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The Youth of Things

The Youth of Things: Life and Death in the Age of Kajii Motojiro

Stephen Dodd
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Youth of Things
    Book Description:

    When he died from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-one, Kajii Motojirō had written only twenty short stories. Yet his life and work, it is argued here, sheds light on a significant moment in Japanese history and, ultimately, adds to our understanding of how modern Japanese identity developed. By the time Kajii began to write in the mid-1920s there was heated debate among his peers over "legitimate" forms of literary expression: Japanese Romantics questioned the value of a western-inspired version of modernity; others were influenced by Marxist proletarian literature or modernist experimentation; still others tried to create a distinctly Japanese fictional style that concentrated on first-person perspective, the so-called "I-novel." There was a general sense that Japan needed to reinvent itself, but writers and artists were at odds over what form this reinvention should take. Throughout his career, Kajii drew from these various camps but belonged to none of them, making his work an invaluable indicator of a culture in crisis and transition.The Youth of Thingsis the first full-length book devoted to Kajii Motojirō. It brings together English translations of nearly all his completed stories with an analysis of his literature in the context of several major themes that locate him in 1920s Japan. In particular, Dodd links the writer's work with the physical body: Kajii's subjective literary presence was grounded first and foremost in his TB-stricken physical body, hence one cannot be studied without the other. His concerns with health and mortality drove him to play a central role in constructing a language for modern literature and to offer new insights into ideas that intrigued so many other Taishō intellectuals and writers. In addition, Kajii's early years as a writer were strongly influenced by the cosmopolitan humanism of the White Birch (Shirakaba) school, but by the time his final work was published in the early 1930s, an environment of greater cultural introspection was beginning to take root, encapsulated in the expression "return to Japan" (nihon kaiki). Only a few years separate these two moments in time, but they represent a profound shift in the aspirations and expectations of a whole generation of writers. Through a study of Kajii's writing, this book offers some sense of the demise of one cultural moment and the creation of another.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3841-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The matter of life and death sits at the heart of every question that people ask. Literature is one way of engaging with that matter.

    The early death of Kajii Motojirō (1901–1932) from tuberculosis (TB) meant that he left about twenty finely crafted short stories and a larger number of unfinished works. He was already attracting positive responses from a number of fellow writers during his lifetime, and the fact that the major literary critic Kobayashi Hideo (1902–1983) addressed Kajii’s work in an article in 1932 indicates that this was a young writer worthy of note for members...

  5. 1 Illness as Empowerment
    (pp. 7-35)

    As in Europe, TB had existed in Japan for centuries, but it was only with the rise of industrial society, particularly in its early stages, characterized by cramped and impoverished working conditions, that it reached epidemic proportions; Japanese rates of mortality peaked in 1918.¹ Though Kajii grew up in a relatively prosperous household—his father worked for a shipping company—he did spend much of his earlier life in the industrial city of Osaka, then known as the Manchester of the East² and afflicted with a particularly high rate of TB infection.³ The disease had a deadly effect on several...

  6. 2 Modernism and Its Endings
    (pp. 36-71)

    My exploration in the preceding chapter of the links between Kajii and Baudelaire had the aim of demonstrating that, notwithstanding Kajii’s unwillingness to identify with Yokomitsu’s modernist experimentations, a modernist lens helps clarify some of the motivations that drive Kajii’s literary efforts. A number of scholars have recently shown that modernism was central to the discursive environment in which Kajii was active. Seiji Lippit and Gregory Golley, for example, have sought to demonstrate, in different ways, an interconnectedness of literary developments with technological and social changes in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s. Meanwhile, William Tyler’s contribution has been to...

  7. 3 Things of Beauty
    (pp. 72-110)

    During the 1930s, many writers and Japanese intellectuals became increasingly keen to identify a way of seeing that overlapped with broader concerns about national identity. In the course of the decade, literary and philosophical writings set forth a form of aesthetics often tinged with violence—what Alan Tansman has termed fascist moments—in an effort to effect a sense of cultural wholeness that, it was felt, had been lost.¹ The philosopher Yasuda Yojūrō (1910–1981), for example, suggested at the time that modern Japanese might rediscover their spiritual integrity through acts of self-sacrifice, an idea that culminated at the height...

  8. 4 The Subject of Change
    (pp. 111-140)

    In 1922, Kajii seemed to have a clear understanding of what it meant to exist as an individual in the world. His notebook entry of February 13 boldly declares,

    I understand what ego [jiga] means. It is the assertion of the self. You might call it autonomy [jishu]. I do not exist for the sake of someone else; I exist for my own sake. I recognize that my own personality is as valuable as anyone else’s, no matter how strong that other person may be. It means being faithful to one’s own feelings.¹

    Reference to assertion of the self (jiko)...

  9. Translations

    • Lemon
      (pp. 143-148)

      An unaccountable, sinister lump was constantly pressing onto my heart. What would you call it? Fretfulness? Repugnance? A hangover is sure to follow a drinking bout; if you drink every day, the moment of stupor arrives. And here it was. This was rather unfortunate. What troubled me was not the resultant congested lungs and nervous prostration. And it wasn’t my back-scorching debts. It was the sinister lump that I couldn’t stand. Every beautiful piece of music, each delightful verse of poetry that had once given me so much pleasure, were now unbearable. Even when I made the effort to get...

    • Mire
      (pp. 149-157)

      One day it so happened that the money order I’d been waiting for arrived from home. I decided to kill two birds with one stone by taking a trip to Hongō at the same time as cashing in the money order.

      There had been a snowfall earlier and, living in the suburbs, I didn’t much care for all the slush. But the money had been long in coming, and I was determined to venture out regardless.

      Before that time, I’d put considerable effort into some writing, but it ended in failure. Now, failure is one thing, but the strangely morbid...

    • On the Road
      (pp. 158-162)

      I discovered the road during the season when the deutzias were in bloom.

      When I worked out it was just as easy to get home from E station as from M station, and with hardly any difference in terms of distance, I was delighted. This wasn’t just because I enjoyed a change. To get the tram to my friend’s place from M required a major detour, whereas it was incomparably closer from E. On my way home one day, I got off the tram at E on a whim and set off in the general direction I was heading for....

    • The Past
      (pp. 163-165)

      The children stood outside with their father and grandmother, waiting for their mother to turn off the light and come out.

      When they left, not a single person came to see them off. The dishes they ate their final dinner on, the lamp they kept on until the last moment: these had been promised to the greengrocer and would remain there in the empty house until the following morning when he came to pick them up.

      The light was extinguished. Mother emerged in a mantle of darkness. Five young children, their parents, and grandmother all set off in a noisy...

    • After the Snow
      (pp. 166-174)

      Just at the point when Gyōichi was torn between staying on at the university and finding a job, the professor he once studied under found him a position. While not perfect, this satisfied his desire to continue his studies and it also guaranteed a livelihood. The professor set him up at a desk in a corner of the research office that he ran. And so his simple life of study began. At the same time, he embarked on married life with Nobuko. Gyōichi had wed against the wishes of his parents and relatives. But in the end, the only way...

    • Landscapes of the Heart
      (pp. 175-184)

      Takashi gazed at the slumbering street from the window of his room. Other windows showed no sign of life, and deep night’s stillness gathered halo-like around streetlamps. The whirring of golden insects was broken from time to time only by the sound of their collisions.

      This part of town was a world of its own where few people passed even in daytime, where fish guts and corpses of rats remained untouched for days. Houses on both sides were in some disrepair, apparently due to weathering by natural forces. Amid the crumbling roughly plastered walls of faded ochre, people seemed to...

    • The Ascension of K, or K’s Drowning
      (pp. 185-190)

      Your letter suggests you are perplexed about a number of possibilities concerning K’s drowning. Was it an accident or suicide? If it was suicide, what prompted it? Or maybe he had given up hope and died after contracting an incurable disease? Though I became acquainted with K quite by chance for only about a month at the sanatorium on the N coast, you were kind enough to write to me, a total stranger. It was from your letter that I first heard K had drowned there. I was really quite shocked. At the same time, it occurred to me that...

    • Winter Days
      (pp. 191-205)

      It was almost the time of the winter solstice. From his window, Takashi could see low-lying houses and, in their gardens and gateways, stands of trees, their leaves stripped further with each day’s passing.

      Castor oil plants were disheveled like tangles of old ladies’ hair, while the final leaves of the cherry trees, beautifully tarnished by frost, were gone. With every sway of the zelkovas that rustled in the wind, parts of a hidden landscape came in to view.

      Even the butcherbird had ceased its dawn visits. On folded rows of oak trees, where lead-gray starlings once had settled in...

    • Under the Cherry Trees
      (pp. 206-208)

      Under the cherry trees, corpses are buried!

      You can be sure of that. How else to explain such an unbelievably magnificent display of blossoms? I’ve been feeling uneasy these past couple of days, unable to trust their beauty. But now, finally, I’ve come to an understanding. Under the cherry trees, corpses are buried. You can be sure of that.

      Why is it that, of all the implements in my room, it’s the tiny thin blade of my safety razor that comes to mind every evening on the way back home, as if I were gifted with second sight? No idea,...

    • Instrumental Illusions
      (pp. 209-211)

      One autumn, a young pianist came from France. He stayed through winter and performed a whole range of pieces with great skill in the tradition of his country. The works included some from the classical German repertoire, but he brought along many pieces of French origin that we’d known only by hearsay until then and hardly ever got to see performed. I attended a series of six concerts spread over several weeks. Since the location was a hall in a hotel, the audience was small, so it was possible to listen in a mood of quiet luxuriance. The more times...

    • The Story of the Bamboo Pipe
      (pp. 212-214)

      I had the pick of two routes when going out for a walk. One was the road that followed the valley. The other was a mountain path you entered from the roadside when you crossed the suspension bridge over the valley. The road had a view, but by its very nature it led to all sorts of distractions. In contrast, the mountain path was gloomy but calmed the mind. My choice was determined by my particular mood on the day.

      But this story of mine dictates that I take the quiet mountain path. As soon as you crossed the suspension...

    • Blue Sky
      (pp. 215-217)

      One afternoon in late spring, I was sunbathing on top of the embankment that follows the village road. Huge clouds hung motionless in the sky. Their earthward facing sides had taken on a dark lilac hue. There was a vague sense of boundless pathos in those clouds, with their colossal volumes and lilac shading.

      The place where I sat was at the edge of what is considered the broadest expanse of level ground in the whole village. Views in this village consist almost entirely of mountains and valleys; wherever you look, it’s impossible to find land that doesn’t slope. The...

    • Winter Flies
      (pp. 218-228)

      What do I mean by winter flies?

      Flies that totter around; flies unable to escape even when you come close with your fingers; flies that take off just when you think they’ve lost the capacity for flight. At what point exactly did they come to lose the lawless streak and repulsive agility they had in summertime? They’re darker now, more indistinct, their wing structure shriveled. Their stomachs, once stretched tight with foul entrails, have thinned out like paper twists. How different now that we barely notice their cowering, enervated bodies as they crawl over bedding.

      People must have seen flies...

    • Certain Feelings on a Cliff Top
      (pp. 229-240)

      It was a muggy night in summer. Two young men were chatting at a certain café in the Yamanote part of town. The manner of their talk suggested they were not especially close friends. Unlike areas such as the Ginza, the solitary customer in a small Yamanote café is not so free to while away the time looking around at the other tables. That lack of freedom, and the intimacy arising from such cramped conditions, frequently led people to approach one another. These two seemed to be a case in point.

      One of the men, his shoulders slouched from too...

    • Caresses
      (pp. 241-244)

      Cats’ ears are really strange. They’re thin and cold. Hair grows on the outside, but they’re shiny on the inside, like the skin of a bamboo shoot. They’re made of something peculiar that’s difficult to describe, both hard and soft. From the time I was a child, any mention of cats’ ears has filled me with an overwhelming desire to clip them with a ticket punch. I wonder if that’s a cruel fantasy?

      No. It’s all down to a strange kind of suggestive power that cats’ ears have. I can never forget the sight of a solemn guest when he...

    • Scroll of Darkness
      (pp. 245-249)

      According to the news, a notorious burglar who’s been causing a stir recently in Tokyo has been caught. It seems he was able to run for miles even in complete darkness with the aid of a single stick. Constantly flailing the stick in front of his body, he’d make his escape anywhere, including through fields, with total abandon.

      When I read this article in the newspaper, I couldn’t suppress a shudder of exhilaration in spite of myself.

      Darkness! Endless waves of ever deepening blackness, its content hidden from our eyes, press in around us at every moment. In its depths,...

    • Mating
      (pp. 250-256)

      Look up at the starry sky. Countless bats flit about soundlessly. You can’t actually see them, but the way starlight flickers out of sight between moment and moment provides some sense that eerie creatures are flying around.

      Everyone was fast asleep. I was standing on the half-rotten laundry platform at home. From here, I had an unobstructed view of the alley that runs along the back of the house. In this part of town, there’s nothing but houses cramped tightly together, their laundry platforms all in a similar state of disrepair like lots of barges moored in a port. I...

    • The Carefree Patient
      (pp. 257-272)

      Yoshida’s lungs were bad. As soon as the winter season came along and it turned cold, he developed a high fever the very next day and he began to cough badly. It was the sort of cough where you come close to spewing up all your guts from your chest. After four or five days, he was desperately thin. And there wasn’t much of a cough left. But this wasn’t because he’d recovered. It was just that the stomach muscles that did the coughing were so utterly exhausted, they seemed unwilling to cough anymore. On top of that, his heart...

    (pp. 273-274)
    (pp. 275-280)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 281-288)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 289-291)