Stories by Higuchi Ichiyō

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This month’s Classics Circuit features Meiji-era Japanese literature! I chose to read some short stories by Higuchi Ichiyō , the most well-known woman writer in Meiji Japan.

In the Shade of Spring Leaves, by Robert Lyons Danly, is part biography of Ms Ichiyō and part a collection of nine of her short stories. I decided to read the stories first and then go back to the biography. To my disappointment, I didn’t like any of the stories, and I struggled to get through the 150 pages of stories before today. Alternatively, I’m now reading a little bit about her life and it sounds very interesting. She was a celebrity in Meiji Japan (a “shooting star,” says the introduction, page vii), and her stories are distinct because of the realism in them: “one imagines a yarn as much to tell the truth as to tell a story.” The realism may have been my problem. I prefer happy endings.Higuchi Ichiyō certainly was good at telling the truth! Her stories all ended in a very realistic way, but this was part of the trouble for me. A few examples: in “The Thirteenth Night”, the abused wife returns to her husband. (I really disliked that ending, realistic as it may have been.) In “Troubled Waters,” the drunk man’s wife leaves him and the unhappy geisha commits suicide with her lover. Even in “Child’s Play,” probably my favorite story, it ends with the children not talking to each other: they’ve grown up and let annoyances and fights ruin the friendship. There was genius in this ability to capture the tragedies of life, but I personally didn’t like reading so much emphasis on tragedy and the rotten side of human nature.

And then we come to the writing. To be nice, I’ll say I disliked it. Especially in the first stories, I felt Ms Ichiyō forced dialog. She also spent too long describing settings and characters rather than letting them show themselves, the epitome of “tell and not show.” I also disliked her lack of segues. In the longer stories, such as “Child’s Play,” she shifted from one set of people to the next, with the result being confusion as to how each scene relates to the previous one. I suppose rereads are in order in order to see how the entire story fits together. But, needless to say, I don’t have the patience to do so. The stories were frustrating. Ichiyō definitely improved through the nine representative stories in this volume, but her writing style was still not engaging or interesting to me. I just didn’t like it. I had to force myself to keep reading, story after story. And there were only nine of them!

I recently enjoyed the fictional account of Ginko Ogino, the first woman doctor in Meiji Japan, so I was excited to read of another Meiji woman, this time reading her own words! I guess I should have stuck with reading about her life, as I’m very curious to know how she was a “shooting star” in the 1890s. I may still peruse the story of her life. It may turn out to be more interesting to me than her stories were.

At any rate, this was a reminder of why I don’t want review copies: it makes me feel awkward when I have to say “I didn’t like this book.” Although the Classics Circuit does not provide “review copies,” it’s kind of similar in that we’re writing about a specific work we’ve selected. Add to that the fact that The Classics Circuit is kind of my baby, and it becomes hard to criticize a classic that I was encouraging others to read. Let it be noted that I can now better understand people who say “Classics aren’t for me.” I have to say, some aren’t for me either!

Also on my personal Meiji-era Japanese literature list are a number of novels by Natsume Soseki: I Am a Cat (I began it this summer but stall) and Kasamakura are two I own. We’ll see if the Classics Circuit encourages me to add any others!

Check out the schedule to see where else Meiji-era Japan is touring this week.

Reviewed on November 1, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • How interesting that the story of her life was a much better read than her book. I would love to read the fictional story about the Meiji-era doctor. I’m putting “Beyond the Blossoming Fields” on my reading list.

    • Pamela Swearingen, I have not yet read the story of her life (I may not) but it’s interesting that she was a well-known celebrity. I guess there is something in the stories that I didn’t get… Enjoy Beyond the Blossoming Fields!

  • I relate to your feeling of awkwardness around writing negative reviews for an organized tour or program. That said, it’s sometimes as helpful (to those of us trying to learn about an era) to read why someone DIDN’T like something. Anyway, appreciate your thoughts here! I don’t particularly gravitate toward happy endings, but forced dialogue & telling rather than showing do bother me.

    • Emily, I wonder if it’s just me that was bothered by the forced dialogue? Maybe others don’t think so. At any rate, yes, for ME, this was not an author I loved reading….

  • I wouldn’t worry at all about giving a critical review of a book just because it is a tour piece. We pick our books and give our views about them. Some we will like, others we won’t. The term “classics” covers a massive variety of authors and books and even if we write critically about some of them, we are bringing them to the attention of others who may not hae been aware of them and our critical thoughts are just as valuable as our positive thoughts. Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed your piece.

    • Falaise, yes, I try not to worry, I just didn’t realize how awkward I’d feel! I do love most of the classics I read. Anyway, I do hope someone is intrigued by this author, despite the fact that I didn’t love it!

  • I don’t think realistic necessarily equals unhappy, and it bothers me when authors seem to think it does. That’s why I loved Simon Van Booy’s Love Begins in Winter so very much. He focuses on the beautiful bits of life, and it’s so refreshing!

    It’s tough for me to read unnecessary descriptions. It’s amazing how much less effective telling is than showing.

    I was one of those “classics aren’t for me” people until very recently. Contrary to being put off when bloggers talk about what they don’t like about certain classics, I’m actually encouraged. I’ve definitely come across classics I didn’t like. Knowing that other people–people much better versed in classics than I am!–don’t like all the classics either makes me feel better!

    • Erin, well, in this case, the stories ended like they needed to end in order to be realistic. I think it was as it should have been. I just didn’t want to be depressed!! Yes, I do think it was ineffective how she “told” but it sounds like she’s been praised for her wonderful ways of creating setting, so I apparently miss something. I’m glad that you have been encouraged to read classics. I certainly have been pleased with most of what I’ve read!

  • There’s nothing wrong with saying you didn’t like a book! Your review was great (and honest!). We can’t all love every book we read 🙂 But it doesn’t really sound like I’d enjoy In the Shade of Spring Leaves either…so thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Hi, Rebecca. Thanks for the tip on these books. Since I’m into Asian lit., I’ll have to check these out for my own site. It’s a little bit of an Asian trope to not have happy endings or to have the happy ending have a bitter sweet taste. Since I’m used to that, I might enjoy it more. LOL

    • Victoria Dixon, yes, I’m thinking maybe it is just the style to not have happy endings! It’s okay, i just wasn’t interested in these stories at all. Which was too bad. I hope you like them more!

  • I actually do not mind sad ending. Even though my life is far from tragic, I know lots of people have sad-endings in their life, it’s reality. I do understand the struggle you were facing. I struggled with Mori Ogai’s short story too, even if it was only a few pages long! I guess I won’t be reading this or other Meiji-era classic authors for a while 🙁

    • mee, from what I’ve read of Soseki, though, it’s a bit different. I AM A CAT chapter one is so funny (haven’t finished the book but even that chapter is wonderful just on its own). I haven’t read his others but have a few on my shelf. So don’t completely give up on Meiji-era authors! I think each author is different. But yes, was disappointed in this.

      • Rebecca, I have actually read I am A Cat too chapter one. I quite liked it, just haven’t got the inclination to continue yet. Natsume Soseki is someone I would like to read more in the future, definitely. I’m just not sure about the other authors of his era.

        • mee, I admit I haven’t had the inclination to continue I AM A CAT too although I’ve begun. It becomes very philosophical…But yes, I don’t know about the other author of Soseki’s era. I wish I liked the one I read more!

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