Kobayashi Takiji

Kobayashi Takiji is one of the most well-known writers of proletariat literature in Japan. He was born in Akita in 1903 into a farming family. While at school, he became interested in literature, and because of the economic hardship that surrounded him, joined the labour movement.

Kobayashi is most famous for his story “Kani Kosen”, which has been translated into English as The Cannery Boat, The Factory Ship and The Crab Cannery Ship. It tells the story of the harsh conditions endured by the men on the ship, and how they stood up to their cruel manager. He wrote it in 1929, but it really took off as a best seller in 2008, around the time of the financial crisis, when people were examining their working lives and conditions.

Kobayashi’s writings, along with his support of the banned Japanese Communist Party marked him out as a potential threat, and he was put under surveillance by the special police. He was arrested and imprisoned numerous times, before officially joining the Communist Party and going underground. The latest translation of The Crab Cannery Ship includes a story called The Life of a Party Member, which offers an insight into the lives of activists.

A special police spy infiltrated the party, and he was arrested. He died of torture at the hands of the special police on this day, 20th February, in 1933. He was 29 years old.

Nakamura Tempu – Heaven’s wind

My favourite Japanese non-fiction writer is Nakamura Tempu. The name “Tempu” can be translated as “heaven’s wind”.

Nakamura Tempu was born in 1876, and died in 1968. He is known as the founder of Japanese yoga, and as a public speaker on self-help. He began his career as a military spy in China in the Russo-Japanese War. Out of 113 spies, he was one of only 9 who made it back to Japan alive. Soon after, he developed TB, and was given months to live.In an effort to save his own life, he travelled the world in search of a cure. He enrolled in Columbia University and studied for a medical degree, and travelled to Europe. Getting no closer to a cure, he decided to return to Japan to die in his homeland.

On his way back, he met an Indian yoga master in Egypt. This yoga master took Tempu back to India with him, and for two and a half years taught him yoga and meditation. The way of life Tempu experienced more or less cured him of TB, and he lived to the age of 92. Back in Japan, he established his own association based on teachings he had learnt. His philosophy was “Shinshin Toitsu Do”, or “mind and body unification”. The organization he established is still going strong today. Over the years, Tempu’s teachings have influenced a range of people, from famous business owners, and politicians, to sports stars.

I have read most of Tempu’s books in Japanese. One of my favourite quotes from him is “okoranai, osorenai, kanashimanai” – “don’t get angry, don’t be scared, don’t be sad”. Whatever happens in life, he says we are to remember these three phrases. When times are tough, I recall these words and they have a calming effect.

Tempu believed humans are supported by six kinds of power, or energy. These are physical power, courage, the ability to judge, the ability to make decisions, vitality, and capability. Combined, these make up the life force.

If you can read Japanese, I recommend his most popular work Unmei wo hiraku (運命を拓く). As far as I know, his books have not been translated into English, but there are books about his philosophy and life. These are The Teachings of Tempu: Practical Meditation for Daily Life by H.E. Davey, and Heaven’s Wind: The Life and Teachings of Nakamura Tempu-A Mind-Body Integration Pioneer by Stephen Earle. They are well worth a read if you are looking to improve your life, or discover a new way to live!

The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa

Is it possible for a book to be too beautiful, too haunting, too spellbinding, to read? I hadn’t thought about that until I picked up The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith).

I started reading it four years ago, and I still haven’t reached the end. Not because it is extremely long, laborious or boring, but because it is just so beautiful and intense.

Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935) was a Portuguese writer, poet and translator. He was prolific, so prolific in fact, that he attributed his writings to heteronyms, not just pseudonyms, but “people” with histories, life stories, and their own authentic voices. He “invented” around 75 such people. Each one had their own writing style. When you read some of “their” poetry, it really is hard to believe the poems were actually written by the same person, i.e. Pessoa.

The Book of Disquiet comprises writings, passages and snippets which were left behind in a trunk when Pessoa died. I read it with a pencil in hand, to underline phrases and passages that resonate with me, or are just so beautiful to let pass by. As such, my copy is covered with pencil markings, as I mark practically everything.

I just opened the book at passage number 92. I’ve marked it. This is how it starts:

“I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. My worst sorrows have evaporated when I’ve opened the window on to the street of my dreams and forgotten myself in what I saw there.

I’ve never aspired to be more than a dreamer. I paid no attention to those who spoke to me of living. I’ve always belonged to what isn’t where I am and to what I could never be. Whatever isn’t mine, no matter how base, has always had poetry for me. The only thing I’ve loved is nothing at all. The only thing I’ve desired is what I couldn’t even imagine. All I asked of life is that it go on by without my feeling it. All I demanded of love is that it never stop being a distant dream.

In my own inner landscapes, all of them unreal, I’ve always been attracted to what’s in the distance, and the haze aqueducts – almost out of sight in my dreamed landscapes – had a dreamy sweetness in relation to the rest of the landscape, a sweetness that enabled me to love them.”

It is a book to settle down with, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, and savour.

The novels of Matsumoto Seicho

A few books from my Matumoto Seicho collection

Whenever a learner of Japanese, who has reached a certain level of proficiency, asks me to recommend an author or work, I always recommend the works of Matsumoto Seicho. When I tell Japanese people that I am a fan of his books, they always say “kurai!”, which means “dark”.

“Dark” is a good way to describe Matsumoto Seicho’s writings. They deal with the darker side of postwar Japan. Matsumoto was a prolific writer, known mainly for his detective and mystery stories. His books are page turners. There is nothing I like more than curling up with hot drink and a good Matsumoto Seicho mystery. He never fails to surprise me with his plot twists!

Apart from the fact that Matsumoto’s books are engrossing, they are also quite easy to read. A lot of them were serialised, so he recaps a lot throughout the story. You always know where you are, and what’s happened. This can get a bit repetitive at times, but it doesn’t detract from the story, and is a big help for learners of Japanese.

The first novel I read by Matsumoto Seicho was Suna no Utsuwa. It has been translated into English with the title Inspector Imanishi Investigates. People recommended this book to me when I was learning Japanese because some of the action takes place in the prefecture where I live.

If you enjoy “dark” postwar social realism, which shines a light on the murkier side of society, you’ll love Matsumoto Seicho.

Start with his most famous work 点と線 (Ten to Sen), then move on to ゼロの焦点 (Zero no Shoten), 時間の習俗 (Jikan no Shuzoku), 砂の器 (Suna no Utsuwa), and 砂漠の塩 (Sabaku no Shio), or any other of his many works. (And there are many – he published more than 450 works, including novels, short story and non-fiction.)

Matsumoto Seicho was born in Kyushu in 1909, and was more or less self-educated. He died in 1992. Despite the years that have passed since his death, I have never met a Japanese person who hasn’t heard of him. Quite a few of his works have been turned into films or TV dramas, which has raised his popularity.

If you are around the N2 level on the JLPT, you should be able to manage his novels. I started reading him when I had passed 2nd grade on the old JLPT. He sometimes uses obscure kanji, but you can just gloss over those and try to follow the story. I find extensive reading (not using a dictionary and aiming for overall understanding) to be a great way to build fluency. If you are looking to get into Japanese literature, why not give Matsumoto Seicho a try?