Higuchi Ichiyo: Pioneer of Modern Japanese Literature

Higuchi Ichiyo has managed to become one of the pioneers of modern Japanese fantasy literature despite conditions of poverty and disease. She has written stories that established her place in the world of Japanese literature before her death at the age of 24. The year 2022 is the 150th anniversary of her birth.

Author Higuchi Ichiyo was born Higuchi Natsu in the present Chiyoda district of Tokyo 150 years ago on May 2, 1872. Her life ranged from relative wealth to poverty, from darkness to fame in a life full of drama as the first professional Japanese writer before. . her death At the age of 24 years. Her most famous works are “Takekurabi (Children’s Play)”, “Niguri (Trouble Waters)” and “Josania (The Thirteenth Night)”. She was able to complete only 24 stories due to her untimely death. While her memoirs also have literary significance and have produced a productive production of waka poetry, the number of her short stories readily available today is small. Although her classical literary style makes her seem difficult to understand, she is highly regarded and research on her work from different angles continues into the twenty-first century. Since 2004, she has started printing her image on the 5,000 yen banknote, and her most important works have been translated into contemporary Japanese by writers such as Matsuura Riiko and Kawakami Miku.


The 2004 5,000 yen note contains a photo of Higuchi Ichiyo (photo credit: Jiji Press).

Early indications of literary brilliance

Ichiyo’s parents were farmers from present-day Yamanashi prefecture and fled to Edo (now Tokyo). They worked hard and her father, Noriyoshi, was able to obtain the status of a shogunate, despite the fall of the shogunate in the following year of 1868, which ushered in the Meiji Renaissance. But because Noriyoshi was considered a former samurai fighter, he was able to secure a position under the Tokyo government, which enabled him to build a relatively prosperous home. Higuchi Ichiyo was born to a girl and two sons in 1872 and another daughter followed two years later.

Her mother, Taki, did not believe education was necessary for girls. Ichiyo was an avid reader from an early age, but her mother dropped her out of school at the age of 11 to help with homework. Her father opposed this decision and wanted her to continue her studies, but Ichiyo was a quiet girl and could not express her desires. She wrote in her diary that she had left her studies in streams of tears. After that, she took correspondence courses in waka poetry and continued her studies alone at her desk. Her eyesight was poor, so she did not like sewing and other handicrafts.

Her father noticed her tacit urge to study and sent her to attend waka classes at the Hagenoya Academy run by Nakajima Otaku. Many upper class children would attend this school to learn about waka poetry and calligraphy and to write poems on specific topics. Ichiyo displayed a remarkable talent, which is distinguished by her waka poems. Other students include Tanabe Kaho, who later married the philosopher Miyaki Setsuri. Tanabe made her literary debut in 1888 with the story “A Songbird in the Grove”, which made a great impression on sixteen-year-old Ichiyo.

professional writer

In the summer of 1889, Ichiyo was seventeen years old, a period that was a major turning point in her life. Her father died of illness and left behind guilt of a failed business venture. Her father raised his capital through loans and a real estate business as well as his government job, but his attempt to establish a Van Contracting Association faltered, and his fears caused a permanent deterioration in his physical health. Later, Ichiyo came under pressure to pay off the debt, after her older brother died and her older sister remarried, and she could not count on her second older brother being a craftsman. She worked as a servant at Hagenoya Academy for several months, while her mother and younger sister took on jobs such as washing and embroidery, as the family faced economic hardship. Due to extreme poverty, she visited a pawn shop several times, which encouraged her to pursue her goal of becoming a writer.

In the spring of 1891 (when she was nineteen years old), she became a follower of Nakarai Tosui through an acquaintance, who wrote stories for the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun. Around this time in Japan, newspapers had fiction writers on their staff, including Ozaki Koyo and later Natsume Sōseki. With her teacher, Ichiyo learned the basics of writing popular novels that resonate with an audience. Her diaries indicate that she also felt a seemingly emotional interest in Tosui, who was a decade older than she was. In March 1892, her first work, Flowers at Dusk, appeared in a literary magazine founded by Tosui. The work depicts moments between a young man and a girl who have known each other since childhood, and the death of the girl after her waning and deteriorating health due to one-sided love. Ichiyo went on to publish new stories, many of which were traditional tragic love stories.

Tosui did not last long as Ichiyo’s teacher. After expressing her feelings to him, her teachers and friends in Hagenoya broke off contact with her because they were concerned about her integrity. She continued to look for opportunities to publish, for example through magazines to which Tanabe Kaho introduced herself, but this did not receive special attention, and the family’s financial struggle continued. The Higuchi family decided to try to solve the problem by starting a business. Proud of their ancestors from a former samurai family, they searched for a shop on a piece of land where no one they knew would see them.

Write out of need for money

With a lack of capital, the family chose a place in what is now Taito, Tokyo, along with the Yoshiwara entertainment district. This neighborhood later became the scene for her story “A Child’s Play”. The family found a small, low-rent cottage that served as a home and a store that sold cheap household goods and sweets. It was an area infested with mosquitoes, poor sanitation and many of the population plunged into poverty. A man-drawn rickshaw driver lived nearby. There, Ichiyo encountered different kinds of people she had never known before. Whoever I thought was a beggar dressed in shabby clothes and standing outside the store turned out to be a customer. She was surprised by the number of rickshaws she saw on her way to entertainment venues, and I also learned that there are many spectators accompanying women with them, and therefore the large number of visitors to the entertainment district does not necessarily mean big profits for brothels . . The family shop was underfunded, and the focus on cheap sweets for children did not lead to a substantial income. While the three women did their best to perfect their new business, debt accumulated and the store was gone after only 10 months.

The family moved to the present Bunkyo district in May 1894. There were many shady shops nearby, and nearby was a business store of the kind that might appear in the later story ‘Troubled Waters’. Ichiyo befriended the workers there, who would ask her to write letters to clients or tell her about their lives. While her mother and sister continued to earn money by knitting at home in Bunkyo, Ichiyo wrote out of an urgent need for money and gained notoriety with a number of unique works completed in what became known as the “miraculous fourteen months.”

Stories about the weak

Even after the family started their business with Yoshiwara, Ichiyo did not stop writing novels as she was asked to make contributions by people connected to Bungakukai. She sometimes left her sister in charge of the store while she went to the library. Her immersion in a completely different environment led to the reflection on people who find themselves in uncertain situations that promoted change in the themes of her stories.

Contemporary Japanese fantasy novels began with Tsubochi Shoyo, who studied English literature and drama, and claimed that the task of literature was to portray human psychology. However, Shoyo’s “Portraits of Contemporary Students”, Futabati Shimei’s “Okegumo” and Mori Ogai’s “Dancing Girl” all focus on middle-class thinkers. Around the time of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, as economic divisions and tensions increased, there was a flower of fairy tales focused on the vulnerable people who made up the bulk of the population. Newspapers and magazines published articles in series that introduced the lives of urban slum dwellers, exposing their miserable conditions, and arousing social interest in them. One could say that Higuchi Ichiyo was part of this movement. It was also strongly influenced by the progressive youth who flocked around Bungakukai.

Prostitution, persecution and domestic violence

Ichiyo’s masterpiece, Child Play, tells the story of the transformation of a beautiful 14-year-old girl into a prostitute in Yoshiwara and tells how she faces this fate. Most of the girls entered the sex trade after being sold by their parents. The story is a gripping fantasy, but silently depicts the other neighborhood children mercilessly trampling the little time left for the story’s living heroine, Midori. She has been abused twice by classmates like Chukichi and Shinnyo (also known as Nobuyuki) in the face of the humiliation and pain of rejection by someone she fell in love with. Finally, on the day of the temple fair, she realizes that the time for her childhood freedom is over and it changes the way she acts dramatically. The work was admired by Mori Agai and other literary giants of the time, and secured Ichiyo’s place in the literary world.

Ichiyo's handwritten manuscript
Ichiyo’s handwritten manuscript “A Child’s Play” sold at auction for 21 million yen in 2019 (© Jiji Press).

Troubled Waters tells the story of Oreki, a famous waitress at a liquor store who has an affair with a married man named Genichi until one year into the story, when he goes bankrupt. Now she’s starting to see another rich client, but after readers hear of her loneliness and poor education, she is stabbed by Genichi, who has been chasing her.

“The Thirteenth Night” is about a woman who married a bureaucrat who was captured by her beauty, and has been plagued by domestic violence for seven years. The story shows the pain and suffering in the life of a helpless woman because she wants to leave him, but she sees no way out.

Once she tells these summaries of her most famous stories, one can see how Ichiyo dug deep to reveal the bitter reality of women in the Meiji era (1868-1912). The works also clearly depict the detachment between men and women. The immersive solitude of the story’s heroines stirs the hearts of readers, and tragic themes have universal appeal that still exert an influence today.

Ichiyo died of tuberculosis on November 23, 1896 at the age of 24. Her stories leave many points inexplicable and readers must use their imagination to detail the plot and feelings of the characters in detail through multiple clashes with the text. This is another great attraction of Ichiyo’s stories.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 2, 2022. Translated from English. Banner photo: Photo by Giguchi Ichiyo. Photo courtesy of Jiji Press)

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