International Writers Magazine: Book Review
FAMILY by Nobuo Kojima with English translation by Yukiko Tanaka,
Dalkey Archive Press, 2005, 164 pp.,
published in Japan some forty years ago, EMBRACING FAMILY by novelist
Nobuo Kojima is not exactly a paean to "family values."
This new translation by Dalkey Archive Press gives English readers
a first look at a literary artist who has been awarded the Akutagawa
Prize, and the Tanizaki Junichiro Literary Prize, among other
honors in his homeland.
When I began reading
EMBRACING FAMILY, I was reminded of the classic THE WAITING YEARS by
Fumiko Enchi (1961), which like EMBRACING FAMILY is an account of a
troubled Japanese marriage. THE WAITING YEARS is notable as an understated,
but searing account of how in the late 19th Century, in an upper-class
family, a subservient wife-in-name-only gains our sympathy, while giving
insight into Meiji Period "family values." Written a few years
after Enchi's masterpiece, Kojima has taken on another troubled family,
in the early 1960s, and written the story from the husband's point of
view. It is no less a brilliant examination of complexity in what would
be considered a representative upper-class Japanese marriage in post-war
From the first two sentences ("Ever since Michiyo had become their
maid, the Miwa household looked worse than ever. Shunsuke, the man of
the house, was not pleased."), we know we've set down among a family
afflicted with a vague malaise.
The initial crisis in this domestic drama has Shunsuke, a university
professor, discharging Michiyo as maid for reasons we learn might have
to do with her knowing too much, especially relating to an indiscretion
committed by Shunsuke's wife Tokiko. But shot through with ambiguity
and ambivalence as EMBRACING FAMILY is, Shunsuke in a typical conflicted
moment realizes the loss of Michiyo might have been the glue holding
the Miwa family together, consisting of him, his aging neurotic wife,
Tokiko, their sullen teenage son, Ryoichi, and shy daughter Noriko,
plus a house guest (or two).
In short order, well before a replacement maid is hired, novelist Kojima
pulls off layers from the strained marriage of Shunsuke and Tokio. In
a series of quick scenes we learn this middle-aged couple has suffered
a loss of intimacy, that Shunsuke suffers from impotence, and yet he
never gives up hope their future might improve. He gets injections from
his doctor to help his "nerves," to banish the impotency.
He goes along with Tokiko's giddy wish they build a new house to live
in--which they do.
But disaster seems to dog this marriage. The leaky roof and other defects
in the new house symbolize more of Shunsuke and Tokiko's sorrowful fate.
Kojima moves pacing of this spare novel along masterfully, frequently
bridging time with scenes of only a paragraph. The greater complication
in their marriage is that Tokiko develops the serious medical problems
to which middle-aged women are prone.
A devoted husband thoughout all the hospital stays, Shunsuke is ever
aware of how his family is faring. A replacement maid helps the household,
the family structure, but it is never enough.
Paradoxically, what Kojima seems to have done with EMBRACING FAMILY
is render a compelling definition of what satisfying family life would
feel like by showing its negation. Perhaps it is an Asian cultural value
to define by denial, not affirmation (as many in the West do), but as
the common saying goes, We don't know what we have until we lose it.
In sum, I read Kojima's EMBRACING FAMILY with happy surprise its portrait
of a post-war Japanese marriage under strain was a worthwhile companion
to Fumiko Enchi's THE WAITING YEARS: excellent company, indeed!
© Charlie Dickinson May 3rd 2006
read "stories & more" @ http://charlied.freeshell.org
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