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Saturday, May 23, 2009
Housewives' essays tell other story of Japan
By MARIKO KATO
"Manga," "anime," kabuki, geisha — these are some of the images of Japanese culture that Westerners are most familiar with. But one writers' club is seeking to shift the spotlight with their recently published English-language book about everyday life in Japan.
"We wanted to let foreigners know about Japanese culture from a housewife's point of view, with all the colors of emotion that surround daily life," said Harumi Kimura, president of Kimura Harumi Essayists' Group and editor of the new book "Living Japan: Essays on Everyday Life in Contemporary Society." The group, whose members are mostly housewives, collected 70 essays that often give a snapshot of historic events and changes in society from the ordinary person's point of view.
According to Kimura, the anthology was inspired by a similar venture undertaken by a Korean writers' group.
"They published essays in Japan, in Japanese, about their private lives. When I saw it, I thought we'd been beaten. We've been writing for years but it had never occurred to us to distribute our work abroad," said Kimura, who wrote "Letters from London at Twilight," a portrayal of everyday life in London, which won the 1977 Ohya Soichi Nonfiction Award. Her group published "Living Japan" in March at their own expense with U.K. publisher Global Oriental Ltd.
The essays focus on describing emotions rather than the historical or cultural background, partly as they were originally written in Japanese before translation into English, and some were not composed for a foreign audience.
According to Yasuko Matsumoto, one of some 50 contributors to the book, it is not intended to be an encyclopedia of Japanese culture, although some essays are centered on traditional events such as the Dolls' Festival, or set against iconic images like Mount Fuji.
"We want the readers to feel the writers' emotions, which may be universal around the world or particular to Japanese society," she said.
Some of the pieces are indeed based on experiences specific to Japan. One describes a child's surprise at his grandfather's reverence for the Emperor even when the nation's figurehead renounced his divinity after the war, while another recalls how the author's mother went in search of her relatives in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb attack.
But neither politics nor history takes center stage in these episodes, Kimura said.
"We're not trying to explain (the historic events), they provide only the background of everyday experience. They are important events that cannot ever be erased from our minds, but we wanted to portray them from the perspective of ordinary Japanese who are just going about their daily lives," she said.
In contrast, other essays are based on personal trials common to many households, such as family deaths and relationships with in-laws. Hitomi Ishiwatari, who contributed a piece about her life with her autistic son, hopes the theme strikes a chord with foreign readers.
"Mothers everywhere in the world must have similar worries and joys, so I think readers can empathize with my experiences," she said.
The group is also keen to correct misconceptions about Japan that it is still playing catchup with other countries in issues such as gender equality. Matsumoto, who penned reflections on her experience in a male-dominated workplace before the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was implemented in 1986, wanted to explain that women's roles have improved since then.
"In my time, female employees still made the tea and were expected to marry at 25, but now offices even have child care services. I wrote my essay specifically for this anthology, letting it show that I slightly wish I had been born in this age," she said.
Such emotions are what drive the group members to write, according to Kimura.
"We're not aiming to be novelists or earn money from our essays, we just want to record our individual histories," she said.
"Living Japan" is available in Japan and the U.K.