Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
This report will showcase various styles, themes, and messages delivered by the likes of Kenzaburo Oe, Akira Ooka, Masabiko Shimada, and Amy Yamada, whose works are featured recently in the journal Descant/Japan (summer 1995), edited by Ted Goossen, et. al. Established and emerging writers alike have shifted their focus from nature to stark socio-political realities. As a result, they have also modified their modes of expression to accommodate experiments with new subjects.
Arguably, Oe is the one who has been setting the trends in modern Japanese literature, paving the way for the emergence of a new breed of writers. "Japan's young novelists are most engaged in the underlying social and spiritual issues of the times," says Ted Goossen. "Other even younger writers may attack the smug assumptions of mainstream Japanese society, but few if any do so in the manner of Oe and Tsushima" (Descant/Japan, 15).
Three decades ago, Oe's message was either misunderstood or rejected by the Japanese. One reason might be that most of Oe's work reflects the dark side of Japanese culture and tradition. Few at that time were willing to dig deep inside themselves to recognize their faults, and they were offended by Oe's candour. As well, he strives to debunk the world's romantic view of Japan which is not as beautiful as it might have appeared to some.
Through the new writings, the Japanese have begun to show the world some of the stereotypes and prejudices that contributed to the shaping of Japan's tradition. Authors such as Amy Yamada could be outrageously audacious in their endeavors while others are less brunt in their delivery, quietly explore very dark, and morbid subjects. Japanese literature, like any other country's literary output, demonstrates differing tastes and styles. The big shock is how Japan has broken from its traditional mold, which the world was so used to seeing and reading. "Once we have learned to dispense with those self-serving illusions and really see Japan, then perhaps we can turn the same unclouded lens back upon ourselves," says Goossen (Descant/Japan, 20).
One of the pieces that appeals to me is "A Letter from a Bereaved Father" (translated by Margaret Mitsutani, Descant/Japan, 35-44) -- an excerpt from Oe's An Echo of Heaven. The protagonist in Oe's fiction is often a victim of prejudices and tradition, and in the end the underdog character may find a deep sense of hope in his or her darkest hour in life. The novel An Echo of Heaven -- published in Japanese as Jinsei no shinseki, 1989 -- revolves around a woman trying to lift herself up spiritually. Like most of Oe's main characters, she is an underdog trapped by tradition. In the excerpt, she is reading the letter from her ex-husband, detailing the last moments of her two sons. Both had disabilities, physical or mental.
The physically challenged is a major theme in Oe's work. In Japan, anyone with a physical defect was seen as a burden and treated with less respect. In this excerpt, Oe depicts an accident which crippled the older son, who was then confined to a wheelchair for life. Oe shows the humiliating influence Japan has on the disabled and its failure to recognize disability as a challenge. Incapable of fitting back into a normal life, he ends his life, taking his mentally challenged brother with him. This story persuades the Japanese to support and not condemn the disabled, and to help them live life to the fullest. The brothers take their own lives in the last place they were ever happy. Although the excerpt ends on a dark note, it embarks the protagonist on her road to spiritual redemption. She is coming to grips with her children's death, and takes up the challenge to roll with the punches that life often throws.
Another recurring theme in Japanese literature is the state of the environment. One writer expresses his concerns is Akira Ooka , winner of the Akutagawa and Mishima prizes for literature (Descant/Japan, 204). "People of the Forest" -- published in Japanese as Mori no Hito, 1993 -- is his first piece translated into English. It relates the protagonist's reminiscences of his childhood when he befriended a schoolmate who would later become a serial killer-rapist. An interesting feature is the description of an orangutan in the beginning and near the end of the story. The first reference depicts the animal's anti-social behavior while the one near the end explains its conduct. Due to the intrusion of industries into the environment, the animal is fast becoming an endangered species. The main focus is on the making of a killer, and how society has assisted in the process. Goossen notes that there is "an even more disturbing message about the course of Japan's development, especially the damage inflicted on two pillars of its traditional culture: mother and nature" (Descant/Japan, 16).
As a rapidly growing economic force, Japan has sacrificed the environment for progress. The rape of nature, as the main character sees it, is a factor in his childhood friend's downfall. The protagonist also notes how his friend was detested by the community and victimized by cruel gossip. He was very withdrawn, apparently unable to fit into modern society. In the embrace of nature, he behaved like an animal, and was better able to express himself. These factors account for his friend's anti- social behavior from childhood to adulthood.
As well, his mother who ran off with another man, his father's deadbeat attitude, and the loss of his forest also contributed to his breakdown. The forest was the only environment where the main character's friend could live freely. Like an animal whose habitat is threatened, he lashes out. In the way of his lash-outs are women, whom he saw as the problem. One possible explanation is that his mother never spent time with him and her free-spirited attitude is what may have started him on his misguided mission. With great savagery, he raped and murdered women. He felt that he had to eliminate those who were destroying the environment. In the end he pays for his crime with death. One message which comes across is that those who deviate from the norm will be removed. The author also suggests that the way we treat others may have long term effects. Some may feel compassion for the killer, who is after all portrayed as a victim unfairly treated by society and his friends.
Society is depicted in a different, but equally fascinating manner by Masabiko Shimada in "Desert Dolphin" (published in Japanese as Sabaku no Iruka, translated by Kenneth L. Richard, Descant/Japan, 72-87). The story begins with two fallen angels meeting on Earth. The one who has been on Earth for a very long time is weathered down by his experiences. The other angel has just fallen and is still innocent, and has not yet been corrupted by the real world. The older angel fell and had to fight his way to the top of society. He knows all the pitfalls, and has experienced some setbacks, ranging from unemployment to abundant wealth. The young fallen angel, blind to all evils, sees the world through rose-colored glasses.
I think Shimada wants to show an outsider's perspective of the interaction between society and an individual. At first we are oblivious to the workings of society, but when forced to interact with it, we become aware of its complexities. One might get an impression that this story explores the same concepts as Russian author Dostoyevsky does in Notes from the Underground Man. Dostoyevsky's main character hides from society, but is forced to interact with it. He observes the way people act and the collective behavior of society. The older angel plays a similar role, but in a less paranoid way.
One very interesting writer is Amy Yamada, whose fiction mostly centers on the relationships between black men and Japanese women. The story "When a Man Loves a Woman," for example, is about an artist's affair with a young black man who picked her up in a bar one summer. Then in the winter, he spent a week with her, and they had sex once. When they are together, the artist has trouble finishing her painting, and this stranger, Willy Roy, tries to get her drive started. The author seems to question the meaning of love and whether it can exist without the sex act. An interesting moment in the story is the final appearance of Willy Roy, as her inspiration, although he might have been only a free loader. The dialogue and character interaction are riveting. Yamada is radical in her approach and choice of subject matter, especially her bold portrayal of inter-racial relationships.
None of the four authors selected for this paper pays tribute to idyllic Japan, blessed with beautiful landscape. Instead, their works demonstrate different ways of looking at society and its problems. The focus has shifted from nature to visible socio-political changes.
Goossen, Ted, Karen Mulhallen, et. al. ed. Descant/Japan, 26, no. 2 (Summer, 1995).
"Descant/Japan is the fifth in an informal series of special issues of the magazine devoted to particular countries or regions," writes editor Mulhallen.
Copyright © 1996 by the author. Information from this article should be attributed to the author.