Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: Five Japanese Women

Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: Five Japanese Women

by Phyllis Birnbaum

Paperback

$30.00
View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 6 days

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231113571
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 02/29/2000
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.76(w) x 7.83(h) x 0.63(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

PHYLLIS BIRNBAUM is the author of the novel An Eastern Tradition. She is also the translator of Rabbits, Crabs, Etc.: Stories by Japanese Women and Uno Chiyo's novel Confessions of Love, for which she won the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

SLAMMING THE DOOR,
SCARING THE NEIGHBORS


JAPANESE LITERATURE HAS MORE than its share of male authors who have ruined themselves with drink, courted breakdowns, or chosen to end their sufferings through suicide. While ordinary readers may puzzle over the reasons for these destructive tendencies, to a contingent of Japanese men the explanation is obvious: the women are to blame.

    There is the case of the eminent writer whose suicide looks suspicious. Some maintain that he did not drown himself voluntarily, but was in fact held underwater by his female companion. She then supposedly drowned herself in order to gain notice as the partner in his double suicide and a place in literary history. The male chroniclers also like to mention the pure and gentle author who was led to his doom by a scheming female journalist. "For at least a year and a half he kept refusing her," a literary friend fumed afterward, "but he was stuck to her and like a male spider caught in a female spider's entanglements, he was completely consumed by her in the end."

    On the list of women who have singlehandedly wrecked the lives of Japanese literati, Matsui Sumako has been given a prominent place. Now dead and unable to speak a word in protest, Matsui has long been at the mercy of her lover's writer friends, who have written denunciations of her in numerous biographies and reminiscences. Over the years, Matsui has been held responsible for the bouts of fever her beloved suffered, his financial dilemmas, the lonely look in his eye. It is said that she put impure ideasinto the mind of her unfortunate partner, Shimamura Hogetsu, whose only indulgence had been drinks at a second-floor noodle shop.

    Matsui achieved fame as Japan's first Western-style actress, and she surely would have preferred to be mentioned, first and foremost, for her skills onstage. The critics raved about her Salome ("Sumako has performed this role with tremendous skill, and her Salome is at once egotistical, driven, and willful"); Matsui's powerful Nora caused a sensation; hypnotic and seductive in other roles, she brought the house down. Yet despite these theatrical triumphs, some only remember her for her alleged role in the downfall of a decent man. One contemporary wrote,


Sumako's fierce selfishness put relentless pressure on the weak-willed Shimamura-sensei.... We members of the troupe worried constantly that he would have to shoulder the evil consequences of Sumako's behavior and that the troupe would eventually collapse.... It pained me to think that he would certainly be unhappy. And as might be expected, he was no longer able to read books or think about things. Instead, he wore himself out with worry, spending his days and nights keeping her in line and seeing to trivial matters that kept cropping up.


    Such comments make one wonder whether Matsui truly deserves to go down in posterity as another woman who snuffed the life out of her lover. Certainly Matsui was vigorous and emotional, with an ability to maintain her intensity in performance after performance. She was also impossible to abide at close quarters if crossed in any way. But while her power and determination may have impelled her to hog the stage at every opportunity and nag Shimamura constantly, these same traits allowed her to break free of convention and claim a right to live as she wished. There was also a tragic side to Matsui's life that had nothing to do with her dire effect on a male companion.


Anyone who has read the historical documents soon realizes that few view Matsui Sumako in a positive light. As is by now obvious, she is not flattered by the portraits of her that remain in the literary annals. She did, however, enjoy better luck in other matters: she lived in a period perfectly suited to her talents. Matsui embarked upon her acting career during the early part of the twentieth century, when the Japanese theater world was in the process of moving away from traditional forms like Kabuki and No. The modern impresarios were introducing more up-to-date creations to Japanese audiences, and these made good use of Matsui's obstreperous temperament. At that time, Western drama was being imported at a rapid pace, and translations of Ibsen, Maeterlinck, and Hauptmann, among others, flooded the market. Matsui had the opportunity to show off her hotheadedness as an outspoken German singer with family problems and a medieval Italian wife who tries to stop a war all by herself.

    While many of her colleagues struggled to adjust, Matsui seems to have taken easily to the new and disconcerting conventions. Reality, most of all, didn't daunt her in the slightest. As soon became clear, the newly popular Western playwrights described their world with a certain amount of accuracy, but the true-to-life had not been a staple of the Japanese theater, which banked on impossible coincidence and supernatural intervention to push the plots along. Kabuki and No, in particular, had a large supply of fantastic ghosts and wily animal spirits to hold the attention of the audience. In contrast, scenes from the realistic modern plays could dwell on the hero merely eating breakfast. Although her colleagues may have hesitated, Matsui was capable of eating a perfectly acted, absolutely plain breakfast, lunch, and supper onstage as if she had been dining in front of packed theater halls all her life.

    Matsui also had no trouble speaking naturally in public, and she thus escaped another pitfall. Many Japanese actors, trained for the traditional stage, were more adept at the stylized chanting and unnatural cadences of Kabuki and No. For the new works, they had to change their techniques drastically and speak the everyday dialogue in an ordinary manner. Matsui never wavered in her ability to deliver lines--onstage and off--with spontaneity, conviction, and power. "As the play unfolded," a critic wrote of her, "I took great, great pleasure in being able to hear the dialogue spoken naturally for the first time by an actress born in Japan."

    Another piece of good fortune was that Matsui started out at a time when directors badly needed genuine women to act in their stage productions. Long before, government moralists had forbidden women from appearing on the stage, and female roles had since been played by men. This had given rise to a whole new specialty of female impersonators who, to this day, are idolized for their grace and charm. Audiences may have enjoyed the make-believe of such a male onnagata, decked out in a wig and gorgeous kimono, playing the loyal courtesan in an old Kabuki tale like Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, but the producers of the new theater felt that the push for realism would be ill-served if that same male actor walked across the stage in a Western dress and pearl earrings playing Nora in A Doll's House.

    Even though Matsui eagerly fulfilled requests to perform, a real woman playing a real woman, she had to win over opponents who still had doubts about the need for females onstage. Some people simply could not tolerate the spectacle of a woman immodestly displaying herself in front of a theater audience; actresses were held in such low esteem that the brother of a female star killed himself because of the disgrace her profession had brought upon the family. There were other objections. "Women are incapable of the hard dedication art requires"; "Women artists are nothing more than a bunch of performing monkeys." In addition, female impersonators rightly saw the use of real live women onstage as a threat to their job security.

    In this environment, Matsui Sumako caught the acting bug. Her character, either passionate or deranged, depending on your point of view, helped her overcome broken marriages and the terrors facing a woman unskilled and alone. Passion and derangement also marked her acting, and she became known for her portrayals of forthright, headstrong heroines who cried a lot. She also played a few very modern women who, for the first time on the Japanese stage, made stunning declarations about independence and the imperfections of the female situation. A master of reality in all its high-pitched glory, Matsui stirred audiences when playing characters who suddenly comprehended the whole truth of their lives.

    In her private life, Matsui lived out another drama of female strife and transformation. After failed attempts at more conventional arrangements, she began to live publicly with a learned and married stage director. Later, when the scandals surrounding Matsui's private life boosted her popularity, there was gossip about how she had brought disaster to a good man. As she began to be typecast, many thought that it was not much of a stretch for her to play Salome, whose allures caused the death of a saintly male.

    Historians' grudges against Matsui involve more than her supposed mistreatment of her lover. She has been upbraided for the time she assaulted a rival actress by thrashing her with a fancy Japanese robe ("Quite a vocabulary on her," a witness commented. "Suddenly it was like some fishwife's brawl backstage") and for her astonishing stinginess ("That's not something actors usually do," a colleague muttered about one of her tight-fisted practices. "That's not something human beings do," his friend replied). Other members of her troupe protested that success had gone to her head, and that she took her fans at their word when they called her "The Queen of the Japanese Theater." Her temperamental outbursts caused whole brigades of actors to quit in outrage; she treated those who remained behind like her personal servants. Moreover, men have pilloried Matsui for lacking the magic of femininity--onna-rashisa in Japanese. In any language, this absence of femininity is often at the heart of many men's complaints against forceful women, but in Japan the question of whether the woman possesses onna-rashisa or not is debated so solemnly and shamelessly that femininity seems recognized as a concrete skill, with qualifications and rankings. Just as a man without thumbs cannot hope to be a carpenter, so a Japanese female without onna-rashisa can never succeed as an adult woman.


A wild and impetuous nature is probably not high on every man's list of feminine virtues, but this certainly swept Matsui Sumako out of Matsushiro, the country village where she was born in 1886. To this day, Matsushiro seems a blessed locale only for those who can tolerate monotony. Boredom in the countryside is well-known to readers of Japanese literature, since a category of fiction focuses upon this very problem. In such writings the protagonist--who is usually a stand-in for the male author--spends many pages cursing the fate that has exiled him to the slow and backward provinces. The theme most often hinges on how to get out immediately.

    Now several hours from Tokyo and a dusty bus ride from the nearest city, Matsui Sumako's birthplace could easily serve as one of those oppressive fictional settings. This village does offer the pleasures of lush mountain ranges sprinkled with wildflowers and pine groves. Yet amid such natural beauty are tightly packed houses and the certainty of hidebound, nosy neighbors who make sure that no untoward behavior misses their notice or censure. In Matsui's day, the village of Matsushiro was probably just like those novels about the Japanese countryside, offering no drama, no hope of a different future, no resolution of daily conflicts.

    Matsui grew up surrounded by the mountains, and her excessive energy did not go unnoticed. Later her detractors would seize upon this vigor as the deadliest of her traits. ("Sumako, who was hardiness itself, survived of course"--one can imagine them grumbling--"but Shimamura caught her cold and died"). Much has been made of the location of her hometown, which the surrounding mountain range deprived of sunlight for half the day. Romantic biographers like to surmise that the continuous darkness in this "Half-day Village" affected Matsui deeply and that her tumultuous later life was nothing more than a search for sunnier surroundings.

    Matsui briefly lived in Tokyo, where she studied sewing, but soon was married off, in the traditional manner, to a husband selected by her relatives. Since she was the last of nine children, Matsui's betrothal must have come as a relief to her family. Her father had already died by the time of her marriage, and this left her bereft of important family protection. Later, as a famous actress writing her memoirs, Makeup Brush, she would make much of these early sorrows, depicting her youthful self as a piteous heap of tempestuous emotions that were all the time waiting to be unleashed onstage. "Death parted her from her father during her girlhood," Matsui wrote of herself. "She went through sadness unimaginable to an ordinary girl and spent many of her days crying."

    She had high hopes for this marriage, which would serve as a substitute for the family she had left behind. Her new husband's family ran an inn in another town, and after her marriage Matsui moved there and set to work. She wrote that she enjoyed her new circumstances and was thus astonished when after only a few months her husband's family declared her an unsatisfactory wife. With cruel briskness, she was divorced. Matsui claimed that she never understood what happened. "She spent two or three months dreamily enjoying the intimacy and warmth of this second home," she wrote. "But when she thinks about it now, she suspects that there was either some strange disagreement among the people around her or some other reason unfathomable to a naive woman like herself. No one said anything or agreed to anything. The connection was simply severed."

    Here, the coarse edges of Matsui's character never come into question. Later on, of course, others would take her to task for throwing hot soup at her suitors or feeding them too many dinners of smelly beans. After this divorce, however, she does seem to have been deeply wounded and frightened. The speculation is that her in-laws considered her too weak for the work at the inn; others say that she was divorced because she had contracted a venereal disease from her husband. Devastated and disgraced, the eighteen-year-old Matsui returned to Tokyo in 1904, where she helped out in her sister and brother-in-law's pastry shop. As she toiled, lacking even the talent to wrap a package, Matsui was so forlorn that she attempted suicide. "It was just when the plums were coming into bloom," she wrote.


She could hardly eat as she sat in the sunny second-floor room with a southern exposure and veranda that her sister allowed her to use. She just stared at the paper screens, crying her eyes out on the pillow. She would think about things and cry; then she would cry and think about things. Finally she decided to die and stopped crying, perhaps because no more tears remained.


    A new man turned up soon after.

    It is essential to come to grips with Matsui's allures, for she was never short of male admirers. The photographs show that she was not a Japanese beauty in the conventional sense; on the contrary, her face was too full and robust for perfection. In a kimono, she did not sparkle; the paddings in her Western clothes did her a disservice; and the flowing robes, wood-sprite costumes, and feathered helmets she wore in her various stage parts failed to accentuate her best features. Yet there is no doubt that she possessed a raw and fervent energy that served her well on stage and also captivated the men. She could claim a number of conquests among the intellectual and artistic set, though some later hated themselves for succumbing to her frank sensuality. As they look back, most of these men refuse to express downright admiration, since they may have at one time been spurned by her and/or been members of groups dedicated to removing her from her position of eminence. Thus the compliments emerge in a fashion that is indirect, even by Japanese standards. "She didn't have any appeal to us," one contemporary reports; his colleague continues, "I mean, it's a different story if you have a taste for the uncouth or enjoy a glimpse of the maid's flesh. She was a country bumpkin, you see, with many rough spots." Another says: "I wouldn't go so far as to say that she was like the mythical flying horse soaring through the heavens, oblivious of all obstacles, but if Sumako wanted to go down a certain path, nothing got in her way. I mean, she had no idea what the word 'hesitation' meant. She just forged innocently ahead." From these comments one can at least conclude that Matsui provided the exhilarations of sexuality and decisiveness to the abstracted, melancholy males who were her favorites.

    Four years later, in 1908, she married a literary youth named Maezawa Seisuke, who felt drawn to the uneducated but lively young pastry store clerk. Observers never considered the couple perfectly matched: "Maezawa was just twenty-six, but looked about forty," Tanaka Eizo wrote in Reminiscences of the New Theater. "He had a second-degree black belt in judo and the broad, sturdy body and the wide shoulders to go with it. On that big square face of his, he'd grown an old-style mustache that twirled up at the tips.... Reminded me of a police chief. Not at all the type women go for." Maezawa became a history teacher at the newly established Tokyo Acting School and pursued his interest in drama, both old-style and new. He joined a group of traditional storytellers and at the same time sought friendships with members of more modern acting troupes. For Matsui, who had never before seen a play performed, the heady talk with budding actors and directors about their plans for new theatrical productions was inspiring. She would give up Fugetsudo, the sweet shop, and become an actress.

    Later, she wrote about acquiring her first acting skills when studying her brother-in-law's way with his customers. With a true sense of discovery, she notes that his polite way of speaking encouraged people to purchase more of Fugetsudo's offerings. "The first part of his 'thank you,' "she explained in her memoirs,


was spoken in a low, thick voice, and with a strength that emanated from the depths of his stomach. The next syllable was somewhat blurred, and the last part was spoken in a higher tone and lightly trailed off. This was truly a proprietor's dignified way of speaking.... Later, as a customer was leaving, she was this time able to say Thank you' very naturally. She said it exactly as her brother-in-law had done just a moment ago. She felt that she had become a professional very quickly and had mastered her first role.


     Matsui had all sorts of other chances to hone her acting skills informally. She had to learn, for example, how to put on a decorous demeanor in front of the neighbors the morning after one of her many stupendous squabbles with Maezawa. In the course of these conflicts, objects were pitched out of windows and her language was not that of a budding ingenue. Maezawa remained devoted to her despite these noisy disagreements, and he cast about for ways to train his wife as an actress, particularly after he had secured his teaching post at the Tokyo Acting School. Although Maezawa would live to regret the ambitions he had fostered in his touchy spouse, more than one memoirist remembers his sincere and earnest appearance the day he stood before officials of another acting school and declared, "I'd like to make my wife an actress. Would you come and meet her? Tell me if she is qualified or not."


By then, the distinguished critic, dramatist, and translator Tsubouchi Shoyo had been persuaded to set up an acting school within what would become Tokyo's Waseda University. Tsubouchi had first earned a place in the history of modern Japanese literature in 1885 when, at age twenty-four, he started to publish The Essence of the Novel. This influential study urged writers to abandon the cardboard characters and stock situations familiar to traditional fiction and instead to depict human life in its slippery complexity. Thus Tsubouchi Shoyo made his mark early as a staunch partisan of realism. Among his many other achievements, Tsubouchi translated the complete works of his adored Shakespeare into Japanese.

    A man of exalted ambitions, Tsubouchi was not content to set up a mere trade school for the training of actors; he also sought to elevate the cultural level of the nation, to whose service he was committed. As suited a serious man of letters, he established a regular drama research center. At Tsubouchi's school, acting students learned the history of drama; they took demanding courses on such subjects as Shakespeare, modern drama, psychology, and English. Coed classes were still a rarity in those days, but Tsubouchi acknowledged the need for trained actresses. Perhaps because of his reputation for extreme probity, he dared to admit women acting students along with men; strict rules forbade extramural socializing between the sexes. Maezawa hoped to enroll Matsui in this school, called Bungei Kyokai (Literary Arts Society).

    "When a husband comes to you and says that he wants to make his wife an actress, you expect him to show you a real beauty," wrote Tanaka, who was one of the officials of the school.


So we went over to meet her. Maezawa had just got married a month before. He and his wife lived together on the second floor of Suzuki's Stationary Shop in Mita. They were both from the same town in Shinshu. "This is my Ma-chan," he said, introducing a woman to us. I thought his way of introducing her extremely affectionate, but I was more surprised to have a look at this person who wanted to become an actress. She could not even say the proper words of greeting when she met us for the first time. In fact, she could hardly get a decent sentence out. Not quite standing up, she bowed at us just once in a most perfunctory manner. She looked like just a common fishwife, wearing her short coat with short sleeves and somewhat soiled green tabi socks (in those days, I really hated women who wore colored tabi).

    No question about it, her looks were below average and none too good. Her face and body were big, and there was roughness and agitation in the way she moved around. On top of that, she had an ugly, flat nose. I started to have real doubts about Maezawa's eye for beauty. There wasn't even a trace of any learning or manners. All told, she seemed vulgar and coarse and had an extremely crude way of talking. Whenever she said anything, her country dialect came flying out, even when she uttered the simplest words (you could always hear this dialect when she spoke her lines on stage later, and until the day she died, she was never able to get rid of it). No way around it, she was a country bumpkin through and through.... "And this woman wants to became an actress," I thought. "Press her somewhere, and she'll make that sound, I suppose."


    This description sounds like an exaggeration, but others confirm that Matsui's flat nose worried her supporters. The nose was apparently too much of a flaw to overlook, especially if she was to play Western women, who were envied throughout Japan for their high nasal bridges. A professional storyteller in Yurakuza had found a solution for this same defect by undergoing an operation. Impressed by these results, Matsui underwent the same nose job herself. The techniques of this operation were still primitive and painful, employing some kind of paraffin injection to achieve the desired effect. In cold weather, this substance turned an ugly violet and caused Matsui embarrassment; after the procedure, she avoided posing for photographs in profile. From the front, however, the operation was judged a success. Just a few months later, Matsui appeared before Tsubouchi Shoyo and others for the crucial audition at Bungei Kyokai.

    Her prospective teachers did not much care for her rustic manner or her obviously meager education. Only Matsui's large size and hardy appearance worked in her favor. "As far as her qualifications as an actress go," Tsubouchi is said to have declared, "there's only that sturdy body of hers." It is assumed that Tsubouchi sought Japanese women of more than average physical proportions to play substantial Western heroines. Upon acceptance, Matsui was required to attend classes from six to nine in the evening.

    Matsui could more than match the two other female students in looks and enthusiasm, but she faltered badly in her studies. In fact, her complete ignorance of English conversation nearly caused her expulsion from the school, since students, following Tsubouchi's orders, had to study many scripts (by Shakespeare and selected modern dramatists) in English. Only special intervention by Maezawa and other supporters, her promise that she would study harder, and her pathetic outpouring of tears earned Matsui a reprieve. Reportedly, her husband Maezawa was served a steady diet of odorous natto beans during this period when Matsui Sumako set out to conquer Shakespearean English.

    Matsui's battle with The Merchant of Venice went beyond merely deciphering the meaning of the major speeches. She could not read even a single English letter, much less worry over Elizabethan verb forms. Her diligence in overcoming this difficulty has earned her the respect of her most virulent critics. Determined not to be exiled to the sweet shop again, she studied Shakespeare by using two copies of the play. In one, she transcribed the pronunciation of every single syllable into Japanese sounds; in the other, she carefully noted the translation of every sentence. She also inveigled tutors to come to her shabby home, and they later complained about the provincial food she served them while she tirelessly practiced her day's lines. "She was the only student who so speedily had to go from learning the ABCs of English to reading Shakespeare in the original," Tanaka writes. "It was a pitiful situation, as if an elementary school student had suddenly entered college." A student who sat next to Matsui in class kindly offered assistance whenever he found her studying with the English texts upside down.


It is just about here that a biographer may seek to point out the most attractive aspects of Matsui Sumako's life. Reading many pages of invective against her produces a strong impulse to present her as a misunderstood and winning figure. Therefore, her story becomes a cautionary tale for the biographer. Where those who hated her paint a picture of vulgarity, a conniving nature, and lunatic fits, a warmer approach can come up with ebullience, honesty, and the behavior required to survive. This pleasant image is based upon Matsui's decision to establish a career in Tokyo, far from her country home, and the perseverance she displayed in her attempts to pronounce Shakespearean English at drama school. In a certain light, her saga can seem a very rousing study of how to seize a moment and make the most of it: clearly, Matsui was not one to let any of her moments pass by without giving them their due. In addition, the creeds of self-help and self-improvement have a special meaning in our present age. There is the hope that her story can--if handled adroitly--inspire the fainthearted to carry on, to remain undaunted in the face of rain, winter, or wind.

    In this mood, a biographer approves of Matsui's pressing forward with her ambitions. While English would never become her strong suit, Matsui must have seen that mastery of a foreign language was merely the pet project of overly fastidious teachers. No one would be able to complain about her if she dazzled audiences with her acting, which, after all, would be in Japanese. She had faced the terror of being dismissed from the school for her academic failings and had been allowed to continue only after hard-won negotiations. These humiliations fortified her to fight back; from this time forward, witnesses say, she made no bones about her dogged commitment to her career in front of her husband, her fellow students, and her teachers. It must be conceded that the stories of Matsui's rude and pushy behavior--later to grow into a mountain of caustic accounts--began to accumulate during this period. "For the sake of 'art,' she stripped herself bare and pressed forward, casting off everything else," Tanaka wrote.

    Such an attitude did not bode well for domestic harmony with Maezawa, who had so loyally stood by his wife as she embarked upon her new career. The couple moved closer to the acting school, renting a tiny second-floor apartment accessible only via a crude rope ladder. Busy with her classes, Matsui had no time for interior decoration and so their home did not boast any feminine touches. Visitors have recalled the scant furnishings in the apartment.

    Matsui was tireless in her efforts, practicing alone on stage for hours and then forcing fellow students to join her for some more hours of rehearsal. These habits remained with her, and even after she had achieved great fame, Matsui was not the sort to join a friend or fellow student for a cup of tea and chitchat when she could be using the time for rehearsal. Her marriage to Maezawa ended amid rough squabbles and, on at least one occasion, her assaulting him with a lighted gas lamp. Finally ordering him out of her life forever, Matsui threw Maezawa's belongings from the second-floor window onto the street. In the drama histories, Maezawa Seisuke later earned mention as the man who hit upon acting as a career for his wife and thereby found a healthier outlet for Matsui Sumako's tumultuous nature than the mutilation of his favorite hat. He died during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.


At this point, a sympathetic biographer experiences some discomfort in moving forward with the story. Matsui's status as a besieged and unfairly censored heroine never feels very secure. Once her next lover arrives, the problem becomes more acute, since at this juncture her detractors grow more eloquent and vociferous. These critics would probably take Matsui more to task for her harsh treatment of Maezawa if they were not so busy damning her for every misfortune that befell the great love of her life, Shimamura Hogetsu. They pillory her for destroying Shimamura's noble nature. They claim that she practically committed murder by not taking him to the hospital during his last illness. As if that were not enough, she had the gall to transfer his telephone line to her own name the day after his death. The critics do allow that she brought Shimamura immortality, though admittedly not of the dignified, academic kind he had once sought. Without her, Shimamura would not have become a main character in countless Japanese ballads, sordid novels, hallucinatory dance productions, and modern No plays, all meticulously dissecting his private life.

    Shimamura Hogetsu, who was fifteen years older than Matsui, had gone through much struggle in his youth. First his mother died, and then his father, a financial ruin, perished when the house caught fire while he was drunk. A local benefactor saw the young Shimamura's promise, adopted him, and paid for his education. In 1890, Shimamura took that thrilling journey--chronicled by so many members of Japan's future elite in those days--from his home in the countryside to Tokyo, where he attended the future Waseda University. His talents were recognized, and he became a prized student of the august Tsubouchi Shoyo. Praised for his graduation thesis, which established him as an incisive theorist on aesthetics, Shimamura became a lecturer in the literature department and worked as an editor of a prestigious literary journal at Waseda before going to Europe on a scholarship. There he was to educate himself on cultural trends in the Western world.

    Shimamura went on to become a prolific and influential critic (particularly of Japanese Naturalism), scholar, novelist, and translator. His brilliance and his learning were by all accounts prodigious. For three and a half years, Shimamura studied psychology and aesthetics, among other subjects, in England and Germany. He also found the time to immerse himself in the artistic offerings of these foreign cities. The theater in particular enthralled him, and it is said that Shimamura saw some eighty plays during one year in England.

    Shimamura's apparent professional success and promise of more achievements to follow did not come without a price. He later complained that the hardships he had suffered had robbed him of a carefree childhood: "I was separated from my mother and father when I was eleven or twelve, and until I entered college, I had to fight all the vicissitudes of the world myself." In addition, he was constantly aware of his obligations to the adoptive father who had lifted him out of the destitution of his family home, enabling him to learn about Dante at Waseda and to hobnob with the literary lights of Tokyo. In recognition of this debt, which he was expected to repay by lifelong obedience and service, Shimamura agreed to an arranged marriage to a close relative. The couple increased Shimamura's burden of responsibilities by eventually producing seven children.

    In the films later made about Matsui's life, Shimamura's wife always receives dreadful treatment. Usually dressed in dark cloaks, she is portrayed as dour and reproachful; with a child or two close by, she repeatedly berates Shimamura, in a most unmodern fashion, about his family responsibilities. Were such speeches deemed filmic, she would be the one to speak of Confucius and quote one of his wise sayings about the need to maintain a moral social order. In written accounts Mrs. Shimamura fares no better, for she does not even merit the kind of malice heaped on Matsui. Usually the male chroniclers mock this wife's pesky persistence in keeping track of her husband and her intemperate reactions when he disappears for days at a time. The men rise in chorus to dismiss her as "hysterical." A wife nowadays might well dispute this assessment, imagining the vehement emotions she might summon if her husband had gone off on a leisurely tour of Europe's cultural capitals for several years, then, upon his return home, had become preoccupied with his own ennui or with a hale young actress from Matsushiro, leaving his spouse behind to tend a brood of children.

    In spite of this, Shimamura Hogetsu is a man difficult to dislike. Japanese literature provides abundant examples of men like him who are dreamy weaklings before the wiles of tough and crafty women. Heroes as far back as Prince Genji in The Tale of Genji have demonstrated great refinement of feeling and a lack of willpower when it comes to managing their love lives. Time and time again such men foolishly risk everything for love, but frequently their incompetence about the simplest details of everyday life (they are cheated out of money, they forget to hide a telltale kimono) crushes all hopes for happiness; the couple may be next seen chanting poetry about how life is as fleeting as the cherry blossoms while they trundle off to their double suicide. Japanese literature would contain far fewer love suicides (and far less wonderful poetry) if, from the outset, women had been put in charge of organizing the lovers' escape.

    In a certain sense, Shimamura fits in well with this parade of frail and dithering heroes. After his return from Europe, he fell into the doldrums and could not tolerate the tedium of his academic life. He resumed his teaching duties at Waseda, but became known for yawning if visitors stayed too long. His classes also failed to hold his interest, and he once said, "It's a wonder that I don't feel guilty about repeating the same lectures year after year." His despair went beyond his classroom duties, and he began to see his whole existence as a pointless exercise. In one of Shimamura's gloomy writings of that period, he described a hero who "sat in front of his desk all morning, his hands crossed against his chest, just staring into space for two hours or more. He didn't feel like doing anything. He picked up one or two of the new magazines and books strewn on the side table, but they didn't hold his interest."

    Where the other professors must have set an example of diligence and fortitude, Shimamura did not disguise his own despondency, keeping his students well informed about what he called "the grayness of this world." Scholars at Waseda University today still have not forgiven Shimamura for his behavior. "The fellow was a wastrel," one Waseda professor told me recently. "I don't know what they do in the United States, but around here a professor only puts up a notice when he's going to be absent from his classes. Shimamura was absent so much that he would put up a notice when he was going to be present. When he did appear, I've heard that he would leave in the middle, telling the students that he had forgotten to shut the door of the bird cage or something and had to go home."

    Turning forty proved unbearable to Shimamura. His health, never robust, worsened, and although he was committed to translating Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House for Waseda's literary journal, he had to take time off to recuperate from a serious lung ailment. Upon his return, his students found him weak and more downcast. In addition, his home life gave him no peace, what with his wife's "hysterical" outbursts and the deaths of two beloved children. He did not relish the prospect of facing his teaching responsibilities once more: "When I look back at the past, it seems all emptiness, and even when I look to the future, I come up with only vague thoughts."

    This morose mood, familiar to forty-year-olds of either hemisphere, contained particularly Japanese elements. In those days, Japanese men at midlife could not easily go off to explore new marital arrangements or give up an established way of life for a new career. The traditional family system, based on principles of obligation and hierarchy, demanded that each member sacrifice personal desires for the greater good of the clan. The family was the target of many writers whose fictional characters were constantly badgered and thwarted by imperious relatives. "The well-being of the family gives rise to all bad things," Dazai Osamu wrote in 1948, thirty years after Shimamura's death.

    And so, as his eye begins to wander toward Matsui, Shimamura Hogetsu retains our sympathy. He eventually left his wife and abandoned his children, but perhaps Shimamura wins us over because he tried to be true to himself throughout a terrible and genuine human conflict. He also looked upon his own selfish emotions with much horror. In gaining some pleasure for himself, Shimamura had to wound a number of people he cherished, and such brutality gave him no peace. In fact, this future leader of the modern Japanese theater was caught in the same monumental conflict between love and duty that old-style dramas had often depicted. "I have inexcusably neglected my obligations to my brother and to society," a character in one of Shimamura's short stories concedes, "but the truth is that I can't get the one I love out of my mind."

(Continues...)

Table of Contents

1. Slamming the Door, Scaring the Neighbors
2. He Stole Her Sky
3. Shining Stars, Lonely Nights
4. Modern Girl
5. The Odor of Pickled Radishes


What People are Saying About This

Kyoko Mori

Their longing for happines and freedom, their passionate and often willful characters, and the divided reactions these women inspired in their peers come alive.
— Author of Polite Lies

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews