An extraordinary portrait of one family across the years of Japan’s greatest changes; a loving, honest, moving biography of the author’s mother.
Ruri Pilgrim tells the story of her family from the 1870s to the 1950s. She begins with the formality and security of the arrangements of life for a Japanese middle-class family, living in a walled compound with their servants, following exactly the tradition inherited from their parents, with marriages arranged for the children, which continued up till World War II.
By then her mother was married to an engineer and living in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. That period, with her mother’s often funny, painful experiences of learning about the Chinese and Russians with whom she now lived with her growing family, and the war seen from her point of view, is fascinating. At the end of the war, the Japanese – women, children, everyone – had to escape, walking hundreds of miles to the coast.
The family returned to a Tokyo where the society, the culture, the economy was entirely overturned. The Americans were everywhere, the Japanese were unemployed, and the ways of society that they had all known had vanished. And yet somehow Ruri’s indomitable mother survived.
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In this story of three generations of a Japanese family from the 1870s to the aftermath of World War II, Ruri Pilgrim provides us with an insight into the customs of a little-known society, especially as they affect women. Pilgrim's account focuses on Haruko, a woman given in marriage to a man she meets for the first time at the wedding ceremony. Although Pilgrim's narrative takes place against a period of history that saw enormous changes in Japan, it is the small details that resonate here. Days later, Haruko fails to recognise her husband at the railway station as they head towards Manchuria, fleeing from the dangers of war. These details accumulate into a restrained but moving account of life on the run from the Chinese and Russian armies. When Toshie, a relative of Haruko, is forced to undertake a 100-mile trek with two infants in tow, Pilgrim relates her despair at their deaths with touching simplicity. Toshie holds her daughter's body and recalls "the touch of a little finger tracing trickles of sweat on her face ... She was so alive only yesterday". When Pilgrim recounts a saying that describes the fish of Seto Inland Sea as especially strong and resilient, she also pays tribute to its women. -- Lilian PizzichiniReview:
‘An immaculately articulated evaluation of deep-seated instincts and habits, under pressure from within as well as without… . Uncommonly accomplished.’ The Independent
‘Its warmth and humour depict a private Japan that is both attractive and immediately recognisable… . The accumulation of such intimate glimpses makes this book so worthwhile and such a pleasure to read.’ Literary Review
‘The social codes and nuances are very like those of another island nation – Britain. In its emotional honesty lies the book's great appeal.’ Daily Telegraph
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