Kojima’s Embracing Family

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The novel by Kojima Nobuou (1915-2006) that I want to read is Stars and Stripes. The only one that has been translated, however, is the katei shôstsu (domestic novel) Houyou Kazoku (1965, translated as Embracing Family), which won the inaugural Tanizaki Prize. The jacket blurb likens the dysfunctional marriage at the book’s center to that in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” George and Martha in Albee’s play are much funnier than Shunsuke and Tokiko, and Tokiko lacks the position Martha had in the college town. Moreover, the Miwas have real —not imaginary — children, Ryoichi and Noriko

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Rather than braying and making nasty remarks to others about her husband, Tokiko is neurasthetic. Her primary interest seems to be in plastic surgery to counteract aging, followed by having a showplace house. Shunsuke is not vain and superficial, but is timid and very conscious of not being able to make his wife happy. Not that he can make himself happy either.

He did not better at stimulating love from the mistress he broke with before going for a year in the US. When he discovers that Shunsuke had an affair (or maybe a single sexual encounter) with an American GI connected to their maid, Tokiko is a bit irritated, but does not feel jealousy—or much of any other emotion. When the GI revisits Tokyo after going home to the United States, Shunsuke invites him to the new house and then invites him to stay over, giving up his bed/bedroom to George and telling Tokiko she can go to him if she wants (she declines).

Shunsuke is (purportedly! in local assumptions) an expert on American ways, lecturing about American family life. It seems to me that Tokiko is more of a caricature of a dissatisfied and superficial American wife than Shunsuke is a “modern” (i.e., American) husband. His focus on his work and emotional distance from his children and expectations of a wife seem very traditionally Japanese. What is modern is his lack of self-confidence. He is certainly not capable of being a patriarch, or much of an entity of any sort, though he is easily shamed (like the nebbish, buffeted hither and yon English teacher in “American school,” Kojima’s best-known work).

(An explicit contrast made in the book is that “Caucasian men are passionate lovers, and they try very hard to satisfy their women. They’re not like Japanese men at all. Do you know that they talk to you afterward too? Maybe some Japanese men will talk to you, but not after it’s over” (p. 63). That is mildly shocking to Shunsuke. A student/apprentice translator he takes into the household asserts that “Western characters act logically….. Compared to them, the Japanese are temperamental, vague, and opportunistic.,” Vague, I can see, but I can’t recall anyone else finding Americans lacking in opportunism!)

Plot spoiler alert

For me, the best part of the not very long novel is the negotiation with a prospective wife (after Tokiko dies of breast cancer). It is obvious to the reader that this woman in her mid-30s who has to be jolted out of bed by her mother around 11AM would not be useful in running a household (with the slatternly maid rehired after another one dallied with Ryoichi) or mothering the nearly adult children. Nor is there any sexual spark. “If you like my children, I think I will have affection for you” is the best he can do at selling marriage to himself.

End plot spoiler alert

When the novel takes place is vague. I thought it was during the US Occupation (1945-52) until there was a mention of the assassination of John Kennedy, which occurred late in 1963, not very long before a book published in 1965 could have been written. It was not published in English until 2005 (translated by Tanaka Yukiko for the Dalkey Archive).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The only other Kojima book available in English is the collection of short stories given the title Long Belts and Thin Men, that was just published and that I discussed here. On the fiction of writers who were adult during the war and began publishing after it (the “third generation)  see here.

 

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