A female face has yet to grace U.S. paper currency. Japan, on the other hand, has honored not one but two women on its yen — and of those two, both were women of letters.
Female authors had a strong voice in classical Japanese literature says Laura Nüffer, professor of Japanese at Sewanee, the University of the South, but the lit scene of subsequent centuries proved less egalitarian. “The presumption was that a woman would have little of interest to say to a male reader.” Japanese bookstores have, until very recently, kept a separate section for anything written by women, so it’s no surprise that female authors have been underrepresented in the Japanese canon, an oversight that modern scholars are trying to rectify.
This list of works by Japanese female writers spans a millennium and takes on universal subjects from love and grief to war and inequality, exploiting both the notion of “chick lit” and the stereotype of the silent Japanese woman.
THE PILLOW BOOK BY SEI SHONAGON (1002)
Courtly lady-in-waiting Sei Shonagon’s witty journal is a portal to Japan’s classical era. But in her snarky lists like “Hateful Things” (mansplaining; a lover who takes too long to leave in the morning) and “Awkward Things” (when you gossip in front of a child and they repeat everything; when someone tells you a sob story, but you can’t bring yourself to cry), she proves that we haven’t changed all that much in the last 1,000 years.
THE TALE OF GENJI BY MURASAKI SHIKIBU (1021)
Centuries before Chaucer wrote his tales, Murasaki Shikibu composed what is often called the world’s first novel: an epic recounting the amorous adventures of the devastatingly handsome Prince Genji. A number of English translators have tackled the archaic manuscript (some more faithfully than others) and The Tale of Genji is a dense read no matter the translation — but romantics will swoon over the lyrical flirtation style of the Heian nobility. “Because women remained hidden from sight behind screens and blinds, much courtship was conducted through exchanges of poetry,” explains Nüffer.
TWENTY-FOUR EYES BY SAKAE TSUBOI (1952)
Sakae Tsuboi managed to write an anti-war novel without ever describing a battlefield, but Twenty-Four Eyes’ pacifist message is all the more moving for its subtlety. The novel follows a provincial schoolteacher and her classroom of 12 children from 1928-1946, through the rise of Japanese nationalism and the war’s devastating effects at home. Rural Shodoshima Island provides a charming setting in a side of Japan that’s often out of sight to Tokyo-centric foreign audiences.
IN THE SHADE OF SPRING LEAVES: LIFE AND WRITINGS OF HIGUCHI ICHIYO, A WOMAN OF LETTERS IN MEIJI JAPAN BY ROBERT LYONS DANLY (1981)
Though Higuchi Ichiyo was arguably the most prominent Japanese female writer of the 19th century, her work is unfortunately relatively unknown outside of Japan. This biography paints a portrait of Higuchi’s brief life of financial struggle and unrequited love, providing a background for the theme of feminine suffering that runs throughout the poems and stories included in the collection — all produced prodigiously before her tragic death from tuberculosis at 24.
KITCHEN BY BANANA YOSHIMOTO (1988)
Banana Yoshimoto set off “Bananamania” when she published her first novel, Kitchen, at age 24. Indeed, Nüffer credits Yoshimoto’s best-sellers for increasingly eroding “the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘popular’ literature — often used to marginalize female authors.” The book contains two atmospheric novellas about loss, expressing the underlying melancholy of Japan’s bubble economy. The second story, “Moonlight Shadow,” is a gateway to Yoshimoto’s later, more surreal works like N.P. and Amrita, where she begins to hone the quirkiness and magical realism that we often think of as hallmarks of modern Japanese literature.
OUT BY NATSUO KIRINO (1997)
Crime novelist Natsuo Kirino’s most thrilling page-turner is about four suburban women working the graveyard shift at a bento factory who get tangled up with murder, blackmail and the yakuza. A feminist exposé of single motherhood and domestic violence, topics that are often swept under the rug in Japan, Out champions female empowerment in a still-patriarchal society, right up to its pulse-pounding climax.
THE NAKANO THRIFT SHOP BY HIROMI KAWAKAMI (2005)
Hiromi Kawakami’s character study of a Tokyo thrift shop is populated as much by the ashtrays and lamps for sale as it is by the store’s eccentric workers, stand-ins for the tug-of-war between a quiet nostalgia and modern Japanese culture. “Decades of economic stagnation and broad cultural shifts have left many Japanese people of both sexes feeling adrift and uncertain of the future,” says Nüffer. And if The Tale of Genji is an ideal of classical Japanese romance, the tortured relationship at the center of The Nakano Thrift Shop is a love story for contemporary Japan.
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