Learn & Change

As I wrote last week, I would love to share my thoughts on a few books I have read during the last months

I am going to start with the last one I finished: Beauty in Disarray (1966)

Written by Setouchi Harumi (瀬戸内 晴美) or Setouchi Jakuchō (瀬戸内 寂聴), the name she recieved in 1973 after becoming a Buddhist nun (to almost everybodys surprise). She was born May 15, 1922, studied Japanese literature, was married (and divorced around 1946), has a daughter. With prestigious literary prices under her belt she is one of the major female writers of Japan. She is alive and kicking – at the moment active in the anti-nuclear movement. She is one of the persons I would love to meet. So much could be said about her life – it is an adventure worth more than a small entry in this blog. So I leave it at that – for now. I recommend the essay: Setouchi Jakuchō: Female Subjectivity in the Exploration of “Self”, Sexuality and Spirituality by Masayo Kaneko, published in The Outsider Within. Ten Essays on Modern Japanese Women Writers. ed. Kuribayashi Tomoko with Terasawa Mizuho in 2002.

The essays title already tells a lot about the themes Setouchi writes about. Beauty in Disarray is the story of the declaration of the “New Woman” movement and it is a biography of Ito Noe (1895-1923), writer and feminist. A fascinating woman deeply connected to the womens liberation movement during Taisho (1912-26). She got in touch with main figures of the Socialist and Anarchist movement, she became main editor of Seito (Bluestocking) – a literary and feminist magazine – at the age of 20, she was mother of seven, married three times and always stayed true to herself.

The figure of Ito Noe, the way it is described by Setouchi, is neither a positive or negative. In parts one can relate to her, I could relate to her and her actions. In part her youthful selfishness made me want to slap her cheeks. Or at least snap at her. Moving forward without minding her surrounding. She must have been a strong will and her way to handle fear and insecurity is not short of recklessness. I was envious. I also disliked her. ( (Sometimes I found myself in her actions or antics – then I disliked her even more. Who wants to see ones own stupidy perfectly reflected?) And I laughed. Setouchi wrote her as a real woman. Not a heroine. Not a larger than life fighter for equality. She was easily influenced, by men, women, atmosphere, words and actions. She set her mind on something and did it. When she failed, she moved on. When she wanted to learn, she listened, she read, she learned. She was ambitious and lazy.

Beauty in Dissaray teaches about the political and especially the feminist movements in Japan during Taisho, as well as a media history of the early 20th century. It demands an already set or to aquire knowledge about the new literature which changed the perception of what literature can and should do, like Ibsens Nora. A lot of things are just touched upon but not fully conducted. This biography forces the reader to go on a search: about historical figures (so many names are popping up, flowing in and out of the pages, the socialist/anarchist movement (not only in Japan by the way, it stretches over to Russia, China, Europe), feminism as part of the political movement and also as part of a general movement towards emancipation.

Names I am definitelly planing to check: Kamichika Ichikio (1888-1981), a female reporter of politics and economics – she was treated as an equal to her collegues at Nichi Nichi, a newspaper of the time. Hiratsuka Raicho (1886-1971), writer and first editor/founder of Seito.

Setouchis writing lays between fiction and non-fiction. As much as it is a biography it is a novel, and vice versa. She is using contemporary sources like literary magazines, manifests, letters etc. She also includes interpretations of her own, as well as others. But she also creates situations, emotions, thoughts – imagination and fact are strongly connect in her work.

The problems I had with the book are, in my impression, more related to the translation and the publisher. For starters, this book has one of the ugliest and misleading covers I have seen in a while. Honestly, if I had seen it the before hearing/reading about the book, I would have thought of it as a cheap erotic novel, set in an exotic setting to spice things up. Do not get me wrong, I am proud of my collection of erotic literature and I am definitelly going to find Kashin, Setouchis first priced work, then labelled as pornography. But the cover does not do the book good in any sense. The title unfortunatelly did not help with this. The original title 美は乱調にあり is translated correctly and it helps the translators didn’t choose “confusion”, another possible translation of 乱調. A problem I had was the impression of the Japanese sentence structure forcing itself into the English sentences. Which makes it – at least at the beginning – difficult to follow the flow of the words or rather thoughts.

I recommend this book by heart, although I am not sure how it would be recieved. It is definitelly not a book you read and forget. But one which inspires – to learn more, to read more, to be more courageous.

Books by Setouchi Jakuc I would love to read as well are her priced Natsu no Owari and the even more famous Hana ni Toe. Not to forget her new translation of Genji Monogatari in to modern Japanese from 1998, which proved to be a great success.

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