Scholars say that a literal translation of the title of this story is “waste newspapers.” Although the English title, “Swaddling Clothes,” is not entirely accurate, ironically, it captures a central tension of the tale. With this title the warm white flannel evoked by the English term is conflated with the dirty newspapers that first swathe the newborn child. The child in the dramatic birthing scene is visible throughout the tale in a series of tensions; the cherished child in clean flannel contrasts with the bloodied paper wrappings that declare this child trash, a piece of meat, a throwaway life.
As the pristine flannel and the soiled papers are held in tension, so are other objects and persons united. Two powerful images are conflated in the story: images of cherry blossoms and images of newspapers. To Toshiko the artificial cherry blossoms on the theater marquee are revealed to be shreds of paper; she walks down the park path beneath an umbrella of blossoming trees with heaps of waste paper at her feet, and at first the sheets of paper draping the vagrant on the bench glow in the darkness like a blanket of cherry blossoms. Both the blossoms and the newspapers suggest transience, one the transience of events natural, the other the transience of events humanmade. The blossoms evoke an entire genteel aesthetic and the most ancient traditions of Japan. The other suggests the blaring emptiness of modern Western lifestyles of conspicuous consumption. Most dramatically, the newspapers unite the bastard child born in Toshiko’s nursery with the malign force of the shadowy figure of her future destruction. This small tale of horror lifts a corner of the veneer of Japanese contemporary life and reveals the madness and violence beneath.
(The entire section is 725 words.)