Beauty and Sadness in Japanese Literature Essay

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Higuchi Ichiyo's novella Takekurabe, alternately translated as Growing Up or Child's Play, follows the lives of three children growing up near the "licensed quarter" of Yoshiwara, meaning the area of Tokyo where prostitution was legalized and regulated (Ichiyo 70). The story charts the gradual transition from childhood into adulthood during a period of rapid change in Japanese history and culture. The Meiji period represented the first emergence of a truly unified Japan out of the feudal states of the past, and the young lives of Midori, Nobu, Shota, and Chokichi feature a vitality and excitement that reflects this hope for the promise of change and growth. However, as they get older, they gradually realize that ossified social structures of Japanese classes and professions remain even as the country changes on a larger scale, such that they end up following in the footsteps of their families rather than charting their own paths. Furthermore, it becomes clear in retrospect that even the ostensible freedom of their childhoods were entirely circumscribed by their family circumstances. By examining the children's fates in the context of Japan's social upheavals, one is able to see how Ichiyo's story expresses the hopes and fears of a generation of Japanese observing the change around them even as they see themselves become the victims of the inequality and immobility characteristic of life in Meiji-era Japan.

In the first three sections of Growing Up, Ichiyo introduces central characters of Shota, Nobu, and Midori one by one, and these introductions give the reader a plethora of information regarding the social and cultural structures of the time. Even though these introductions are ostensibly focused on the childhood activities of these characters, examining them closely reveals how even their childhood lives and concerns are entirely determined by the very social structures and familial professions that will eventually dictate their adult lives. Furthermore, even the way Ichiyo narrates these introductions differs slightly depending on the character in question, such that the specific language used even contributes to the reader's understanding of these children's fates.

The first child to be introduced by name is Nobu, and immediately Ichiyo hints at his future fate, saying that "his thick black hair will one day be shaved, and his child's clothes changed for the black of the priest.... Perhaps it was by his own choice, perhaps he was only reconciled to what had to be" (Ichiyo 72). Ichiyo writes that "something about him, something of the priest, singled him out from the rest," which causes him to be the victim of bullying and teasing in his younger years (Ichiyo 72). Knowing that he is destined to become a priest and thus responsible for praying for the dead, other children would joke about his future and then throw a dead cat at him (Ichiyo 72). Already, then, one can see how the ostensibly separate or otherwise innocent period of childhood is actually predetermined by the role of the family in society and the future that role dictates.

This is further demonstrated in the case of Nobu when he is recruited into Chokichi's gang, because even though Nobu is destined to be a priest and is portrayed as a stereotypically bookish scholar, his resentment at the inequality and injustice that arises from his lower social and economic status encourages him to join the fight against the rich kids (Ichiyo 72, 74-75). Although he is opposed to violence generally and is not particularly built for it, he is convinced to join due to the solidarity that arises from suffering "the arrogance of the public schools" alongside the other poorer and less politically important children (Ichiyo 74). The fact that Nobu is willing to join the fight is a testament to how the very same social structures that will determine his adult fate govern his activities as a child.

Interestingly, the character of Shota is not introduced directly, but rather is shown from the perspective of Chokichi, a poorer youth and leader of a street gang. The choice to introduce Shota in this way is especially important for understanding the influence of larger social structures on the childhood lives of the characters, because it serves to demonstrate the social and economic inequality that exists in Tokyo and how that inequality effects the childhood activities of the characters well before their future occupations become an issue. Chokichi leads "the back-street gang," a group of children living on the "back street," and thus the poorer area of the neighborhood, which has a rivalry of sorts with the main street, which includes richer and more politically connected families (Ichiyo 72). Chokichi has some small privilege in that his father is fire chief, but he is violent and somewhat hot-tempered, and Ichiyo suggests that this might be a result of his resentment at the inequality he sees around him.

Ichiyo writes that Chokichi is interested in fighting Shota precisely because the latter boy "could give him blow for blow" and not be concerned with offending the fire chief, and more generally, because Shota and his gang represented the more well-off main street. This social and economic division is so strong that "even when the two schools sang the same songs the Ikueisha [Chokichi's school] somehow sounded apologetic, like a poor relation" (Ichiyo 73). In contrast to Chokichi's violent tendencies and poor background, Shota is described as having money and being "an engaging lad no one could dislike" (Ichiyo 72). Chokichi is especially incensed that "two or three boys from the back street had even gone quietly over to [Shota's] side," because it represents how completely Chokichi's life is dictated by the arbitrary divisions of class and economics rather than individual worth or desire (Ichiyo 73).

Before addressing the character of Midori, one must point out that Ichiyo's characters are essentially glorified stereotypes. However, this should not be taken as a criticism, but rather an acknowledgment that Ichiyo has intentionally focused on characters that can be interpreted as "typical" representations of what someone in the same social, economic, and gendered class might experience. Nobu, as someone destined to become a priest, is presented as bookish, shy, and with a tendency to be picked on by other children. Chokichi is depicted as a poor street youth, rough around the edges but with the kind of noble dignity that stems from his sense of pride despite his own low position. Shota, being relatively rich and comfortable, is presented as well-liked and calm, almost certainly due to his comfortable upbringing and quality education.

This leads one to the character of Midori, a young girl who is ultimately destined to become a prostitute. It is important to point out that Ichiyo intentionally focuses on stereotypical, almost simplistic renderings of characters from different family backgrounds and classes, because otherwise one might interpret Ichiyo's description of Midori as sexist to the point of being offensive. This is because where the male characters are largely introduced according to their personalities and interests, Midori's initial introduction focuses exclusively on her appearance:

Her hair -- undone it would probably have stretched to her feet -- was pulled up tight from the back. Shaguma, "red bear," a ferocious name for a girl's coiffure, but so fashionable that perhaps even the damsels in the fine houses had taken it up. Her skin was white, her nose well shaped. Her mouth was a little large, but closed it did not strike one as unattractive. Taken one by one her features were no doubt less than perfect. She had a soft, clear little voice, however, a bright manner and a winsome way of looking at one. I'd like to see her three years from now, young men on their way home from the quarter would say when they saw Midori of the Daikokuya, towel in hand, fresh from her morning bath, her throat white above an orange-red summer kimono gay with birds and butterflies, her black satin sash tied high at the waist, her colored sandals rather thicker than one usually sees in these parts. (Ichiyo 75)

Compared to the introductions provided for the other characters, one cannot help but be struck by the fact that the entire first paragraph dedicated to Midori focuses exclusively on her appearance, and even goes so far as to mention that men coming back from visiting prostitutes were interested in what she would look like later, when she herself would be old enough to become a prostitute. Again, taken in isolation this passage might seem wildly offensive, because it would suggest that Ichiyo does not believe that a female character's internal characteristics or interests are of any interest to the reader or the story.

However, when considered in the context of the story's larger message concerning the way in which preexisting social structures dictate one's life even from childhood, it is possible to interpret Ichiyo's choice as an intentional commentary on the value (or lack thereof) given women in Meiji-era Japan. It is not that Ichiyo is making the case that the only interesting…[continue]

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