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Complete translation of ‘Kafu’s first masterpiece’

by Paul Mccarthy

The English reader has in this volume a complete translation of works of fiction, interspersed with thinly disguised autobiography and essay-like passages, composed by a young Japanese man who was to go on to become one of the finest Japanese writers of the 20th century, Nagai Kafu (1879-1959).

AMERICAN STORIES, by Nagai Kafu, translated and with an introduction by Mitsuko Iriye. Columbia University Press, 2013, 239 pp., $25, (paperback)

Kafu (like many writers of his generation and earlier but few afterward, he is known by his literary sobriquet rather than his surname) was Tokyo born and bred, and is best known for his evocation of the life of the Shitamachi “Low Town” and of the demimonde as it changed over the roughly five decades of his active literary career. The classic biographical-critical study of Kafu, including translations of many of his major works in whole or in part, is the late Edward Seidensticker’s “Kafu the Scribbler” (1965). For many of us it is the most impressive and enjoyable work on a single Japanese author ever to have appeared in English.

Seidensticker was a great though not uncritical admirer of Kafu. He did not care much for Kafu’s youthful (1908) fictionalized account of his experiences in America, and translated only brief passages from it in his 1965 volume.

Yet Mitsuko Iriye quotes Donald Keene’s assessment of the work as “Kafu’s first masterpiece,” and I was won over to this view as I read Iriye’s smooth and evocative translations of all 23 stories.

Kafu was unusual for a Japanese writer of his day in that he spent a total of four years abroad in his mid- to late 20s — three of them in the United States and one in France. His view of the U.S. as expressed in letters and diaries was somewhat jaundiced: “The American people, who shun profound thought and set their souls and hearts in quest of worldly success. … The United States is extremely inconvenient and unsuitable for a person like myself who wants to study literature.”

Yet he fell in love with the natural beauty of the small town of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he had gone to study English; and later with aspects of Washington, D.C., and New York, where he worked at low-level jobs for the embassy and a bank. And he was drawn to fair-haired American women, with some of whom he was able to become intimate. He read extensively in French and English-language literature, always preferring the former, and enjoyed visits to museums and concert halls.

But there were darker, less pleasant aspects of his stay as well. He first lived in Tacoma and Seattle, Washington, where large numbers of Japanese immigrants out of necessity formed a kind of ghetto — a poor, shabby place from which they ventured to ill-paying jobs and occasional experiences of overt racial discrimination. Kafu gives a vivid account of how the strains of such a life could result in breakdowns and confinement to lunatic asylums.

Other Japanese escaped to islands of tolerance and religious devotion like Kalamazoo College. Still others had money and leisure and pursued lives of pleasure, usually focused on women of the demimonde: “her clear, blue-green eyes with long eyelashes had the usual indescribable expressiveness typical of a Western woman. But to my eyes, she looked quite indecent and lascivious, perhaps because of the blond hair loosely knotted behind her neck, almost tumbling down onto her shoulders.”

Though some of the stories, reflections, and comments seem to come from Kafu himself (or a very Kafu-like narrator, at any rate), many are presented in the voices of other persons, usually Japanese males living in America at one social level or another. Part of the charm of the book lies in the variety of voices, stances, points of view — as well as in the variety of venues, from Tacoma slums to chapel services in Kalamazoo to brothels in New York City.

One can imagine with what excitement these vivid vignettes of life in the land across the ocean must have been read by late Meiji and early Taisho Era Japanese. They have a youthful freshness even today, and allow Western readers to view aspects of their own society through Kafu’s alien but always keen and sensitive gaze.

Paul McCarthy holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has taught language and literature at universities in the U.S. and Japan, and is a literary translator and writer.