A literary loner

Ever an outsider, the novelist Nagai Kafu was out of step and out of time as Japan embraced modernity

by Michael Hoffman

In Tokyo and even in the Occident, I have known almost no society except that of courtesans. — Nagai Kafu There’s not much left of Kafu today. Among the major Japanese writers of the early 20th century, he scarcely ranks as a survivor. Natsume Soseki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Junichiro Tanizaki are the towering names of the period. Kafu, relatively speaking, is a footnote.

Even his biographer and principal English translator, Edward Seidensticker (whose translations from “Kafu the Scribbler” are used here except where otherwise specified), had serious reservations about Kafu. Dubbing him (in his 2002 memoir “Tokyo Central”) “the writer of whom I was probably fondest,” he hastens to add that “affection and admiration are not the same thing.”

His praise is barbed: “Though he was not such a good novelist, he has come to seem better and better at what he was good at.” What he was good at was evoking the moods and textures of a Tokyo changing, he thought, much too fast and altogether in the wrong direction.

“Now,” says Seidensticker, “the Low City” — the downtown shitamachi plebeian quarter watered by the Sumida River — “is utterly changed. There is no street life any more. . . . As I try to keep alive memories of how things were, Kafu is a dearer companion than ever.”

Nagai Sokichi (Kafu is a pen name) was born in Tokyo on Dec. 3, 1879 — not in his beloved shitamachi but in the Koishikawa district of present-day Bunkyo Ward, in the patrician “uptown” he so despised. He died, eight months shy of 80, on April 30, 1959 — 50 years ago this week. He was a difficult man; eccentric, unloving, unlovable. You’d never know this, of course, from the citation that accompanied the Imperial Cultural Decoration he was awarded in 1952 in honor of “his many works replete with a warmly elegant poetic spirit, with an elevated form of social criticism, and with a penetrating appreciation of reality.”

Seidensticker, in his 1965 biography “Kafu the Scribbler” (Stanford University Press) wryly rewrites the citation: “A querulous, self-righteous man, whose social criticism rarely rose above the level of personal complaining, and whose grasp of the complex reality that is the human spirit was less than adequate; but a man, withal, whose love for his city and its traditions never wavered, and who expressed that love in prose worthy of the great classical Japanese essayists.”

Though a vagabond at heart, Kafu traveled little, Tokyo apparently affording him all the scope his wanderlust demanded. Once home after five years abroad as a young man, he scarcely ever left the city.

Other paradoxes, too, marked his prickly character. His diatribes against Japan’s Westernization sat comfortably in his own mind with a personal preference for Western-style housing and clothing. His love of nature inspired beautiful descriptions in his works — of trees and flowers, birds and insects, river and sky — but no country rambles. His first recorded ventures into the Japanese countryside occurred only in 1945, when the bombing of Tokyo forced him into rural refuge.

Three journeys stand out in the early years — to America in 1903; back to Japan (following a euphoric seven-month stopover in France) in 1908; and across Tokyo by streetcar one sunny December afternoon that same year.

The first will be discussed in due course. The second is significant for two shipboard observations he recorded; they suggest his state of mind at the time and, with modifications, throughout his life. At sea, recalling his reluctant departure for home, he mused, “I was leaving behind the love and the art of France, and I was going to a remote edge of the East, where death would presently bring an end to a dull monotonous life.”

Later, in the Mediterranean (“Ah, Mediterranean sky, off the mystic shores of Africa!”), he noted, “I admire Turkey. At least it is not” — unlike Japan — “hypocritical. It is not the sort of hypocrite that takes a shallow pride in seeking admission to the brotherhood of the West, and to that end puts together a sham culture.”

The streetcar journey survives in memory as the subject of a 1909 essay titled “Fukagawa no Uta” (“Song of Fukagawa”). On the east bank of the Sumida River, in present-day Koto Ward, Fukagawa was then an unlicensed pleasure quarter that Kafu, adolescent rebel against a stern Confucian father, first frequented in the 1890s. His rapturous response to it will bemuse those who judge it by its featureless postwar contours: “Before I left Japan (for America), Fukagawa of the waters (sic, presumably meaning the Sumida) had long been the place that answered to my every taste, longing, sorrow, and joy. Even then, before the streetcar tracks were laid, the beauty of the city was being destroyed, and that sad, lonely vista beyond the river still let one taste of decline and decay and an indescribably pure and harmonious beauty.”

Decline and decay are essential elements, well worth the tasting. “Harmonious beauty,” to Kafu, is inconceivable without them.

The journey begins at Kojimachi, west of the Imperial Palace. Kafu boards the streetcar on a whim, no destination in mind. Beguiling his idleness, he subjects the passengers to a pitiless scrutiny. A man who looks like a building contractor belches and yawns. An aging geisha sucks noisily on a decayed tooth. Preserved in amber in all their hideous, heightened actuality are two high school girls, the dust in their oily hair rendered positively filthy by a bright sun heedless of what it shines upon and a gifted writer’s bilious pen.

The car stops for a middle-aged woman with a baby on her back. She is fat, workworn, ugly. The baby starts to wail. At least that drowns out the geisha going “chu, chu” on her tooth. The mother bares a shapeless, leathery breast. The conductor announces the next stop. In the ensuing rush to the exit the baby sheds its soiled diaper, at which the mother “starts howling like a madwoman.”

Other adventures follow — a passenger bolts without paying; the car is stranded by a power failure. All is sordid, confused, foul — typical, Kafu seems to be saying, of the mess the modernizing Meiji revolution of 1868 has made of Japan. Ah, but here is “Fukagawa of the waters!” The mood shifts. Clamorous modernity is out; “pure and harmonious beauty” reigns, just as in the Edo (pre-Meiji Tokyo) of Kafu’s lifelong dream.

A blind mendicant musician plucks a shamisen and chants old Edo ballads. Kafu pauses to listen. Lost in reverie, overcome with emotion, he imagines the musician’s past. He seems an educated man; very likely “he could not bring himself into harmony with the vulgar clutter of Meiji . . . and he lost his eyesight as he lost his money. Presently he found salvation in these pathetic circumstances . . .

“His (blind) eyes, filled with (visions of Edo), were spared the horrid streetcars and power lines and all the rest of our superficial Westernization. . . . I wanted to stay on and on in the fading light of Fukagawa . . . “

In a sense, that’s exactly what he did.

America, 1903. The eldest son of a high-ranking bureaucrat turned businessman, Kafu was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, but showed early signs of not being cut from the same stiff Confucian cloth. He was, he wrote, “an emotional young man who has only the dream of beauty” — a peculiarly Kafuesque sort of beauty, as other youthful jottings make clear: “I want dissipation, to destroy myself in dissipation”; “I want to see to what point unhealthy desires and pleasures can be pushed.”

The literature, theater and music of old Edo, the heedless life of the pleasure quarters — these, rivaled only by the literature of France, the naturalism of Emile Zola (1840-1902) in particular, are what kindled his imagination.

His authoritarian father — Meiji personified — packed him off in alarm to the United States — not France, Kafu’s preferred destination — hoping its commercial spirit would stiffen his fiber. It did not. Kafu had already published three semierotic novels before leaving Japan, and during his four-year stay, while desultorily attending colleges in Seattle and Tacoma in Washington state, and Kalamazoo in Michigan, he wrote “Amerika Monogatari” (“American Stories”) — “his first masterpiece,” according to the eminent scholar Donald Keene.

The stories are remarkable in a number of respects. Their depiction of struggling, sometimes floundering, Japanese immigrants in some of the rawer settings of a young, faraway, often bewildering land marked a new theme in Japanese fiction. Kafu is expansive here as he was never to be again, treating a variety of characters who are not, as most of his later characters tend to be, thinly disguised incarnations of Kafu himself; disgruntled vehicles for his insatiable exasperation.

The Kafu of “Amerika Monogatari” is another man altogether — younger of course, but also (perhaps for that reason) warmer, friendlier, more sympathetic and, above all, more hopeful, his eye on a potentially better future rather than a lost, mythologized past.

America did cast a spell on him, if only temporarily. Before it faded, he wrote something he was never to attempt again — a love story (it appears in “Amerika Monogatari”) untainted by disease or death.

The prosaic title of the story, belying its radiant mood, is “Two Days in Chicago.” The lover is not Kafu but an American friend of his. Kafu and James had been fellow-students in Michigan; now James is established in Chicago and Kafu goes to visit.

The gathering at the home of James’ fiancee’s parents is a delightful affair. The “most memorable and pleasant dinner” is followed by an impromptu concert, James at the piano and Stella, his sweetheart, on violin. Then, “as soon as the young woman put down her instrument, she threw herself into James’ arms, as if she could no longer wait, and twice kissed him passionately. Her parents eagerly applauded and asked them to play again, but she kept her face firmly pressed against his chest, as if she were unable to restrain her deep emotion.”

Is this Kafu writing? One might well wonder; the tone is so bubbly, so unlike him.

“Oh, how I wish,” he exclaims, “that such a pleasant family scene could be duplicated in our homeland!

“Think, for instance, of the way I was brought up at my home, by a father whose warm human blood had been chilled by the Confucian classics, and a mother who had been restrained by treatises on womanly virtue and behavior. In such an environment, there is no room for music or laughter. My father would indulge in the pleasure of drinking with his friends till past midnight and assail my mother, already exhausted from the day’s chores, for the way the sake was warmed or the food cooked; alas, looking at my father’s face on such occasions, vicious and autocratic, and my mother’s sad, lethargic face accustomed to blind obedience, I used to think, while still a child, that nothing in the world was as detestable as a father, and nothing as unhappy as a mother. But if progress is the law of the world, such a barbaric, Confucian age will soon become a thing of the past, and our new era will sound a triumphal tune.” (Translated by Mitsuko Iriye in “American Stories,” published in 2000 by Columbia University Press.) Back in Japan, Kafu wrote a second love story — his last, though 50 years of life and writing still lay before him. “Sumidagawa” (“The Sumida River”) reveals the depths of his disillusion. The five years separating it from “Two Days in Chicago” (“Sumidagawa” appeared in 1910) have clearly aged him. Youth is gone, and the youth he confers upon his young protagonist is sickly and helpless, drained of all vigor. The “new era” has come but sounds no “triumphal tune,” either for character or author. Japan’s soaring ascent from isolated backwater to world power in the space of a generation seems to have crushed the life out of both of them.

Chokichi, the lovesick protagonist, is a fly caught in the web of Meiji Era industrialism, authoritarianism, relentless progress. The authority figure is not a father or an oppressive government but a widowed mother, a shamisen teacher and rather a helpless person herself, though firm enough where her only son is concerned — he is to be trained for a career in the Meiji bureaucracy, and if his natural bent leads him to music or acting or similar “vulgar” pursuits, then that natural bent will just have to be suppressed. The “new era” has no place for laggards with artistic yearnings.

Chokichi loves O-ito, and has since the two were childhood playmates. But O-ito, at 15, is a geisha in training and has little time for the mooning 17-year-old Chokichi. Chokichi trudges off to school, more miserable each day. He falls ill. A convalescent spring walk ends by chance at a kabuki theater in Asakusa, where he meets an old friend, now an actor. Perhaps that is what he, Chokichi, should be. If he can’t have O-ito, he can at least live in the alternate reality of the floodlit stage. Perhaps, after all, life on stage is more real than the drab daily round conventionally styled “real life.” Certainly it is more vivid, the assigned roles more satisfying. At any rate, an acting career would represent a rapprochement of sorts with O-ito, busy in another corner of alternate reality.

His mother’s obdurate opposition is only to be expected, but the betrayal by his beloved uncle is shattering. Wayward himself, a poet with a libertine past, the uncle had always been a source of encouragement and understanding. Now, unexpectedly, he defects to the mother’s side of the argument. To Chokichi, the truth stands starkly revealed: the world’s hostility is unremitting, and life on these terms is impossible. His health fragile to begin with, he goes tramping through a flood in quest of mortal illness. The story ends with him being rushed to hospital, the remorseful uncle vowing eternal support if the boy survives.

Did Kafu experience a similar betrayal? The souring of his personality — his perverse courtship of unhappiness, the morose satisfaction he took in bewailing miseries he heaped on himself, his sullen withdrawal from every facet of life not harbored in his study, his garden, or the back alleys and pleasure quarters of Tokyo’s shitamachi — dates from around that time.

Not betrayal but self-betrayal, as Kafu himself tells it, was the issue. One must give Kafu credit: He never claimed to be better than the fellow creatures he so richly despised.

The Meiji Restoration, though a revolution, was no liberation. It was a stern, despotic, top-down overhaul of an antiquated nation badly out of step with a rapidly advancing world. Its animating slogan was “Rich country, strong army.” In October 1908, two months before Kafu’s Fukagawa journey, the government was declaring a “campaign of national mobilization” to “stem the evil tide of extravagance and frivolity.”

“To a government obsessed with dangerous thoughts,” writes Jay Rubin in “Injurious to Public Morals: Writers and the Meiji State,” “all ‘isms’ were the same — socialism, naturalism, anarchism, individualism, egoism, free love.”

In 1910, elementary-school textbooks began propagating the “family-state” — the Emperor as father to all his citizen-children.

“From this time,” writes Rubin, “Japanese children were taught Shinto myth as historical fact. . . . Filial piety for the individual family head was one and the same as loyalty to the warm, loving father of the national family, which in turn was synonymous with patriotism.”

What was there in all this for a man of Kafu’s wayward temperament? Hadn’t his own family and father weighed heavily enough on him? He was no candidate for membership in a family-state.

“Literature,” Rubin continues, “stood in direct opposition to the state’s orthodoxy whenever it questioned the sanctity of the family, or implied a change in the family structure by portraying liberated women, or suggested that an individual might live for himself and not for his family as part of the family-state, or that the fulfillment of his own sexual drives was a legitimate end in itself, quite apart from the maintenance of the family line.”

No portrayer of liberated women, Kafu in other respects qualified as dangerously individualistic. In 1909, his book “Furansu Monogatari” (“French Stories”) was banned for this very reason.

In 1910, a shadowy leftist plot to assassinate Emperor Meiji became the pretext for a mass police roundup of radicals. Twelve supposed plotters, including the famous anarchist Kotoku Shusui, were executed in January 1911.

No indignation was heard from Kafu, and years later, in a 1919 essay titled “Hanabi” (“Fireworks”), he judged his silence harshly. “Of all the public incidents I had witnessed or heard of,” he wrote, “none had filled me with such loathing. I could not, as a man of letters, remain silent in this matter of principle. Had not the novelist Zola, pleading the truth in the Dreyfus Affair (in which a French army officer was convicted of treason in 1894, then cleared when proved to be the victim of anti-Semitism and conspiracy) had to flee his country? But I, along with the other writers of my land, said nothing. The pangs of conscience that resulted were scarcely endurable. I felt intensely ashamed of myself as a writer. I concluded that I could do no better than drag myself down to the level of the . . . writer of frivolous and amatory fiction.”

Two shortlived marriages brought Kafu little joy, and his long life unfolded in a solitude that would have deadened less hardy spirits. He seemed to thrive on it, however.

He had anticipated it. “To write good poetry,” he wrote in 1909, “one must prize solitude. One must insulate oneself from family encumbrances, from the sanctions of society. . . . I am utterly indifferent to what my family thinks of me. I am a poet; they are ordinary human beings.”

He was a poet. His words, if not always his thoughts, were beautiful, and he expected the world to offer him beauty in return. When it didn’t, he sulked. He had only one sense, the aesthetic, developed to a peculiar acuteness. No advantage, no goodness, no prosperity or progress, could make up for artistic deficiency. Nonpoetic humanity left him cold.

He showed no capacity for love. Art was a different matter. Love was redundant, but sex without art was mere dreary necessity. Art made it beautiful. Hence his lifelong fascination, to the exclusion of almost all other intimacy, with the sexual artists of the pleasure quarters. They alone, amid the grating and clangorous newness it was his bad luck to be born into, preserved something of the taste, manners and graces of the past. If the past was sad, so much the better; so much the more poetic. In an essay in praise of ukiyo-e (the “floating-world pictures” of old Edo), he wrote: “The print of the courtesan who has sold herself to the cruel life for 10 years so that she may help her parents — it makes me want to weep.”

An abusive social system, Kafu seems to be saying, is worth its weight in beautiful self-sacrifice.

The Meiji Era ended with Emperor Meiji’s death in 1912. The ensuing Taisho (1912-26) and Showa (1926-89) eras dragged Kafu deeper and deeper into a future he hated. His early infatuation with the West had long since faded. “With the passing of the years,” he wrote in 1913, “I have at length shaken off foreign influences, and so become able to grasp the mood and spirit of what we have from our ancestors.”

He looked on in despair as the geisha gave way to the cafe waitress, kabuki to the movies, street singers to radios. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 afforded him grim satisfaction. Modern Tokyo, he noted in his diary, is “a sham hallway, a grand facade with nothing behind it, a device for deceiving the foolish. There is no reason at all for regretting that it has been reduced to ashes.”

“In illness and in loneliness,” he recorded the following year, “I have found the desire to write decreasing day by day.”

Fukagawa, once a hallowed sanctuary, had long since ceased to enchant: “As I amble down the new concrete highways and observe the Fukagawa of the new age, I see . . . that I must shed my old notions of beauty as a cicada sheds its shell.”

Wandering the streets one evening early in the 1930s, the noise of the neighbors’ radios having driven him from home, he stumbled upon a new refuge. This was Tamanoi, a pleasure district across the Sumida River from the most famous licensed quarter of them all, the Yoshiwara. Seidensticker enumerates Tamanoi’s attractions: “Low prices, outdoor side shows, 700 bawdy houses with 1,600 women in them. And all this for a four-sen bus ticket from Asakusa.”

Tamanoi inspired Kafu’s 1936 novella “A Strange Tale from East of the River,” considered a late masterpiece. Its aging writer-narrator, accustomed to geisha, accepts the ministrations of a common prostitute. On the one hand it is a symbol of Tokyo’s, Japan’s and Kafu’s decline; on the other, the young woman demonstrates talents above her station: “O-yuki was the skilful yet inarticulate artist with power to summon the past.” Higher praise than that is not in Kafu’s repertoire.

The dalliance is not a dignified one; we catch the narrator at one point scurrying into the toilet to hide from another customer. But dignity was never what Kafu was after; perhaps indignity was. Be that as it may, “The figure of O-yuki, her hair always in one of the old styles, and the foulness of the canal, and the humming of the mosquitoes — all of these stirred me deeply, and called up visions of a past now dead some thirty or forty years.”

Kafu never wavered in his faith that art redeemed even foulness — maybe especially foulness. Why, then, had Meiji Japan cast off its art? It is the question that resounds throughout his life and work, and the militarism rising in the 1930s deepened its resonance.

Kafu hated it. He had warned as early as 1912: “The morals of a country are in danger when they are cut loose from the beauty of its soul and its seasons. The makers of our new age have been careless in many ways.”

In 1944, he wrote in his diary of the militarists: “Let their crimes be recorded for eternity.”

His wartime silence — “Strange Tale” was his last publication until after 1945 — made him a hero of the postwar pacifist age. It was not every Japanese writer, after all, who had withheld his talent and voice from the war hysteria that was then sweeping all before it.

“However malicious and arbitrary may be the ways of the government,” Kafu wrote in the early 1940s in his diary, published after the war, “it cannot keep one’s fancies from running free. There will be freedom while there is life.”

Michael Hoffman is the author of “Birnbaum: A Novel of Inner Space” (Printed Matter Press, 2008). His Web site is at www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com