With ebooks increasingly dominating the publishing market, it is a pleasure to hold a printed book so gorgeously designed as this one; the cover alone would make it a welcome addition to any Kenji Nakagami collection.

NAKAGAMI, JAPAN: Buraku and the Writing of Ethnicity, by Anne McKnight. University of Minnesota Press, 2011, 296 pp., $25 (paper)

However, according to online sources, only one of Nakagami’s literary works remains in print in 2011 — “The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto” published by Stone Bridge Press. Unfortunately, Andrew Rankin’s innovative translation “Snakelust” is only available from secondhand book-sellers.

Strange, then, that two critical surveys of Nakagami’s work are available — “Out of the Alleyway: Nakagami Kenji” and the “Poetics of Outcaste Fiction” by Eve Zimmerman, and now “Nakagami, Japan” is the second book.

In a publishing world transfixed by all things “outsider” — drug addicts, alcoholics, schizophrenics, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, it is not surprising that American academia should be interested in buraku (outsider) literature, but it is deplorable that secondary readings are more widely available than primary sources.

Nonetheless, any critical work on Kenji Nakagami is welcome in an attempt to counterbalance the over-hyped status of some Japanese novelists.

Anne McKnight focuses on Nakagami’s buraku background, the neighborhoods (roji) in which he lived, the political and literary movements that emerged in the 1970s, and Nakagami’s presence and influence in canonical Japanese literature (kokubungaku).

The academic writing can be circuitous and tortuous, but is mostly illuminating in its analysis. Anne McKnight desires to find a place for Nakagami and his writing within Japanese national literature, while simultaneously preserving his outsider and rebellious status, rather like the French Academy’s attitude to Jean Genet.

During 1977 and 1978, Nakagami visited buraku communities on the Kii Peninsula, writing a series of essays on his travels for the “Asahi Journal.” Anne McKnight’s comparative analysis of this Japanese “south” with the American “South” — as represented in William Faulkner’s writing — elucidates the problems surrounding buraku nomenclature, explaining the confusion apparent in the classification of buraku in terms of class and caste, ethnicity and ethnogeography, economics and politics.

The book covers the history of buraku activism and politics, the role of confessional narrative in Japanese fiction, the status of the “other” and “outsider” in Japanese culture, and the historiography of the Japanese literary canon. It offers both post-structural and new-historicist approaches to Nakagami’s work, and investigates the artistic subcultures of contemporary Japan in regards to Nakagami’s parallax view of a cleaved nation.

There are interesting chapters on Nakagami’s artistic exile, his self-imposed internal banishment from Japanese society, and vision of the artist (buraku or not) as outsider. Throughout, the author provides a systematic yet imaginative approach to Nakagami’s use of silence and disclosure, emergence and immersion, and his destabilization and simultaneous extension of the parameters and perimeters of Japanese monogatori (narrative).

As a parallel to the deep analysis of Nakagami’s work, Anne McKnight also provides a mini-history of structuralism and post-structuralism in Japan. It is interesting to chart how Claude Levi-Strauss’ theories of ethnography, Jacques Derrida’s supplement and differance, Michel Foucault’s analysis of power, Roland Barthes’ semiotics, and Gilles Deleuze’s rhizomes entered and embodied themselves in Japanese education and interpretation.

For a man who wrote “The tree reminded him of himself. Akiyuki didn’t know what kind of tree it was, and he didn’t care,” Nakagami has found a critic to not only discover what kind of tree it is, but what the leaf patterns signify, and whether or not calling it a “tree” — but not knowing what kind — denotes some kind of signifying rupture.

Let us hope this academic interest prompts publishers to commission translations of Nakagami’s other novels, short stories and mythic tales.

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