Ariyoshi Sawako spent part of her youth in Java (her parents returned in 1941 to Japan) and was educated at Tokyo Women's Christian College, where she studied literature and theater. The theater - especially the Kabuki - and other traditional performing arts formed her lifelong passion. She graduated in 1952.
In 1956 Ariyoshi made her literary debut with Jiuta, a story set in the strict world of traditional Japanese music. Jiuta are traditional songs accompanied by the shamisen. A jiuta singer, head of a lineage, has trained his daughter in the hope that she will be his successor, but his hopes are shattered when she decides to marry a foreign husband and move to the U.S. The father-daughter conflict is central to the story.
In 1959 Ariyoshi studied a year at the Sarah Lawrence College in New York on a Rockefeller scholarship, with the theater as her subject. Back in Japan, she worked for a publishing company and at the same time continued writing highly acclaimed short stories and novels, many of them dealing with traditional Japanese performing artists. This interest in the theater also influenced her style. In her novels, there are frequent dramatic confrontations between the characters and she had a great talent to write lively dialogues. She also wrote plays for the theater as well as scripts for TV.
Ariyoshi was a prolific and very talented novelist. She often raised social issues and women's issues in her novels. Ariyoshi traveled extensively to gather material for her books; she also wrote travel essays. During her lifetime, she was very popular: nine of her novels were filmed, four others made into TV films. Today, her popularity has somewhat decreased, but she is still studied and her best novels remain in print.
Ariyoshi was a typical storyteller. Her characters are often propelled by a certain feverishness that also grips the reader, such as the fierce competition between mother and daughter-in-law in The Doctor's Wife, or Okuni's obsession with dancing in The Kabuki Dancer.
Ariyoshi's numerous novels can be divided into six groups depending on the subject matter.
First we have novels about traditional performance artists. Besides the above mentioned Jiuta this group includes:
- Izumo no Okuni ("The Kabuki Dancer," 1969), about Okuni, the woman who in the late 16th century "invented" a new form of dance that was an early incarnation of the Kabuki theater. She performed on a stage along the bank of the Kamo River in Kyoto. The novel vividly depicts the historical background as well as the rivalries in Okuni's troupe. Translated into English by James R. Brandon, who is a specialist on the Japanese theater in general and Kabuki in particular (published by Kodansha).
- Tsuremai, ("Dance for Two"), about the rivalry between two sisters born into the Kajikawa family of traditional dance.
- Midaremai ("Disorderly Dance"), a sequel to the previous novel, which takes the rivalry between the sisters one step further when the Iemoto, the head of the school, dies.
- Ichi no Ito ("One String"), about a young woman who falls in love with a man who plays the shamisen in the Bunraku theater.
- Kaimaku beru wa hanayaka ni ("Let the bell for the curtain rise sound gorgeously"), a mystery novel set in the modern theater world.
- Shibazakura ("Moss Pink"), a novel about two geisha with very different characters, the one, Masako, very serious, the other, Shimayo, more frivolous;
- Keko ("Flowers and Incense," 1965), about the relations between two geisha living in the years between Meiji and the War, a mother, Ikuyo, who is rather vamp-like, and her daughter Tomoko, who forgives her wild streaks.
- Here also belongs The Tomoshibi (Tomoshibi, 1961), a short story translated by Keiko Nakamura in The Mother of Dreams about a kind bar hostess.
- Here belongs in the first place Ariyoshi's most famous work, Hanaoka Seishu no tsuma ("The Doctor's Wife," 1966). Dr. Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835) was the first in the world to operate a patient under a general anaesthetic (in 1804), with techniques which go back to both Dutch and Chinese medicine. Ariyoshi studied his personal papers for her novel, but the famous doctor is not the main character in the book: that is firstly his wife Kae, and after that his mother Otsugi. The rivalry between these two women for his attention is central to the novel and propels the story forward. While he is still developing the powder called tsusensan (a herbal mixture also containing some poisonous elements) they compete for the "privilege" of being his first human subject to test it. The doctor pretends not to notice the rivalry but benefits greatly from it. Kae goes blind as a result. English translation published by Kodansha.
- Another interesting novel in this group is Kazunomiya-sama otome ("Her Highness Prinses Kazu," 1978), the famous story of an imperial princess, Kazu-no-miya, who in the late Edo-period for political reasons was forced to marry the shogun. Ariyoshi poses that it was not the real princess, but a substitute who married the shogun.
- Here belongs Ariyoshi's masterwork, Kinokawa ("The River Ki", 1959), the story of three generations of women (Hana, Fumio and Hanako) living from the late 19th to mid 20th century in the countryside outside Wakayama City on the River Ki. The novel explores their changing attitudes and expectations. The novel shows how Hana, a traditional woman, keeps in the shadow of her husband, a politician, but also how she supports him and uses her resources to promote his interests. English translation published by Kodansha. Two sequels (Arita River, 1963 and Hidaka River, 1965) add two more generations, but have not been translated.
- An example is Fushin no Toki ("A Time of Distrust"), about Asai Yoshio, a salaryman who has been married for 15 years to Michiko. Asai has two times in the past been unfaithful to his wife, and when he again falls for a hostess, Machiko, his wife plans a terrible revenge.
- Interesting is also Yuhigaoka Sangokan ("Building No. 3 at Evening Sun Hill") that describes the problems of Sonoko, the wife of a salaryman who starts living in company-provided housing in Tokyo. The flat is beautiful, but besides facing problems with the education of her son, Sonoko gets entangled in the web of small-time intrigues and rumor-mongering among the housewives in the compound.
- Akujo ni tsuite ("About a Bad Woman," 1978) - the heroine is a business woman who has just past away. The novel consist of 27 chapters in which people who knew her give their memories. She is not at all a "bad woman," but the novel shows how the same person may be "seen" from different angles - some loath her, others love her. Along the way, we also get the expanation of her untimely death.
- An early example is Hishoku ("Not Because of Color", 1964), about a Japanese woman who moves to New York's Harlem as the "war bide" of an African-American soldier. The novel not only addresses racial discrimination, but also looks at what it means to accept life in another culture.
- The most famous book in this group is probably Kokotsu no hito ("The Twilight Years," 1972) which depicts the life of a working woman who is caring for her elderly, dying father-in-law in a very moving way. When Akiko's senile father-in-law is rejected by community services, the responsibility for his care automatically devolves upon her, increasing a domestic and employment workload which she already finds hard to cope with. Ariyoshi correctly anticipated the problems that Japan's rapidly aging society would cause. The book is both funny and heart-warming. English translation published by Kodansha.
- Fukugo Onsen ("Compound Pollution," 1975) - not a novel but reportage about various forms of pollution. Sold one million copies and shook up the public and the government. From this time on, corrective measures were introduced.
P.S. Since Kodansha International, the publisher of four of Ariyoshi's novels in English has been liquidated last year by its mother company Kodansha, it is questionable whether these translations will still be available. The best option may be a library. It is sad that there is no Japanese publisher with translations of Japanese literature left on the international scene. As is also the case elsewhere, the Japanese seem to have a singular lack of interest in the propagation of their own culture.