2 October 1905|
|Died||12 November 1986
Early life and literary career
Fumiko Enchi was born in the Asakusa district of downtown Tokyo, as the daughter of distinguished Tokyo Imperial University philologist and linguist Kazutoshi Ueda. Of poor health as a child, she was unable to attend classes in school on a regular basis, so her father decided to keep her at home. She was taught English, French and Chinese literature through private tutors. She was also strongly influenced by her paternal grandmother, who introduced her to the Japanese classics such as The Tale of Genji, as well as to Edo period gesaku novels and to the kabuki and bunraku theater. A precocious child, at age 13, her reading list included the works of Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Kyōka Izumi, Nagai Kafū, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and especially Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, whose sado-masochistic aestheticism particularly fascinated her.
From 1918 to 1922, she attended the girl's middle school of Japan Women's University, but was forced to abandon her studies due to health. However, her interest in the theatre was encouraged by her father, and as a young woman, she attended the lectures of Kaoru Osanai, the founder of modern Japanese drama.
Her literary career began in 1926, with a one-act stage play Birthplace (ふるさと Furusato?) published in the literary journal Kabuki, which was well received by critics, who noted her sympathies with the proletarian literature movement. This was followed in 1928 by A Noisy Night in Late Spring (Banshun Soya), which was performed at the Tsukiji Little Theatre.
In 1930, she married Yoshimatsu Enchi, a journalist with the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun, with whom she had a daughter. She then began to write fiction but unlike her smooth debut as a playwright, she found it very hard to get her stories published. Although from 1939, the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun began publishing a serialization of her translation of the Genji Monogatari into modern Japanese language, her early novels, such as The World Like the Wind (Kaze no gotoki kotoba, 1939), the The Treasures of Heaven and Sea (Ten no sachi, umi no sachi, 1940) and Spring and Autumn (Shunju, 1943) were not a commercial success. She also continued to struggle with her health, having a mastectomy in 1938 after being diagnosed with uterine cancer, and suffering from post-surgical complications.
In 1953, Enchi’s novel Himojii Tsukihi (ひもじい月日 "Days of Hunger"?) was received favorably by critics. Her novel is a violent, harrowing tale of family misfortune and physical and emotional deprivation, based partly on wartime personal experiences, and in 1954 won the Women’s Literature Prize.
Enchi’s next novel was also highly praised: Onna zaka (女坂 The Waiting Years?) (1949–1957) won the Noma Literary Prize. The novel is set in the Meiji period and analyzes the plight of women who have no alternative but to accept the demeaning role assigned to them in the patriarchal social order. The protagonist is the wife of a government official, who is humiliated when her husband not only takes concubines, but has them live under the same roof as both maids and as secondary wives.
From the 1950s and 1960s, Enchi became quite successful, and wrote numerous novels and short stories exploring female psychology and sexuality. In Masks (Onna men, 1958), her protagonist is based on Lady Rokujo from the Genji Monogatari, depicted as shamanist character. After losing her son in a climbing accident on Mount Fuji, she manipulates her widowed daughter-in-law to have a son by any means to replace the one she lost.
The theme of a shamanist appears repeatedly in Enchi’s works in the 1960s. Enchi contrasted the traditions of female subjugation in Buddhism with the role of the shamaness in the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion, and used this as a means to depict the shamaness as a vehicle for either retribution against men, or empowerment for women. In The Tale of An Enchantress (Nama miko monogatari, 1965), she sets the story in the Heian period, with the protagonist as Empress Teishi (historical figure Fujiwara no Teishi, also known as Sadako), a consort of Emperor Ichijo. The novel won the 1966 Women’s Literature Prize.
In A Tale of False Oracles (1969-1970), Enchi writes of female mediums and possession by spirits.
Three of her stories were selected for the Tanizaki Prize in 1969: Shu wo ubau mono; Kizu aru tsubasa; Niji to shura (朱を奪うもの/傷ある翼/虹と修羅).
Another theme in Enchi’s writing is eroticism in aging women, which she saw as a biological inequality between men and women. In “Growing Fog” (Saimu, 1976), an aging woman becomes obsessed with a fantasy in which she can revitalize herself through sexual liaisons with young men.
Enchi was made a Person of Cultural Merit in 1979, and was awarded the Order of Culture by the Japanese government in 1985. She was elected to the Japan Art Academy shortly before her death on November 14, 1986, of a heart attack, suffered while she was at a family event in 1986 at her home in the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo. Her grave is at the nearby Yanaka Cemetery. Few of Enchi's works have been translated out of Japanese.
Partial list of works
- Kaze no gotoki kotoba (The Words like the Wind, 1939)
- Ten no sachi, umi no sachi (The Treasures of Heaven and Sea, 1940)
- Shunju (Spring and Autumn, 1943)
- Onna Zaka (The Waiting Years, 1949–1957), English translation by John Bester. Kodansha. ISBN 477002889X
- Onna Men (Masks, 1958), English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter.
- Nama miko monogatari (A Tale of False Fortunes, 1965), English translation by Roger Kent Thomas. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824821874
- Saimu (Growing Fog, 1976)
- Furusato (A Birthplace, 1926)
- Banshu soya (A Noisy Night in Late Spring, 1928)
- Enchi Genji, a translation of The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese.
- Cornyetz, Nina. Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers, Stanford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0804732124
- Schierbeck, Sachiko. Japanese Women Novelists in the 20th Century. Museum Tusculanum Press (1994). ISBN 8772892684
- Fumiko Enchi at J'Lit Books from Japan (English)
- Synopsis of The Waiting Years (Onna Zaka) at JLPP (Japanese Literature Publishing Project) (English)