electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 6 in 2010
First Published in ejcjs on 12 July 2010

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A Biography of Self-Loss

The Life and Works of Atsushi Nakajima


Rie Kido Askew

Monash University

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Minato Kawamura, Rōshitsu seiden – Nakajima Atsushi no bungaku to shōgai (A Biography of Self-Loss: The Life and Works of Atsushi Nakajima), Tokyo: Kawade shobō, 2009, pp. 1-350, JPY3,200

2009 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Atsushi Nakajima (1909-1942), a novelist best known for his short story, 'Sangetsuki' (Tiger Poet, 1942). In commemoration of the anniversary, more than ten biographies and works of literary criticism have been published in Japan, of which Minato Kawamura's literary biography, Rōshitsu seiden – Nakajima Atsushi no bungaku to shōgai (A Biography of Self-Loss: The Life and Works of Atsushi Nakajima), is the best for its insights and analytic depth. Rōshitsu seiden is also enjoyable to read because Kawamura is well-informed, not only about Nakajima's works but also about the history and literature of pre-war and wartime Japan and its colonies.

Since Nakajima published his major works during the war, and died in 1942 at the age of 33, he is never called a post-war author. Yet he belongs to the same generation as the representative post-war author Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). Still, as Kawamura notes, Nakajima shared the bookishness and culture of the authors of previous generations such as Sōseki Natsume (1867-1916) and Ōgai Mori (1862-1922) (p. 167). Since Nakajima was born into a Kangaku (Chinese Leaning) scholars' family in Tokyo, he was well informed about the Chinese classics. His major works are based on his readings of the classics, and written in the refined, classical Chinese style.

This use of classical material proved a significant advantage after the war. 'Sangetsuki' was (and still is) included in Japanese language (kokugo) textbooks for high school students, and Nakajima was able to avoid the fate of an author like Motojirō Kajii (1901-1932) who fell into obscurity in spite of the quality of his work (p. 10). According to Kawamura, the conservative Japanese intellectuals who selected 'Sangetsuki' found the work 'perfect', for it is 'traditional' in a way that would not offend the GHQ (General Headquarters). Because of their policies to democratize Japan, the GHQ disapproved of things 'Japanese' and 'traditional' which were seen as impediments. However, the GHQ tolerated Japanese and Chinese classics, viewing such works as harmless (p. 15). (It was 'traditional' Japanese writers such as Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), who opposed the inclusion of Nakajima's works in textbooks. Yanagita is the founder of New Nativism (Shin Kokugaku), and Nativists are traditionally hostile to Chinese civilization). Nakajima's work could thus pass the GHQ censor and textbooks served to 'perpetuate his name in the history of [Japanese] literature' (p. 198).

Though wartime Japan demanded that authors become involved in propaganda, Nakajima refused to do so. Nevertheless, from childhood he was part of the Great Japanese Empire (1868-1945). He lived in Japanese occupied Korea from 1920 to 1926 while his father taught Chinese classics in a middle school in Seoul. Nakajima attended elite schools into which only Japanese and a handful of privileged Korean children were allowed. In 1926, he returned to Japan to follow the path of the contemporary elite, entering the First High School and then Tokyo Imperial University, where he majored in Japanese literature. In 1933, he obtained a job as a high school teacher in Yokohama, and started to write novels. In the same year he also married Taka Hashimoto who became the mother of his three children. From 1941 to 1942 he worked as a local official for the South Seas Government (Nan'yō chō) in Japanese Micronesia – for which Japan took responsibility under a mandate of the League of Nations after the First World War. His job was to edit Japanese language textbooks for local children.

While he thus played a part in the imperial scheme, he certainly managed to avoid writing any partisan pro-government propaganda. On the contrary, in his juvenile short stories, based on his experiences in Korea, he depicts the colonized with sympathy. In his letters from the South Seas, he clearly criticizes the arrogance of his fellow Japanese as colonizers. Still it may be misleading to stress his anti-imperialistic sentiment. As Kawamura notes, he was not much of 'a social activist' (shakai undōka), and was not ultimately interested in politics of any kind (p. 61). For Nakajima, more pressing issues were ontological questions about 'what am I' and what is the meaning of life (p. 275). These are indeed the major themes in Nakajima's work. Nakajima must have learned this existential attitude from modern Western literature. He was familiar with the works of authors such as Franz Kafka (1883-1924). 'Sangetsuki', Nakajima's most celebrated story of metamorphosis, is sometimes said to be his version of Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis, 1915). It is about a poet who attempted to achieve poetic greatness in vain, and who eventually goes mad and is transformed into a tiger.

The existential attitude is closely related to the key word of Kawamura's book, rōshitsu. Rōshitsu means mental confusion and indicates the state in which those obsessed with metaphysical speculations lose touch with real human life. (As in Nakajima's short story of the same title, the concept is from Meng Zi (371?-287? BC), who warned about the danger of losing sight of what is significant by becoming caught up with 'trifles' such as fame.) Regarding rōshitsu, Kawamura made a significant contribution in papers such as 'Mumoji shakai no sasoi' (An Invitation to Oral Society) and 'Moji no wazawai' (The Curse of Letters), both published in 1992, in which he discussed Nakajima's unique view of literacy. According to Kawamura, Nakajima's works often emphasize the contrast between orality and literacy, and the psychological difference between the two. For Nakajima, to be literate means not just to acquire a system of writing, but also to acquire a metaphysical frame of mind. In Nakajima's world, literacy is the forbidden fruit: once eaten, one can never hope to return to the original state of happiness and purity. One may gain intelligence and abstract thought, yet this is at the cost of innocence, spontaneity, and vitality. Sometimes the contrast is drawn between monsters (orality) and human beings (literacy), sometimes it is between the Hsiung-Nu (orality) and the Han Chinese (literacy). In the case of 'Sangetsuki', it is between a tiger (orality) and a man (literacy). It is rōshitsu that drives the hero mad and transforms him into a tiger.

Why did Nakajima embrace this difference between orality and literacy? Kawamura attributes it to Nakajima's experience in two 'contrasting' societies. One is the 'oral' society of Japanese Micronesia. (Ironically, however, Nakajima's task there as a textbook editor was to make the local children literate.) The other is the 'literate' society of China which worships writing, having a unique respect for script. Kawamura explains that since the Han Chinese had been repeatedly attacked by 'oral' northern nomadic peoples such as the Hsiung-Nu, they became overly protective of their script. As a person born into a Kangaku scholarly family, Nakajima was familiar with this special reverence, and came to have a love and hate relationship with writing. Because of his background, he always treated China as a 'civilized' country and was free from the wartime Japanese contempt for China.

Rōshitsu seiden is a reworking of the 1992 papers (and others), and I am pleased that Kawamura has tackled Nakajima's most important theme, rōshitsu, in a monograph. There are, however, two major disappointments. The first is that Rōshitsu seiden lacks the freshness and vigour of the original papers. I suspect that Kawamura wrote this book in a rush (especially the last chapter which is heavily dependent on citations) in order to publish it in 2009. The second is Kawamura's failure to articulate the positive side of literacy. Nakajima was certainly wary of literacy, but at the same time he was also aware of its (potential) virtues. In other words, the speculative tendency of literacy may make human beings over-theoretical and cause them to lose touch with the reality of life, but the same tendency can also help them to carry out a self-examination and thus to develop a moral disposition. This is in fact exactly what the heroes do in Nakajima's stories including 'Sangetsuki'.

In 'Sangetsuki', the transformed hero examines himself, realizes his mistakes and regrets the pain he caused his family. Like Kafka's hero, Nakajima's hero retains his human spirit even after his transformation. Yet Nakajima's hero is nobler thanks to his self-examination and moral growth. Unlike Kafka, Nakajima's emphasis is not placed on what is called the 'absurdity of existence' in which the transformed heroes can no longer hope to be accepted in society because of their appearance. It is placed instead on the moral growth. This, I believe, is one of the reasons why Nakajima chose a tiger, which is 'too noble a creature to be detested', rather than an insect (Kenzō Furuya, cited p. 17).

Today Nakajima's works seem to be shunned by young Japanese because of his classical style (and therefore the use of many difficult kanji). Yet the themes Nakajima dealt with have much contemporary relevance. I hope that Kawamura's new book will encourage many readers to turn to Nakajima.

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About the Author

Rie Kido Askew was awarded a PhD from the Center of Post-Colonial Writing, Department of English, Monash University, Australia, in August 2009. Her research interests are Japanese and English literature, modern thought and history, and the dilemma posed by modernity and cultural loss. Her published papers include 'A Literate Tiger: "Sangetsuki" (Tiger-Poet) and the Tragedy of Discordance' (Japanese Studies, December 2005), and 'The Politics of Nostalgia: Museum Representations of Lafcadio Hearn in Japan' (Museum and Society, November 2007). Her PhD thesis, 'Reading Lafcadio: Culture, Nationalism and the Making of "Koizumi Yakumo"', examined the Japanese reception of Lafcadio Hearn.

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Copyright: Rie Kido Askew.
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