In 1922, after graduating from high-school, Hayashi went to Tokyo, following in the footsteps of a lover who however jilted her soon after arrival (the first but not the last time that Hayashi's love affair had an unhappy ending). She then supported herself as waitress in cheap cafes - such waitresses were the pre-war equivalent of hostesses. Hayashi also worked as a shop girl, and painted toys in a basement factory. She often had no roof above her head and then slept in deserted houses or public toilets.
Hayashi Fumiko lived with several men and was usually extremely poor, even going hungry for many days on end. She usually had to support her men - one of these was an actor about whom she later discovered that he kept another sweetheart and had a stack of money hidden away. The next man in her life, a left-wing poet, often beat and kicked her. But these difficult Bohemian years gave her the ingredients for her later novels. In 1926 she finally settled down into marriage with the painter Tezuka Rokubin, who in contrast to her previous partners was a very good man who would firmly support her writing career, even giving up his own art.
The first literary success came with Diary of a Vagabond in 1930, an I-novel based on the diaries she kept in the 1920s, and describing her life in poverty with only two desires: to eat and to write. It became an overnight sensation - people felt sympathetic for her plight as the Recession had just set in, making everyone insecure - and sold 600,000 copies. Her reputation as a writer was made. In the next 21 years she would write more than 30,000 pages, among which over 270 (!) books. She was a very hard worker - too hard, some say, as her premature death at age 48 in 1951 may have been brought about by overwork. Even after she was well-off, she continued writing at a frantic pace, as if she dreaded to fall into poverty again.
Many of her works revolve around themes of free spirited women and troubled relationships. Although the characters in her early work are always living in very poor circumstances, contrary to many of her contemporaries she was not interested in leftist (or other) politics. She was rather bent on conveying the humanity of those on the underside of Japanese society. She is optimistic about the strength of the human spirit to finally conquer misfortune.
Hayashi Fumiko loved to travel and the 1930s made long trips to Europe, China and Southeast Asia - without her husband. She even lived for half a year in Paris. She wrote a great number of travelogues and articles in magazines about her travels. During the war, she also visited the front as a war reporter.
While Hayashi's early works were all based on her personal experiences, from the mid-thirties she started writing stories and novels that are free from autobiographical models. The first such story was The Oyster from 1935. Now she was a full-fledged author and she poured out a constant stream of novels and stories, essays and articles, poems and travelogues (she also traveled frequently within Japan).
In 1941, she had her own comfortable house in traditional style built in Kami-Ochiai in the Shinjuku Ward and lived there until her death. It has now been converted into the Hayashi Fumiko Memorial Hall and is open to the public (English information, scroll down).
Many of Hayashi Fumiko's books became bestsellers and at least nine of them were made into films, six of them by the great classical director Naruse Mikio. The story of Hayashi Fumiko's life became the subject of a popular play with an almost perennial runtime. Called Horoki, the play was written by Kikuta Kazuo and featured the actress Mori Mitsuko as Hayashi Fumiko - the same actress would play this role for more than 2,000 times between 1961 and 2009! The play - rather than the novel by Hayashi of the same name - also formed the basis of Naruse's film Horoki (1962) with Takamine Hideko as Fumiko.
Despite the continuing interest in her life, Hayashi Fumiko's work has regrettably lost much of its popularity and, besides a few story collections and some travel sketches, one only finds the novels Horoki, Seihin no Sho and Ukigumo in print.
- Ao uma wo mitari ("I Saw a Pale Horse"), 1929 - poetry collection. Although known as a novelist, all her life Hayashi wrote poetry. This was the first of eight collections and the start of her writing career. More than half of the 34 poems in the collection are originally from her first novel, Horoki. Translated by Janice Brown (Cornell, 1997).
- Horoki ("Diary of a Vagabond"), 1930 - novel.
Based on a diary Hayashi kept from 1922-28, the novel describes her relations with various men as well as her struggles to earn money with absolute frankness. Her love of life helps her conquer her misery. Lively narration, many details drawn from Hayashi's own experiences, impressionistic form with sudden shifts. Translated by Joan Ericson in Be A Woman (Hawai'i, 1997).
- Fukin to uo no machi ("The Accordion and the Fish Town"), 1931 - short story. About Hayashi's own childhood. The narrator works hard to help her parents who are itinerant peddlers sell their wares in Onomichi. Translated by Janice Brown (Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories).
- Seihin no sho ("A record of Honorable Poverty"), 1933 - novel. Autobiographical novel drawing upon Hayashi's life with Tezuka Rokubin. Again a big popular success.
- Nakimushi Kozo ("Cry Baby"), 1934 - novel. A boy who is unwanted by his mother is shunted from one relative to the other - while the mother amuses herself with her lover.
- Kaki ("The Oyster"), 1935 - short story. About a retarded young man whose life is on a downward slide into madness after he looses his job.
- Inazuma ("Lightning"), 1936 - novel. Young woman tries to forge her own path in life amid the squibbling of half-siblings (same, weak-willed mother, different fathers). Filmed by Naruse in 1952.
- Uzushio ("Swirling Currents"), 1947 - novel. Story about the problems of war widows.
- Bangiku ("Late Chrysanthemum"), 1948 - short story. Vivid portrait of an aging geisha who reluctantly receives a former lover. Won the Women's Literary Award in 1949. Her best story. Filmed by Naruse in 1954. Translated by Jane Dunlop in A Late Chrysanthemum (Tuttle, 1991).
- Dauntaun ("Downtown"), 1949 - short story. Another story about life on the margin of society, set in postwar Tokyo. Translated by Ivan Morris in Modern Japanese Literature (Keene).
- Ukigumo ("Drifting Clouds"), 1951 - novel. Often seen as Hayashi's masterpiece. About the tortured relationship between Koda Yukiko, the novel's heroine, and a minor official, Tomioka. During the war they begin their affair in lush Indo-China. After the war, Tomioka returns to his wife, but when Yukiko follows him, he hesitates to break off their relationship. Finally, Yukiko - who has to find a new life in the desolation and chaos of post-War Japan - follows him all the way to Yakushima. Filmed in 1955 by Naruse, with Takamine Hideko.
- Meshi ("Repast"), 1951 - novel. An Osaka housewife feels trapped in a marriage that only consists of daily drudgery. She runs away to Tokyo, but in the end returns to a life of complacency. Hayashi died while she was writing this novel. Filmed in 1951 by Naruse, with Hara Setsuko.