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Hiromi Itō is one of Japan’s most prominent women writers—a fiercely independent poet and novelist who has consistently explored issues of motherhood, childbirth, the female body, sexuality, international migration, and mythology in dramatic and powerfully vivid language. In addition, she is also known for her radical experiments with registers of speech rarely found within contemporary Japanese poetry and prose. In 2007, Itō published perhaps her most ambitious book—the strikingly original novel Toge-nuki Jizō: Shin Sugamo Jizō engi (“The Thorn-Pulling Jizō: New Tales of the Jizō at Sugamo”). Weaving together autobiography with elements drawn from folklore and classical Japanese literature, this surreal and wildly imaginative book represents Itō’s attempt to create a new mode of mythological storytelling that explores some of the most important concerns facing contemporary Japan. In this regard, Itō’s work builds upon the foundations laid by Haruki Murakami and Yōko Tawada, two other Japanese writers who have employed a surreal, seemingly “mythological” style to explore problems of modern society. Itō’s novel centers on a popular statue of the Buddhist bodhisattva Jizō, which is located near her former home in Sugamo, Tokyo, and which is revered—especially among the elderly—for its ability to alleviate suffering. This novel was written at a moment of demographic crisis as the numbers of senior citizens in Japan was swelling to enormous proportions, and it explores the meaning of life, old age, care-giving, religion, and personal legacy within the nation with the world’s longest life expectancy. The novel can be enjoyed on many levels—for the engaging plot, which frequently veers into the surreal and imbues scenes of everyday life with mythological grandeur; for its clever use of literary devices, including fascinating deployments of archetypes and literary references; as well as for its innovative language, which weaves together both profane and elevated registers of speech. It was because Toge-nuki was so dramatically creative that it received both the 2007 Hagiwara Sakutarō Prize and the 2008 Izumi Shikibu Prize, two of Japan’s highest literary prizes for recent, innovative works of literature.
Jeffrey Angles is an associate professor of Japanese literature and translation studies at Western Michigan University. He is co-editor of Japan: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, and he has translations forthcoming of Tada Chimako’s and Ito Hiromi’s poetry.
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