The Birth of Modern J-Lit

At the end of May, I welcomed in the sixth edition of the Japanese Literature Challenge with a post introducing some of the books I hope to read and review over the coming months, and today I’ve got the first of (hopefully) many J-Lit reviews for the challenge, a real classic of modern Japanese literature.  Which is not to say that it’s stuffy or tedious – this is a book I flew through…

The most famous Japanese writer of the modern era, and the one many people see as the father of modern Japanese literature, is Natsume Soseki, the author of such delights as I Am A Cat, Botchan, Kusamakura and Kokoro.  However, before Natsume went on his miserable sabbatical to England and came back a changed man, there was another writer who visited Europe, returning to fuse western style with eastern sensibilities – Ogai Mori.  Mori was really the first of the modern Japanese writers, and his novel The Wild Geese (translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein) is one of the best-known Japanese works of the early-twentieth century.

The Wild Geese is set in Tokyo in 1880 and starts with a description of Okada, an impeccable student who has a room next door to the writer in their boarding house.  The two become friends, and Okada eventually tells the writer of an experience he had involving a beautiful young woman.

We are then taken back in time to hear the story of the young woman, Otama, before her first encounter with Okada.  A sweet, innocent girl, cheated by a potential husband, Otama lives in relative poverty with her father – until, that is, she attracts the attention of the moneylender Suezo.  Already having a wife, he decides that Otama would make an ideal mistress and sets her up in a house in a distant suburb – a house Okada walks past every day…

Mori weaves the two strands of the tale – Okada’s growing interest in the mysterious beauty and Otama’s unfortunate history – together skillfully, the narrator later revealing that he had access to both sides of the story at different times, reflecting on events with the hindsight of thirty years of experience.  The frame narrative is reminiscent of Victorian novels like Wuthering Heights (although the plot has more in common with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), and the narrator has his own part to play in the novella.

However, the key to the story is Otama.  A beautiful young girl, while not forced to enter into the arrangement with Sezuo (in fact, her father is initially against it), she feels she has no choice if she wants to help support her ageing father.  At first, she is relieved that Sezuo is not as bad as he could be; however, the longer she stays trapped in her gilded cage, the more she begins to regret her fate.  She eventually longs to be free, just like the geese flying in the sky…

Things are no better for Sezuo’s actual wife, Otsune, though.  While the miserly Sezuo is content to lavish money and gifts on his mistress and her father, his own family is kept to strict economy, a fact which probably irks his wife more than the suspected infidelity.  Once she becomes aware of the rumours spreading around the neighbourhood (at a time when Tokyo was still more of a town than the megalopolis it has become today…), she confronts her husband, accusing him of keeping his own children in rags so that his lover can parade around in fine silk.

The characters of the two women are the main strengths of The Wild Geese.  While Sezuo happily enjoys his double life, despite the annoyance his wife’s nagging causes, the two occupants of his bedrooms suffer, showing the difficulties women faced in this era.  Neither of them are able to do anything about the situation as they have nowhere to go and nobody to turn to.  Otama decides to keep the secret of Sezuo’s disgraceful profession to herself in order not to burden her father with her concerns – this attitude of resignation and perseverance is one much prized by the Japanese…

I raced through the book in a matter of hours, transfixed by the simple, yet compelling, story matched to an elegant rendition by translators Ochiai and Goldstein.  When we eventually get to the final page, desperate to find out what would happen between Okada and Otama, we are…

…well, that would be telling – you’ll just have to read it for yourself 😉


6 thoughts on “The Birth of Modern J-Lit

  1. This is a gem. It's got that deceptively simple yet beguiling prose. The more one reads J-lit, from Ogai to Soseki to Akutagawa to Tanizaki, etc., the more the “tapestry” becomes more exquisite.


  2. Rise – I loved it, especially the deceptively down-beat ending. I also enjoyed the translation – part of which I was able to compare with the version in an anthology I'm reading…

    …but that's a story for another day 🙂


  3. It sounds tremendous, and though I've read a reasonable amount of Japanese literature it's not one I already knew. I'll look out for it.

    I note Rize's mention of Tanizaki, an extraordinary writer. Japan has one of the great literary traditions (as does Hungary, but that's another comments thread).


  4. Max – For the serious J-Lit reader, Mori is a must, as are all the writers Rize mentioned. If you add Kawabata, Oe, Murakami (despite what some may think), Mishima and Endo, you have a whole host of great writers – and that's just a quick off-the-top-of-the-head list 😉


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