Congratulations to my good friend Dawn Lawson, who has just won the Kyoko Selden Prize for her translation of Nakajima Shōen’s 1889 novel, A Famous Flower in Mountain Seclusion (『山間の名花』).

Nakajima (1861-1901), also known as Kishida Toshiko, was one of Japan’s first feminist activists. She was thrown in jail for delivering fiery political speeches in the early 1880s, when she traveled Japan as one of the few women exponents of the movement for “Freedom and People’s Rights.”  Famous Flower in Mountain Seclusion was written after Nakajima retired from her work in the movement, and it portrays her yearning for a more active life. I have taught it several times and the students always find it fascinating, especially compared to so much other Meiji-period fiction in which women’s containment in the domestic sphere is never questioned.  The protagonist Yoshiko and her husband Kan’ichi have what seems to be an ideal companionate marriage, but Yoshiko wants more:

For her part, Yoshiko had come to believe that Kan’ichi was the only person who really knew her. Thus when they sat, it was together at the same desk, and when they traveled, it was in the same carriage. They studied history together, debating the successes and failures of ancient and modern times, and they shared their innermost feelings, lamenting the present day…They rejoiced in their one bookshelf, two kotos, and the southerly breezes that blew as if they constituted the height of elegance, and people envied them keenly, believing that a life like theirs must be what is meant by heaven. They tried to maintain this harmonious existence, but of course it was not enough if only one of them was happy.”

In one scene, Yoshiko sticks around to listen to Kan’ichi and his male friends talk about politics, making all of the men uncomfortable. “Her presence there was awkward, but Yoshiko wanted to know what they had come to discuss, and so she sat there, listening and making no move to leave.”  

You can read the whole novel, with original illustrations and Dawn’s informative introduction, here.

Nakajima died of tuberculosis in May of 1901 at the age of 40. I learned from Dawn that she was reading Masaoka Shiki’s diary A Drop of Ink in the last months of her life. Shiki, who was dying of tuberculosis as well, was serializing the diary in the newspaper Nihon at the time, and I was fascinated to see Nakajima commenting in her own diary in real time just a day or two after installments of A Drop of Ink would appear. Shiki documented the progress of his own illness in great detail in his newspaper diaries, and  thousands of tubercular patients across Japan felt a connection with him. But Nakajima seems to have felt an especially close bond, describing him as being “like a sibling in illness.” They also had more in common than tuberculosis. Shiki gave his own fiery speeches for the Movement for Freedom and People’s Rights as a young man in the early 1880s, and also turned to a literary career as the radical democratic potential of the early Meiji period was suppressed by an increasingly authoritarian government. One major turning point in this process was the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution in 1889, which made the Emperor “sacred and inviolable” and put the army and navy under his direct command. This was the same year when A Famous Flower in Mountain Seclusion appeared, and when Shiki first coughed up blood.


On January 27, 1901, Nakajima wrote in her diary:
“I hear that Shiki, who is in the same shape as I am, is getting sicker in this cold weather and that his condition is quite dire. I feel an overwhelming sympathy towards him. Like myself, his inability to abandon his great ambition only adds another sickness to what he already suffers.”
(Kishida, Toshiko. Shōen nikki. Edited by Motoko Ōki and Yūko Nishikawa. Vol. 3. Shōen senshū. Fuji shuppan, 1986. p. 230)