The Budding Tree

Title: The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo
Japanese Title: 恋忘れ草 (Koiwasuregusa)
Author: Kitahara Aiko (北原亞以子)
Translator: Ian MacDonald
Publication Year: 1993 (Japan); 2008 (America)
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 170

This past fall, I took a seminar on ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock prints depicting the “floating world” of the Edo period (1600-1868) urban pleasure districts. As we studied the courtesan prints of artists like Kitagawa Utamaro, we kept running up against the same issue: prostitution. Namely, what were the lives of the women painted by Utamaro really like? Were these women as glamorous as they seem in ukiyo-e, or were they sex slaves who lived miserable lives and died at an early age of starvation and disease? Or did they perhaps fall somewhere in between the two extremes, victims of their fates but still holding on to a measure of personal agency and control over their lives? As our class debated this issue, I couldn’t help but think about The Budding Tree.

Kitahara’s short story collection The Budding Tree is not about courtesans, but it is about Edo-period women who have close connections to the floating world. Each of the six stories in this collection has a different female protagonist: a Confucian tutor, a calligrapher who pens text that will be printed as gesaku popular novels, a singer of jōruri popular stage ballads, a hairpin designer who manages her own store, a rising print artist who works with Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s publisher, and the manager of an exclusive restaurant. Although the women don’t know each other directly, their stories are connected in small ways, and a unity of theme ties these stories together into a cohesive whole. Each of these women is struggling to make it in a man’s world, and each therefore leads a somewhat complicated love life.

I’m not an expert on the Edo period, so I’m not sure how realistic Kitahara’s depiction of her setting (Edo at the turn of the nineteenth century) actually is. From what I know of the lives of Hokusai’s daughters (especially Katsushika Ōi), however, her depiction of urban working women at the time isn’t too far off. As historical fiction, the stories in The Budding Tree are interesting and satisfying, especially since the swashbuckling samurai that one usually encounters in Japanese historical fiction are kept offstage. It is my (perhaps futile) hope that Ian MacDonald’s excellent translation will find a wide audience, so that other Japanese female-centric historical fiction, such as the Edo-period female detective stories of Miyabe Miyuki, will find their way into American bookstores.

I therefore recommend The Budding Tree to anyone with an interest in the Edo period, historical fiction, women’s literature, or just plain good romantic stories. The one caveat I might offer concerns the translation’s complete absence of footnotes. There are more than a few non-translated and non-glossed terms (such as jōruri, i.e., the songs of the puppet theater) that appear with frequency throughout the text, as well the names of actual historical figures and geographical landmarks with which a casual reader might not be familiar. Hopefully, however, the stories themselves will whet the reader’s appetite to learn more about the world of early nineteenth century Edo.

5 thoughts on “The Budding Tree

  1. Wow. Thanks for the suggestion. That is going on my BookMooch list right now.

    I completely understand the questioning and concern about what the life of the courtesan actually was like at this time. Yes, they were prostitutes. They sold their bodies for money. But just how glamorous were they, and how much power did they wield within their own little world?

    I can completely appreciate how one would be interested in those kinds of questions. However, for whatever reason, the questions that always intrigued me were those of the atmosphere, the place itself. Did the Yoshiwara feel seedy, or did it feel glamorous? The ukiyo-e prints seem to project an air of a very clean place – but just how clean was the Yoshiwara? Were the streets covered in (or made of) mud? Were the girls infested with all kinds of diseases?

    Also, I’d be curious if you might be able to suggest some sources for reading more about Katsushika Ôi. There are so few women artists in the Edo period who are in any way big names… it’d be interesting to learn more about her.

    1. I’m glad I was able to interest you in this book. I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t expect it to stay with me for as long as it did. But then I honestly kept thinking about it over and over again during my ukiyo-e seminar – I’d really like to know what you think about it.

      Although there is an interesting essay about Hokusai’s students, including his daughters, in the exhibition catalog Designed for Pleasure (edited by Julia Meech and Jane Oliver), most of my information is coming from the article “The Floating World in Light and Shadow: Ukiyo-e Paintings by Hokusai’s Daughter Ōi” written by Kobayashi Tadashi and translated by Julie Nelson Davis. I know the Kobayashi article is also part of some catalog or another, but I don’t have the full bibliographic information. It’s an excellent article, though, and the illustrations are gorgeous. I hope you’re able to find it.

      I’ve read different historical interpretations of the Yoshiwara, ranging from Cecilia Segawa Siegle’s Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan to Sone Hiromi’s essay “Prostitution and Public Authority in Early Modern Japan” translated in Women and Class in Japanese History, but I think the best portrayal of the atmosphere of the district can probably be found in the short stories of Higuchi Ichiyō, many of which are translated in the collection In the Shade of Spring Leaves (by Robert Lyons Danly). The story “Child’s Play” would probably be a good place to start, but I guess you have to keep in mind that Ichiyō is writing about the final days of the Yoshiwara, not about its heyday.

      I apologize for the reading list – I think I got a little carried away. I think it’s an interesting topic, though, and I’m happy that someone else agrees!

      1. Cecilia Segawa Siegle’s book has been on my “to read” list for a long time. I skimmed through it for a book review back when I was in London, but I think I should like to have it, to thumb through more thoroughly and carefully… Some day I’ll get around to it.

        Thanks for the suggestions on the essays. I have the impression – though it may simply be a product of precisely which circles I’m getting my information from – that Kobayashi Tadashi is a *huge* name in ukiyo-e. His name comes up time and again. I’ve found and reserved the book – “Hokusai and his Age”, ed. by Gian Carlo Calza & John Carpenter – from my uni library and look forward to reading that one.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation – I’m interested in that sort of thing, but I’ve never heard of this one before.

    If you’re interested in a somewhat complicated anime depiction of pleasure quarters around that time, Peacemaker Kurogane has an interesting view on Shimabara, Kyoto’s Yoshiwara, around the time of the Ikedaya incident.

    1. I apologize for the late reply.

      Oddly enough, I have never been interested in Shinsengumi anime, be they semi-realistic (like Rurō ni Kenshin) or outright fantasy (like Kidō Shinsengumi moe yo ken). This may be partially a fault of the strange and whiny (Tetsu, SHUT UP) yet somehow oddly ass-kicking protagonists that seem to dominate the sub-genre, or it may simply be that I (romantically) always want Saigō Takamori and his army to win in the end.

      Anyway, I also think the way that courtesans are portrayed in Kaze Hikaru (another Shinsengumi story that suffers because of its whiny protagonist) is interesting.

      Speaking of the pleasure quarters in Kyoto, I also liked Liza Dalby’s discussion of their history in her book Geisha. I know that a lot of serious anthropologists love to hate this book (and I can understand why), but I certainly enjoyed reading the bits about the history of Kyoto as a city while I was living there. I also enjoyed reading about the Shimabara as a political center and literati haven in John Dougill’s Kyoto: A Cultural History.

      Man, I love Kyoto. I want to live there again! Even in Kyoto, I miss Kyoto. The cuckoo’s cry, and all that….

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