Readerz.Net / Taeko Kōno
Taeko Kōno (河野 多惠子, Kōno Taeko, February 24, 1926 – January 29, 2015) is one of the most important Japanese women writers of the second half of the twentieth century, someone whose influence on contemporary Japanese women writers is acknowledged to be immeasurable. Kōno is one of a generation of remarkable women writers who made an appearance in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s and who include Kurahashi Yumiko, Mori Mari, Setouchi Harumi, and Takahashi Takako (Japanese name order). She also established a reputation for herself as an acerbic essayist, a playwright and a literary critic. By the end of her life she was a leading presence in Japan's literary establishment, one of the first women writers to serve on the Akutagawa Literary Prize committee. Oe Kenzaburo, Japan's Nobel Laureate, described her as the most "lucidly intelligent" woman writers writing in Japan, and the US critic and academic Masao Miyoshi identified her as among the most "critically alert and historically intelligent." US critic and academic Davinder Bhowmik assesses her as “…one of the truly original voices of the twentieth century, beyond questions of gender or even nationality.” A writer who deals with some quite dark themes, Kōno is known to readers in English through the collection of short stories Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories (New Directions, 1996), which draws together her best writing from the 1960s.
Kōno Taeko was born February 24, 1926 in Osaka, Japan to Kōno Tameji and Yone; her father Tameji operated a business specialising in mountain produce. As a child she suffered from poor health. When she was 15, the Pacific War broke out and her teenage years were dominated by service as a student worker sewing military uniforms and work in a munitions factory.
After the war, she finished her economics degree at Women’s University (currently Osaka Prefecture University), graduating in 1947. Kono has written of the new sense of freedom and the high hopes she had after the war. Determined to make a career for herself as a writer, she moved to Tokyo, a city full of literary activities and literary personae, joined a literary group led by Niwa Fumio, and threw herself into writing, at the same time as working full-time. After nearly a decade of trying, during which she suffered several setbacks in her health, including two bouts of tuberculosis, in 1961 the literary magazine Shinchōsha began publishing her stories, and in 1962 she was awarded Shinchōsha's "Dōjin zasshi" ("Coterie Magazine") award for her story "Yōji-gari" ("Toddler Hunting" [幼児狩り]). In 1963 her short story "Kani" (Crabs) (蟹) won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize (her story "Yuki" [Snow] had been nominated in 1962). After this Kōno began to produce a stream of remarkable short fiction. In 1965 she married the painter Yasushi Ichikawa. In 1967 she was awarded the Women's Literary Prize for Saigo no toki (Final Moments), in 1968 the Yomiuri Prize for "A Sudden Voice" (不意の声), and in 1980 she won the Tanizaki Prize for "A Year-long Pastoral" (一年の牧歌). She received a literary prize from the Japanese Art Academy in 1984 and the Noma Literary Prize in 1991 for her novel Miiratori ryōkitan (Mummy-Hunting for the Bizarre, 1990). Kōno's short story "Hone no niku" (Bone Meat) was published in the 1977 anthology Contemporary Japanese Literature (ed. Howard Hibbett), which stimulated interest in her writing amongst readers in English. A trickle of translations into English followed in a variety of anthologies of Japanese women's writing in translation, culminating in the publication of Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories in 1996. Kōno continued to write all her life, and was still writing when she died in hospital in January 2015. In 2014 she was awarded a Bunka Kunshō, or Order of Culture, which is presented by the Emperor to distinguished artists, scholars, or citizens who make remarkable contributions to Japanese culture, arts and science.
Kōno's writing explores how "underneath the seemingly normal routines of daily life, one may find hidden propensities for abnormal or pathological behavior", demonstrating that often "reality and fantasy are not so clearly distinguishable from each other". Alternative sexual practices is a theme that permeates Kōno's's writing; sadomasochism, for example, figures in "Toddler-Hunting," and "Ants Swarm" (1964), as well as her novel Miiratori ryōkitan; and Kaiten tobira (Revolving Door, 1970) features spouse-swapping. Kōno uses these themes to explore sexuality itself and the expression of identity. She combines these elements with illness, childlessness, and the absence of a husband to delve even more deeply into these topics.
More specifically, her writings explore "the struggles of Japanese women to come to terms with their identity in a traditional patriarchal society". Most of her female characters "reject traditional notions" of femininity and gender roles, their frustration "leads them to violent, often antisocial or sadomasochistic ways of dealing with the world". For example, in "Yōjigari", or "Toddler Hunting", one of her most famous stories, she investigates one woman's dislike of children. The protagonist, Hayashi Akiko, is repulsed by little girls but obsessed by little boys—she even imagines a little boy being beaten by his father to the extent that his innards spill out. She also takes pleasure in the sadomasochistic sex she has with her adult partner. One critic has written that the story "turn[s] the myth of motherhood on its head" while another argued that Hayashi was a representation of demonic women who threatened patriarchy itself. In Fui no koe (1968), which one critic has called a "modern woman's Hamlet", Kōno presents the story of Ukiko, whose dead father haunts her. His ghost instructs her to murder the people who are controlling her life. At the end of the story, it is revealed that all of these incidents are only taking place within her mind and she is "trying in her twisted way to bring meaning to her everyday relationships".
Selected list of works