A Work in Progress
July is upon us, and the February book club selection review of Women Running Into The Mountains is being written. The monthly book club selection is highly anticipated and usually devours hours of the day. Women Running Into The Mountains was a chore, and chapters had to be assigned to read to get through the material. It is not the writing that was difficult but the subject matter – illegitimate children. The book is about a heavy, depressing, anxiety-provoking topic and situation that statistically results in poverty at an alarming rate – it’s about having children out of wedlock.
The author, Yuko Tsushima herself, a product of a single parent (although not illegitimate), raised her illegitimate daughter alone. Most of what she writes about in this book is autobiographical. Tsushima experienced the pain of having only one parent after her father, a well-known Japanese author, committed suicide when she was one year old. She then went on and raised an illegitimate child by herself. Only 0.08% of all children in Japan are raised out of wedlock, as cited in the book at the time of writing in 1980. According to a Yale study, the national average for the United States of America is 40%, comprised predominantly of Hispanics 53% and blacks 71%.
Official Family Registry of Japan
One of the theories regarding the low illegitimacy rate in Japan is the existence of the official family registry. The registry shows the lineage of the family. In the novel, the main character Takiko Odaka “had her records transferred to a new family register with herself as head of household. She did not tell her parents. Her name appeared where her father’s had always been, followed by Akira’s name (Takiko’s illegitimate son) as a family member. The space for Akira’s father was blank. Her name was entered again as a mother, and the name of the maternity hospital. It also noted that the mother, Takiko Odaka, had registered the birth. Her records section stated that Takiko’s father had registered her birth. Where Takiko appeared as “first daughter,” Akira was not “first son” but male.”
The family register establishes and distinguishes illegitimate from legitimate children. Copies are required for school enrollment, job applications, and many other transactions and parts of daily Japanese life.
Marginalization of Women
Tsushima offers a depressing, bleak view of contemporary Japanese family life. The story showcases how women are marginalized, the stigma of unwanted pregnancies and illegitimate children, abuse, and despair, and it is dark.
The book is two years in the life of Takiko Odaka. We follow her from 20 to her 22nd birthday. The oldest of a dysfunctional, abusive family, she is beaten and hospitalized by her drunken father. Her mother tried to leave several times but could not make it alone with two children. The mother is a seamstress in poor health that the entire family depends on for their basic needs.
Takiko graduates high school, declines college, and settles into an office job. Ignoring the maxim “Do not dip your pen in company ink,” she has an affair with a married coworker who is transferred and never heard from again, resulting in a pregnancy. We suffer through her trying to convince her mother to let her keep the baby, the resulting birth that is difficult, expensive, and for which she is unprepared. We also witness her struggle to find employment and pay for daycare, burdening her already stressed family. She hides in a small, dilapidated house storeroom so that her father does not notice her child or her.
When she finally obtains steady work, she must pay for a hernia operation for the child who needed it a year ago. She seduces a married coworker, but this time, her efforts fail, and this is where the book leaves us. Takiko has learned nothing, and her prospects are next to nothing. She was repeatedly traumatized and unable to get out from under her circumstances. She creates drama and havoc wherever she goes.
This book is an excellent cautionary narrative for anyone contemplating raising a family alone without resources. It is difficult and wrought with pitfalls and misery, and it is hard to grasp if there is joy. Tsushima writes honestly without glossing over details. Her story represents a combination of naive youth, poor decision-making, a lack of education and family support, trauma, and a broken moral compass leading into an uncommon situation that becomes Woman Running In The Mountains.
Women Running Into the Mountains
by Yuko Tsushima
Introduction by Lauren Groff
New York Review Books Classics
February 2022 Book Club Selection
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