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Osaka: Japan’s latterday second city forever breaks the national mold

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

They’re funny, finicky and feisty, not to mention being full of wicked mischief, with their own way of talking, too. Outside of Japan, think of Liverpool, not London; or Munich, not Berlin; or Mumbai, not Delhi. I’m talking about the people of Osaka.

Before World War II, Osaka, the port city in the heart of the Kansai region, was a commercial powerhouse and media center. But they say that during the war soldiers from Osaka were consistently at the back as a regiment raced up a hill. That’s pragmatism!

After the war, Tokyo looked one-eyed straight to the United States. It still does. Osaka set its sights on Asia and Europe … anywhere a profitable deal could be done — and damn the ideology.

It was without a doubt the second city of Japan. In 1955 it had a population of about 2.6 million, and it continued to grow from there until it peaked a decade later at 3.1 million. But now the population is back at its 1955 level — around 1 million fewer people than live in Yokohama, and not far ahead of Nagoya’s 2.2 million.

But perhaps decadence and decay suit the city of Osaka, known in history, particularly during the Edo Period (1603-1868), as the home of the adventurous and the racy: Saikaku Ihara (1642-93), a dyed-in-the-wool Osakan, author of randy tales that today still strike us as pleasantly offcolor; and Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), a playwright who spent the last 20 years of his life in Osaka and wrote his best plays for bunraku (traditional puppet theater) there. Thanks in part to Chikamatsu, Osaka is still the home of this traditional performing art. His most popular dramas are those that feature double suicides by ill-fated lovers.

I bring up this tradition because the literary representative of modern-day Osaka, Sakunosuke Oda, was born 100 years ago this year, and it’s high time we took a new look at his brash and brilliant legacy.

Oda startled the literary scene in 1939 with his second novel, “Zokushu” (“The Vulgar”), receiving for it a nomination for the country’s most prestigious accolade for new writers, the Akukutagawa Prize. The novel depicts five brothers and their wives in all their routine intrigues, raising themes of family discord, economic woes, jealousy and divorce — not to mention a variety of malicious and wonky liaisons.

These themes became obsessions for Oda in his later works: people bonded to each other by their prejudices and passions, especially sexual ones.

In two of his novels — “Seso” (“The State of the Times”) and “Yofu” (“The Bewitcher”) — he wrote about Sada Abe, the woman who, in May 1936, strangled her lover and sliced off his penis and testicles, to carry them around town in her handbag. She only had three days to do that, though, before being arrested and convicted that December of second-degree murder and the mutilation of a corpse. She was sentenced to six years in prison, but was released in May 1941.

Incidentally, recently deceased director Nagisa Oshima based his 1976 film “In the Realm of the Senses” on this incident, and managed to meet Abe, who was living in a nunnery, before she died in 1970.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t long after Abe’s release that Osaka was thoroughly devastated by indiscriminate U.S. bombing during the war; and the postwar chaos saw the city coping with mass malnutrition, rampant disease, a proliferation of drugs, prostitution and the kinds of crime that accompany them.

But back to brash and brilliant Oda, whose greatest work — and one that all Japan associates with its Osaka setting — is “Meoto Zenzai” (“Hurray for Marriage, or Sweet Beans for Two”). First published in 1939, it is an ultrarealistic portrait of a marriage between a solid and lusty woman (the type that has come to typify the Osaka female) and a flighty, spoiled and untrustworthy rake of a man … I will withhold comment on the male stereotype here. The woman works her guts out as a geisha while the man, profligate that he is — and easily distracted by the flutter of a skirt — goes through her money like the man on the flying trapeze goes through air. This novel has been filmed no less than four times, on the latest occasion, in 2008, titled “Akifukaki.”

To give you an idea of the esprit that permeates “Meoto Zenzai” and the town where it takes place, I’ll quote some lines from the traditional eponymous song, made popular by chanteuse Sayuri Ishikawa:

When I went looking for you It was raining in Dotonbori Hazy in the surging crowd The sun has gone down Red lights shine on the river’s surface My breast heaves … Where’ve you gone?

When’re you coming back to me?

Whoever said the Japanese are reserved and tight-lipped never lived in Osaka.

The lyrics of the song “Meoto Zenzai” are written in Osaka dialect, which makes the message all the more poignant and tender for people who speak it as their everyday language.

And the people of Osaka are fiercely proud of their dialect, so much so that they speak it unashamedly on television all the time. I say “unashamedly” because residents of other regions outside the capital use the so-called standard accent when in the national public eye. Only Osaka people tend to stick to their dialect, as if only it can openly and frankly express the emotions they feel.

The male antihero in Oda’s novel, a bonbon, the Osaka word for a good-for-nothing rich boy, is disowned by his father. At the end of the story, which is a bitter-sweet comedy of manners, the couple, as destitute as ever but counting their meager blessings, share a single bowl of sweet-bean soup.

Back in the early 1980s, when I was literary editor of the Mainichi Daily News, I commissioned a distinguished American translator named Burton Watson to render “Meoto Zenzai” into English for serialization in the paper. Later, in 1990, Columbia University Press published the novel, along with with some other translations of Oda’s fiction, under the title “Stories of Osaka Life.”

Oda passed away from tuberculosis in 1947, aged 33. He lived his life on his own home ground, and dedicated his gifts to his city, Osaka. One of his works was banned for a time; others were roundly denounced by the literary establishment of his day. This came about because he hated authority to the marrow of his bones. He was wary of orthodoxy, which he saw as the servant of repression. This wariness toward the established order is a trait associated not only with him but also with many Osakans.

In a deeply insightful essay published in December 1946 in the progressive magazine Kaizo, just a month before his death, he set out his credo regarding literature and life. The essay is titled “Kanosei no Bungaku” (“The Literature of Possibilities”), and in it he wrote: “Creating a novel is, in the end, creating a world where there is an alternative nature. People there are not portrayed as the accumulation of their experiences, but rather as possessors of the potential to leap away from those experiences.”

Such wisdom, it seems to me, applies not only to literature in Japan today but to all Japanese society struggling, as it is, to writhe out of the straitjacket of social and political orthodoxy it is bound up in.

  • disqus_bugafmk1Tf

    A wonderful and insightful essay. Thank you! That said, at some point, if you have not already done so, I hope you will turn your skilled attention to contemporary Osaka and the Hashimoto phenomenon.