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Hiromi Ito » とげ抜き 新巣鴨地蔵縁起 (The Thorn Puller)

Hiromi Ito is best-known as a poet but this work – I hesitate to call it a novel – shows that she can write prose. Indeed Ito herself has described this work as a long poem, rather than a novel. It is a mixture of (relatively) straightforward autobiography , feminism, focussing on such issues as the female body, female sexuality and male-female relations, cultural differences between the US, UK and Japan, religion and the spirit of Japan.

The title, though not obvious to a non-Japanese reader, refers to Jizo, a bodhisattva. One of his attributes, for which he is revered in Japan, is the ability to help people with problems, both physical and life problems and the Thorn Puller is a metaphor for this. He will play a key role in this book as Ito and her family revere him and frequently visit Sugamo, the centre of Jizo worship. One of the ways in which he helps is if you have a physical affliction , you wash the part of the statue that corresponds to the location of your affliction and you will be cured. This has resulted in the statue being worn away but it had been replaced by a newer one. He will also help you get rid of an unwanted lover and Ito used it for this purpose (successfully) in her younger days.

What makes this work so fascinating is that there are so many things going on that if you find one less interesting she will soon move on to another. The main character/narrator is called Hiromi Ito who, though obviously our author, does have some biographical details different from the author. It is divided into chapters with titles . Many (though not all) of the chapter titles have her last name in the title such as The Peach Ito Threw Rots, and She Becomes a Beast Once Again. All of the chapters end with a list of the various Japanese works she has used/quoted from in that chapter. I had only heard of a very few.

The key theme concerns Ito herself. She is a woman and that means she has three difficult roles – that of daughter to elderly parents, (she is their only child) wife of a difficult man (third marriage for both of them), and mother of three daughters who have their own problems. All is made more complicated by the fact she lives primarily in the US with her Jewish-British older husband and their daughter Aiko (the other two no longer are at home) while her ailing parents are in Japan (Kumamoto) so she has to essentially commute between the two countries, which is expensive, particularly on her limited income. Her parents are both deteriorating in their own way. Her mother has to be permanently hospitalised and her father has to struggle on alone, which he barely manages. Her regular, often emergency commutes are a key part of the book. In her poetry she has been noted for showing that women are not goddesses but creatures of flesh and blood and the flesh and blood are mentioned here. We get full details of normal human activities, including those linked to sex and reproduction such as menstruation, miscarriages/abortions and, in the case of her husband, erectile dysfunction but also the physical issues linked to ageing. As Ito, her husband and parents are all ageing, there is plenty of scope for details. Some of it is quite funny e.g. Long ago, I remember Mom throwing her breasts over her shoulder like she was hoisting up a sandbag.

The other key issue involves the cultural differences. In Japan you are meant to look after your ageing parents. In the US you are meant to focus on your immediate family. Ito, therefore has to do both. However, we see a host of other differences. In the afterword, translator Jeffrey Angles states that Ito claims not to be able to read English well and it is clear that at times this is an issue in this book as she does not always understand someone speaking English. For example, when she has a medical issue and goes to the doctor, she barely understands a word he says when he gives her the technical details. However it goes deeper than that as we shall see in her relationship with her husband and with religion.

Her relationship with her husband is not good. They quarrel and indeed fight all the time. He is clearly based on her real-life partner (not husband) Harold Cohen, a Jewish-English artist, now deceased. The difference between Jewish-English-US culture and Japanese culture is profound and neither of the two make a great deal of effort to bridge the gap. It is not just cultural: Over the decade we’d spent together, I’d given up on my husband more times than I could count, thinking there was no way he could understand me. In fact, I used to like it that he couldn’t and

So, let me say a few words about husbands . . .
They look like men, but kneaded and plucked.
They swell up like a balloon.
They look thick, big, and sturdy.
Like a good hard squeeze would make them hard.
Everyone says they’re great, but I know better.

We see their differences particularly with religion. Ito is a Buddhist. Being a Buddhist is not like being a Jew or Christian, at least as far as Ito is concerned. It is part of her life which she accepts and respects but she is not proselytising. She is not attending any church services but does visit shrines, says prayers, touches statues, makes (small) donations. While he may be Jewish, her husband (never named in this book) is an avowed atheist and detests anything that smacks of religion. On one of his rare visits to Japan, when he sees Ito encouraging their daughter in what he considers religious ways, he is furious.

Death is also, not surprisingly, a key feature. She discusses it with various people, particularly her mother but also an elderly friend who says:
I’m not sad about dying at all.
Don’t you want to hold on?
I’ve already lived long enough.

Do you think about suicide?
Yes, I do.
Have you ever thought about really doing it?
Countless times. I’ve tried countless times too.

Ito herself says, in relation to her mother, We need to let the dying die.

However, do not worry, it is not all about domestic issues. Ito is very much in tune with her her culture and we get a lot about Japan, its history, its religion, its culture and even its geography. She travels to various places, meets various people and discusses with us aspects of Japanese literature, legend and history. Just as we might be witnessing another fight with her husband or details of her mother’s illness, she will veer off into a Japanese myth or a Japanese literary work only to get back to her daughter’s anorexia or the horrors of trans-Pacific flying.

There’s a word in Buddhism, saha, which means “the world that must be endured and, while she uses it about California, it is relevant to the entire book. She is a poet and loves being a poet and getting in touch with Japanese culture but as a daughter, wife and mother, life gets in the way. There I was, busy as always, helping everyone—Mom, Dad, Aiko, my husband. I never have any time or money, I never have any freedom. As she says: Smash the home.
Smash the family.
Destroy the home.
Destroy the family.

But she does not.

I would normally not go for this type of book but this one really worked for me as we see the woman with her domestic issues and her cross-cultural issues but also the poet, the religious person, the person immersed in her national culture, the thinking person, who struggles with life and who, above all, gives us a first-class read.

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by Kodansha
First English translation in 2022 by Stone Bridge Press
Translated by Jeffrey Angles