Friday, 4 September 2015

Book Review: Confessions of Love by Uno Chiyo I joined the Japanese Literature Challenge 9 in June, I thought that it's time to review another book for it. I set my mind on a Japanese classic written by a woman and found that it isn’t easy to lay hands on one in translation. I tried to get a novel by Ariyoshi Sawako, but the Japanese publisher liquidated its English-language branch and the remaining stock seems to be sold out. Electronic versions of her books exist although I suspect that most of the files available are illegal copies if not part of schemes to spread malware. So I turned my attention towards another important female Japanese writer and I dug up Confessions of Love by Uno Chiyo. This bestselling novel from 1935 revolves around the amorous adventures of a painter passionately in love with a young girl whose upper-class family tries to keep them apart.

Uno Chiyo (宇野 千代) was born in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan, in November 1897. When her first literary works turned out to be a success in the early 1920s, she left her husband and moved to Tōkyō where she took up a modern – western-style Bohemian – life, which included several love affairs, and focused on writing. In 1935 she brought out the bestselling novel Confessions of Love (色ざんげ) which established her as a writer. The following year she founded the fashion magazine スタイル (Sutairu, the Japanised form of Style) and embarked on designing kimonos, but she never stopped writing fiction. Among the few works of the prolific author that have been translated into English are the novellas Ohan (おはん: 1957) and The Story of a Single Woman (或る一人の女の話: 1971) along with a couple of short stories published in various journals and collections like The Sound of the Wind (1992). Uno Chiyo died in Tōkyō, Japan, in June 1996.

The events that the renowned Japanese painter Yuasa Jōji recounts in his Confessions of Love take place in Tōkyō in the late 1920s. After several years in Europe he plunges into Tōkyō’s Bohemian nightlife mixing with his artist friends and enjoying the company of Japanese women whose extraordinary beauty thrills him more than ever. Soon he becomes the target of the brazen advances of eighteen-year-old Takao and they spend a night together at a hotel. She passes out before anything serious happens, but she never returns home. Some days later Takao’s best friend Tsuyuko addresses Jōji to help her find Takao and he voluntarily joins the beautiful girl in her search. After having found Takao safe and sound in a hotel at the sea, Jōji realises that he is about to fall in love with Tsuyuko. Back in Tōkyō they regularly meet in secret because they don’t want people to gossip and make up a scandal. Moreover, they know well that her upper-class family would never approve of her union with a poor though admired painter even if the divorce from his wife Mitsuyo were finally settled. When her parents tell her that they plan to marry her off to a young navy man of good family, they elope and seek refuge for the night at the humble home of a waitress, but the experience is so sobering that Tsuyuko gladly returns home in the morning. Thereafter, her family removes the girl from Tōkyō to her grandparents’ country estate. After several weeks Tsuyuko gets a chance to let Jōji know where she is and he sets out at once to join her. Alas, circumstances are against them. He falls ill with pneumonia and after another failed elopement she is sent to America. Their improper love, however, survives even Jōji’s new marriage with Tomoko and eventually drives them to commit an act of desperation.

Although the author is a woman, the Confessions of Love are written from the perspective of the male first-person narrator and protagonist Yuasa Jōji instead of Tsuyuko’s as might have been the more obvious choice. He turned out to be a convincing and somehow likeable fictional character whose thoughts and actions feel perfectly authentic and adapted to the setting of the novel. Of course, this may partly be owing to the fact that Uno Chiyo modelled him after the real painter Tōgō Seiji who was her lover for several years. In fact, she also borrowed the outlines of the plot from his life. The female characters, on the other hand, seem to serve the author mainly to criticise the female role model with which the daughters of Japanese well-to-do families had to comply at the time and that often left those well-educated and rather modern young women only one last way out: suicide. While Takao and Tomoko are spoilt girls used to having their will, Tsuyuko – and Yuasa Jōji with her – is trapped in the bounds of tradition and not strong enough nor ready to openly break free to take her life and her happiness into her own hands. Her fate following the events of the novel remains in the dark, but there can hardly be a doubt about what it will be, namely an arranged marriage with someone other than the narrator. The author’s tone is quiet and nostalgic, her language straightforward, often casual imitating the style that a man might choose to talk about his escapades. I experienced it as a quick and easy read that absorbed me in no time.

All in all, I can say that I’m glad to have come across Confessions of Love by Uno Chiyo and to have been able to get a copy of it although it seems to be a bit of a hidden or forgotten gem of Japanese literature available in translation. I enjoyed the read very much. It’s true that overall the novel felt rather western-style and it reminded me of Fräulein Else by Arthur Schnitzler (»»» read my review) at times although Uno Chiyo didn’t use stream-of-consciousness. Nonetheless, it allowed me to poke my nose into Japanese culture before World War II and the Americanisation of society that ensued. In brief: it’s a novel that really deserves my recommendation and more attention.

* * * * * review is a contribution to the
Back to the Classics Challenge 2015
namely to the category Classic in Translation.

»»» see my sign-up post with the complete reading list.


it is another review of a book written by a woman for Valentina's
2015 Women Challenge # 3 on Peek-a-booK!.

»»» please read my sign-up post to know more.


»»» please read my sign-up post which includes a list of books considered for review.


  1. Not one I was aware of so thanks for highlighting it for me.

    1. Yes, Uno Chiyo's work hasn't been an obvious choice. It's a hidden gem, but I love to dig out novels that not everybody knows already.

      Thanks for your comment!


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.