‘The Broken Commandment’ by Shimazaki Tōson (Review)

As you’ll have noticed, my #JanuaryInJapan reading has so far looked at books by many familiar faces, and my latest post marks the first this year covering a work by a new writer.  When I say ‘new’, though, that might be slightly misleading as it’s actually one of the oldest books covered this month, taking us back to the end of the nineteenth century.  The theme of the novel is fairly familiar, but there’s a Japanese twist to this tale of a a very personal dilemma.  Let’s head off into the snow country, then, to meet a young man who has made a promise, one that might prove rather difficult to keep…

Shimazaki Tōson’s The Broken Commandment (translated by Kenneth Strong) is the story of Ushimatsu Segawa, a primary-school teacher in a small town in Nagano prefecture.  Educated, competent and liked by his close friends, he’s a young man with a bright future, it would seem, headed for bigger and better things.

However, this bright future is overshadowed by a darkness within, a secret he’s hiding.  You see, Ushimatsu comes from an eta background, that of the lowest of the traditional Japanese castes.  His father, who deliberately moved to an isolated village where nobody knew the family background, has repeatedly made his son swear to keep his identity a secret.  As you can guess from the book’s title, though, trouble is on the horizon.  Certain events give rise to suspicion, and Ushimatsu himself is struggling with a desire to reveal his secret to a friend, despite knowing that one slip could destroy his future.

At the core of the novel, then, is the titular ‘commandment’, the father’s driving force and his last request to Ushimatsu, the need to keep the family background a secret.  Much of the tension in the first half of the novel comes from the young man’s struggle to keep that promise.  The reason for this is his developing friendship with Inoko Rentaro, an eta writer who has proudly announced his roots to the world, and the young man’s view of Inoko as his ‘sensei’ figure leads to his doubts about keeping his identity to himself:

Ushimatsu found many excuses for his silence.  But that was what they all were: excuses, thought up after the event in a futile attempt to justify his failure; he did not really believe they were what had prevented him from speaking.  He had been deceiving himself, he saw now.  To hide the truth from Rentaro – no his conscience would not allow it.  What need was there to worry, anyway?  What danger could there be in unburdening himself, not to a stranger but to a man he respected and loved, an eta like himself – to him alone?  What had he to fear?  It would be absurd not to tell him, he said to himself sadly and in shame.
p.104 (University of Tokyo Press, 1995)

Towards the middle of the book, the reader senses that Ushimatu is on the verge of giving himself away, with every meeting a potential opportunity to confess.

Yet as the story develops, it becomes less a question of whether he will keep his promise than whether he should, with the focus turning to the psychological side of Ushimatsu’s dilemma.  He’s tortured by the unfairness of the stigma, forced to listen to the people around him casually stereotyping the eta, and the more he hears, the more he realises that he’s unlikely to ever simply enjoy life and make his way in the world:

But why should the “new commoners” be so despised and mocked?  Why should they not mix with their fellow human beings?  Why should the eta alone have no right to live out their lives as members of the community around them?  Life for them signified only continual torment, unredeemed even by pity. (pp.206/7)

Given the toll taken by the mental strain of hiding his roots, wouldn’t it perhaps be better to simply let it all out and deal with the consequences?

The events rolling on in the background provide a nice view of the society of the time, showing that the young teacher isn’t the only one with issues.  Another teacher, a man from a downwardly mobile samurai family, is forced to retire through (alcohol fuelled) ill health, while his daughter, sent off to the local priest for adoption, finds out that her new ‘father’ isn’t as devout as he might be.  This is very much a society still in flux after the Meiji restoration and the effects of the opening of the country to the west.  The eta are now ‘new commoners’, and technically equal citizens, but the reality is very different, as events at the start of the book (in which a rich eta is thrown out of his lodgings) show.

In his lengthy introduction, Strong provides an excellent background to the eta (now known more commonly as burakumin), but (perhaps surprisingly) he’s quick to play down this aspect of the book, claiming most readers saw it more as a work about individual identity, and being able to reject the family inheritance.  Over the course of his troubles, Ushimatsu manages to work his way out from under his father’s shadow, in an attempt to become a free man of the modern era.

I’m not convinced our ‘modern’ readers would entirely agree, and it’s hard to get away from the theme of the eta.  While Strong hints at criticism of Shimazaki’s inclusion of ‘dirtier’ eta (for example, in a scene set in a slaughterhouse), in my view these are warranted.  Far from deliberately showing some eta in a negative light, Shimazaki is showing that not everyone has been able to integrate into mainstream society as well as Ushimatsu has.

Strong’s introduction was written in 1972, while the novel appeared in 1906, but was set in the 1890s (dated by an allusion to ‘the twenty-fourth year of His Majesty’s reign’).  You would think that much would have changed in the many decades separating the two texts:

Yet discrimination persists, the contemporary situation of the eta parallelling in some striking ways that of the Negroes in the United States. (p.xiv)

Another literary comparison that could be made is with the portrayal of Jews in Victorian literature.  One of my recent reads, Anthony Trollope’s Nina Balatka, was set in Prague a few decades before the action of The Broken Commandment.  I was struck by a similarity in the slightly clumsy, yet sympathetic handling of a delicate topic, showing the difficulties of those shunned by many in society.  In fact, the two books share a remarkably similar conclusion…

Slightly overdramatic at times, featuring a few cartoonishly bad figures (with the odd saint thrown in), The Broken Commandment is nevertheless effective, powerful and thought-provoking, and it’s a staple of Japanese literature classes for a good reason.  Unfortunately, Shimazaki is not as well known in the West as, for example, his contemporary Natsume Sōseki, and very little of his work is easily available.  Here’s hoping someone decides he’s a writer who deserves another chance in translation, and that new editions of some of his books appear in English before too long.

5 thoughts on “‘The Broken Commandment’ by Shimazaki Tōson (Review)

  1. Sounds like a very interest author and book, Tony – I’d not heard of either. And I agree it would be nice to have modern translations of his works with commentary that looked it from a current standpoint – fingers crossed a translator/publisher takes that up! 😀


Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.