Centrifugal Women

Yūko Tsushima’s novel of a mother on the margins

A woman lies in bed in a large maternity ward. She’s just risen from a dream, and it overflows from sleep to tint her waking perceptions. A poplar tree glittering with sun is framed “like a mirage” in a large window; the ward is filled with “the peaceful sound of women’s voices” whose bodies appear “as bluish shadows” before a “flood of light.” When the woman reaches down to touch her belly, it feels like “wetting her hands in a shallow puddle.” Takiko, twenty-one and unmarried, has just given birth to a baby boy. Yet the fact seems alien to her: “Whether what she’d given birth to was alive or dead… need not concern her right now.” She’s merely relieved “her own body seemed to have come through safely.”

So begins Woman Running in the Mountains, a 1980 novel by the late Japanese writer Yūko Tsushima, reissued this year by NYRB. The scene is characteristically Tsushima’s: the sensuous descriptions, the lush presence and simultaneous remoteness of one’s body, and, above all, the bewilderment of motherhood. In a thoughtful introduction, the novelist Lauren Groff pinpoints these as qualities of “entangled pain and rapture.” Tsushima, who died in 2016, was one of the major Japanese writers of the late twentieth century, recognized for her prolific oeuvre of more than forty novels and stories centering the experience of women––typically single mothers––navigating urban life at the peak of Japan’s economic miracle, which stretched from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War. Like much of her work, Woman Running in the Mountains follows its protagonist, Takiko Odaka, through her first year of motherhood in 1970s Tokyo, a course alternating between drudgery and mysterious, burgeoning delight.

Takiko, a friendless, apparently unexceptional girl (an acquaintance describes her as “a bit short on personality”), still lives with her family in a middle-class suburb when she gets pregnant. Her mother, motivated by fear of the shame conferred on single mothers and illegitimate children, badgers Takiko, first to get an abortion, and then to give the child up for adoption; her father, a drunk, is physically abusive and emotionally detached. They don’t have much money; Takiko worked in an office until she could no longer hide her belly. Her mother ekes out a living as a seamstress and her father is on disability after injuring his leg. A semi-sympathetic younger brother seems more concerned with staying out late than supporting his family. Takiko has no plans to involve the baby’s father, either, who she slept with almost perfunctorily, and who has since moved away with his wife and children.

The book traces Takiko from the maternity ward to daytime nurseries and the various jobs she struggles through as she attempts to support her son, Akira. At one point, she makes a comical stab at selling cosmetics door-to-door. “There must be something else you can do with your face, surely?” a fellow saleswoman wonders. Eventually, Takiko ends up working for a city garden, a job that becomes a sort of refuge and catalyst for transfiguration. All the while, Woman Running in the Mountains catalogs the day-to-day realities of caring for a newborn as a mother largely unequipped to succeed. Sometimes Takiko feels an ineffable connection to Akira. Elsewhere, she gets drunk at an old haunt, sleeps intermittently with one of the bartenders, and lets the baby wail himself to sleep. In a brief middle section, the prose is replaced by meticulous journal entries from Akira’s nursery, which underscore the tedium of caring for an infant. 

All of this might seem like a recipe for bleak, unrelenting realism. But one of the great pleasures of Tsushima’s work is that it is infused with an almost ethereal tenderness. Her prose is elegant and spare and strange, a facet gracefully captured by the late Geraldine Harcourt, Tsushima’s longtime English translator. And though the cards are often stacked against Tsushima's characters, they are never really victims, never without hope. Certainly, her stories have their share of suffering––the scenes in which Takiko fights with her father are some of the more blatantly upsetting in Tsushima’s work––but her protagonists tend to move through the world in something like a state of dreamlike discovery, chasing rich inner lives, seeking fulfillment even as they’re bounded by convention and practical constraint.

In Takiko’s case, her inner life centers on an inchoate vision of nature: a mountain, a frozen sea, a suffusion of light. She first imagines the landscape in the maternity ward, when a sunlit tree takes on the shape of a “white plain uninterrupted in any direction” in her mind’s eye. The scene, a mixture of childhood memory and imagination, turns into a field of ice, crosshatched by the carved trails of people on dogsleds (curiously, Takiko initially thinks of Native Americans), a fantasy which will recur throughout the novel. Later, a complimentary reverie materializes, of mountains “blue with distance…” looking over the frozen prairie. Sometimes, Takiko imagines herself running through the mountain’s greenery “like a child.” The image verges on freedom, but it’s also isolating. She’s alone “in her solitude among the mountains,” and as she runs, she weeps aloud. “She can’t go down there,” Takiko muses on the human landscape below. “It is a distant, other world.”

Tsushima is ostensibly an urban writer, concerned with life in cities, but nature is central to her work. Spaces of greenery and windows flooded with light operate as loci of transfiguration, sites of freedom or healing, but also danger, as if they have a mystic capacity. In Territory of Light, a sublime predecessor to Woman Running in the Mountains which first appeared in English in 2019, a mother momentarily loses her three-year old daughter in a park. In Tsushima’s famous short story, “The Silent Traders,” the narrator envisions a furtive exchange occurring between her fatherless children and the abandoned animals in a neighborhood garden.

In an essay for the Chicago Tribune in 1989, Tsushima wrote of her admiration for Tennessee Williams, whose heroines “hate to be self-contained in everyday life.” She felt akin to what she deemed “their expansionism––going outside to find happiness.” This conception is everywhere in Tsushima’s work, both the literal urge to go beyond the city, to be surrounded by light and leaves, but also the idea of going beyond oneself, of yearning, of exceeding. Even Tsushima’s name bears such a stamp. Born Satoko Tsushima, she felt her mother had chosen a kanji––the Chinese character used to spell her name––that was too symmetrical: , translated in some cases as “inside.” The kanji “had no room for expansion,” she writes. Instead, she chose the pen name Yūko, using , “a simple character, but one which suggests movement toward the outside.” It also means, non-coincidentally, happiness or blessing.

This idea, “movement toward the outside,” is a keystone, inherent to the happiness Tsushima’s characters pursue. For Takiko, the movement finds its provenance at Misawa Gardens, where she works in the latter third of the book. The job, which entails delivering decorative plants to offices and stores around the city, is fulfilling, though physically demanding (it’s originally intended for a man). Eventually, a work trip takes Takiko to “the mountain,” the name her coworkers give to the area outside the city where they source their plants.

Takiko has become increasingly drawn to a coworker named Kambayashi, who she feels able to commiserate with after learning that he is the father of a mentally handicapped son (Tsushima’s own older brother had Down syndrome and died in his teens). His fatherly devotion, she feels, has given her “words for having and raising Akira”––a grammar to justify her choice to raise a child that society will condemn to the margins. This affection toward Kambayashi only deepens during their one-night stay at the mountain, when she discovers a connection between his life and her fantasy: his grandfather used to live in the far north, the icy landscape of her daydreams. In fact, Kambayashi has Ainu and Gilyak ancestry, two little-known peoples indigenous to Japan and the Russian Far East, the latter of whom were recognized, among other things, for their mastery of dog sledding. He thus appears to be a living embodiment of Takiko’s yearning, the culmination of her movement outside.

This is one of the stickier moments in Woman Running in the Mountains, and one interpretation risks dating the novel: Takiko’s fantasy can seem to constitute a discomfiting idealization of indigenous life, particularly for American readers, and her identification with Kambayashi’s son leverages disability into a catalyst for personal transformation. Yet, when one places the book in its time, a radical element also becomes clear: here is a novel about a woman and child on the margins (Akira’s family register, bearing the mark of his illegitimacy, will impact his future education and job prospects) searching for an alternative kind of self-sufficiency and community on those very margins. Takiko glimpses the possibilities of such a life in her work at Misawa Gardens, anomalous to the patriarchal and industrial labor systems booming in her country at the time, and kinship with, even desire for, Kambayashi, another parent stigmatized by society. It’s not a physical but political movement to the outside. Taken in these terms, the gesture has a kind of sweeping empathy to it, an expansion of who is, or should be, legitimated by society.

Tsushima, in fact, was a vocal advocate for the indigenous peoples and cultures of Japan. When invited to teach literature at the University of Paris from 1991 to 1992, she chose as her text, not canonical Japanese writers, but yukar, sagas from the rich tradition of Ainu oral literature. Yukar had long been classified as foreign in Japan, part of the centuries-long effort to eradicate and assimilate Ainu culture into the mainstream Japanese that began with the Meiji era annexation of their territory in the nineteenth century. In a 1994 essay on the subject, “The Possibility of Imagination in These Islands,” Tsushima offers a scathing assessment of the Japanese treatment of the Emishi, a larger denomination of hunter-gatherer tribes native to Japan: “The history of Japan is the history of the subjugation of the [E]mishi.” Yet, the preservation and promulgation of the culture Japan so long tried to erase, Tsushima believed, was in fact central to Japan’s longevity. “We must revive our memory of that kind of imagination,” she writes, referring above all to the intimate communion with the natural world captured in yukar epics. She saw the effort to embody and preserve such an imagination as her responsibility as a writer.

Tsushima’s work is often characterized as feminist, a label that feels both accurate and somehow incomplete. Critics have noted the way Woman Running in the Mountains, for instance, subverts the often misogynistic folk tale of the yamanba, or mountain-witch: an old crone who attacks passing travelers. But the novel isn’t strictly a clarion call; its vision is broader, and stranger. After Akira is born, for instance, Takiko finds herself surrounded by women in the hospital. The maternity ward is a liminal space, siloed from the patriarchal world, and Takiko experiences a kind of languid freedom there. But later, as if pained by unreality, she feels that the maternity ward has become “a place she’d rather not remember.” Another stunning passage captures the paradox at the heart of her urge for self-independence, as she imagines the woman in her mountain fantasy encased in “the cold, crystalline hardness of… quartz.” Akira’s kanji is also quartz: Takiko’s vision of liberation on the mountain is also a vision of entrapment. It’s a complicated view of motherhood, a tragic submission, even as Tsushima seems to sense a rapturous possibility in the act. Such moments, replete throughout Woman Running in the Mountains, resemble less a political screed than a perceptual field, a crucible for the internal and external tensions that society foments in a woman’s life.

Throughout the novel, Takiko exhibits an almost porous relationship with the world. At times, in her ear, Akira’s cries meld with the cry of cicadas. When she surveys a grove of trees, she has “the haunting sense that these things were her body.” The agon of the novel is embodied in language like this. Is self-independence requisite, Tsushima asks, or insufficient? Must you also give in: to others, to your family, your child, your world? If you make a movement toward the outside, will that movement conserve or consume you?


Any mention of Tsushima’s life is almost impossible without making at least passing reference to her father, Osamu Dazai, another major figure of twentieth century Japanese literature, who, when Tsushima was one, committed double suicide with his mistress. The mark of this act is impressed everywhere on her work: the ever-absent and adulterous fathers, the abandoned mothers, the failed parents. Paired with the devastating fact that Tsushima, who was a single mother herself, lost her own son just a few years after Woman Running in the Mountains was published, readers are apt to see Tsushima’s work as a reflection of her life. Indeed, typically writing in the first person, Tsushima did much to advance the “I-novel,” a semi-autobiographical Japanese form that predates the current American discussion of autofiction by about a century. 

But even amid its accuracy, such attention also seems, like the feminist label, to incidentally bracket and reduce Tsushima’s stories. Woman Running in the Mountains, for its part, is written in the third person; it feels lived in, certainly, but less interior than novels like Territory of Light, its vision somehow grander. The book itself is longer, a more meticulous account of a year in its protagonist’s life, and while this causes the story to drag a bit in the middle, so, surely, does motherhood.