“All the literary masters had depression”

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I haven’t been keeping up with my writing (or blogging), but I have been reading. I recently finished a Japanese book called 「 文豪はみんな、うつ」, which translates as “all the literary masters had depression”. It was written by a psychiatrist called Iwanami Akira. The book introduces ten famous Japanese literary figures from the Meiji to Showa periods, and details their struggles with mental illness.

It is rare to find literary criticism written by a psychiatrist. Mental illness is often “glorified” (if that is the right word) in writers and artists. This book doesn’t glorify anything. It shows the struggles the writers faced, and how they wrote “in spite of” and not “because of” their illnesses, while also showing how elements of their illnesses influenced their writings.

The writers featured are Natsume Soseki, Arishima Takeo, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Shimada Seijiro, Miyazawa Kenji, Nakahara Chuya, Shimazaki Toson, Dazai Osamu, Tanizaki Junichiro and Kawabata Yasunari.

Seven of the writers had a serious mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, and four committed suicide. Many suffered from delusions and hallucinations. Some had troubled personal lives. I’m interested in mental illness and its effects on daily life and creativity for personal reasons. The main character in my first novel In the Shadows of Mountains suffers from mental illness. In her case, it was brought on by her upbringing and life circumstances.

The book only details the lives of ten writers, but as we know, there were many more who struggled (and struggle) with mental illness. If you can read Japanese, the book is well worth a read, if not, you can read about them here on this blog. I’m going to write posts about the writers in the book and others from the perspective of mental health. Hopefully, I can keep up posting regularly (she says, noting it has been about two months since her last post….)

Mid-spring and no writing

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The plum blossoms bloomed under a cold blue sky, the cherry blossoms appeared for a few days before scattering like snow, and the peach blossoms are now showing their deep pink souls. Spring is passing. April is always a busy time of year in Japan as it’s the beginning of the academic and fiscal year. I’ve been busy with work, and study. I’m aiming to be a polyglot and have set myself the goal of 10 languages in 10 years. I already speak two of them – English and Japanese, so really I only have 8 to learn. I’ve been prioritizing language learning over writing because I am taking exams in French and Chinese in the next few months.

Well, that’s my excuse anyway. Another reason I’m not writing is that I don’t have long stretches of uninterrupted time during which I can focus and concentrate deeply. I can’t write for ten minutes here and there like some people can. I envy them. I wish I could enter the world of my work-in-progress with ease. Actually, I’m still at the planning stage, so I need to take my time and concentrate. Maybe now is not the right time. The right time will come. I hope it’s soon (and after my exams…)

New beginnings

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The fiscal year and the academic year begin in April in Japan, just as the cherry blossoms are fading and the leaves are appearing on the trees. It’s a busy time for everyone, but particularly for those of us involved in education. It leaves little time for writing.

When I came to Japan, starting the new academic year in April felt strange to me. Being from the UK, I always associated September with new beginnings – new shoes, new uniform, new textbooks, new pencil case, walking to school a year older as the leaves turn brown and start to fall.

Even though I’ve been in Japan for 21 years, I still feel like there is a kind of renewal when September comes around. The autumn breeze carries the scent of new beginnings, and I feel invigorated. I don’t feel that in April. I just feel sleepy and stressed at this time of the year! Fortunately, we have Golden Week (a week of consecutive holidays) coming up at the end of April and the beginning of May. I hope to get some writing in then, in between going to the gym (which I haven’t been to for 3 days!) and having a good rest.

Second home

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I joined a new gym the other week. In the past, I sometimes used the municipal gym, but it’s quite small, and doesn’t have many machines. It also doesn’t require a membership fee – you just pay 300 yen when you go. It’s fine for short workouts during lunch or in the afternoon, but it isn’t a place you can stay at for hours.

I want to spend a few hours at a time in the gym, so, I took out a membership at one that opened up about a year ago. I’m satisfied with it so far. I do an hour of cardio, an hour of weights and about 15 minutes stretching. I also join a Zumba class when it’s on.

I work from home, so I tend to spend a lot of time in my house alone. Going to the gym gets me out and around other people (there is a no talking policy because of covid, so no one at the gym talks), and exercising makes me feel good. It has become like my second home. I’ve been going 5 times a week. It was a rainy Sunday today. Normally, I’d spend the afternoon in the house alone reading, and feeling, well, a bit depressed. I spent the afternoon in the gym, and I feel great. I’m going to get busier in the next few weeks, so I’ll only be able to go 3 or 4 times a week, but I can see it becoming a habit, and slightly addictive.

I also need to work on my second novel, and I am aware that going to the gym take time away from that pursuit, but it makes me feel good both mentally and physically, which in turn puts me in the mood to write. Now I just have to schedule the writing in….


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I feel like fleeing. Like fleeing from what I know, fleeing from what’s mine, fleeing from what I love. I want to depart, not for impossible Indias or for the great islands south of everything, but for any place at all – village or wilderness – that isn’t this place. I want to stop seeing these unchanging faces, this routine, these days. I want to rest, far removed, from my inveterate feigning.

From The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith)

Have patience…

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Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them.

Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

Cherry blossom viewing

I went for a walk around the local castle park this morning. Usually, the park is full of people having picnics under the trees. Not this year. Gatherings are banned due to Covid. There were quite a few people walking around taking pictures. I don’t often have time for cherry blossom viewing – I normally just see them in the park when I go for a run, but I made time this year. Here are some photos I took.

Alternating languages

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My native language is English, but my language of habitual use is Japanese. It has been for the past 20 years. I am a translator, so I spend most of my days reading Japanese documents. I’m so used to it that I read Japanese at the same speed I read English.

At the beginning of the year, I thought about spending the year reading only Japanese novels. The idea is appealing. I love reading in Japanese, and some of my favourite writers are Japanese. However, I decided against it, and chose to alternate my reading – one book Japanese, one book English, etc.

I’m doing this because reading in English is a kind of study for me. I translate from Japanese to English, so my English must be as good as it can be. Arguably, a translator’s skills in the target language are more important than those in the source language. Words and phrases can be looked up. Good writing skills can’t.

Another reason I chose not to read only Japanese works is because I write novels and stories in English. Seeing how other writers express ideas and concepts, and structure stories in English, is an important part of the learning process. This learning process never ends. I gain something linguistically from every novel I read, be it pacing, turns of phrase, or the weaving of ideas.

So, I am reading in both languages this year. I soon hope to make it three or four languages though. I’m learning French and Chinese. I read a lot of French literature which has been translated into English, but I would love to read Camus and Sartre (to name a few authors) in the original. A whole new literary and linguistic world will open up!

I’m reading a Japanese book at the moment. It’s a collection of short stories by my favourite Japanese author Matsumoto Seicho. I don’t often read short stories (although I write them for learners of English), but I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far. I might even add some short story collections in English to my “to read” list.

The lake

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The golden tint that still glows on waters abandoned by the setting sun is hovering on the surface of my weariness. I see myself as I see the lake I’ve imagined, and what I see in that lake is myself. I don’t know how to explain this image, or this symbol, or this that I envision. But I know I see, as if in reality I were seeing, a sun behind the hills that casts its doomed rays on to this lake that dark-goldenly simmers.

One of the perils of thinking is to see while thinking. Those who think with their reason are distracted. Those who think with their emotion are sleeping. Those who think with their desire are dead. I, however, think with my imagination, and all reason, sorrow and impulse in me are reduced to something remote and irrelevant, like this lifeless lake among rocks where the last light of the sun unlastingly hovers.

From The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith)

Back to Philosophy

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The novel I’m currently planning takes place in a Philosophy department in a university. Although it’s going to be light on actual philosophical thought (because I don’t want to alienate the average reader), I still need to know what I’m writing about. So, I dug out some of my old philosophy books. I did a Master’s degree in Philosophy about ten years ago. I got rid of a lot of books, but luckily, I kept around 50 of them. I must have known they’d come in useful one day!

It’s good to get back into the books. It reminds me of a stressful, yet eye-opening and fulfilling time of my life. During the two years of study, I learnt so much about myself, my thought processes and the culture into which I was born. I’ve been doing karate since I was nine, and l’ve been living in Japan for 21 years, so I’ve kind of been immersed in Eastern thought and ways of living. It was good to study Western thought, and discover thinkers and philosophy which I had overlooked in my attempt to understand the East.

I’m doing the reading in my writing time. The books are definitely not light reading, which I do for an hour to relax before I sleep. I need to be alert, otherwise my mind drifts. I feel that I can’t begin the actual writing until I have the philosophy sorted out. So, on I read…..starting with Sartre’s The Imaginary. It’s like being back at school, and I love it!