From the Violent to the Comic through the Power of the Text: Nogami Yaeko Reading Jane Austen in Japan

By Hartley, Barbara | Hecate, November 2008 | Go to article overview

From the Violent to the Comic through the Power of the Text: Nogami Yaeko Reading Jane Austen in Japan


Hartley, Barbara, Hecate


Nogami Yaeko (1885-1985) was one of modern Japan's most revered woman novelists. She was also a great admirer of the writing of Jane Austen. Nogami Yaeko first read Jane Austen as a young woman. However, in 1926, at the age of forty-one, her understanding of the English writer's work became much more profound when she was asked to proof-read her husband's translation into Japanese of Jane Austen's 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice (or at least the section of that novel up to when Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth Bennet). (1) This close reading of Pride and Prejudice gave Nogami Yaeko, hereafter referred to by her given name, Yaeko, (2) a great deal of textual pleasure. Scholars such as Eleanor Hogan and Tamura Michio have also suggested that the reading left an indelible mark on aspects of Yaeko's future text production, including narrative structure and themes relating to marriage. (3) In this article I will argue that Austen's playful sense of humour and love of the comic, deployed so skilfully in Pride and Prejudice against the self-important and overbearing male, made an equally strong impact on the aspiring woman writer making a careful reading of the narrative in Japan. However, I want to suggest that, rather than being expressed in subsequent textual production, Austen's comic methodology armed Yaeko to develop effective personal and professional strategies to deal with the highly masculinised environs of the pre-war Japanese literary community.

In order to understand how this occurred we need to consider the circumstances of the production of one of Yaeko's most famous early novels, written before the writer's scrutiny of Pride and Prejudice. This text, entitled Kaijin-maru (1922; trans. 1957, The Neptune), (4) is redolent with violence and intimations of cannibalism. In tracing the trajectory of Yaeko's reponse to Jane Austen's comic technique, I will begin by considering a 1987 essay on The Neptune narrative by feminist literary critic, Hotta Kazuko. In this essay, Hotta made a very confronting suggestion concerning the motive behind Yaeko's insertion of cannibalism into the text that brought her to the attention of the reading public.

The essay on Nogami Yaeko's The Neptune was one of a series of feminist commentaries written by Hotta on prominent literary women of twentieth century Japan. These essays appeared in a book entitled Joryu sakka no shinzui (The Essence of the Woman Writer), (5) a pun on the title of one of the first critical commentaries on modern Japanese literature--Shosetsu shinzui (The Essence of the Novel). (6) Like many discussions of modern Japanese literature, this latter work implied that textual production was beyond the capacity of all but the occasional exceptional woman writer. (7) The Essence of the Woman Writer was released at a time when feminist critics were favourably re-assessing the contribution made by Japanese women writers who had often, in the past, been consigned to the literary margins. Among other things, Hotta contextualised the activities of literary women in modern Japan by locating their endeavours within the constraints of the strong patriarchal elements operating in Japanese society. Although influenced by the social justice principles of the proletarian movement and known for her strong stance on gender issues and social issues generally, Yaeko nonetheless cultivated a public persona based on feminine decorum. And while she wrote a number of powerful texts, including one based on the fraught relationship between the great sixteenth century warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), and the father of the Japanese tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), which culminates in Rikyfi's being forced to take his own life to appease Hideyoshi's displeasure, (8) in real life Yaeko presented as something of a model of demure Japanese womanhood and a devoted wife and mother.

Critic Hotta Kazuko, however, saw another side to Yaeko's nature, which the former argued was evident from the structure of The Neptune. …

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