Love and politics in 1950s Japan

Utage no Ato/After the Banquet (1960, published in English, translated by Donald Keene, in 1963) is with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (the basis for Enjô/Conflagration), the most acclaimed novel by Mishima Yukio. Most of the bookis about the relationship between a retired diplomat, Soguchi Tuken, and Kazu, the owner of Setsugoan (After Snow Retreat), a chic restaurant with an impressive garden where a group of retired diplomats has a reunion. One, a former ambassador to Nazi Germany, has a stroke in the lavatory of the restaurant. The only single (widower) guest stays a while to help. Is struck by his once-elegant (in the English fashion), now shabby clothes and wants to take care of him. She has foresworn love after a career in which at least some of her advancement came from work she did on her back. It seem to me that there is much that is maternal in her attraction to Soguchi, though he does not seem to be seeking a new mother, and resists her spending money on him.

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He has agreed to let his energetic younger wife (a young 50-somthing in contrast to his old 60-something) continue to operate her successful business and sleep on the grounds there weeknights. When Soguchi decides he is going to run for office, Kazu (unbeknownst to him) throws her energy and resources into the campaign, starting before it is legal to do so (before the election is formally called). Soguchi is stiff and proper, but Kazu connects with lower-class voters, à la Eva Peron, eclipsing her prosaic husband devoid of the popular touch:
“The phrases from Kazu’s lips – ‘reform of the prefectural administration,’ ‘positive policies to combat unemployment,’ and the like – plummeted to the ground like swarms of winged ants which have lost the strength of their wings, but the words visible on the lips of the crowd dripped like red meat in the sunshine.”

(On the first page of the novel, Mishima wrote: “Some curious blessing of heaven had joined in one body a mans resolution with a woman’s reckless enthusiasm.” Neither the society nor her husband are prepared to accept such a dynamo unleashed in the political sphere.)

For a time Soguchi leads in polls, but the Conservative Party publishes a scurrilous book about Kazu’s sexual history and otherwise considerably outspends the Radical Party’s campaign for Soguchi. After he loses, he retires, but his wife is not ready for a quiet life. She is, as I mentioned, more than a decade younger, and accustomed to being among men (her customer base having been Conservative Party politicians), followed by a very active role campaigning (not just financing her husband’s campaign). She cares nothing about ideology, and has a much firmer understanding of how politics resembles (or is a form of) prostitution than her idealistic husband does.

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There is no depth psychology (not just Mishima, but most Japanese literature prefigured the noveau roman in chronicling objects—especially clothing, but also including menus—rather than exploring motivations). In particular, while Kazu’s feelings are detailed, the motivations of Soguchi, beyond seeking to be a public model of rectitude are not limned, and his expectations of a subservient wife seem foolish from the get-go as she more or less conquers him and is obviously a more than competent business owner. Also, she is more in love, eager to advance her husband (by any means, not just the patrician ones of which he approves). In contrast, he is not particularly in love and is totally indifferent to what his wife wants (for him or for herself), indeed is clueless about what that might be.

A third major character is Yamazaki, Kazu’s political mentor, a Radical Party operative accustomed to defeat by the money the Conservative Party uses (“Corruption in an election or the victory of moneyed power did not in the least surprise him; they seemed as natural as stones and horse dung along a road”). He advises both Soguchi and Kazu and appreciates her more than her husband does.

Still, the protagonist of the novel is Kazu and it focuses on her difficulties, not at all colluding the male privilege or taking a male perspective on female aspirations. (Also see the entirely female world Mishima created in “Madame de Sade” and Asako in  “Rokumeikan.”) Given Mishima’s horror about the ravages to the body of age that led to his suicide in 1970, the book is remarkably sympathetic to characters older than he would allow himself to become,

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The real-life model for Soguchi was Arita Hachirô, who had been Japanese Ambassador to Austria and Belgim, Minister for Foreign Affairs. Like Soguchi , he won a seat in the House of Rpresentative in 1953, ran and lost a campaign to be Governor of Tokyo in 1955. The married Arita had a notorious affair with a Ginza hostess. Arita won a suit for invasion of privacy by the novel, though it seems to me that there were major differences” Arita rose much higher in the government, his wife was dead when he took up with a hostess, and his attempt to become Governor of Tokyo was not a comeback and was not waged as a radical against his former partymates. And rather than retiring after defeat, he ran (and lost) again four years later. I don’t know how close to the real-life model Kazu was, but his political career did not end with the 1955 defeat.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

On the road… to Golgotha

Hasekura Rokuemon (1571-1622), the titular samurai of Endô Shusakü’s 1980 novel is a middle-aged, low-rank (likened to a lance corporal) samurai, with no experience of battle, who is placed in nominal charge of a delegation of four envoys and some merchants dispatched to New Spain (later Mexico) in the second decade of the 17th century (C.E.). They are not representing the shogun (the newly dominant Tokugawa one, Ieyasu) or the emperor but a lord (daimyô) from Tohoku in northern Honshu, Shiraishi, who tells his envoys, “In the land of the foreigners, the ways of life will probably be different from those here in Japan. You must not cling to Japanese customs if they stand in the way of your mission. If that which is white in Japan is black in the foreign lands, consider it black. Even if you remain unconvinced in your heart, you must wear a look of acquiescence on your face.”

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Having traveled to Acapulco, then overland to the capital (Mexico City), they learn that no decisions about trade or other relations with Japan can be made by the viceroy there, so they journey on to Vera Cruz, then across another ocean to Madrid. There, they learn from the king (Felipe III) that the pope (Paul V) must be consulted. The samurai and the three envoys still with him consent to be baptized in order to be received in the Vatican (that is, their “conversion” is policy, not motivated by belief in Christianity) They attain an audience with the pope in Rome, but nothing is resolved, and they return by the same route they had taken eastward.

While they were gone, Japan has closed itself off again. Hasekura has become a true believer, but even the nominal baptisms are viewed as treasonable in their xenophobic homeland. And the diplomatic/trade mission being back with them a Spanish Franciscan missionary, Father Velasco. He seems more jesuitical than Franciscan to me, though he battles with the Jesuits who had already established a toehold in Japan. Father Velasco is exceedingly vain, ambitious, manipulative, and lacking in scruples or doubts in his understanding of a very alien culture. He seeks to be named Bishop of Japan, but attains a spectacular martyrdom (before those missionaries who Endô portrayed in The Silence).

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Endô himself had a sojourn in Europe (to study French Catholic writers), and much of his fiction that I like most involves Japanese outside Japan (Deep River,Japanese in Warsaw). Most of it concerned the incompatibilities between Japanese culture and Christian faith that he grappled with himself. The Jesuit debating Velasco sounds recurrent Endô themes:

“The Japanese basically lack a sensitivity to anything that is absolute, to anything that transcends the human level, to the existence of anything beyond the realm of Nature: what we should call the supernatural. I finally realized that after thirty years there as a missionary. It was a simple matter to teach them that this life is transitory. They have always been sensitive to that aspect of life. The frightening thing is that the Japanese also have a capacity to accept and even relish the evanescence of life. This capacity is so profound that they actually revel in that knowledge, and have written many verses inspired by that emotion. Yet the Japanese make no attempt to leap beyond it. They abhor the idea of making clear distinctions between man and God. To them, even if there should be something greater than man, it is something which man himself can one day become. Their Buddha, for instance, is a being which man can become once he abandons his illusions. Even Nature, which for us is something totally detached from man, to them is an entity that envelops mankind. We…we failed in our attempts to rectify these attitudes of theirs.”

The Holy Mother Church does not come off well in Samurai, but Hasekura’s faith and, ultimately, Father Velasco’s willingness to die for it are treated with respect.

BTW, the historical Hasekura Rokuemon died within two years of his return to Japan in 1620, but was not executed. And Endô has the Spanish priest speak directly (i.e., Velasco’s first person), but not the Japanese convert (i.e., third person narrative for Hasekura). There is little “local color” in Mexico and Europe in Endô’s novel about Christian faith, and no swordplay (or spearplay) contrary to the cover images..

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A 1942 Japanese paean to duty and self-sacrifice with no mention of any war

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Between 1938 and 1946 Ozu Yasuojirô (1903-63) made only two movies. (An army reservist he was called up twice and was away from Shochiku Studio for three of these years). The second of them “Chichi Ariki” (“father from Ariki, which is where the son goes to teach chemistry; titled in English “There Was a Father”, 1942) does not mention any of Japan’s wartime enemies, and barely touches directly on military matters—the now 25-year-old son passes his draft physical, which is not surprise in that for a Japanese, he is a hulk. At the end, rather than going off for military service, he is returning, with his new wife (Fumiko [Mitsuko Mito], the daughter of his father’s friend and go opponent) to Ariki, carrying his just-deceased father’s ashes in the luggage rack above his seat in the train.

The widower father, Horikawa Shuhei (Ozu regular pater familis Ryû Chishû) moved to Tokyo midway through the film, but dies of a heart attack, rather than from American bombs — which were not yet blanketing Tokyo when the movie was shot. When the present-day of the movie is remains opaque. It is thirteen years after Horikawa resigned from being a middle-school math teacher after a boy in his charge — defying explicit orders not to go out in boats on the lake the school group was visiting — drowned.

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No one but Horikawa blamed him from the accident. His colleague Hirata (Sakamoto Takeshi) in particular urges him to stay, but Horikawa retreats to his native town of Ueda, staying with an old friend who is a priest. Horikawa realizes he needs to make more money than he can in Ueda in order to send his son to (middle) school and moves to Tokyo, where he works as a low-level manager in a textile factory.

The son, Ryohei (played by Tsuda Hahuhiko as a child by the hunky Sano Shûji as an adult) being inculcated in Duty, Duty, Duty, has to live in boarding school, longing for occasional time with his father. They spend their time together fly-fishing in a rocky stream (in which as far as I can tell, they never catch a single fish) and deferring to each other about who will bathe first.

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Ryohei continues to long to live with his father, but when he proposes coming to Tokyo and finding a job, his father erupts with a lecture about his duty to stay where he is and teach those who are the future of the Empire. Teaching is vital work, never mind that Shuhei himself abandoned it in guilt (or shame?) after the boy’s drowning and, in effect, has punished his son for his own sin of omission (at least a failure of watchfulness over his charges). Sacrifice is not only necessary, but good (a message the brunt of which is borne by daughters in later Ozu movies).

Though there is no propaganda for Japanese militarism in this — let me stress 1942 — movie, its inflexible call to duty in general, and keeping one’s place in the society, submitting to paternal authority, pleased the government authorities in charge of the Japanese movie industry (after 1939). The movie was a critical and commercial hit, even without any battle scenes and without any of the women sacrificing themselves to their vision of what the family needed, as was common in Ozu’s more famous postwar movies.

Ryû was good and at least in the first half played his own age. Both Ryoheis were also good, swallowing their hurt (and tears). The Ozu camera was already fixed at the height of one meter, but the intercutting kept it from seeming visually static. And there were some outdoors scenes: not only trains, which recur in Ozu movies, but the trout stream.

I’ve already noted that in commanding his son to stay at his teaching post, Horikawa Shuhei is effectively saying “Do as I say, not as I did.” As with later fathers Ryû played in Ozu films, Horikawa Shuhei downs a lot of sake.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The other movie Ozu made during the war, which has the more typical female self-sacrifice, was Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941). For my other reviews and ratings of other parts of Ozu’s oeuvre see here.

Kenyan and Hokkaido hill country and fauna

When I was sixteen, I was entranced by the memoir of  Isak Dinesen’s [Karen Baroness von Blixen-Finecke, 1885-1962], Out of Africa (first published in 1937). Kenya had only been independent for three years when I first read the book, which is set in 1913-31. Blixen made many criticisms of colonial paternalism and the expropriation of land (Kikuyus could not legally own land!), but for all the time she spent alone with “the natives,” maintained assumptions of racial superiority that are gratingly obvious now.

I still like her upbeat voice and compassion for all the residents (black, white, animal) of Africa, though the generalizations about tribal characteristics make me suspicious. And the romance wit Dennis Fitch Hatton is mostly about flying and sharing enthusiasm for English poetry, while her husband goes entirely unmentioned until p. 228 (and then goes unmentioned through the rest of the book).

There must be distinctions between Somalis, Maasai, and Kikuyu. Blixen/Dinesen seems to me to romanticize the Somalis and to condescend to Kikukyu, but that she exerted herself to find someplace for her mass of squatters and their cattle to live after she was gone.

The classical anguish of the last part is still a bit scattershot, but not as miscellaneous as the middle “Immigrant’s Notebook.”

She records a particularly absurd nominalist, Count Schimmelmann, in “In the Menagerie”:

“The wild animals, which run in a wild landscape, do not really exist. This one [in a cage before the interlocutors] exists, we have a name for it, we know what it is like. The others might as well not have been, still they are the large majority. Nature is extravagant.

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“They see each other.”

“Even that may be disputed. These giraffes, for instance, have got square markings on the skin. The giraffes looking at each other, will not know a square and consequently will not see a square. Can they be said to have seen each other at all?” [Besides which ,  as the phot above shows, the marks are not square…]

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I moved on to Alan Booth’s (1946-93) The Roads to Sata (first published in 1985), an account of walking from the northernmost point of Hokkaido (Soya) to the southernmost point of Kyushu (Sata), approximately 3300 kilometers in 128 days in 1977. After Dinesen, it was a relief at the outset to read; “I have tried to avoid generalizations, especially ‘the Japanese.’” Alas, I don’t find much of interest in his observations of encounters with roughly twelve hundred Japanese.

Alas, what I find most interesting are not the accounts of the encounters, which consist of repeated shock that a gajin (foreigner) can speak Japanese and, secondarily, is not American. The astounded rural Japanese bought him many beers. And students astounded Booth by the English they learned in schools. (The reader can see why there are incomprehensible mangled English words on Japanese t-shirts.)

In the mid-1970s, Booth found the highways littered in discarded, unraveled cassette tapes. He walked through some industrial wastelands as well as beautiful seashores and mountains, refusing the many proferred rides. Pretty much no one could understand his wanting to walk to the next town, let alone all the way (the long way) across three of the four major islands.

The most memorable encounter for me was with a Hokkaido man who had been a Soviet prisoner for years (the Soviet Union only declared war against Japan at the very end, but seized prisoners and held on to them unconscionably long times in Sakhalin or Siberia).begging bear.jpg

The conversation matches Booth’s British dry wit with Japanese fatalism, and concerns Hokkaido bears. (The one pictured above is waiting to catch a food pellet in a Hokkaido bear park.)

The Hokkaido man told Booth that bears are the most predictable of animals—far more predictable than human beings, whom he confessed he had not much interest in and whom he thought overrates as a species.

“There are dozens of bears in the hills around the lake [Shikotsu]. They come down almost daily to the road over there.”

He pointed to the road I had just walked along, and I said “Oh, really?” with a great deal of nonchalance”

“You want to whistle or sing when you walk or have a bell and ring it from time to time, or band a stick. They won’t come near you unless they’re really hungry, and then it’s only your food they’ll want.”

I nodded pleasantly, having no food.

“If you turn a corner and you see a bear and it’s thirty meters away from you, you’ve no need to worry. The bear will run away. It’ll be more frightened than you are. If you turn a corner and you see a bear, say, twenty meters away, there’s still a good chance it won’t bother you. It’ll roar a bit just to let you know it’s there, but if you stand quite still it’ll probably get bored and go back into the forest. And, then, of course, if you turn a corner and you see a bear five or ten meters from you—“

“Then probably, I should start to worry.”

“Not really. You’ve no need to worry, Bears are the most predictable of animals. If it’s five meters away it’ll certainly kill you. There is no point in worrying at all.”

Though I think what the Hokkaido ex-POW said applies to North American bears, too, the artful buildup pleases me, whereas most other encounters Booth had were unilluminating about anything other than smug Japanese ethnocentrism. And these are interspersed with the misery of being rained on, trying to find roads, some of which exist only on maps, others of which are litter-edged motorways, sunburn, and mosquitoes.

A long and talky portrayal of a splintered doomsday-advancing cult

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I am puzzled that Oe Kenzaburo (1935-) was promoted by Grove Press publisher Barry Rossiter and remain dubious about awarding a Nobel Prize to him (for a then-living Japanese writer in 1994, I’d have picked Inoue Yasushi). In his speech accepting the award, Oe said that he was finished with autobiographical fiction. I think that his guilt about his brain-damaged son Hikari became tedious, and welcomed moving on to other topics.

His first post-prize novel, the 576-page 1999 Chugaeri,/Somersault, lacks the concision of his early and middle-period work. It was stimulated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult and the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system of 1995 that was the biggest trauma for Japanese between the atomic bombs/surrender/occupation and the 2011 Fukishima nuclear reactor explosions following the Tôhoku earthquake.

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The sprawling novel focuses on the revival of a cult that had been dissolved a decade earlier by its founders, Patron and Guide, appalled at a militant faction that was planning to seize a nuclear power plant. (This is the titular “somersault.”) A remnant (Technicians intent on speeding the end of the world) has kidnapped Guide, and Patron wants to lead an alternative, more peaceful group than that of his former followers.

Patron lacks convincing charisma and the characters of his circle seem forced notions with pat motivations and no substance. Kizu, a painter who has become new co-leader with Patron, is dying of colon cancer and discovers homoerotic feelings that seem borrowed from Thomas Mann’s (much shorter and focused novella, Death in Venice with an older, more brutish Tadzio, herein named Ikuo). The ghost of Dosteovesky (especially  Devils and The Possessed) also lies heavily on the cult members.

There is obsessive, very stilted dialogue about the cult (a toxic mix of Christianity, Judaism, animism, and Buddhism), its attempted dissolution, and the eschatological message of the Church of the New Man (with no new visions since Patron’s original ones, explicated by the now unreachable Guide, before the “somersault”). Oe does little to illuminate why some people join doomsday cults; Murakami’s Underground, comprised of interviews of Aum members and survivors of the subway attack casts more light and takes less effort slogging through turgid theological discussions and painstakingly detailed logistics of running a cult.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

A chaotic, but IMHO better, Oe representation of a cult (of a particular saint) is

An Echo of Heaven. I’ve also written about earlier Oe fiction (in chronological order of their publication):

Nip the Bud Shoot the Kids

Prize Stock, etc. (early novellas)

A Personal Matter

The Silent Cry

A Quiet Life