Ariyoshi Sawako (1931–1984)

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Ariyoshi Sawako (1931–1984)

Japanese author whose works, including more than 35 nonfiction, fiction, and dramatic volumes, have been translated into 12 languages. Born Ariyoshi Sawako on January 20, 1931, in Wakayama City, Japan; died in 1984; the second of three children of Shinji and Akitsu; educated at Tokoyo Christian Women's University; married Jin Akira (director), in March 1963 (divorced 1964); children: one daughter, Tamao (b. November 1963).

Selected works:

Momoku (The Blindman, 1954), Jiuta (Ballad, 1956), Masshirokenoke (White All Over, 1957), Kinokawa (The River Ki, 1959), Arita-gawa (Arita River, 1963), Hishoku (Not Because of Color, 1964), Hidaka-gawa (Hidaka River, 1965); Kōkotsu no hito (The Twilight Years, 1972), Kazunomiyasama otome (Her Highness Princess Kazu, 1978).

Ariyoshi Sawako was born on January 20, 1931, of an old gentry family in the Wakayama City region of Japan. At the time of her birth, Ariyoshi's father Shinji, a banker, had already left on an assignment to New York City. Returning to his wife Akitsu four years later, Shinji met his daughter for the first time. The family moved to Tokoyo in 1935. Before they were reassigned to Batavia (Java, Indonesia) in 1937, Akitsu gave birth to her second son.

The family spent several privileged years in Batavia. Though she was enrolled in the Japanese Elementary School, Ariyoshi was frequently ill as a child, so her formal schooling was intermittent at best. She was, however, extremely bright and enjoyed reading when illness kept her from school. Her father's bookshelf held the collected works of Japanese authors Natsume Soseki and Arishima Takeo, and Ariyoshi read them diligently. In 1940, Shinji was reassigned to Tokoyo, and, for the following year, the family bounced back and forth between Japan and Batavia, following him. Between 1940 and 1941, Ariyoshi attended five different elementary schools, before the family settled in Tokoyo permanently in 1941.

Her health improved by her teen years, and Ariyoshi attended Takenodai Women's School and Tokoyo Municipal Higher Women's School, from which she graduated in 1949. She subsequently enrolled at the Tokoyo Christian Women's University to study English literature, but her father sparked in her another interest as he instilled in his daughter a love of traditional Japanese Kabuki theater. Kabuki, for Shinji, represented an opportunity to strengthen his daughter's national faith, which her childhood of transience had failed to do. Performed by, and written for, common people, Kabuki theater combines exaggerated visual effects and musical forms to tell moral stories. Ariyoshi's growing interest in the theater was intensified by her father's death in 1950. Graduating from the university in 1952, she worked over the next several years with several Kabuki theater companies and publications.

When her first short story was published in 1955, Ariyoshi began what would become an unrelenting dedication to writing. Short stories and plays earned her numerous prizes and notations as one of Japan's best new writers. In 1959, her first novel, and one of her best known, Kinokawa (The River Ki), was released. It was followed with an invitation from the Rockefeller Foundation for Ariyoshi to come to America and study drama at Sarah Lawrence College for the winter and spring terms. After nearly a year away from home, she made stops in Europe and the Middle East before her return trip to Japan.

Over the decade between 1962 and 1972, Ariyoshi produced novels or plays, totaling 12, numerous short stories, and a 13-volume set of her selected works. Most of her novels appeared first in serial form in popular Japanese magazines, often running over a six-month period. She paused briefly in March of 1963 to marry Jin Akira, the director of the Art Friend Association. The couple lived with Jin's parents, an arrangement that burdened the marriage. In November of the same year, Ariyoshi gave birth to a daughter, Tamao. By the end of 1964, the marriage was over.

In 1968, Ariyoshi spent four months traveling in Cambodia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Her trip was cut short by malaria, and Ariyoshi was carried out of the jungles of New Guinea on a hammock. She was hospitalized for all of May and June, but by May she had already begun a written account of the trip, which was serialized until November. This illness likely began Ariyoshi's long struggle with insomnia, which she combatted with sedatives and alcohol, contributing to a slow decline in health.

In 1972, one of Ariyoshi's most controversial works, Kōkotsu no hito (The Twilight Years), appeared. Within six months of publication, this story of a family's struggle to care for their aging father sold more than one million copies and earned Ariyoshi $300,000 in royalties. Ariyoshi wanted to donate the entire sum to area nursing homes, but, fearing they would lose the tax money, the government allowed her to give only one-quarter of the sum. She followed this tremendously popular work with a serialization that became the novel Fukugo osen (Compound Pollution). Ariyoshi's study of both bodily and earthly pollutants led to a reputation as an environmental expert. She was asked to travel and give talks, while researching and writing her next novel. By May of 1977, Ariyoshi had to be hospitalized for exhaustion and overwork. In the following years, she continued to write but was plagued by illness, which encouraged her further use of alcohol and sedatives.

In 1984, Ariyoshi Sawako died in her sleep of cardiac arrest, brought on by her drug dependencies and overwork. She was 53 years old. In January of 1986, her hometown of Wakayama City announced the creation of the Ariyoshi Sawako Memorial Museum, to be placed next to the Wakayama Municipal Library. Ariyoshi's mother Akitsu agreed to contribute the author's belongings and manuscripts to the memorial.


Lewell, John. Modern Japanese Novelists. Tokoyo: Kodansha International, 1993.

Mulhern, Chieko I., ed. Heroic with Grace: Legendary Women of Japan. London: M.E. Sharpe, 1991.

——, ed. Japanese Women Writers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts