Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years is my contribution to #JanuaryinJapan and Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge, and what a terrific read it turned out to be!
Set at the beginning of the Meiji era, The Waiting Years is a beautifully written, poignant tale of womanhood and forced subservience; a nuanced portrayal of a dysfunctional family dictated by the whims of a wayward man.
Tomo, our protagonist, is married to Yukitomo Shirakawa, a publicly respected man holding a position very high up in the government ranks. But while the Shirakawas are a symbol of respectability when it comes to outward appearances, privately within the confines of the family the scenario could not have been more different.
In the very first chapter, Tomo is tasked with a heartbreaking mission, a matter which causes her much anguish. Now that her husband has risen the ranks in his career, bowing down to expectations from certain quarters that he can allow himself a mistress, Yukitomo entrusts Tomo with the job of finding a suitable concubine for him, the younger the better and preferably untouched. Yukitomo has granted funds to Tomo for this purpose with permission to take her time in finding a suitable woman.
The very idea that a husband is asking a wife to find him a mistress is detestable, but Tomo is aware that she hardly has much choice in this matter. She could refuse, but that would not stop Yukitomo from finding a mistress himself and Tomo takes some solace (if one could call it that) in the fact that if the matter of a permanent mistress for Yukitomo is a given, then at least she can have full control of who will set foot in the house.
The earlier chapters focus on the turmoil raging within Tomo, her love for Yukitomo when she married him, a man she still desires, which is why this task is so much harder. Yukitomo’s waywardness is nothing new to Tomo, she is aware of his womanizing ways but officially installing a mistress in the house is a different matter altogether. If Yukitomo has risen in his career, so has Tomo in her position as a government official’s wife – despite her country roots and lack of sophistication, she adapts to the demands of maintaining a respectable household, ensures that the Shirakawa name is held high, and effectively manages all property, land and sundry matters commensurate with the wealth and status of her husband.
When the novel opens, Tomo and her young daughter Etsuko make the journey to Tokyo from the provincial town of Fukushima. Her destination is the Kusumi house by the Sumida River, the residence of a woman called Kin who Tomo decides to enlist to help her find the right mistress. This job is all the more cumbersome because of its very nature – all forms of enquiries must be discreet and the people consulted must be trustworthy. Tomo, along with Kin, visits a slew of geisha houses, where even the proprietors are struck by the strangeness of the situation – a man having mistresses hardly raises eyebrows, but a man asking a wife to find a mistress seems bizarre.
Three months pass by without yielding any results until finally, Tomo finds the girl she is looking for. Through a reference, Tomo and Kin visit a school where they watch girls practicing for a dance and her attention is brought to Suga, an innocent girl barely fifteen years of age. Suga is strikingly good-looking, a baleful beauty that is particularly captivating. Suga’s family is in dire circumstances financially, the family business has gone under, and under sheer desperation, they agree to send off Suga to the Shirakawa family. The guilt in Suga’s mother is palpable for having literally ‘sold’ her daughter, and she privately requests Tomo to take upon herself the responsibility of caring for her.
Suga has been vaguely told by her family to respect the master’s wishes without really conveying their true nature. Thus, when ensconced in the Shirakawa household at the very beginning, Suga seems carefree and happy. She is barely older than Etsuko and the two hit it off immediately. But after a few days when reality hits her hard, Suga slowly begins to sink into despondency.
As the novel progresses, in a timespan encompassing several years, various developments take place in the Shirakawa household that only heighten how dysfunctional the family is, particularly its male members – another young woman called Yumi is installed as Yukitomo’s mistress, Tomo and Yukitomo’s emotionally distant and unstable son Michimasa is married off to Miya who comes from a trading family and whose easygoing, coquettish manner results in her embarking on a highly forbidden affair with her father-in-law.
Where Enchi excels is to offer a window into these women’s inner lives. She beautifully captures the internal drama of Tomo, Suga and even Yumi – the anguish of their narrowed existence, catering to the whims of a morally irresponsible man, and given the times they lived in, a feeling of having their hands tied and their dreams and desires squashed.
Right from the time she is entrusted with the burdensome task of searching for a suitable concubine, we are privy to the range of emotions that flit through Tomo’s mind; the knowledge that she is no longer desired and that her rightful place in the marital bed is upended by a young girl.
Her mind that under the pressure of the search had felt nothing so long as no suitable woman had presented herself was suddenly assailed with a yearning like the hunger that comes with the ending of a fast. The pain of having publicly to hand over her husband to another gnawed at her within. To Tomo, a husband who would quite happily cause his wife such suffering was a monster of callousness. Yet since to serve her husband was the creed around which her life revolved, to rebel against his outrages would have been to destroy herself as well; besides, there was the love that was still stronger than that creed. Tormented by the one-sided love that gave and gave with no reward, she had no idea, even so, of leaving him.
The idea of leaving Yukitomo and moving back to her parent’s place does occur to her, but she senses the futility of this. Tomo’s upbringing has been as per old-fashioned moral codes and for her to simply abandon them is not easy. She realises she has her children to care for and a wife’s standing to maintain, and she decides to take these developments in her stride. Of course, over the years, Yukitomo’s irresponsible behaviour hardly recedes, and Tomo treads on eggshells, left with the thankless, difficult job of keeping the household together and preventing it from falling apart, which not surprisingly begins to take a toll on her. Although she no longer shares Yukitomo’s bed, her position as his wife remains secure, and yet at the beginning, a flicker of fear passes through her that this might not be so. And yet despite it all, there is an inner strength that is inherent in Tomo, a will of steel palpable that enables her to perform her duties, however unpleasant they may be.
If Tomo’s standing is not something to be envious of, Suga’s circumstances are even worse (“Pity welled up at the sorry fate of the girl fluttering before her like a great butterfly”). At the very beginning when the reality of placement in the Shirakawa household dawns on her, Suga is beset by a growing sense of disillusionment and sadness. Although her material comforts are taken care of and she no longer has to worry about money, she is struck by the hopelessness of her situation, the loss of freedom that it entails, the feeling of her wings being clipped. Suga’s position is particularly cruel because she is trapped in no-man’s land – she might be Yukitomo’s favourite but does not enjoy the privilege of being the official, respectable mistress of the house, that status irrefutably belongs to Tomo. Suga also lacks Tomo’s managerial skills when it comes to matters relating to handling Yukitomo’s plethora of estates and other business matters.
As the years pile on and Suga grows older, her sense of claustrophobia only heightens and along with it her resentment for being answerable to Tomo. Nor can Suga marry another man, set up her own home as a respectable wife and start a family. To make matters worse, Suga’s worries only deepen when Yukitomo begins to have an affair with his daughter-in-law, a development that only increases her sense of peril.
There’s also the delicate, complex relationship between Suga and Yumi, the latter installed in the Shirakawa household initially as a maid, only to move on to become another of Yukitomo’s concubines. Suga’s family on hearing this, worry about the rivalry that is likely to arise between the two women, but interestingly rather than become sworn enemies, Suga and Yumi bond as sisters, probably Suga broadly identifies with the grimness of their situation, a spider’s web in which Yumi is as much trapped as Suga.
Yukitomo is the quintessential, tyrannical man, ruling the household with an iron fist, disrespectful of women, compelling them to kowtow to his demands and find a way to adjust to his increasingly untenable loose behaviour. The less said about him the better.
The book also subtly explores the transition of Japan to the Meiji era which is visible in the way Yukitomo’s career plays out. Yukitomo espouses conservative values and along with his boss strongly opposes liberal thinking and the stance of the liberal movement. But he is increasingly aware of the frailty of their seemingly invisible seat of power.
General Kawashima, a man not easily daunted, had said, his large heavy-lidded eyes creasing in a grim frown: “If we don’t get complete control within the next year or two, it’s all up with us. Personally, I don’t want to live to see that day come.”
Could it be that the demon superintendent, the man who had devoted all his energies to suppressing the popular campaign for civil rights, had come to realize that the new age rolling towards them like the sea at full tide was something against which resistance was possible? Shirakawa could not avoid a sense of disheartenment at the crack he saw appearing in the disposition of this obdurate man who had once so blithely seized people’s homes in what amounted to daylight robbery, and pulled them down in order to make way for a prefectural road – the man who had happily tolerated the poisoning by mineral wastes of a whole area along the banks of the Watarase river so that the copper mine at Ashio might prosper – all this done in the name of loyalty to the state.
As far as themes go, The Waiting Years, then, is an acutely observed portrait of a marriage and a dysfunctional family, the heartrending sense of entrapment felt by its women who don’t have much agency, which is probably representative of Japanese society at that time.
It is a quietly devastating tale of the plight of women who are compelled to be subservient to the unreasonable demands of men in a patriarchal society. Enchi’s prose is suffused with an elegiac, haunting power; her writing is sensitive and perceptive, finely attuned to the turmoil that seethes within her female characters. The way she delves deep into the complexity of their emotions and depicts the impossibility of their situation is particularly striking. This is an emotionally wrought tale and yet there is no melodrama, which also in a way lends the story an atmosphere of sadness. The novel also simmers with tension, a sense of foreboding about how the events are likely to unravel, not to mention an ending that throws a punch to the gut.
The subject matter might be bleak, but it’s a powerful book with unforgettable characters whose fates will forever be impinged on my mind. Highly recommended!