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date: 17 August 2017

Postwar Japanese Novelists and American Literature

Summary and Keywords

Since the country’s decisive defeat through the acceptance of the unconditional surrender in 1945, Japanese novelists have been working in the shadow of America. The American Occupation from 1945 to 1952 set the essential tone of the postwar Japanese chronotope, and authors have had to address their problems through it. Postwar Japanese novelists needed to familiarize themselves with the explicit meaning of the national and ethnic experience of the defeat in the total war. They had to come to terms with the inevitable outcome of being re-incorporated into the international world according to America’s scenario for achieving a new global hegemony. On one hand, this meant severance from the military past and rebirth as a pacifist and capitalist trading country; on the other, it meant disruption of the cultural continuity as a nation and rapid evaporation of the memories of the war crimes.

Postwar Japanese novelists have turned to American literature, not only for a usable index for understanding “America” as the most fundamentally decisive element of their postwar chronotope but also for something to stimulate their critical and creative imagination or synchronize with their aesthetic sensitivity during their search for an artistic expression under the shadow of “America.” Three influential Japanese postwar novelists have a specific American writer as his inspirational source: Mark Twain for Kenzaburo Oe (b. 1935–), William Faulkner for Kenji Nakagami (1946–1992), and Raymond Carver for Haruki Murakami (b. 1949–). Their relationships with their literary precursors vary relative to their own sensitivities, political stances, and cultural background including class and caste; however, each of these three Japanese novelists has maintained a wide influence in the postwar Japanese literary climate because each has established his own unique way of addressing the most critical problem of “America.” Each of these writers takes his influence from an American writer and learns his own lessons about how to cope with or navigate through a life under the shadow of “America.” During each decade of postwar Japanese history—Oe from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, Nakagami from the late 1970s to the late 1980s and Murakami from the early 1980s to the 1990s—the authors reflect a gradual change in the shadow of “America” because of a change in America’s policy toward Japan from the end of the occupation through the period of Japan’s astounding economic prosperity, to the end of the Cold War and a gradual attenuation of America’s power over Japan.

Keywords: culture of defeat, occupation of Japan, postwar Japanese literature, radical student movement, shadow of America, U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Raymond Carver, Kenzaburo Oe, Kenji Nakagami, Haruki Murakami

“America” as Fate of Postwar Japan

Japan in its modern era, since the forced opening of the country by Commodore Matthew Perry and his “black ships” (kuro-fune) in the mid-19th century, has been obsessed with America. Japan’s American obsession may have changed its nature as America has changed its relationship to Japan; still the obsession has remained, politically, culturally, and even spiritually. Japanese philosopher and cultural critic Tatsuru Uchida says that Japanese modern history, since the “black ship” incident immediately followed by the demise of the Tokugawa dynasty and the premature birth of the Meiji regime (with its hasty establishment of the first Asian modern nation) is entirely a history of a complex but unilateral love-hate relationship with America, yearning to be like America and even fawning upon it at times but in other times choosing America as an exclusive target from which to distance itself: America is the fate of modern Japan.1

After the Second World War, through the period of the American occupation and with the start of the Cold War era, there has been consequential drastic change in the course of America’s occupational policy (i.e., from the thorough demolition of the prewar military regime to the conditional remilitarization under the new pacifist constitution that could never be promulgated without the decisive commitment by the occupational forces). In light of this change, true shades of the meanings of idolizing/targeting America and evasive contours of America as idol/target were dawning upon Japanese consciousness. Japanese knew its rapid postwar economic recovery and growth was primarily and directly a result of America’s Cold War strategy that immediately incorporated Japan into its global scheme. America seemed to the postwar Japanese mind a multifaced liberator, first from the prewar imperialism and militarism; second from a long-term economic and political stagnation that was a necessary outcome of the defeat in the war; third from a collective sense of guilt toward the adjacent Asian countries invaded by prewar Japan; and fourth, from the continuity of the nation’s own history.

Japanese postwar novelists worked in this shadow of America and wrote tragicomedies of a society where freedom is possible only when America endorses it, a life that one recognizes as one’s own only when one can forget America omnipresent as its backdrop. For example, in Yukio Mishima’s (1925–1970) novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956), an ugly young Buddhist acolyte, afflicted with dysphemia, decides to burn down the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. The pavilion is the very essence of Japanese traditional beauty, and it continues to stand as beautiful as it was before the war, while the entire country, including even the traditionally elegant Kyoto, is now overrun by American soldiers. The acolyte, Mizoguchi, cannot allow the Golden Pavilion to continue to be beautiful because the country now occupied by America is, in his afflicted mind, not Japan anymore. As a result, as its national continuity is now being disrupted, the acolyte thinks the pavilion’s aesthetic continuity, along with its symbolic presence, should also be eliminated. American School (1955) by Nobuo Kojima (1915–2006) depicts a group of Japanese English teachers visiting an American school for children of the American military stationed in a base somewhere in Japan. One of the teachers, Isa, who had a traumatic experience using English before as a translator for an African American army officer (Isa is able to read English but is never a fluent speaker, as he is a typical Japanese English teacher at that time), but he is charmed by the immaculate order on campus, the silky sounds of English voiced by American girl students chirping to each other, and the beauty of a young American female teacher, who he thinks looks like an actress in an American movie he once saw. At the same time, he is desperate to evade any possible situation in which he is forced to speak English and therefore is always threatening to include everybody around him in a slapstick comedy of sorts, while thinking to himself: “A Japanese speaks English like a foreigner (gaijin, here meaning particularly an American)? How preposterous! To speak like a foreigner makes you a foreigner. Nothing is more shameful!”2

Mishima and Kojima were two of the most conspicuous influences in the Japanese postwar literary landscape: they both found and initiated a way to explore a meaning, or express a taste, of living after the defeat in the war or of being a Japanese when it is allowed only with the condition that one should think, act and speak like an American. Of course, American literature does not always express “American” values. Modern literature has been produced in light of the struggles against what a modern nation forces upon an individual through exploitation. So American literature, while experienced as an unmistakable cultural product of America, the threatening political entity, has given postwar Japanese writers important and credible indices to understand their “America” as at once idol and target, and as an enigma, which has not just eroded their country’s national integrity but also has become an indispensable part of it.

Kenzaburo Oe and Mark Twain

Two Deaths of Political Youth in 1960

Kenzaburo Oe (b. 1935–), winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, made his sensational debut as a novelist in the heat of the historic political uprising against the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1960, culminating in the violent death of Michiko Kanba, a twenty-two-year-old senior at the University of Tokyo and a member of a leading faction of student activists (“Bund”). Kanba was killed amid the violent confusion caused by thousands of protesters clashing with the riot police in front of the Diet. The renewed treaty, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America, was first signed on January 19, 1960, by Premier Nobusuke Kishi and other plenipotentiaries. It received notorious automatic approval in the absence of the opposition party members at the Diet in June through Kishi’s aggressive political maneuvers oppressing the leftist and civilian protest against it, particularly against its Article VI by which “the United States of America is granted the use by its land, air and naval forces of facilities and areas in Japan.”3

Oe made clear his political stance immediately following the 1960 political turbulence and has been consistent in embracing freedom and democracy, anti-militarism and anti-emperorism. Early in 1961, Oe published Seventeen and its sequel A Political Youth Dies: Seventeen, Part II, clearly occasioned by another death of a youth in 1960, equally political but from an ultra-nationalist organization. Seventeen-year-old Otoya Yamaguchi stabbed to death Inejiro Asanuma, head of the Japan Socialist Party and ardent supporter of Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party, with a wakizashi (a short Japanese sword) during the televised political debate for the upcoming parliamentary elections at Hibiya Public Hall in October. Less than three weeks after the assassination, Yamaguchi hanged himself in a juvenile detention facility after he scribbled on a wall using tooth powder mixed with water: “Service for my country seven lives over. Long live His Majesty the Emperor.” Oe freely used the known details of Yamaguchi’s life to create his portrait of an adolescent narrator/protagonist of the two novelettes, a compulsive masturbator trying to deliver himself from self-hatred and a sense of insufficiency by joining a right-wing group and finally by assassination and suicide. Oe received death threats from extreme right-wingers provoked by his insults directed at the emperor and by his depiction of their young hero, a martyr for their noble cause, as an immature youngster, obsessive introvert, and totally self-absorbed even to the level of fanatical autointoxication.

Oe’s rather straightforward political stance was nurtured in this political climate in which he started to publish his works (his short story, “Prize Stock,” originally translated as “The Catch,” won him the Akutagawa Literary Prize, Japan’s most celebrated literary award, in 1958 when he was still an undergraduate of the University of Tokyo). At least partially due to his intellectual milieu, his sympathies were more with the Left than the opposite and more toward anti-Americanism or against what “America” stood for. Yet he apparently did not feel attached to America’s nemesis and arch-rival for global hegemony, the Soviet Union. However, as a matter of course, Oe’s literature is more sophisticated than his politics, as is shown in the complex remodeling of the real-life terrorist, Yamaguchi, into his nameless fictional character. Masao Miyoshi (1929–2009) observes that Oe’s psychological motivation behind the character-making of the narrator/protagonist of the two controversial novelettes:

What is conveyed is not the structure of terrorist ideas but the existential authenticity of his craving for belief and certainty, a dangerously contagious crisis and a desperate facing up against it. Finally, the substance of the novelette could be taken to have little to do with the ideologies of the right or the left. The story can be read as an anti-fascist statement, or the reverse, namely that A Political Youth Dies reveals Oe to have a rightist double in himself, and that despite his announced anti-emperorism, he hides the awe of the monarch that was ingrained into him while still a young boy during World War II . . . Oe’s postwar embrace of freedom and democracy, for instance, is subtly entangled with a distrust of such humanist celebration. Ambiguity is ineradicable here.4

Indeed, the protagonist is not just a caricature of the real-life assassin/suicide, but he has in his characterization a certain affinity with the more obviously autobiographical characters of Oe’s more ambitious works, including the two brothers, Mitsusaburo and Takashi of The Silent Cry (1967), arguably his most influential literary achievement. Mitsusaburo is an excessively self-consicous, almost impotent intellectual, while Takashi is a man of action, outgoing, reckless and political; in other words, in the characterization of the protagonist of Oe’s earlier literary effort, “the sexual” and “the political,” the most dominant binary found operating in the literary dynamics of Oe’s oeuvres, are not yet clearly differentiated or functionally independent of each other. As to Oe’s “sexual/political” binary, literary critic Koichi Isoda (1931–1987) presents a convincing argument:

Oe depicts “the political” as those who are “in conflict with others” and “the sexual” as those who are “assimilable with others” and “subordinate as a female is subordinate to a strong male.” As is guessed from Oe’s own statement that he regards “the political” and “the sexual” as a kind of vector that corresponds to that of “the physical” and “the psychic,” “the political” denotes the public or social side of an individual where egoistic strife is always predominant, while “the sexual” is connected with one’s erotic interiority that induces one to be immersed into an object of one’s affect; thereby, it dangerously allures one to negate reality and, finally, negate one’s very self.5

Through the actual political turmoil at this period, immediately before and after the crucial year of 1960 when his literary career began, Oe grasped this binary of “the sexual” and “the political” as his literary strategy—a strategy to fully grapple with the ineradicable ambiguity that is the logical outcome of surviving the historical discontinuity or the thorough reformation of the traditional values after the war defeat—ambiguity that choosing to live as a Japanese through enforced Americanization inevitably entails.

A Pivotal Figure of an African American: Historicizing the Mythic in a Japanese St. Petersburg

Oe’s strategy of being persistent in remaining ambiguous has an unambiguous affinity with the literary attitude of one of the most representative American novelists: Mark Twain. Kojin Karatani (b. 1941–) argues that Oe’s frequent use of “a remote forest village,” a fictional rendering of his own native village, Ose-mura in Ehime, “was suggested to him by Faulkner’s use of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County as the setting of a multivolume saga.”6 Indeed William Faulkner’s fiction, along with Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism, is an obvious influence for Oe’s literature; however, to set one’s place of origin as a recurring fictional backdrop of one’s literature is also Twain’s trademark, as he fictionalized his hometown, Hannibal, Missouri, as St. Petersburg and made it America’s most celebrated literary locus. Besides, Oe emphasizes the spatial as well as temporal remoteness of his “remote forest village” and thereby romanticizes or sentimentalizes it with a dreamlike quality so that what is happening in that particular place, which always reflects his observation and understanding of the problematic present, imbues the entire work with a mood of ironic ambiguity; this is obviously more like Twain than Faulkner.

Oe’s Akutagawa Prize-winning short story, “Prize Stock” (1957; filmed by Nagisa Oshima [1932–2013] as The Catch in 1961), is clearly inspired by Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Oe referred to the novel as his boyhood favorite, along with Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Japan, the Ambiguous and Myself”). The story is, as is its 19th-century literary precursor, narrated by a teenage boy and located in a village in a wooded valley, apparently remote from any sign of contemporary civilization and therefore maintaining its mythic, ahistorical status as a “boy’s paradise.” During the course of the narrative, the boy narrator forms a strange bond with an intruder in his blissfully self-sufficient world: an African American (here a surviving pilot of a crashed warplane). This African American pilot is the fictional equivalent of Jim, Twain’s runaway slave. These works dramatize an encounter between the innocent and the real, the mythic and the historical. Twain’s 1885 novel is set a couple of decades before the demise of the slaveholding South in 1865 and Oe’s novel, published in 1957, is set probably less than a year before the country’s unconditional surrender in 1945. It is not just that the historical element in each work lies geographically or structurally beyond the boundaries of the boy narrator’s timeless microcosm, always already surrounding it and arbitrarily crushing down upon it from outside by agency of a certain presence stigmatized by the real and historical (as an African American), but also that the real/historical is temporally extrapolated ahead of the boy’s microcosm, even ahead of the grown-ups’ society surrounding it, visiting it from the future, from the après-guerre chronotope in which the author actually lives and writes.

Here emerges Twain’s and Oe’s ironic ambiguity. Like Oe, Twain was generally known to be a champion of democracy since his debut with his best-selling travel book The Innocents Abroad (1869), but he was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, the son of a poor but proud Virginian gentleman. He was raised in a slaveholding society and chose to fight for the Confederate cause when the War Between the States broke out in 1861. He deserted the battleground after two weeks of the “picnic-like” campaign that failed and lit out for the Nevada Territory, just as Huck Finn does at the end of the novel. Far away from the war, in the Territory, he found what would become his life-long pseudonym, “Mark Twain.” This self-renaming might be a ritual of re-creating himself and parting with his inglorious past as an ex-Confederate; it might even be a ritualistic patricide: that is, a gesture of severing himself from his father’s regional genealogy, just as Huck does by slaughtering a wild hog (an animal pap Finn is often compared to) before escaping with Jim on the Mississippi. When the war ended with the South’s acceptance of unconditional surrender, Twain had already discovered a new literary voice that matched a dawning postwar reality. William Dean Howells, to whom Twain had been so close since Howells became his literary mentor when he switched his mode of writing from nonfiction to fiction, was not at all wrong in his eulogy for his deceased friend: For Howells, Twain was “the most desouthernized Southerner I ever knew. No man more perfectly sensed and more entirely abhorred slavery, and no one has ever poured such scorn upon the secondhand, Walter-Scotticized, pseudo-chivalry of the Southern ideal.”7 But Mark Twain as a post–Civil War novelist always returned to the defeated world of the Old South, a world made by slaveholders and slaves, allowed to exist only in his memories—a world that he knew had been inexpiably sinful but now looked all the more attractive for a writer when seen from this rapidly industrializing and dehumanizing postwar world.

Oe’s intended ambiguous irony is found in his depiction of the African American soldier who survives the plane crash and is captured by the villagers as a “prize stock.” The village decides to detain the airman as a prisoner temporarily in an underground storage, as there is no other facility suitable for the purpose. Even the town, with its superior political organization, does not know how to treat this extraordinary “catch” and therefore has to wait for an order to come down from a more superior decision-making authority. Here the American soldier is introduced as a visitor from far beyond and above the village (as he actually flew over and came down from the sky). He is a visualization of “America,” the Enemy, not just the enemy of a small mountainous village but of the country as a whole; furthermore, he is also an agent from the future after the country’s unconditional surrender, a postwar future where, as the novelist himself observes and experiences while writing this story, his country has an ambiguous relationship with victorious and emasculating “America.”

That the soldier is an African American complicates the situation; not only the boy narrator and his cohorts but also the grown-up villagers assume that although they do know there are Americans with black skin, Americans are primarily Caucasian, and those Americans they are fighting a war with are definitely not people of color, as Harelip (Mitsukuchi), one of the boy’s comrades, exclaims: “‘Enemy? You say he is an enemy? . . . No way. He is a Negro; a Negro can’t be an enemy.”8 The soldier is not just an American, but he is an extraordinary one. So the soldier is, particularly as illustrated from the boy’s innocent perspective, re-alienated from the already alienated image of “America,” the invincible and now victorious enemy of their country; therefore, his Otherness turns out all the more awe-inspiring. However, that the soldier is, from the outset, compared to livestock is not only derived from his temporary status as a helpless captive but also from his inherent racial status as an African American or, more correctly, from the villagers’ stereotypical prejudice about the black race. He is untouchable in both ways: at once awed and debased. This duality, clearly reflecting “America” in Japanese mind, is given the most apt expression in the scene when the boys, as they grow accustomed to the black pilot’s presence in the prolonged detention period, decide to take him, as he is naturally malodorous, to the village’s public fountain for a bath—a beautiful, innocent and mythic scene but more intensely so than the American equivalent with Huck and Jim rafting down the Mississippi. The African American captive and the boys splash around in the water, all naked:

Suddenly we discovered that the black soldier possessed a magnificent, heroic, unbelievably beautiful penis. We crowded around him bumping diminutive naked hips, pointing and teasing, and the black soldier gripped his penis and planted his feet apart fiercely like a goat about to copulate and bellowed. We laughed until we cried and splashed the black soldier’s penis. Then Harelip dashed off naked as he was, and when he returned leading a large nanny-goat from the courtyard at the general store, we applauded his idea. The black soldier opened his pink mouth and shouted, then danced out of the water and bore down upon the frightened, bleating goat. We laughed as though mad, Harelip strained to keep the goat’s head down, and the black soldier labored mightily, his black, rugged penis glistening in the sun, but it simply would not work the way it did with a billy-goat.9

Here emphatically featured are the American soldier’s overwhelming physicality and animality, reflected in the boy’s genuinely innocent eyes, with “the sheer lyrical force of [his] language,”10 as sublimated, beyond mere race, into the status of a Greek god.

However, when the soldier realizes that the villagers are about to hand him over to the town authorities, he seizes the boy narrator as a hostage in a fit of despair and locks himself up in the underground storage. The boy’s infuriated father breaks into the storage with a hatchet and smashes the soldier’s brain with it, simultaneously crushing the boy’s hand that the solider tried to use to shield himself. The boy’s maimed hand, even after it is healed, emits an odor that mysteriously resembles that distinctive odor the American soldier’s body emitted when he was alive. As the story closes, the long, eventful summer ends and presumably so does the country’s war (the Imperial Proclamation of Surrender was issued on August 15, 1945); as the defeat in the war changes the country’s physical landscape, the boy will leave behind his idyllic childhood and begin to live a sober life in the postwar chronotope under the shadow of “America,” and haunted by its fatal odor.

Kenji Nakagami and William Faulkner

Two Cultures of Defeat: The U.S. South and Japan

The film Gone with the Wind came out in Japan in 1952, seven years after the end of the Second World War, and people were so enthusiastic that the film was turned into an all-Japanese-cast play (and for the first time in the world as a straight play) in 1966 at the Imperial Theatre (Teikoku Gekijo); since then, the play has been reprised and reenacted eleven times until the most recent one in 2011. The Japanese translation was published in 1977 and revised in 2004; surprisingly, two new versions were out almost simultaneously in 2015. The popularity of the novel in Japan was at least partly due to people’s sympathy toward another “country” doomed by a similar fate: the American South after Appomattox in 1865, comparable with Japan after the Imperial Proclamation of Surrender in 1945. The Japanese populace, gradually recovering from the state of sheer exhaustion directly after the defeat, and in dire need of reinvigoration, naturally turned to Scarlett O’Hara, who survives the miserable aftermath of the defeat in the Civil War with her strong will and unquenchable energy. Scarlett, a southern belle manqué, is better adjusted to the shrewdly practical postbellum situation where detested Yankeeism is now blatantly taking over, and she finally decides to leave behind her lifelong beau Ashley Wilkes, a philosophical sort, who spends his postwar years looking backward to that now obsolete civilization, only where the southern aristocracy of which he was a genuine member could exist. Japanese loved Scarlett and cherished what she stands for—never looking back, always aspiring for tomorrow, discarding the decencies the regional aesthetic tradition her deceased mother tried to inculcate in her and going her own way for her own good, even if it is not a way associated with southern womanhood: “‘If I’ll have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.’”11

However, others who were more pensive and pessimistic were probably more sympathetic to Ashley; these people felt ill at ease and even ashamed because they were already aware and could never allow themselves to forget that their postwar economic stability would never have been made possible without America’s “special military procurement.” America was then proceeding with its plan for achieving control over the global state of the Cold War and continually launching new wars at new battle-fronts—the Korean Peninsula from 1950 to 1953 and Vietnam from 1960 to 1975. Those who were impressed by an odd affinity between Japan and the South—in a sense, both beaten by “Yankees”—but could never be so enthusiastic about Scarlett O’Hara and Gone with the Wind, felt an affinity with another southern writer, who had at that time just reached the apex of fame, as it was culminated in his receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 (coincidentally the year Margaret Mitchell died)—William Faulkner. Faulkner visited Japan in 1955 (this visit is regarded as having been part of America’s Cold War political maneuvers for advertising the good America could contribute to world culture); his visit further stirred interest in, if not the popularity of, this southern author—particularly among Japanese academic and literary circles. Since the symposium featuring the Mississippi-born Nobel laureate held in Nagano, Faulkner has been one of the most studied American authors, ranking with a few others such as Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway.

Faulkner’s depiction of the South and its “culture of defeat”12 is pitched again in ironical ambiguity. The most revered ancestor of the Yoknapatawpha country, epitomized in the character of Lucius Quintus Carothers “Old” McCaslin of Go Down, Moses (1942), committed two unforgivable sins; first, usurpation of the land, with a typical white man’s excuse of “buying” it from the native Indian tribe, who were “using” it because they believed (and Faulkner obviously consents) that a land could be only temporarily given for human usage, so should not be bought or sold or even owned: second, introduction of chattel slavery on the same land, at the tragic but, in a sense, logical end of which happened numerous appalling incidents. Not so bizarre but rather typical an example of those incidents goes: Old McCaslin took a slave woman Eunice as a lover and begat Tomasina, but he later impregnated Tomasina, his own daughter but also his property and then begat Terrel (Tomey’s Turl). Eunice, knowing this, drowned herself. In Faulkner’s world, these two sins constitute what Rosa Coldfield of Absalom, Absalom! (1936) calls “fatality and curse on the South,”13 and appropriately brought about the defeat in the Civil War and thereby forms a basic premise of the “culture of defeat” through which Faulkner’s contemporary characters, including Bayard Sartoris (“Young Bayard”) of Flags in the Dust (1929), Gail Hightower of Light in August (1932), Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom!, and Isaac McCaslin of Go Down, Moses, are all destined to live. But, at the same time, their past is the source of their present anxiety; that is, an anxiety that their lives have no better worth living for than their antecedents’, and that their lives are devoid of the simplistic unity, increasingly complicated and irrevocably fragmented—a situation best summarized by T. S. Eliot’s famed phrase “dissociation of sensibility.” Their antecedents never doubted that they had something for which they could be unanimously brave and gallant and feel honorable to die: for their antecedents, to live was simply to believe, and to die was simply the belief’s logical end. In contrast with dwarfed present-day sons, their fathers were “tall men,” as they are remembered and celebrated in the 1927 poem by Donald Davidson, Faulkner’s contemporary who was originally a member of Eliotesque Fugitive poets but later turned into a polemical southern Agrarian.

Fathers of Yoknapatawpha, Mothers of Roji

Kenji Nakagami (1946–1992) first learned of William Faulkner through a suggestion from Kojin Karatani, one of the most influential Japanese postwar critics, in 1968, when his earliest literary efforts started to attract critical attention. Nakagami was soon absorbed in the southern author and while declaring “I will become a Faulkner of Japan” or “I will build a Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, in Japan,”14 he turned to his native place, an equivalent of Oe’s “remote forest village” (Oe was another strong literary influence for Nakagami), located in Kishu (the old term for the Wakayama prefecture), and gave full vent to his creative passion and energy for creating his own saga, which later crystallized into his most celebrated “Akiyuki trilogy”: The Cape (1976), The Sea of the Withered Trees (1977) and The End of the Earth, the Supreme Time (1983). His literary passion for his native soil as his literary topos intensified because it was one of the places historically allocated throughout the Japanese archipelago for those who had been socially discriminated against and deemed as untouchable, called “buraku-min” in Japanese. The locus of Nakagami’s literature, a Japanese ghetto, is an enclave marked out by its “fatality and curse,” as was Faulkner’s South. Nakagami learns from Faulkner how to construct and visualize his own Yoknapatawpha, simply named “roji (alley or alleys),” with Faulknerean cartographic imagination elaborated in his own way. As Faulkner did before him, Nakagami thoroughly focuses on roji, his own tiny “postage stamp of native soil,”15 a land cursed and fated and thereby distinguished and secluded from the other parts of the country. As Jun Eto (1939–1999), another influential critic, states that in contrast with a castle town (joka-machi) that is “governed, in space, by a written law and, in time, by a diachronic perspective as history,” Nakagami’s roji is a place where the dominant is “not a diachronic but a rather synchronic paradigm”; it is ruled by a tao (originally a Chinese philosophical expression denoting “the natural and spontaneous way of things”), different from a secular law, penetrated with deep religiosity, which “tolerates what is beyond normative ethics.”16 In roji, history exists only in a form of an apocrypha, and therefore it acquires a paradoxical vantage point from which to see the official history of the country as a whole.

Nakagami was born a year after Japan’s defeat in the war and therefore lived his entire life in the shadow of his country’s postwar chronotope. Thus, he worked, like all serious postwar Japanese writers, under the influence of “America.” But what should be noted here is how “America” cuts a figure in roji, an exclusive space of tao and apocrypha, subsumed within but geopolitically differentiated from the normative world of law and history. Roji has no specific historical beginning, unlike Faulkner’s South, where the land usurpation and the introduction of chattel slavery are specified as the two-headed sources of the land’s “curse and fatality,” resulting in the war defeat, and therefore of the postwar culture of defeat. In Japan, a specific group was designated as untouchable with no inherent reasons but arbitrarily in relation with those in power. They were undeservedly given “curse and fatality” at one unspecified time in history, without any convincing reason, and since then they have been left out of the country’s official history, deemed to be untouchables. With no specific “beginning” in history, roji is apparently devoid of diachronic history; therefore, its constituents are basically free from historical burden, a pressure vertically descending from the past like gravity, embodied in the form of “father,” as is quite often a situation Faulkner’s signature characters inevitably cope with. Nakagami himself once wrote: “There is no one in roji who is to be called ‘father’ in a normal civil society.”17 In this sense, roji has a strange but understandable affinity with Faulkner’s African American characters, as they are interdependent on the dominant white society but still segregated from it; they are also materially exploited and debased but spiritually self-sufficient, with a mutual supporting “grape-vine” network: in other words, they are not patrilineal but matrilineal societies, where mothers or motherly women individually contribute to make rather loose and temporal knots of a rhizomelike structure of their societies.18 Therefore, the postwar situation of the larger normative society of Japan as a whole is reflected, not directly but at least obliquely, in its peculiar enclave, roji, first as its motherly women’s pathetic but indomitable figures. One of these Japanized and declassed Scarlett O’Haras is Aunt Yuki of The Sea of the Withered Trees: “As her father died an early death and left six young brothers and sisters entirely in her care, couldn’t stand the poverty as a single woman with no male helping hand and decided to go out and sell herself into prostitution when she was fifteen; since then till one of her brothers came at last to buy her out, she had earned a living for a long time by selling her favors in one of the red-districts in the town of Ise.”19 Fusa of The Cape, mother of Akiyuki, Nakagami’s semi-autobiographical protagonist of the eponymous trilogy, has a habit of saying: “‘If I were soft like a regular mom, everybody would have been starved. As it was soon after the war, I myself got to go out somewhere, anywhere, to lay my hands on whatever you could eat.”20

Presence and Estrangement: Father as “America”

However, “Akiyuki-trilogy” is, as Karatani argues, “clearly linked by a strong Oedipal motif.”21 Akiyuki, in a sense, has three “fathers”; his mother Fusa lost her first husband, Katsuichiro Nishimura, who fathered Akiyuki’s most intimate siblings, and after his demise, Fusa began relations with Akiyuki’s biological father, Ryuzo Hamamura, who had at that time begat two children with two different women almost simultaneously; he was arrested and imprisoned even before Akiyuki was born. Then Fusa found a third man, a widower, Shigezo Takehara: they took only their own youngest sons, Fumiaki and Akiyuki, and set up a new family. So Akiyuki Nishimura-Hamamura-Takehara is first and foremost a mother’s child, a typical son of roji. Akiyuki feels himself being suffocated, as he is irrevocably entangled in the matrilineal space of roji, which has no specific or phallic center of order and just extends itself blindly and aimlessly to all peripheries (just like a rhizome) through repetitious and tireless knotting and unknotting of relations, as is shown in the untidy wake of his mother’s life. Akiyuki thinks to himself: “Living entangled in this narrow space. It is terrifying. Suffocating. Every single thing is depressing.”22 So he loves his physical outdoor labor (he is now working for his third father’s construction company) and tries to become absorbed in work, digging in the dirt or felling a tree, waiting for a vision of himself being merged with nature around him: “Akiyuki thought, that tree was just like him. He didn’t know what tree it was, and he didn’t want to know it. It wasn’t in fruit nor in bloom. It just grew its leaves out toward the sun, swinging in the wind. That was it, he thought. No fruit, no flower, and no name.”23 Akiyuki, now exhausted from physical labor, envisions his own ideal state: “Shone by the sun, dyed in its light, colored in the seasonal landscape, Akiyuki felt he was being completely vanished and becoming free.”24

With his insoluble ambivalence toward his biological father, Ryuzo Hamamura, of course, Akiyuki is never free from hatred toward this man. Ryuzo suddenly came out of nowhere to roji, soon impregnated three different women including his mother only to throw all of them away. He also apparently conspired against the entire roji in an intrigue with the local eminence grise and land developer: he once attempted to set a fire and burn down everything on roji. He instantly became an enigma, if not an anathema, to the roji residents, like Thomas Sutpen of Absalom Absalom! on his arrival at Jefferson. Nonetheless, to Akiyuki’s eyes, Ryuzo is the only male who can come to live and not be trapped in roji; he thinks of it as Ryuzo being aloof like a tree or looking down derisively upon people from above like a bird. Akiyuki hates him but at the same time knows he has some transcendent attributes in him that Akiyuki is always aspiring to have himself. For Akiyuki, Ryuzo is not just a provider of sperm, most basic instance of fatherhood, but “father” that takes on a higher—symbolic or even mythic—existence.25 One of Ryuzo’s strange behaviors intensifies, at least to Akiyuki’s eyes, his mythic status: as everybody in roji secretly derides him as he is a man of suspicious origin; Ryuzo takes advantage of his own suspiciousness and comes to pretend that he is a descendent of Magoichi Hamamura, a legendary local warrior head known for his passionate faith in Buddhism, who was defeated by Nobunaga Oda, the most powerful warlord in the late Warring States period (“Sengoku Jidai,” from the middle of the 15th century to the mid-16th century) and notorious oppressor of an “Ikko-shu” branch of Buddhists. As the legend of Magoichi goes, he survived the defeat, reached this land, and expended the last of his energy establishing an earthly paradise for the remaining Ikko Buddhists here—but in vain. Ryuzo bribes a local historian to make up a story or two to his advantage and ostentatiously erects a stone monument to commemorate Magoichi’s tragic death. While people in roji make his unabashed impudence a laughing stock, Akiyuki thinks to himself: “He was now feeling that something in him was being involuntarily attracted by Ryuzo Hamamura’s zeal for the distant Hamamura ancestor of his own invention, and that something was making him, now twenty-nine years old, conspicuously different from others.”26

Akiyuki repeatedly tries Ryuzo’s magnanimity as father, to see through to the core of the nature of a man who announces himself as his father. Akiyuki even deliberately commits incest with his half-sister Satoko (Kumi of The Cape), now working in a brothel, and confesses it to Ryuzo: this is Akiyuki’s attempt to drag Ryuzo into the endless chains of relations roji’s women arbitrarily and randomly knot and unknot, into the chaotic inertia of roji, but Ryuzo never flinches:

“My children,” the man [Ryuzo] said with a boom. “You two are my children.”

Then Akiyuki felt these were the very words he had wanted to hear for a long time. /. . ./

Akiyuki said, “Your children slept with each other.”

The man glared at him and said with a voice slightly enmeshed with anger: “I know. Couldn’t help.”

Tears rolled down from Akiyuki’s eyes. He wiped them away. He didn’t understand the reason for his flowing tears.27

These are the kind of words Charles Bon of Absalom, Absalom! is so desperate to hear from his father Thomas Sutpen that he even threatens to marry his father’s daughter, his own half-sister. He does not care if he is killed for that reason by his half-brother, Henry Sutpen. Akiyuki, a typical son of roji, is obsessed with “fatherhood” because roji has practically no “fathers” or never allows fathers to behave like one. And he is afraid that one day when he becomes entrapped as another roji’s father, it will deprive him of freedom and virility.

This is a caricature or a symbolic reflection of the situation in occupied Japan. Maturity and Loss: Collapse of “Motherhood” (1967), Eto Jun’s epochal study of postwar Japanese literature, dissects the literary achievements by a group of budding literary talents appearing around the middle of 1950s. Called “The Third New Generation” (Dai-san no shinjin), this movement included Nobuo Kojima (mentioned above), Shotaro Yasuoka (1920–2013), Shusaku Endo (1923–1996), Junzo Shono (1921–2009), and Junnosuke Yoshiyuki (1924–1994). Eto convincingly argues that the basic premise of their literature is that the socio-psychological factors in the aftermath of the 1945 defeat prompt mothers to form a symbiotic relationship with their sons, leaving their husbands metaphorically feminized or emasculated in the virile presence of “America.” The transformation of the mother-son relationship, according to Eto, results in mothers’ overprotective and almost incestuous attachment to their sons, and sons’ futile resistance against dependence on their mothers; further, this matric mother-son relationship finds its way into marital relationship, a relationship between irritated but dependent wives and caring but indecisive husbands. Mothers are like wives and wives behave like mothers; thus Eto’s thesis concludes that the idea of motherhood is collapsing in the postwar Japanese literature.28

The irony is that, while roji has been historically segregated, it turns out to be most emblematic of postwar Japan. Ryuzo Hamamura acquires the exceptional status of “father” in the matrilineal space of roji because he is always estranged from it. Ryuzo’s unique existence into which presence and estrangement are fused is highly suggestive of “America’s” existence in postwar Japan. So it is not surprising to see that Ryuzo is described with various images the Japanese populace may have of “America.” Ryuzo is a man, first of all, “almost two times as tall as Akiyuki,” “wearing sun-glasses,” and “riding a huge motorbike”: a man of boundless sexual energy, as mentioned above, known to have impregnated three women in a row: Akiyuki’s third father, Shigezo Takehara, and other local contractors are reluctant to associate themselves with this notorious intruder, but they are also aware that their livelihoods are in reality all provided through his maneuvering as an agent of the behind-the-scenes local financer and his connection with the larger capitalist world outside of roji. Everybody derides him as a man of obscure origin, while he fabricates a genealogy and claims to be the rightful descendant of a medieval warrior. This is a warrior whose vision of building a Buddhist paradise in a land remote from any political influence might remind the reader of Puritan John Winthrop’s vision of building “a city upon a hill”: and finally, as Akiyuki testifies, “His eyes shone like gold. His face was rubicund” and “He was ubiquitous like air.”29

The trilogy finishes with the sudden death, suicide, of Ryuzo and the disappearance of roji. What does this signify in the present context? It does not just mean the termination of America’s occupation of Japan; roji is burned down and erased from view, at least in terms of external appearances. But spiritually it does remain, for example, with a group of the old “oba” (literally meaning “aunts,” but, for Nakagami, always having strong connotations of motherhood) of Wings of the Sun (1984), ex-residents of roji, on the nomadic pilgrimage from Kishu to Tokyo on the trailer truck driven by a youth of roji lineage. This might be Nakagami’s vision of arriving in Japan of a post-postwar or post-“America” era. And his vision is deliberately fluctuating; it is depicted as a reactionary return to the prewar militarism and emperor worship on one hand; on the other hand it is depicted as aspiration for Asian solidarity, thorough deconstruction of the prewar “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” (Dai-towa kyoei-ken) and its reorganization in a truer form, as is found in his last unconsummated literary effort, Different Tribes (1984–1991). The fluctuation depicts Nakagami’s own anxiety, probably reflecting the anxiety of Japan as a nation, about the “America”-less future of Japan and also how postwar Japan has been irrevocably acculturated with “America’s” presence.

Haruki Murakami and Raymond Carver

Towards Post-“America”: The End of Modern Negation

Haruki Murakami (b. 1949–) seems entirely different from Kenji Nakagami, although they belong to the same generation (Nakagami was born just three years before Murakami), in his attitude toward “America.” It is as if Murakami does not see “America” as a problem, or if he does, he apparently has no problem coping with it. Murakami has often been regarded as the first serious Japanese postwar literary author, or at least among the first ones who are free from ironical ambiguity toward “America.” But Murakami belonged, as did Nakagami, to the generation called “Zenkyoto Sedai,” a generation identified with student activist groups. These groups represent the Japanese version of “Angry Young Men,” coming to prominence on university campuses, who protested against, above all else, the oncoming renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1970, the continued presence of American armed forces in Japan, the use of bases located in Okinawa and other parts of the country as staging areas for military activities in Vietnam, and the deployment of American nuclear vessels in Japanese ports. “America” was apparently the most conspicuous target of the united front of the student protest groups at that time.

Apparently, Murakami did not find it difficult to digest “America.” In 1968, Murakami first left his father and mother, both high school teachers of Japanese language and literature, and went to Tokyo to enroll at Waseda University at the height of the political fervor. However, now it is widely known that, though he participated in a student-organized political demonstration one time or another (and hurled a stone or two at the surrounding riot police), Murakami refused to become a member of any sect or faction active on campus because he detested campus activists and organizers, as he said in his interview with Matthew Carl Strecher: “They had no imagination . . . Like, some of these guys were Marxists. I had nothing against Marxism at that time, but these guys weren’t speaking their own words. They just talked in slogans all the time, excerpts from books, that sort of thing. I didn’t like that. I mean, the words they used were strong and beautiful, but they weren’t their own.”30 Before being involved in the political turmoil on campus, Murakami had already been an avid reader of American novelists—maybe a gesture of his protest against his parents—including Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Richard Brautigan, and Jack Kerouac, and he kept on being one and later turned out numerous works of translation from various American authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger, Tim O’Brien, Grace Paley, and above all Raymond Carver. He was also an enthusiastic fan of American jazz since his high school days, and in 1974, opened a jazz-themed café with his wife, whom he had met on campus, in some urban enclave of Tokyo. However, this does not necessarily mean that he only digested parts of American culture he had a specific taste for: he was also aware of the dominant presence of “America” as a fate of postwar Japan. Perhaps it is more to do with Haruki Murakami’s attitude toward “fate,” and therefore, toward modernity of Japanese modern literature as a whole—where negation or transcendence of “fate,” whether the nation’s or the individual’s, has always been sought after.

Norihiro Kato (b. 1948–), famed for his controversial critique of postwar Japan, expounds on the unprecedented achievement of Murakami’s literature:

[Murakami’s literature] is the first, self-conscious literary attempt to “affirm what is to be affirmed.” It is not so simple as it first seems because it means “to negate what is to be negated.” What is negation, first of all? It is to negate a state, to negate the rich, to negate the unreasonable that constitutes a present society, to negate an authority and power that justifies the unreasonable. After all, this negation is considered a major force that once overthrew the pre-modern feudalism, materialized a modern society, and made it more democratic; it is a driving force behind modernization. Modern literature attracted people by associating this negation with a romantic ideal, and it often took a form of rebellion against a patriarchal “father.” What booted up modern literatures of subsequent modern states such as Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, China and Korea was also this power of negation of the status quo, a power to break through the present and aspire to the future accomplishment of the ideal modern. . . . “To affirm what is to be affirmed” in literature, therefore, means to stop relying on this negation peculiar to modern literature.31

Kato emphasizes that Murakami’s literature does not belong to a category of simply entertaining popular literature that endorses the contemporary trend to accept or even enjoy the status quo; that is, a trend of apathetic calmness. This trend is often mistaken to be a (dis)solution of the problem itself, immediately after the political activity around 1970 was suppressed and the rapidly accumulated wealth was made possible by being an obedient member of America’s global regime—or by being willingly subject to Pax Americana. Murakami’s is a literature of pure artistic merit (jun-bungaku) that “does accept the now progressing decay of modern negation and is determined to let it go as early as any other postwar Japanese author [around the end of 1970s] but see it off with sorrowful eyes.”32

Kato’s phrase, “to affirm what is to be affirmed,” is probably associated with Murakami’s mysterious references to an author named Derek Hartfield, in his first novel Hear the Wind Sing (1979). In fact, the novel begins and ends with a reference to the author, from whom the narrator “learned a lot of what I know about writing . . . almost everything, in fact.”33 The descriptions of the life of the writer are so detailed and realistic that a point of contention arose among Murakami fans and critics whether the writer named Hartfield existed or not. It settled itself over time: there was no real American author so named. But he is not like a fictional character, either. “Derek Hartfield” is more like a reference point Murakami, not the narrator, deliberately enmeshes into his text: a device prepared by Murakami, then a budding novelist, to set the tone not only of his first novel but also of his own literary world now unfolding. The narrator quotes from Hartfield’s 1936 book called What’s So Bad About Feeing Good?: “Writing is, in effect, the act of verifying the distance between us and the things surrounding us. What we need is not sensitivity but a measuring stick.”34 This mirrors Murakami’s own attitude toward life, the world, and literature. “What’s so bad about feeling good?” is simply an expression renouncing the negation of the modern, but its form as a rhetorical question still exposes the existence of a complex emotionality lingering behind this boldly rebellious statement. It is as if to say, “We have to live with our fate. ‘America,’ our fate now, offers us wealth and security. They may not truly be ours, and some day turn out to be a threat against ourselves or, sadly, against our neighbors in Asia once again, but we are not able to do away with them now. What counts is to know exactly how far we have come and where we are or ‘the distance between us and the things surrounding us’ and to have a sensible measuring stick.”35 Here is to be noted an apparent connection between Murakami’s “to affirm what is to be affirmed” attitude and his iconic interjection, a common but rather old fashioned expression, obviously not so popular among young Japanese (at least not until Murakami’s appearance), of soft lamentation or diffident resignation, frequently uttered by Murakami himself and his narrator/characters: “yare-yare.”

So Murakami’s stance toward “America” is still ambiguously ironic or ironically ambiguous as were the attitudes of his serious literary predecessors; however, the psychological balance inside the ironic ambiguity has shifted with Murakami. Murakami’s attitude toward “America” as Japan’s fate is clearly not aggressive; however, it is not simply detachment, as has often been pointed out ever since his debut. Murakami’s early readers in the 1980s may have sympathized with his principal narrator/character’s detached or yare-yare-like attitude to “the things surrounding [them],” for they belonged to “the disenchanted generation” (shirake-sedai), who came of age around the end of 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. Or they may have belonged to the former generations, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, quite exhausted from the uptight striving to achieve the political ideal of “dis-Americanization” of postwar Japan. They were also disappointed and disillusioned by the miserable failure of their pursuit of the ideal, particularly by a series of the murderous disputes inside a sect or between sects, which had become more frequent and more violent since the late 1970s and most of which were publicized by the mass media, depriving their political cause of popular sympathy as a consequence. At the time Murakami was becoming a cultural phenomenon in the late 1980s, Japan’s capitalist economy was said to have surpassed even that of the United States and, as Karatani argues, it appeared as if the aporias inherent in Japan’s modernity since its beginning in Meiji had vanished. Aporias is here the term for the political and cultural double bind in which Japan needed to be (Euro-)Americanized in order not to be colonized by (Euro-)America, and fabricated an apparently beautiful cause of the Asian united front as “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” for fending off the (Euro-)American invasion and at the same time, quite ironically for that cause, invaded its Asian neighbors. Of course, as Karatani continues to argue, the Japanese modern aporias “have in no way been resolved.”36 Popular in the 1980s was an apathy toward politics. It was a general tendency of indifference to the aporias in which the country still remained structurally or fatefully enfolded, based on the country’s unprecedented economic strength (to be recognized later as the “economic bubble”). This indifference may have spurred the popularity of Murakami’s coolly detached literary posture on the surface. The initial critical reaction also seemed to emphasize this popular impression: Murakami’s literature was thought to be escapist, populist, opportunist, and faddish.

They Took Their Stands: How to Survive as a Writer in Post-“Literature” Era

However, if one’s understanding of Murakami is that of a detached, indifferent writer, one would never understand why Murakami is so attached to Raymond Carver; he once said he considered Raymond Carver to be “his writer”37 and decided to translate Carver’s works all by himself and finally accomplished it in the eight volumes of The Complete Works of Raymond Carver (1990–2004). Why Raymond Carver? Carver and Murakami seem so different from each other. Murakami was born the only son of Japanese literature-teaching parents, raised in Ashiya, a notoriously luxurious residential district near Kobe, while Carver was one of the two sons between a couple of a sawmill worker and a waitress and retail clerk in a mountainous village of Yakima, Washington. Their general attitudes toward life were different: Murakami has been apparently health conscious (not a smoker nor a heavy drinker), an avid runner, even a triathlete, and apparently still in good shape at sixty-eight. Carver was an alcoholic as his father had been before him, though he recovered from the addiction with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. Then he died from lung cancer as early as at the age of fifty. Raymond Carver is a realist through and through, a short story writer famed for his photographic descriptions of everyday life; his stories were without actual catharsis but often endowed with an epiphanic moment. Murakami is versatile as a writer, and writes in different modes: realism, surrealism, magical realism, fantasy, Gothicism, thriller, etc.

One thing they seem to have in common is stoicism. It could be called professionalism, but it is more like sober self-knowledge as a writer. In his essay, “Fires” (1982), Carver recollects his days in the mid-1960s—exactly when the American military was beginning to participate in the war in Vietnam on a full scale and the domestic strife for the civil rights was coming to a boiling point. Married in 1957 when he was only nineteen, he already had two children then with his wife Maryann. He was struggling to support his own family by working as a deliveryman, janitor, library assistant, and sawmill laborer. He was swamped with work and everyday chores because he had to take turns with Maryann on the work shift and caring for their young children. While he still never ceased aspiring to success as a professional writer, he had an epiphany one day while waiting impatiently for his turn using a dryer at “a busy laundromat in Iowa City”:

Nothing—and, brother, I mean nothing—that ever happened to me on this earth could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children. . . . At that moment I felt—I knew—that the life I was in was vastly different from the lives of the writers I most admired. I understood writers to be people who didn’t spend their Saturdays at the laundromat and every waking hours subject to the need and the caprices of their children. . . . At that moment I saw accommodations would have to be made. The sights would have to be lowered. I’d had, I realized later, an insight. . . . The circumstance of my life with these children dictated something else. They said if I wanted to write anything, and finish it, and if I ever wanted to take satisfaction out of finished work, I was going to have to stick to stories and poems. The short things I could sit down and, with any luck, write quickly and have done with.38

Carver talks about a “real influence.” Every artist—of course, Murakami is not an exception39—understands that the artist can be different from the man behind the artistry. But at the same time a “real influence,” his most immediate life-determining factor, irrevocably shapes what and how he writes. Here Carver intends to say that he was not completely detached from the larger sociopolitical problems his country was facing at the time and that he did admire those writers who could be aloof, materially or spiritually, from exigent needs of everyday life and was determined to confront those larger problems through art. He may have been thinking of writers such as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, or other contemporaries of their style and caliber. He simply realized he was different from them. So he started to write in the only way compatible with his lifestyle. However, it hardly means that his “minimalist” literature is myopic and devoid of literary range: rather, his most successful stories, including “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (1966), “Are You a Doctor?” (1973), “Sacks” (1974), “So Much Water So Close to Home” (1975), “Cathedral” (1981), “A Small Good Thing” (1982), and many others, touch the core of human experiences, with rich reverberations culminating in an epiphany of universal human solitude and solidarity.

Murakami’s seemingly strange sympathy with Carver may have come from his experiences immediately before he started to write. Murakami, as an undergraduate Wasedanian, spent more time in the jazz café he worked part-time in than in a classroom, frequently disturbed, invaded, and occupied by sloganeering student activists. While still an undergraduate he married Yoko Takahashi in 1971, when he was twenty-two. The couple probably could not afford rent and therefore were allowed to live in Yoko’s parents’ house: a bedclothes shop close to the university. The newly wedded husband tried to prove to his wife and parents-in-law—perhaps to himself, too—that he could be economically viable. But he did not drop out of college or do what one is normally supposed to do to prove one’s economic viability, like becoming a company employee: he opened his own jazz café in 1974 with his father-in-law’s financial help. As Norihiro Kato points out, Murakami’s unique struggle for a life of his own at the time was radical in a completely different way than the lives of his campus mates were, armed with “strong and beautiful” but unoriginal slogans, merely a borrowed radicalism.40 Young Murakami resolutely refused to be a member of the society Japan had been shaping since the end of the war in accordance with America’s Cold War policy for strategic global mapping. He had to work to earn a living: he once wrote that he and his wife “worked like slaves, often taking on several jobs at once to save as much as we could,”41 just as Carver and his wife had done before them. Toward the beginning of his debut novel, he would write about a “radical” policy behind his writing, expressing his understanding that his is definitely not “literature” in a traditional sense nor “pure art” in this quasi-Americanized, hyper-capitalist society:

If it’s art or literature you’re interested in, I suggest you read the Greeks. Pure art exists only in slave-owning societies. The Greeks had slaves to till their fields, prepare their meals, and row their galleys while they lay about on sun-splashed Mediterranean beaches, composing poems and grappling with mathematical equations. That’s what art is.42

Then, one bright April afternoon in 1978, in the bleachers of a ballpark—if one believes his own bizarre story—Murakami had an epiphany. At the instant when Dave Hilton, an American playing for the Yakult Swallows, a Japanese professional baseball team, hit a double, a revelation suddenly came to the author, and he decided he could write a novel. His story sounds like Carver’s tale of “a busy laundromat in Iowa City” elaborately modified with a witty Murakamiesque twist. Immediately after this incident, he set up his working routine just as Carver had done before him: he wrote on his kitchen table every night after getting home late from his café—“Those few hours before dawn were practically the only time I had free.”43 He managed to finish his first novel after the six or so months of stoically sticking to his strict writing rule, Here the Wind Sing, awarded with Gunzo Literary Prize in 1979, which he called “My Kitchen-Table Fiction.”

Thus, Murakami established his uniquely private style of writing and has kept on it, even if it is not done on a kitchen table late at night. And this has also been his unique way of addressing the problems of postwar Japan. Recent Murakami critics have often argued that Murakami changed his attitude as a novelist toward his country and its society at large from that of “detachment” to that of “commitment,” particularly after the Tokyo subway sarin attack by Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult, and the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which completely devastated his native soil in 1995. This critical assessment may be right; his psychological balance between public accommodation and private aloofness may have been shifting since Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–1995) or Underground (1997), which may reflect his sense of an ending, if not the ending of his own life and his literary career, then that of the postwar chronotope in reaction to which he envisioned the arrival of a post- postwar or post-“America” Japan. Murakami has, in a sense, always been a writer of “commitment” in a way peculiar to him. Ever since he was a college student—one who would not commit himself to any fashionable political ideologies—Murakami has always wanted to “just believe in honest words, from [himself].”44

Discussion of the Literature

Of course, there have been numerous critical and scholarly remarks and opinions concerning postwar Japanese writers’ literary debts to American writers. Besides the three authors discussed above, Takeshi Kaiko (1930–1989), a prolific and popular novelist and documentary writer, is often compared with Ernest Hemingway. After all, he had experience as a war correspondent in Vietnam—an experience crystalized in his masterpiece Into a Black Sun (1968)—and also had a passion for adventurous fishing and alcoholic beverages. However, Kaiko’s debt to the American novelist seems apparently personal and spiritual, more to do with a lifestyle, and his writing style is not so simple, direct, and unadorned as Hemingway’s but rather densely voluble. Yuko Tshushima (1947–2016), one of the most important postwar female writers in Japan, is famed for her unique visionary realism: for example, her multilayered time-transcending tale of the bond between mother and son in Nara Report (2004), which is often regarded as a unique revision of William Faulkner’s narratology via Marquez-like magic realism. Ryu Murakami (b. 1952–) debuted with Almost Transparent Blue (1976), a semi-autobiographical novel depicting a protagonist’s violent but lyric experience in Fussa. Fussa is a town located west of Tokyo, known as the site of Yokota Base for the U.S. Air Force and noted for its quasi-American countercultural atmosphere particularly during the 1970s. Ryu Murakami has been producing major works of fiction exploring the dark side of postwar and postmodern Japan through various themes including apathy, drug use, sexual promiscuity, mass murder, and serial killing. Murakami’s literature has been apparently synchronized with, if not under the direct influence of, the literary achievements of such American postmodern writers as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.

However, while there are many examples of literary relationships between specific American and postwar Japanese writers, theoretical and comprehensive study of postwar Japanese literature as it relates to American literature is a field of comparative literature yet to be explored. The general scarcity of studies in this field is at least partly due to uncertainty among Japanese literary critics and scholars as to when the postwar era terminated in Japan or, more correctly, to Japan’s collective anxiety about when and if it ended. Shugo Honda (1908–2001), one of the noted critics participating in the heated contention, in the immediate aftermath of the country’s defeat, for definition of “postwar-ness” in literature, once wrote that the postwar literature ended with the sensational debut of Shintaro Ishihara (b. 1932–) with his Akutagawa Prize–winning first novel, Taiyo no kisetsu (translated in English as Season of Violence), portraying passionate but futile love and desire among postwar Japanese youths in 1955.45 Yet, according to Shun Akiyama (1930–2013), another famed literary critic succeeding Honda’s generation, Ryu Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue, mentioned above, is “the first novel that has completely eradicated the conception of postwar-ness” in that this best-selling novel delineates quasi-Americanization of contemporary Japanese youths and therefore implacable weakening or dilution, if not total loss, of the communal sense of “postwar-ness” among them; this is the first novel produced and consumed by those who do not share the Japanese national experience of the defeat in the Second World War.46

Still, the discussion continues: How do we know when the postwar era ended? Did we leave it behind already? If not, why? How can we terminate it? Norihiro Kato asked these disquieting questions in a series of contentious studies about Japan’s enduring “postwar-ness”: to name a few of his representative works, Amerika no kage: Sengo saiken (The shadow of America: Review of postwar Japan) (1985), Haisengo-ron (A discourse on post-defeat Japan) (1997), and Sengo-teki shiko (The postwar way of thinking) (1999). Kato considers himself primarily a critic of modern Japanese literature; however, in order to be a literary critic in Japan, he feels it indispensable to precisely define Japan’s “postwar-ness” with a view to developing a theoretical perspective from which to see the full impact of the country’s defeat in the war on its literature, to survey the historical transfiguration of Japanese modern literature as a whole, and above all to specify America’s shadowing presence in postwar Japanese literature. In 2013, apparently triggered by the theoretical side of Kato’s achievement, a young sociologist named Satoshi Shirai (b. 1977–) published Eizoku haisen-ron (Discourse on enduring postwar-ness in Japan) (2013) with a critical and popular success, prolonging this discussion but directing it still further away from literature.

A Japanese American literature scholar, Toshio Watanabe (b. 1935–), published a book called Nine Japanese Novels Inspired by American Literature in 2014. Watanabe’s interest is strictly academic and does not necessarily lie in theoretical exploration of how Japanese modern literature has been destined to be in America’s shadow but simply in enumerating various individual artistic debt-credit relations between Japanese and American writers. But it would be beneficial here to introduce his book as a specimen of a Japanese academic’s effort to clarify how, if not why, Japanese literature has been inspired by American literature.

Watanabe deals with nine pairs of American and Japanese works, five of which are the pairs with the creative debts acknowledged by the Japanese authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and Shohei Ooka’s Nobi (Fires on the plain) (1951), both noted for the protagonist’s desperate wandering and the use of cannibalism, Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and Kenzaburo Oe’s Rotashi anaberu rii, soukedachitsu mimakaritsu (The beautiful Anabel Lee was chilled and killed) (2007), and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Koichiro Uno’s Akutagawa Prize–winning Kujira-gami (The whale god) (1962). Other more intriguing comparisons are made when he picks up four pairs in each of which he speculates there might well be an inspirational link, though a specific debt-credit relationship between the selected two works of each pair cannot be verified. The four pairs are: Mark Twain’s time-travel fiction A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Japanese fantasy novelist Ryo Hanmura’s Sengoku jieitai (The warring states self-defense force) (1974), also featuring time travel, filmed as G.I. Samurai in 1979; Twain’s No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger and ambitiously experimentalist author Gen’ichiro Takahashi’s Gosuto-basutazu (The ghostbusters) (1997), the latter of which Watanabe sees as a work that discovers the postmodern literary elements in the 19th-century precursor and digests them in its unique way; Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Tatsuzo Ishikawa’s best-seller Seishun no satetsu (The youthful failure) (1968), both novels dealing with an ambitious young man’s failure to control his carnal appetite, while each reflecting the political and cultural distinctiveness of each work’s societal background; J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Kaoru Shoji’s Akutagawa Prize–winning million-seller Akazukin-chan ki wo tsukete (Take good care, my little Red Riding Hood) (1969), the latter of which is narrated by a vulnerable young man whose easy colloquial style has long been regarded as controversially similar to Holden Caulfield’s (one critic was blunt enough to call it “plagiaristic” and invited the author’s infuriated protest).47

Toshio Watanabe’s book is just one example of the numerous similar critical and academic attempts that have been carried out and accumulated in Japan since the country’s war defeat in 1945. It is not that American literature is considered comparable to Japanese literature; it is just that Japanese scholars and critics understand that the idea of “America” has always influenced Japan’s cultural, political, and spiritual development since its belated and enforced modernization in the mid-19th century. One no longer has to refer to Roland Barthes in explaining that a work of literature is a temporary knot of various texts flowing in from various undetermined sources, old and new, in a tiny transient congealment of the vast ever-shifting sea of literature. A temporary knot as a literary work is made with its author’s fundamentally contingent inspiration (of course, more strictly speaking, there would be no “author” in this postmodernist understanding of literature as a medium of spontaneous movements of various extant texts). But if a Japanese scholar and critic should feel obligated to give special heed to American literature—as if it were one specific or privileged inspirational source among other possible sources shaping Japanese postwar literature—that may be because he feels his country’s relationship with America has been reconfirmed.

Further Reading

Dower, John. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.Find this resource:

Eto, Jun. Tozasareta gengo kukan: senryo-gun no ken’etsu to sengo nihon [The closed chronotope: The censorship by the occupation forces and postwar Japan]. Tokyo: Bungeishunju, 1989.Find this resource:

Fukuda, Mitsuharu, Takehiko Kenmochi, Koichi Kodama, eds. Obei-sakka to nihon kindai-bungaku, eibei-hen I, II [Euro-American authors and Japanese modern literature, British and American I and II]. Tokyo: Kyoikushuppan-senta, 1974.Find this resource:

Isoda, Koichi. Sengo-shi no kukan [The chronotope of the postwar Japanese history]. Tokyo: Shincho-bunko, 1999.Find this resource:

Kato, Norihiro. Sengo nyumon [Introduction to postwar Japan]. Tokyo: Chikuma-shinsho, 2015.Find this resource:

Katsumata, Hiroshi. “Kane no naru oka” no sedai to amerika: Haikyo, senryo, sengo-bungaku [Generation of “Ringing Bell on a Hill” and America: Ruins, occupation, and postwar literature]. Tokyo: Hakusuisha, 2012.Find this resource:

Kojima, Nobuo. Bohimei [Epitaph]. Tokyo: Chuokoronsha, 1960.Find this resource:

Kojima, Nobuo. Hoyo-kazoku [Embracing family]. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1965.Find this resource:

Ohshiro, Tatsuhiro. Kakuteru patii [Cocktail party]. Tokyo: Bungeishunju, 1967.Find this resource:

Sadoya, Shigenobu. Nihon kindai-bungaku no seiritu: Amerika bungaku juyo no hikaku bungaku-teki kenkyu [Formation of modern Japanese literature: comparative literary study on reception of American literature]. 2 vols. Tokyo: Meijishoin, 1977.Find this resource:

Saeki, Shoichi. Nichibei-kankei no naka no bungaku [Literature in U.S.-Japan relationship]. Tokyo: Bungeishunju, 1984.Find this resource:

Saeki, Shoichi. Soto kara mita kindai nihon: Meiji-ishin to namboku-senso [Modern Japan seen from outside: Meiji restoration and the American Civil War]. Tokyo: Nihon-keizaishinbunsha, 1980.Find this resource:

Schilant, Ernestine and J. Thomas Rimer, eds. Legacies and Ambiguities: Postwar Fiction and Culture in West Germany and Japan. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Yamada, Eimi. Beddo taimu aizu [Bedtime eyes]. Tokyo: Kawadeshobo-shinsha, 1985.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Tatsuru Uchida, Machiba no amerika ron [Town’s discussion on America] (Tokyo: NTT Publishing, 2008), 7–29. A more analytical study of the Japanese modern cultural history of “idolizaing/targeting America” is to be found in Shunsuke Kamei, Amerika-bunka to nihon: “haibei” to “haibei” wo koete [American culture and Japan: Beyond worship and expulsion] (Tokyo: Iwanamishoten, 2000).

(2.) Nobuo Kojima, “Amerikan sukuru” [American school], in Amerikan sukuru (Tokyo: Shincho-bunko, 1967), 208. Author’s translation.

(3.) “Japan-US Security Treaty,” January 19, 1960, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.

(4.) Masao Miyoshi, introduction to Seventeen & J: Two Novels, by Kenzaburo Oe (n.p.: Foxrock, 2015), Kindle edition.

(5.) Koichi Isoda, “Oe Kenzaburo ni okeru ‘seiji’ to ‘sei’” [“The political” and “the sexual” in Kenzaburo Oe], in Oe Kenzaburo, ed. Makoto Ooka, Hideo Takahashi, and Yukio Miyoshi (Tokyo: Shogakkan, 1993), 188. Author’s translation.

(6.) Kojin Karatani, History and Repetition, ed. and trans. Seiji Lippit (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), Kindle edition.

(7.) William Dean Howells, My Mark Twain: Reminiscences and Criticisms, ed. Marilyn Austin Baldwin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), 30.

(8.) Kenzaburo Oe, “Shiiku” [Prize stock] in Sisha no ogori, Shiiku [Lavish are the dead, prize stock] (Tokyo: Shincho-bunko, 1994), 92. Author’s translation.

(9.) Oe, “Shiiku,” 124–125. English translation is borrowed from the quotation found in Michael S. Molaski’s book mentioned in my note number 10.

(10.) Michael S. Molaski, American Occupation of Japan and Okinawa: Literature and Memory (London: Routledge, 1999), Kindle edition.

(11.) Published just after the termination of the war, “Daraku-ron” [On decadence] (1946) made the author Ango Sakaguchi one of the period’s representative spokesmen instantaneously, in which he called out to the populace dejected in the chaos in the immediate aftermath of the war defeat: “Humans don’t change. We have only returned to being human. Humans become decadent. . . . Humans live and humans fall. There is no easy shortcut to the saving of humanity outside this. . . . And as with people, so too, Japan too, must fall. We must discover ourselves, and save ourselves, by falling to the best of our ability.” Coming down to the basics of humanity is what makes Scarlett strong and her existence charming to the Japanese of that crucial era. Ango Sakaguchi, “Discourse on Decadence,” trans. Seiji M. Lippit, Review of Japanese Culture and Society 1 (1986).

(12.) Wolfgang Schivelbusch, a German cultural historian, traces the process through which the experience of defeat leads to the formulation of a distinctive culture in its aftermath. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery [Die Kultur der Niederlage], trans. Jefferson Chase (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003), 29.

(13.) William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Vintage, 1990), 14.

(14.) Kenji Nakagami, quoted in Kiyoshi Nagashima, “Nakagami Kenji shoden” [A biographical sketch of Kenji Nakagami], in Nakagami Kenji, ed. Kojin Karatani (Tokyo: Shogakkan, 1996), 294. Author’s translation.

(15.) William Faulkner, quoted in Lion in the Garden, ed. James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), 255.

(16.) Jun Eto, Jiyu to kinki [Freedom and taboo] (Tokyo: Kawade-bunko, 1991), 178–182. Author’s translation.

(17.) Kenji Nakagami, Kumano-shu [A collection of Kumano stories], in Nakagami Kenji Zenshu [Complete works of Kenji Nakagami], vol. 8 (Tokyo: Shueisha, 1995), 217. Author’s translation.

(18.) I used the word “matrilineal,” but the most distinctive feature of Nakagami’s roji society is a lack of normative figures of “father,” therefore, a lack of lineality itself. In roji, “mothers” are disseminators, not genealogical focal points, of human relations through their sexuality (sometimes even to the level of promiscuousness), and they survive and endure. Except for their sexual potency, roji’s mothers would be like “Mammies” of southern American fictions; the most representative of these figures is to be found in Dilsey Gibson of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. They protect children, whether they are their own offspring or not.

(19.) Kenji Nakagami, Kareki-nada [The sea of the withered trees], in Nakagami Kenji Zenshu, vol. 3, 267. Author’s translation.

(20.) Kenji Nakagami, Misaki [The cape], in Nakagami Kenji Zenshu, vol. 3, 202. Author’s translation.

(21.) Karatani, History and Repetition.

(22.) Nakagami, Misaki, 181. Author’s translation.

(23.) Nakagami, Misaki, 176–177. Author’s translation.

(24.) Nakagami, Kareki-nada, 261. Author’s translation.

(25.) As to more detailed explanation about “three instances of father” and Nakagami’s fiction as a quest for the third and highest instance of father, see Inuhiko Yomota, Kishu to tensei: Nakagami Kenji [Noble birth and reincarnation: Kenji Nakagami] (Tokyo: Chikuma-gakugeibunko, 2001), 203–205.

(26.) Nakagami, Chi no hate, shijo no toki [The end of the earth, the supreme time], Nakagami Kenji Zenshu, vol. 6, 81. Author’s translation.

(27.) Nakagami, Kareki-nada, 361–362. Author’s translation.

(28.) Jun Eto, Seijuku to soshitsu: “haha” no hokai [Maturity and loss: Collapse of “motherhood”] (Tokyo: Kodansha-bungeibunko, 1993). Author’s summary and translation.

(29.) Nakagami, Kareki-nada, 345, 355, 372. Author’s translation. The discussion here, particularly on the strange affinity between Ryuzo’s characterization and “America” inside the postwar popular Japanese imagination, is based on the discussion, in Japanese, in a chapter of my book dealing with Nakagami: Kazuhiko Goto, Haiboku to bungaku: Amerika-nanbu to kindai-nihon [Literature of defeat: The American South and modern Japan] (Tokyo: Shohakusha, 2005), 281–311.

(30.) Haruki Murakami, quoted in Matthew Carl Strecher, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), Kindle edition.

(31.) Norihiro Kato, Murakami Haruki wa muzukashii [On difficulty of Haruki Murakami] (Tokyo: Iwanami-shinsho, 2015), 27. Author’s translation.

(32.) Kato, Murakami Haruki, 28.

(33.) Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing in Wind / Pinball: Two Novels, trans. Ted Goossen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), Kindle edition.

(34.) Murakami, Wind / Pinball.

(35.) In this light, the following brief but impressive dialogue in Hear the Wind Sing between “Boku,” the narrator, and “the Rat,” his friend, would sound strongly suggestive—but with a tone carefully subdued, typically Murakamiesque—that he was critically concerned with his country’s involvement with America’s expansive policy for global hegemony, now intensifying its campaign in Vietnam. They are talking about American military airplanes they used to watch when they were still young, probably back in the days of the American occupation:

“And I can remember DC-6s, DC-7s, even Sabre jets.”

“That’s really going back.”

“Yeah, back to Eisenhower’s time. When a U.S. Navy cruiser came into port the whole town crawled with sailors and MPs. You ever see an MP?”

“Yeah.”

“So many things have disappeared. Not that I cared much for the soldiers.”

I nodded.

“The Sabres were great planes. Except they dropped napalm. You ever see what napalm does?”

“In war movies.”

“Humans come up with all kinds of stuff. Really well-made stuff, too. Who knows, in another ten years we may be feeling nostalgic about napalm.”

In his next novel, Pinball, 1973, even these political and historical innuendoes are gone or more periphrastically rendered until they return once again, more in an outspoken manner, in Wind-up Bird Chronicle in 1994. Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing.

(36.) Karatani, History and Repetition.

(37.) Murakami, quoted in Strecher, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami.

(38.) Raymond Carver, Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (New York: Vintage, 1984), 24.

(39.) Strecher writes: “One item on the agenda for that meeting (with Murakami, in October 1994), for him at least, was to make clear that his work and his life were two separate subjects.” Strecher, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami.

(40.) Kato, Murakami Haruki, 67.

(41.) Haruki Murakami, “The Birth of My Kitchen-Table Fiction: An Introduction to Two Short Novels” (Daidokoro no teburu kara umareta shosetsu) in Wind / Pinball.

(42.) Murakami, “Birth of My Kitchen-Table Fiction.”

(43.) Murakami, “Birth ofMyKitchen Table Fiction.”

(44.) Murakami, quoted in Strecher, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami.

(45.) Shugo Honda, Monogatari sengo bungakushi (ge) [Postwar Japanese literary history: A tale, vol. 2] (Tokyo: Iwanami-gendaibunko, 2005), 156.

(46.) Shun Akiyama, “Nichijoteki genjitsu to bungaku no tenkai” [Everyday reality and development of postwar literature] in Sengo nihon bungakushi, nempyo (zoho kaitei) [History and chronology of postwar Japanese literature, rev. edition], eds. Shinichi Matsubara, Koichi Isoda, and Shun Akiyama (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1979), 399, 452.

(47.) Toshio Watanabe, Amerika bungaku ni shokuhatu-sareta nihon shosetsu [Nine Japanese novels inspired by American literature] (Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 2014). Author’s summary and translation.