Part One: Don’t Take No for an Answer!

“You shouldn’t work on a living writer,” some advised me as I struggled to find the subject for my dissertation.

A living writer, they argued, was still producing works, their oeuvre yet in progress. I guess they reasoned that whatever great discoveries I might make would be constantly threatened by falling out of date. What if the writer suddenly changed styles or wrote something incredibly uncharacteristic later in life?

It was 1983, and I was set on Uno Chiyo (1897-1996). A stylish writer, a unique voice, a modern adventurer—her life and work captivated me. I had come to know of Uno in a graduate class on the shi-shōsetsu in Japanese literature—a class focused on writers who wrote about themselves. Most of the texts we read featured protagonists who were riddled with angst, deeply ashamed of past behavior, and wallowing in self-pity. In contrast, Uno’s stories celebrated the missteps she had made. As her narrator looked back on past events, she seemed to say: “Oops. My bad.” And then she was off on her next adventure.

I wasn’t used to that kind of élan. I wanted to read more.

I wrote on Uno Chiyo for my MA thesis, I was counting on her to carry me through the PhD, too.

The best part about working on a living writer was the possibility of interviewing them. Something impossible with dead writers, unless you believe in the power of the séance! I couldn’t wait to meet Uno Chiyo, and I began to think of all the questions I would ask.

Luckily, I received a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to travel to Japan for dissertation research in 1983. First on my dream agenda was interviewing Uno Chiyo. It never occurred to me that she might not be as thrilled to meet her number one fan-girl.

I caught a break when the esteemed literary critic, Saeki Shōichi, agreed to be my mentor. As soon as my husband and I settled in Tokyo, I asked Saeki Sensei to help me arrange a meeting with Uno Chiyo. He was happy to oblige. The author of several important monographs on biography, autobiography, and life writing, Saeki Sensei was the expert on life writing. He’d even made Uno the subject of a few of his studies, and he had met her on several occasions.

We were both startled, therefore, when Uno declined his request. She would not agree to meet with me.

Undeterred, I asked my Columbia University professor, Donald Keene, to intercede on my behalf. He had translated her award-winning novel Ohan (1957), one of her few works not based on her own life (though she claimed it was based on a story she heard from the owner of a secondhand shop in the city of Tokushima where she was in 1942 interviewing the puppet maker Tenguya Kyūkichi.)

A few weeks later, Professor Keene was sad to report that he, too, had failed to convince Uno Chiyo to meet with me.

I was beginning to lose hope when Professor Keene told me he was meeting the publisher of the Mainichi Newspaper, where Uno was then serializing her autobiography Ikite yuku Watashi (I Go On Living). He promised to intercede with him on my behalf.

“Finally!” I thought to myself, I will be able to interview my idol. By now Uno Chiyo was so much more to me than a subject of study. Having read many of her self-referential works, I had come to adore her spirit and spunkiness, not to mention her chic style. She sashayed through life doing what it was she wanted to do without a care for what others might think. That took courage!

“No.” Donald Keene told me. “Uno told the publisher she had no interest in meeting a scholar of Japanese literature.”

“What?” I couldn’t believe this. Was I so awful? All I wanted was to ask her a few questions.

Maybe Uno Chiyo wasn’t the hero I had made her out to be.

It was just at that time that my husband’s parents visited us from the United States. They had never been to Japan and we made an effort to take them everywhere! All the famous tourist spots. Nikko, Hakone, Nara, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. While in Hiroshima, I recall standing in the train station studying the train map. I was trying to find the line that would get us to the scenic island of Miyajima. That’s when I saw that one of the trains went to “Iwakuni,” a place name very familiar to me by now.

Uno Chiyo was born in Iwakuni. I’d never been.

I mentioned this coincidence to my husband and he told me I should make a day trip there.

Just by myself.

In all honesty, after over a week traveling with his parents, I needed my “alone time.” And they were ready to be freed from their demanding tour guide. So, off I went.

It did not take long at all to get to Iwakuni from Hiroshima. Only about 45 minutes on the JR Sanyō Line. Once there I decided to take a taxi to Uno’s birthplace.

The taxi driver and I soon began a friendly conversation. He was surprised a foreigner would request such a destination. Uno’s house was not on the regular tour route. In fact, most foreigners in Iwakuni were there for the US Marine base.

When I explained my interests, he was only too happy to take me to her birthplace. All along the way, he shared his impressions of her and recommended a few other places I might find interesting.

Uno had restored her family house in the 1970s. No one lived there now. I longed to see inside, but it wasn’t opened to tourists. I walked up and down the street, enjoying the plain wooden façade of the house and trying unsuccessfully to peer over the tall wooden fence surrounding the garden.

I recalled the way Uno had described the house during her childhood as one that was dark and threatening. She never knew when her father would fly into a rage over some petty mistake. As the oldest child, she was expected to attend him. She describes in her many memoirs waiting on the cold wooden floor outside the main sitting room, a room she named “the Clock Room” after the prominent timepiece on the wall.

“Chiyo!” he would call out, and I would answer immediately, “Yes,” just like a retainer before his lord. I always answered, “Yes!” Even when asked to do something I didn’t want to do, I jumped up, “Yes!” This was my way of overcoming the unpleasantness! (From my interview with the author in her Tokyo residence, June 21, 1984).

It was a gorgeous day and curiosity about Uno drew me to explore further. I walked to the elegantly arched Kintaikyō Bridge, spanning the Nishiki River. From there I wandered along the streets of Blacksmith Alley, where Uno wrote of her father’s dalliances in teahouses, spending money the family did not have.

When I returned to Tokyo, I was so excited by all that I had seen, I decided to write Uno Chiyo a letter describing my travel to her hometown. I noted that when I saw her birthplace, I imagined what it must have been like for her as a young girl waiting on her tyrannical father in the inner room, the room she called “the clock room,” serving him sake.

When I mentioned the Kintaikyō Bridge, I wrote that I could picture her character Ohan crossing it on her way to meet her erstwhile husband. And so on and so on until I had filled ten pages with stories describing—not just Uno’s hometown—but my love of her literature.

This time, I did not ask to meet her.

I had my letter reviewed by my Japanese language teacher. She corrected my grammar and diction. I wrote out a clean copy. More accurately, I wrote out five or six copies—each time making a silly mistake and needing to start over.

Letter to Uno Chiyo

Draft letter to Uno Chiyo

When I was satisfied with what I had written—and how I had written it—I mailed the letter to Uno.

Within days, I received a postcard from her secretary, Fujie Atsuko, telling me that Uno Chiyo would see me.

Fujie-san followed up a day later by phone and made arrangements for me to meet the famed writer at her Minami Aoyama apartment.

What would I wear? What omiyage should I bring? What questions could I ask her?

Check back here for the next installment, and I will describe my meeting with Uno Chiyo!