Losing It: Miho Shimao, the Wife in “The Sting of Death”

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Losing It: Miho Shimao, the Wife in “The Sting of Death”
Author: Kumiko Kakehashi
Specifications: ISBN  978-4104774029
672 pages
13.4 x 19.2 cm / 5.3 x 7.6 in (WxH)
Category: Nonfiction
Publisher: Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd.
Tokyo, 2016
Awards: MEXT Award for the Arts, 2017
Yomiuri Prize for Literature, 2017
Buy now: amazon.co.jp


The winner of three prestigious literary awards, the autobiographical novel Shi no toge (1977; tr. 1985 as The Sting of Death) by Toshio Shimao (1917–1986) portrays the turbulent lives of Shimao and his wife Miho (1919–2007) as they struggle with her mental illness after she learns of his extramarital affairs. In this critical biography, author Kumiko Kakehashi draws on a voluminous body of unpublished manuscripts, diaries, letters, and other primary materials to meticulously reconstruct the true story of Miho that was hidden behind the account presented in the novel.

Nine months before the end of World War II, Miho Ōhira, the daughter of a prominent family on tiny Kakeroma, one of the Amami Islands south of Kyushu, was working as an elementary-school teacher when Shimao arrived on the island as the commanding officer of a suicide torpedo-boat unit. Though a military man, the mild-mannered Shimao mixed easily with the civilian community, gaining their confidence and favor. Before long he became romantically involved with Miho, and with the knowledge that he was fated soon to die, their relationship grew increasingly intense: Miho declared that she would not survive him. Then, just after his unit was placed on standby alert, the war came to an end and the final orders never arrived. Their lives spared, the two lovers married early the following year. But the love that had burgeoned under extraordinary wartime conditions was soon to fade; the marriage began to collapse under the everyday realities of peacetime. Moving in with Shimao at his family home in Kobe, Miho experienced friction with her father-in-law. She was discriminated against for her Amami birth. The mental distress that later became the subject of Shi no toge has been attributed to the wounded pride, anger, and depression that came from the indignities she suffered in the marriage.

On the other hand, Miho’s life was also buffeted by Shimao’s portrayals of her in his literary works. When Shimao wrote a story, he often intended it for a specific woman to read, and the story faithfully portrayed the real relationship between Shimao and the woman at that time. For Miho, the period when she enjoyed being a character in Shimao’s stories can be said to have ended with her marriage. As the rising literary star, caught between ambition and self-doubt, began stepping out with other women, the Miho in his stories became a “dull woman” and “depressing wife.” Seeing herself in her husband’s stories consequently became difficult for Miho to endure. Then, following her breakdown, when Shimao turned back to her and wished above all else to help her regain mental peace, he sought to make every line he wrote accord with Miho’s wishes. Miho in effect gained complete control over her husband through his portrayal of her in his writings.

Perhaps most astonishingly, we learn that Miho had access to Shimao’s diaries from the time they were newlyweds. That is to say, the entries that caused Miho to become unhinged were in fact written with the knowledge that she would see them. What emerges is the portrait of an artist who will stop at nothing—not even driving those near him to madness or despair—in the effort to produce fine literature.