The Body in Postwar Japanese Fiction. By Douglas N. Slaymaker. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. x + 205 pages. (A volume in the series, Asia’s Transformations, edited by Mark Selden.)
This book brings into focus a fascinating element in the background of contemporary Japanese culture. Slaymaker shows how the post-war “flesh writers,” Tamura Taijiro, Noma Hiroshi, and Sakaguchi Ango, championed the body or the flesh (nikutai, not karada or shintai) over against seishin (spirit) and kokutai (nation), which had been oppressively emphasized in wartime propaganda These writers struck a note that would be continued in the funky iconoclasm of Japanese youth up to the 1960s and beyond, notably in the early novels of Oe Kenzaburo. The “topsy-turvy” years of postwar upheaval brought the nikutai writers to the verge of nihilism. But at the same time they were galvanized by fresh exposure to physical facts, both alluring and sordid, and they used this to liberate Japan from the stranglehold of conservative ideologies. It might be argued that the dialectic between despair and anarchic liberation set up by these writers has continued to play out within Japanese literature ever since.
The impact of nikutai writing invites comparison with that of D. H. Lawrence in the Anglophone world (though it seems to lack any religious or visionary dimension). Pre-war Japanese literature was not lacking in sensual lyricism and erotic psychology, but the nikutai writers viewed earlier styles of writing as stilted. They created the impression that “up to this point sex had always been treated as transgression, as a cause for embarrassment and consternation, as something related to the pleasure quarters, aestheticized, or as part of a Naturalistic attempt at a particular type of realism. Even Tanizaki, who made sex and sensuality central to his work, aestheticized it, taking it out of the realm of the physical” (p. 126). That is a rather summary contrast, which readers of Tanizaki’s Naomi, Manji, orThe Gourmet Club: A Sextet will be inclined to question. Indeed, to judge from Slaymaker’s account, the sensuality of the nikutai writers is of a rather primitive order; where Tanizaki’s women are diabolically clever, these writers idealize submissive women who offer purely fleshly comfort.
The age of the nikutai writers was an age of prostitution, not in elegant pleasure quarters but in the form of needy pan-pan girls throwing themselves at GIs. Slaymaker fills out this social background and in light of it gives quite a grim ethical and political analysis of the writers, finding an undercurrent of sexual exploitation that he exposes in tones recalling Kate Millett’s strictures on Lawrence: “The experience of empire is never far for these writers: the body of a woman, actual or metaphorical becomes terrain to be explored and subjugated… The men hope, through sex, to learn more of themselves, to change the world, and, usually, to enter some Edenic primitive space” (p. 5). This is far from the ludic tone of much commentary on Japanese literature, and arouses the fear that the tender body of the literary work will be bruised by the rigors of morality. Though unfamiliar with the nikutai writers, I imagine that Tanizaki, Kawabata and Mishima, or even The Tale of Genji, could invite equally severe treatment.
Slaymaker deconstructs the nikutai writers’ ideology of liberation, finding a contradiction in their pursuit of “release from the pressures of the body by means of that body itself” (p. 73). He finds an undercurrent of desperation in their paeans to the flesh. As “the only alternative available in face of the disastrous idealization, the cerebral intellectualization, of wartime ideologies and their legacies” (p. 76), the body is freighted with anxiety. In Noma’s early work, despite his Marxist background, “the self is the only reality and it looks for salvation outside, in the Other, in a search that only highlights its radical solitude” (p. 78). Women as real individuals scarcely count in this quest. Feeling that traditional Japanese writing was unable to bear the weight of the war experience, he developed a viscous style, plunging his readers into the element of the flesh; some found the effect on them to be a healing one. Later, Noma aimed at an integrated presentation of human life in its poetic, sexual and social dimensions, and deplored his earlier emphasis on nikutai.
At once fascinated and repelled by the flesh, the enclosing horizon of their vision, Noma’s characters tend to see political ideologies as a threat, but as with Sakaguchi and Tamura, the characters undermine the author’s statements “for they become equally embroiled in a ‘liberating’ ideology that produces ideological strictures similar to those they decry” (p. 100). Sakaguchi’s influential Darakuron (“On Decadence”) presented daraku as “a return (by means of a falling) to the basics of existence” (p. 104). A visceral naturalism, sometimes sounding like “primal scream therapy,” is the base of his vision, and it culminates in a metaphysical insight: “there is no morality; this fact itself becomes the moral” (quoted, p. 111). Tamura’s rather sensational fiction plunged deep into the world of Korean wartime “comfort women,” carrying to a melodramatic pitch the contradiction between sexual activity seen as “a ritual cleansing, the source for salvation, expiation, and renewal” (p. 64) for the men and a tragic bondage for the women, though he “adds a twist by suggesting that the same freedom through carnality might be pursued by a woman” (p. 65). Like Noma, Tamura corrected himself later, for instance in a 1964 story, “The Locusts,” which stresses “the brutality inherent in the lives of the forced prostitutes” (p. 65). Now “sex work brings degradation and death. Ideologies are distant” (p. 70).
Slaymaker’s immanent critique of the nikutai ideologies is confirmed and enriched when he turns to the neglected testimony of the women writers of the time, who did not share the libertarian nikutai vision, for they knew that the old structures of male dominance had not changed. The world of prostitution romanticized by the male writers is described with searing realism by the women. At this time, advertisements sought “new women” to reconstruct national institutions. “In reality, these ‘new women’ were recruited to serve in ancient roles as hostesses and prostitutes with the occupying GIs, and to serve as a human ‘floodwall,’ a defense, that is, built with their bodies to contain the flood of masculine desire anticipated with the advancing occupation GIs” (p. 136). A story by the Catholic writer Sono Ayako about a Japanese woman seeking security through marriage with a black GI reveals “the difficulties in navigating survival and deciphering the maze of systems” (p. 143) but offers no prospect of liberation. The Proletarian writer Nakamoto Takako presents a pan-pan girl who finds herself “despised simultaneously as Japanese, prostitute, and burakumin. She cannot reject one society to construct a utopian one, for none exist. No liberation will be found” (p. 148). Saegusa Kazuko provided the most searching account of this postwar world in a trilogy of novels from the 1980s; her characters protest against Government-sponsored sexual abuse both during the war and under the Occupation.
At a time when Asian politics is haunted by the witness of the wartime “comfort women,” Slaymaker’s uncomforting book advocates a discerning response to the murkier undercurrents of Japanese fiction. His book should open up a path to many rich ethical and literary insights into Japanese culture then and now.
Monumenta Nipponica 60 (2007):281-3.