JAPANESE WRITERS AND THE WEST, by Sumie Okada. Hampshire: Palmgrave Macmillan, 2003, 216 pp., £45, (cloth).

Though not nearly as inclusive as the title suggests, Professor Sumie Okada’s small but earnest book does contain an amount of interpretation not elsewhere found.

Despite her title, she discusses only six writers: Soseki Natsume miserable in London, the Yosanos — Hiroshi and Akiko — in France and England, Yukio Mishima in unnamed foreign lands, Haruki Murakami at Princeton, and Shusaku Endo and his love affair in France. Not a word on Ogai Mori in Germany, Kafu Nagai in America and France, or Kenzaburo Oe abroad.

Perhaps one reason for this selectivity is that Okada has a thesis to demonstrate, and her samples best fit her conclusions. She avers that, though not alone in their affliction, the Japanese suffer from their group-dominated society, they suffer from what she calls “groupism.”

Hence the Japanese abroad is looking for an individuality denied him in his own country. But this is nevertheless often not to be found. Or when found, it is often lost. Soseki, for example, had the highest regard for individuality and even wrote an important essay on the subject,

“However,” writes Okada, “it is sad to note that the protagonist of his major novel, ‘Kokoro,’ fails in the end to live his life as an independent individualist.” An indication of this is that Soseki refers to this figure throughout as sensei. The author, says Okada, is using a group counter for “teacher,” one that denies the very individuality he appears to be promoting.

Mishima is even worse. “He pretended to be Westernized, but his group-oriented mentality shows in the way that he labels characters in his works by their group identities (‘the lame’ and ‘the stutterer,’ for example).”

Even Murakami, the modern and popular author, “on closer examination, turns out to be full of glimpses of the Japanese group-oriented mentality.” Okada discovers such groupish qualities as giri (social obligations or duties), ninjo (personal feelings) and on (debts of gratitude).

All of the sample authors are run through the group mill, some coming out better than others. Yosano Akiko comes out best and indeed creates an “identification with feminine individualism.” Shusaku may have found some individuality in his love affair with Francoise Pastre, but it did not continue. The affair “ended painfully in 1971 with Francoise’s death from cancer, in the context of her profound despair at the lack of any caring love for her on Endo’s part.” Backing this up is a long piece by Pastre’s sister, which is given to us in English and then, in a display of academic pedantry, is given all over again in the original French.

It is possible that like many local scholars, Okada is using her examples as merely typical, or representative. In a similar manner, a prior volume by her, the earlier “Western Writers in Japan,” restricted itself mainly to British authors including her beloved Edmund Blunden, about whom her first book was written. Western though they be, there is no mention of Paul Claudel or Laurens Jan van der Post, let alone James Michener or James Clavell.

Since she has done the bulk of her academic work at Cambridge, it is perhaps understandable that she would select mainly British authors as “representative” Western writers. Also her groupism theory can be made to contrast nicely with the well-known individuality of the English.

It is noticeable that while harping on about her native groupies, Okada is denying the very real Japanese individuality that must surround her daily. One could equally well argue that the Japanese are unusually fortunate in having not only his or her individuality, but the ability to become the member of a social unit. It could be argued that groupism does not halve the Japanese but doubles them. This, however, is not the thesis here proposed.

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