Shizuko’s Daughter

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Shizuko’s Daughter

by Kyoko Mori


A young adult novel set in Japan, mainly in the cities of Kobe and Himeji on the island of Honshu, and in the city of Nagasaki on Kyushu, spanning the seven years from 1969 to 1976; published in 1993.


The adolescent protagonist Yuki struggles to come to terms with the void left by her mother’s suicide; bereft, she wrestles with an emotionally absent father, a cruel stepmother, and a culture that discourages independence of mind and spirit.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Kyoko Mori was born in 1957 in Kobe, Japan, a city that is the setting for much of the novel. When she was just 12, Mori was devastated by her mother’s suicide. A year later her father remarried and the remarriage resulted in a less than happy home life for the author. Anxious to be away from home, Mori moved to the United States at the age of 16 to attend college. Some years later she received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, going on to become a teacher as well as a writer. A series of short stories written in graduate school would later evolve into Shizuko’s Daughter. Mori has also written Fallout, a collection of poetry (1994); The Dream of Water (1995), a well-received memoir about her travels to Kobe to visit family and bring closure to her mother’s suicide; O Bird (1995), her second young adult novel; and Polite Lies: On Being a Woman Caught Between Cultures (1998), a collection of essays about being a Japanese American in the Midwest. Her most recent work, Stone Field, True Arrow (2000) is her first novel for adults; it concerns a middle-aged woman’s reflections and transformation upon the death of her father in Japan, touching on preoccupations that are rife in Mori’s writing, beginning with Shizuko’s Daughter. In this, her first published work, Mori takes a critical look at Japanese culture from the perspective of a female adolescent who has undergone a traumatic loss.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

World War II and the Allied Occupation

Perhaps the most significant events in the history of modern Japan are its defeat in World War II and its occupation by the Allied forces beginning in 1945. The war was devastating to Japan in terms of the effects on its economy, the destruction of its cities, and the incredible loss of life (the Japanese suffered 668,000 civilian casualties from aerial bombings alone). The atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki wrought destruction of nightmarish proportions. In Hiroshima, 150,000 people either died upon impact or succumbed to deadly radiation sickness during the aftermath, and more than 60 percent of the city itself was levelled by the bomb. An additional 35,000 Japanese were killed at Nagasaki. In addition to these very concrete casualties, the war inflicted damage to the Japanese psyche. The Japanese were docile in the face of the occupying forces, most likely because of the “shattering impact of defeat on the values of the Japanese people. All of their pre-war and wartime indoctrination was proved wrong, their sense of national pride and mission destroyed, their leadership and institutions discredited” (Ward, p. 159).

In theory, eleven countries comprised the council of Allied forces that were to be in charge of Japan’s military occupation, but since the United States had borne the brunt of the fighting in the Pacific Theater of the war, America took practical responsibility for Japan’s occupation. General MacArthur was made the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, and his office was commonly referred to as SCAP. In addition to the radical demilitarization of Japan, which was expected and was similar to other postwar occupations, SCAP instituted a program of rapid democratization in the hope that this would prevent Japan from going to war in the future. The office set out to achieve nothing less than a reformation of Japanese society:

There were few aspects of the culture that SCAP did not in some degree become involved with. … One is dealing here not so much with an episode in military history as with one of man’s most ambitious attempts at social engineering. What was being attempted was no less than the redirection along democratic lines of an entire nation’s socio-political values, behaviour, and institutions.

(Ward, p. 162)

To this end, SCAP drafted a new constitution for Japan, and at General MacArthur’s request the document had a very pronounced pacifist bent. Perhaps the most famous clause of the new constitution was Article 9, which renounced war as an alternative that Japan could invoke in the future and earned the document the label of “Peace Constitution.” Japan’s new constitution included a list of popular rights exceeding those enumerated in the American Bill of Rights, and its myriad of reforms included reorganizing the government along parliamentary lines, establishing an independent judicial branch, extending compulsory education by nine years, reorganizing the education system to reduce its hierarchical authority structure, and giving women the vote. SCAP also attempted to implement an almost socialist egalitarianism economically, in the hopes that this too would be a deterrent to future Japanese imperialism. The efforts aimed at economic reform included a redistribution of property to reduce the rate of tenant farmers, the encouragement of the formation of labor unions, the passing of pro-labor legislation, and the dissolution and reorganization of Japan’s huge industrial conglomerates known as zaibatsu firms. Other measures along these lines were initiated and later abandoned (e.g., an attempt to confiscate and redistribute what little personal wealth remained after the war through the levying of a huge tax) out of fear that they would prove to sound the death knell of the Japanese economy.


Key to an understanding of the Japanese people is their emphasis on group identity and membership. As one scholar notes, Japan’s feudalism, which lasted from the twelfth century (beginning with the emergence of the samurai lords) until 1868 (the start of the Meiji rule), is an essential piece of Japan’s past. The values of the samurai stressed obedience to one’s ruler and to the samurai code, even at the expense of the individual. The code “made loyalty paramount and made no allowance for the inner voice. … Loyalty and filial piety together required obedience, even at the sacrifice of reason or conscience” (Smith, p. 51).

It was not only the samurai, however, who were taught to deny their individuality and selfhood in favor of the values of the group to which they belonged. Society in Tokugawa Japan (1600;1868) was highly regimented, and a strict class structure based on Confucian theory was rigidly enforced. Individuals in the society were divided into the classes of samurais, peasants, artisans, and merchants, each with its own set of values and responsibilities, and there was very little mobility among groups.

Emphasis on the importance of the group persisted beyond the feudal past. Even though the Meiji government (1868-1912) attempted to encourage more focus on the individual by eliminating class barriers and writing individual rights into the constitution, many Japanese still saw themselves not as individuals, but primarily as part of a collective. The Allied post-war reforms towards democracy and egalitarianism encouraged individualism too. When adopting such reforms, many Japanese intellectuals were forced to look to Europe, the Soviet Union, and even the United States for theoretical models upon which to base their campaigns for individuals to establish a modern sense of self, these kinds of models were simply lacking in Japanese culture.

Whether due to Japan’s parochial history, its isolated geography, or other reasons, contemporary Japanese people still tend to identify themselves as members of a group, be it their profession, their corporation, their sports team, their village, their youth group, their school, or the PTA (Parent Teacher Association). When it comes to professions, for example, Americans tend to see themselves as individuals. The average American thinks of him or herself as possessing a certain talent or skill to market to the prospective employer who is willing to pay the most for the skill. The Japanese worker, on the other hand, sees his or her position as being with a particular company. To be a member of the Mitsubishi Organization, for instance, brings with it a sense of belonging, pride, and loyalty to the company: “There is little of the feeling, so common in the West, of being an insignificant and replaceable cog in a great machine. Both managers and workers suffer no loss of identity but rather gain pride through their company” (Reischauer, p. 133).

The group structure so prevalent in Japan is reflected in, and perhaps even reinforced by, one of the most essential Japanese social values—harmony. Employees are expected to avoid confrontation at all costs. Society greatly prizes skill in social interaction, called haragei, otherwise known as the art of the belly: “In Japan, speaking frankly is discourteous. Japan has developed techniques for communicating intentions through attitude and expression, what Japanese call ‘gut-to-gut transmission’ (Sakaiya, p. 175). The art lies in a person’s knowing intuitively or instinctively how to avoid a conflict before it ever erupts into an open dispute. Thus, in Japan, voices are seldom raised. Mothers tend not to


Although Shizuko’s Daughter takes place in the 1960s and ’70s, the novel refers to various occupation reforms. In the past, schoolchildren, for example, were not even supposed to look at the emperor’s picture, the belief being that to do so whould result in blindness, since “he was so holy” (Mori, Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 119). Shizuko once got into trouble because instead of bowing her head as she walked by his picture, she looked straight at it and said that he had a funny nose. She wanted to “prove the truth,” that the “teachers were lying” to them about going blind (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 119). She was punished for this defiant act. After World War II, the emperor came on the radio to inform the nation that he was no longer to be worshipped, that he was only human like everyone else. Shizuko’s classmate, Mr. Kimura said he thought of Shizuko and how she had been proven right.

Another real-life occupation policy referred to in the novel is the great land reform. In order to reduce tenancy rates, which stood at 45 percent, and redistribute agricultural property more equitably, SCAP banned absentee ownership of land and restricted the village landowners to keeping only a small parcel for themselves for subsistence farming. The remainder was sold at pre-war prices to the tenant framers “for next to nothing” (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 21). The result was a virtual confiscation of property from the landowners and a redistribution of the land to former tenant farmers, who suddenly found themselves property owners. Yuki’s Aunt Aya admits to her that “maybe it was a good thing for many people, but it wasn’t for us. We were suddenly very poor” (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 21). It is because of this sudden poverty that Shizuko’s mother, Masa, arranges for Shizuko’s marriage to the son of a wealthy family in an adjoining village. The match would make Shizuko the financial savior of her family, but, unable to marry a man she does not love, she walks all night to the next village to break off the engagement.

scold their children, and teenagers tend not to be loud-mouthed. Many Japanese have shown themselves to be highly averse to open displays of emotion of any kind. While Yuki too is generally quiet, she nurses a private defiance that sometimes surfaces in rebellious acts. Even Masa, Yuki’s own grandmother with whom she has a good relationship, is often at a loss to explain Yuki’s behavior. Time and again, Yuki refuses to behave as expected, refusing to cry on cue, for example, at her mother’s funeral, following instead her own inclinations.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

The novel tells the story of a girl who must overcome an emotionally devastating event in her life: the loss of her mother to suicide. Shizuko kills herself when Yuki is only 12, by suffocating with gas in the kitchen. When she comes home from a music lesson, Yuki is the first one to discover her mother’s body.

Yuki’s life is forever changed. Not only has she lost her mother, with whom she had an extremely close and affectionate relationship, but she must also deal with her feelings of guilt and constant uncertainty about whether she might have done something different to prevent the suicide. Yuki recalls a conversation she had with her mother wherein Yuki had admitted a harsh truth: “if something happened to you, I would still go on. I would be very sad and I would never forget you. Still, I would go on. It wouldn’t be true to say otherwise” (.Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 40). Shizuko reacted very emotionally to Yuki’s statement, feeling both proud of her daughter and sad for herself. In her mind, Yuki constantly reflects on moments like these, rewriting the past. She has her own way of dealing with her grief. She feels sadness but is hesitant to share it with others or put it on display.

As a result of her mother’s death, Yuki’s life changes in dramatic ways. Yuki lives with her mother’s sister for about a year after her mother’s suicide, a fairly happy situation for her. When her father remarries, however, Yuki is told that she’ll have to return to Kobe to live with him and his new bride because she is her father’s “only child,” and Shizuko’s family members “have no claim” on her (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 23). Yuki, who has never gotten along well with her father, rails against the injustice of being forced to live with a father and stepmother for the sake of appearances:

You know it’s a lie. … It’s all a lie, the whole thing. They know I want to stay in Tokyo with you, and they’d like it that way too. They don’t care about me. They only came to see me twice the whole time I was with you. They’d as soon be by themselves. Only they won’t do it because it would look bad. People would talk.

(Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 24)

Yuki proves to be right. In the years after her mother’s death, she has very little to do with either her father or his wife. Some days they do not speak at all, except to exchange cursory greetings. Meanwhile, Yuki sorely misses her mother. She receives absolutely no love, support, or affection from either her father, Hideki, or his new wife, Hanae. In contrast to other parents, they do not show up to cheer for Yuki at student track meets or awards ceremonies. Even when she becomes class president and gets the highest marks in her class every year, Hideki and Hanae say nothing. It is up to strangers to congratulate Yuki, and they usually do so by saying “your mother would be so proud” (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 44).

Hanae is very jealous and resentful toward Yuki for several reasons. First, she is no longer able to have children of her own, and blames her childlessness on Hideki’s refusal to set her up in her own household and allow her to start a family while he was still married to Shizuko, as many other husbands did. For eight years, while Shizuko had her own home and child, Hanae and Hideki had been carrying on an affair, and this arrangement, as Hanae bitterly sees it, left her barren. Hanae also resents Hideki’s saying nothing to reproach Yuki when she ignores them or behaves less respectfully than she should. Yuki has told Hanae that she doesn’t believe in “good manners,” because “why should I pretend to be nice to people when they don’t like me and I don’t like them? It’s not honest” (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 90). Hanae herself resents having to pretend to the world that she and Yuki have a good relationship. She is “sick of the compliments—compliments that implied that she was fortunate to have such an exceptional stepdaughter. Above all, she was sick of not being able to contradict them. She had to thank the admirers with a smile and never let on that she and Yuki hardly spoke to each other” (Shizuko’s Daughter, pp. 94-95).

There is much that Yuki must endure just to be able to survive in such a household. She is not even able to enjoy simple pleasures like seeing her mother’s family from time to time. Her father has forbidden any contact between Shizuko’s family and Yuki, so even though Yuki writes them every month, she never receives an answer. She is not even allowed to visit them. The only time her father makes an exception is to allow her to attend her Aunt Aya’s wedding, and he only does this because he feels he owes Aya a debt of gratitude for taking in Yuki after Shizuko’s death. Yet again, appearances of propriety are more important to Hideki than Yuki’s happiness.

Yuki deals with the harsh, at times almost sadistic, antics of her stepmother and father. Her stepmother tries to push her down the stairs, and throws out the beautiful clothes that Shizuko spent so much time lovingly hand sewing for her child. Her father burns all of the things that Shizuko was saving for Yuki in the attic. Consequently Yuki throws herself even more intensely into her athletic pursuits and her education, retreating more and more into an emotional cocoon, where she thinks she will not be hurt. Her mother has instilled in her a love of all things beautiful, and when Hanae throws away the beautiful clothes Shizuko made, Yuki decides to draw them from memory, in a sketchbook just like her mother used to do while she was alive (her sketchbook is the one thing of Shizuko’s that Hideki does not burn). Not only does Yuki draw; she also pursues photography in order to capture the fleeting natural beauty of this world.

By the end of the novel, Yuki has reached adulthood. She escapes her father and his wife by attending a small college on the island of Nagasaki, where she can study art. She has no contact with her father and accepts no financial help from him. And since the college is far from Kobe, she does not have to keep up the pretense of going home for summer and holidays. Her situation allows her to rekindle a relationship with her aunt and grandparents, and for the most part Yuki feels satisfied with her adult life. A major obstacle to her happiness dissolves when she overcomes her doubts and insecurities about romance, and decides to let herself fall in love with Isamu, a fellow student who has become her best friend, and wants to move the relationship to a new level. Spirited, intelligent, and caring, Yuki has indeed grown up to be the “strong woman” her mother envisioned (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 6).

It also becomes clear that Yuki was never rebelling against tradition per se; rather she felt she was being strangled by everyone’s expectations of her, unable to carve out some space for herself. At the novel’s end, Yuki asks her grandmother for some of her old kimonos that she has stored away. Even though Masa does not say so, she is secretly pleased that Yuki wants her old things. Sometime later to her surprise, Masa receives a photo of Yuki wearing a quilted vest made from the kimonos. “What do you think?” she asks her grandmother. “I hope you don’t mind my cutting them up so much. I wanted to wear the same things you did, only in a different way” (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 199).

Changing attitudes in Japan

One of the recurring themes of the novel is the way in which Yuki’s attitude differs from traditional attitudes in Japan, particularly when compared with those of her mother and grandmother. For example, Shizuko’s Daughter reflects a generational gap in Japanese society in the mid-to-late twentieth century with respect to religious practices. The grandmother in the novel observes elaborate daily rituals at the “family altar,” which is said to represent the spirit of the ancestors. Her daughter Shizuko is skeptical, but often engages in the rituals nonetheless. Masa’s granddaughter Yuki shows very little reverence for the rituals, and refuses to engage in them at all.

The daughter and granddaughter’s attitudes are val common in Japan today due to the highly secularized nature of its society. Japan’s religious history is complex, and encompasses a variety of religious and philosophical systems of thought, primarily Shintoism, Buddhism, and Neo-Confuciansism. Additionally various new-age religions have become prominent in contemporary Japan. The existence of a mix of religions is in keeping with tradition. In the past, religions were often not mutually exclusive in Japan—there was a blending of various faiths. Pre-modern Japanese were “both Buddhists and Shintoists at the same time and often enough Confucianists as well” (Reischauer, p. 209).

All in all, religion in Japan offers a confused and indistinct picture. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are found everywhere. The lives of most Japanese are intertwined with religious observances—shrine festivals, “god shelves” and Buddhist altars in the homes, and Shinto or Christian marriages. … Popular religious customs are derived mostly from traditional Shinto and Buddhism, in which few really believe.

(Reischauer, p. 214)

Even for the grandmother’s generation in Shizuko’s Daughter, religious beliefs were relegated to the background of one’s life. Yet rituals played an important role. The fact that the grandchild’s generation finds little or no use for rituals that are quite significant for the older generation parallels a real-life situation that has elicited a general anxiety. The Japanese fear that the nation’s youth are losing their sense of what is their “Japaneseness.” The disregard for once venerated rituals bespeaks a larger countercultural element among the youth, which is not readily detectable. In Japan the restlessness and rebelliousness of the youth are often concealed by a veil of social conformity: “The university student may eat breakfast quietly with his parents before setting out with his comrades to destroy his university” (Reischauer, p. 160).

Another issue in the novel that Yuki considers in a nontraditional way is suicide, which in the past has often been viewed as an honorable way out of a no-win situation. The ritual form of suicide known as seppuku was part of the code prevalent among the military rulers of Japan. It involved making precise incisions in one’s abdomen that would insure death but not damage any vital internal organs.

Although statistically suicide is no more prevalent in Japan than it is in the West, “even today suicide is looked on as an acceptable or even honorable way out of a hopeless dilemma” by the Japanese, and sepukku remains an integral theme in Japan’s art, news, literature, and culture in general (Reischauer, p. 168). The perception of suicide in Japan notwithstanding, however, Yuki seems not to view her mother’s suicide as honorable. In fact, when scolded by her grandmother for not showing proper respect to her mother’s memory, Yuki asks “How can I respect someone who was cowardly enough to kill herself?” (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 77). She feels this way despite the fact that her mother’s desperately unhappy situation might be viewed as hopeless.

Neglected and emotionally mistreated by her husband who has been having an affair with a co-worker for eight years, Shizuko finds herself locked into a wretched position. Divorce was not a conventional answer to her predicament at the time the novel was set or, for that matter, was written. Although legal reforms instituted during the Allied occupation made divorce an option for women, divorce rates in Japan are still far below those of the United States: For example, the divorce rate of 35 to 50 year olds in Japan is only 5 percent (Skov and Moeran, p. 41). Reasons for this include the practical difficulty of supporting oneself in the face of severe wage discrimination and the fact that under the Japanese legal system, a woman has almost no hope of obtaining custody or even visitation rights in the case of a male child or only child should she divorce. At one point in the novel, Yuki recalls a conversation with her mother about the plight of “a poor motherless classmate” of Yuki’s whose parents were divorced. When Yuki asks why the girl couldn’t have stayed with her mother, Shizuko explains that when there is a divorce, the children stay with the father (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 121). If there are several children, one might be allowed to stay with the mother, but:

If there’s only one child, the mother almost always winds up alone. The way her mother looked at Yuki, her face completely without a smile, Yuki knew what she meant. Like me, she thought but didn’t say.

(Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 122)

The question of motherhood and feminist implications

One of the most artful aspects of Shizuko’s Daughter is the way in which the story invokes certain feminist issues without overtly raising them. At issue in the novel is the proper role of family and motherhood in the lives of contemporary women in Japan.

The evolution of the concept of motherhood in Japanese society is the result of official governmental policies. Beginning with the Meiji government in 1898, the Confucian slogan of “rich country and strong army” was interpreted to place emphasis on the family, in particular, the mothers. The government shifted the responsibility of producing intelligent, able-bodied soldiers and workers from the state to the mothers, whose child-bearing and child-rearing capacities were said to be the key to enabling Japan to compete with the West. Mothers were to raise strong, well-nourished children who would grow up to, among other things, form a strong, competitive army. In the 1920s, during the Taisho period, the notion of motherhood and motherly love was sanctified, and the idea developed that “motherly love and devotion are the keys to a child’s development and education” (Ohinata, p. 200). Evidence of this trend could be seen in public statements by politicians, scholars, and writers, as well as the appearance of magazines devoted to childcare, featuring articles like “Mother’s Love How Great” and “Model Mothers” (Ohinata, p. 201). When war broke out with China in 1937, and then in the Pacific in 1941, the government’s policy was “Have more Babies! Prosper!”, and the Patriotic Women’s Association exhorted mothers to “return to your homes” (Ohinata, p. 202). Later in the 1950s when economic growth and production was the government’s overriding goal, mothers were again urged to be the center of the domestic sphere. Their duties included not only raising and giving birth to the future labor force but also providing a home where tired male workers could rest and recharge themselves for the next day’s work. When Japan experienced an economic slowdown in the 1970s, the idea of motherhood was again lauded, this time as a solution to budgetary cutbacks. Instead of allocating money for child and elderly care, women were urged to strengthen the family by assuming these duties themselves. The image of ideal mother, who practices selfless devotion to her child, “comes close to that of a religious faith” in Japan (Ohinata, p. 205).


Shizuko’s Daughter is fairly brimming with examples of quiet or subtle rebellion on the part of the female protagonists. One of Yuki’s more public acts of rebellion is to violently throw down the sake bowl that is being passed around as part of her father’s marriage ceremony to his second wife. Shizuko tears up her suicide note to her husband right before she dies, knowing that to leave him no note would be a source of embarrassment to him. Even Yuki’s grandmother, Masa, has issues with her husband:

Masa suddenly remembered what he had written in his diary … on the day of Shizuko’s death: We are thankful for the peacetulness of her face. It was such an obvious remark. Thankful for the peacefulness. Masa repeated to herself resentfully as she stepped into the kitchen—why did he say “we”?—it wasn’t how she had fell at all; he had no business saying “we” without asking her.

(Shizuko’s Daughter, pp. 78-79)

The question of whether or not motherhood and family life are the path to fulfillment for Japanese women today is the subject of much debate. A Confucian adage referring to a woman’s role in life as “good wife, wise mother” is still invoked in Japanese society, but whether it is still considered a valid way of describing the female ideal is contested. According to one source, women constituted 40.8 percent of the Japanese labor force in 1991; yet the attitudes and status of working women in Japan are still “complex and contradictory” (Kawashima, p. 271).

Ambitious career women claim a place equal to men in the business world. On the other hand, some working women view their responsibility at home as their primary occupation and their work outside as secondary. Surveys of working women have shown that the majority of Japanese women do not desire a job with great responsibility and consider earning supplementary income for the household as a primary reason for working. Even among the younger generation many women still think that the primary caretakers of children are their mothers and, therefore, that women should stay home while children are small.

(Kawashima, p. 271)

Certain tendencies in contemporary Japan have strengthened the expectation that women will identify primarily with their roles as mothers. The first is the sheer physical absence of the father in Japanese societies. Like Shizuko’s husband in the novel, most Japanese males dedicate an incredible number of hours to their work and must add a long commute to the end of an already long day. And due to the tendency towards group immersion that already exists in Japan, professionals are expected to put in a good deal of time engaging in various social activities with their co-workers and clients. Japanese corporations cover the costs of dinners at restaurants, late-night drinking parties at bars and dance clubs, and frequent outings to sporting events on weekends, with attendance being mandatory. These job-related demands not only make a father unavailable to share the responsibilities of parenting, but they also limit the time he is able to spend on his relationship with his wife. It is perhaps due to his long absences from home that the novel’s Hideki begins an affair with a co-worker at his company.

Another factor encouraging Japanese women to embrace their roles as mothers is the limited range of career options open to women. Although things are slowly changing in Japan, there are still primarily two ways of referring to women’s roles: “OL for office lady, or shufu (housewife)” (Reingold, p. 125). Japanese companies generally have two training tracks: one is ippanshou, a clerical track; the other is sogoshoku, an “integrated” track, where training is offered for a variety of management positions. Women are overwhelmingly confined to the former track; only 1 percent of all female employees in Japan become managers (Ogasawara, p. 19). If a woman has little education, she is likely to work in production or manufacturing. Those with more education can aspire to become “office ladies” (a type of secretary), but they are still expected to perform tasks such as serving tea to all the men in the office. With limited career options and only minimal interaction with their spouses, it is not surprising that many Japanese women reinforce society’s expectations of them and immerse themselves in the raising of their children.

Today’s Japanese mothers are still expected to make incredible sacrifices for their children. Almost always their responsibilities entail taking charge of their children’s education and helping them navigate the complex labyrinths of the Japanese educational system. Thousands of housewives hold after-school study sessions for their children and others in the neighborhood (most children attend formal after-school study systems in addition to these groups). Many mothers also participate in extra-curricular sessions such as music classes, at which their presence is required. So prevalent is the mother’s presence in education that it has given rise to an ideal of its own, the kyoiku mama, or education mother—in short, a mother’s involvement is critical to the child’s future success.

Motherhood for Shizuko does seem to be a positive experience. Through Yuki’s flashbacks, we learn of their close relationship, of the hours Shizuko spent teaching Yuki about the things she loved, such as painting, drawing, flower arrangement, and gardening. Shizuko attends Yuki’s track meets and spelling bees, and the child becomes very successful academically. In fact, in her final hours, Shizuko’s thoughts seem to be primarily focused on Yuki. She worries that she has the materials for Yuki’s new dresses, but has not been able to finish sewing them for her yet. Ultimately, Shizuko sees her suicide as being in her daughter’s best interest, to save her from following her example: “This is the best I can do for her, she thought, to leave her and save her from my unhappiness, from growing up to be like me” (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 6). Shizuko wants something better for her daughter, wants her to aspire to something more than fulfilling the “good wife, wise mother” role. She writes in her note: “When you grow up to be a strong woman, you will know that this was for the best. … You will no doubt get over this and be a brilliant woman. Don’t let me stop you or delay you” (Shizuko’s Daughter, p. 6).

Sources and literary context

Much of the novel is inspired by personal experience. Like her protagonist, Mori grew up in Kobe, Japan, she lost her mother to suicide when she was only 12, and looked for ways to escape her unhappy household after her father’s remarriage. Shizuko’s Daughter began as a collection of short stories about three women in reverse chronological order. Mori started with the grandmother’s story, then wrote a few stories about the mother, then a few stories about the daughter. It was not until years later that Mori went back to these stories and turned the collection into a novel. Despite the similarities, Mori explains that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the stories and her life.

My novels are more about what could, might, or even should have happened, not about what did happen in my real life. All the characters are reflections of some aspect of myself, but none of them are strictly myself.

(“Kyoko Mori: A Personal Glimpse”)

Kyoko Mori joins a rich tradition of young adult novelists who focus on descriptions of the relationship between mothers and their adolescent daughters in other cultures. Suzanne Fisher Staples’s Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind and Sook Choi’s Echoes of the White Giraffe are set in South Korea. Featured in these two novels are mothers who raise their daughters to live in their patriarchal culture, teaching them how “to fit into their proper place in family and society;” but the novels show how the women manage also to “resist or find space for themselves” within the limiting culture (Crew, p. 199). Kyoko Mori’s works occupy a unique space in this rich literary tradition. Like Mori’s other daughter heroines, Yuki defies a patriarchal society that requires her subordination as a female.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Women’s rights and roles

Many changes were occurring in Japan during the late 1980s and early ‘90s, which prompted the Japanese to once again re-evaluate many aspects of their society. In 1989 Emperor Hirohito died. His successor, Akhito, is the first emperor to have obtained an education outside the confines of the imperial palace, and the first to have married a “commoner.” His son, crown prince Naruhito, married a Harvard-educated member of the Foreign Ministry who had had an impressive diplomatic career in her own right.

Meanwhile, conditions had improved for women in Japan. In 1986 Japan finally passed an Equal Opportunity Employment Law, with a special provision on sexual harassment policy. In 1989 a woman was elected as head of Japan’s socialist party, and that same year the reigning prime minister, Takeshita Noburu, was forced to resign amid charges of womanizing (a “charge” traditionally not taken very seriously by Japanese males), along with other charges of large-scale political corruption. The liberal Democratic Party selected two female cabinet members in 1987 and appointed a woman to a major post in 1989.

Yet, despite all the seeming changes, the situation of women in Japan remained disadvantageous in many ways. By 1990 women held less than 3 percent of the corporate managerial slots, only 3 percent of lawyers were women, and only 3 percent of the corporate managerial slots, This sudd engineers were wasmos, Most of the positions held by women continued to be clerical or manufacturing posts, many of them part-time. Part-time workers receive no benefits and poor wages. “Women are encouraged to assume part-time work but discouraged from developing careers. It is a pin-money mentality” (Smith, p. 155). Even the crown prince’s


The much-touted and long-awaited EEOL (Equal Employment Opportunity Law) of 1986 did little more than call on businesses to try giving women equal opportunity in the job market with regards to hiring and promotion. The* law only encouraged companies to make a “best-effort” al establishing equality and without a provision for penalizing violators, was easy for most companies to ignore. In 1499 a revised “Law Concerning Equality of Employment Opportunities and Benefits Between Genders” was finally adopted. The new law prohibits gender discrimination in employment and provides specific guidance as to employers should or should not do. For example, after passage ot the 1 986 act, many employers continued to advertise jobs for “males only.” The 1999 act specifically prohibits such discriminatory practices. Still, the only enforcement “teeth” this law has are that offending companies and officials risk having their names made public as violators and that wronged employees find it easier to begin a mediation process once they feel their rights have been violated. A controversial aspect of the law repeats practices retarding limits on the amount of overtime and night-shift hours women can work. Supporters of this measure feel that it will open up many more opportunities for women in japan. since most production jobs (and even some white-collar ones) frequently require overnight or late-night hours. But women’s rights advocates protest that it allows for women to be exploited in new ways and that such women will still have to bear the burden of domestic responsibilities. A report issued by the Prime Minister’s office in the late 1990s showed that Japanese men spend less than half an hour a day on chores relating to the household and children, even when their wife works (Pollack, p. Dl).

Harvard-educated wife quit her job upon their marriage, her wardrobe changing “from efficient professional to dowdy matron” (Smith, p. 158). This sudden change in appearance was most likely due to the fact that the Imperial Household Agency has to dictate “her hats and makeup,” “how long her skirts would have to be,” and “how many steps behind her husband she would walk” (Smith, p. 158). When it comes to sustained and meaningful change in Japan, not just for women, but for all citizens, one scholar described it quite aptly:

The struggle toward the open expression of individuality is an old one. … It is impossible not to come away with a sense of great expectation: They seem always on the edge of some immense breakthrough. And yet, even amid change, nothing ever seems to move forward, or moves forward at a painful pace. [This scenario] makes the business of predictions a treacherous thing.

(Smith, p. 3)


Shizuko’s Daughter garnered fine reviews in the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Time Book Review, and Kirkus Reviews, and Horn Book Magazine. The Horn Book review referred to it as a “stunning first novel” praising the novel’s narrative style—Mori “paints beautiful pictures with words, creating visual images that can be as haunting and elliptical as poetry” (Vasil-iakis, p. 603). Lauding the novel’s honesty, The New York Times Book Review observed that Mori “doesn’t pull any punches, doesn’t soften the unfeeling father or terrible stepmother” and it too spoke of “a poetic quality to the prose” (Rosenberg, p. 19). Shizuko’s Daughter garnered awards as well. The novel won distinction as an American Library Association’s Best Book for Young Adults, and it was singled out as a Publishers Weekly Best Book for 1993.

—Despina Korovessis

For More Information

Crew, Hillary S. is it Really Mommie Dearest? Daughter-Mother Narrative in Young Adult Fiction. Lan-ham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, 2000.

Kawashima, Yoko. “Female Workers of Past and Current Trends,” in Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present, and Future. Ed. Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow and Atsuko Kameda. New York: The Feminist Press, 1995.

“Kyoko Mori: A Personal Glimpse,” in Random House Author Profiles, (29 Aug. 2002).

Mori, Kyoko. Shizuko’s Daughter. New York: Ballantine, 1993.

Ogaswara, Yuko. Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender, and Work in Japanese Companies. Berkley: University of California Press, 1998.

Ohinata, Masami, “The Mystique of Motherhood: A Key to Understanding Social Change and Family Problems in Japan,” injapanese Women: New Feminist Perspecüves on the Past, Present, and Future. Ed. Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow and Atsuko Kameda. New York: The Feminist Press, 1995.

Ogasawara, Yuko. Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender, and Work injapanese Companies. Berkley: University of California Press, 1998.

Pollack, Andrew. “For Japan’s Women, More Jobs and Longer and Odder Hours,” in New York Times, 8 July 1997, Dl.

Reingold, Edwin M. Chrysanthemums and Thorns: The Untold Story of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Reischauer, Edwin O., and Marius B. Jansen. The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Rosenberg, Liz. Review of Shizuko’s Daughter. The New York Times Book Review, 22 August 1993, p. 19.

Sakaiya, Taichi. What Is Japan? Contradictions and Transformations. Trans. Steven Karpa. New York: Kodansha International, 1993.

Skov, Lisa, and Brian Moeran, eds. Women Media and Consumption in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

Smith, Patrick. Japan: A Reinterpretation. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.

Vasiliakis, Nancy. Review of Shizuko’s Daughter, The Horn Book Magazine 69, no. 5 (September-October 1993): 603.

Ward, R. E. “Defeat and Occupation.” in Japan: Yesterday and Today. Ed. Ray F. Downs. New York: Bantam, 1970.