Obituary: Ineko Sata

"A WOMAN of spirit and backbone!" "A writer of high ethical principles!" Ineko Sata was active in Japan's literary and intellectual life right to the fighting finish. These were some of the tributes heaped upon her during her lifetime, for she was one of the most remarkable characters of modern Japan, a true pioneer of women's liberation.

Something of her moral and physical toughness, her endurance in the face of adversities that would have killed a normal woman, sprang from the fact that she was the child of very young and free-thinking parents. Her father was 18, her mother only 15 when she was born, in 1904. But her mother died just after Sata started school, where she never gained any academic honours.

In 1915, despairing of existence in their native Nagasaki, the whole family, hoping for a better life, moved to Tokyo, where they sank ever deeper into poverty and the very bottom of the social scale. Like the rest of the family, Sata had a life of endless drudgery and sickness, but one of her first jobs, in a caramel factory, provided the subject of her first story.

A slightly better job was as a waitress in the renowned Seiryotei restaurant, a haunt of successful writers. Among the intelligentsia she served was the celebrated poet, essayist and short-story writer Akutagawa Ryunoauke, who became friends with Sata, and encouraged her to write. Unfortunately, he was to commit suicide in 1927 at the age of 35.

Sata moved to another literary meeting-place, the Koroku cafe-bar in Hongo, near Tokyo University, and in that job she met another writer who kept up a platonic friendship with her all his life. He was Nagano Shigeharu, who with his fellow-minded left-wing writers Tatsuo Hori and Taurujiro Kubokawa were to run the progressive literary magazine Roba ("Donkey"). Nagano inspired Sata to write her first published work, Kyaramaru koba kara ("From the Caramel Factory"), 1928. Then, after a failed first marriage, she married Kubokawa.

In 1929, Sata met the great novelist Yasunari Kawabata, who admired her fearless character and her brilliant new style of realist story-telling. He said of her: "I could say sincerely that in her we of the literary world have discovered someone who states the truth as she sees it - unflinchingly." This was a very unusual attitude for a woman to take in those male-dominated days. But emotion also plays a great part in Sata's work.

At the end of Kyaramaru koba kara comes a letter from the heroine's former schoolteacher. The letter tells her she should stop doing such menial jobs, and stay at school to finish her education. The letter makes the heroine nearly weep her heart out. But she is determined to stand on her own feet, and to work for a living, never to beg for money, an attitude Sata instilled in her own grandchildren.

In 1929, she had spoken out against the ill-treatment of cigarette factory girls. In 1931, she defended the striking workers in the Tokyo Muslin Factory fighting for more humane conditions of work. As a member of the Proletarian Literature Movement, she began a series of five novels on the lives of ordinary working men and women. These titles included Kyoseikikoku ("Compulsory Extradition"), about the rights of immigrant Korean workers, and Kambu joko no namida ("Tears of a Forewoman").

The logical outcome for all this subversive left-wing activity was for Sata to join the outlawed Japan Communist Party (JCP), in 1932. Through her underground participation she became associated with its leaders, Konji Miyamoto and Takiji Kopayashi. In 1933 the latter died under torture in police custody after falling into a trap laid by undercover agents of the government. Sata was also arrested and taken to Shibuya Police Station, and, now with two children to care for, had a hard struggle against poverty, political oppression and censorship, until she herself was imprisoned for two months in 1935.

These experiences became the materials for her next novel, Kurenai ("Scarlet"), in 1936. Her strong-willed political opinions, often highly unorthodox from a Marxist point of view, led her to become estranged from the Party. She had to suffer the humiliation of the tenko process, literally "change of direction", a term used figuratively to describe a member's formal rejection of affiliation with the JCP. Sata was one of the first Communists to reject Stalinism, a step that in those days required incredible courage and strength of mind. The debilitating tenko process instilled a powerful sense of guilt and obligation towards one's family members, and by extension to the emperor and the whole nation. This sense of guilt was to lead Sata to attempt suicide.

She struggled on with her writing, though the Proletarian Literature Movement, under government repression, was now on the decline. In 1938, she produced Juju shinryoku ("Fresh Green of Trees") and in 1940 Suashi no musume ("A Barefoot Girl"). In 1945, with the end of the Second World War, a difference of political convictions and a breakdown of their revolutionary ideals led her to seek divorce from Kubokawa. Her wartime experiences were the subject of Watashi no Tokyo Chizu ("My Tokyo Map"), written between 1946 and 1948. In 1946 she rejoined the JCP, although she continued her severe criticisms of the Party and the period of post-war chaos.

Other books included Kikai no naka no seishun ("Youth among the Machines", 1954). Her collected works, already amounting to 15 volumes, were issued in 1958-59. She went on writing with increasing power, creating new works like Onna no yado ("Women's Lodgings", 1963) and Omoki nagarani ("On a Heavy Tide", 1968-69).

In 1964, Sata had rejoined the Japan Communist Party after yet another expulsion. She was one of the founders and leading spirits of the new Women's Democratic Club, and because of her activities in it she was again expelled from the JCP.

Her first big literary success came with Juei ("The Shade of Trees", 1972), for which she was awarded the prestigious Noma Prize. This work dealt with the relationships between Chinese and Japanese in Nagasaki after the fall of the H-bomb. In 1973, she was offered the Geijutauin Onshiro (Imperial Art Academy Prize) for her life's work, but she defiantly rejected what she regarded as a nationalist congratulation prize. She accepted the Kawabata Prize for short stories in 1977.

In 1983, she received the important Asahi Prize for the totality of her work. But she stunned the fashionable assembly with her acceptance speech, in which she confessed with her usual forthright self-critical manner her regret for what she still regarded as her responsibility for forwarding the war effort.

Her old friend Shigeharu Nakano had died in 1979. Her book about him, Natsuno Shiori - Nakano Shigeharu o okuru ("Memories of Summer - a Farewell to Shigeharu Nakano") won the Mainishi Art Award in 1983, a final tribute both to him and to her.

Most of Sata's work was diligently translated into Russian in the Sixties and Seventies, but only two of the short stories from the prize-winning collection Toki ni tatsu ("Standing Still in Time") have been translated into English. A more recent work, the 1986 Chisai yama to tsubaki ("Camellia Blossoms on the Little Mountain"), one of her best, appeared in Japanese Literature Today, the excellent English magazine issued by the Japan PEN Club but difficult to obtain outside Japan.

The story is vividly autobiographical, centred on the unveiling of a monument to Sata's work in Suwa Park, Nagasaki, which by coincidence is found to stand next to the statue of Shozo Motoki, the inventor of movable print in Japan over 400 years ago, a very symbolic and appropriate conjugation for such a prolific writer as Sata. We are given pictures of her childhood in Nagasaki, and her relationship with her two grandsons, who have inherited her strong individualistic character, one that can never be forgotten in the history of contemporary Japanese literature.

Sata Ino (Ineko Sata), writer: born Nagasaki, Japan 1 June 1904; twice married; died Tokyo 12 October 1998.