- From the Margins of Meiji Society:Space and Gender in Higuchi Ichiyō’s “Troubled Waters”
Written and published in 1895, Higuchi Ichiyō’s (1872–96) celebrated short story “Troubled Waters” (Nigorie) centers on Oriki, a beautiful prostitute who serves as the major attraction at an illegal brothel called the Kikunoi. The power of the story lies largely in its effective portrayal of this complex heroine, who is tormented not only by what her profession requires of her but by the family history that drove her into prostitution in the first place, even as she flaunts the façade of a cheerful and willful woman of the pleasure quarters.
The centrality of Oriki’s anguish in the narrative has also shaped studies of “Troubled Waters.” In recent years, Timothy J. Van Compernolle has offered a compelling rereading of the text in this vein by analyzing how Oriki’s psychological portraiture is constructed by combining two literary paradigms—(1) shinjū-mono (love-suicide plays) of the early modern period, made canonical by Chikamatsu Monzaemon in the early eighteenth century; and (2) success stories of the Meiji period that center on the ideology of risshin shusse, the modern ideology that lauds worldly success, which had already firmly established itself in the popular imagination by the time of Ichiyō’s writing.1 Van Compernolle’s reading situates “Troubled Waters” at the intersection of the two literary genres and the social mores of the two respective historical periods. This has been a welcome addition to readings that challenge the problematic tendencies that plagued earlier studies of Ichiyō’s texts: (a) overemphasis on Ichiyō’s classical style, which led some critics to overlook her [End Page 26] serious engagement with modern conditions, and (b) fetishization of her status as a young woman writer, which led others to read her works not as products that stand on their own but primarily in terms of their connections to the author.
Indeed, it is difficult to divorce Ichiyō’s legendary status from her unique position among the predominantly male and privileged Meiji writers as a young woman writer who struggled to make ends meet, for this unique position was essential in shaping Ichiyō’s perspective and, therefore, her works. However, this essay follows in the footsteps of the studies that take the texts themselves as their primary objects, by focusing, in particular, on the representation of space in “Troubled Waters.” Ichiyō’s ability to capture the environment in which she lived with mimetic accuracy has been well recognized. Indeed, the faithfulness of Ichiyō’s depictions is such that they accurately capture the everyday life of the lower class even in such small details as the food that the characters eat or the houses in which they live. Given the rarity of such realistic portrayals of the poor in Meiji literature, the attention Ichiyō’s works have received for their meticulous depictions is well deserved. However, as Maeda Ai has compellingly demonstrated, textual representations of space not only reflect the physical reality but also express social issues that seem unrelated to space at a first glance.
Maeda’s contention that textual representations of space must be read as social products is especially true for “Troubled Waters,” for a conception of space that limits its scope to materiality would fail to take into account the intricate way in which spatiality is conceived in this text. In analyzing the highly social nature of space in “Troubled Waters,” more useful than the limited definition of space as a material surrounding are the definitions that treat space also as that which both mediates and is mediated by social relations and processes. For instance, space in society, as conceptualized by Henri Lefebvre, emerges out of social activities and, in turn, shapes those activities. Lefebvre elucidates his formulation by introducing three concepts: spatial practices, representations of space, and a representational space. “The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction.”2 Representations of space refer to the rendering of the lived space into conceptual frameworks,3 and a representational space corresponds to the space as directly experienced by its inhabitants.4 The...