Higuchi Ichiyo Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Higuchi Ichiyo 1872-1896

(Pseudonym of Higuchi Natsuko) Japanese novelist and short story writer.

Higuchi is considered the first major woman writer of Japan's Meiji period (1868-1912). Her literary focus on the role of women in Japanese society, and in particular on the lives of the poor, represented a departure from most Japanese literature of her time, which focused on traditional gender roles in aristocratic society.

Biographical Information

Higuchi was born into a middle-class family in Tokyo. Although she was an excellent student, girls commonly received limited formal education in nineteenth-century Japan, and at the age of 11 her parents removed her from school. In 1886, when she was 14, she convinced her parents to allow her to study poetry at a private school. Her father's death in 1889 left Higuchi, the best-educated member of her family, responsible for their support. Wanting to write professionally, she solicited advice and assistance from the popular journalist and editor Nakarai Tosui. Higuchi's first published stories, "Yamizakura" ("Flowers at Dusk") and "Wakarejimo" ("The Last Frost of Spring") appeared in the literary magazine Musashino, edited by Tosui, in 1892. Ongoing financial hardship influenced Higuchi's writing: in her fiction she examined themes of poverty, social class, women's roles, and societal expectations. Higuchi earned fame as a writer but not financial security. She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four.

Major Works

Higuchi's third published story, "Umoregi" (1892; "A Buried Life") explores the motivation of a potter dedicated to perfecting his craft. This story appeared in the prestigious literary journal Miyako no hana and was favorably reviewed by the critic and editor Hoshino Tenchi. He solicited further stories from Higuchi for his magazine Bungakkai (The World of Literature), including "Yuki no Hi" (1893; "A Snowy Day"), which examines the consequences of a relationship between a student and her teacher. Her most highly regarded work, the novel Takekurabe (Child's Play), appeared serially in Bungakkai in 1895 and 1896. This coming-of-age novel examines the limited choices facing a group of self-sufficient adolescents living on the streets of a city's licensed "pleasure quarter." Subsequent works included the stories "Yuku Kumo" (1895; "Passing Clouds") and "Wakare-Michi" (1896; "Separate Ways") and the novels Nigorie (1895; Troubled Waters), and Jusan'ya (1895; The Thirteenth Night). "Separate Ways" treats a poor woman who contemplates abandoning the drudgery of work as a laundress and seamstress to become the mistress of a wealthy man. While she regrets relinquishing her self-respect and ending longtime friendships with people who disapprove of her choice, she cannot resist the material comforts and financial security that will accompany life as a kept woman. Troubled Waters examines with insight and compassion the life of a young prostitute. The Thirteenth Night focuses on the social conventions that impede a young woman seeking to escape from an abusive marriage. Higuchi's diary, published after her death, describes in her lyrical prose style the motivation and inspiration for many of her works.

Critical Reception

Higuchi received much critical and popular attention during her brief career, which she believed was at least partly due to the fact that she was a professional author at a time when few women published regularly. The favorable review of "A Buried Life" by Tenchi lead to Higuchi's recruitment into Japanese literary society, and the distinguished author and critic Mori Ogai hailed Growing Up as a literary masterpiece. Modern critics consider Higuchi an important pivotal writer in Japanese literature. They acknowledge that while her prose style adhered to classical Japanese literary characteristics of lyricism, allusiveness, and elaborate wordplay, her works nevertheless exhibit a distinctly modern sensibility. Hailed during her lifetime as "the last woman writer of old Japan," she has been regarded since her death as the first modern Japanese woman writer.