Osamu Dazai (1909-48) is one of Japan’s literary legends: a tormented and embittered man who drowned himself in the Tamagawa Canal, and yet who lived on in his books to inspire generations with his earthy, all-too-honest style and gut-wrenching plots. He is renowned as a prime example of the nihilism and confusion that gripped Japan during its roller coaster transformation from fledgling superpower, to fascist dystopia, to defeated postwar democracy.

He is also a prime example of the 私小説 (shishōsetsu, I-novel) genre, a type of confessional literature that emerged in the 20th century where events in the story correspond to the author’s life. Dazai didn’t shy away from revealing his own deepest and darkest secrets in his writing, one of the big reasons why his work has endured and captivated so many readers. But he was also a spectacular writer in terms of craft. His masterpieces “斜陽” (Shayō, The Setting Sun) and “人間失格” (Ningen Shikkaku, No Longer Human) are some of the most well-known works of Japanese literature in and out of English translation.

In our last edition of this series, where we take deep dives into notable works of Japanese literature, we examined the sophisticated literary techniques of Yukio Mishima. Dazai’s prose, interestingly, is more straightforward than Mishima’s in many ways. This “simplicity” makes him ideal reading practice for intermediate and advanced Japanese learners. However, he still uses complex vocabulary in long, knotty sentences — so let’s try to mine deep into the first few paragraphs of “人間失格” and see what gems we can unearth.