When timid housewife Sayoko lands a job with Platinum Planet, a travel-housekeeping company run by Aoi, the two women forge an unlikely friendship. Seeing Aoi’s example, Sayoko learns to assert herself and the unmarried Aoi gains the kind of deeply-trusted friend in Sayoko she hasn’t had since high school.
That’s pretty much the plot to Mitsuyo Kakuta’s 2005 Naoki Prize-winning novel Woman on the Other Shore. You could be forgiven for thinking that it sounds as dull and annoying as one of those melodramatic, “empowering” women-centered movies on the Lifetime channel.
Instead, Kakuta presents us with a rarity: a complex exploration of friendship in its depth, fragility, and necessity.
There are two stories at work in this novel, told in alternating chapters that converge at the end. The first is the story of Sayoko working as a housekeeper at Aoi’s small travel agency-sliding-into-housekeeping company. Though it’s not overtly stated at first, the steady shift toward housekeeping is due to either a drop in the travel business or Aoi’s impulsiveness, or a mixture of both. Sayoko doesn’t receive any encouragement to work from her husband Shuji and weathers numerous disdainful barbs from her mother-in-law.
The second story takes place years before when Aoi was a teenager. She has just moved from the city of Yokohama to the small provincial town of Gunma. Aoi had been subjected to so much bullying at her old school she begged her parents to move so she wouldn’t have to endure it anymore.
On Aoi’s first day at her new school she meets Nanako, an outgoing bubbly girl who seems to talk to all social groups but belongs to none of them. Their friendship settles into a pattern of not talking to each other during school, but spending most of their time outside of school together, hanging out by the river. They talk and laugh about everything but Nanako’s home life. The shy Aoi marvels at Nanako’s seeming freedom to be who she is, and feels that with Nanako she can do anything. This immediately sets up the intrigue as to how the fearful Aoi becomes the spunky, confident, company president who Sayoko meets
Soon after Sayoko has begun working, Aoi has a welcome party for her attended by the rest of the company workers. At the end of the night, Sayoko accompanies Aoi to her apartment. Loosened by alcohol, Sayoko opens up about her dissatisfaction with her husband, her sarcastic mother-in-law, and her fears that her daughter Akari will be as unsociable as her. Aoi tells Sayoko that she thinks their generation suffers from a fear of being alone.
“It’s like, if we don’t have friends, it’s the end of the world, you know what I mean? Somewhere along the line, we had it drummed into us that kids who have lots of friends are bright and happy, and kids who don’t have any are dark and gloomy, and dark and gloomy is bad.”
This dismissal of the “need” to have lots of friends does in fact mask a dark and gloomy past. Aoi the teenager is hypersensitive to the shifting alliances and casual gossip that can put someone outside a group for something as seemingly trivial as, in the case of one girl, having to wear a ratty pair of sneakers that supposedly smell. Aoi spends a lot of time worrying she might be next. Nanako tells her that none of the gossip bothers her, even going so far as to say that if the time comes for herself to be ostracized, that it’s okay if Aoi ignores her during school for fear of being lumped in with her.
That time does come about halfway through their junior year. “She was a people pleaser and a phony. Her father was a drunk in rehab, her mother was a bar hostess who turned tricks on the side, and her little sister was a JD repeatedly hauled in for shoplifting… The utter childishness and the poverty of imagination displayed in these attacks astounded Aoi, but she couldn’t deny feeling a surge of relief that she’d never shown herself to be friendly with Nanako at school.”
Aoi also finds herself unable to defend her best friend because she doesn’t know anything to contradict the accusations. She doesn’t even know if Nanako has a sister. Throughout the silent treatment, Nanako never wavers in front of Aoi from being anything but her usual happy-go-lucky self. The first time Aoi sees a “shadow flit across her friend’s customary smile” is when she suggests for the first time that they go to Nanako’s home.
Aoi discovers it is a largely empty apartment, furnished with the bare necessities and devoid of any family memorabilia. Nanako never offers any elaboration on her parents or sister and Aoi doesn’t push the subject any further. For their summer break, Aoi and Nanako get jobs together in the seaside town of Izu at a family-run inn. When their break comes to its end, the girls decide to run away. It’s a decision that causes Aoi to find out just how street-smart Nanako really is, and will have life-changing consequences for both of them.
I found myself rushing through the Sayoko chapters to get to (and savor) the Nanako and Aoi chapters. There are some parallels between the growing friendship of Sayoko and Aoi, and that of the friendship of Aoi and Nanako. Sayoko remains silent in the face of her co-workers’ constant criticism of Aoi’s management of the company, just as Aoi doesn’t defend Nanako against the accusations made by the girls in her class. Eventually, Sayoko has to take a side and she does but the consequences are minor.
That Kakuta little more than sketches Sayoko’s husband Shuji and his mother reinforces the notion that they are less like genuine obstacles to Sayoko’s struggle for faith in herself as a wife, mother, and worker, and more like small puddles to be sidestepped. It’s not that her story isn’t good or interesting. It’s that there’s a lot less at stake for Sayoko than for Aoi in both the past and present.
That said, Kakuta does a remarkable job of making the fear of being ostracized that Aoi the teenager feels as palpable as Sayoko’s insecurity at her initial inability to connect with the other mothers she encounters when she takes her daughter to various playgrounds or the nursery school. Ultimately, Kakuta demonstrates the role circumstance plays in creating friendships, and just how tenuous and resilient the bonds are that hold friends together.
The smooth translation by the experienced Wayne P. Lammers allows us English readers to experience Kakuta’s observant voice. Here’s hoping this first English translation of this writer’s work isn’t the last.