogatari) [Tale of Genji] to the comic literature of the late Edo period (1600-1867). She was introduced to them in her teenage years, and they color and enrich her works, endowing them with the elusive and eerie beauty that many of the classic Japanese tales have.

Knowledge of classic Japanese literature is helpful to understanding the female protagonists Enchi created. For example, the behavior of Mieko, the protagonist of Masks, is never directly explained and can be inscrutable. Mieko uses her daughter-in-law and her own daughter, as well as the two men in love with her daughter-in-law, to wreak vengeance on her husband for betraying her in the early years of her marriage. Obviously, Mieko has spent many years plotting her revenge, which can be explained as the curse of an evil spirit, born...


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pp. 369-378
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