“Shirobamba: A Childhood in Old Japan,” an Autobiographical Novel by Inoue Yasushi


Having been impressed with the New York Review Press’ reissue of Tun Huang (a fictional solution to how Buddhist scriptures came to be preserved in caves in western China) by Inoue Yasushi (1907-91), I also read another of his historical novel The Wind and Waves (set in Korea as Kublai Khan launches two failed attempts to conquer Japan), and his contemporary (ca. 1950, when it won the most prestigious Japanese writing award, the Akutagawa Prize) The Hunting Gun, and The Counterfeiters and Other Stories. (I’d also seen the 1969 Inagaki Hiroshi [Samurai Trilogy, Machibuse] film “Samurai Banner” starring Mifune Toshiro, based on one of Inoue’s novels, and would like to see the 1952 Inagaki movie “Sword for Hire,” the 1955 “Asunaro monogatari,” and the 1989 “Death of a Tea Master.”)

I knew that Inoue was raised by a grandmother, a former geisha, in Hokkaido, the isolated northernmost island of Japan. Inoue’s quasi-memoir Shirobamba: A Childhood In Old Japan, first published in Japanese in 1960, alas, is not set in Hokkaido. It is set in a rural Honshu village, 80 miles southwest of Tokyo.

The preteen Kosaku lives with a grandmother (and refuses to live with his parents) who is not a blood relation. Her extraordinary position is, to put it mildly, a source of tension and ongoing irritation to the family, Kosaku’s rich but childless great-great-uncle adopted Kosaku’s maternal grandfather and grandmother as his children and later arranged to have the eldest daughter of that couple (Nanae, who would later give birth to Kosaku) adopted by his mistress (a former geisha), Onui. This obligated Nanae to be responsible for the care of Onui in her old age in the village in which Nanae’s biological mother also lives. The situation borders on incomprehensible to westerners, though I am familiar with marrying-in husbands (who take the wife’s patronym) and other adoptions of adults in Taiwan (and in Tanizaki’s novel The Makioka Sisters, the film adaptation by Ichikawa Kon).

In addition to the complexity of adoptions, Shirobamba takes for granted the nudity of hot-springs bathing that Americans not of Scandinavian or Japanese descent have some difficult getting used to. And the alien cuisine that Kosaku likes and dislikes is unfamiliar even to sashimi devotees. And spirits kidnapping children is another part of what is taken for granted. It is relatively astounding that the child (Kosaku) can decide not to live with his parents in Toyohashi, who want him to, and to continue to live in the village with his great-great uncle’s concubine. Kosaku is fascinated by the journey to stay with his parents. Kosaku’s position becomes even more complicated when Sakiko, a girl a few years older than he, who is genealogically an aunt of his, becomes first a temporary teacher in the grade school he attends, but then pregnant by another teacher

Come to think of it, a child being drawn off into the wilds by gods or demons may be more straightforward than the relations among those in Kosaku’s family!

Translator Jean Ode May likens Shirobamba‘s place in Japanese literature to be “akin to the American Huckleberry Finn or the English David Copperfield.” Although there are boys in difficult familial positions in all three novels, I do not think that Shirobamba has anything like the critical force of Huckleberry Finn or David Copperfield against 19th-century societies. Nor does it have much of a plot. But as a portrait of growing up, it has considerable charm as well as insights into rural Japan of a century ago.


(In 2011 Harada Masato filmed Inoue’s later memoir of the old age of the mother who did not raise him, Waga haha no ki (1975, translated by Moy as Chronicle of My Mother), starring Yakuto Kôji (star of Imamura’s “The Eel” and of Mike’s “13 Assassins”). Alas, it has not made it to North American release or DVDs.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray



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