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Sunday, July 19, 2009

COUNTERPOINT

To be human in today's Japan, is it best to be 'no longer human'?


On June 22, playwright and novelist Hisashi Inoue appeared on national broadcaster NHK's television program, "Close Up Gendai." The occasion was the centenary of the birth of the novelist Osamu Dazai.

Inoue, who was invited as an expert on Dazai, had penned a sympathetic portrait of the novelist in his 1989 play "Ningen Gokaku" ("Forever Human") — whose title plays on the title of Dazai's most popular novel, "Ningen Shikkaku" ("No Longer Human").

Dazai was born in Kanagi on the Tsugaru Peninsula in northern Honshu; and Inoue hails from a small town in Yamagata Prefecture, which is also in Japan's northern Tohoku region.

This gives Inoue an added insight into Dazai's perspective on the culture of Tokyo, to which both were exposed as young men eager to take the literary world by storm.

Inoue offered comments to explain Dazai's renewed popularity with young people today. He said that Dazai's use of the Japanese language is contemporary and communicates directly to people today — though it dates back more than half a century. He also explained how Dazai was steeped in the oral culture of Japan, in such narrative arts as rakugo (traditional storytelling), and fused these into his dialogue with craft and artistry.

As an example of this, Inoue chose a passage from one of Dazai's short stories, which was read on air by an actor.

That story — titled "Kakekomi Uttae" ("Frantic Accusation") — is actually my favorite of all Dazai's prose works. The story is about Judas making a sudden denunciation of Christ to the authorities. The language is colloquial and brilliantly dramatic. I've translated a few lines here:

"I am pleased to speak, pleased to say my peace. Sir! That man, he's despicable. Awful. That's right. He's a revolting person. A bad man. Ah. He's intolerable. Death is too good for him. Yes Sir! I will speak calmly. There is no way that that man can be allowed to live. He is the enemy of the world. Yes, I will divulge everything, all there is to tell, hiding nothing. I know his whereabouts. I will lead you there immediately. Please kill him, tear him to shreds. He is my teacher. My lord.''

It is clear that this story, with its hero obsequious and fawning in the face of authority, is not only about Judas' betrayal of his pacifist master, Jesus, but also about the prevailing atmosphere in Japanese society at the time it was written. It was first published in the literary monthly Chuo Koron in February 1940, when formerly progressive people were lining up to denounce their colleagues in order to prove their loyalty to the militarist state.

Dazai's major prose works have never been out of print in Japan, and he is studied in the nation's schools, particularly his story taken from Ancient Greece about extreme perseverance, "Hashire Meros" ("Run, Melos!").

Dazai's characters are virtually all psychologically at sea and alienated from their social milieu. His 1947 novel "Shayo" ("The Setting Sun") depicts a gentry in Chekovian decline, but it so squarely hit the nail on society's head that a new term was born: Shayozoku were those "people of the setting sun" who were dislocated from the centers of influence and wealth as a result of World War II.

All this points to the reason why Dazai appeals to young readers today. They, too, see themselves as dislocated from Japan's stunning postwar economic recovery, with its self-sacrificing company employees at its core. They, like Dazai's "setting sun tribe" — and Dazai himself, who was from one of the richest families in northern Japan — seem unable to connect with others or find a purpose in life.

This is also why readers respond so readily to the characters in the novels of Haruki Murakami, caught, as they are, between identity crises with seemingly nowhere to turn.

Dazai committed suicide on June 13, 1948, following a couple of botched attempts.

The phrase that best characterizes his view of himself (which is known to all educated Japanese) is "umarete, sumimasen" ("sorry for being born").

There is another popular author from the Tohoku region. He is Kenji Miyazawa, who was born in 1896 in Hanamaki in Iwate Prefecture. Miyazawa's works have, since the mid-'90s, also witnessed a boom in readership around the country.

Like Dazai, Miyazawa was from a well-to-do family, and the two writers shared the same guilt complex over their comfort. They both had a keen outlook on misery, describing it in a way that illustrated their own need for expiation for sins they personally did not commit.

As contemporaries, Miyazawa and Dazai are both writers of conscience and products of an era when the gap between rich and poor in Japan was immense and radical writers called out for social policy to ameliorate the plight of the dispossessed.

Well, today's social policy in Japan sorely lacks the ability to give everyone, particularly young people, a stake in the system. Their rote-like education leaves them unprepared for an era of individual creative initiative, while the "cool Japan" culture they've grown up in is in reality a cold, heartless form of capitalism waiting to slap them in the face when they leave university.

People with disabilities and the likes of single parents may now be treated with greater tolerance than before, but the government still does precious little for them.

A friend who is a top executive in a major head-hunting firm in Japan recently told me something uplifting. She said that a lot of talented Japanese, even successful business people in their 40s, are now looking for new jobs in which they can help people and contribute to society's welfare.

"Salary is not a big concern for these people," she said.

If this is really the case — and if Japan's younger generations are feeling unmoored and ready to sail toward new horizons — then it is, perhaps, not the sorry world of Dazai that will guide them through.

Kenji Miyazawa's message of dedication to others may be described by the phrase "Umarete, koei" ("It's a privilege to be born"). When Miyazawa died of TB in 1933, unlike Dazai, he wanted to live longer. He wrote that no single person can be happy until all people are happy.

Young people may be caught between Dazai's sadsack apologia and Miyazawa's robust exhortations, but at least they now seem to know where they are.

Showing them their whereabouts — if not how to proceed from there — is, I suspect, one thing an author can do, revealing to generations then, now and in the future the messages they hide deeply in their country's literature.



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