The International Writers Magazine: Book Review

EMBRACING FAMILY by Nobuo Kojima with English translation by Yukiko Tanaka, Dalkey Archive Press, 2005, 164 pp.,
ISBN: 1-56478-405-3

Charlie Dickinson

irst 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 years.

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
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