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Rabu’ Conquers All

the writer had emerged as someone who loved, struggled and suffered. He was no longer a mere narrator or an impassive observer. Love had come to be recognized as the motivating force behind much of life, and was no longer mocked as a kind of malady that temporarily robbed people of their senses.

Another critic, quoted by Keene, put it in another way by saying that Tokoku was the first Japanese writer “to explore seriously the nature and potentialities of self and to try to integrate a philosophy of self into an overall view of life.”

In Western culture this is not a particularly original or spectacular endeavor—every schoolchild is encouraged to do just that. In Japan, where the self is defined by its place in a larger entity, be it a family, a company, or the whole country, it is not only a difficult but a potentially dangerous thing to do. To be an individualist in Japan is to cut oneself off from society, which, in a sense, is like being a Christian cut off from God—there is nothing to hold on to anymore. There is Christianity itself, of course, but even that is hard to maintain under pressure to conform in a society with very different traditions. Tokoku cracked under the strain. He committed suicide in 1894 at twenty-six.

Natsume Soseki, still regarded by most Japanese as one of their greatest writers, was equally preoccupied with the concept of Western individualism. The integrity of the individual, regardless of social pressures to conform, was his main goal in personal life and his main literary theme. He wrote in Kokoro (“Heart”), one of his best-known novels: “We are born in the present time, filled with liberty, independence, and self. But as the price we have to pay for it, we have to feel loneliness.” He might have overstated the influence of individualism on Japanese society in general, but the loneliness was certainly keenly felt by many intellectuals. The characters of his stories all suffer from an incapacity to form intimate relationships. Soseki committed suicide in 1916.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke, perhaps best known in the West for the two short stories that Kurosawa Akira combined in his film Rashomon, set most of his stories in the Japanese past, which he treated with profound cynicism. Most of his characters come to grief because of their overriding egoism. He once wrote that when he saw “people who keep asserting their ugly selves, I feel both hate and disgust, as well as being overwhelmed.” But as Keene rightly points out:

the reverence with which Akutagawa treated Christian materials contrasts with the cynicism he often displayed toward Japanese heroes and paragons of samurai behaviour…. Egoism could be transcended through divine grace, but not by a careful observance of any code of etiquette.

Akutagawa felt miserably cut off from his fellow men and committed suicide in 1927 with a Christian Bible by his pillow.

Dazai Osamu, another writer obsessed with his tortured self, was deeply attached to his family and seems to have done everything to alienate himself from it—he was a drunkard, a drug addict, a social sponger, and a compulsive attempter of suicide, mostly with lovers, one of whom died while he survived. His writing is a kind of chronicle of his misbehavior, how it affected others, specifically his family, and how this in turn made him feel guilty. It is a masochistic kind of work, which many practitioners of the so-called “I novel” (novels about the self) indulge in. It is, however, a highly regarded literary genre in Japan, combining naturalism, Romanticism, and a Japanese tradition of confessional essays and poetry. Private confessions are, of course, a typical expression of people who are socially bottled up, a condition familiar to most Japanese. Dazai, too, tried to transcend the Japanese social condition, first through Marxism, then through Christianity: “I could almost say that nearly all my suffering is related to this most difficult task, posed by this man called Jesus—’Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ ” He committed suicide with a lover in 1948.

Of course, not all Japanese writers are attached to Christianity or Marxism, and most do not commit suicide. But the psychological pattern is pervasive enough to suggest that it has some general significance. In the first English biography of Dazai Osamu, Phyllis I. Lyons quotes a Japanese critic speaking of “the inability of Japanese to understand what the West means by self.”* The search for self in the Japanese novel, as with many obsessive pursuits, often leads to a psychological cul-de-sac from which the writer knows no way out. Like adolescents, Japanese “I novelists” spend enormous energy in trying to catch their own shadows.

When Japanese are left with nothing but their “selves,” unbridled by Japanese social constraints and unchecked by universal values, they tend to become monstrous egoists with no sense of proportion—a bit like those eccentric Japanese founders of new religions who buy whole pages of The New York Times in order to proclaim their intention to establish eternal peace. Such people do not claim a special relationship with God; they are God. This explains, perhaps, why Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman has enjoyed such a wide appeal among Japanese intellectuals.

Among the most interesting periods discussed in Keene’s study is the period of the 1930s and 1940s. He describes it well. One can almost hear the sighs of relief with which most writers tied themselves to the anti-Western nationalist cause. All the ambivalence toward the West, which was almost the object of a cult but at the same time elusive and above all indifferent to the struggles of Japanese authors, was resolved by the wave of patriotism. The tireless seekers of independent selves now submerged themselves in the Japanese mass; even—or perhaps one should say, especially—Marxists rallied to the cause. As Keene says, “The success of the Japanese police in inducing people to renounce Communism was almost unbelievable. Hardly a single writer or artist took refuge abroad rather than submit to a public confession of error.” The difference from Germany, in this respect, hardly needs to be pointed out.

Perhaps logically the greatest worshipers of Western culture often became the most fanatic patriots. The poet Takamura Kotaro was such a man. He spent time in America and France, where he said he felt completely at home. His love for the West was sometimes expressed in a hatred for his countrymen, as in this poem written in 1911:

Cheekbones protruding, lips thick, eyes triangular,
Face like a netsuke carved by the master Sangoro,
A blank expression, as if his soul was removed,
Ignorant of himself, fidgety,
Cheap-lived,
Show-off,
Small-minded, self-satisfied,
Monkey-like, fox-like, squirrel-like, gudgeon-like,
minnow-like, potsherd-like, gargoyle- faced Japanese!

This sentiment was not untypical of Japanese writers desperately trying to identify with the West. Nor, however, was the sentiment Takamura expressed in this poem written two decades later (addressed to Chiang Kai-shek):

My country, Japan, is not destroying yours, sir;
We’re only destroying anti-Japanese thought.
If you, sir, persist in your anti- Japanism, you will also perish.
My country, Japan, has now attacked America and England.
America and England have been rejected by the Heaven and Earth of East Asia.
Their allies will be crushed.
Does this bode good or ill for your country, sir?
Reflect, sir, reflect!

The wild dream of uniting Asia under the benign leadership of the Japanese emperor and his fellow descendants from the sun was, however, only a temporary solution for Japanese intellectuals. Most were disillusioned by the end of the war and the B-29s took care of those who were not. From the ruins arose the energetic modern culture we know today. The Meiji goal of catching up with the West has, in many respects, been reached. But has the old conflict between self and others finally been solved? And have the Japanese found their place in the world? The example of Mishima suggests that they have not. Many consider him typical of Japan’s cultural schizophrenia. Part of him wanted to be a samurai, part of him a pop star in a Hawaiian shirt. But he may not have been as representative of postwar Japan as many people appear to think. And Keene’s assertion that “his reputation, both in Japan and in the West, has continued to grow and now seems likely to endure,” may be true in the West, but not in Japan.

When discussed at all these days, Mishima is seen by most Japanese as a complete anachronism, an embarrassing remnant of the past most people are content to forget. Some aspects of Mishima—specifically his homosexuality and extremist politics—are so embarrassing to many Japanese that they do not wish these to be discussed at all, least of all by foreigners. The refusal of the first Tokyo International Film Festival to screen Paul Schrader’s film Mishima seems to have been a result of this. Keene, alas, does not discuss the seamier side of Mishima’s life at all.

The Japanese may be right, however, to see Mishima as an anachronism. After all, Mishima, almost alone among his contemporaries, went through the same mental process as prewar writers. His models, certainly in the early stages of his life, were almost entirely Western: Oscar Wilde, Raymond Radiguet, Rainer Maria Rilke, et al. As a literary man of action he reminds one not so much of a samurai as of Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian he much admired. Mishima’s yearning, later in life, for a glorious Japanese past was as artificial as the worship of things Western by Meiji intellectuals. Keene is surely right when he says, “The Japan he loved was an abstraction; the West he loved was what made up his daily life.” The past was a fantasy to lend meaning to a present from which he, like so many of his predecessors, appears to have felt cut off.

In many respects, his Hawaiian shirts notwithstanding, Mishima was the last of the men of Meiji. Things have changed since Japan became the source of modernity instead of breathless and anxiously trying to catch up with the West. Keene does not tell us what these changes are and how they affect contemporary literature, since he discusses no writer born after the war. This is perhaps as it should be in an account of the “dawn to the West” in Japan. But, although it is too early to speak of a Western dusk, we now live in an age in which the West is beginning to dawn to the East.

Perhaps the most significant change is that Japanese intellectuals appear to be much less obsessed with the West. In a way many contemporary playwrights and novelists are more like the hedonists of the Edo period against whom the men of Meiji reacted. The theater, especially, has an air of irreverent frivolity and bawdiness not seen for centuries. And most contemporary novelists appear to be less interested in torturing themselves—if not their readers—by searching for elusive selves than in chronicling the latest minutiae of fashion. Even “rabu” is not talked about much anymore these days, and Christianity and Marxism have become distinctly unfashionable.

But if this makes postwar Japanese better-adjusted people than their forebears, they are also less cosmopolitan. Mishima was probably the last Japanese writer who was equally at home in Western, classical Chinese, and Japanese literature. This is perhaps why such critics as Keene rate him so highly. In fact, Keene himself is rather like a man of Meiji, slightly contemptuous of the “frivolity” of some pre-“Enlightenment” traditions. Judged by Western literary standards—that is, by the standards of an individualist tradition—the best days of modern Japanese literature may be over. But then Western standards have, it seems, become increasingly less relevant to Japanese writers. Just as the importance of oil painters searching to express their anguished souls has been eclipsed in Japan by a much more native tradition of applied arts—design, printmaking, and so forth.

Japanese journalists like to call the present age “Showa Genroku.” Showa refers to the reign of the present emperor, Genroku to the Golden Age of merchant culture in the seventeenth century. If the economic miracle has brought trade wars, crass consumerism, and vulgarity, it has also allowed the Japanese to be more unself-consciously themselves—for how long one doesn’t know; that depends a bit on pressures from the outside world. But even if Japanese writers have ended up rejecting many lessons from the West, the story of how they acquired them is a fascinating one, and nobody has told it better in any language, including Japanese, than Professor Keene.

  1. *

    The Saga of Dazai Osamu (Stanford University Press, 1984).

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