Tsushima Yuko

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Nationality: Japanese. Born: Tsushima Satoko in Tokyo, 30 March 1947; daughter of the writer Dazai Osamu, q.v.Education: Shirayuri Women's College, M.A. in English literature 1969. Family: Has one daughter. Career: While still in school took the pen name Yūko and published in the magazine Bungei. Lives in Tokyo. Awards: Tamura Toshiko prize, 1976, for Mugura no haha (The Mother in the House of Grass); Izumi Kyōka prize, 1977, for Kusa no fushido (A Bed of Grass); Women's Literature award, 1978, for Chōji (Child of Fortune); Noma New Literary Writer prize, 1979, for Hikari no ryōbun (Realm of Light); Kawabata Yasunari prize, 1983; Yomiuri prize, 1987, for Yoru no hikari ni owarete (Driven by the Light of Night); Hitabayashi Taiko prize, 1989; Ito sei prize, 1995, for Kaze yo, sora kaketu kaze yo.


Short Stories

Dōji no kage [Shadow of Child]. 1973.

Mugura no haha [The Mother in the House of Grass]. 1975.

Yorokobi no shima [Island of Joy]. 1978.

Suifu [City in the Water]. 1982.

Ō ma monogatari [Twilight Stories]. 1984.

Danmariichi [The Silent Traders]. 1984.

The Shooting Gallery and Other Stories. 1988.

Mahiru e [Toward Noon]. 1988.

Yume no kiroku [Record of Dreams]. 1988.

Kusamura: jisen tanpenshū . 1989.


Chōji. 1978; as Child of Fortune, 1983.

Hikari no ryōbun [Territory of Light]. 1979.

Yama o hashiru onna. 1980; as Woman Running in the Mountains, 1991.

Moeru kaze [Burning Wind]. 1980.

Hi no kawa no hotori de [On the Bank of the Fire River]. 1983.

Yoru no hikari ni owarete [Driven by the Light of Night]. 1986.

Oinaru yume yo, hikari-yo [Enormous Dream, Light!]. 1991.

Kagayaku Mizu no Jidai [Time in Glittering Water]. 1993.

Kaze yo, Sora Kakeru Kaze yo [Wind, Wind Running in the Sky]. 1994.


Critical Study:

in Off Center by Miyoshi Masao, 1991; "Connaissance delicieuse, or the Silence of Jealosy: Tsushima Yūko's 'The Chrysanthemum Beetle"' by Livia Monnet, in The Woman's Hand: Gender and Theory in Japanese Women's Writing, edited by Paul Gordon Schalow, 1996.

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Japan's most distinguished woman writer born after World War II, Tsushima Yuko, pseudonym of Tsushima Satoko, has produced numerous short stories and several novels that have won many prestigious literary prizes and garnered for her an extensive readership. Educated exclusively in a strict, all-girl's Catholic boarding school, she devoted most of her time in college to outside activities rather than studies. She published her first short story, "Requiem—For a Dog and an Adult" ("Rekuiemu—inu to otona no tame ni"), in 1969, while she was still an undergraduate, however. She has grappled with much tragedy in her personal life. She was only a year old when her father, the highly esteemed novelist Dasai Osamu, and his mistress committed suicide by drowning; her mentally retarded older brother, to whom she was very close as a child, died in his midteens; a marriage from which she had a daughter and a son ended in divorce; and her son later accidentally drowned in the bathtub while she was in the next room. Shadows and traces of these events inform a number of her most important works, sometimes directly, sometimes subtly.

Tsushima's stories, like those of most Japanese women writers, find their locus in the family. She has, however, taken up issues and topics within family life that have been generally ignored by other writers or even considered taboo. She has grappled with such issues as privacy, and the lack of it, and autonomy within the family, careers outside the home, extramarital affairs, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births, single parenthood, abortion, and even incest.

Tsushima's use of dreams, dream states, nightmares, daydreams, liminal musings, and fantasies is striking in both the stories and the novels. These elements suggest several things. Sometimes they are a defense against a threatening situation and a desire to escape to a safe place. But they also may represent a sense of grandiosity, especially on the part of small children who sense strong disapproval from an adult that might result in abandonment. Children may sometimes wish to strike back at or to punish the adult for evoking such feelings.

"A Sensitive Season" ("Hatsujoki"; 1974) is in many ways an archetypal Tsushima short story. It begins and ends with the fantasies of the young boy Yutaka playing in the water with a young girl. In the story's opening sequence he saves the anonymous youngster from drowning, an action he offers as proof to his aunt, Natchan, that he is grown-up and lovable. The aunt, however, is upset with him for placing himself in harm's way, but her complaints are a kind of proof that she loves him. In the fantasy ending to the story, Yutaka is the adult, and the imaginary little girl is either the daughter the aunt might have if she leaves or the aunt herself, whose head he dunks in the water and whom he then chides for sniveling.

Between these fantasies is an account of Yutaka's and his grandfather's interactions with the hardworking aunt who takes care of them. Her elder sister, Yutaka's unwed mother, abandoned the boy to the care of the grandfather and sister. The major caregiver is, of course, the latter, who had to retire as a kindergarten teacher to look after both males. She may or may not be having a sexual relationship with a construction worker from the building site next door, with their lunchtime assignations masked as, first, the aunt's two-hour shopping trips and, later, as her swimming sessions at a local pool. Worried that the aunt may abandon the two of them for the lover, the males spy on her.

Told from the point of view of the young boy, the story is suffused with the uncertainties, worry, and anger of a child who is not sure that he is loved. Struggling to control the aunt, Yutaka imagines himself in one fantasy driving off the construction worker-suitor, thus winning the Oedipal battle. In another he even subdues the aunt with what seems to be a display of sexual aggression. The numerous images of water—as a symbol for life in the womb, for swimming, for drinking, for washing the body and clothing, for frolicking in on a hot summer day, for drowning—take on additional connotations and poignancy in light of the suicide of the author's father. (When she wrote the story, Tsushima's son had not yet drowned.) As much as it is the tale of a woman trying to retain a semblance of a private life apart from her male relatives, it is also the story of a desperate child trying to avert yet another abandonment by a significant adult.

In "Clearing the Thickets" ("Kusamura"; 1976) daydreaming takes on particularly aggressive, brutal aspects. As a mother and her two grown-up daughters clear away thick stands of grass in a garden, the younger daughter, who had left home but has recently returned unmarried and pregnant, a disgrace to the family, becomes exhausted and rests. The mother and the older sister continue to work, and they talk about the younger daughter in unkind terms, referring to her as a pest, as being stupid, and as never amounting to anything. As if to escape, the younger daughter daydreams about her lover, the father of her unborn child, the bright red dress worn by a call girl whom the lover brazenly hired to spite her, baths she took as a child with her mother when a lizard always adhered to the bathroom windowpane, and a too large dress she wore to a school picnic that fell off, leaving her naked and humiliated. The mother leaves the grass cutting and, with her scythe, deftly cuts the unborn child out of the daughter's womb. Initially, one is not certain if any of these events, especially the abortion, actually happens. On the one hand, imagery of all kinds in a vast array of pinks, reds, scarlets, and browns, including blood and the color of the uterus and umbilical cord, suggests that the abortion may have taken place. On the other hand, the younger daughter admits wanting to make amends to her family for her unconventional behavior. The abortion may be wishful thinking on the younger daughter's part, her desire that the mother clear the thicket of the daughter's womb of its problem, thus expressing love by taking care of the pregnant child.

In "The Shooting Gallery" ("Shateki"; 1975) young children are abusive toward their single mother, who is inattentive, slovenly, a chain-smoker, and possibly alcoholic. She impulsively decides to take her two sons on an outing to a seaside resort. Because it is the off-season, the resort is almost deserted, and there is little to do. The children complain relentlessly, the older one even calling his mother names and pelting her with sand. She stops periodically for a cigarette and daydreams that she is a golden dragon that then turns into an ant, which her sons stomp. When she carries the tired younger son piggyback, the word "enemy" comes into her consciousness. They come upon a shooting gallery where the boys try unsuccessfully to shoot corks at prizes. Deciding to try her luck, she selfishly aims the gun at a cigarette lighter, the most expensive of the items. The word "enemy" comes to mind again, and she turns the gun on the boys. In a moment's fantasy she shoots them and then regrets that her own father, who died when she was very young, had never carried her piggyback. Frightened, she comes out of her reverie and puts down the gun. To prove that it is possible to win, the young, attractive attendant takes up the gun to show them how to shoot. The mother watches the tip of the gun eagerly.

The mother in the story has not been a success in rearing the surly, disrespectful boys. Nor is she sure that she made the right decision by keeping the father from his sons. Her return to the sea is a regression back to the womb, where she is seeking solace and regeneration. She finds neither, not even in her fantasies. She seems crushed in real life in much the same way that she is stomped by her sons in her daydream.

Tsushima offers a depressing, bleak view of contemporary Japanese family life and of the marginalized position of many women within its structure. Her stories are filled with children who fear abandonment and the withdrawal of love by inattentive or absent or thoughtless family members, especially parents. There are mothers and mothers-to-be, married and unmarried alike, who are burdened by unwanted pregnancies or by children they do not want or do not take care of properly. The men, who are usually sullen, unengaged, and sometimes abusive, do not accept their responsibilities as fathers, fail to support their children and spouses psychologically or financially, or are absent from their children's lives altogether. Narrating all of their stories with an artistry and imagination that, some critics suggest, rival her father's, Tsushima infuses a powerful, distinctive feminist voice into the intensely masculine ethos of Japanese literature.

—Carlo Coppola