Japanese Literature Translation: “My Life”, an essay by women author Hayashi Fumiko (林芙美子)

By | August 2, 2021

The majority of my translation projects have involved nonfiction (which mirrors my reading tastes), but the other day I discovered an interesting essay written by author Hayashi Fumiko, considered to be an important figure of 20th century Japanese women’s literature. The essay is titled “My Life” (生活) and, judging from the explicit reference to her age in the piece itself, was probably written around 1935, in the early part of her career.

What I liked about this essay was the variety of topics addressed, especially given its relatively short length (around 4.5k words). As you would expect from the title, Hayashi talks about her daily life, including things such as what newspapers she reads, what ink she uses, and her daily writing schedule.  It was also interesting to see the figures for her average monthly/yearly salary, which were not quite what I expected. But she also addresses deeper topics, such as how she receives criticism and judges her own work, and how difficult she finds the writing process. Finally, there are references to a bunch of other artists (mostly writers and painters), including some outside of Japan. I feel that this piece gives an excellent historical view into the mind of a writer during that time.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll just say that I’m surprised that Hayashi managed to live another 15-16 years given the lifestyle she was living when she wrote this essay.

After translating a series of Hayashi Fumiko’s stories (available in paperback here and in E-book form here and here), I read this essay with a certain familiarity for this author, but I think it is a interesting read even for those who are new to her.

Thanks to Kaimai Mizuhiro (his books, his blog about Japanese grammar) for helping confirm some of the meanings of the tricker passages. Also thanks to Jim Miles (of Annotranslate) for help proofreading.

I considered including this essay in an upcoming book, but since August is Women in Translation month, I decided to translate it in full and publish it on this blog for everyone to read freely. I hope you enjoy it!

One more thing, I considered adding some translation notes to clarify a few points, but in the end I decided just to publish this as-is for now (though I may add notes if I ever put this in a book). But if you have any questions about anything, let me know. You can find the full original Japanese text here.


“My Life” by Hayashi Fumi

(Translated by J.D. Wisgo)

Pondering what drives me to write

The short-lived blooming of the plums and apricots

Basking in the deep green of the plum pits

The peacefulness of life in the country

I love this poem, and each day I recite Mr. Muro’s poems as if they were songs. “Pondering what drives me to write” is exactly how I feel when I sit at this desk nearly every day until late at night, unsure of exactly what drives me to write. I sit and write second-rate stories about my difficult days. After breakfast, I clean up with the young maid––putting the fried food here, the teacups there––as we chat about all sorts of things, like the neighborhood films, and by the time we’re finishing up and changing the water of the sencha tea, it’s already past eight o’clock. Three evening papers in hand, I head to the second-floor study to find the charcoal heater has grown cold. I add some charcoal and put down the iron kettle, then skim through the evening papers as I wait for it to boil. We subscribe to the Asahi, the Nichinichi, and the Yomiuri papers, and I start with the theater and film advertisements. I want to see films that speak to a woman’s heart. I want to go and see films about an eternal promise, and all the other ones, yet usually by the time I’m able to go they have moved out of the big venues. 

After the advertisements I move onto the local news section. As with the advertisements, I read the local news starting from a tiny column at the bottom of the page. Even when there are articles on the same topic in each of the papers, I can’t help but be intrigued by how differently they are written. I rarely read the political section. That’s why I know less about politics than an elementary schooler. I forget when it was, but once someone from the Nichinichi Paper took me to the place called the “National Diet”. There was a person at the entrance who checked my pockets, and when I went inside the air had a foul smell that I couldn’t stand. On the floor directly below us some people were napping and some were arguing, grappling at each other’s shoulders tightly. Apparently these were the Diet members. That was a shocking experience that I’ll never forget.

As soon as I get through all the newspapers, the iron kettle is starting to boil. This time of day is like heaven to me, and after breathing on my glasses I wipe them with a leather cloth. Then I make tea and fiddle with various items on my desk, as if saying, “Is everyone feeling well today?” I use a fountain pen to write. For ink, I use Maruzen Athena. I bought a large bottle that holds around half a liter, and enjoy pouring it into a dish little by little and using it from there. I think it’s around two years’ worth of ink. There’s a little mirror in front of my manuscript paper and sometimes I look at it and joke around, rolling my eyes or sticking out my tongue. But once I start working on a long project the mirror becomes a nuisance, so I toss it onto my bed. My desk is packed with all sorts of unfamiliar books and magazines, leaving barely enough space even for a flower. My worn-out Iwanami book of Tang Dynasty poems is sitting somewhere on the desk.

Even when 9 o’clock rolls around, I’m still absent-mindedly drinking tea. I pull out my old journals and start leafing through them. I’m overcome by how some parts are impressive, while others are simply trash. I let my imagination run wild, trying to recall people’s faces and personalities. There’s somebody I want to try making my husband––and before I write a novel I frequently get lost in those sorts of everyday dreams. At 10 o’clock, everyone in the house says their goodnights. Once they’re all in bed, being such a coward I go around the house to check the doors are locked, prepare my night snack in the kitchen, and then carry it up to the second floor. A little salted kelp and dried bonito shavings always puts me in a terribly good mood. The weather has been cold lately, so when I stay up late it always takes a toll on my body. Because of these “pondering what drives me to write” days where I just manage to get by, and because no matter how difficult writing is I still enjoy it, I end up sitting at this desk day after day. Because my chair is one with a long back, when it gets cold I often find myself sitting there and writing. What I hate most about writing is how miserable it feels to be overflowing with emotion, and yet I’m only looking up words in the dictionary, eternally stumped about what to write next. My dictionary is a student’s learning dictionary that I bought for only 75 sen when I was milling about Takamatsu City on Shikoku Island, so it’s utterly worn-out. No matter how many dictionaries I purchase, this is the easiest to use, and that’s why despite the small number of entries I always come back to it. I truly live like a country schoolgirl, but whenever I’m asked to write about my life I somehow get a strange feeling about this rather unimpressive lifestyle.  

Rain.

It rained yet again today. I finally got into writing “Her Journal” and finished it up. I sent 27 pages to Shincho. Then I bought 10 sen worth of cheap candy and ate it by myself. I also tried picking some turnips and melon gourds. They’ll surely be delicious in two or three days. Letter from my mother, and now my head hurts. ––12th

Rain.

I’m exhausted. I stayed up embarrassingly late reading. Oh…I have only 37 sen to my name. In the evening I bought 10 sen worth of purple lionsheart flowers and 5 sen of asters. I went on a walk with my dog in the rain. It was a nice walk. The rain on the railroad crossings, the rain at night, the rain that the suburban train speeds through, glistening blue––what delightfully pleasant scenery. ––13th

I found a journal I wrote during autumn three years ago; it seems childish, as if I was in love or something like that. Now there are no surprises in my life and I could never write something like that. A while back I had these feelings that flared up, perhaps stemming from the loneliness caused by my relatives moving away to distant places here and there, but now everyone is gathered at home here, making it difficult at times. Because I get many guests during the day, I generally work at night, but working in the wee hours has recently become a little difficult for me. The next day I look like a ghoul, hideous enough to make anyone turn away. I get to bed around 4 o’clock, and wake up by 7. Near my house is Tsujiyama Hospital. Lately, an old acquaintance there has been preparing sleep medicine for me. When I get tired I take the medicine and lay down on my bed, even if it’s daytime. However, my bed is a tiny one like you find in dorms and uncomfortable to sleep in, which is why I think it‘s partly to blame for me waking up so early. No matter how cold it is, I like to wake up around 6 or 7 and look through the newspapers. I read the literary column, the family column, and then glance at the photograph on the politics page. I stop there since I’m afraid to read the local news page in the morning. Because of a bad experience I had once, I try to only peak at that section little by little in the afternoon. 

Working late at night never produces good writing, but before I realize what happened it’s nearly morning and I find myself groaning in exhaustion. I see not only guests who come for me, but also guests of the other people living here. Preparing side dishes and washing underwear doesn’t make for a particularly comfortable lifestyle. Sometimes I think about hiring an older maid, but the maid we have now came when she was 13, three years ago. The maid doesn’t get in the way, so even if she isn’t perfect, I am really happy with her. There was talk about having a maid in one of ​​Manon Lescaut’s stories, but it’s embarrassing for an upstart like me to have a maid. Not to mention I’ve had one for three years.

I generally don’t get mad at people, but at home I frequently get upset and nearly break out in tears. I don’t have any way to vent these feelings, so I simply sit at my desk and daydream. Every day I smoke four or five Bat brand cigarettes. A long time ago somebody I was in love with hated cigarettes so I didn’t smoke at all, but now I don’t have anything to do with that person so I started smoking like it was nothing. The feeling of rebelling is just wonderful. A long time ago I used to frequently get discouraged and distressed, but lately I feel like I’m relaxing in the sun. It’s probably because I don’t have to talk about or explain my stories (which I hate). You see, if somebody says one of my stories is wonderful, then I’d simply give a thumbs up and say, “See, the reception is just great!”, and everyone would have no choice but to accept that and say, “Oh really.” But sometimes I get criticism from people who are just trying to find fault with my writing. I think it’s pretty harsh, but––and this is probably because I’m more sensitive to this kind of stimulation than the average person––I enter a state of utter shock, wrapping myself in my futon and staying in bed for two or three days like a rotten fish. It’s because my writing isn’t good. Since I know that better than anyone else, for a little while I feel like I have nowhere to go, but eventually I settle down at my desk and begin to diligently write something. If there is anything I would call my religion, it’s the act of diligently writing something. There is this sense of selflessness. This may not sound pretty, but I guess I’ll always be a schoolgirl.

Just four or five days ago a civil servant came from the tax office. When I heard the words “civil servant” I got nervous, and since it was right at lunch time I had trouble swallowing my food. It has been right around four years since I started paying taxes, but honestly I often think that it’s a bit extreme. There were three or four times when my income was a mere ten yen, not to mention that when I go traveling that income stops, so I think the tax I am paying is surprisingly high. This time there was yet another tax increase, and I was shocked to hear them ask me, “Do you make at least four thousand yen?” When things are going well I make 200 yen, when they are not I make 90 yen, and if I made over an average of 150 yen I’d be able to live comfortably each month, thank Buddha Amitabha.

Even when the civil servant from the tax office said, “Nobuko Yoshiya pays more tax than an incompetent businessperson,” I was still in shock and unable to speak. Even if I write a page or two it gets published under my name, and even if my name happens to come up in social circles, I don’t appreciate people getting the wrong idea and telling me all these things. That’s why I have no choice but to respond, “Go ahead, ask me what exorbitant manuscript payments I have been receiving.” Mrs. Yoshiya is not only my elder, but works in a totally different industry. Then I asked the civil servant if he likes to read literature, and he said he used to read it when he was a student, but now he studies law. There was something nice about this guy, but I didn’t appreciate that question about whether I made 4000 yen a year. Then I told him that people who write real literature look surprisingly showy but are in fact poor, and it’s the up-and-coming writers who are more likely to make 50 yen a month. He gave me a look of admiration, saying only, “You may be right.”

“So who makes the most money now doing real literature?”

Being asked yet another question, to this I had no choice but to brag by saying that even most of the big-name authors make around the same as me. Despite my rate having not risen in ten years, I continue to work hard without much concern for that. I would just love to have to pay as much tax as Mrs. Yoshiya, but I think the only way I’ll achieve that is to be reborn. Then I was told, “But your stories are printed in the newspaper, right?” But I don’t appreciate anyone having the impression that I can earn 10,000 yen from that. Getting printed in the newspaper 27 times––or 200 times––doesn’t change the fact it’s only a newspaper novel. It was really irksome to have my heart beating fast for the rest of the day. It even upset me to see the face of my niece, who was going to a girl’s school. But when I asked her, “Taxes are going up, does that scare you?” she said sympathetically, “Yeah.”

“Do you know what our tax money is used for?” I asked my fifteen-year-old niece. “They go on luxurious trips, right? Something like that,” she replied. I wonder if that’s true.

I love flowers, any kind of flower. Winter makes cut flowers easy to preserve, and sometimes they can last around three weeks. Even wilted flowers possess a certain elegance, which is why Ichinen Somiya often paints them, but the beauty of a wilted flower comes from its quiet exhaustion, like one feels at the end of a long journey. If only women could age with the same elegance. I’m 32 years old now, but my male peers still look fresh and youthful, like young men. Hori Tatsuo, Rintaro Takeda, and Tatsuo Nagai are all magnificent irises. But a woman’s adolescence is all too brief. On my narrow desk now sits a single tiny cup. In it, I have one daisy, one rape, one rodgersia, and one carnation; I’m always captivated by the beauty of flowers illuminated by lamplight. The next time I’m reborn, I want to return as a flower. Any flower will do, even a lizard’s tail.

I like flowers, and besides that I also like getting on a steam train two or three times a month. I just adore traveling. I have no problem traveling distances, and I enjoy walking. This month I went to Shiga Heights. I stayed in the Maruyama Ski Lodge where I was fortunately the only woman around, happy like a schoolgirl at the top of the snowy mountain. I’m not very good at skiing, but I do enjoy the feeling of violently kicking the snow as I slide. Becoming one with nature. I must be the only person to courageously tumble so many times on a 4-meter ski slope like that. And then when I get into a hot spring my body is covered with blue and purple bruises, making my tumble-skiing even more embarrassing. 

In February, I went to Kona on the Izu Peninsula. It was my first time in the Tanna Tunnel, so when I finally came out in Atami City I was overjoyed. I heard it’s supposed to take eight minutes, but it felt like an extremely long tunnel.

The Atami Sea had the same color as the ocean in Napoli. I started to doze off in the warm weather, the rocky beach looking like something from a Matisse painting. In Kona, I stayed in a place called the Shiraishikan. Here geisha were one yen per hour, and since I was lonely I had somebody named Teruha give me a massage for three hours.

In March I want to try visiting Kozuke Province. When I’m traveling I truly feel glad to be alive. My family says it’s probably because I want to eat bento boxes. When I ride a steam train I often buy them. There’s that wonderful wood scent, and both the rice and the side dishes are delicious.  When I’m on a steam train my boredom with daily life vanishes in an instant, and then when I return to Tokyo, it’s like I’m a country girl visiting Tokyo for the very first time.

The clock has struck one

Everyone must be deep asleep

I hear peaceful breathing, like a snowslide thousands of miles away

Even when it turns two, and then three

The page upon my desk is still blank

When the clock strikes four

The charcoal has at last exhausted

I open the door and head for the shed to get more 

It’s cold and I’m freezing

But the act of grabbing the charcoal

Is far more enjoyable than writing

A bush warbler in someone’s house cries out

I wrote this prose about feelings I frequently experience around daybreak. When I head around the back of the house, charcoal basket in hand, it’s freezing cold. Even so, when I put on gloves and run my hands through the charcoal bag, picking out one piece at a time, I feel a sense of comfort like I’ve returned to my favorite type of work (perhaps because I’m a woman?).

When dawn comes, even in the cold weather the bush warbler is always the first to call out. I don’t know which house it’s being raised in, but the moment a faint glow appears in the sky above the rooftops the bush warbler calls out, followed by the crystal clear sound of the milkman’s car. I get two bottles of milk, which I gulp down with my mother. When it gets cold I pity the people who deliver milk, newspapers, or the mail. The scenery is nice at daybreak, but whenever I stay up all night like this I get a sick feeling like a thin film is stuck to my entire body.

For breakfast I generally just have milk. I don’t have a proper meal until around 9 o’clock. The maid prepares the rice; I prepare the miso soup. I think I’m very fortunate. When work gets busy and Im away from the kitchen for two or three days, everyone starts to look a bit down. I’m good at cooking. Complimenting myself like this is too blatant, but I really enjoy cooking.

Not being able to work during the day is a major problem. Working during daylight would be really good for my nearsightedness except that everyone is awake, so I end up playing around and nothing gets done. Even if I’m extremely busy, a friend will come and distract me. Friends coming to visit makes me happier than anything else. Around ten people typically come each day to see me. When I get exhausted, I just lie down somewhere and sleep.

Many of my guests are men, and they provide much stimulation for me. But I don’t drink alcohol. I have a cavity and my stomach has gotten weak, so if I drink heavily I lose the entire next day. Even so, on days when work goes really well I’ll permit myself to carefully enjoy some alcohol. I must admit that alcohol after a good day’s work is delicious. I dislike alcohol that sticks to the glass. I’ll eat anything, but I don’t particularly like tuna sashimi. What I do like is salted sea cucumber entrails with hot rice, but the former is really expensive. If I get a heap of money I’d like to eat sea cucumber until I’m blue in the face. I also like dried mullet roe, but that too is expensive. I don’t like sea urchin eggs very much. I like salted fish, and whenever I see one I get the urge to start writing a story. There’s just a certain atmosphere to them. By the way, Paris didn’t have any fish that were properly dried. I haven’t liked films or theater since I was a child. My mother and the maid are the only ones who frequently go to see local films. Drawing pictures is my second job, and I’ve never broken a sweat washing a brush that has become hardened with paint. I’ve promised to do drawings for both Hideo Kobayashi and Tatsuo Nagai, and it brings me great pleasure just thinking about what I’ll draw. I’m not very good at drawing still life. I’ve been told that for an amateur there’s a certain energy to my art, but ironically whenever I draw I get envious of artists who know how to use beautiful colors.

I like Matisse and Modigliani; sometimes I take out their color prints and just stare at them. The other day I acquired two of Tetsugoro Yorozu’s pictures. Whenever I look at his pictures I get motivated to do work like his, but I’m so lazy that it’s hopeless. I know in great detail what I want to achieve, what I want to write, but it will take a force of nature to get a lazy bum like me to actually take action. This year I don’t want to write anything. Right now I have my world map spread out and am planning a trip to India. In autumn, I’m hoping to take a leisurely trip on a boat like I did in Europe. I’ve traveled all over, and each time it feels like it’s the first trip of my life. Some people ask me if I have all this money piled up, but all that is piled up is bills from the inns I’ve stayed at; I’m living completely day-to-day. With such a meager lifestyle––something like milking a female goat and then further running the milk through a sieve––when my health declines I worry about this and that, but I guess I’ll still be blessed with rice to eat and the sun shining down on me. The moon wanes and the wild goose flies high, but no matter how miserable things get, as long as my body is intact there must be a way to get through it all.

As I sit at this desk lately I feel defenseless and depressed, but that is only me groping around where it’s easy to search. My sole objective is still far away, but with a household to take care of each day has become a blur as I become disturbingly comfortable with a life of laundry and cooking, smiling faintly. My ideal work is like a pure mountain stream, with no special taste. But my artificiality stands out, my fabrications stand out, and this causes me great anguish. Perhaps to be a woman is to be weak. Being unable to break out of my habits stems from a lack of knowledge, but the real problem is my aforementioned cultured life of relaxing in the sun. I have no intention to try and compete with the male writers, but I do want to at least stretch my limits and take things to the next level. I’m surprised at the success of Mr. Saisei’s work lately. Things have also been going very well for Mr. Takeda. I’m truly impressed. All of these people have a long history, but I wonder how difficult it is for them and how they avoid getting burnt out. I only have seven or eight years of history. And that is nothing but work where I am trying to show off.

I promise myself that from now on I will only do work that has no special taste, like a mountain stream.

I don’t have any close friends who visit me that I also go to visit myself. I almost never go to see anyone. I only come across people on the street and rarely go visit someone at their house. In the end, the only person who comes snuggling up to me is myself. I’ve gradually become reluctant to even take walks. Whenever I have free time, I lay down in bed and daydream. Five or six times a month I go browsing in the Kanda and Hongo used book stores. It’s one of my more enjoyable walks. These days I’ve been pretty lazy in my studies and don’t spend much money on books. I can get by with just ten yen. A long time ago I used to live poor and starved, so if I get my hands on even a little money I tend to become an uncontrollable spender, wanting to buy everything I see like an upstart. Despite being a cheery upstart I’m terribly lonely, but I’m my real self only when I’m lonely, so it’s not that bad without friends. Being a woman, I think about making friends with other women, but there isn’t even a single person who I can really get deeply involved with––whether it’s because something is lacking in me, or because women think I’m a bad person. On the other hand, male friends are a bitter, yet effective medicine for the heart and provide great stimulation.

I enjoy both writing poems and drawing pictures, and a big problem with my work is how some of my poems and drawings are nothing more than imitations, but I think it’s good for an author to go through various phases of  development. This year I’m planning on taking a little break, and if I’m able to travel to some distant place I’d like to go walking alone aimlessly for a long time.


(English Translation Copyright © 2021 by J.D. Wisgo)

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider checking out the below book containing short stories by Hayashi Fumiko: (or you can use this link to jump to your nearest Amazon site). See here and here for the E-books.

(Note: image of desk used from Pexels.com)

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2 thoughts on “Japanese Literature Translation: “My Life”, an essay by women author Hayashi Fumiko (林芙美子)

  1. Tony Malone

    It’s a great essay – maybe you should think about adding it to a future edition of the book (or a follow-up collection!).

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the reading and thanks for the comment! I agree I should definitely include this in a future book (or a new edition). Will need to think about the best way to get it somewhere other that my blog.

      Reply

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