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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

The Rising Daughter

  • Norma Field (Author)
    From My Grandmother's Bedside: Sketches of Postwar Tokyo. University of California Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Patricia Morley (Author)
    The Mountain Is Moving: Japanese Women's Lives. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Susan Fisher

From John Luther Long’s 1898 Madam Butterfly to Arthur Golden’s current bestseller, Memoirs of a Geisha, the Japanese woman has lidil a special fascination for North American readers. As an icon of erotic weirdness, she has survived world war, trade imbalances, and the rise and fall of the yen. This version of Japanese womanhood may still reign supreme in popular literature, but feminist scholarship of the past ten years presents a much different picture, or rather many different pictures.

In the early 1980s, when Patricia Morley began her research on Japanese women, English-language sources were limited. There were Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), Chie Nakane’s Japanese Society (1970), and Takie Sugiyama Lebra’s Japanese Women: Constraint and Fulfillment (1984). Morley’s research continued into the 1990s, by which time a new wave of Japan specialists had begun to publish on an enormous range of topics related to Japanese women. It is Morley’s misfortune that her book, The Mountain Is Moving, has been overtaken by this sudden expansion in specialist research.

A Canadian feminist scholar whose first field was English literature, Morley undertook her research on Japanese women out of personal interest. Lacking Japanese language skills, she has relied on materials in English, with an unfortunate emphasis on works such as Benedict’s, which have been largely superseded by more recent scholarship. Perhaps in order to compensate for the lack of Japanese language materials, Morley has extended her sources beyond the conventional range of social science research. For example, her book makes extensive use of fiction by Japanese women and of interviews with female novelists and poets. Her study also draws on interviews with women in many parts of Japan. For information on such matters as government policies and public opinion polls, she relies on articles from the English-language Japanese press.

These sources provide lively and detailed information, but anyone who has been reading feminist scholarship on Japan over the past decade will find nothing new here. (The notable exception is the chapter that presents Morley’s interviews with Japanese women writers.) Nonetheless, Morley’s earnest and intelligent effort to understand Japanese society, her clear prose, and her conscientious survey of many aspects of women’s lives make The Mountain Is Moving a very worthwhile introduction to its subject.

Unlike Morley, Norma Field is not an outsider. The child of a Japanese mother and an American GI father, she grew up in Japan and attended university in the United States; consequently, Field belongs to that small group of people for whom the language and culture barriers are permeable. Moreover, as a scholar of premodern Japanese literature (she has written a critically acclaimed study of The Tale ofGenji), she can see contemporary Japan in the context of its traditional culture.

Field’s 1991 book, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, dealt with outsiders and individualists in Japan-the nails that refuse to be hammered down. Among its subjects was the former mayor of Nagasaki, who was shot by a right-winger for suggesting that the Emperor bore some responsibility for the war. In the Realm of a Dying Emperor was not a scholarly study, but a work of serious journalism for the general reader.

Field’s most recent book, From My Grandmother’s Bedside, is something altogether different. It documents Field’s experiences in Tokyo in the summer of 1995 when she went home to care for her dying grandmother. After two strokes, her grandmother was bedridden and almost without speech. She was being cared for at home by Field’s mother, herself an elderly woman. In her preface, Field explains that she wanted "to draw together the parts of the history we live more and more disjunctively;" in the summer of 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war, her aim was to find the connections between her own family’s story and the history of the nation. The book is made up of a series of short passages with such titles as "Jeweled Dream," "Auntie," "Forbidden Words," "Unfinished Assignment: On Historical Responsibility." Some of these are political commentary; some are family history; others are diary entries that record such events as a trip to the kabuki theatre and a visit to a photo exhibition. Field expresses the hope that this book will not be "only a willful collection of fragments," but finally that is what they seem. The short passages read like notebook entries, a series of minor aperçus that never add up to a satisfying narrative. I wonder if, given her knowledge of premodern Japanese literature, Field had the generic model of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book in mind. It too is a collection of aperçus, written at a bedside, but Sei Shonagon’s observation on court life are delivered with such wit and acuity that the overall lack of narrative coherence is hardly important. In the case of Field’s book, the individual passages do not have this kind of strength.

The weakest passages are those that deal with large historical issues: war guilt, and Japan’s responsibilities as the only nation to be the victim of a nuclear war. To be sure, these are important issues, and Field’s In the Realm of a Dying Emperor demonstrated that she is capable of discussing them in a thoughtful and informed manner. But in this memoir/notebook format, her treatment seems incoherent. It is the personal topics that are best served by Field’s method. The passages describing her quarrelling aunts, her mother’s anxieties, and the visits of the Home Helper and the Mobile Bath Service are not only vivid and affecting; they also tell us a great deal about how Japanese society cares for its aging citizens.

The elegant design of From My Grandmother’s Bedside deserves special mention. The cover is printed to resemble indigo-dyed fabric, and the dark blue of the fabric pattern is set off by the red of the book’s spine. The cover copy is printed on a trans parent plastic wrapper so that the beauty of the design is not obscured.

Both Field’s book and Morley’s make clear that Japanese women still accept many tasks, such as caring for the elderly, that North American women no longer feel are their exclusive responsibility. Yet, while Japanese women may not appear to be overthrowing traditional roles, they are changing and controlling their lives. For example, in the last decade, the age of marriage has risen to 26.1 (the second highest in the world); a full two-thirds of young women aged twenty to thirty are not married; and the birthrate has fallen to 1.46 births per woman. By showing how Japanese women negotiate the divide between the private and the public, Morley and Field remind us that North American notions of personal fulfillment are not universal. The more we learn about the lives of Japanese women, the more clearly we can see the compromises and possibilities in our own lives.

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MLA: Fisher, Susan. The Rising Daughter. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #163 (Winter 1999), Asian Canadian Writing. (pg. 189 - 191)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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