Photo/IllutrationChisako Wakatake (Photo by Hiroki Endo)

The poem "Eiketsu no Asa" (The Morning of Eternal Parting) by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) is written as a dialogue between himself and his dying younger sister, Toshi, whose lines are in the dialect of their native Iwate Prefecture.

Toshi asks Kenji to fetch some sleet. He obliges, bringing her two bowls of the cold stuff. She then says, "Ora Orade Shitori egumo," which in standard Japanese means, "I will leave this world by myself."

This haunting, unforgettable line uttered by Toshi is the title of a novel, although spelled slightly differently, by Chisako Wakatake, which earned her one of this year's Akutagawa Prizes.

An Iwate native herself, Wakatake uses the local dialect liberally to enrich her story about an elderly woman living a lonely life.

The protagonist, Momoko, is 74. After arriving alone at Tokyo's Ueno Station half a century ago, she worked at a "soba" (noodles) eatery and "kappo" (Japanese-style restaurant), married an Iwate man, and raised two children.

But the sudden death of her husband was followed by the loss of her beloved pet dog. Also estranged from her children, she began confronting her loneliness. "The human heart is complex," Momoko notes in her native dialect. She thinks she has "tamed" her heart, but unbearable loneliness rears its ugly head from time to time.

She feels the inexorable progress of aging. But on some days, she is filled with the serene pleasure of living a daily life. When she is despondent, her misery is bottomless. But when she is upbeat, she feels as if she is soaring high into the cloudless sky.

Turning the pages, I was mesmerized by the conflicted heart of this septuagenarian.

Wakatake began to write full time at age 55, following the death of her husband. Her consistent theme is how to live in one's old age.

When life is likened to the four seasons, the Japanese expressions for spring, summer, autumn and winter are, respectively, "seishun," "shuka," "hakushu" and "gento."

Seishun also means "youth," as in "seishun shosetsu" (youth literature). Wakatake calls her novels "gento shosetsu."

Now that living to be 100 is no longer a pure fantasy, worries about life in old age are endless. According to one prediction, seniors living alone will make up 40 percent of all households in Japan 20 years from now.

Along with making preparations to remain physically and financially healthy, perhaps we all need to train ourselves to cope with loneliness and love ourselves in our winter years.

I look forward to the growing popularity of the "gento shosetsu" genre.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 18

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.