Territory of Light was written by Yūko Tsushima (translated by Geraldine Harcourt in 1990). The book takes the structure of 12 vignettes written over 1978 and 1979, starting and returning in the season of spring. These were originally published in the Japanese literary monthly, Gunzo.
The narrative fits within Japanese feminist and class discourse. Tshushima’s work is often on these grounds yet she never described herself as feminist. She deliberately shines light on female experiences, and her protagonists are often attempting to gain control of their lives in tragedies of gender based violence and abuse.
Territory of Light is a ideal example of Tshushima’s wider work. Which frequently visits her own experiences and it is likely she is drawing on these in Territory. She, herself lived as a divorced parent in Tokyo alike the protganist. This novel reflects on such an experience and highlights the feelings of abandonment and isolation which the protagonist must realise.
In Japan, this is what is called an I-novel (or shishōsetsu or 私小説). It does to not dismiss the brilliant craft and effort used in the carving of this novel. It is not a derogratory comment regarding the narratives sophistication to point out its likelihood to have originated as a diary or semi-autobiographical piece. There is much more to Territory than that would suggest.
There is a hyperrealness within the essence of each of the vignettes. The metaphoric use of light and darkness lift this story from what would otherwise be a concrete realism into an enchanted surrealism. Tshushima relies on no other device than the real qualities of light in our world, alongside our preconceived narratives of what light and darkness can symbolise. Through this, she turns the mundane aspects of the protagonist life into a magical world.
It starts in Springtime, Tokyo. After the breakdown of her marriage a nameless protagonist is rediscovering her independence and individuality. She is moving into a new home on the top floor of an apartment store with her 2-year-old daughter. The novel starts with an optimistic tone, of as the duo prepare to make a fresh start in this peculiar space with its many windows and floods of natural sunlight.
Whilst the apartment begins filled with atmospheric light, this is soon to change. Each chapter in the book contains segments of prose dedicated to capturing the luminescent qualities of the space. Yet as the novel proceeds; the difficulties of raising a child emerge, her vengeful ex-husband sets out to derail her and the seasons begin to turn. Our once innocent protagonist falls into the shade and darkness of her own mind and so the cracks begin to appear.
We watch as the beloved protagonist does an array of irresponsible parenting. Her child is left alone as she goes out drinking in a local bar and she even lets her child run away from her in the park, in a vain and perverse attempt to discipline the young child. As a reader we are caught in the tension of how much we can forgive her, and forced to ask how much should the vile husband be held accountable for the behaviour of the mother.
We are shown more than just a struggling mother. We meet a woman who has endured a lot and we are in awe of her strength. We watch her playing with, and loving her daughter in the most compassionate of ways. We see how much she loves that child. For instance, she revels in her Daughter’s imagination. In one scene they play on the flooded roof of their apartment, the reflections of the clouds in the water reminds them both of the ocean and they dance together within that metaphor.
“That night, I took off my shoes and had a high old time in the rooftop ‘sea’ with my daughter. Though there was no way it could be dangerous, it was a little unnerving to venture into the expanse of water, and the uneasiness gave me a thrill. We splashed each other and played tag till we ended up soaked. The air was chilly on wet skin. However warm the days might be it was still only the beginning of May”
Then, we watch as she gets drunk, invites her impromptu one night stands into her apartment, and vomits in the aftermath. Yet on other nights in the same space we listen to her whisper caring words to help her child sleep softly.
“Nightmares, leave this child alone … Let her dream she’s dancing.”
She is a strong and caring woman who vacillates between a quintessentially perfect parent, to an utterly shameful one. Between these poles we reach a convincing vignette of a person with their character flaws in full light. The ability for Tshushima to tightrope this fine balance makes the protagonist forgivable and allows us to make connection between the nameless protagonist and people we know in our own lives, with similar stories.
As a man reading this novel, the intimacy to the protagonist thoughts is the most meaningful purpose of the prose. As we fall into a platonic and familiar love with this woman, we are revealed to thoughts which would not usually be amplified in the prevailing narratives of our patriarchal society. Yet they are honest and compelling. First Tshushima makes us fall in platonic love with the mother, then she makes us want to forgive the character for her neglect and abuse of her child, and she achieves this by showing the mother’s most intimate thoughts and feelings.
Yet despite all my forgiveness, her life is tragic, she is clumsy and an irresponsible parent who puts her daughter in real danger. It is a compelling and moving story which shines light on the many single mothers in Japan who face domestic injustice. For instance, joint custody is still not possible for Japanese women, and divorce is incredibly stigmatised. The intimacy of this novel is proved when it reveals the deepest stigma for the mother comes from within herself. She judges herself, quite literally pretending to be the divorce negotiators discussing her dreams and thoughts in a courtroom.
“The mother frequently has dreams of a libidinous nature: There was no refuting that.”
The magic of this novel is how the nameless protagonist can break a simple notion of either villain or hero. Tsushima shines a bright light on every detail of the woman’s life, revealing her character flaws alongside her compassion and courage. The reader cannot deny the mother’s love for her daughter even when it is expressed in the most unfamiliar of ways, nor can we deny the role of the abusive ex-partner in driving her towards this perculiar state of mind. By the end of the novel we are not left debating whether or not she was a good mother, but we are delivered by Tshushima beyond a cliche, simplistic or binary understanding of what is morally right and wrong.
“A room empty but for faint dancing light. If I could have had my choice of where to meet the years with my daughter that stretched ahead, I wanted it to be lying sprawled at ease right in the middle of such a room. I’d get rid of the curtains and the kitchen table. Anything I might keep about the place to make it more hospitable – even a cushion – risked casing my daughter and me pain”