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.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Yukio Mishima's Death at Noon

November 25 last year marked the 45th anniversary of the so-called 'Mishima Incident' when famous Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-70) together with four of his cadres from his private army, The Shield Society, took hostage a general at the headquarters of Japan's 'Ground Self Defence Forces' (the euphemistic name for the Japanese army).

Mishima demanded that the GSDF soldiers at the base immediately assemble in front of the headquarters building from whose balcony he delivered a speech that was both a damning indictment of modern Japan and a call to arms, demanding constitutional reform. Greeted with a sea of jeers, Mishima returned to the general's room and together with his probable lover Masakatsu Morita, committed an excruciating ritual suicide.

Last year, to commemorate the 45th anniversary of his death - Mishima himself was 45 when he died - a new edition of Eikoh Hosoe's classic 1963 photo collection, 'Ordeal by Roses', depicting Mishima in a variety of stylised and artistic poses was released. Turning the pages, I came upon one particular photograph that made me freeze. It's a striking image of Mishima standing on a small stool (the type you might use to hang yourself), with a naked torso and holding a huge clock showing the time as exactly 12 o'clock. It's almost like looking at the Hindu god Shiva transformed into an Americanized gay icon holding in one hand a glowing sphere of life (actually a baseball) and in the other the hour at which life would be extinguished.

Throughout his life Mishima was obsessed with watches, clocks and time in general. When you read his friends' recollections of him, a constant feature is just how concerned Mishima was to never be late for an appointment. He hated being late. Despite him being an enormously prolific author, he was famous for never having missed a single publisher's deadline (virtually unheard of in the literary world of the day).

He was also utterly unforgiving when other people failed to treat exact time-keeping with a similar respect. For example he once arranged to write an opera with the composer Toshiro Mayuzumi (a long-time collaborator). As the deadline approached, Mayuzumi - who had never composed an opera before - fretted and begged Mishima for a little more time to get it finished. Mishima was furious and broke off all contact, abandoning the opera completely. Meanwhile the gift that Mishima bestowed on people he most admired was a watch.

The Mishima Incident was the subject of meticulous planning over several months by Mishima and his men. It was supposed to unfold according to a strict schedule. Mishima arrived at the base at exactly 11am and was shown with his Shield Society cadres into the general's room for a pre-arranged meeting. Shortly after exchanging pleasantries, they suddenly took him hostage, threatening to kill him if all the soldiers were not assembled to listen to Mishima's speech at precisely 11.30am. Mishima would then go out onto the balcony, speak for 30 minutes, then kill himself at 12 o'clock.

But the plan did not quite go to schedule. On two occasions, Self Defence Force officers, armed merely with wooden swords (somewhat comically the only weapons immediately available to them), burst into the room and fought Mishima and his men. But they were unable to compete with Mishima brandishing a real-life 17th century Seki no Magoroku sword and were forced out of the room again.

Because of the commotion and scuffles, it was not 11.30am when Mishima strutted out onto the balcony, but just before noon. There's no doubt that he was not just indignant at being delayed but also frustrated because the time was fast approaching that he had long earmarked for death.

In his speech from the balcony, Mishima ranted that he had waited, waited, but now he could wait no more. What had he been waiting for? His meaning was that he had been waiting for the anti-Vietnam War student riots to develop to such a point that the police would be overwhelmed by student numbers. In order to prevent civil war, the Self Defence Forces would have to be mobilized to restore order and at that point the entire nation would finally realize how essential it was for Japan to have a legitimate army. Then noone could deny that the hateful Peace Constitution must be changed. It was for this that he had waited and waited.

But the Self Defence Forces personnel, not knowing just how much Mishima hated to wait for anything, could hardly grasp how being kept 'waiting' could have driven Mishima to such an extremity of action. Competing with the noise of circling media helicopters and heckling from the crowd, Mishima abandoned his 30 minute speech after just 7 minutes. He knelt in the direction of the Imperial Palace, cried out in the name of the emperor three times, then returned to the general's room and commenced his ritual suicide (seppuku). His last action was to take off his expensive watch and hand it to one of his accomplices. He killed himself at around 12.15pm.

Mishima wanted to die at precisely noon. For Mishima it was important that he was dying when his sun was highest in the sky, at the peak of his powers. Mishima was very exact when it came to time. Looking again at this picture, taken by Eiko Hosoe nine years earlier in 1961, I can't help feeling how incredibly frustrating those final 15 minutes of life must have been to him.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Talking Soseki to the Sosekians

In October last year I received an email out of the blue from a lady called Itsuko Tanji, the chair of the Kyoto Soseki Society (Soseki no Kai), asking if I would like to give a talk on famous author Natsume Soseki at one of their semi-annual meetings. I'd never actually known there was such a thing as a Soseki Society and was intrigued, particularly as the society operated out of Kyoto rather than Tokyo. Itsuko encouraged me to come to one of the society's meetings on a reconnaissance mission ahead of my own talk next year.

The meeting was being held at the Kyoto City Museum and I rucked up there one rainy Sunday in November, still recovering from jet lag from the flight the day before. Itsuko (pictured centre, above) advised me that before the afternoon's two talks (which would be delivered by two distinguished emeritus professors) a tea ceremony, followed by lunch, would be carried out in a tea hut in the grounds of the museum.

I must say that this slightly surprised me as I have never particularly associated tea ceremony with Soseki (the narrator of the 1906 novella Kusamakura - The Three Cornered World - indeed mocks the affections of tea ceremony, probably reflecting Soseki's own position). It's also something which I personally try to avoid, being far too ungainly and impatient in temperament to appreciate the ceremony's stateliness and finer points.

My involvement in the tea ceremony passed off with predictably comical results. First I found it virtually impossible to sit for long on my knees and had to immediately let the side down by assuming a slovenly, but relaxed position. Then, in the forlorn hope that some decorum could be reprised I was offered a tiny metal stool to sit on. Unfortunately the seat was so tiny one could only think it was designed to hold a small teddy bear in a children's nursery and certainly not 90kg of British beef. No sooner had I plonked myself on it than I could gradually feel its little frame being crushed and flattened under me, but not wishing to break decorum again allowed it to wind its slow way towards destruction as I observed, very graciously and slowly, tea being whisked in a bowl in the six mat tatami room.

I took an immediate like however to my host and tea ceremony aficionado, Itsuko Tanji, an embodiment of Kyoto sensibility at its very best. Dressed in kimono, avowing that she spoke not a word of English (though I later discovered that she had lived in Cambridge for a while with her professor husband), Itsuko is a rare combination of elegance and refinery mixed with no-nonsense straight-talking and an insouciant sense of humour. From the off, constant laughter marked our engagement.

I recovered a little from the trauma of the tea ceremony by eating a bento box lunch while watching the rain drop down on the garden around the hut (pictured above), then snaked my way through the enormous lines of people queueing up outside the museum (to view the Ogata Korin exhibition) and found my way to the sizeable auditorium where the afternoon's two talks were to take place. Our first speaker was Toru Haga, ex president of Tokyo University and author of, amongst many other volumes, a chunky volume on Soseki and Fine Art. I had read chapters of the book back in the 90s when I was a grad student and so his talk on Soseki and painting tended to remind me of things I was already familiar with. The second talk, delivered by Professor Hiroshi Kozen of Kyoto University, was on Soseki and kanshi (Chinese style poems) and was stimulating as it connects to an entirely new theory on Soseki and early modern literature I am currently working on.

I was intrigued to observe just how numerous, dedicated and close knit members of the society were, with many of them travelling from all over the country to attend the event. After the talks I was invited to join a select group of about 15 core members of the society in a private room at the Hyatt Hotel across the street and was seated across the vast table facing both my hostess and the two distinguished speakers, whom I immediately engaged in conversation.

Seemingly endless courses of delicious food came and went and bottles of sake circulated. I discovered that my hostess had not only read both my Japanese books on Soseki, but occasionally seemed to recall more of their contents than I could myself. Being slightly slow on the uptake, and with my attention focused on the distinguished speakers, I had hardly talked to the people on my right and left. I assumed they must just be people living in Kyoto who were major fans of Soseki, and it was about two hours into the banquet before I finally got to speaking to the person on my left, the vice chair of the Soseki Society. What aspect of Soseki interested him, I asked banally, and had he ever published anything on the subject, expecting him to say that he written something for the newsletter. In fact, it transpired that he (Takao Mizukawa) had published five books on Soseki including 'Re-reading Kokoro', 'Soseki and Buddhism', 'Soseki and Rakugo', 'Soseki and War', and the book amongst all others I had most been meaning to get round to reading: 'Soseki and Kyoto'.

It gradually dawned on me that just about everyone round the table had published books on Soseki. Even the person (Yoshiharu Suenobu) I engaged in conversation about his book on the director Yasujiro Ozu - which he gifted to me - had, I realised when I got home and scanned my bookshelves, written a large volume on Soseki and London, which I had already read. I finally understood that I was not here present at a gathering of enthusiastic amateurs, but rather, to adopt Dr Who speak, more a participant at a council of Time Lords on Gallifrey: this was an inner sanctum of the Sosekian world.

After several hours of banqueting and chatting - so long in fact that our hostess literally nodded off at the table - we staggered en masse into the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel and had a commemorative photo taken (at top), looking like a group of bedraggled middle-aged survivors of a Kyoto-style May Ball.

A month later, when back in the UK, I received a formal invitation from Itsuko to address the next meeting of the society at the Heian Hotel in Kyoto on April 17 this year. I protested that the timing was not the best, I had commitments in Australia and might be in Tasmania with my young family....Itsuko brushed all these quibbles aside. Couldn't I just leave the family in Australia and come on my own....?

Indeed, how I could I say no to this august body of Sosekians? So it is that I am very much looking forward to speaking to them on the afternoon of April 17 when I will be delivering a talk: 'Two Giants of World Literature: Natsume Soseki and William Shakespeare'. This year is of course the 100th anniversary of Soseki's death in 1916, but it is also the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 1616. It is going to be a lot of fun in this special anniversary year talking about the intriguing connections between these two colossi of world literature.

For all you Sosekians out there, look forward to seeing you at a memorable event in Kyoto this coming April, and bracing my constitution for the party afterwards...

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Celebrating the Life of Lafcadio Hearn

One of my resolutions last year was to diligently write my blog and until September it was going swimmingly, but then a general tidal wave of business washed over me and things rather went adrift. Now it's time to row back and catch up...

I was really pleased last September to be invited to participate at a Lafcadio Hearn (pictured above with his wife) symposium at Durham in England. I spent four nights up at Durham Castle and was thrilled to see each evening a beautiful, misty moon hang each evening over Durham cathedral. I felt as though caught up in a gothic fantasy, particularly as I descended each morning to the dining room at Durham Castle, a Hogwartian dream of what a Great Hall should be. It's quite some place to eat your breakfast.

I felt slightly apprehensive however about giving a one hour talk on Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), the Irish critic and essayist who is best known today for his voluminous writings on Japan. Truth to tell, as I candidly admitted at the beginning of my talk, during my years studying modern Japanese literature as a graduate student at Kobe University and for many years afterwards,  I had never been particularly interested in Lafcadio Hearn. After all, despite living in Japan for 14 years, Hearn could not read (or even fluently speak) Japanese so his grasp of many detailed aspects of Japanese culture was tenuous. 

If you really wanted to know about Japanese literature and culture, I used to think, why would you read Hearn when you could be reading Japanese authors themselves (preferably in Japanese)? Hearn seemed to me as the sort of cliched 'Japanologist' whom people in the West turned to for essentially trite and stereotypical depictions of Japan. 

I was certainly given pause for thought by knowing that Hearn's writings on Japan had all been translated into Japanese and were treasured in Japan as some of the most acute cultural insights ever written. But couldn't this all be dismissed as the Japanese desire to be told of their own cultural uniqueness by a Westerner? 

What changed my attitude to Hearn was, firstly, realizing that Japan for Hearn was not some sole point of obsessive interest (the quintessential 'Japan bore') but rather part of a lifelong odyssey of worldwide exploration that had taken him from Greece to Ireland, from England to America, from the Caribbean to Japan. In Japan, where he is much better known by his Japanese name 'Koizumi Yakumo', Hearn tends to be regarded as someone who so loved Japan that he entirely assumed Japanese identity. In fact, Hearn was very reluctant to give up his British citizenship (he had clung on to it tenaciously during two decades in North America and only assumed Japanese citizenship to ensure he could pass on property to his children) and had he not died prematurely at the age of 54, he would have almost certainly continued his worldwide travels to other destinations (he was considering a return to London and the US in the final year of this life). 

Secondly, what is truly fascinating about Hearn, is the impact on his writings of his own disturbed, inner psychology. Hearn was abandoned as an infant by both parents, yet enjoyed a patrician upbringing in Ireland and attended a boarding school at the Catholic seminary Ushaw College outside Durham. He passed summer holidays in the resort town of Tramore and in the wilds of Mayo, where he was regaled with ghost stories by his Irish maid. Disaster struck as an adolesecent when he was blinded in one eye by a freak accident and when his entire inheritance, due to be passed to him from his great aunt, was lost. Hearn reached adulthood as a scholarly and literary man suddenly crestfallen in his expectations, alienated from the country and religion in which he was raised, forced to emigrate and hustle for a living as a journalist to make his way in the world. 

I had not fully appreciated until reading Paul Murray's 1992 biography the connection between Hearn's inspirational retelling of Japanese ghost stories in his masterpiece 'Kwaidan' (1904) and the Irish gothic imagination in general. Paul has subsequently gone to write the biography of Bram Stoker, the author of 'Dracula', who was Hearn's fellow Irishman and his almost exact contemporary, and who was similarly infused with a love of the supernatural and other-worldly. 

Yet a further reason why Hearn fascinates me is because, through his position as lecturer in English literature at Tokyo University between 1896 and 1903, he had a crucial influence on an entire generation of Japan's literary elite.

I was pleased to meet at Durham not only Paul Murray himself and the delightful Ayako Nasuno (pictured with me, below), curator of the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Yaizu, Japan, but also learn about the Lafcadio Hearn Museum recently created on the Ionian island of Lefkada in Greece where Hearn was born. 

The symposium at Durham was appropriately held in the Lafcadio Hearn Centre created by Teikyo University at Durham. On the 111th anniversary of Hearn's death in 1904, an excellent memorial service was also held - including readings from his books - in the sumptuous surroundings of the chapel at Ushaw College, a few miles outside Durham, where Lafcadio studied for several years as a boy. 

The conference was then rounded off with a candlelit dinner in the regency splendour of Hatfield College where the President  of Teikyo University in Durham played Pachelbel on his guitar; the President of Ushaw College took off his dog collar and sang amusing Lancashire ballads; and the wonderful Professor Stephen Regan of the English Literature faculty serenaded us with James Joyce's favourite Irish songs, while reminding us that the great man had once aspired to be a singer.

Suddenly I had caught the Lafcadio Hearn bug and by chance round two of the Lafcadio Hearn celebrations were about to break out all across Ireland with the arrival of the 'Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn' tour, sponsored by the fascinating Greek (or 'Hellenic' as he prefers to be called), New York-based art dealer Takis Efstathiou. Takis has assembled a formidable collection of Hearn artefacts and memorabilia, many of which he has lent to the museum in Lefkada, and has already promoted 'Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn' tours in Japan, the US and Greece. Now, it was Ireland's turn with an exhibition at the newly created Liitle Museum in Dublin, plus events in Waterford City, Galway City and Mayo. 

A large delegation arrived from Japan as part of the celebrations and were greeted by the President of Ireland and a commemorative event was held at the newly opened, beautifully landscaped 'Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Gardens' in Tramore, Waterford. 

At first I thought I was too busy to attend, but woke up one morning and felt Ireland calling to me....I booked a ferry online and threw some things into a bag, then got caught in traffic and panicked as my Sat Nav told me I would arrive for my boat five minutes after it left. But the North Wales roads opened magically and I caught the boat in time, booked a hotel on board, then drove in the dark to Kilkenny. I checked in at 9.30pm, then went down to John Cleere's pub and heard some of the best Country and Western since last time I was in Billy Bob's Honky Tonk, Fort Worth and then danced in the back room until 2am. At 2.30am the streets were still thronged...

It was great to meet Professor Bon Koizumi (pictured with me, above), great grandson of Lafcadio Hearn in Waterford City, Ireland, and I also enjoyed a terrific readings of Hearn's works in Japanese by actor Shiro Sani accompanied by Kyoji Yamamoto on eerie electric guitar. (The show is called 'Maraudo - Voices from the World Beyond'). Back up in Dublin, I was pleased to meet up again with Paul Murray for a performance of his own play, 'The Dublin Haunting of Lafcadio Hearn' at the Little Museum. (Pictured with me below with some of the cast from the Dublin Shakes.)

Since being drawn into the orbit of the 'Lafcadians', I've published a couple of articles in the Japan Times on Hearn, including this piece back in September:

I was also pleased to meet fascinating publisher Brian Showers of Swan River Press and be sent a copy of his new collection of essays by Hearn, Insect Literature (my review to appear soon). To round off completely these ongoing celebrations, I have been delighted to accept an invitation to give a speech (in Japanese) on Hearn at the Lafcadio Hearn Museum in Yaizu next June. 

You may truly regard me then as a signed up member of the Lafcadians....Here's looking forward to more Hearnian explorations in 2016.