How the “Truth”-Seeking Scholar Became the Story

Meeting celebrated author Uno Chiyo on June 21, 1984 (which incidentally or ironically was my fourth wedding anniversary) was a thrill.

The thrills didn’t stop with that meeting, though.

Four months later, I was in Shibuya standing in the Kinokuniya book store thumbing through the latest issues of literary journals. I always scanned the table of contents to see whether there was a new work by Uno Chiyo or a new critique about her. I checked Shinchō and then Bungei Shunjū. Nothing.

Next, I picked up Fujin kōron (Women’s Review). The journal was running a special issue featuring essays by or about the noted women writers of the time:  Hiraiwa Yumie, Miyao Tomiko, Ōhara Tomie, Hagiwara Yōko, Setouchi Harumi, Enchi Fumiko, and Tsumura Setsuko.

BINGO!

I saw Uno Chiyo’s name.

Uno was represented by the essay “About my Novel Ohan” (Shōsetsu Ohan ni tsuite). It was only a few pages, so I turned to it and started reading.

Ohan is considered Uno’s masterpiece, an acclaim she willingly acknowledges. In her essay she described how she worked on the novel for nearly ten years, starting it when she was fifty and ending it just before turning sixty. Since it weighs in at barely 100 pages, she wonders why it took her so long to write and suggests it was a once-in-a-lifetime work.

I got to the end of the essay, flipped the page and noticed a new subtitle:

Rebekka-san no hakase ronbun (Rebecca’s Doctoral Dissertation).

WHAT?

A bolt of electricity zapped up my spine when I saw my name, and I must have shouted aloud because the person standing next to me, also reading journals, shot me a disapproving glance.

“Looook!” I wanted to squeal.  “It’s about meeeeeee.”

Instead, I snapped the journal closed, picked up two more copies, and rushed to the cashier with my purchases.

I read the essay on the train and then again as soon as I got home.

Here is what Uno Chiyo wrote, referring to me in the passage below by my husband’s last name (which I then used):

Fujin Koron article

Fujin Koron article. Author’s photograph

Rebecca’s Doctoral Dissertation (Rebekka-san no hakase ronbun)

I can’t remember exactly when it was.  Anyway, sometime ago I met Saeki Shōichi-san and he told me about a graduate student at Columbia University, a woman, who was doing research on me. She was in Japan now and had asked to meet me.

I immediately declined.

I told Saeki-san that I wanted to avoid a meeting like that at all costs. I mean, I can’t speak a word of English, so how on earth were we supposed to communicate? Besides, I found the idea of someone “doing research on me” disconcerting.

Not long after that, I received a letter from this woman student. Her name was Rebecca McCornac. The letter was thick, over ten pages. One surprise led to another. First, I was taken aback to find the name on the front of the envelope was written very neatly in highly legible characters. So was the address on the back of the envelope.

“Haikei”—the letter began with an extremely polite salutation.

Greetings and Salutations, Uno Sensei:

I trust that you are faring well as the days grow warmer. According to what you have written, Sensei, you do not use an air conditioner in the summer months, not even an electric fan. You must tolerate the heat quite well.

I was amazed by how well she knew me, and my amazement only increased as I continued reading.

Recently I traveled to Kyoto and Nara to see the sights. From there I took a train further south to Iwakuni. At the station, I hired a taxi. ‘Please take me to the writer Uno Chiyo’s house,’ I instructed the driver. He was young and friendly.  We chatted along the way and he told me of an American serviceman stationed at the base there who had killed a Japanese bargirl. Sensei, the story he told reminded me of your novel Cheri ga shinda (Cheri is Dead).

Having read this far, I found myself encountering still more surprises, and I realized that the letter writer, this Rebecca McCornac, was no mere foreigner fond of literature.

Once she reached my Iwakuni house, she says, as her letter continued:

I wonder if your father’s ‘Clock Room’ is still intact.  I wonder, too, if his beloved stable still exists.

That was it, I had to meet this woman. I know that just minutes ago I had been determined to avoid her. I have to admit even I was surprised by my own vanity!

Once I sent for her, Rebecca-san came to my apartment immediately. She had a childlike face and seemed very gentle, more East Asian than Western. Her manner of speaking Japanese was even more graceful than that of a Japanese woman. She had written down all the questions she wanted to ask me on a piece of paper, which she spread out on the table in front of her. When I saw this, I knew she must be very bright.

“Sensei, of all your works, which is your favorite?” she asked.

Ohan,”I answered.

“Mine is Kaze no oto (The Sound of the Wind),” Rebecca countered. I wonder if Ohan is just too simple, too subtle for foreigners.

Two hours went by, and then Rebecca took her leave. I couldn’t believe the time had passed so quickly, being with her had been so pleasant.

Almost as soon as she had left, I received another letter from her.

Sensei, I admire you as a writer but more than that, I respect you deeply as a person. From here on out, I will work as hard as I can to produce a dissertation that does justice to your sparkling talents. Being able to meet you, Sensei, has made a profound impression on me. 

I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Now I no longer think of this letter as being written by a woman student doing research on me. I just pray that Rebecca-san is successful in her dissertation.

Fujin Kōron (Autumn Special Edition, 1984): 22-23.

 

Becky with Uno's Signed book

Rebecca with Uno’s Signed book