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Takeo Arishima: 或る女 (A Certain Woman)

This novel has been called Japan’s Madame Bovary or its Anna Karenina and it’s easy to see why. It tells the story of a woman (in the early part of the 20th century) who is clearly out of tune with the contemporary mores of the society in which she lives. The novel is, to a great extent, semi-autobiographical. The heroine – Yoko Satsuki – is based on Nobuko Satsuki who, like Yoko, married one man, went to America to marry another and fell in love with the ship’s purser. Not only is the novel semi-autobiographical, it is also very Western and, therefore, very unJapanese in style.

Yoko Satsuki, oldest of three sisters, while still young, falls for a journalist, marries him and then gets bored with him very quickly. She divorces him and returns to her parents’ house. We meet him on a few occasions afterwards – indeed, the opening part of the book is one of these meetings, where she sees him on a train and studiously ignores him. She clearly continues to despise him and he, in his turn, has clearly had his life devastated by his brief marriage and subsequent divorce.

After her parents’ death, to please her family and friends, she consents to marry a friend of a friend who has made his career in San Francisco. In a superbly told piece of writing, the ship journey leads to a gradual affair between Yoko and the married purser, under the watchful and very critical eye of one of the passengers. By the time they reach San Francisco, it is clear that she is going to continue with the purser (Kuraji) and not marry the unfortunate Kibe, waiting for her in San Francisco. She returns to Japan on the same ship, with Kuraji (not forgetting to hit up the impoverished Kibe for money). Back in Japan she makes her life with Kuraji, despite the fact that he remains married and she has to look after her two younger sisters. But it is not a happy life as she struggles financially, worries about her sisters and rows with Kuraji, who eventually disappears, with the police hot on his trail. In good nineteenth century style, it is no surprise when first her younger sister gets ill and dies and then she does.

Arishima has produced a fine novel which, while not quite at the level of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, certainly deserves to be better-known. Yoko is a complex personality out of her time and place, like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina and, like them, unable to cope with or adapt to the society around her. Her struggle is not political but rather the simple right of a woman to live her life as an individual, not bound by convention, gossips and the morality imposed by others. Japan at the turn of the twentieth century was not the right place for such a struggle and Arishima is able to clearly depict this.

Publishing history

First published in 1911 by Sōbunkaku
First English translation by University of Tokyo Press in 1978
Translated by Kenneth Strong