Contemporary Japanese Writers

Yumie Hiraiwa*

Yumie Hiraiwa* 平岩弓枝

Yumie Hiraiwa (1932–)  was born in Tokyo as the only child of the high priest of Yoyogi Hachiman Shrine and studied Japanese literature at Japan Women’s University. At the suggestion of her mentor Yukio Togawa (1912?2004), a naturalist and writer of novels with animals as protagonists, she joined Shin’yōkai, a group for authors of popular fiction founded by Shin Hasegawa (1884?1963), the great writer of samurai novels. At the young age of 27, Hiraiwa won the Naoki Prize for the short story Taganeshi (The Sword-Name Engraver). She has since been very productive in a variety of fiction genres, including historical novels and samurai romances as well as works with contemporary settings. On’yado Kawasemi (The Kawasemi Inn), an ongoing serial mystery that she began in 1973, uses the Grand Hotel formula of multiple plots and characters centering on a single place. The setting has gradually progressed from the late Edo to the Meiji period. Hiraiwa has also written scripts for TV dramas, racking up high ratings for Kimottama kaasan (Unbeatable Mother) and Onna to misoshiru (Women and Miso Soup), both of which aired from the late 1960s. Today she and her husband, Masateru Ito, who succeeded her father as high priest of Yoyogi Hachiman Shrine, are leaders of Shin’yōkai, working together to train a new generation of writers.

The Sword-Name Engraver is the title work of a collection of short stories dealing with traditional Japanese crafts. Michiyo is asked by her father, Ippei Shimura, to deliver a sword to Shigeo Fukuhara, a sword connoisseur and broker. Ippei, who has made his living handcrafting files, performing the nearly superhuman feat of chiseling fine grooves into hard metal, once carved a counterfeit name on a sword and sold it for an exorbitant sum, relying on Shigeo’s prestige to lend it credibility. The weapon that Michiyo brings to Shigeo today is “Kotetsu,” a famous sword that Ippei, now destitute and dying of cancer, has held on to through the years. Shigeo suspects that this is another fake, but when various professors and authorities vouch for its authenticity, he accepts it as genuine. Hearing this, Ippei knows that at last he has been able to carve a forgery that no one can detect, and he dies a happy man, satisfied that his skill is peerless.

The novel Onna no kao (A Woman’s Face) is set in the era when Japan was beginning to recover from wartime devastation. An unmarried woman gives birth to the child of her dead sweetheart, a kamikaze pilot, and moves to the United States. She provides her daughter, Masaki, a strict Japanese education, wanting her to have an unassailably Japanese identity. After the mother dies, the daughter takes the ashes back to Japan only to be met coldly by her father’s family, who own a hospital and suspect her of trying to claim an inheritance, and her mother’s family, who keep a distance because of the awkward circumstances of her birth. In order to support herself, Masaki becomes a maid. Eventually she discovers that the hospital is in dire financial straits, and that her mother’s family, too, is barely managing. As Japan’s recovery picks up speed, Masaki is torn between two men who, attracted by her refinement, have fallen in love with her. She resolves to go on living as a Japanese woman, affirming the way her mother brought her up and feeling the Japanese blood in her veins.

The historical novel Yōkai (Monster) is set in the late Edo period, on the eve of the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The protagonist is Torii Tadateru (1797?1873), whom the daimyo Mizuno Tadakuni (1794?1851) chooses to implement sweeping reforms in order to revitalize the government’s finances. Torii imposes rigid discipline on the city of Edo, his crackdown so harsh that people despise him and call him “Monster.” Eventually the reforms fall through and Torii is brought down, forced to endure 24 years under house arrest in Shikoku. Certain that he did nothing wrong, he spends the time teaching poetry to local officials, using his knowledge of Chinese medicine to treat people of the domain, and otherwise earning wide respect. When the Edo shogunate falls and a new government is established, he is freed and returns to Tokyo, where he lives another five years. In this novel, Hiraiwa takes on one of the most notorious figures of Japanese history and examines him from a fresh angle, piecing together his stormy life as a government bureaucrat.

* Onna no kao (Bungeishunju, 1970, two volumes, both 413 pages)
* Taganeshi (Bungeishunju, 1971, 265 pages, Naoki Prize)
* Yōkai (Bungeishunju, 1999, 448 pages)