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Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) - Pseudonym of Tsushima Shuji


Japanese novelist and a master storyteller, who became at the end of World War II the literary voice and literary hero of his generation. Dazai's life ended in double-suicide with his married mistress. In many books Dazai used biographical material from his own family background, and made his self-destructive life the subject of his books. For a time he joined the communist movement. His opposition to the prevailing social and literary trends was shared by fellow members of Burai-ha (Decadents).

"Dazai's life and work, many Japanese critics have pointed out, are closely intertwined. The more reader knows of Dazai's life, so the argument goes, the more Dazai can and should be admired for finding a literary means to bare his soul." (J. Thomas Rimer in Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature, 1999)
"Mine has been a life much shame." (The opening sentence of No Longer Human, 1848)

Dazai Osamu was born Tsushima Shuji in Kanagi, in northern Honshu, the tenth of eleven children. His father was a wealthy landowner and politician. Dazai was brought up mainly by servants. After attending the Hirosake Higher School, he entered in 1930 the University of Tokyo, where he studied French literature. During this period Dazai came into contact with Marxism, though his commitment to politics ended in distrust in all social institutions. In 1931 he married Oyama Hatsuyo, saying later that it "was truly a shameless, imbecilic time. I scarcely showed up at school at all, of course. I abhorred all effort, and spent my time lying around watching H[atsuyo] indifferently." Before marrying Hatsuyo, he had met a nineteen year old bar hostess, Tanabe Shimeko. They spent two days drinking, took sleeping pills, and then threw themselves into the sea. Shimeko drowned.

While at the university, Dazai met the writer Masuji Ibuse, his literary hero and mentor. Dazai had read at the age of fourteen Ibuse's Sanshouo (1929, The Salamander). "I felt with excitement that I had discovered a hidden, anonymous genius." Dazai gradually dropped his studies, and developed a persona that in his novels appeared both sensitive and cynical, a suffering clown and a misfit, who saw through the hypocrisy and shallowness of others.

Dazai first attracted attention in 1933 when his stories began to appear in magazines. Between the years 1930 and 1937 he made three suicide attempts. The subject was also brought up many of his short pieces, among them 'Doke no hana' (1936, in Bannen) and 'Tokyo hyakkei' (1941). 'A Clown among Clowns' describes Dazai trying to describe his first suicide attempt. "Well, that one didn't work. Suppose we have a try at the panoramic method."

In 1939 Dazai married Ishihara Michiko and turned a new leaf in his life. A number of the stories, which Dazai published during World War II, were retellings of stories by Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693). Also German authors, among them the poet Friedrich Schiller, inspired Dazai's work.

Dazai wrote in a simple and colloquial style. Many of his stories were based on his own experiences and were classified in the category known as the watakushi shosetsu, or "I-novel", autobiographical / confessional fiction. He also wrote children's stories and historical narratives. The tone of Dazai's postwar fiction was dark, but his scandalous life, drug addiction and alcoholism, love affairs, despair, and spirit of rebelliousness touched the lost generation of youth. In his masterpieces, such as Shayo (1947, The Setting Sun), about the decline of an aristocratic family, Dazai addressed many social, human and philosophical issues. The word 'shayo' (setting sun) gave rise to the word 'shayozoku' (impoverished aristocracy), covering those whose world died in the war. Ningen Shikkaku (1948, No Longer Human) was an attack on the traditions of Japan, capturing the postwar crisis of Japanese cultural identity. "I never personally met the madman who wrote these notebooks..." begins the epilogue of the story.

Shayo is a tragedy in postwar Japan. It deals with the fall of an aristocratic family, and how traditions or "proper etiquette" is destroyed by the war. "This may not be the way of eating soup that etiquette dictates, but to me it is most appealing and somehow really genuine. As a matter of fact, it is as Mother does, sitting serenely erect, that when you look down to it. But being, in Naoji's words, a high-class beggar and unable to eat with Mother's effortless ease, I bend over the plate in the gloomy fashion prescribed by proper etiquette."

The protagonist, Kazuko, a young woman, wears Western clothes, but her outlook is Japanese. She is evacuated from Tokyo during the war with her mother. They look hopefully to the return of the son from southeast Asia. He does return, but as a drug addict. At the end of the war, Kazuko loses her mother. Her brother Naoji is caught in the web of his own and society's failures, driving him eventually to kill himself. Kazuko decides to have a child with the disillusioned intellectual Uehara, hoping that the child will be her moral revolution.

No Longer Human (its actual Japanese title is "Disqualified as a Human") was Dazai's second novel. The book is one of the classics of Japanese literature and has been translated into several languages. The protagonist is a young man, who feel himself alienated from society but reveals his true thoughts to the reader. The story also gives an account of the author's personal decline and his relationships to women. "I have been sickly ever since I was a child and have frequently been confined to bed. How often as I lay there I used to think what uninspired decorations sheets and pillow cases make. It wasn't until I was about twenty that I realized that they actually served a practical purpose, and this revelation of human dullness stirred dark depression in me."

Among Dazai's finest short stories is 'Viyon no tsuma' (1947, Villon's Wife). The narrator is the wife of a poet, who has virtually abandoned her. She finds meaning in her existence by taking a job for a tavern keeper, from whom her husband has stolen money. Her determination to survive is tested by hardships, rape, and her husband's self-delusion, but her will is not broken. In 'O-san', translated in Japan Quarterly (October-December, 1958), the wife revals the disparity between the writer's reasons and his actual reasons for suicide. Dazai's story 'Hashire Merosu' (Run, Merosu!) was adapted into screen in 1966 by the director Senkichi Taniguchi under the title Kiganjo no boken (Adventures of Takla Makan). The film, starring Toshiro Mifune, Tadao Nakamaru, Tatsuya Mihashi, and Makoto Sato, was partly shot in Iran near Isfahan and at Toho Studios (Tokyo). In the story, set in the distant past, a Japanese adventurer and a priest travel the silk road in their search for Buddha's ashes.

After the war, Dazai's alienation continued. He made observations of those who had supported the militaristic regime before but in the new political situation embraced democracy. Dazai himself had said after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that he was "itching to beat the bestial, insensitive Americans to a pulp." On June 13, in 1948, Dazai drowned himself in Tokyo and left behind unfinished the novel Gutto bai (Goodbye). Shortly before his death, Dazai wrote a letter in which he described Ibuse as an "evil man". There is a theory that the lady, Yamazaki Tomie, who drowned with Dazai actually pushed him in; and she possibly wrote the note in question, some claimed. Ibuse insisted in 'Parting Regrets' (1948), that Dazai died "without leaving behind anything written for me." Dazai's daughter Yuko Tsushima also became a writer and published her first short story in 1969. Her works in the 1970s arose from the collapse of the economic bubble and coincided with a return to the Japanese variant of the first-person novel, in which vivid descriptions of the mundane reality of the author's own private world predominate.

For further information: The Immutable Despair of Dazai Osamu by D. Brudnoy (Monumenta Nipponica, 23/1968); Traditions and Modernity in Modern Japanese Fiction by G.B. Gunn, in Japan Christian Quaterly, 35 (1969); Landscapes and Portraits by D. Keene (1971); Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel by Masao Miyoshi (1974); Dazai Osamu by J. O'Brien (1975); Modern Japanese Fictioin and Its Traditions by J. Thomas Rimer (1978); Dawn to the West by Donald Keene (1984); The Saga of Dazai Osamu by Phyllis I. Lyons (1985); Akutagawa and Dazai: Instances of Literary Adaptation, ed. by James O'Brien (1988); Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu by Alan Stephen Wolfe (1990); The Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Kojin Karatani (1993); 'Schiller and Dazai Osamu' by Okumura Atsushi (2000) - See also: Yukio Mishima, who committed suicide in 1970

Selected bibliography:

  • Bannen, 1936 [The Final Years]
  • Dōke no Hana, 1937
  • Nijusseiki kishu, 1937 [Standard-Bearer for the Twentieth Century]
  • Kyoko no hoko, 1937 [Wanderings in Falsehood]
  • Ai to bi ni tsuite, 1939
  • Joseito, 1939 
  • Fugaku hyakkei, 1940 [One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji]
  • Dasu gemaine, 1940 [The Common Herd]
  • Hashire Merosu, 1940 [Run, Melos!]
  • Onna no Kettō, 1940
  • Shin-Hamuretto, 1941
  • Kojiki gakusei, 1941 [Beggar Student]
  • Kakekomi uttae, 1941 [I Accuse]
  • Tokyo hakkei, 1941 [Eight Views of Tokyo]
  • Human Lost, 1941 (in Japanese)
  • Seigi to Bisho, 1942
  • Udaijin Sanetomo, 1943 [Sanemoto, Minister of the Right]
  • Tsugaru, 1944
    - Return to Tsugaru: Travels of a Purple Tramp (translated by James Westerhoven, 1985)
    - Tsugaru: kulkija käy kotona (suomentanut Kai Nieminen, 1996)
  • Otogi-zōshi, 1945 [Fairy Tales]
  • Sekibetsu, 1945 [Regretful Parting]
  • Shinshaku shokoku banashi, 1945 [Tales of the Provinces]
  • Pandora no Hako, 1946 [Pandora's Box]
  • Fuyu no hanabi, 1946 [Winter's Firework]
  • Kyoshin no Kami, 1947
  • Shayō, 1947
    - The Declining Sun (tr. 1950) / The Setting Sun (translated by Donald Keene, 1956)
    - Laskeva aurinko (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, Donald Keenen engl. käännöksestä, 1965)
  • Biyon no tsuma, 1947
    - 'Villon's Wife' (trans. in 1956)
    - film 2009, dir. by Kichitaro Negishi, screenplay by Yôzô Tanaka
  • Tokatonton, 1947
    - Vasaroinnin ääni (teoksessa Shosetsu: japanilaisia kertojia, toim. Veikko Polameri, 1983)
  • Nyoze gabun, 1948
  • Haru no kareha, 1948 [The Fallen Leaves of Spring]
  • Ningen shikkaku, 1948
    - No Longer Human (translated by Donald Keene, 1953)
    - Ei enää ihminen (Donald Keenen engl. käännöksen mukaan suom. Aapo Junkola, 1969)
  • Gutto bai, 1948 (Good-bye; unfinished)
    - film 1949, Goodbye, dir. by Koji Shima, starring Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Masao Wakahara, Tamae Kiyokawa
  • Jinushi ichidai : Mihappyō sakuhinshū, 1949
  • Dazai Osamu zenshū, 1952 (10 vols.)
  • Dazai Osamu zenshū 1955-56 (12 vols., rev. ed. 1967-68, 1979)
  • Crackling Mountain and Other Stories, 1989 (translated by James O'Brien)
  • Self-portraits: Tales from the Life of Japan's Great Decadent Romantic, 1991 (translated by Ralph F. McCarthy)
  • Blue Bamboo: Tales of Fantasy and Romance, 1993 (translated by Ralph F. McCarthy)

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