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Doomed self-obsessive remains iconic to some in the Japan of today

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

“It’s not that I’m weak, it’s that the suffering weighs down on me too heavily.”

This was said, in 1938, by a writer whose life and death bring together crowds all around the country every year on June 19 in rituals of celebration and mourning — the two being difficult to separate given the nature of this man whose popularity has not waned to this day.

Osamu Dazai, suffering artist, was the author of such postwar classics as “No Longer Human” and “The Setting Sun” — the former the second most popular novel ever for the leading publishing house, Shinchosha; the latter its 10th most popular. In fact, Dazai is extensively published by numerous major publishers, including Chikuma, Iwanami and Kadokawa, and his novels and stories are continually being made into films.

Young people today are particularly drawn to Dazai’s works, and it’s easy to see why as he could be said to be the King of Dysfunctionality. His heroes are — as he fancied himself to be — deliberately occupying very unfavorable positions, having put themselves there in a diffident stance. It’s as if they, and he, were waiting with perverse anticipation to be knocked out of the game of life.

The themes in his novels, short stories and essays are those of dejection, illicit love, drug dependency and morose, aimless alienation; his method, confessional. He puts the reader in the confession box as priest, then, on the other side of the grille, opens up his heart — and his veins.

There is much in common here, in a more contemporary context, with the themes and characters in the fiction of Haruki Murakami. In both, people are having relationships — but they are like a box with two sides only. It is only habit and the magnet of social decorum that keep them in parallel.

“I’m the joker in the family. Let me put it this way. All I can do is put a jolly face on the huge amount of anxiety and mental anguish I feel. And no, it’s not only at home that I do this. Whenever I come into contact with people, no matter how depressed I am, no matter how much physical pain I am in, I do my frantic best to create a pleasant mood all around. Then, after parting, I reel with fatigue and think only of money, morality and suicide.”

This is what Dazai wrote in what is arguably his most pathetic look into his own heart and his family, a 1948 short story titled “Oto” (“Cherries”). Here, he portrays himself in a hopeless and self-piteous light. It may be this brutal honesty, coupled with a kind of self-centered, sad-sack coyness, that appeals to young people — especially those in the contemporary generation who seek both to lose and identify themselves through cyber-disclosure.

Dazai was born on June 19, 1909, into a very well-to-do landowning family in Aomori Prefecture on the northern tip of Honshu. By the time he was a teenager, he was feeling intense guilt over his wealthy background, just as Japan was experiencing the worst effects of the worldwide Depression. Then, in his twenties, he made at least three suicide attempts between 1930 and 1937 — in one of which a young female companion died.

Left-leaning intellectuals like Dazai were persecuted in the 1930s, as fascism became the norm throughout Japanese society. Dazai recanted. But was it, too, a pose, just like his self-styled Marxism? His charm, even today, lies in the fact that you cannot tell pose from reality. Was his honesty merely a ruse to engender sympathy in the reader? It doesn’t matter to us any more. We are engaged by his lovable helplessness and his always-say-die decadence.

One of his most enduring and attractive books is “Otogizoshi” (“The Fairy Tale Book”), which is soon to be published by Kurodahan Press in a very fine English translation by Ralph F. McCarthy. This book consists of four well-known ancient Japanese tales retold by Dazai as he awaited the end of the war in 1945, spending some time on the run from the bombing and some in a dugout shelter with paper and pen in hand.

The retelling of ancient tales has been a common genre in Japanese literature for centuries. The most famous name in this field in modern times is that of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), an author who Dazai worshipped and, to a certain extent, fashioned himself after. But even more than Akutagawa, Dazai spins the old tales around his ego.

In the first story in the upcoming collection, “The Stolen Wen,” Dazai writes of the hero who is inordinately fond of his drink: “Drinkers tend to say inane and obnoxious things when they’re drunk, but most of them are in fact harmless, innocent souls.”

This is no doubt how Dazai wished to view himself, and to be viewed — as “harmless and innocent” — although, from the point of view of the willing ladies who accompanied him on his suicide missions, this innocence may have seemed disingenuous. Indeed, the old adage, hige mo jiman no uchi (too much self-deprecation is a kind of boasting) may apply well to the characters in Dazai’s works — characters who are fun-house mirror images of himself.

No one relished personal insipidness — and relished apologizing for it — like Dazai. He cruised from one personal crisis to another, frequently being bailed out, financially and morally, by a member of his family. He suffered depression, despaired of living, and was troubled by thoughts of death his entire life, regarding virtually everything else — love, family, literature — as an excuse to hurry it along.

“It’s a hell of a thing to stay alive in this world,” he wrote in the not-very-veiled autobiographical story, “Cherries.” “Wherever you go you get tangled up in chains; and if you so much as budge, blood spurts out.”

Even his most precious personal relationship outside family, that with the author Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993), could not be sustained due to his inability to extricate himself from his obsessions with himself.

Ibuse was like a father to him, and wrote about the relationship himself in a number of works. Ibuse was his life support. He was there for many serious breakdowns.

But in his suicide note, Dazai called Ibuse an akunin (wicked, evil person). That was so shocking to Ibuse and to the public that even today many people think the note was written by the woman who died with Dazai. I am in no doubt, however, that Dazai himself penned that note. Perhaps he resented Ibuse for being such a kind mentor and, as such, keeping him alive as long as he did.

Dazai jumped into the Tamagawa Canal in Tokyo on June 13, 1948, together with his mistress, Tomie Yamazaki, for whom he had abandoned his wife and children. Their bodies were found six days later.

The fact that the discovery of Dazai’s body coincided with his birthday was not lost on the public of the time.

That birth and the confirmation of death occur on the same day is an immaculate irony, considering the world that Dazai created. This is why the celebration and the mourning each year on June 19 are displays of perfectly matched sentiments.

For Dazai himself, wallowing in self-pity was a way of life; for some young people today, it’s a luxury that, unwittingly on occasion, has turned into a way of life. To the extent that Japanese family life in our day is pitifully dysfunctional, this luxury has become part of his legacy.