A communist radical in her early days, Sadako Sawamura later achieved fame and fortune in Japanese theater, television and cinema. When she died in 1996 at the age of 87, she had already become a national legend.
This award-winning autobiography brings her earlier, more formative years in Tokyo's Asakusa district to life. Though Asakusa's poverty is gone, the graciousness, which accompanied it, will continue to live for many years yet as a result of her outstanding penmanship. Sawamura, in throwing rays of light on the Tokyo of her youth, also illuminates many key cultural aspects of modern Japan, which is, after all, largely a product of those bygone days.
Sawamura, whose family was well connected with the area's leading kabuki actors, brings us directly into the epicenter of this country's rich culture. The young Sadako had to submit to the realities of genteel poverty. She had to learn to cook, sew and generally fit into the flow of things in the neighborhood. She was being conditioned to be dependent on a man - even as many of her older sisters were warning her of the many perils such dependence on Asakusa's fickle men brings. Importantly though, she kept her spirit's dreams alive and, in this book, we see how she nurtured them along while retaining the countless benefits of her rather Spartan upbringing. The same applies particularly to her mother but also to her long gone neighbors as well. The author brings their warmth, their decency and their sheer delight in the simplest of pleasures alive in a way that can only melt your heart.
Sawamura, however, is no naive romanticist. As well as recounting many warm tales about how her parents and neighbors shaped her inner beliefs, she also paints the struggles of the area's indentured prostitutes to escape their inhumane fate. She deftly describes her father's many infidelities and other acts of personal betrayal that impinged on her. She describes aging geishas and other neighbors fallen on hard times and she recounts how her mother and their long-suffering neighbors shared what little they had with them. She paints the triumphs and travails of an over-romanticized community struggling against the tides of poverty and social elitism.
Customs, long since forgotten, resurface in this book. Thus, because needlework is no longer so important to secure a husband, women no longer deify Awashimasama, the goddess of needlework. Likewise, the Memorial Service for Needles has, along with the endemic poverty that begot the custom, long since faded into history. However, other things have not. The more intangible influences, which shaped the young Sadako Sawamura, remain. Today's local communities must also have a modus vivendi. We must get on with our neighbors just as much as Sawamura's family had to all those years ago. There are, in other words, scores of lessons pertinent both to modern Japan and life in general to be learned from this joyful book.
Indeed, the book starts with an excellent one. The young Sadako buys bruised tangerines because that is all her mother, given the large number of children she had to feed, can most prudently afford. She makes the point that no one regarded this as being odd or as an opportunity to score cheap points off those in straitened circumstances. People, in other words, as well as being socially responsible, were also independent and respectful in their minds and actions. That is a good thing.
There are many other good things in this book. Though circumstances change, people do not. Girls still flirt with boys, mothers still fret over their children, the milk of human kindness is still ladled out in generous proportions, in short, life's lovely heartbeat continues its unalterable flow into the future. And, though many things change on the surface, the truly important things stay constant. That ineffable quality in all of us, which impels us to laud those who kick against life's pricks, is one such immutable constant. The world is a better and brighter place because Sadako Sawamura not only lived in it but also because her pen has brought Asakusa's people and their universal hopes and problems so vividly to life on the printed page.