Woman Running in the Mountains opens with Takiko Odaka waking to labor pains like “a voice calling Takiko’s name in her sleep.” Her parents have urged her to abort the child of a fleeting affair. She has chosen to raise the child on her own, never even informing the baby’s father.
Recently reissued in English translation, Woman Running in the Mountains is a collaboration between two remarkable women. Author Yūko Tsushima is one of the most important Japanese writers of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1970s, Tsushima published stories that challenged the limited roles contemporary women were asked to play in society and the family. Her writing is both modern and deeply imbued with pre-modern Japanese literature and culture.
In much of Tsushima’s work, she takes up the ambivalence of the experience of single motherhood. Loneliness, pain, and material hardship are balanced in equal measure by joy, love, and light. She knew the challenges of single motherhood first hand, as both a single mother and as a child of a widow. (Her father, writer Osamu Dazai, committed suicide when she was less than a year old.) Lauren Groff’s introduction quotes Tsushima’s description of her heroines: they may appear stoic, but they are strong enough to search for their own happiness in their own ways. In hardship, her heroines nevertheless find a special beauty. Tsushima writes their experiences with a painter’s eye to color and shade.
The highly-regarded translator Geraldine Harcourt worked closely with Tsushima. She is responsible for the four Tsushima novels available in English translation, including Territory of Light, which was reissued in 2019. 20th-century Japanese women writers are noticeably underrepresented in English translation, which makes Harcourt’s work with Tsushima an even more important contribution for English-language readers.
For a reader who is also a mother, Takiko’s experiences are notably familiar.
In Woman Running in the Mountains, Takiko searches for her own happiness by raising a baby alone. She imagines giving birth to “a baby like blazing fire”, an empowering echo of the Japanese goddess Izanami. But happiness is difficult, and the independence Takiko craves turns out to be elusive. No matter how hard she struggles, Takiko is never able to earn the money to move out of the apartment she shares with her mother, brother, and abusive father.
For a reader who is also a mother, Takiko’s experiences are notably familiar, even from the perspective of an Anglo-American four decades after the novel’s original publication. Tsushima describes the painful minutiae of labor, delivery, and recovery—engorged breasts, sore nipples, a sense of disconnection from the baby that no longer lives inside her own body. Takiko participates in these almost universal experiences of people who give birth. A quiet fellowship of mothers stretches across time:
[Takiko] knew nothing at all about the hospital in which she was staying. Yet as she inspected the aging white plaster studded with Western-style decorations, she could almost see the women who must have lain under this same ceiling decades ago. Hundreds, no, thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of women had lain here staring up at the ceiling. And one of them was her. Takiko felt a sense of sufficiency she’d never known before, a contentment that took her by surprise.
In addition to these experiences, Takiko shares with other 20th- and 21st-century women the particularly modern challenges of raising a child. The doctors in charge of her care are impersonal. She suffers under intense pressure to breastfeed. She struggles to find childcare.
Now a mother herself, Takiko also begins to understand her own mother. She is finally able to answer a question that has haunted her: Takiko’s mother stayed with her alcoholic husband because she was afraid she couldn’t raise two children on her own. Takiko still watches her mother work herself beyond endurance to protect her children and grandchild, but now with concern and respect.
Yet Takiko wants more for herself and her child: the beauty and independence that have always eluded her mother. She turns the mountains of the mother’s childhood home into a metaphor for the kind of life she wishes to live. Her mother, after all, was forced to leave those mountains—what if she had been allowed to remain? In the mountains, Takiko wishes to find for herself “a scene of perfect tranquility… gradually stirred by wild emotion.” In moments of despair, she can’t even make out those mountains’ shadows in her imagination.
Men are often a negative presence in Tsushima’s work. Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light, published a year before Woman Running, is also about a single mother who leaves a foolish, unfaithful husband who never quite accepts what has happened to their marriage. In Woman Running, Takiko’s father is a drunk for whom life has been a great disappointment. But unlike Territory of Light, Woman Running also portrays positive experiences of fathers and fatherhood. For example, Takiko finds herself drawn to the men who bring their children to her son’s preschool. They make up “an image of the opposite sex that [she] hadn’t known, or had a chance to know, till now.” These men undermine stereotypes about misogyny in 1980s Japan, even those held by the novel’s characters. In fact, those engaged fathers defy cultural expectations just as single mothers like Takiko do.
It is in a mostly-platonic relationship with a joyful father that Takiko begins to become comfortable in the space between the life she has and the life she wants. She is both a mother and a daughter. Both an independent self and a self forever tied to her child. Both self-sufficient and unable to move out of her parents’ home. She is a woman with a double-edged longing for her mountain, a lonely site that is also the only place she is whole unto herself.