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Fumiko Enchi: 女坂 (The Waiting Years)

The Shirakawa family live in Fukushima (yes, that Fukushima), where Yukitomo Shirakawa is the Chief Secretary to the governor. He is married to Tomo and they have two children: Michimasa, who lives with relatives in the country, and Etsuko, who is nine years old at the start of the novel. The novel seems to be set some time after the Meiji Restoration, i.e. in the late nineteenth century. At the beginning of the novel, Tomo and Etsuko are visiting Kin Kusumi and her adult daughter, Toshi, their former neighbours in Tokyo. They will stay with them for a while. Early on in the visit, Tomo confides the reason for their visit to Kin. She has been asked by her husband to hire a maid, though he has made it clear that her main role will not be as a maid but as a concubine. It seems that it is not unusual for a man in his position to take a concubine though fairly unusual for a man to ask his wife to engage one for him. However, he feels that she will be a good judge. Not surprisingly, Tomo is torn between doing what she feels is her duty towards her husband and her feeling of disgust and contempt for his actions. She feels that she can still be very much a wife to him and bitterly objects to his behaviour. However, she is very careful in selecting an appropriate girl, spending much time, with the help of Kin, in doing so. They select a fifteen-year old girl called Suga whose parents have fallen on hard times and need the money they will receive. Suga, of course, has no idea what her role really is to be and thinks she is just going to be a maid.

When they arrive back at Fukushima, Suga is surprised to be treated like a daughter of the family and not a maid, given fine clothes and her own room. Yukitomo is very nice to her, flattering her and taking her out. Only when she has grown very fond of him, does he have sex with her. Not surprisingly, she is very upset but has no choice but to accept. Meanwhile, Tomo waits in vain for her husband to come to her bedroom which he only does when he is in an aggressive mood. The Governor is very much opposed to the civil rights movement in Japan and is stamping down on all liberals. In one incident, Yukitomo is shot in the arm but manages to kill one of the assailants. It is after this incident that he goes to Tomo for sex. However, generally, he treats Tomo like an elder sister, as she says, even though she is ten years his junior, as it is she that runs the household. She continues to perform her duties, even though she is disgusted and horrified at how she is being treated and how he is using a young girl as his plaything. This point is brought home again and again. Suga herself feels the same way. Suga had no feeling of any physical or mental flowering, only a kind of inner wilting with a sorrowful sense of something damaged, something destroyed. She hated even her parents, who had surely meant this when they told her never to go against her master’s wishes.

The Governor is now appointed to a post as head of the police in Tokyo and Yukitomo Shirakawa and his family move there. As she deals with the official documents, Tomo discovers that Suga is now her adopted daughter. However, the inevitable happens and, two years after Suga was hired, a new “maid” is hired, Yumi. The same thing happens to her, though her father does object to his daughter losing her virginity.

The story changes somewhat when the Governor unexpectedly dies and Yukitomo decides to retire. Michimasa is now living with them but he is disliked by everyone, including his parents. He is aggressive, greedy, ill-mannered and unpleasant. Marriage does not seem to improve him but nor does retirement improve Yukitomo.

Enchi does not hold back in this book. Most of the men in Tomo’s life – her husband, her son and two of her grandsons – are decidedly unpleasant characters and treat women as there for their sexual pleasure and generally behave badly in other areas. Tomo, while not quite a saint, gets on with her life and supports the family, manages both the household and the business side of the family, deals with the various complications in the relationships and does her best to keep things going. Despite her feelings of considerable animosity towards her husband and son, she still does what she considers is best for them to the very end. Inevitably, the relationship between the various women, virtually all of whom are victims though, in one or two cases, at least partially compliant in what happens to them, is key and Enchi skilfully shows the changes in the relationships over the years. However, even in the worst case of behaviour by a woman, Tomo and Enchi excuse her behaviour.

We can be quick to damn the mores of Japanese men at that time, and rightly so, though it does seem as though both Yukitomo and Michimasa are extreme cases, as Enchi gives us one or two glimpses of men who do behave more responsibly. While the Japanese women of the day probably had little choice both for reasons of the social mores of the day and for financial reasons, there are men in the Western world today who do behave as badly, with trophy wives, multiple mistresses, the other woman, underage sex and so on, so we need to be careful before rushing to judgement. Whatever Yukitomo’s faults, and they are are many, he did make financial provision for all the women he abused. A small consolation not doubt, but one that very much concerned Tomo.

This is a very worthwhile book, producing a scathing feminist indictment of male behaviour in an era when, presumably, feminism was not to the fore in Japan. Enchi essentially tells the story of Tomo from the time when she ceases to be a wife and becomes what she calls an elder sister, to her death. Virtually all the women are victims in various ways and it is Enchi’s skill to show these ways.

Publishing history

First published in 1957 by Kadokawa Shoten
First English translation by Kodansha in 1971
Translated by John Bester