Higuchi Ichiyo Criticism - Essay

Hisako Tanaka (essay date 1956)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Higuchi Ichiyo," in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. XII, Nos. 3-4, October, 1956-January, 1957, pp. 3-26.

[In the following essay, Tanaka discusses the relationships between events recorded in Higuchi's diary and themes in her short stories and novels.]

With the beginning of the Meiji era Japan entered upon a new epoch of her history. The sudden impact of Western ideas made itself felt in many phases of life, and it took quite a time until the people had adjusted themselves to the changes which the restoration had brought to the nation.

This early Meiji era gave to Japan a woman writer, Higuchi Ichiyō (with her personal name called Natsu), who, during the short span of her life from 1872 to 1896, created a genre of stories which is unique in Japanese literature. Her life was full of suffering, part of which was shared by fellow men of her time. However, much of the agony she had to go through was personal in nature. The latter part of her life was constantly threatened by extreme financial insecurity. The gossip of her friends forced her to give up her friendship with her teacher, Nakarai Tōsui. She had to struggle to keep alive, and to fight to conquer her passion, but because of all difficulties with which she had to contend she could write the stories for which she has become famous.

Ichiyō's own miseries had opened her eyes to see the pain of others. The people of the lower strata of society, women and children of the down-town sections of the capital are her heroes. She had so many things in common with the less privileged people that it was easy for her to understand what was going on in their hearts.

Her name will be remembered for her short novels, such as Takekurabe (Comparing Heights), Nigorie (The Muddy Bay), and Jūsanya (The Thirteenth Night), and also for her remarkable diary. In her lifetime she kept a diary without any intention of publishing it. There she expressed her uninhibited self and faithfully recorded the delicate shadings of her maiden heart. Although she tended to be rather subjective in her diary, it proves to be a valuable document, because it reflects, in part, the literary trend of her time. It furnishes important keys to unlock her outwardly reserved personality and provides clues to understand the process by which some of her literary works had been created.

In this brief study of Higuchi Ichiyō, I shall merely try to sketch her life adhering closely to her diary and briefly to touch upon her literary products, which are delicately interwoven with the mosaic of her own strenuous life.

Ichiyō wrote in her diary in the fall of 1895:

Since the time I was a child of seven, I have had in my mind an ambition to write, and the fact that I am writing now is nothing more than a partial realization of my long cherished dreams.…

Earlier in August, 1893, she had already written:

Since the time I was about nine years old, I began to feel resentful over the fact that I might end by being a mediocrity, and day in and day out, I used to yearn to excel others by a segment of a black bamboo.…

She certainly was an extraordinary individual for a woman of the middle Meiji period. Elementary schools were first organized in Tōkyō in 1873, when Ichiyō was about one year old, but in her days an education for women, at best, was intended for nothing more than making good wives and wise mothers. Although her parents came from the present Yamanashi prefecture, she was born in Tōkyō. While the metropolis was still called Edo, her ambitious parents had left their native place to attain the rank of samurai in the capital. Their ambition was realized just a year before the restoration of Meiji and, regrettably enough, soon their hard sought and newly attained rank was reduced to a mere name. However, as a daughter of a samurai, a fact in which she took considerable pride, Ichiyō received a strict family education after the fashion of the Confucian teachings. Under the new political regime, her father held a post in the metropolitan government, and with her two brothers and two sisters she had a relatively happy childhood.

Ichiyō was a bright child. Her father boasted about her, and her teachers preferred her to all other pupils. About her early interest in reading, she wrote in her diary:

From the age of seven I was fond of illustrated story books, and I used to indulge in them forgetting all about playing with a ball or a battledore. Among the story books, what I liked best were biographies of great men and heroes. The deeds of chivalrous and righteous men seemed to penetrate deep into my mind, and I used to be thrilled over anything that was gallant and brilliant.

Her heroic outlook on life, which is often exhibited in her diary, must have had its roots in such yearnings for heroes in her childhood. As a result of her persistant habit of reading under insufficient light, she became very nearsighted. Before she reached her twelfth birthday, she completed six years of elementary school with highest honors. However, because of her mother's opposition, she had to discontinue school, although, Ichiyō said, it nearly meant death for her. Complying with her mother's wish, she began to pursue the ordinary routine of practicing sewing and other domestic arts, but she did not give up her nightly habit of sitting at her desk. Her father bought her an anthology of waka and other texts for her to read, and with a private tutor she studied waka for about half a year. In contrast to Ichiyō's mother, her father, who was well versed in the Chinese classics, was very much interested in giving his promising daughter a further education. Finally, in August, 1886, when she was fourteen years old, he made an arrangement through his friend for her to enter a private school called Hagi-no-ya operated by Nakajima Utako, where Ichiyō received instruction in waka and classic Japanese literature. In this school, she was trained in the orthodox school of waka called Keienha, or Kagawa Kageki's school, which adhered closely to the style of the Kokinshū.

Although her style of waka was rather outmoded, Utako was quite influential among society people, and young ladies from noble families were sent to Hagi-no-ya mainly to cultivate their taste for poetry. Among these gorgeously attired young ladies, the small statured, extremely nearsighted and thin-haired Ichiyō in her simple clothes could not be impressive. Soon she found friendship there with two other girls who happened to be daughters of commoners, and the three of them together, in a rather comical vein, called themselves Heimin-gumi (commoners' clique). Of course, Ichiyō was a daughter of a samurai, but it all goes to show that the kind of distinction her father enjoyed was nothing to compare with the standing of those who were sending their daughters to Hagi-no-ya in lacquered carriages.

If not in anything else, Ichiyō certainly excelled others in her studies. At this school she met Tanabe Tatsuko, later Miyake Kaho, a daughter of Tanabe Taiichi, who was a diplomat and a great functionary of Japan. These two stood out from others in their lessons. In January, 1887, Ichiyō began to write her diary, and an entry was made of a ceremonial first meeting of the year held in February. On a grand occasion such as that, girls vied with one another in the exquisiteness of their kimonos and accessories. Naturally Ichiyō, from the modest family of a minor government official, could not think of competing with them. It was enough of a blessing perhaps for her to be able to continue her studies there, and already in her teens she learned to take a detached attitude toward such vanity of life. She wrote on 19 February of that year:

Although I was terribly ashamed, I found my old clothes more precious than their damask and brocade, for I found in mine the unfathomable benevolence of my parents and was thoroughly pleased with them.

It must have been a harsh lesson to learn for the girl of fifteen, that there existed the high and the low in society, and that some could afford to adorn themselves sumptuously while others, through no fault of their own, had to do without the beautiful. However, Ichiyō found a compensating sense of value in the spiritual side of life, and although outwardly she might have appeared shabby, she possessed a proud heart which yielded to none.

When she was seventeen, she had to face a grave reality, her father's death. All of a sudden the family lost its sole support. Ichiyō's eldest brother had died, too, and her second brother had already established a family of his own; so Ichiyō was left with the obligation to look after her mother and her younger sister. Her father's death had occurred following his failure in some business enterprise; the widow and the two immature girls were, consequently, left in a helpless situation without means of support. For a while they went to live with Ichiyō's brother, but this arrangement did not work out satisfactorily, for the widow and her son constantly disagreed. In May of 1898, Ichiyō went to live with her teacher Utako at Hagi-no-ya. However, the family problems remained unsolved. Finally, in September she found a house for rent in Hongō, in which she started on the hard journey to maintain the household with her mother and sister. The family had no source of income except whatever the aged woman and the two girls could produce. All they could do was occasional sewing and washing which they took in from their neighbors and acquaintances. Her teacher Utako promised to find her a teaching position at a girls' school where she might teach waka or calligraphy, but, probably due to Ichiyō's insufficient formal education and her immature age, no such position was available for her.

About this time, she began seriously to consider writing novels. In 1877 her friend Tanabe Tatsuko, four years senior of Ichiyō, wrote her first novel Yabu no Uguisu after the fashion of Tōsei Shosei Katagi (Scenes from Modern Student Life) by Tsubouchi Shōyō. Tatsuko not only won popularity through this novel, but also was amply rewarded financially for her manuscript. Ichiyō, therefore, wished to follow the path of her friend. She turned to writing as a means of supporting her family.

The diary she had begun to write in January, 1887, was discontinued in April of the same year. Four years later, she started writing it again, this time with all seriousness, and she continued it until July, 1896, four months before her death. The day when she resumed her diary, 15 April, 1891, was an unforgettable day for her. Introduced by her sister's friend, she formally called upon Nakarai Tōsui with the purpose of asking for his guidance in writing. In her diary she wrote:

As I am not yet accustomed to this sort of situation, my ears burned and lips became dry. I couldn't think of words and I didn't know what to say. All I could do was just to bow repeatedly. How foolish I must have appeared! I am ashamed of myself.…

Tōsui, born in 1860, was then a journalist and a popular novelist in his early thirties, who was connected with the Tōkyō Asahi Newspaper. While new writers equipped with the European technique of realistic writing had begun to establish their place among the critical readers of the time, Tōsui and others were gradually losing their ground.

When Ichiyō decided to be tutored by Tōsui, she was hardly aware of such a trend in her time. Until then her literary training consisted mainly in the study of waka and some classics. Professor Shioda has observed that, if she had read more of the literature of her time, and if she had been familiar with the general literary trend, she would not have chosen Tōsui, who belonged to the category of gesakusha (imaginative writers), as her teacher. However, her need was urgent, and just as her friend Tatsuko had the backing of Tsubouchi Shōyō for her first novel, Ichiyō felt the need of someone who could guide her in her new venture. She had no connection with anyone in literary circles. Just then, the individual who happened to come into her vista was Tōsui, and she immediately sought his aid without much reflection.

When she called on him again about a week after their first meeting, he commented on her story which she had left with him. He said that is was too long to be printed in the newspaper, and he further advised her to make her style more colloquial because hers was too classic.

She wrote of her second impression of him as follows:

A person who is likable the first time may not necessarily be so the second time. However, in his case, I felt much more intimate toward him today than I did the last time, and I thought of him as a most unusual individual.…

Near the end of the same month, he sent her a letter telling her to come to see him. On the day of that visit, after giving her general instructions and hints for writing novels, he had this to tell her:

Today I have something I'd like to tell you. It is nothing else but that I am not quite an old man yet. Besides you are a young lady just coming of age. I find it extremely difficult to associate with you.… Therefore I have thought up a device. It is this. When I see you, I am going to think of you as a young man, a close friend or comrade whom I have been associating with all along, and I will carry on our discussion on that basis. Similarly, on your part, rather than to think of me as a man, you must consider me as a girl in your own circle and treat me accordingly.

She herself had not been altogether free from such concerns, and, upon hearing this, she wrote that her face burned like fire and she didn't even know what to do with her hands. She was filled with embarrassment.

It was an extremely naive and unnatural device Tōsui had worked out, but in the Meiji twenties, it was exceptionally rare for a girl to meet a man in the manner Ichiyō had done. Her primary concern was to sell her manuscripts for the livelihood of her family. Her only hope, at a time like this, was to enlist the help of Tōsui who was connected with the influential newspaper. In order to accomplish her goal, she could not be hesitant about her means.

About this time, she commenced her frequent visits to the Ueno library to read modem and classic literature, and plunged into the serious struggle of producing creative writing of her own.

On 7 October of the same year she wrote:

In the afternoon I sat at my desk and, somehow or other, I was engaged in writing. However, for various reasons I got disgusted. I have already torn up my manuscripts about ten times. It is really strange that I haven't even completed a story … I can't go on like this forever, and so I start writing anew thinking up another plot; but none is good enough. Every time I read famous tales and novels, both ancient and modern, I become distressed over my own writing, and finally I begin to feel like giving up. However, perverse as I am, I can't give it up quite so easily, and presumptuously enough I have started writing again. I must, by all means, complete it by day after tomorrow. I feel that I will die if I don't finish it. If people wish to laugh at my faint heart, let them laugh!

In the meantime, the financial situation of the family was not improving at all. Besides her desk work, Ichiyō and her sister had to sew for others for their living. However, at times she took rather a light and graceful attitude toward her poverty. For instance, she was even in the mood to compose waka allegorizing the patch work (hagi) on her kimono she had just finished sewing with the bush clover (hagi) in the field, and fortunately at times her brush flowed more smoothly than at other times. She wrote on the 27th of the same month:

As of tonight my brush has begun to flow at my will, and I have worked till later than usual. I went to bed at one o'clock.

The following entry which she made in the following month reveals her mind at that time:

It has been nearly one year since I began writing novels. I have published none yet, and none satisfies me. My mother and sister blame me repeatedly by saying that I am weak minded and always retrospective.… Even though I write for our livelihood, what is poorly done would seem poor to anyone's eyes. Once I have claimed myself a writer, I would dare not write anything that may be thrown into a waste basket after being read once, as is the case with the majority of writers. People today are frivolous, and what is welcomed today may be discarded tomorrow in a world like this, but if I appeal to the genuine feeling of the people, and if I depict genuine feeling, even if it may be a fictitious writing by Ichiyō, how could it be without value? I do not desire a brocade gown nor am I after a stately mansion. How could I ever stain my name which I wish to leave behind for a thousand years for the sake of temporary gain? I will rewrite even a short story three times, and then I will ask the world to pass judgment. In spite of that, should my efforts be lost as a mere waste of paper and brush, still I would take it as heaven's decree.

Although she was then an insignificant and obscure individual, she certainly entertained high aspirations. As one reads in her diary, one frequently encounters such spirited enthusiasm. Throughout the adversities of her life, it was this tenacious and unyielding spirit which sustained her.

Ichiyō welcomed the New Year in 1892 in a cheerful mood. On 14 February, she completed a story manuscript, having stayed up practically all night, and she felt extremely relieved as if a heavy load was off her shoulders. This was the manuscript of "Yamizakura" ("Cherry Blossoms in a Moonless Night"), which was read and somewhat retouched by Tōsui, before it was published in March in the first volume of Musashino, a literary magazine put out by him for his circle of young writers. This was the first story of hers to be published and for which she used her pen name Ichiyō for the first time. In the subsequent issues of Musashino a few of her early works were also printed. "Yamizakura" was a naive story of love between childhood friends, and like other stories she wrote in the early stage of her career it was rather crude. Her plots tended to be fanciful and unnatural, and she adhered to a classic style.

However, in these sorrowful love stories, it is discernable that she was, in one way or another, casting the shadow of her own suppressed self. Since the day she first met her teacher Tōsui, she was impressed with his manliness and generous heart. As the days passed, her tender passion toward him began to grow. Tōsui, being only a popular writer, naturally was limited in his capacity, beyond a certain degree, to coach Ichiyō in the art of story writing. But Tōsui exerted an immeasurable influence upon the heart of Ichiyō, sensitive and single-minded as she was, for, ever since the time of...

(The entire section is 8088 words.)

Donald Keene (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Higuchi Ichiyō," in Dawn to the West, Japanese Literature of the Modern Era: Fiction, Vol. 1, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984, pp. 165-85.

[In this following excerpt, Keene chronicles Higuchi's literary career, discussing her influences and the critical reception of her work.]

During the six centuries after the composition of Izayoi Nikki in 1280 hardly a single work by a woman left its imprint on Japanese literature. It is true that the court ladies continued to compose imitations of Heian tanka and fiction until well into the fifteenth century, and in the Tokugawa period a few women enjoyed reputations for their tanka, haiku, and even poetry in...

(The entire section is 7294 words.)

Margaret Mitsutani (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Higuchi Ichiyō: A Literature of Her Own," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring 1985, pp. 53-66.

[In the following excerpt, Mitsutani examines Higuchi's place as a woman writer in Meiji period (1868-1912) literature and examines the evolution of her literary style.]

At the close of his small book on one of the masterpieces of Heian literature, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, Arthur Waley mentions Higuchi Ichiyō, drawing an analogy between her position in the literature of the Meiji era, and that of women writers such as Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu in the literature of Heian, approximately a thousand years before Ichiyō...

(The entire section is 5390 words.)

Yoshiko Enomoto (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Breaking Out of Despair: Higuchi Ichiyō and Charlotte Brontë," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1987, pp. 251-63.

[In the following essay, Enomoto explores parallels as well as differences between the lives and works of Higuchi Ichiyō and Charlotte Brontë, maintaining that both were motivated by a "sense of powerlessness and loneliness" as women writers.]

This article will explore the striking similarities and differences between the lives and works of Higuchi Ichiyō and Charlotte Brontë, two leading women novelists of the nineteenth century. Ichiyō was often called "Brontë" by a contemporary Japanese critic, Hirata Tokuboku, and his...

(The entire section is 5004 words.)