Enchi, Fumiko. Onna zaka, The Waiting Years, 1957.


(adapted from Kumiko Sato's webpage: http://www.personal.psu.edu/staff/k/x/kxs334/academic/fiction/enchi_onna.html)



The story is set in the early Meiji period (the late 19th-century) when feudalism, the strongest determinant of the family structure in the19th-century Japan, was going to end. Tomo (around 30 years old) is married to Yukitomo Shiwakawa (past 40), a rich government official living in Fukuoka, but she is his wife only nominally. The novel starts with Tomo's visit to Tokyo to find a concubine for her own husband.

Tomo buys Suga, a sullen but beautiful young lady. It is in no way unusual at this time for a rich local official like Shirakawa to have more than one concubine. Tomo deliberately chooses Suga because Suga is that kind of woman who is too weak and meek to have will to control the Shirakawa family (and turned out sterile). She is "safe," although Tomo completely lost her role of having sex with her husband because of Suga. A few years later, Yumi was welcomed as the second concubine to the Shirakawas. About 10 years later, the son of Yukitomo and Tomo, Michimasa, came to live with his parents, but he is abhorred by everyone, even by his parents, because of his lack of humanity and intelligence. After the death of his first wife, Michimasa marries Miya. Miya also comes to hate Michimasa and insists on leaving him, but she changes her mind after having sexual relation with Yukitomo, the father of her own husband. Miya now secretly becomes the third concubine of Yukitomo. About 10 years later, Miya, after giving birth to seven children, is dying of disease. Takao, the son born from the first wife of Michimasa, is now a student of the first-rank university in Tokyo. He comes to be very conscious of his half sister, Ruriko, but Tomo marries Ruriko away as soon as she notices the unusual relation between the brother and sister. On the way home from the visit to Kayo, a woman who gave birth to an illegitimate child of one of Miya's children, Tomo climbs up the hilly road called Kagurazaka--which is also the "onnazaka 女坂," or the female slope from which the Japanese title of the text derives--and starts feeling very exhausted. Indeed, the hill comes to stand for all the forces and repressions that women have to oversome. She reflects on her life as picking up pieces that men (her husband, sons, and even grandsons) left everywhere. It turns out that Tomo has fatal disease. A few weeks later, she finally dies after so many hardships she had to go through as a victim of Japan's feudalism and patriarchy. As she lays dying, her eyes suddenly gleam of excitement and she asks others to throw her corpse into the sea after her death, instead of having a formal funeral ceremony, a social, familial institution which would just be a mockery in the case of her distorted, perverted family experience. This is the only and last expression of her desire.



Tomo is at the center of the novel, although the episodes are narrated from various perspectives. She is not the center of the novel, however. She keenly observes people of Shirakawa and their situations in order to organize the Shirakawa family as well as to conceal the family shame from the outside. She does not become involved in love affairs herself, but busily struggles to keep up appearences and conceal all the tawdry love affairs which the men have left after their self-centered and self-indulgent love affairs. In other words, she sacrifices herself for the "ethics"of the family (or "ie," the house, in Japanese) because she knows no other way of living. It is important to note that her name, Tomo, is applied an unusual Chinese character for that name 倫, which signifies ethics or moral (rin 倫理 in Japanese).

So what, then, are the ethics of the family under Japan's feudalistic and patriarchal system? Moral in this sense does not mean the rules about good and bad, proper or improper, which are accepted by the public, but it is more like the laws tacitly run in a small, conventional community called an "ie." (家)These morals allows Yukitomo, the head of the "ie," to have sexual relationships with his concubines (actually registered as his daughters), servants, and the wife of his son. These relations cause much pain and anxiety among his women quite naturally, both mentally and physically, and yet it isTomo who takes care of them all. The "female slope" Tomo climbs up in exhaustion (Kagurazaka in the novel, but metaphorically Onnazaka, women's hilly road) is symbolic of the hard life women must endure while sacrificing everything as victims of feudalism. Enchi, the author, says that she wanted to write "hush-hush stories" (hiso hiso banashi) of women in Meiji period, which can never be narrated as part of Japanese history. The story of Tomo, as being a silent, patient "cleaner" of men's affairs, can be totally silenced unless writers like Enchi describe in the manner that is neither sympathetic nor detached. I think that Enchi did great job describing Tomo in the way that Tomo remains on the margins of the novel but simultaneously occupies the invisible center of the family norms called the "ie."


As reading the"kaisetsu" (means interpretation or explanation, a short essay usually added to the novel in the end) written by Eto Jun, I was very angry because this man made such an uninformed comment to the effect that: "It is too modern interpretation that Tomo is a victim of "ie." She rather voluntarily dedicates herself to the system called "ie." This system must be maintained by any means, just like the system called "nation" is respected for the reason that chaos will be caused without it. The tragic irony of Onnazaka resides in the fact that this system must be maintained by a woman who should originally belong to the existence/essence ("jittai") of Eros." He also claims that "It has been widely said that Onnazaka is a history of Tomo's endurance and women's curse upon men's oppression of women.

But I cannot help thinking that these criticisms are off the point. I feel undescribable sweet pleasure in the novel; is it because I am a "feudalistic" man and thus find sadistic pleasure in pains of Tomo and other women?" Yes, it's because you are. Isn't this this an all-too typical opinion of a Japanese male critic???


Kumiko Sato


NOTE: I like what Ms. Sato has said here. She has drawn a line between her interpretation and that of the male literary establishment in Japan ( as represented by the well-known critic and Soseki expert, Eto Jun) which happens to be much of what Enchi Fumiko's work is about as well. Enchi wants readers to undrstand and appreciate that the traditonal family system, the ie, which is to say, the patriarchy, is not something natural, but a social construct. Enchi shows us through one example just how brutal and dehumanizing a construct it could be. She also gives voice to a female perspective that would otherwise be silenced. Kokoro is a powerful and great novel, but it has no real place for women in it. Indeed, it is telling that the main female character whom we know as Ojosan, is actually named Shizu which can mean "quiet." So I believe students should read Kokoro and appreciate how it penetrates the depths of its characters' hearts and minds, their very souls. But we only get half of the picture, really. By adding in The Waiting Years, we get a much more accurate depiction of the complex struggles Meiiji men and women encountered because we have the oppotunity to look at the other half of the equation.