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Chiyo Uno: 色ざんげ (Confessions of Love)

This novel is based on the romantic life of the artist Seiji Tōgō. Chiyo Uno was writing another book at the time and was planning to include a love suicide scene. She needed to know more about the subject, so she contacted Tōgō, who had recently been involved in a love suicide attempt. They met at a bar and Tōgō then invited Uno back to his house, where they spent the night together, sleeping on the blood-stained futon on which the suicide attempt had taken place. Her brief overnight visit lasted five years. Tōgō eventually recounted to her his tale and she has claimed that the novel is his account verbatim, though this may not be true. However much he or she contributed, it was was published under her name and had considerable success and is a very colourful work.

The hero and narrator of this work is called Joji Yuasa. Like Seiji Togo, he is an artist influenced by the Western style. Indeed, he has just returned from seven years in Europe. During his travels, he left his wife and child behind and they are now planning to divorce. He lives upstairs in their house, and they live downstairs. Communication is limited between the couple. He spends much of his time at dancehalls and similar places, having multiple sexual liaisons. One day he gets a letter from a woman called Takao Komaki suggesting they meet and giving a place and time. He ignores this and the numerous subsequent communications from her. She even comes to the house but he refuses to see her. However, he is eventually curious and does go. She turns out to be barely eighteen. She is the daughter of a very successful and rich Mitsubishi official, who is always travelling. Her mother is out all the time, also chasing men, so she has a very expensive hosue all to herself. Yuasa spends the night with her at a hotel and she turns out to be very passionate. And then she disappears. There is no communication from her. He even gets a visit from a detective who is also looking for her and thinks Yuasa might be hiding her. Eventually he meets a couple of friends of hers at a concert, including the lovely Tsuyuko Saijo, with whom he falls in love. They track Takao down. She is away at a resort, having a fling with another eighteen-year old. By this time, Yuasa is much in love with Tsuyuko. When he offers to help when the family is ruined, Takao spurns him.

His affair with Tsuyuko is no easier. She, too, disappears, but this is because her parents have discovered her relationship with Yuasa and have immediately arranged for her to marry a more suitable prospect and are keeping Tsuyuko hidden. A series of adventures ensues as he tries to track Tsuyuko down but things do not work. No matter, as he meets another woman, Tomoko, and starts an affair with her. Meanwhile, his marriage is causing problems, as his wife, feeling that she has wasted seven years while waiting for him to return from Europe, wants more alimony than he can afford.

The rest of the book tells of his turmoil as he juggles a wife, about to be an ex-wife, a lover who becomes a wife and a lover who does not become a wife but joins him in a (failed) suicide pact. He scurries around Japan on a train, tracking one woman down and deals with parents who like him and those who do not like him. He (and the women) somehow get themselves in terrible states and conflicts with lovers, family and others. His ex-wife, not surprisingly, tries to get more money out of him. He (and they) seem to transfer their affections at the drop of a hat, being passionately in love with one person one minute and passionately in love with another a day later and then back again. As he says, he lives in a world where such fine things as laws and morality and promises between people seemed impossibly distant which I would translate as that he is very self-centred and very hypocritical. What to me seems somewhat surprising is that Japan of the 1930s seems to have little moral code, at least among the characters of this novel, where responsibility to one’s spouse/partner and to one’s minor children is given little importance. Their parents do get involved but, even then, their concern is more about family reputation than any concern for the well-being of their children.

I could say that it was an enjoyable novel but it really was not as, for most of the book, the main characters are all thoroughly miserable and unhappy with their lot and their relationships and never seem to be happy except for occasional brief moments of sexual passion. It is, though a very interesting novel as Uno, assuming that it is indeed she that wrote the novel, rather than copying it verbatim from Tōgō, keeps the pace going at all times. Indeed, there is nearly always some imminent meeting, catastrophe or loss that has a character or characters jumping around or wallowing in misery (and rarely in joy). Despite all this, it was certainly well worth reading, if only to get something of a different picture of Japan and also because there is no doubt that Uno writes very well.

Publishing history

First published in 1933 by Shinchōsha
First English translation by University of Hawaii Press in 1989
Translated by Phyllis Birnbaum