Contemporary Japanese Writers

Taeko Kono*

Taeko Kono* 河野多惠子

Taeko Kōno (1926–2015)  is at once the most orthodox and the most radical of all the writers who have followed in the tradition of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. From Natsuo Kirino to Amy Yamada, the influence Kōno has continued to exert on contemporary Japanese female novelists is immeasurable.

At the risk of stirring up controversy, one might describe Kōno as the Queen of Masochism. After experiencing the Tokyo air raids during World War II as a student, Kōno was deeply touched by Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and began writing. Who would have imagined that nearly 60 years later, she would have attained such high literary achievements?

From early in her career, Kōno has been writing about shocking topics. Her 1961 debut, Yōjigari (Toddler Hunting), featured young children being kidnapped, and in Yoru o iku (Going through the Night), published two years later, she wrote about spouse swapping. The author’s uniqueness lies in the tranquility maintained in her works?in spite of the topics they address?through the use of an elaborate, refined, and reliable realism. The first time she accomplished this exquisite balance was in the novel Fui no koe (A Sudden Voice), published mid-career in 1968.

“Ukiko sometimes comes face to face with her dead father,” opens this story about a woman who hears the voice of her dead father. As if encouraged and urged on by her father’s voice, Ukiko commits murder after murder, including that of her mother. One might attribute her actions to her failing marriage, but her true motives are never revealed. What is more, it is not clear whether the murders have actually taken place. A world that by most definitions cannot exist is linked, without the sense that something is out of place, with a reality that is based on reason. “For the protagonist, her alternative, fanciful world has the same vivid tangibility as the real world. True reality, to her, is a world in which both coexist,” writes Kono. From this alternative reality, the author extracts the theme of masochism.

The novel Miira tori ryōkitan (Mummy-Hunting Tale), whose title references the Japanese version of the proverb “going for wool and coming home shorn,” took Kono ten years to write. It is about the masochist’s ultimate wish: being murdered by one’s lover. Masataka, a 38-year-old masochist, marries 19-year-old Hinako and trains her to become a sadist. Over the course of their four-year wartime relationship, they grow into irreplaceable partners. The story climaxes with the husband’s much-yearned-for death.

Kōno continued to pursue masochism in her next works, Hiji (Secret) and Hanshoyūsha (Partial Possession). Secret is the lifelong love story of a husband and wife, both born in 1936, who meet in college. The author carefully depicts the enviably harmonious relationship between the husband, who is a successful executive at a major trading company, and the intelligent and sociable wife. Here, however, she adds a bit of spice to the story. While on a date just before their marriage, the woman gets into a car accident that leaves a seven-inch-long scar on her cheek. Was the couple’s relationship affectionate and ordinary precisely because of the scar? Readers astonished by a complete lack of anything out of the ordinary except for the scar would be blown away again a year later with the publication of Partial Possession.

In this sequel, the author brings back the same couple. And with a style that is even more serene and matter-of-fact than that displayed in Secret, she describes a scene in which the husband rapes the wife shortly after her death. Is necrophilia a sin? To whom does the body of the dead belong? While posing these questions, Kono portrays a love that overcomes even death.

* Yōjigari (Shinchosha, 1962, 264 pages)
* Fui no koe (Kodansha, 1968, 189 pages)
* Miira tori ryōkitan (Shinchosha, 1990, 341 pages, Noma Prize for Literature)
* Hiji (Shinchosha, 2000, 267 pages)
* Hanshoyūsha (Shinchosha, 2001, 44 pages, Kawabata Yasunari Prize)