Trends in Japan

Top Picks || Arts & Entertainment || Business & Economy || Education & Society ||
Science & Technology || Sports & Fashion || Search || Back Numbers

Modern Writer a Hit with Postmodern Young

September 10, 1998

An original handwritten draft of No Longer Human. (Jiji Press; courtesy of Shinchosha)

Two Japanese writers have won the Nobel Prize in literature--Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata--and others, like Yukio Mishima and Kobo Abe, are renowned overseas through translations of many of their works. But there is one writer whose popularity within Japan puts him ahead of them all: Osamu Dazai. Born to a wealthy family in the poor northern Tohoku region, he suffered a life of dissipation, frequent failure, and illness before committing suicide in 1948 at the age of 39. But Dazai's work transcends his period: His writing is enjoying new popularity half a century after his death.

Dazai Celebrated across Japan
One major sign of this renewed popularity was the revival of the Dazai Award for literature, which was discontinued in 1978. Mitaka City in Tokyo, Dazai's final resting place, and Chikuma Shobo, the publisher that put out the first editions of many of his works, decided jointly in 1998 to bring back the literary prize.

There are also signs of new activity on the publishing front. After Chikuma Shobo put out its 10th edition of the complete works of Dazai, another publisher, Kadokawa Shoten, released five popular works in paperback. Yet a third publishing house, Iwanami Shoten, has also released a new book called Dazai Osamu, and a succession of special features on him have appeared in literary magazines.

Meanwhile, in Mitaka, the scene of Shayo (translated as The Setting Sun) and other works, a citizens' group has begun training tourist guides to take people around the locations connected with Dazai. Dazai's birthplace in Kanagi Town, Aomori Prefecture, for many years used as an inn, has been restored to its original state; it was reopened as a museum in April 1998. In the mountainous center of Honshu, a Yamanashi Prefecture association providing tourist information has set up within its Web site a page featuring the Kofu city inn where Dazai stayed and wrote novels, and detailing trails that follow in his footsteps.

Another proof of Dazai's undying popularity is the annual remembrance gathering on June 19, the day of both his birth and death. This year's gathering was packed with young people. "What he writes about is like what goes on inside myself," said one university student who attended. "I can empathize with him much more than with recent writers." A high-school student adds that Dazai's writing approach and the atmosphere of his works are unlike those of current writers. According to one person involved with the remembrance event, "Many Dazai fans feel they have a personal claim on him; they've always been a tough breed to deal with." A psychiatrist ascribes Dazai's continuing popularity to his "visionary understanding of the psychology of today's youth, with their preoccupation with finding a meaning and purpose in life."

Secret of Dazai's Popularity
Publication statistics supplied by Shinchosha for its editions of Dazai's most representative work, Ningen Shikkaku (translated as No Longer Human), are striking. First published in 1952, a remarkable 5.3 million copies of the book have been printed to date. In the 12 months to June 1998 alone, the figure was 80,000. It vies constantly with Soseki Natsume's Kokoro for top in paperback book sales.

Prominent Japanese novelist and dramatist Hisashi Inoue pinpoints two key features that make Dazai's work appealing. First, "Dazai writes as though he were a guardian angel in the temporal world watching over those who, like him, live foolish lives because they are weak and yielding. This role is his source of inspiration in his novel writing." Second, Inoue says, is his singular narrative style. It has a distinctive tone, nurtured by the storytelling style that characterizes traditional Japanese performing-art forms like folk tales, kabuki theater, and rakugo humorous stories. These are the characteristics that make Dazai's stories accessible and fascinating to read.

Back to Main Index

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Japan Information Network