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Minae Mizumura: 母の遺産 (Inheritance of Mother)

At the start of this novel, Noriko Katsura, has just died, after a long illness. As the title tells us, she has left some money to her two daughters, Mitsuki and Natsuki. The novel tells us the story of the three women and their relationship with one another, not always a happy one.

Noriko’s father had not been well-off but his sister had married into a well-off family, known as Yokohama, as they had originally been from there. When Noriko and her parents moved to Tokyo, they lived at the bottom of the hill, while the Yokohama family lived at the top. Her cousin became a concert pianist, while Noriko had to live alone with her mother (her father had moved in with someone else) in genteel poverty. The local barber proposed but she turned him down, hoping for something better. She went up the hill, to help her aunt. Initially, she just did domestic duties but she joined the church choir, learned flower arranging and how to do the tea ceremony and soon ingratiated herself. When a tenor, a guest at the house, fell for her, he was quickly sent off to Europe when his parents found out.

Yokohoma decided that Noriko must be married off and they found a suitable man, a second son, not rich but certainly not poor. They were married but, during the chaos of the war, she left him and married the father of Mitsuki and Natsuki. Divorce was legal but frowned upon so this caused big problems in the family. However, Noriko, her husband and their daughters survived, as he had an export business. Even when that went broke, thanks to his knowledge of English, he found a good job.

Natsuki was the older one and it was she who got the attention. She took piano lessons and was sent to Germany to study further. Mitsuki was left behind and felt resentful, though she eventually was sent to France for a year to study French, where she met Tetsuo. Unlike her sister, who had an affair with a man who was not Japanese, Mitsuki’s relationship was with a Japanese man. He was not from a rich family and was making a career as an academic, though, eventually, he would get into media, travel a lot and become more successful. Meanwhile, Natsuki eventually married a cellist from a rich Japanese family and they were living comfortably. Mitsuki herself managed to have a successful career, teaching English and French and translating.

When her husband took ill, Noriko started an affair with a man her daughters called That Man. They were very bitter about it. The burden fell on them to look after their father, made more difficult by the fact that Mitsuki spent some time in California, where Tetsuo was on sabbatical. Eventually, he died but, before that Noriko had had her own health problems and That Man disappeared from the scene.

Much of the book is about three issues. The first, of course, is the mother-daughter(s) relationship. It remains fraught throughout the book, with both daughters more than once wishing their mother was dead but, at the same time, feeling their obligation to care for her. The burden falls more on Mitsuki, not least because, after Natsuki’s adventure in Germany, mother and daughter become somewhat estranged. The matter is worsened because Noriko firstly is going senile (Senility is virtually indistinguishable from madness. As her hospital stay lengthened, Mitsuki’s mother grew more senile; she also slipped further into madness) and secondly has accidents. There is a strong sense of obligation in that respect in Japan. But any woman leading an ordinary life—untouched by natural disaster, poverty, or incurable illness—was likely to be living that ordinary life in thrall to her mother, much more so than any man could possibly imagine.

The second key issue is that Mitsuki finds out that her husband, Tetsuo, is having an affair. He has had affairs before but this one she finds out by going into his email account (she has his password) and realises that not only is he having an affair but that he is planning to leave her for the other woman. She discovers this while her mother is very ill. He is away on sabbatical in Vietnam so she does not confront him with it but clearly has to deal with it. Much of the latter part of the book is spent confronting this issue.

The third and key issue, which is closely related to the other two, is the changing role of women in Japan. We go back to the grandmother of Mitsuki and Natsuki (Noriko’s mother). I was so disgusted by how old and ugly she was. I used to think, I’ll never let myself go to seed like that, Mitsuki says but we learn that she, too, had past, a past when she was young, passionate and good-looking but had suffered, primarily because she was a woman. Issues such as divorce, illegitimacy, women’s sexuality, the hypocrisy of society accepting men’s affairs while decrying women’s and other related issues are raised throughout this book.

Mizumura’s 本格小説 新潮社 (A True Novel) had Wuthering Heights as its reference. This one has Madame Bovary and, to a lesser extent, Anna Karenina, both, of course, about female adultery and the punishment for this adultery. Mizumura shows that while female adulterers may not be punished by death they are or, at least, were till recently, punished by society’s condemnation. While Mitsuki and Natsuki are critical of their mother, they do come to realise that she had a hard time, as a woman, and, though only to a limited agree, recognise this.

This is another first-class novel by Mizumura and confirms her as one of Japan’s leading contemporary novelists. We can only hope that more of her work appears in English.

Publishing history

First published by Chūō Kōron Shinsha in 20012
First English translation published by Other Press in 2017