RESTLESS WAVE: My Life in Two Worlds

Buy this book at Amazon.comAyako Ishigaki
The Feminist Press ($16.95)

by Sun Yung Shin

In the rediscovered memoir Restless Wave, Ayako Ishigaki, writing as Haru Matsui, patiently narrates a mesmerizing bildungsroman, a quest to live a life of conscience where idealism and meaningful action unite. Ishigaki (the author)/Matsui (the narrator) comes of age at a time of great change for Japan: "I was born in Tokyo, in the last stage of the Meiji period. Japan was no longer the dreamland of Hiroshige's beautiful prints. Smoky cities had sprung up all over the country . . . Feudal Japan had jumped with a single bound into a new age." As Ishigaki takes us patiently through her life's journey from sheltered Japanese girl to struggling American political activist, her prose is elegant, perceptive, and courageous—she has the eye of a painter and the aim of an archer.

The quest-narrative is divided into four parts; the first takes us in deft strokes through her childhood, which includes the sudden death of her beloved mother, and which ends in 1916 when she begins to understand the narrowly proscribed fate awaiting her. As Matsui's grandmother advises:

"It is well…for a maiden to spend the years of her girlhood preparing for her station as wife. To know her destiny gives her an opportunity to become familiar with the habits of her future family and learn to conform to them. It . . . centers her thoughts where they should be—on making ready for her husband's position."

Ishigaki skillfully interjects her future knowledge back into these richly detailed scenes of the past:

We did not know that last year China had become incensed at Japan's twenty-one demands; or that a law passed in 1912 had just gone into effect, limiting the workday of children to twelve hours; or that a cry for minseiminken, and jiyu—popular government, justice, and liberty—was just beginning among the populace.

Matsui's father believed that "only the educated few were qualified to interpret a changing world and to know which were the harmful customs."

In the second section, Matsui's quest begins to take flight as Ishigaki details her continuing rebellions against Japan's repressive feminine scripts and the friction it creates for her family. Again and again her romantic feelings of heroism are shattered by the grim reality lived by others, and her own arrogance, ignorance, and uselessness. On a class field trip to inspect a factory and visit "the slums" she realizes:

We were not prepared for them. There was no discussion of them beforehand. We were not to have any opinions. We were not to analyze. We were not to draw any conclusions. We were merely to observe.

At the factory, Ishigaki relates the working girls' conditions and includes future knowledge to illuminate her ignorance at the time:

They were about the same age as we. Some were panting and limping. We did not know then that 20 per cent of these girls had beriberi; that their feet were so swollen that the least unevenness in the floor caused them to fall. We looked at them as though we were watching a play—and thought we were bringing a certain amount of gaiety and pleasure by our presence.

Ishigaki skillfully begins the next chapter with a very different scene, her elder sister sewing fine red silk:

The sound of silken thread dawn through her fingers flowed softly into the autumn evening. . . . To me, Elder Sister with the Nihon haircomb, absorbedly moving her hands, was like a woman in a picture book of a long, long time ago. . . . We were living in different mental worlds.

Matsui lives in a world of tenuously held contrasts, and the seam between the two begins to come apart. She begins to make friends with leftists and activists and re-visits the slums ("nests of paupers, former criminals, beggars, prostitutes, drug and alcohol addicts—the wrecks and dregs of society") in order to break through the veil of her class position and understand the nature of the world as it is, not as it is presented to her through the propaganda of others.

Ishigaki has a cinematic technique and uses small moments to illuminate her class-conscious moral and political awakening. In Part Three, she realizes that the job she has struggled to find in order to maintain her independence from her traditional father is not even close to being able to support her. She quickly grasps that if it is impossible for someone like her, with education and refinement, it is that much more crushing a life for the ordinary woman: "Looking at the torn and tattered edge of her sleeve, I felt that for the first time I was learning about the world. The pupils of my mind were opened, and suffering and sorrow and struggle vibrated into my heart." After attending Farmer-Labor Party pre-election meetings, she is harassed and eventually arrested by intelligence officers, and spends a lonely and frightening night in jail that alters her sense of reality and freedom.

Part Four opens abruptly as she arrives in America. The reason for the significant narrative blackout—how and why she decided to leave Japan—is told more fully in the Afterword, where scholars Yi-Chun Tricia Lin and Greg Robinson explain how the memoir, originally published in 1940, veiled much of Ishigaki's political activity and personal tumult in order to protect her family at the time. As in many other immigrant narratives, Ishigaki lyrically relates her melancholy alienation upon arrival in the U.S.:

When my Uncle and Aunt and I were inside a train crossing the American continent to Washington, I felt myself shrinking smaller and smaller. I felt like a lost child thrown out into this wide country. . . . Even at nightfall, after the train had rushed and rushed all day, the country without even man's house or man's shadow did not come to an end; the limitless plain crouching in darkness seemed to gulp me down.

The rest of Part Four tells of her years in Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles, where she involves herself with peace activism, in particular speaking out against both U.S. and Japanese militarism/nationalism during the Sino-Japanese war. In her Epilogue, the bildungsroman comes to completion as she has finally made a transnational place for herself in society:

Today there is a self inside me which is no longer drifting, no longer wandering, though in the past it often stumbled and many times was loft. This self has been born from the suffering and pain which I have seen on the earth, and which has rocked my heart on the traveled pathway of my life.

Restless Wave is really two narratives: the available surface and the darker, shadow memoir that could not be written at the time. The shadow story enriches much of the printed memoir, giving the reader some background on the nature of Ishigaki's condition and her risk of detention or deportation. The surface narrative leaves out other important aspects of Ishigaki's life, such as her struggle to support herself and her husband, an artist; in the Afterword, Lin and Robinson tell us that "Ayako took a number of jobs to support them, working variously as a lampshade factory worker, waitress, sales clerk, and cashier. She later stated that the intergroup and interracial camaraderie she experienced among the workers in these jobs inspired her vision of social justice." Restless Wave also elides Ishigaki's more radical associations—her husband founded the John Reed Club, the American Communist Party's artistic wing; she joined him in the "Nihonjin Rodosha Kurabu (Japanese workers' club), a Japanese Communist organization"; and she was an active organizer for many other anti-war/pro-democracy groups. Still, as the editors affirm, this book "clearly charts the path of humanitarianism." Ishigaki's story is a brilliant and valuable first-hand account demonstrating that one can move from protected ignorance to a life of conscience.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004/2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005