Japanese fiction resembles British drama in that it started off at its peak and thereafter slid downhill. The Japanese peak came earlier: The Tale of Genji was written in the first quarter of the eleventh century. And it was written by a woman—at times it is advantageous to be a second-class citizen—since men of the Heian period had more important things to do, though it is hard to fathom what these were, beyond writing in Chinese, the equivalent of genteel “Latinizing.” Subsequently persons of a serious literary disposition devoted themselves to poetry or meditative and discursive prose. In the seventeenth century Saikaku made a stir with his racy tales of the merchant classes and the ephemeral pleasures and pains of “the floating world.” With some exceptions, later fiction was either solemn and moralistic or vulgar and smutty. The introduction from the late nineteenth century onward of European novels in translation brought new conceptions of what fiction could do, for better and for worse, but before long government repression closed down the kinds of writing which in one way or another could be described as “decadent” or “degenerate” or simply foreign. Give fiction a bad name—and it had never had a very good one—and you might as well ban it.
When the war ended the floodgates opened. The great cry was freedom, a commodity invented by the Americans and now made generously available by them. And what was more free than pornography or near-pornography? There may have been a trace of double-think here. The bruised Japanese were able to react against the rigorous tyranny of their militaristic ex-rulers by throwing censorship overboard, even self-censorship, while telling themselves that the dirt they were rubbing their noses in was to some degree foreign dirt. In part it derived genuinely from the misery and squalor of the postwar years, in part it came out of the conquerors’ insistence on freedom of expression. The docility of the Japanese was much remarked on at the time. In succeeding decades they demonstrated first that they had mastered the great secret of modern fiction—disgust—and then that, as in the case of motorcycles, they could produce the article more efficiently than the West. When in the 1950s a foreign novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was published in Japanese—the translator was an eminently reputable scholar-critic—it found itself in hot water: not because of the contents but because of the picture on the cover, intended to pep the book up. Strong stuff needed to be seen to be strong.
Tanizaki and Kawabata, writers who wrote both before and during the war, pushed a sexuality of the nerves, raffiné and perverse (and increasingly geriatric), as far as it could go, or so one would think. Much the same can be said of the more youthful Mishima, with his combination of the Japanese classical manner and a recherché sexuality of matter which it would be too easy to lay at the door of the free …