“Third Generation” Japanese Novelists

I thought the 1993 book by Van C. Gessel, now a professor of Japanese Studies at Bringham Young University, about Three Modern Novelists: Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata provided concise biographies of the three subjects. His earlier (1989) book on writers of the generation after Kawabata, The Sting of Life: Four Contemporary Japanese Novelists, was very interesting. Only one of the four writers has had much of his work translated into English (mostly by Gessel), Endô Shûsaku. The other three are Kojima, Nobuou, Yasuoka Shôtarô, and Shimao Toshio.

Gessel’s book on earlier Japanese novelist has very little exposition or literary evaluation. It is a set of (first-rate) biographies. The older book about later writers included biographical information (and the writers had “interesting” wartime experiences), but discusses in some depth the (often autobiographical) fiction (stories, as well as novels) of the four authors. This is necessary (not just useful!) for Anglophones interested in the leading “Third Generation” novelists (who began publishing after the end of WWII, during or just after the US Occupation) who cannot read the original Japanese of the novelists.

Reading The Sting of Life made me wish that many of the works Gessel discusses would be translated into English. Gessel’s seven-page discussion with some quotations of Kojima Nobuou’s Stars and Stripes. Kojima wrote his graduation essay on “Thackeray as a Humorist,” but the major influence on him was the more absurdist fiction of Nikolai Gogol.


Kojima Nobuou (1915-2006)

George/Jôji is the American-born (Nisei generation) son of emigrants from Japan “who has the misfortune of being in Japan when war breaks out and finding himself drafted in the Japanese army to fight against his countrymen… Torn beteween an inborn love of America and a sense of duty to Japan [George/Jôji is ] a perfect symbol of ambivalence, the epitome of the inability to choose. By presenting his character with situations in which any rational choice is likely to lead to further problems,      Kojima demonstrates that he has no faith in purposive action, and it is a foregone conclusion that only laughable results will emerge from the characters’ attempts to succeed.”

Sounds like this could be “the Japanese Catch-22,” a satire of the Imperial Army. Shimao Toshio’s real-life experience heading a set of kamikaze pilots who were never called upon to set off, dealing with airmen, appears like the inverse of Catch-22 in which Yossarian desperately seeks not to fly any more missions (which have high casualty rates, but were not designed as suicides). (Shimao wrote a novel based on his wife’s mental illness, Shi no toge (“The Sting of Death,” borrowed by Gessel for his own book).


(Shimao, 1917-86,  in naval air corp uniform in 1944)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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