Teacher, calligrapher, restaurant owner. These were all common jobs during Japan’s Edo period. If you were a man. But what if you were a woman who had to support herself? What if you were one of the best and willing to stay the best, despite the prejudices against you?
The Budding Tree – Six Stories of Love in Edo, by Aiko Kitahara, contains stories of such women. Each story features a talented woman full of the desire to succeed in a male-dominated profession during a time in Japan’s history when even the most successful fought to stay afloat through economic hardships. Not only did these women have to work against the current to prove themselves professionally, but they also often dealt with the heartbreak of being seen as unfit for marriage, good only as mistresses and lovers.
The Budding Tree is an evocative collection of stories written in a style that reminds me of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, an ancient Japanese manuscript. (Considered by many scholars to be the first written novel in the world, it was written by a woman.) Even though The Budding Tree is set in a different time period several hundred years later, the feel was there that I remember from Genji. The voice is simple and elegant, painting one single picture from six distinct stories, as Genji has numerous story lines forming one overall picture. It is no wonder Kitahara won the Naoki Prize for this collection in 1993 when it was first published in the original Japanese.
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Published by Dalkey Archive Press.