Many years ago in Taiwan I used to drink the juice of the suanmei, the sour plum. It was bitter, sweet, sour and astringent. The six stories in The Budding Tree are rather like that. Their six central characters are career women: they teach, make hairpins, paint, run restaurants and are famous singers. They are unmarried, although some have ex-husbands hanging around, and they are ready for a drink or three with a potential or actual lover. They all live in Edo, which became Tokyo in 1868.
Aiko Kitahara, born in 1938, published these stories in 1993. Ian MacDonald’s translation is mostly smooth, although (perhaps to convey nineteenth-century slang) he occasionally lapses into jarring modern usages like ‘gonna’ and ‘shacked up with’. But what I like especially is the absence of footnotes: the reader must either figure out something unusual or just glide past. For example, when men suddenly lunge at attractive women in these stories, it’s their napes they kiss first: the nape of the neck is regarded in Japan as an extra-sexy bit of the female body, and to this day Japanese brides wear kimonos with plunging and well-powdered back décolletage.
The stories take place in the 1830s, before the Americans forced Japan open, but big changes are washing through Edo, that relatively modern city. The double-sword-wielding samurai, who once ran Japan, are now declining fast; poor and embarrassed, they are entering into long-despised trade. Famine is lashing the rice-growing regions