Leave a comment

Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Writing in the shadows of Japan’s literary giants

We are not sure of the exact date, but we know it happened on a Thursday in the fall of 1915.

That morning, Ryunosuke Akutagawa was extremely excited, but also nervous and perhaps even a bit queasy. Then 23 years old and still a university student, he had yet to make his mark as an author. All he had to his credit were a few translations of short works by Anatole France and W.B. Yeats and a small number of original stories of his own, none of which had attracted attention. In short, he did not have much of a resume.

By comparison, the people he met later that day were confident intellectuals with established reputations — most were at least a decade older than him. They knew each other well and, for a while already, had been gathering weekly at the house of one of their peers to discuss literature and the arts, philosophy and politics. Joining them would have been an intimidating prospect even for a confident man, something Akutagawa definitely was not. But this was also a unique opportunity to meet the individual hosting this salon, the most celebrated author of his generation and a man Akutagawa deeply admired. His name was Natsume Soseki.

It turned out to be a mesmerizing experience. Akutagawa later wrote that he had been so impressed by “the master” — he always referred to Soseki in this manner — that he had been almost unable to relax. The encounter also marked the beginning of a relationship, unfortunately cut short when Soseki died the following year, which was extremely meaningful for Akutagawa. With the help of his new mentor he was able to republish “The Nose” (1916), which Soseki greatly admired, in a well-known magazine. This brought him fame almost overnight.

Though their friendship spanned only a few months, the lives of Soseki and Akutagawa cover a critical period in the history of Japanese fiction. In the twilight years of the Edo Period (1603-1868) the genre was in a sorry state, a mere shadow of its former grandeur. …

Read More


Leave a comment

The shifting sexual norms in Japan’s literary history

By Damian Flanagan

More than 3,000 women and almost 900 men — that’s the number of lovers the main protagonist in Ihara Saikaku’s 1682 novel “Koshoku Ichidai Otoko” (“The Life of an Amorous Man”) tallies up as he reminisces. Saikaku, born in Osaka in 1642, became a renowned poet who wrote about the fluid, open sexuality of Edo Period (1603-1868) pleasure quarters with a startling lack of inhibition: In the 1685 collection of stories “Koshoku Gonin Onna” (“Five Women Who Loved Love”), he explores the love lives of feisty females; in “Koshoku Ichidai Onna” (“The Life of an Amorous Woman”), published in 1686, he includes a brief lesbian scene; and then there is “Nanshoku Okagami” (“The Great Mirror of Male Love”), a 1687 collection that focuses exclusively on love between men.

The sexual openness of Ihara’s characters seems to be profoundly out of place in contemporary conservative Japan. Today, the recognition afforded to the LGBT community is hotly debated in the country, and though traditionally conservative nations such as Ireland have legalized same-sex marriage, Japan is lagging behind. A recent legal ruling even rejected the right of partners (in practice, women) to keep their surnames after marriage, as a means of protecting “traditional family values.”

Though Japan’s current social conservatism appears at odds with the West’s liberalizing tendencies, it’s also at odds with the nation’s own past. Writers, stretching from Ihara to modern authors such as Natsume Soseki and Yukio Mishima, have often approached sexuality with curiosity. Read more


Source: The Japan Times

Leave a comment

The three-cornered world of Glenn Gould and Natsume Soseki

kusamakuraThis year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first English-language translation of “Kusamakura” (literally “Pillow of Grass”), a 1906 novella by one of Japan’s greatest writers, Natsume Soseki (1867-1916). Published in 1965, this award-winning translation — by Alan Turney — was given a new title: “The Three-Cornered World.”

Soseki’s original, “Kusamakura,” contains some particularly fine examples of Japanese expression, and is packed with philosophical musings on the nature of Western painting, Chinese poetry and Zen among many other subjects. For Soseki’s legions of fans it is a tour de force. Continue reading