Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone

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Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone
Author: Chisako Wakatake
Specifications: ISBN  978-4309026374
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, Publishers
Tokyo, 2017
Awards: Bungei Prize, 2017
Akutagawa Prize, 2017
Buy now: amazon.co.jp


Universal and eternal truths about human existence emerge in bold relief from the reflections of an elderly widow on what at first glance appears to be an unexceptional life. The Japanese title, which can be translated more straightforwardly as “I, I’m Going Alone,” is in the Tōhoku dialect that figures strongly in the story. It is a slight variation on a line from a poem by Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933), a well-known poet and children’s author from near where author Chisako Wakatake as well as her story’s protagonist grew up.

Narrator Momoko Hidaka is 74 years old. Her husband died 15 years ago, and since then she has been living alone in the home they shared in a suburban Tokyo residential community. Lacking anyone to talk to, she gets to thinking back over her life as she enjoys her daily cup of tea, or when sitting alone in a coffee shop, or as she makes a pilgrimage to her husband’s grave by an isolated back route. She is the mother of two children. The eldest, son Shōji, dropped out of college and moved away to a job in another prefecture. He rarely contacts her, and the words he spat out when he left home still ring in her ears: “You’ve got to stop smothering me, Mom.” Momoko had once lost ¥2.5 million (about $25,000) to an “It’s me, it’s me” scammer, thinking she was sending the money to Shōji. As she reflects on these and other events involving her son, she feels remorse at having taken the joy out of life for Shōji by being overly attached to him.

Her daughter Naomi lives with her husband and two children just 20 minutes away by car. Their relationship has long been strained and distant, but she now calls occasionally to see if she can pick some things up at the store for her mother. During one such call, she asks for money to sign her son up for special art lessons. Caught off guard, Momoko is momentarily at a loss, which prompts Naomi to remind her pointedly that she was quick to pay when she thought it was her brother asking for money.

After the exchange with her daughter, Momoko reflects on the relationship she had with her own overbearing mother, and her thoughts then drift by association to how she left northeastern Honshu for Tokyo 50 years before. Upon graduating from high school, Momoko had taken a job with the agricultural co-op in her hometown. When she reached 24 her parents arranged a marriage for her—as was the practice in a rural region still bound by old traditions. But the man meant nothing to her, so three days before the wedding, she fled to Tokyo. This was during the boom era of Japan’s economic growth, and there were plenty of jobs to be had. While working at a restaurant, she met and fell in love with a handsome customer named Shūzō who came from the same part of the country she did, and they eventually got married. Until this she had been self-conscious about her country accent and dialect, but the marriage allowed her to renew her fondness for the language she’d grown up with. From then until Shūzō died of a sudden heart attack, she had devoted herself body and soul to serving her husband and family. Shūzō’s death had brought her an unbearable sadness as painful as being torn limb from limb.

Even after so many years have gone by, she still misses Shūzō dearly in her now solitary life, and frequently wishes she could see him again. But she also wonders if it was her love that killed him. It was out of love that she’d devoted herself to serving her husband, but at the same time, she had in effect held power over him by making it impossible for him to live without her. Then, just when she began to feel hemmed in by the walls she had constructed for herself, he had died. She blames herself for failing to notice how tired he had become. Now she feels her own decline, sensing the approach of death day by day. Momoko’s reflections often take the form of conversations in her childhood dialect with and among voices in her head—voices that are different “layers” of herself. One of the voices tells her that Shūzō died in order to let Momoko live freely.

On a winter’s day, Momoko recalls a vision she once had in which a procession of women were walking along with mute determination, their eyes fixed straight ahead. She understands them to be women of the last generation who, like her, lived their entire lives in silent endurance. Soon spring arrives, and out of the blue one day, her eight-year-old granddaughter Sayaka comes to visit. Momoko feels a surge of happiness as she sits talking with her beloved grandchild.

The reflections on love, self, and meaning that unfold within a lonely old woman’s internal conversations with herself will pull on every reader’s heartstrings.