LATE 20TH CENTURY JAPANESE WRITERS: TANIZAKI, MISHIMA AND OE

POSTWAR JAPANESE WRITERS

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Mishima
Acclaimed postwar Japanese writers include Kobo Abe (leftist, avaunt guard writer of Women in the Dunes), Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki, Shugoro Yamamoto (1903-1967), Ibuse Masuji, Naoya Shiga and Osaragi Jiro (author of Homecoming). Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 and 1994 respectively. Many of the post-war writers were part of an informal group of leading writers and critics known as the Bundan. They ate at the same restaurants, played golf at the same clubs and regarded their world as "pure literature" as opposed to "popular literature." [Source: Ian Buruma, the New Yorker]

“The “second generation” of postwar writers includes Abe Kobo and Mishima Yukio. Abe would eventually create a distinctive type of Kafkaesque existential allegory in novels such as Suna no onna (1962; The Woman in the Dunes), while Mishima attracted an international readership with his opulent aestheticism in such works as Kinkakuji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Critics have posited a turning point in the 1950s, after which Japanese fiction can no longer be easily characterized in terms of the early postwar consciousness. Beginning about this time, a revival and restructuring of the I-novel form was achieved by a “third generation” of postwar writers such as Kojima Nobuo, Yasuoka Shotaro, Yoshiyuki Junnosuke, and Shimao Toshio. Also included in this group is Endo Shusaku, a Catholic convert who examines the issues of betrayal, cowardice, and martyrdom in novels such as Chimmoku (1966; Silence). [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

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Junichiro Tanizaki
In Suna no Onna (“the Woman of the Dunes”), a novel by Kobo Abe, a man is held captive in a sandpit with a woman, and are forced to engage in the unbearably meaningless task of digging out sand that is replaced each day by an encroaching desert, Somehow the man finds meaning, joy and love in this and when presented with an opportunity to leave he decides to stay.

Popular but well-regarded historical writers include Ryotaro Shiba (1923-1996), Inoue Yasushi, and Shusaku Endo. Shiba's historical novels---including The Cloud Above the Hill and The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu---are very popular in Japan, but none of them ever been translated to English. Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962) wrote Miyamoto Musashi, the fictionalized account of Japan’s greatest swordsman, published as a serial between 1935 and 1939. Vagabond is a popular 27-volume manga based on Miyamoto Musashi by the famous mangaka Takehiro Inoue. Ibuse Masuji's Black Rain is an important novel about Japan's response to its defeat in World War II. It has no relation to a Hollywood movie by the same name about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl.

Shuji Terayama (1935-1983) was a poet and playwright who founded the Tenjo Sajiki (Upper Balcony) troupe and used his performances to generate a sense of chaos among the audience. Tsushima Yuko, the daughter of Dazai Osamu, has explored the lives of women who are single parents in Choji (1978; Child of Fortune).

Junichiro Tanizaki

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a great Japanese writer who was influenced by Poe and Baudelaire and published translations of Hardy and Stendhal. Some of his works have a Chekhovian quality. Many have speculated that if Tanizaki had lived longer he would have won the Nobel prize.

Tanizaki fled Tokyo after the great earthquake there in 1923. He moved to the Kansai and lived in 13 different locations in and around Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe.

Tanizaki married three times. He married his first wife when he was 29 and promptly gave her to a poet friend and remarried a young staff writer of a literary magazine and then took a mistress who later became his wife. Her family was inspiration for his greatest work, The Makioka Sisters. A chronicle of the lives of the daughters of a patrician merchant family in its last stages of decline before the outbreak of the war, it is a beautiful elegy to the final passing of all that remained of an older and more elegant world.

Junichiro Tanizaki's Books

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Makioka Sisters
Tanizaki wrote the Makioka Sisters (a family chronicle described as modern-day Tales of Genji), Naomi, Diary of a Mad Old Man and Some Prefer Nettles (about two couples and their conflict between tradition and modernity)

The Makioka Sisters is regarded by many as the best modern Japanese novel. Before his visit to Japan in the 1970s, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said he read the book because "it offers a thorough understanding of the country.”

Set in the Kansai area, The Makioka Sisters is about the four daughters of a wealthy Osaka merchant who is already dead when the novel begins. The plot revolves attempts to find a suitable husband for one of the sisters. The book is both a romantic tale and depiction of the decay and decadence of the upper classes.

The American writer John Updike said Tanizaka’s novella The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi was “tremendous.” Works like Menji (1928) and The Key (1956) dealt with erotic themes such as lesbianism, masochism and fetishism. Gourmet Club is a collection of bizarre stories by Tanizaki that was released in English in the 1999.

Yukio Mishima

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The flamboyant and controversial Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) is one of Japan's best known writers. Nominated twice for the Nobel prize, he wrote readable and entertaining novels but is remembered most for his shocking 1970 ritual suicide and the homo-erotic, military cult he created.

Mishima wrote 40 novels, including The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, about a novice monk who burned down Kyoto's famous Golden Temple in 1950; Confessions of a Mask (1949), a daring work which many regard as his best; and the Sea of Fertility, a tetralogy which includes The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea and was finished shortly before his death. He also wrote modernist noh plays, hundreds of essays and short stories, screenplays and film scripts for films he appeared in. Today there is also a Yukio Mishima literary award.

The son of a government official, Mishima was born Kimitake Hiraoka. As a child he was weak, sickly and effeminate and was often bullied by his classmates. He sought refuge in writing and reading and reportedly memorized a huge Kojien dictionary.

Mishima attended the elite Gakushuin Middle School in Tokyo. His mentor, Fumio Shimuzu, was a literature teacher there. Shimuzu created the pen name Yukio Mishima and greatly influenced Mishima’s style. Mishima studied law at Tokyo, took dance classes and enjoyed going to see kabuki and films.

After Mishima was rejected by the army he became a fitness fanatic, taking up boxing, kendo and bodybuilding and becoming a kind of alter ego to his sickly childhood self. After fulfilling a promise to his father by working in the Finance Ministry, a job he stuck with for only 9 months, he made a career out of writing. Shintaro Ishihara, a writer and friend who later became an influential politician and the mayor of Tokyo, said Yukio Mishima "had grown up with in a family of bureaucrats and underneath his pretensions he was conventional and inhibited."

Mishima's Lifestyle

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Mishima as a boy
Mishima usually wrote from midnight to six; slept from six to two then went to kendo practice or some other event until returning home to write. He spent little time with his children and tried to make up for that by spending much of the month of August with them at his family house Shimoda.

A Japanese scholar and translator of Mishima’s work, wrote: “His politeness was unfailing and extended to every aspect of a relationship. He...always answered letters promptly. He was never late for an appointment. When he invited me to dinner, it was invariably to a fine restaurant...His conversations gave me greater pleasure than any meal. While eating, we laughed a great deal. Sometimes his laugh rang out so loudly that the diners in the restaurant turned in our direction.”

Before his suicide one friend said Mishima lived extravagantly like there was no tomorrow, ordering only the best sushi, chu toro, and taking friends out for lobster meals when lobsters were out of season.

Mishima's Nationalism

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Mishima was as much a showman as a writer and he used his notoriety as a platform for "his showy style, dark homoeroticism, macho posturing and right-wing nationalism." He made a movie in which he acted out a ritual suicide in graphic detail and was featured in famous photo layout in Life magazine in which he wore only a loincloth and showed off his well-sculpted muscles and posed with a rose between his teeth.

Mishima was a fascist at a time when being a fascist was a bad career move. Surrounding himself in the 1960s with young men who embraced his cause as passionately as he did, he believed that Japan should reassert itself as a military power and re-embrace emperor worship. He wanted to use Japan's army to stage a coup d'etat and personally infiltrate youth groups to gather intelligence.

Ishihara's said Mishima was afraid to take his cause to the streets because he was worried about being “heckled and pelted with eggs." He described Mishima's patriotism as "aesthetic" and based on "romantic notions of loyalty, valor and the beauty of martyrdom."

Yukio Mishima's Suicide

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On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four followers from his campy, private "army" of ultra-nationalist young men burst into the army headquarters in central Tokyo in an almost comical attempt at a coup d’etat. Dressed in a military-style tunic and rising sun headband, the 45-year-old writer stepped out onto balcony in the headquarters and gave a speech condemning Japan's pacifist constitution and told Japanese military personal the time had come rise up and rebel and restore the honor of the Emperor. Most of those who heard him booed and shouted insults.

Mishima then barricaded himself in the commanding general's office, bound the general to a chair, and with the general looking on and shouting at him not to do it, Mishima plunged a 12-inch samurai dagger into his abdomen and disemboweled himself. One of his disciples drew an antique sword and, after failing twice, loped off his head in true samurai style and then took his own life. Everything except for failed attempt to remove his head on the first try had gone according to a meticulous plan and has been described as “one of the most sensational feats of exhibitionism of our age.”

Japan was left in a state of shock by the incident and the rest the world was not sure quite what to think. When Prime Minister Eisaju Sato was informed of Mishima’s suicide he called Mishima “insane.” Thousands attended Mishima’s funeral but soon after his death his army disbanded and several of his followers were imprisoned. "He became taboo in his own country," Donald Richie, a cultural critic and Mishima friend, told AP. "The accepted wisdom in Japan became that he was a minor figure, but that's not true. I think he's a strong influence, and a troubling one. He's like a bad conscience." In the 1990s, people once again began reading and discussing his work more openly.

Yasunaria Kawabata, 1968 Nobel Prize Winner

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Kawabata's classic
Yasunaria Kawabata (1899-1972) won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968 and committed suicide in 1972, without leaving behind a suicide note. His works include Snow Country, A Thousand Cranes, Beauty and Sadness and Kyoto. His style of writing has been described as pure, beautiful, and "lyrical with a sharpened sensibility."

“In novels such as Yukiguni ( Snow Country), Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari creates enormous distances between his characters, suggesting a dread of intimacy that threatens even the most promising of human relationships. After the war, Kawabata took to writing what he called “elegies to the lost Japan” in such works as Yama no oto (The Sound of the Mountain). Yet Japanese writing in the early postwar years could not be characterized solely in terms of the shock and dislocation of defeat. There was, in fact, a vigorous renascence of literary activity after 1945, and a new group of writers who debuted at this time came to be known as the “first generation” of postwar authors. Members of this group include Noma Hiroshi and Ooka Shohei.

Kawabata’s classic novel Snow Country is about an sophisticated urbanite who travels to the mountains in northern Japan and has an affair with a geisha in a small hot spring resort and then returns to his wife, feeling reborn but leaving the geisha heartbroken. Most of the novel takes place in a room of a local inn. The novel was inspired by a trip by Kawabata took to a snowy region in northern Honshu in 1934. First Snow on Fuji is collection of excellent Kawabata short stories that was released in English in 1999 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Kawabata suffered from insomnia, often didn’t get up until noon and was reportedly addicted to sleeping pills. He enjoyed his solitude but also made time for rounds of drinks in Tokyo hostess bars. When Kawabata won the Nobel prize many were surprised that Mishima didn’t win it. According to some reports the Swedish Academy chose Kawabata because an expert on Japan that was questioned by the academy dismissed Mishima as too young and called him a left-wing radical. When Mishima heard this he was amused.

Kenzaburo Oe, 1994 Nobel Prize Winner

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Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. Regarded as a formidable intellectual whose books have not been read by many people, he is best known for his dark, depressing, soul-searching novels about postwar Japan. Those who have praised have said he has been a prodigiously inventive force in contemporary fiction, continuously experimenting with form and mode of presentation in such novels as Kojinteki na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter) and Man-engannen no futtoboru (1967; The Silent Cry). [Ibid]

Henry Miller once said, "Oe, in the range of hope and despair he covers, seems to have in him a touch of Dostoevsky." His writing have been described as passionate and lyrical but notoriously inaccessible.

Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy said, for his creation of “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”

Oe was briefly fashionable in Japan in the 1960s, but for the most part his readers have been dark, left-leaning Japanese undergraduates.

Oe's Early Life

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Oe was born in 1935 in a small village in a forested area of the island of Shikoku. He said, "My father was a retailer, but he also was an avid reader, mainly of books about Confucianism. He read them while he worked and ate, and even glanced at them while attending to customers.”

Oe's was very active in the Soto sect of Buddhism. "When I was a child, our family was suddenly infused with Buddhism. That was when my father died. After my father's death, though, my mother invited a young, good-looking priest to our home everyday, and talked with him even after my father’s funeral and memorial service had been held.”

Oe said one of the most momentous events in his life was when the Emperor confessed after World War II that he was not a God. He, like other Japanese, had been taught in school that the Emperor was a deity. Other important memories from his childhood, he said, include watching a girl sitting on a roof of house that had been swept away by a flooded river and being scolded by his father during the war for enjoying a ball that had been taken from a child in Japan-occupied Southeast Asia.

Oe lives in a modest home with little furniture other than wooden shelves with books. He likes to study the figures in the Bible. On his writing routine, Oe told the Daily Yomiuri, “My writing style involves repeated rewrites. These revisions comprise 80 percent of my life as a novelist. I am trying to achieve a kind of polyphonic expression that I learned from Dostoevsky. I want to create a collective voice expressing a truth that transcends the voices of individuals.”

Oe's Works

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Oe's most well known book, and one of his earliest, Hiroshima Notes, is his analysis of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. His novel Quiet Life was made into an acclaimed film. Other books include: Pluck the Buds, Shoot the Kids, Oe books: The Silent Cry, Contemporary Games, Wake Up, O Young Men of the New Age and A Personal Matter (a semi-autobiographical work about the feeling of a father towards his brain-damaged child).

In 1993, Oe said that he would never write another novel but he changed his mind after the 1995 sarin gas attack by the Aum Supreme Truth on the Tokyo subway. Chugaeri (“Somersault” 1999, 2003 in English) is about young follower of a religious cult. It explores religion as a whole by examining a fictional Aum-like religious cult, its followers and leader in the context of the Old Testament book of Jonah, in which a believer questions his faith when it seems that God has changed his mind. A key part of the book is when the leader of the cult announces on national televison that his religion is a bad joke. Some critic called it brilliant and insightful. Others saw it as verbose and pontifical.

Echo of Heaven (2001) is it is a depressing work about two boys who commit suicide. Under One's Tree (2001) is a collection of 16 essays about the author's childhood.

The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe (Grove, 2011), translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm, was released in 2010. According to a The New Yorker review: “Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English is an essayistic, and often frankly autobiographical, examination of the narrator’s relationship with his brother-in-law Goro, a filmmaker, and the emotional aftermath of Goro’s suicide. (Oe’s brother-in-law, the famous Japanese director Juzo Itami, jumped to his death in 1997.) Much of the novel is given over to the narrator’s obsession with recorded monologues made by Goro before his death (and perhaps, ambiguously, after his death as well). Oe, a Nobel laureate, employs a discursive technique light on narrative momentum but teeming with intimate and harrowing passages. References to incidents from Oe’s career, and the presence of his disabled son and his no-nonsense wife, who have featured prominently in his other works, give the book a ruminative, elegiac quality.”

Oe Criticizes Japan

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Oe was 59 when he won the Nobel Prize. During his acceptance speech at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, he said "decency" was the important thing and Japan was a nation "split between two opposite poles of ambiguity." This ambiguity existed on many levels, he said, but the source was the dichotomy between modern Japan, the economic and technological powerhouse, and traditional Japan.

Oe has traditionally been highly critical of the Emperor and the Imperial household which he has described as "an undemocratic relic" and a "reminder of the horrors of World War II." Shortly after winning the Nobel prize, Oe caused a big a stir at home when he rejected the Imperial Order of Culture, Japan's highest cultural honor. "The reason I declined the cultural award," he said, "was that I would not recognize any authority, an value, higher than democracy. This is very simple but very important."

Many Japanese believed that his ideals are worth standing up for but that his refusal take the cultural award was impolite and even quaint. A former defense minister told the New York Times, "I would have expected that he would have matured, so to speak, and accepted the award." In response Oe said, "I think it is interesting that the reaction of the general to my tying my life to my principles was for people to say I'm old-fashioned. It says a lot about current attitudes in Japan."

Oe was sued by the brother of veteran for defaming the veterans reputations by claiming in his 1970s book Okinawa Noto (“Okinawa Note”) that the Japanese military ordered civilians to commit suicides and told them they would be raped, tortured and murdered by American soldiers if they were captured In a trial Oe stood behind his statement.

In the mid 2000s, an Osaka court ruled in Oe’s favor, rejecting the lawsuit. The judge said, “The army was deeply involved in the mass suicides, so its possible to presume the veterans were involved. The judge based his ruling on the testimony of survivors that soldiers handed out grenades to civilians to use for committing suicide and the fact that mass suicides only occurred in villages where Japanese troops were stationed. The Japanese Supreme Court favored Oe in the libel suit over the World War II suicide.

Shusaku Endo, Japan's Christian Writer

Shusaku Endo (1923-1996) is another acclaimed writer, both in Japan and abroad. Once dubbed as the Japanese Graham Greene, because of interest in faith, Endo was deeply serious writer who often wrote about morals, religion and Christianity. Greene and Endo once met London and both writers told the other they were great admirer's of the other's work.

Endo was a Roman Catholic. Recurring themes in his work include nonconformity, intolerance and alienation, sentiments that stemmed partly from his experience as Roman Catholic in a country where there are hardly any Christians, let alone Catholics. He once said that being a Christian in Japan was like wearing a Western suit that didn't fit.

A sickly man who suffered from various illnesses throughout his life, Endo was born in Tokyo in 1923, and spent most of his early youth in Japanese-controlled Manchuria. At the age of 10, he returned to Japan with his divorced mother and lived with her and her Roman Catholic sister in Kobe. As an adult Endo was regarded as practical joker who liked to call his friends and pretend he was somebody else. Endo died in 1996. One of his last wishes that he be buried in Nagasaki, a center of Japanese Catholicism, but family members insisted his remains be placed in a family tomb in Tokyo.

Endo's most popular books were well-crafted historical novels. They include The Sea and Poison (1957), a novel based on a real-life vivisection of an American prisoner of war at a Japanese university during World War II; Silence (1966), a book about the persecution of Portuguese Christians in the 17th century; A Life of Jesus (1973), a work that attempted to make Christ more accessible to Japanese; and Deep River (1993), a book a search for universal religious truth in India.

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Natsume on the 1,000 yen banknote

Image Sources: 1), Books, Amazon; 2) Photos, Wikipedia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2012

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