The following biographical sketch is adapted with deletions and additions
from Sachiko S. Schierbeck, Japanese Women Novelists in the 20th Century:
104 biographies, 1900-1993. Copenhagen: Museum Tusalanum Press, 1994, pp.
ENCHI FUMIKO (1905-1986) was born in Tokyo on October 2, 1905 and
died of heart failure on November 14,1986. Her father was Ueda
Kazutoshi (1867-1937), a distinguished Japanese linguist. Her
grandmother (of male-lineage) was an avid partisan of Kabuki and a
good story-teller. Enchi attended the girls' middle school of Japan
Women's University from 1918-1922; she received private tuition in
English, French. and Kambun (Chinese literature) until her marriage.
She also attended the lectures of Osanai Kaoru. the founder of modern
Japanese drama. In 1930, she married Enchi Yoshimatsu. a journalist
with whom she had a daughter. She had two major operations, a
mastectomy in 1938 and a hysterectomy in 1946.
As a young child Enchi was taken to the Kabuki theatre and
listened to the gesaku novels of the late Edo era. A precocious girl,
she read everything from the Genji monogatari to Edo gesaku
and modern novels in adult magazines. At 13 her reading list included
the works of Oscar Wilde, Edgar A1lan Poe, Hoffman. and the writings
of lzumi Kyoka (1873-1939), Nagai Kafu (1879-1959). Akutagawa
Ryunosuke (1892-1927), and Tanizaki Jun'ichiro (1868-1965), whose
sado-masochistic aestheticism particularly fascinated her. Her
interest in the theatre was encouraged also by her father. In 1926
her one-act play. "Furusato" (A Birthplace), was published in the
journal Kabuki and was received favorably. Another one-act
play "Banshu soya" (A Noisy Night in Late Spring, 1928) was acclaimed
when it was staged at the Tsukiji Little Theatre. After the birth of
her daughter, Enchi turned to novel writing. Her earliest novels such
as Kaze no gotoki kotoba (The Words Like the Wind, 1939),
Ten no sachi, umi no sachi (The Treasures of Heaven and Sea.
1940) and Shunju (Spring and Autumn, 1943) did not sell
During the war Enchi lost property in the bombing and afterwards she made
a slow recovery from a cancer operation. In this period. she published little.
Around 1951 she reestablished herself as an author writing of the suffering
of women. In 1953 the title story of Himojii tsukihi (Starving Days),
which had first appeared in serial form in 1951, won the Women's Literature
Prize. It is a violent, harrowing tale of family misfortune and deprivation.
both physical and emotional. The highly praised novel, Onna zaka
(The Waiting Years, 1949-1957) won the Noma Literary Prize. It analyzed
the plight of women who had no alternative but to accept the demeaning roles
that the patriarchal family system had assigned to them. At the age of 15 the
protagonist Tomo is married to a government official. When he becomes an influential
man, he begins to have affairs, and persuades the childless Tomo to let him
have a young mistress living in their house. Many of Enchi's most memorable
characters are mature women who have either lost their reproductive function,
or their beuaty, or both and as a result seethe with anger, passion and even
erotic desire. With the qualities that society values most in a woman, her sexuality
and her capacity to reproduce, absent, she has little on which to base claims
of authority or legitimacy. Tomo's husband does not stop the humilation of his
wife by placing just one mistress in his household, he adds another. He even
stoops to seducing his own daughter-in-law, his brutish son's wife, much to
the horror of Tomo and the other two concubines. However, Tomo maintains her
position as the mistress of the household, even showing these defenceless young
women compassion. On her deathbed, Tomo insists that she does not want her body
to be buried; it should simply be dumped into the water. Her husband shudders
as he listens to her, realizing at last the torments she has suffered for forty
years. The text ends with these two sentences:
His body had suffered the full force of the emotions
that his wife had struggled to repress for forty years. The shock
was enough to split his arrogant ego in two.
With these words, powerful blow was delivered against the
patriarchy and its abuses. Anger and resentment long suppressed
surfaces with such force that it can shatter a husband's ego. As Nina
Cornyetz notes in her study Dangerous Women, Deadly Words
Known as a writer of pyschological fiction, Enchi's
narrative project more accurately combined a fiction or archetypes
with vacillations between "gestalt" interiority and "individual"
interiority. . .For Enchi, "psychological interiority," as written
in a text, was both deeply individual and personal but nonetheless
inseparable from the collective, sociolpolitical experience of
being a woman in modern Japan" (101).
In other words, while Enchi clearly does probe the interior
psychological spaces of her female characters, she is also interested
in placing them squarely in the current of Japanese history and
society. The Waiting Years, in particular, is centered on the
period in which the prewar patriarchal political and social order was
constructed, i.e., between the 1880s and the 1920s.
In Onnamen (Masks, 1958) Mieko is modelled on the Rokujo
Lady who appeared in The Tale of Genji. She is an intelligent woman of
great complexity with extraordinary charm whose precious son dies in a disaster
on Mt. Fuji. She manipulates her widowed daughter-in-law Yasuko in an attempt
to obtain a surrogate for the son she has lost. It is a tale of erotic desperation
and complexity. Fond of the using blood as a metaphor for talking about the
way women are both linked in solidarity and also regarded as polluted in the
male gaze, Enchi finds a way to both collude with dominant representations of
females while simultaneously subverting them. One among many of Masks
themes seems clear: Japan's matrilineal heritage is reclaimed through blood
lineage handed down from generation to generation by and through women and thereby
freed from its subordination to the dominant, patriarchal ideology. Doris Bargen has written a wonderful article on Masks called "Twin Blossoms on a Single Branch" (Monumenta Nipponica 46:2 (1991) in which see sees it as "a complex work about love and hate, bereavement and mournings, liminality and transformation. Structually, Onnamen can be imagined as a series of discoveries, as a set of triangular relationships, or as a modern parallel to a major episode in the Genji Monogatari. Thematicall, it involvers the reader in a meditation on revenge, sacrifice and self-sacrifice, and atonement. Seen anthropologically, the novel suggests that obliquely aggresive strategies adopted by Heian women in response to their situation in a polyganous society may still be effective in our time." (147) Her interpretation of Masks notes how not only is the structure
tripartite, with each section named after three different types of onnamen
or women's Noh masks, and it follows the jo-ha-kyuu developmental pattern
in terms of the intensity of plot development, but it is literally teeming with
other triads and triangular relations: Yasuko-Ibuki-Mikame, spirit-medium-possessed,
Mieko-Yasuko-Harume,Mieko-Togano Masatsugu-her mysterious lover, etc. There
are even 3 sets of substitutions occurring in the text: the twins for Aguri's
two abortions, Yasuko for the twins, and Harume's baby for Mieko's miscarriage
as well as for Akio's loss. Thus, what brings and keeps Yasuko and Mieko together
is the quest for a child.
Bargen writes that "Mieko's revenge begins with her refusal to make public her grievance. This first step, motivated by pride, required the sacrifice of whatever female sympathy might have been gained by a show of pain. The second step required further self-sacrifice. Mieko's children became, like Medea's, an instrument of revenge....Mieko fulfills her dark plan by creating a Togano heir who is not at all related by blood to the Togano family. But Mieko had already achieved this feat with her birth of the 'beastly' twins, who are certainly not her husband's and are therefore not Toganos. Had Mieko's aim been revenge, she would have told her husband the horrid truth on his deathbed. She did not....Mieko's quest runs deeper. She is not merely a petty and vindictive woman who seeks to give Togano what he may well deserve. For Mieko, mere revenge is too easily accomplished. It is not so much the destruction of male supremacy as the construction of female power thst is at stake." (163)
Masks is such a complex work; it is, itself, a deep well. Mieko has
worn several masks as she has moved through different roles--from disillusioned
lover and wearing the Ryoo-no-onna mask, to the end when she dons the
Fukai mask, the Deep Woman mask. Or does she ever actually put it on?
She stares at it, communes with it as a Noh actor might, her face becoming one
with it like "twin blossoms on a single branch" (the title for Bargen's
article), but then she drops the mask and must try and cover its face with her
left hand while her right arm hangs paralyzed in space. Wow! What are
we left with? Is she paralyzed, afraid? Is she facing her own death? Does she
feel remorse or regret? Can we know? Or is the power of this novel enhanced
by the many rich possibilities for interpretation which the ending allows?
[For another article on Enchi click here.]
Nama miko monogatari (The Tale of an Enchantress. 1965) is
a tragic historical novel concerning the Empress Teishi. a consort of
Emperor lchijo (987-1011). Teishi is described as a strong sensuous
woman who dared to defy political power. The work won the 1966
Women's Literature Prize. An aging woman's obsession with young men
is the subject of Saimu (Growing Fog, 1976), originally titled
Karuizawa. During a short stay at Karuizawa, Sano, a
69-year-old writer, is given a scroll, never to open before her
death, by Yukiko Kawahara, over seventy. It tells a tale of religion
and eroticism illustrated with pictures depicting the intercourse
between a naked miko (holy maiden, virgin shamaness) and a
lowly footman. This ritual was carried out at the time of the
maiden's purification until she became a grey-haired woman. Lady
Kawahara, the inheritor of the scroll, was said to have had affairs
with young men all her long life. Every one of them met with
mysterious deaths. Sano becomes obsessed by the fantasy of being
desired by young men as if she is possessed by the spirit of the
Kamono's maiden via Lady Kawahara. In the end, however, the trustful
regard of her nephew brings her back to reality, and she burns the
Enchi is also very well known for the Enchi Genji. a
10-volume modern Japanese translation of the classical The Tale of
Genji on which she worked for six years.
In one of Enchi's novels it is said "... In real life, she never
knew the moments of happiness through intercourse of the flesh. When
a woman realizes that the relationship with her husband is stale, she
enters into a fanciful dream world of literary illusions where she
experiences the sensuality of her body. For example, the desire of an
aging woman writer is aroused by imagining herself as a writer of a
classical romance in the Heian period." Her aging characters try to
revive their flagging sexuality and spirits with much younger
partners. Enchi stresses that the human sexual impulse brings
vitality to life and overcomes ageing people's fear of death. Her
erotic literary works have been raised for achieving high aesthetic
A special feature of Enchi's writings lies in "using the
story-within-a-story device, and juxtaposing the bizarre with the
real;" she incorporated elements from the classics, though a critic
remarked that she depends too much on her affinity with classical
literature. She received all the literary prizes and honours given to
writers in Japan, including Bunka Kunsho (Cultural Decoration) in
1985, the highest award made to an individuaI by Emperor
Related Articles of Interest:
1. "Between Osan and Kaoru: The Representation of Women in the
Works of Hayashi Fumiko and Enchi Fumiko" by Victoria V. Vernon.
Daughters of the Moon: Wish, Will, and Social Constraint in
Fiction by Modern Japanese Women, 1988. pp. 137-169.
2. "Echoes of Feminine Sensibility in Literature" Japan
Quarterly 35-4, 1988. pp. 410-416.
3. "Enchi Fumiko: A Writer of Tales" by Juliet W. Carpenter.
Japan Quarterly 37- 3, 1990.
4. "Enchi Fumiko and a Hidden Energy of the Supernatural" by
Wayne Pounds, Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese
24-2, 1989. pp. 167-183.
5. Enchi Fumiko's Literature: The Portrait of Women in Enchi
Fumiko's Selected Works. By Naoko Alisa Reiger. Gesellschaft fur
natur/Volker-kunde Ostasiens. Hamburg 1986.
6. "Eroticism and the Writings of Enchi Fumiko" by Yoko McClain.
Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 15-1, 1980.
7. "The Medium of Fiction: Fumiko Enchi as Narrator" by Van C.
Gessel. World Literature Today: 62-3. 1988. pp A Literary
Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma. 380-385.
8. "Twin Blossoms on a Single Branch: The Cycle of Retribution in
Onnamen" by Doris Bargen. Monumenta Nipponica 46-2.
1991 . pp. 147-1 71 .
9. Dangerous Women, Deadly Words by Nina Cornyetz
(Stanford University Press, 1999).