The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

The Waiting Years (女坂) is about a group of women peripheral to the Shirakawa, an upper-class family in Meiji Era Japan.

Four Women Displaying Their Hairstyles and Obi
(via Wikimedia Commons)
  • Tomo, the lady of the house, untouched but vitally important
  • Etsuko, the young daughter
  • Suga, the passive concubine adopted in girlhood
  • Yomi, the rival second concubine
  • And Miya, the daughter-in-law who also becomes the master’s mistress

There is no clear protagonist in The Waiting Years.

Tomo, Shirakawa’s wife, is the central character, but she is sometimes protagonist and sometimes antagonist, depending on whose perspective Enchi is narrating. (Jordan Yamaji Smith refers to her as “the main center of narrative consciousness.”) It is Tomo’s struggle with the constraints her husband and their culture impose on her that we’re most aware of. The cultural limitations are no small burden. Enchi notes, Tomo “ha[s] no shield to defend herself other than the existing moral code.”

The Japanese title of the novel translates as “Woman’s Slope”—as in an uphill battle that Tomo and the other women in the novel face. There is even a scene in the novel’s final chapter where Tomo, fatally ill, forces herself to walk home up a steep incline. The metaphor is no less apt for being so direct.

The English title, too, resolves nicely by the end of the novel. As Tomo battles up that hill, she reflects, “At the end of it all a brighter world surely [lies] waiting, like the light when one finally emerges from a tunnel. If it were not there waiting, then nothing [makes] sense.”

On her deathbed, Tomo’s final request is this: “When I die I want no funeral… all [Shirakawa] need do is to take my body out to sea at Shinagawa and dump it in the water.”

Her request is shocking. As in many traditions, a person who has not been buried with the correct ceremony is damned. So why ask such a thing?

As Nina Cornyetz explains, “Tomo has revealed her intention to forfeit salvation so that after she has died she may return as a ghost to seek vengeance on her husband.” Tomo has no power in life, so she will risk hell to assert herself in death.

Shirakawa’s response shows that he understands the enormity of what Tomo has said this first and only time she openly opposes him: “The shock was enough to split his arrogant ego in two.”

Cornyetz, Nina. Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers. Stanford, 1999.

Smith, Jordan A. Yamaji. “Oedipus, Ajase, Enchi Fumiko: A Comparative Psychoanalytic Approach to Feminist Anti-Canonism in Onnazaka [The Waiting Years]” in Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies, 2010.

More by Fumiko Enchi Masks; A Tale of False Fortunes; The Waiting Years