Ichiyō Higuchi (樋口 一葉 Higuchi Ichiyō, May 2, 1872 – November 23, 1896) was the pen name of Japanese author Natsu Higuchi (樋口 奈津 Higuchi Natsu), also known as Natsuko Higuchi (樋口 夏子 Higuchi Natsuko). Specializing in short stories, she was one of the first important writers to appear in the Meiji period (1868–1912) and Japan's first prominent woman writer of modern times. She wrote relatively little as a result of living a brief life—she died at 24—but her stories had a large impact on Japanese literature and she is still appreciated by the Japanese public today.
Higuchi was unique among her peers in that her writing was based on Japanese rather than Western models. Her work is highly regarded for her use of Classical Japanese language, and for that reason people are reluctant to update or translate it into contemporary Japanese, leaving it difficult for the majority of Japanese people to read.
She was born in Tokyo, with the name Natsuko Higuchi. Her parents had come to the capital from a farming community in a nearby province. Her father struggled to buy a lower-rank samurai position, then lost it, worked for the municipal government, but was let go, and then invested all the family's savings in a business venture which failed.
Not long before this final debacle, Higuchi, 14 years old, began studying classical poetry at one of the best of the poetic conservatories, the Haginoya. Here she received weekly poetry lessons and lectures on Japanese literature. There were also monthly poetry competitions in which all students, past and present, were invited to participate. Poetry taught at this school was that of the conservative court poets of the Heian period. She always felt awkward among the other students, the great majority of whom came from the upper-class. It did not help that she was nearsighted, modest, small, and with thin hair.
Her compulsion to write became evident by 1891 when she began to keep a diary in earnest. It would become hundreds of pages long, covering the five years left in her life. With her feelings of social inferiority, her timidity, and the increasing poverty of her family, her diary was the place where she could assert herself. Often the entries are written as if they were part of a novel. Of considerable quality and interest, it has not been published in English.
Efforts to become a writer
She, her mother, and younger sister made ends meet by doing needlework, washing, and other jobs. In 1892, after seeing the success of a classmate, Kaho Tanabe, who wrote a novel, Higuchi decided to become a novelist to support her family.
Nevertheless, her initial efforts at writing fiction were in the form of a short story, a form to which she would remain true. In 1891 she met her future advisor who would help, she assumed, this poet-turned-fiction-writer and connect her with editors: Tosui Nakarai. She fell in love with him right away, not knowing that, at 31, he had a reputation as a womanizer. Nor did she realize that he wrote popular literature which aimed to please the general public and in no way wished to be associated with serious literature.
Her mentor did not return her passionate, if discreet, love for him, and instead treated her as a younger sister. This failed relationship would become a recurrent theme in Higuchi's fiction.
Eventually, she got the break she was so eager for: her first stories were published in a minor newspaper under her pen name, Ichiyo Higuchi. The stories from this first period (1892–94) suffered from the excessive influence of Heian poetry. Higuchi felt compelled to demonstrate her classical literary training. The plots were thin, there was little development of character and they were loaded down by excessive sentiment, especially when compared to what she was writing concurrently in her diary. But she was developing rapidly. Several of her trademark themes appear; for example, the triangular relationship among a lonely, beautiful, young woman who has lost her parents, a handsome man who has abandoned her (and remains in the background), and a lonely and desperate ragamuffin who falls in love with her. Another theme Higuchi repeated was the ambition and cruelty of the Meiji middle class.
The story "Umoregi" ("In Obscurity") signaled Higuchi's arrival as a professional writer. It was published in the prestigious journal Miyako no Hana in 1892, only nine months after she had started writing in earnest. Her work was noticed and she was recognized as a promising new author.
Her last years
In 1893, Higuchi, her mother and her sister abandoned their middle class house and, with a grim determination to survive, moved to a poor neighborhood where they opened a stationery store that before long failed. Their new dwelling was a five-minute walk from Tokyo's ill-famed red-light district, the Yoshiwara. Her experience living in this neighborhood would provide material for several of her later stories, especially "Takekurabe", (literally, "Comparing heights"; "Child's Play" in the Robert Lyons Danly translation; also called "Growing Up" in the Edward Seidensticker translation.)
The stories of her mature period (1894–96) were not only marked by her experience living near the red-light district and greater concern over the plight of women, but also by the influence of Ihara Saikaku, a 17th-century writer, whose stories she had recently discovered. His distinctiveness lay in great part in his acceptance of low-life characters as worthwhile literary subjects. What Higuchi added was a special awareness of suffering and sensitivity. To this period belong "Ōtsugomori" ("On the Last Day of the Year"), "Nigorie" ("Troubled Waters"), "Wakare-Michi" ("Separate Ways"), "Jūsan'ya" ("The Thirteenth Night") and "Takekurabe" ("Child's Play"). The last two are considered her best work.
With these last stories her fame spread throughout the Tokyo literary establishment. In her humble home she was visited by other writers, students of poetry, admirers, the curious, critics, and editors requesting her collaboration.
But between constant interruptions and frequent headaches, Higuchi stopped writing. As her father and one of her brothers had before her, she had caught tuberculosis.
She died on November 23, 1896, at the age of twenty-four.
Higuchi's likeness adorns the Japanese 5000 yen banknote as of fall 2004, becoming the third woman to appear on a Japanese banknote, after Empress Jingū in 1881 and Murasaki Shikibu in 2000. Her best-known stories have been made into movies.
- Danly, Robert Lyons (1981). In the Shade of Spring Leaves. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. p. 15.
- Kaho Tanabe (田辺花圃 Tanabe Kaho, 1868–1943) who wrote Yabu no uguisu ("Songbirds in the grove", 1888).
- Danley. p.50.
- Danley. p.60.
- Danley. p.82.
- Danley. p.82.
- Danley. p.75.
- Danley. p.109.
- Keene, Donald. (1956) Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Grove Press. p.70.
- Danly. p.109.
- Danly. p.161.
- Danly. p.vii.
- Robert Lyons Danly. A study of Higuchi Ichiyō. Yale University, 1980.
- Robert Lyons Danly. In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life and Writings of Higuchi Ichiyō. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
- Yukiko Tanaka. Women writers of Meiji and Taishō Japan: their lives, works and critical reception, 1868–1926. McFarland, 2000.
- Compernolle, Timothy J. Van. "Happiness Foreclosed: Sentimentalism, the Suffering Heroine, and Social Critique in Higuchi Ichiyō's 'Jūsan'ya.'" Journal of Japanese Studies 30, no. 2 (2004): p. 353–381. Available at JSTOR.
- Ikuta, Hanayo. Ichiyō to Shigure—denki: Higuchi Ichiyō/Hasegawa Shigure denki sōsho. Tokyo: Ōzorasha, 1992.
- E-texts of Higuchi Ichiyō's works at Aozora Bunko (in Japanese)
- J'Lit | Authors : Ichiyo Higuchi | Books from Japan (in English)
- Higuchi Ichiyō's grave (in English)