Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Nagai Kafu
Home alone: Nagai Kafu looks out from the house in present-day Roppongi, Tokyo, where he lived from 1920-45. KYODO PHOTO

Nagai Kafu: a literary loner

Ever an outsider, the novelist was out of step and out of time as Japan embraced modernity

Special to The Japan Times

In Tokyo and even in the Occident, I have known almost no society except that of courtesans. — Nagai Kafu

There's not much left of Kafu today. Among the major Japanese writers of the early 20th century, he scarcely ranks as a survivor. Natsume Soseki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Junichiro Tanizaki are the towering names of the period. Kafu, relatively speaking, is a footnote.

Nagai Kafu with a dancer
Playtime: Kafu frolics with a Tokyo dancer in her dressing room on Nov. 25, 1950. KYODO PHOTO

Even his biographer and principal English translator, Edward Seidensticker (whose translations from "Kafu the Scribbler" are used here except where otherwise specified), had serious reservations about Kafu. Dubbing him (in his 2002 memoir "Tokyo Central") "the writer of whom I was probably fondest," he hastens to add that "affection and admiration are not the same thing."

His praise is barbed: "Though he was not such a good novelist, he has come to seem better and better at what he was good at." What he was good at was evoking the moods and textures of a Tokyo changing, he thought, much too fast and altogether in the wrong direction.

"Now," says Seidensticker, "the Low City" — the downtown shitamachi plebeian quarter watered by the Sumida River — "is utterly changed. There is no street life any more. . . . As I try to keep alive memories of how things were, Kafu is a dearer companion than ever."

Nagai Sokichi (Kafu is a pen name) was born in Tokyo on Dec. 3, 1879 — not in his beloved shitamachi but in the Koishikawa district of present-day Bunkyo Ward, in the patrician "uptown" he so despised. He died, eight months shy of 80, on April 30, 1959 — 50 years ago this week. He was a difficult man; eccentric, unloving, unlovable. You'd never know this, of course, from the citation that accompanied the Imperial Cultural Decoration he was awarded in 1952 in honor of "his many works replete with a warmly elegant poetic spirit, with an elevated form of social criticism, and with a penetrating appreciation of reality."

Seidensticker, in his 1965 biography "Kafu the Scribbler" (Stanford University Press) wryly rewrites the citation: "A querulous, self-righteous man, whose social criticism rarely rose above the level of personal complaining, and whose grasp of the complex reality that is the human spirit was less than adequate; but a man, withal, whose love for his city and its traditions never wavered, and who expressed that love in prose worthy of the great classical Japanese essayists."

Though a vagabond at heart, Kafu traveled little, Tokyo apparently affording him all the scope his wanderlust demanded. Once home after five years abroad as a young man, he scarcely ever left the city.

Other paradoxes, too, marked his prickly character. His diatribes against Japan's Westernization sat comfortably in his own mind with a personal preference for Western-style housing and clothing. His love of nature inspired beautiful descriptions in his works — of trees and flowers, birds and insects, river and sky — but no country rambles. His first recorded ventures into the Japanese countryside occurred only in 1945, when the bombing of Tokyo forced him into rural refuge.

Three journeys stand out in the early years — to America in 1903; back to Japan (following a euphoric seven-month stopover in France) in 1908; and across Tokyo by streetcar one sunny December afternoon that same year.

The first will be discussed in due course. The second is significant for two shipboard observations he recorded; they suggest his state of mind at the time and, with modifications, throughout his life. At sea, recalling his reluctant departure for home, he mused, "I was leaving behind the love and the art of France, and I was going to a remote edge of the East, where death would presently bring an end to a dull monotonous life."

Later, in the Mediterranean ("Ah, Mediterranean sky, off the mystic shores of Africa!"), he noted, "I admire Turkey. At least it is not" — unlike Japan — "hypocritical. It is not the sort of hypocrite that takes a shallow pride in seeking admission to the brotherhood of the West, and to that end puts together a sham culture."

The streetcar journey survives in memory as the subject of a 1909 essay titled "Fukagawa no Uta" ("Song of Fukagawa"). On the east bank of the Sumida River, in present-day Koto Ward, Fukagawa was then an unlicensed pleasure quarter that Kafu, adolescent rebel against a stern Confucian father, first frequented in the 1890s. His rapturous response to it will bemuse those who judge it by its featureless postwar contours: "Before I left Japan (for America), Fukagawa of the waters (sic, presumably meaning the Sumida) had long been the place that answered to my every taste, longing, sorrow, and joy. Even then, before the streetcar tracks were laid, the beauty of the city was being destroyed, and that sad, lonely vista beyond the river still let one taste of decline and decay and an indescribably pure and harmonious beauty."

Decline and decay are essential elements, well worth the tasting. "Harmonious beauty," to Kafu, is inconceivable without them.

The journey begins at Kojimachi, west of the Imperial Palace. Kafu boards the streetcar on a whim, no destination in mind. Beguiling his idleness, he subjects the passengers to a pitiless scrutiny. A man who looks like a building contractor belches and yawns. An aging geisha sucks noisily on a decayed tooth. Preserved in amber in all their hideous, heightened actuality are two high school girls, the dust in their oily hair rendered positively filthy by a bright sun heedless of what it shines upon and a gifted writer's bilious pen.

The car stops for a middle-aged woman with a baby on her back. She is fat, workworn, ugly. The baby starts to wail. At least that drowns out the geisha going "chu, chu" on her tooth. The mother bares a shapeless, leathery breast. The conductor announces the next stop. In the ensuing rush to the exit the baby sheds its soiled diaper, at which the mother "starts howling like a madwoman."

Other adventures follow — a passenger bolts without paying; the car is stranded by a power failure. All is sordid, confused, foul — typical, Kafu seems to be saying, of the mess the modernizing Meiji revolution of 1868 has made of Japan. Ah, but here is "Fukagawa of the waters!" The mood shifts. Clamorous modernity is out; "pure and harmonious beauty" reigns, just as in the Edo (pre-Meiji Tokyo) of Kafu's lifelong dream.

A blind mendicant musician plucks a shamisen and chants old Edo ballads. Kafu pauses to listen. Lost in reverie, overcome with emotion, he imagines the musician's past. He seems an educated man; very likely "he could not bring himself into harmony with the vulgar clutter of Meiji . . . and he lost his eyesight as he lost his money. Presently he found salvation in these pathetic circumstances . . .

"His (blind) eyes, filled with (visions of Edo), were spared the horrid streetcars and power lines and all the rest of our superficial Westernization. . . . I wanted to stay on and on in the fading light of Fukagawa . . . "

In a sense, that's exactly what he did.

America, 1903. The eldest son of a high-ranking bureaucrat turned businessman, Kafu was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, but showed early signs of not being cut from the same stiff Confucian cloth. He was, he wrote, "an emotional young man who has only the dream of beauty" — a peculiarly Kafuesque sort of beauty, as other youthful jottings make clear: "I want dissipation, to destroy myself in dissipation"; "I want to see to what point unhealthy desires and pleasures can be pushed."

The literature, theater and music of old Edo, the heedless life of the pleasure quarters — these, rivaled only by the literature of France, the naturalism of Emile Zola (1840-1902) in particular, are what kindled his imagination.

His authoritarian father — Meiji personified — packed him off in alarm to the United States — not France, Kafu's preferred destination — hoping its commercial spirit would stiffen his fiber. It did not. Kafu had already published three semierotic novels before leaving Japan, and during his four-year stay, while desultorily attending colleges in Seattle and Tacoma in Washington state, and Kalamazoo in Michigan, he wrote "Amerika Monogatari" ("American Stories") — "his first masterpiece," according to the eminent scholar Donald Keene.

The stories are remarkable in a number of respects. Their depiction of struggling, sometimes floundering, Japanese immigrants in some of the rawer settings of a young, faraway, often bewildering land marked a new theme in Japanese fiction. Kafu is expansive here as he was never to be again, treating a variety of characters who are not, as most of his later characters tend to be, thinly disguised incarnations of Kafu himself; disgruntled vehicles for his insatiable exasperation.

The Kafu of "Amerika Monogatari" is another man altogether — younger of course, but also (perhaps for that reason) warmer, friendlier, more sympathetic and, above all, more hopeful, his eye on a potentially better future rather than a lost, mythologized past.

America did cast a spell on him, if only temporarily. Before it faded, he wrote something he was never to attempt again — a love story (it appears in "Amerika Monogatari") untainted by disease or death.

The prosaic title of the story, belying its radiant mood, is "Two Days in Chicago." The lover is not Kafu but an American friend of his. Kafu and James had been fellow-students in Michigan; now James is established in Chicago and Kafu goes to visit.

The gathering at the home of James' fiancee's parents is a delightful affair. The "most memorable and pleasant dinner" is followed by an impromptu concert, James at the piano and Stella, his sweetheart, on violin. Then, "as soon as the young woman put down her instrument, she threw herself into James' arms, as if she could no longer wait, and twice kissed him passionately. Her parents eagerly applauded and asked them to play again, but she kept her face firmly pressed against his chest, as if she were unable to restrain her deep emotion."

Is this Kafu writing? One might well wonder; the tone is so bubbly, so unlike him.

"Oh, how I wish," he exclaims, "that such a pleasant family scene could be duplicated in our homeland!

"Think, for instance, of the way I was brought up at my home, by a father whose warm human blood had been chilled by the Confucian classics, and a mother who had been restrained by treatises on womanly virtue and behavior. In such an environment, there is no room for music or laughter. My father would indulge in the pleasure of drinking with his friends till past midnight and assail my mother, already exhausted from the day's chores, for the way the sake was warmed or the food cooked; alas, looking at my father's face on such occasions, vicious and autocratic, and my mother's sad, lethargic face accustomed to blind obedience, I used to think, while still a child, that nothing in the world was as detestable as a father, and nothing as unhappy as a mother. But if progress is the law of the world, such a barbaric, Confucian age will soon become a thing of the past, and our new era will sound a triumphal tune." (Translated by Mitsuko Iriye in "American Stories," published in 2000 by Columbia University Press.)


Related link

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.