Enchi Fumiko Ueda (1905-1986) achieved literary fame in post-World War II Japan as a feminist before her time. Enchi typically portrayed the subordination of women by paternalistic Japanese society through supernatural themes in dreamlike settings. Her writings frequently included references to traditional Japanese texts, with which she had become familiar through her work as a translator of such premodern writings as The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese. Her literary allusions to traditional texts covered a wide range of genres, including tales of fiction, history, and war.
Enchi Fumiko Ueda was born on October 2, 1905, in Tokyo, Japan. Her father was Ueda Kazutoshi (1867-1937), a professor of linguistics and philology at Tokyo University. Enchi's paternal grandmother, who was reportedly a good storyteller, introduced her granddaughter to the kabuki theatre.
As a young girl, Enchi enjoyed kabuki and tales from the novels of the late Edo period (1600-1867). Her early reading included The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), Edo novels, and modern fiction. By the time she was 13, she was reading Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Izumi Kyoka, Nagai Kafu, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, and Tanizaki Junichiro.
From 1918 to 1922, Enchi attended the girl's middle school at Japan Women's University. But she abandoned her studies at the middle school to study drama. Her interest in the theatre was encouraged by her father, and as a young woman, she attended the lectures of Osanai Kaoru, a noted modern Japanese dramatist. She also received private instruction, lasting until she married, in English, French, and Chinese literature.
In 1926, the twenty-one year-old Enchi published a one-act play entitled "A Birthplace" that was received well by critics. "A Birthplace" was followed two years later (1928) by "A Noisy Night in Late Spring," which was subsequently staged at the Tsukiji Little Theatre in Tokyo.
In 1930, the twenty-five-year-old Enchi married Enchi Yoshimatsu, a journalist. Following their daughter's birth, Enchi began writing novels. But early attempts in this genre, including The Words Like the Wind (1939), The Treasures of Heaven and Sea (1940), and Spring and Autumn (1943), failed to meet with any financial success.
In World War II, Enchi lost her property during the bombing of Tokyo. She also had a cancer operation about this time, from which she was slow to recover. Her writing lapsed until around 1951.
Following the war, with the loss of all her property, Enchi began writing about the oppressiveness of domestic life. Although Japan's postwar constitution guaranteed gender equality, discrimination based on gender continued unabated at all levels of society in the years immediately following the war. Most women could neither support a family nor rise to the top of their chosen professions. Women were instead largely relegated to roles as mothers and wives. In 1953, Enchi's story "Starving Days," about family misfortune and deprivation, won the Women's Literature Prize.
Enchi's The Waiting Years, written between 1949 and 1957, looked at the sufferings of women at the hands of the patriarchal family system. The novel is set between the 1880s and 1920s—a time when the patriarchal social and political order was evolving.
In the novel, the protagonist, Tomo, is married at the age of 15 to a government official. Later, after her husband has become a high level prefectural officer, he persuades her to allow him to keep a mistress in their home. The following passage from the novel describes Tomo's humiliation as her husband instructs her how to find a mistress for him.
"To call the girl a concubine would be making too much of it," he had said to Tomo. "She'll be a maid for you, too… . It's a good idea, surely, to have a young woman with a pleasant disposition about the house so that you can train her to look after things for you when you're out calling. That's why I don't want to lower the tone of the household by bringing in a geisha or some other woman of that type. I trust you, and I leave everything to you, so use your good sense to find a young—as far as possible inexperienced— girl. Here, use this for your expenses."
But Tomo's husband is not satisfied with one mistress and eventually takes a second. Later he seduces his son's wife. Through the repeated humiliations, however, Tomo remains mistress of the household. On her death bed, she tells her husband she does not wish to be buried and instead asks to be dumped into the sea. Only at that point, after forty years of marriage, does Tomo's husband realize how much he has made her suffer.
In Masks (1958), Enchi creates a protagonist based on a witch-like character in the The Tale of Genji. The heroine of Masks has hopes that her son will atone for the torments her husband has caused her. But her hopes are shattered with his premature death. The woman then prevails upon her daughter-in-law to have a son to replace the one she has lost. The daughter-in-law later dies after giving birth to the son. For the mother-in-law, a daughter-in-law flawed by male domination is replaced by an untainted male heir.
In Enchi's novels, her female characters often discover suppressed shamanesses or mediums within themselves. Many of Enchi's writings attempt to supplement the voices of the women of the medieval period with modern ones of defiance. Unlike the ancient Japanese shamanesses who set out to wreak revenge on their female rivals, however, Enchi's women seek their retribution against men.
Enchi saw in Shintoism, a Japanese belief system that employed female shamanesses, a path to empowerment for women. Enchi contrasted the traditions of female subjugation in Buddhism with the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion, which left women with more power. Although modern Japanese tend to find the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintoism complementary rather than in opposition to each other, Enchi preferred to see the two belief systems in conflict. Shamanesses had appeared in the earliest Japanese folk tales, through the writings of the medieval period and beyond; however, the female shaman was traditionally a marginalized character, who existed on the outskirts of mainstream society.
Enchi seemed to have a particular fondness for writings by women of the Heian era (794-1185), especially The Tale of Genji, which was written by a well educated lady-in-waiting in the imperial court of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. (Enchi would work for six years on the Enchi Genji, her 10-volume modern translation of The Tale of Genji.) The Heian era marked the emergence of Japanese women as writers of verse, fiction, and poetic diaries. These works frequently served as vehicles for the writers to criticize the subordination of women in their society.
The patriarchal Japanese society of the Heian era and the traditional practice of polygamy in the royal court left many women writers of the time resentful. Enchi was able to find a modern voice that perpetuated the tradition of women writers into the twentieth century by making her characters mediums for the mythic woman of the past. In Enchi's The Tale of an Enchantress (1965), she tells the story of a consort to a Heian emperor. The book won the 1966 Women's Literature Prize.
Enchi's novel A Tale of False Oracles (1959-1965; Namamiko monogatari) was one of the first to deal exclusively with female mediums and possession by spirits. Narrated in the first person, the story at first seems to be told with authority, but eventually two other narrators—one from the Heian period and another who paraphrases events in the Heian-era text being referenced—join in telling the story, with the result that the original narrator becomes discredited as a false-medium.
The influence on Enchi of the kabuki theater, where all roles were assumed by male actors, comes through in her fascination with the sort of androgynous environments that appealed to many of the women writers of the Heian era— women who were dissatisfied with the male-dominated society. Although Enchi frequently employed androgynous characters in her writing, she did not develop the concept. But the frequent appearance of androgynes in her books has suggested to some critics that she may have felt they represented a wholeness lacking in the lives of women subjugated by men.
In Growing Fog (1976), Enchi writes of an aging woman who attempts to revive her waning sexuality through liaisons with younger men. In Enchi's novel, sexual desire brings vitality and helps to overcome the fear of death.
Enchi's older women are caught between their passion and anger. On the one hand they are overwhelmed by physical desire, but at the same time they are burdened by self-loathing. As they age, they watch themselves lose their physical attractiveness while they continue to have sexual yearnings. There is a basic inequality for Enchi between men and women when they face advanced age in that men can still achieve paternity, while maternity is not an option for women.
Literary critic S. Yumiko Hulvey has divided the themes in Enchi's work into three developmental stages. In the first, Enchi's women endure male subjugation, with only a faint hint of the presence of a female shamaness. Writings in this category included The Waiting Years, "Skeletons of Men," "Enchantress," and "A Bond for Two Lifetimes— Gleanings." In the second stage, middle-aged women find inner strength by tapping into the shamanistic powers of the female medium. Hulvey places Enchi's Masks and A Tale of False Oracles at this developmental stage. In Hulvey's third stage, elderly women vacillate between illusion and reality in their attempts to understand sexual desire. Hulvey assigns Enchi's trilogy Wandering Spirit, "The Voice of a Snake," "The Old Woman Who Eats Flowers," and Colored Mist to this stage.
In Dangerous Women, Deadly Words, literary critic Nina Cornyetz argues that the psychological depths of Enchi's characters were complicated by historical depths. For Cornyetz, it is the collective female past coupled with the individual pasts of Enchi's characters that gives rise to the actions in the narrative. The historical subordination of women thus becomes a past that produces the present. But, as Cornyetz notes, Enchi's characters do not abandon themselves to their fates; instead they confront the constraints of their subordination.
Enchi received numerous Japanese literary prizes, including the Bunka Kunsho, the highest award made to an individual, in 1985 from Emperor Hirohito. Before her death on November 14, 1986, of heart failure, she was elected to the Japan Art Academy. Few of Enchi's works have been translated out of Japanese.
Cornyetz, Nina, Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers, Stanford University Press, 1999.
"Enchi Fumiko," http://www.willamette.edu/~rloftus/enchi.htm (February 2003).
Excerpts from The Waiting Years, translated by John Bester, http://www.thejapanpage.com/html/book_directory/Detailed/203.shtml (February 2003).
Hulvey, S. Yumiko, "The Intertextual Fabric of Narratives by Enchi Fumiko," http://www.inform.umd.edu/EdRes/Colleges/ARHU/Depts/CompLit/cmltgrad/JSchaub/CMLT270SU98/readings/fumia.html (February 2003).