Monday, 25 January 2016

Japan's Great Love for Nietzsche

A few years ago I happened to mention on a BBC Radio 4 programme that a book called Nietzsche's Words(pictured below) had become a runaway bestseller in Japan, selling over a million copies. The show's presenter, Mariella Frostrup, expressed amazement that Nietzsche (pictured above) could be so big in Japan.

In fact there is nothing new about Japanese fascination with Nietzsche: last year marked the centennial anniversary of translator Ikuta Choko starting his gargantuan and highly influential 20-year project of personally producing a 12-volume Complete Works of Nietzsche in Japanese.

What most people don't realize is just how many of the great Japanese literary classics of the Twentieth Century - books that we tend to think of as quintessentially 'Japanese' - are utterly suffused with Nietzschean ideas. I am a Cat; And Then; The Gate; The Setting Sun; Confessions of a Mask; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion; Kyoko's House and many more...Nietzschean thought looms large in all of them.

Take for example, famous author Natsume Soseki's I am a Cat (1905-6), which many innocently think is just a light-hearted satire. Not a bit of it. Soseki had been closely reading Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra in English translation immediately before writing the book and filled I am a Cat with musings on Nietzsche.

Soseki - a preeminent scholar of English literature - was one of the very first Japanese to actually read Nietzsche. That's not to say however that the name 'Nietzsche' had not already made a huge impact in Japan. In 1901-3 a furious debate broke out in literary circles known as 'The Aesthetic Life Debate' which argued back and forth about whether art could transcend morality and merely concern itself with aesthetics. At the heart of the debate were Nietzsche's revolutionary ideas.

In 1909 when Soseki was busy serializing his novel And Then in the Asahi newspaper, a young translator called Ikuta Choko arrived at Soseki's door asking for his help in the great task of translating Also Sprach Zarathustra into Japanese. Choko lacked confidence in his German and was conducting his translation(pocketbook edition below) by cross-referencing two English translations. To assist Choko, Soseki while writing And Then was concurrently re-reading Zarathustra and comparing the text in the original German with English translations.

Soseki meanwhile was about to produce his most profoundly Nietzschean book, The Gate (1910). The novel's title was directly taken from Nietzsche: under pressure from the Asahi newspaper to come up with the title of his next novel, Soseki asked his young disciples to choose a title for him. They did so by flinging open a copy of Zarathustra and alighting on the word 'Gate'.

When Soseki heard the title, he immediately connected it with a central image of Zarathustra, The Gate of Eternal Return. Nietzschean ideas manifest themselves in The Gate through the concept of 'adventure'. The novel's protagonist Sosuke lives a mundane intimate life with his wife, but when he hears that his former best friend - whose wife he has taken for himself - has become an 'adventurer' in Manchuria, the mere mention of the word 'adventurer' fills him with dread. To find spiritual calm, Sosuke flees to a Zen temple, but gains nothing from the experience. The subtle point Soseki is making is that Zen itself is a grand Nietzschean-style 'adventure', requiring an abandonment of logic and an embracing of 'dangerous', illogical thinking.

Nietzsche connects also to the existential angst of Taisho and Showa era writers like Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Osamu Dazai - Dazai indeed would repeatedly allude to Nietzsche in his classic novel The Setting Sun (1947) describing an aristocratic class whose value systems have become defunct - and even to the contemplation of nihilistic erotomania in the works of Junichiro Tanizaki.

But there is no doubt that the greatest exponent of Nietzsche in the Showa era was Yukio Mishima. Nietzsche was quite simply Mishima's favourite writer, so beloved by him that after Mishima's sensational death by ritual suicide in 1970, Mishima's mother permanently left a book of Nietzsche on Mishima's shrine for him to read in the after-life.

Mishima's probings of the darkest recesses of the human psyche and sexuality in Confessions of a Mask (1949) would have been quite impossible without Nietzsche and just about all the directions that Mishima subsequently took connected to Nietzsche in one form or another. The 'Greek Fever' that assailed Mishima in the early 1950s drawing Mishima to visit the ruins of Ancient Greece (Theatre of Dionysus below) and to explode into voluminous play-writing productivity was intimately connected with Mishima's reading of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and his brilliant exposition of the 'Apollonian' vision of art rising out of the 'Dionysiac' irrationality of human instinct.

Mishima's quest for the beautiful and transcendent and his rejection of traditional morality in central works such as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) connected him to the Nietzsche-besotted 'Aesthetic Life Debate' adherents of the early twentieth century. Mishima indeed transferred wholesale Nietzsche's ideas about the 'Death of God' and applied them to Japan, arguing that Japan itself had suffered its own Death of God when the Emperor renounced his divinity in 1946, triggering an ongoing existential crisis which he describes at length in works such as Kyoko's House (1959).

Ironically, despite the enormous impact of Nietzsche on Japanese thought and literature over the last century, his pervasive influence is usually ignored by critics who have eyes only for the 'Japaneseness' of the text before them. Astonishingly, despite the fact that the Asahi newspaper has just re-serialized novels as 'And Then' and 'The Gate' accompanied by voluminous amounts of commentary and ultra-bland, conservative 'analysis', the word Nietzsche is never mentioned.

The Japanese literary establishment, seemingly incapable of transcending Confucian precepts, would prefer to believe that these great works are heartfelt probings into 'egotism', rather than grasping what they really are - a combination of superbly intellectual satire and wrestling with profound philosophical concepts, at the same time as being a sympathetic description of a myriad of human conditions.

The translator Ikuta Choko (memorial stone below) meanwhile, who devoted 20 years of his life to translating Nietzsche and who had such a massive influence on the Japanese literary landscape, is today virtually a forgotten figure.

And yet...A few days ago I received an email from a group called 'The White Azalea Society', who are apparently an 'Ikuta Choko Appreciation Society'. I was frankly amazed that such a group existed. Their headquarters are in Tottori Prefecture where Choko was born. They produce a newsletter and asked if they might reproduce a blog I had written last year in Japanese about the connection between 'And Then', Choko and Nietzsche.

I feel almost as if I have clasped hands with a subterranean guerilla group in a common cause. It's time I think to write Nietzsche back into the grand history of modern Japanese literature where he belongs. Nietzsche is what we need to prevent an eternal return of reductive insularity.

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