Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842

Fumiko Enchi (ehn-chee) is one of Japan’s most notable novelists and dramatists. She was born Fumi Ueda, the second daughter of Kazutoshi Ueda, a well-known scholar of Japanese language. From early childhood Enchi was surrounded with and fascinated by classical Japanese literature. She often attended Kabuki performances with her family, and her paternal grandmother, Ine Ueda, read fictions of the Edo period to her. Enchi was influenced by the decadent aestheticism of the plays and stories of the Edo period, and she enjoyed living in a fantastic, mysterious world of her own, which contributed much to her development as a writer. Before completing her studies at the Girls’ High School of the Japan Women’s University, she left to study drama. Yet she continued studying English, French, and classical Japanese with private tutors.

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In 1926 her first drama, “Furusato” (hometown), appeared in a magazine called Kabuki. A performance of Banshu soya (tumultuous spring) at the Tsukiji Little Theater received high praise. This play showed her sympathy with the proletarian literature movement, which was flourishing in Japan at that time. Enchi’s family, however, pressured her to give up both her political interests and her relationship with a left-wing married writer, Teppei Kataoka. In 1930 she married the journalist Yoshimatsu Enchi, and two years later she became the mother of their daughter, Motoko. During her unharmonious marriage Enchi determined to concentrate entirely on writing in order to escape an oppressive domestic life.

After 1935 Enchi attempted to write novels instead of dramas, but her novels did not appear in public for a long time. It took nearly twenty years for her to gain public attention as a novelist. In the prewar and war period, she published little. Those years were among the most fateful of her life, for her father died in 1937, she had an operation on her breast in 1938, Teppei Kataoka died in 1944, her house was destroyed by American bombs in 1945, and she developed uterine cancer. She overcame these physical and psychological crises, however, and began writing about the oppressed situation of women in a realistic world. Her first successful work, Himojii tsukihi (hungry days), which won an award, describes the patient devotion of a woman married to an egotistical profligate. Four years later her autobiographical novel Ake o ubau mono (the vermilion pilferer), was honored with the Tanizaki Junichiro Award.

The year 1957 was the pivot of Enchi’s life. Her best-known novel, The Waiting Years (a novel over which she labored for eight years) earned her Japan’s highest literary award, the Noma Prize. In the years that followed she published many works, including Masks, Futa-omote (two identical masks), and Namamiko monogatari (tale of an enchantress), for which she won yet another award. Enchi also completed a translation of the eleventh century Tale of Genji into modern Japanese in 1972. Enchi died on November 14, 1986, at the age of eighty-one. Despite her illnesses, her will to write never flagged.

Though Enchi first pursued a career as a dramatist and wrote one successful play, she came to public attention as a novelist rather than as a dramatist. There are three distinctive features in Enchi’s novels: the world of fantasy and mystery, whose image is taken from classical Japanese literature; aspects of the autobiographical Bildungsroman; and social, humane views dealing with marriage and the situation of women.

The most persistent characteristic of Enchi’s novels is her description of “enduring sorrowful women,” as seen in the heroines of Himojii tsukihi and The Waiting Years. In these works the heroines are strong, capable, and long-suffering wives with dictatorial husbands. Based on the life of Enchi’s maternal grandmother, Kin, The Waiting Years portrays a sorrowful, enduring woman who is a “good wife” throughout her marriage. Only on her deathbed is she able to free herself and give expression to the emotions she has struggled to repress throughout her marriage: She asks her husband that her body be unceremoniously “dumped” into the sea.

Enchi excelled at describing repressed feelings that surface after many years of endurance. After her own serious illness and psychological struggle in an unhappy marriage, Enchi “enlightened” herself and created a new world through describing the sorrow of women in a realistic world. The novel Ake o ubau mono, too, is important in this regard. Like Enchi, the middle-aged heroine of this novel expresses the sorrow and pain the author felt for the breast and womb she had lost to cancer. In her works Enchi presents the sorrow of women either in a realistic world or in a world of fantasy and mystery. As Enchi grew older, her stories often dealt with old age, love, sex, and death. This is evident in her last completed novel, Kikujido (chrysanthemum child).

Enchi is one of the few writers who became more productive after a long personal struggle. Her debut as a novelist came when she was nearly fifty. Her most popular novel, The Waiting Years, is considered one of the best novels in twentieth century Japanese literature, and it continues to evoke deep responses in readers today.

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