The following is from the introduction to The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories.
From Seppuku to Meltdown
I once heard the story that when jazz drummer Buddy Rich was being admitted to a hospital, the nurse at the front desk asked him if he had any allergies. “Only to country and western music,” he replied. In my case, my only allergy is to Japan’s so-called “I novel”—the form of autobiographical writing that has been at the forefront of Japan’s modern fiction since the turn of the 20th century.
To tell the truth, from my teens to my early twenties, I read hardly any Japanese fiction. And for a long while I was convinced that, with a few exceptions, early modern and contemporary Japanese literature was simply boring. There were many reasons for this, but foremost among them may be that the novels and stories we were assigned to read in school were pretty bad. My “I-novel allergy” was also quite strong back then (these days, to be sure, it has become less intense), and since you can’t hope either to make your way through or to understand modern Japanese literature if you’re going to avoid its constitutional predisposition to producing “I novels,” I made a conscious effort while young to avoid getting anywhere near Japanese literature.
Reading is, of course, a supremely personal—even selfish—activity. Each person consumes reading matter in accordance with his or her own likes and dislikes, which no one else can pronounce simply to be right or wrong, proper or warped. People have an innate right to read the books they want to read and avoid the books they don’t want to read. It is one of the few precious liberties granted to us in this largely unfree world (though, to be sure, many situations arise that complicate the matter).
At the same time, however, viewed in purely dietary terms, a balanced intake of information and knowledge plays an important role in the formation of a person’s intellect and character, and though no one has the right to criticize me for having spent a lifetime consuming books in my own lopsided way, I can’t help feeling that it’s nothing to be proud of. Having become a Japanese novelist (once and for all), I may have something of a problem on my hands in saying that I know hardly anything about Japanese fiction—which is a little different from Buddy Rich saying he doesn’t listen to country and western music. This is why, after passing the age of 30, I made an effort to read as much Japanese fiction as I could, thanks to which I discovered quite a number of truly interesting works later in life but recall very few from those impressionable teen years I spent in the 1960s.
At the urging of friends, I read several works by Ōe Kenzaburō (b. 1935), who was the young people’s hero in those days. I remember having read classic figures such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927) and Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) back then, but I was never able to warm to such supposedly representative Japanese literary giants as Shiga Naoya (1883–1971), Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972) or Mishima Yukio (1925–70). For some reason I can’t put my finger on, I was never able to keep myself immersed in their style. I’d often give up partway through a work and toss it aside. They and I were probably just temperamentally incompatible; unfortunately, it seems, they were not “novelists for me.” I don’t mean to call into question, of course, their talent or the importance their works. What should be called into question, I suspect, is my own lack of understanding.
Speaking personally, then, I learned practically nothing about novelistic technique from my Japanese predecessors. I had to discover on my own how one goes about writing fiction. This was probably a good thing in the sense that I didn’t have a lot of baggage to carry with me.
I was 30 when I debuted as an author, and almost 40 years have shot by in the meantime (hard as that is to believe), but I confess that, with only a few exceptions, I have not kept close tabs on young authors who have followed me into the literary world. This is not to say that I have been avoiding their works or have no interest in them, just that I have been narrowly focused, heart and soul, on doing what I want to do rather than making the effort to read and learn from other people’s writings.
James Joyce said something to the effect that imagination is memory, and he was absolutely right. Our memories (the wellspring of imagination) take shape while we are young, and once we pass a certain age, it’s rare for them to undergo any major change.
All of this may add up to nothing more than a long-winded excuse for why I know so little (or next to nothing) about modern and contemporary Japanese fiction. I hope I have made myself clear on that point. And if I’m not mistaken, I would guess that most readers of this book of English translations know as little about modern and contemporary Japanese fiction as I do (or nothing at all). At least in my approach here, I’d like to go on that assumption.
Which is why, in this introduction, I am not standing a step above you as your guide to Japanese literature but taking a position on the same level as you so that together we can think about how best to approach this anthology. Let’s just say that you are being guided through a foreign town by someone who lives in the country and speaks the language but who doesn’t know that much about the geography or history.
To tell you the truth, I’m reading most of the stories included here for the first time in my life. I had previously read only six of the thirty-three—including my own! And many of the rest I had never even heard of.
I’m not making excuses, but this has enabled me to encounter the works with a fresh attitude devoid of suppositions or bias or attachments, which may be all to the good. It’s always an interesting experience to chance upon the unknown. If I hadn’t had this opportunity (which is to say, if I hadn’t had this task presented to me), I might never have come across these works. One thing I would like you to keep in mind is that the works collected here are by no means all universally recognized modern masterpieces. Some, of course, could be characterized as “representative” works, but, frankly, they are far outnumbered by stories which are not. We also find here quite old works and very new works arranged literally side by side like an iPod and a gramophone on the same shelf of a record store. The only way to find out what the editor had in mind when he made this selection is to ask the man himself, but in any case an individually edited anthology like this tends to give priority to the editor’s intentions and taste over generalized principles of impartiality and conventional practice, and we have to make our way through the book following his lead. Another point to keep in mind is that, while the book includes a number of stories translated here for the first time, the choice of works has been largely limited to pieces that have already appeared in English.
In any case, this is certainly an unconventional selection of works by an unusual assortment of writers. Seeing this line-up, the average Japanese reader might find him- or herself puzzled. “Why is this story in here? And why is that one missing?”
This is precisely why reading through this collection has been so fresh and interesting for someone like me with my spotty background in Japanese literature. Now and then I’d be quite astounded at the different and strangely compelling ways the fiction of my own country could be grasped. Above all, I found my curiosity piqued: “What’s coming next?”
Japan has long had a custom of selling fukubukuro (literally, “good luck bags” or “lucky grab bags”) on New Year’s Day, sealed bags offered by retailers with no indication of what they contain. One bag will normally hold an odd mix of items, the combined value of which is guaranteed to be far more than the bag’s selling price. People have been known to wait in long queues at major department stores for these popular mystery bargains to go on sale, and to fight over the chance to buy them, anticipating the annual thrill of taking them home and discovering what’s inside. Probably more than the satisfaction of getting a bargain, it’s the mystery that must make these grab bags so irresistible. (I myself have never bought one.)
The comparison may not be apt, but the fukubukuro was the first thing that popped into my mind when I finished reading this book, which offers the same kind of mysterious and unpredictably rewarding experience. I hope readers will open the bag and enjoy what they find inside.
Now let’s look at the stories in each thematically organized section of the book.
Japan and the West
This section features three of the most famous modern Japanese writers. All three of their works depict wealthy intellectuals bewildered by the great differences between the cultures of Japan and the West. Two of the three, Nagai Kafū (1879–1959) and Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), had the experience of studying abroad. Sōseki lived in England for two years on a Japanese government grant which required him to do research on English-language pedagogical methods. Kafū spent four years in America, supposedly studyingbusiness at his father’s behest, after which he went to France for nearly a year. In those days, study abroad was a privilege permitted only to the richest or most elite members of Japanese society.
Kafū had originally hoped to go to Europe and found much about American life that set his nerves on edge, so when he finally got to France, he plunged into the free life he found there like a fish returned to water, but this only added to the difficult psychological adjustments he had to make once he was home again in Japan. The story included here, “Behind the Prison” (Kangokusho no ura, 1909), describes the clash between the ideal world he sought and the depressing reality in which he found himself confined. His search for the Japanese equivalent of the decadent, sophisticated free life he had experienced in Paris led him to the cafés and bordellos and strip joints he found in Tokyo’s seamier “low city” neighborhoods. He saw himself as an outsider, a fugitive from Japan’s elite circles. In Japan at that time, the freedom of spirit that he sought was to be found only in such places. Resigning in 1916 from the professorial post he had held for six years, he declared himself a lowly “scribbler” (gesakusha), rejected marriage after two brief flirtations with the institution, took no regular employment, sought no position of authority, and spent his life freely pursuing his whims. Sōseki, by contrast, though he shared many of Kafū’s cares, spent his life among the chosen. His deeply serious nature overwhelmed him while he was studying in London and led to a serious nervous breakdown.
Ordered home by the Ministry of Education, he was awarded a professorship at Tokyo Imperial University, the nation’s premier educational institution (for men only). While teaching, he published fiction on the side (to calm his frazzled nerves, it is said), and when his writing attracted a large audience, he left his academic position to become staff novelist for the Asahi shinbun, the most authoritative newspaper of the day, where he serialized novel after novel. His career as a professional novelist lasted a mere ten years, but all his works attracted an enthusiastic following and in many ways set the course for modern Japanese literature. Sanshirō (1908; the title is the protagonist’s given name) excerpted here, is one of his important mid-career novels, and it happens to be my favorite among his works. It vividly depicts the confusion and bewilderment of a country boy coming to the city for the first time, and in so doing conveys the conflicts between traditional lifestyles and Western culture. What Sanshirō feels is more or less what all young people of the time experienced—the same thrills and confusion and joys and depression.
Tanizaki Junichirō (1886–1965) did not have the experience of studying abroad, but he constructed the foundation for his sophisticated literature during the liberal, urbane period known as “Taishō Democracy” (the brief time of peace between the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 and the war with China that began in 1931 and led into the Second World War). He was born into a well-to-do family, but had to withdraw from school and go to work when his father’s business went bankrupt, though with the help of a teacher who recognized his academic talents, he managed to advance to higher school. The novella included here, The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga (Tomoda to Matsunaga no hanashi, 1926), depicts an individual whose personality is split between East and West. Although it’s a bizarre tale put together in the form of a mystery, it is a well-wrought allegory, with just enough plausibility to convey with a certain poignancy the confusion and turmoil of intellectuals of the day who were unable to commit fully either to their Eastern or their Western side. It was serialized in the magazine Shufu no tomo (The Housewife”s Friend) in 1926, the year the Taishō emperor died and the age changed from Taishō to Shōwa, literally a historical turning point.
What we see in these three works is primarily the cultural state of Japan prior to the Second World War, when the country was actively importing Western culture while taking severe measures to preserve the “national polity” known as the Emperor System and striving to fulfil the motto “Rich Country, Strong Army.” The situation changed dramatically after Japan’s defeat and the US occupation of the country, but even today the clash of systems Eastern and Western goes on in different forms. This sometimes gives rise to interesting stimuli, and at other times to a profound sense of depression.
If I may add a personal note concerning Tanizaki, when I received the “Tanizaki Prize” in my mid-thirties, I had the opportunity to meet Tanizaki’s widow, Matsuko, at the award ceremony. She was quite advanced in years but still energetic. She made a point of coming over to me to say how much she had enjoyed the novel of mine that had received the prize, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I felt honored to be awarded a prize in the name of Tanizaki, a writer I greatly admired.
The first time I visited the offices of the New Yorker, I was shown around by the then editor-in-chief, Robert Gottlieb. When we got back to his office, I noticed he had three copies of Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki, 1944–9) on his shelf and asked him why that should be. “I do it so people will ask me that question,” he said with a smile. “Then I can tell them what a great book I think it is and, if they show interest, I can give them a copy.” How pleased Tanizaki would have been to hear that.
This section contains two stories about seppuku, or hara-kiri, as it is often referred to in the West, the practice of ritual suicide by disembowelment associated with the samurai warrior class. Mori Ōgai’s “The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon” (Okitsu Yagoemon no isho, 1912) deals with an Edo-period (1600–1868) samurai who follows his lord in death, while Mishima Yukio”s “Patriotism” (Yūkoku, 1961) depicts seppuku against the background of the Incident of 26 February, a coup staged by young army officers in 1936. The samurai writes his testament with almost perfunctory detachment while the young officer’s performance of this distinctive form of suicide rises to erotic intensity.
The original point of seppuku was to slice open one’s own stomach and, if possible, pull out the intestines so as to demonstrate to one’s lord or to the people of one’s world the purity of one’s intent. It was an honorable method of suicide permitted only to the warrior class. It could be practiced as an imposed form of punishment or as a voluntary expression of will. In either case, medically speaking, it was a terribly inefficient means of ending one’s life. It took a long time and was tremendously painful. Slashing a carotid artery or stabbing oneself in the heart was a far easier death. Precisely because it was so inefficient and painful and time-consuming, most likely, the samurai warriors clung to this form of dying in order to put their courage and resolution on display (though in later years, it is true, so as not to prolong the agony, the individual would more often have a second ready to lop his head off from behind as soon as he had jabbed the blade into his abdomen).
To be a samurai—a member of the elite military class—meant that one had to be prepared to take one’s own life at any moment if the occasion should arise. Nor would it be any exaggeration to say that the heritage of continued psychological tension has had an obvious impact on the society. Occasions calling for the physical slicing open of the belly may have ceased to exist, but the readiness to commit seppuku would still seem to be functioning as an aesthetic influence on the Japanese psyche. In the world of the contemporary salaryman and bureaucrat, one often hears a person saying “I’ve got to cut my belly open” or “They’re gonna make me cut my belly open” to mean he is going to take responsibility for something.
As an elite army officer, Mori Ōgai was an intellectual with a cosmopolitan sensibility nurtured by a period of study in Germany, but still, when he heard the shocking news that General Nogi Maresuke (1849–1912), hero of the Russo-Japanese War, had cut his stomach open to follow Emperor Meiji in death, he was deeply moved, and as Nogi was being laid to rest, Ōgai wrote “The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon.” Okitsu was a historical figure who actually ended his life with seppuku, and he may have left some sort of testament to explain his actions, but the “testament” we have here is probably Ōgai’s fictional creation. Presented in the form of a simple, practical document, it reeks with a suppressed bloodiness from beginning to end. Because it is written in a formal Chinese style often used in official documents, the story is probably not read by many Japanese nowadays, but in it we see Ōgai’s cool, clean late style. Ōgai knew General Nogi well and must have felt deep sympathy for his manner of death. He went on to write several more pieces on samurai who follow their lords into death, most notably “The Abe Family” (Abe ichizoku, 1913), a particularly sanguinary tale. We might note here that Natsume Sōseki, the other giant of Meiji-period letters, was also inspired by Nogi’s suicide to write his best-known novel, Kokoro (1914).
Mishima Yukio used to say that “Patriotism” had no real-life models, but it is generally held that there were people who could have been Mishima’s models. In fact, there was a military couple who actually took their own lives like the couple in the story. But Mishima would almost certainly have found it unbearable to see his idealized, purified literary image of Lieutenant Takeyama Shinji’s heroic seppuku and his wife Reiko’s self-immolation reduced to the level of sheer realism. No reader who reaches the end of “Patriotism” is thinking about whether or not the story has real-life models. Surely there are readers who are drawn to the beauty of the world depicted in the piece as well as readers who feel only revulsion. In either case, one cannot help but recognize Mishima’s thoroughgoing purification of a single idea as an outstanding literary accomplishment.