‘The Waiting Years’ by Fumiko Enchi (Review)

After some time spent in a run-down neighbourhood where many strange things happened, we’re staying in Japan, but taking a trip back in time, with our latest Women In Translation Month read.  We’re in Tokyo again, but sticking to the richer side of town as we meet a wealthy man and his family.  Despite our host’s riches, though, it’s actually (aptly enough for #WITMonth) the women we’re more interested in.  You see, while equality is still a distant dream, today’s choice shows us that things used to be a lot worse…

Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years (translated by John Bester) begins in the Japan of the late nineteenth century, with Tomo Shirakawa, the wife of a government official, visiting Tokyo to see her old neighbours.  While she’s certainly happy to catch up with her friends, there is another reason for her trip, though.  Her husband, Yukitomo, a notorious philanderer, is on the rise in his career, and even if his womanising is tolerated, admired even, in the Japan of the era, he has been advised to keep a tighter rein on his desires by taking in a concubine – and who better to find one for him than his long-suffering wife?

Tomo’s belief in traditional values, including utter devotion to one’s husband, means that she accepts this distasteful task without a word of dissent, spending three months in the new capital searching for a woman acceptable to both Yukitomo and herself.  Having finally found a suitable candidate in the form of Suga, a beautiful fifteen-year-old from a family with financial problems, Tomo returns to her husband to present him with his prize.  She then settles down to a long life of managing their home, and the many women of the establishment, hoping that some day her loyalty will be rewarded.

Enchi never disappoints, and The Waiting Years is another fascinating and formidable work, providing modern readers with an intriguing glimpse into early modern Japan and the workings of a Japanese marriage.  The Meiji restoration of 1868 may be behind us, but this is very much a period of flux in which feudal era norms still hold sway.  This can be seen in the way Yukitomo carries out his work (with a heavy hand) and his marriage (with absolute authority), and in the horrible concept of selling a woman:

It was wicked.  They were giving a girl still of an age to be playing with dolls to a man a full two dozen years her senior, an elderly roué who had already tasted all the world’s pleasures.  The girl’s parents were a part to the whole proceedings.  Even if they had not given her to be his mistress, they could never have got enough money to keep the family going without handing over her fresh young body in exchange.  Her physical beauty was so dazzling that her unspoiled charms would have been destined to be ravished, sooner or later, if not here then somewhere else; even so, much as the throat rebels at the idea of swallowing in cold blood the flesh of a bird killed before one’s eyes, Tomo felt a vague sense of guilt, shared with her husband, for having gone to buy Suga.  Why must she contribute to this cruelty that was little better than slave-trading?
p.33 (Vintage Classics, 2019)

Sadly, this was the cruel lot of the women of the time – both to be sold and to be the one doing the buying.

The story is divided into three parts, showing how the family drama develops over thirty years or so.  After the initial Tokyo scenes, we turn to Suga’s arrival at her new home, and the way the master of the house skilfully grooms her for her impending ‘initiation’.  Once this occurs, Tomo helps Suga to understand life at the house and how it will all work.  In the later sections, more women arrive, and the next generation of Shirakawas are born and start to grow up.  There’s the disappointment of their feckless son, Michimasa, and the joy brought (in different ways to different people) by the new daughter-in-law, Miya, and the eldest grandson, Takao.  And all the while, the years pass, and in the background, organising the family’s affairs, we still find Tomo waiting.

The Waiting Years has a sprawling cast of partners, children, grand-children, maids and concubines, but at the centre of it all is Tomo, holding the whole edifice together by virtue of her iron will.  As a result of the beliefs instilled in her during her traditional upbringing, she refuses to shirk her duty to husband and family, even when she could be forgiven for hating him and his many lovers.  Enchi never hides the pain her protagonist feels, or the knowledge of how unjust this all is, but Tomo still devotes her life to making sure it all works.  In fact, she’s the one who helps Suga, and later arrivals, to adapt to life in the Shirakawa household, knowing that an unhappy mistress means an unhappy master.

Suga herself is the second main character of the novel.  Her first appearance is as a young girl in the bloom of her beauty, a dancing flower soon to be deflowered, but as the years pass, other women come and go, and her youth slowly disappears. She accepts her lot, learning to share Yukitomo with others, but she eventually comes to realise that life is passing her by:

Why, long ago, had her parents not sold her to be a geisha instead of selling her to this family?  As a geisha she would no doubt have been more exposed to the buffetings of the outside world, but at least she would have been more resilient as a person than she was now, and even though she might have had a patron she would have walked a little more freely in the sun, beneath the clear blue sky, have been a little more free to get angry and to weep. (p. 106)

Yukitomo’s other women come and go, but having arrived at the house at such a tender age, it has become a golden cage she has no way of escaping.  Yes, she lives a comfortable life, but she can’t help regretting the things she’ll never have.

The way the parts of the novel move on through the years allows us to see the characters ageing, particularly the younger ones.  Tomo’s daughter Etsuko, a little girl at the start, is middle-aged by the end of the novel, and far happier than her mother.  However, Masamichi is a huge disappointment to his parents, and at one point it strikes Tomo that all the male children (and there are a lot of boys born to the family) will grow up to be men, with the same appetites and expectations as her husband and son.  The revelation that even her beloved grandson Takao will turn from her and follow in Yukitomo’s footsteps is heartbreaking, and makes her endurance even more difficult.  Thankfully, there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the way society is slowly evolving.  Certainly, Etsuko’s marriage appears to be very different from the feudal arrangement of her parents

Despite the span of decades, The Waiting Years is actually a relatively short novel, with a narrow focus considering the extended cast.  My one regret here is that Enchi decided not to widen her scope and create a truly epic work.  There were hints of this in the first part as the autocratic Yukitomo realises that the times are changing, with the people he hunts down starting to prepare for a constitution that will allow them to participate in government.  This is a fascinating era, one I would have loved to read more about, but sadly the writer closes that angle down swiftly with Yukitomo’s early retirement.  It’s understandable that Enchi wants to focus on Tomo and Suga, but there’s a tantalising glimpse here of what might have been (which is, in a way, rather apt…).

Of course, you can’t criticise an author for not giving you the book you wanted to read, and the novel Enchi did write is another classic, cementing her place as a great Japanese writer.  Tomo is an unforgettable creation, duty personified on the surface, but tortured underneath, and her subservience must never be confused with acceptance:

Even if he lived to be eighty she herself would still not be seventy.  She must hold on until then.  Until then, she must not go under to Yukitomo.  And along with the idea that her life must triumph over Yukitomo’s, there came an icy sense of desolation at the coldness of a relationship that could foster such an idea, at its remoteness from all normal ideas of the bond between husband and wife. (p.168)

Yes, all this while Tomo has been waiting.  The question is, just what is she really waiting for?

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