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Culture and Education

The 100 Anniversary of Osamu Dazai’s Birth
-Memories of Ohtohki-

(Ohtoh meaning cherry, and ki meaning the anniversary of one’s death)

Kazushige Munakata
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

At this time of year, I remember the cherries that were placed in small bags on the counter of the student cooperative, which didn’t usually handle fruit. It must be more than 30 years ago now—I was a university student, and I remember sharing the cherries with my friends between classes and saying, “It’s almost the time of Ohtohki”. I vividly remember this scene and the sweet and sour flavor of cherries even now. Although there are other anniversaries commemorating the death of famous people—such as Kappaki (a kappa is an imaginary elfin creature) in honor of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (July 24th) and Hechimaki (a hechima is a type of gourd) in honor of Shiki Masaoka (September 19th)—none of these rivals Dazai’s Ohtohki (June 19th) which is an established seasonal tradition that attracts a great many admirers.

On June 13th, 1948, Osamu Dazai, who had quickly gained popularity after World War II with such works as “The Setting Sun [Shayo]” (1947), committed double suicide, jumping into the Tamagawa Josui River together with a war-widow. Today, the river at the scene of the suicide near Inokashira Park appears too shallow, calm, and clear to commit a suicide there. At that time, however, their bodies were caught in the stream of water that was swollen and rapid from heavy rains, and they were not found until June 19th, which by curious coincidence, was Dazai’s birthday. He was born on that day in 1909 in a town called Tsugaru. While a memorial service commemorating his death (Ohtohki) is held every year at Zenrinji Temple near Mitaka where his grave is located, an anniversary ceremony celebrating his birth is held every year in his hometown in Aomori Prefecture. As this year marks the 100th anniversary of Osamu Dazai’s birth, I believe that more admirers than ever will attend the ceremony.

Writers Born in 1909

Strangely enough, just as there are banner years in the entertainment industry, when several entertainers of the same age make their professional debut at the same time, so there are in the literary world. Soseki Natsume was born is in 1867, a year before the new era of Meiji began, as were Shiki Masaoka, Koyo Ozaki, Rohan Koda, Ryokuu Saito, Kumagusu Minataka and Gaikotsu Miyatake. The literary critic Yuzo Tsubouchi dubbed those writers the “Seven Perverse Novelists of 1867”. Similarly, Osamu Dazai was born in 1909, the same year that other prominent writers were born, including Seicho Matsumoto, Atsushi Nakajima, Shohei Ohoka and Yutaka Haniya. Some events and exhibits related to these writers will be held in relevant places this year.

Although their respective styles and most active times certainly differ, I think there is a theme common to them, that is summed up by Sanetomo, the main character who mutters “bright and glamorous, yet predicting their doom-laden future” in Dazai’s novel “Minister of the Right Sanetomo [Udaijin Sanetomo] (1943)”. They were born at the close of the Meiji Period and the dawn of a new era. They spent their youth in the ideologically turbulent period when the novel “Kanikosen - Crab-Canning Boat” was written, survived a long period of war, and faced the drastic change of values that resulted from losing the war. They searched relentlessly for brightness and glamour and feared ruin and destruction. They felt uncomfortable wherever they went, whether at home, in public, or on the battlefield, shying away, feeling alienated and unable to find a place to fit in. It was the same for Seicho Matsumoto, although he appeared to be shamelessly energetic. If those who were born in 1867 are considered perverse, those born in 1909 must all be introverted.

"No Longer Human [Ningen-Shikkaku]" and Today

Although Dazai’s several attempts at suicide and his titles such as “No Longer Human [Ningen-Shikkaku] (1948)” do enhance the image of Dazai indulging in debauchery, the preface of his book entitled “Several Scenes of Mt. Fuji [Fugaku Hyakkei]” is revealing: “The theme of all of my works is to write down and record every bit of my foolish efforts to maintain my petty pride as long as I live. Even though I am such a chicken, born on the northern end of the mainland, I have always told myself that I must be an exemplary role model, putting on airs, even as I stumble time and again.” I believe these few sentences best illustrate Dazai, in his own words, far better than any other articles by famous critics. These are the words of a man who noticed the beauty of even the tiniest flower against the great Mt. Fuji. As Dazai himself put it, “The Evening Primrose fits perfectly here with Mt. Fuji”.

Hitoshi Ando studied the manuscript and draft copies of Dazai’s representative and last completed novel “No Longer Human [Ningen-Shikkaku]” in detail. He found the following state of mind in the hero of the novel, Yozo Ohba: One who wants to keep himself aloof away from others in a special position, but he cannot help constantly checking and determining the exact extent of his isolation from others. One who is scared to be involved with others (fear), and yet at the same time one who feels the fear of being completely isolated from others (anxiety). Today, we cannot help checking E-mails every five minutes, in fear of being totally cut off from the outside world, despite the fact that in reality we can contact anyone we like 24 hours a day using a mobile phone. I cannot help thinking of Yozo Ohba as our self-portrait in today’s world. Yozo Ohba also says in his last notes, “But, everything will be gone”. I wonder what my friends are doing now, the ones who ate cherries together on campus. What have I done so far in my life? This season of Ohtoki reminds me of my long forgotten younger days, always stirring my heart and bringing me back to those days on campus.

Professor Kazushige Munakata: Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University

Professor Munakata was born in 1953 in Fukushima Prefecture. He graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I at Waseda University, majoring in Japanese Literature. In 1983, he completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University. At present, he serves as Associate Director of Waseda University Library. Before assuming his present position, he served as Assistant Professor of Kogakuin University and Research Associate in the School of Education at Waseda University. His specialty is Japanese Modern Literature.
Professor Munakata’s major publications include “Ohgai Mori at the Time of Letter Contributor [Tohshoka Jidai no Mori Ohgai]” (Iwanami Shoten), the “Complete Works of Naoya Shiga [Shiga Naoya Zenshu]” and the “Complete Works of Shusei Tokuda [Tokuda Shusei Zenshu] (Yagi Shoten), which he wrote and edited.