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Top>Research>A pupil and her mentors ―Ichiyo Higuchi’s 2 teachers―


Reiko Seki

Reiko Seki [profile]

Education Course

A pupil and her mentors

―Ichiyo Higuchi’s 2 teachers―

Reiko Seki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Modern Japanese Literature, Expression and Gender Studies


In recent years, one book making headlines is Inuhiko Yomota’s Sensei to Watashi (Mentor and I) (Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd., 2007). This book, depicting comparative culturist and film historian Yomota’s stormy, yet vivid, mentor-pupil relationship with mentor Kimiyoshi Yura, whom he met during his time in the University of Tokyo College of Arts and Sciences, is still fresh in the memory. Soseki Natsume’s Kokoro (Heart) being serialized in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper for the first time in 100 years is also a topic of conversation, and it is interesting to see that the subtitle Sensei no Isho (Professor’s Farewell Note) has been added. With this title it becomes the story of a lonely university student who receives the farewell note from a mentor he called “professor”, which may be somewhat unexpected to some readers. This is because, in modern literature at least, the implication of a mentor-pupil relationship in this title suggests it is different to the work which is generally agreed to depict the “loneliness of modern man” in the style of a “psychological novel”.

The newspaper novel written by mentor

However, the “mentor-pupil relationship” isn’t old-fashioned. It is one form of old and new human relations. The fact that those meetings become a defining crossroad in one’s life is true in every age in both the East and West. For example, Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-96), who I am researching, had two people who she called mentor. One of those is Tosui Nakarai, who first introduced her to professional writing. He was the exclusive novel writer for the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun newspaper for 19 years before Soseki entered. The eldest son of a doctor from the Tsushima Domain, Tosui made use of his advantageous position and worked in a job similar to a special correspondent, and before long went to Tokyo to become a full-time professional writer. A kind man, he warmly reached out to Ichiyo, the young female head of the Higuchi family which was struggling financially after the death of her father, teaching her how to write newspaper serial stories for newspapers from scratch. Ichiyo’s long-lost first newspaper was found in 2009, with her first work being Wakare Shimo (The Parting Frost) (Kaishin Shimbun newspaper, March – April 1892), a novel on the theme of committing suicide immediately after the death of one’s spouse. This not only tells about the era when Ichiyo arrived on the scene, but also a valuable work. Even in the way that Ichiyo the pupil absorbed, in her own way, the novel’s plot of “committing a double suicide” presented to her by her mentor makes this an interesting piece of work (for more on this topic, please read my publication Josei Hyoushou no Kindai (Modern Female Expression) (Kanrin Shobo, 2011).

The traditional tanka mentor

The other mentor was Utako Nakajima, who ran the tanka school Haginoya, which Ichiyo entered when she decided not to continue with schooling on completion fourth grade of an advanced course at elementary school. She was the daughter of a Mito Domain innkeeper in Koishikawa and decided to marry Chuzaemon Hayashi, a Mito Domain retainer who feverishly fought in the name of the imperialism and exclusionism at the incident outside the Sakurada Gate etc., in the closing stages of the Tokugawa shogunate. However, her husband died in confinement during the domain administration uprising as a member of the Tenguto Rebellion (it has been said he may have disemboweled himself), and she also become a prisoner for a period of time. Sometime later Utako set her sights on the art of composing tanka, which her late husband was also well-versed, and opened Haginoya in Koishikawa Suidocho, which was nearby to both the daimyo residence and her family home. It was there where Ichiyo entered and led to their mentor-pupil relationship.

However, this relationship didn’t run smoothly. As written in the book by Yomota mentioned above, because the more skilled the mentor, the higher the hurdle, and the more skilled the pupil, the more they challenge themselves to overcome that barrier, there are times that lead to the moment where the similar intenseness to their mutual feelings of “betrayal” will cut the bonds. Although love had developed, it was totally unexpected that the mentor-pupil relationship between Tosui and Ichiyo, aged 31 and 19 respectively, came to a short end after one and a half years. It was the girls of Haginoya, centered on Utako, who encouraged this. Haginoya, the pillar of traditional tanka, wouldn’t allow a friendly relationship between Ichiyo and a newspaper novelist.

The world of Makate Asai’s Renka

By the way, very recently, Naoki Prize winning Renka (Love Poem) (Kodansha Ltd., 2013) by Makate Asai, is written in a style from the viewpoint of Kaho Miyake, Utako’s top disciple and Ichiyo’s senior, reading writings left by Utako just prior to her death. Asai got the idea for this book from the following poem recited by Utako.

I beg you, because you are the one who taught love. Please teach me how to forget. (Renka p.261)

This poem actually has a name resembling a foreword (explaining how the tanka was composed), “Making a topic out of your fiancé telling you that you are now forgotten” (From the second part of Koi (Love) of Utako Nakajima’s Hagi no Shitsuku, first published in 1908 and reprinted in 1929. Citation from Kenkichi Yamane’s Higuchi Ichiyou no Bungaku (Literature of Ichiyo Higuchi), (Ofusha, 1976, p.220).) Utako’s style of composing tanka belonged to the final era of Daiei (poetry composed on a set theme), a traditional tanka method established in the middle ages. Asai used the recently overlooked Mito Domain in the closing stages of the Tokugawa shogunate as a backdrop, and because of the politically chaotic situation rife with killings, it can be said even love that is called “conventional” in times of peace can be shown to lose its shine as a “universal emotion” in the small but solid vessel called tanka.

Estrangement from Utako

But still, whether it can be said that Ichiyo, who had a mentor who composed these passionate love poems, was happy is not that simple. When Ichiyo entered the school, Utako was a well-known poetess in Tokyo who would give lessons to the Marquise Nabeshima and other famous wives, and train young girls at the Andozaka school in Koishikawa. Amid the unrest at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, “close to 2000 victims” (Kikuei Yamakawa, Buke no Josei (Samurai Wives) (Iwanami Bunko, 1983, p.156)) put an end to the internal strife of the Mito Domain, and with tanka being placed under the supervision of the Imperial Poetry Bureau in the Imperial Court through the formation of a modern Japan, the formerly passionate style poetry composition became a more stable style, and Utako also had to change her direction. For example, not long after Ichiyo entered the school, Utako gave the highest mark to Ichiyo’s following composition on the theme of “willow in the moonlight”, at a meeting. “Because I can see the willow leaves swaying, there must be a wind, even on this quiet and relaxing spring, hazy moonlit night”. (1887). This poem almost paints a picture. This can be said to be a composition under the tutelage of Utako, who stressed the importance of the “actual situation and actual scene”, but somehow it is overly serious and awkward.

Shortly after, Ichiyo would use the tanka ideology of “actual situation and actual scene” cultivated at the tanka school as a weapon, however, when that technique was prohibited, she became enchanted with the new literary style of modern times called fictional prose. At that time, “tanka-like works” or the idealistic “newspaper serial story technique” was hidden within Ichiyo the writer, but, conversely, by having that potential, she became to give strength to fictional prose where characters from every class vividly appear. It was because she met Utako and Tosui that Ichiyo acquired the skills to achieve that.

Into the world of fictional prose

Of course, she also paid the price for splitting with her two mentors. Regarding one of Ichiyo’s most important works, Nigori-e (Tainted Picture), a novel where the heroine is a lower-class barmaid, Utako wrote a scathing review in the newspaper. With Ichiyo’s reputation as a writer growing, the gap between her and Utako widened. On the other hand, on her separation with Tosui, Ichiyo expressed her true feelings in the following two lines.

The moon is buried behind the falling snow. It makes me sad because the image of the man I love is on the moon.
My thoughts are like the snow piling on the ground. Our relationship is like the snow that melts away in the end.
(Higuchi Ichiyo Zenshuu (The Complete Ichiyo Higuchi Collection) Vol.3 Part I (Chikuma Shobo, 1976, p.199))

In the Utako’s previously cited Renka, you can also feel an emotion close to separation, but there, there is a faint lingering reliance on others. In comparison, Ichiyo’s poem is full of piled up sadness, using words like “image” to bring into existence the circumstances of an absent lover, and the continuing memories of the falling snow and her lover. There is no need to ask which was harder on her, the estrangement from fellow female Utako, or separation from the man, Tosui. What is certain is that through meeting these two mentors in a turning point in modern literature history, Ichiyo’s literature took off.

Reiko Seki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Modern Japanese Literature, Expression and Gender Studies
Reiko Seki was born in Gunma Prefecture in 1949. She graduated from Rikkyo University College of Arts Department of Letters in 1974.
She completed master’s degree at Rikkyo University Graduate School of Arts in 1979.
She completed doctoral degree without any degree at Rikkyo University Graduate School of Arts Japanese literature in 1984.
She started current position in 2011 after working as a professor etc. at the Faculty of Economics, Asia University.
Her current research topics include the study of modern literature from 1) an expression and gender studies viewpoint and 2) comparative research of literary films and the original work. Major publications include Kataru Onnatachi no Jidai – Ichiyou to Meiji Josei Hyougen (The Era of Talking Women – Ichiyo and Meiji Era Female Expressionism) (Shin-yo-sha Publishing Ltd., 1997) and Josei Hyoushou no Kindai Bungaku Kioku Shikakuzou (Modern Female Expressionism Literature Memories Visual Images) (Kanrin Shobo, 2011).