Pacifist, cultural critic Kato remembered

by Alex Martin

There are many labels to describe Shuichi Kato, who died Dec. 5 at age 89.

To some he was best known as a postwar literary and cultural critic.

Others would describe him as a devoted peace activist who helped found a group to defend the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution with novelist Kenzaburo Oe and philosopher Shunsuke Tsurumi.

But those who were close to Kato remember him as a humble scholar always mindful of his family and peers. A memorial service for Kato will be held at the Yurakucho Asahi Hall in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, at 1 p.m. Feb. 21.

“Kato was a postwar intellectual who introduced French literature, philosophy and Western existentialism to Japan,” said Yotaro Konaka, a writer and critic. “We used to use Kato’s translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings in university classes.”

Although Kato’s writing often focused on culture and the arts, he also spoke out about nuclear weapons and national security from a liberal standpoint. In 2004, he became one of the inaugural members of the Article 9 Association with Nobel Prize laureate Oe and writer Makoto Oda, among others.

The group’s purpose is to preserve the war-renouncing article of the Constitution, and Kato, until his death, actively lectured on the subject.

“I’ve listened to him speak many times. I remember how impressed I was with his vitality despite his old age,” said Konaka, recalling as well the complimentary letters he received from Kato upon publication of his books. “I am very much indebted to him.”

In recognition of his achievements, Kato was awarded the Order des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in March 1993 for his history of Japanese literature, “Nihon bunkagaku shi josetsu.”

In Japan, he received the prestigious Asahi Prize in 1994 for his contribution to postwar Japanese culture. He also wrote a column on culture for the Asahi Shimbun for nearly three decades.

Born in Tokyo in 1919, Kato attended Tokyo Imperial University, the predecessor of the University of Tokyo, where he studied medicine during the war. He went on to receive a master’s degree from the university in 1950, specializing in hematology.

Although Kato never served in the military, he was part of a joint Japan-U.S. research team that studied the effects of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

In 1942 while still a student, he was involved in founding the Matinee Poetic movement with fellow writers Takehiko Fukunaga and Shinichiro Nakamura. The group was known for attempting to introduce rhyme into Japanese poetry.

The three went on to coauthor Kato’s first publication, a literary essay, which came out in 1947.

From 1951, Kato spent three years in France as a medical exchange student, all the while continuing to write on Japanese literature, culture and the arts.

He was also invited to teach at a number of foreign institutions, including universities in the United States, Germany and Canada.