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Crackling Mountain

and Other Stories

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948), the pen name of Shuji Tsushima, was born, the tenth of eleven children, into a family of wealthy landowners in northern Japan. He began writing short stories while studying French at Tokyo Imperial University and soon became well known among the younger generation for his excessive bohemian lifestyle. After World War II, he gained wide recognition in the West for his pessimistic novels, notably The Setting Sun (1947) and No Longer Human (1948). Despite his troubled life and rebellious spirit—he made several suicide attempts and eventually ended his life with a married lover—Dazai wrote about a wide range of personal experiences in a simple and colloquial style.

James A. O’Brien is Professor of Japanese in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He received his Ph.D in Japanese from Indiana University. He is the author of many works on Japanese literature, including Dazai Osamu (1975) and the edited volume Akutagawa and Dazai: Instances of Literary Adaptation (1988).

Osamu Dazai

Crackling Mountain

and Other Stories

Translated by James O’Brien


Tokyo • Rutland, Vermont • Singapore

Published by Tuttle Publishing, an imprint of Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd., with editorial offices at 364 Innovation Drive, North Clarendon, Vermont 05759 USA and 61 Tai Seng Avenue, #02-12, Singapore 534167 by special arrangement with Peter Owen Limited, London

Copyright © 1989 by Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.

All rights reserved.

First Tuttle edition, 1989

LCC Card No. 89-50024

ISBN-13: 978-0-8048-3342-4

ISBN: 978-1-4629-1681-8 (ebook)

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Monkey Island

Heed My Plea

Melos, Run!

On the Question of Apparel

A Poor Man’s Got His Pride

The Monkey’s Mound

The Sound of Hammering

Taking the Wen Away

Crackling Mountain



Before mentioning my debt to those who helped with the earlier translations, I must thank Wayne Lammers for his advice on several pressing questions. Those who did provide me with thoughtful comments and suggestions on the Cornell East Asia Papers edition of the translations include Marian Ury, J. Thomas Rimer, Royall Tyler, and Brett deBary. John Timothy Wixted and Wesley Palmer also contributed significantly to improving the three tales not included in the Cornell edition. I thank both the editors of the Cornell and Arizona State series for their interest in seeing that these translations reach the wide audience which Dazai’s stories and sketches deserve.

The Japan Foundation has been instrumental in this process of translation and revision by awarding me a grant to work on the initial drafts and by providing a subsidy to assist the present publication. The Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin too has facilitated the work by supporting me for four months of research leave. Donald Keene and Howard Hibbett have also lent their much appreciated support. I must also thank Donald Richie for his enthusiastic review of my earlier translations, and for endorsing, along with Professors Keene and Hibbett, the publication of the translations in this new format.

The revising of these translations over the past year has been greatly aided by two editors from Tuttle. Ken Mori Wong encouraged me to rework my earlier translations of Dazai and made a number of pertinent criticisms and suggestions along the way, while Stephen Comee supervised the editorial process, especially in its latter stages.



Osamu Dazai had tried to take his own life on a number of occasions, two of these attempts assuming the form of jōshi, the traditional Japanese suicide pact entered into by a pair of lovers. But when he disappeared with his mistress on a rainy night in mid-June of 1948, the signs that he was thoroughly prepared to die were unmistakable. Dazai and his companion, Tomie Yamazaki, left behind a series of farewell notes to friends and kin, the author conscientiously composing a last will and testament for his wife, Michiko. Photographs of Dazai and Tomie stood next to one another in Tomie’s lodging in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka, along with the traditional water offering to the deceased. Also nearby was a small pile of ashes, all that remained of the incense that the lovers had lit before departing.

After the police began an intensive search for the couple’s whereabouts, they eventually found a suspicious-looking place along the Tamagawa Canal, midway between Dazai’s own home and Tomie’s residence. A strip of wet grass lay flattened from the top to the bottom of the bank, as if something heavy had slid down into the water. The ground nearby was strewn with several objects—a small bottle or two, a glass plate, a pair of scissors, and a compact. A little ways downstream, two pairs of wooden clogs were found against the lock of a dam. Despite these ominous signs, an intensive search along the canal failed to turn up anything more. It was almost a week later—on July 19, the author’s thirty-ninth birthday—that a passer-by happened to notice two waterlogged corpses in the canal tied together with a red cord. This discovery occurred less than a mile from where the couple had evidently entered the water.

During this period of uncertainty, a few of Dazai’s friends reportedly entertained hopes that he was merely in hiding. After all, they could remember those earlier occasions, including the two attempts at jōshi, when Dazai had gone away to commit double suicide only to return safe and sound. Perhaps, they reasoned, he would hesitate, or miscalculate, before again taking the fatal step—not merely to survive but, as usually happened, to write about his experience. In any event, given this history of abortive attempts upon his own life, it is only natural that certain friends might have held out hope even as they felt the deepest misgivings.

This life of desperation and tragedy seems wholly out of keeping with the favorable circumstances of Dazai’s birth. His family had risen to a position of wealth and authority in the northern prefecture of Aomori through land acquisition and moneylending during the three generations preceding his own. By the time Dazai was born in 1909, his father owned the bank in the family village of Kanagi. Eventually Dazai’s father would move into national politics, occupying a seat in each of the houses of the Japanese Diet at different times in his career.

Quite early in his life, however, Dazai began to see himself as a child of misfortune. The tenth of eleven children, he was more or less ignored by his frail mother. And the aunt and the nursemaid who did attend to him both went away while Dazai was still a child.

As the most intelligent of the family sons, Dazai did occupy the center of attention during most of his years of schooling. In the end, though, his intelligence proved to be detrimental, at least by his own estimation. Pressured to excel at school in order to uphold the family honor, Dazai came to hate his studies. After compiling an exemplary record in the local elementary school, he lapsed into mediocrity in the upper grades, and, shortly after enrolling at Tokyo University, he gave up altogether on his formal education. As schoolwork gradually became secondary, Dazai interested himself in the activities of radical students and worked at becoming a writer. His family became understandably upset by this turn of events, for its status and wealth were rooted in traditional social arrangements. One can readily imagine the family’s indignation when Dazai published a tale evoking the cruelty and indifference of a landlord toward his tenant farmers, the landlord being a thinly disguised version of the author’s father, already deceased at the time.

Even after Dazai left his home region in 1930 to enter university, he continued to plague his family. He insisted on marrying a low-class geisha, and he accepted a substantial monthly allowance from his family on the pretext that he was still attending the university and working toward his degree, a deception bound to have severe repercussions once it was discovered. Subsequently, Dazai was formally disowned by his oldest brother, who had succeeded his father as the head of the household. The emotional shock of this action was compounded a few years later when the allowance he had continued to receive was terminated, leaving him in desperate financial straits. Dazai had a taste for personal extravagance, and he was generous too in subsidizing his radical friends, many of whom lived in poverty. His early years in Tokyo were wild ones, with lots of drinking and, for a time, even drug addiction to contend with. Such a life could only exacerbate the propensity for tuberculosis that Dazai shared with certain other family members.

Having fallen on hard times, Dazai resolved to change his ways. Separated from his first wife, he made overtures toward a reconciliation with his family back in the Tsugaru region of Aomori. Eventually a second marriage was arranged for him through the good offices of the novelist Masuji Ibuse,1 one that the family privately sanctioned. Following the wedding in January 1939, Dazai settled down to a stable life with his bride, Michiko Ishihara. Several months after the marriage, he took Michiko back to Tokyo from her home in Kōfu. A daughter was born in 1941, the first of three children.

During the years of World War II, Dazai gradually established his reputation as a leading writer of the time. He thereby achieved a degree of financial independence, and, just as important, he could now hope that the family might overlook his academic failure and even his youthful radicalism. Dazai openly cultivated the good will of his family, returning to his Tsugaru birthplace several times during the war. When his house in Tokyo was severely damaged in a bombing raid, he went back home with his wife and children, and there he remained until November of 1946.

Returning to Tokyo, he soon became lionized as the writer who best expressed the desperation of a society in chaos. Exhausted by illness and besieged by everyone from opportunistic editors to maternalistic women, Dazai was simply unable to cope. It was almost inevitable that he would revert to his earlier life of dissipation. At the time of his death he was writing a comic novel about a bon vivant who tries to rid himself of a whole stable of mistresses. Critics of Dazai occasionally suggest that the author was expressing his own wish to rid himself of Tomie Yamazaki, whose insistent efforts to lure him into that final suicide pact are well documented.


The works translated in this book have, for the most part, been deliberately chosen as representative of writing by Dazai that is little known outside of Japan. Since his most significant postwar works, The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, are widely read in Donald Keene’s translations, only one additional work has been selected from this period. This is “The Sound of Hammering,” whose young protagonist exemplifies the mood of hopelessness evoked in the two novels.

“The Sound of Hammering” consists almost entirely of a letter written to an unnamed author. In fact, Dazai himself received a letter that provided him with the basic structure for his story. Strictly speaking, then, the story cannot be called autobiographical. And yet, the desperate and somewhat confidential tone of the letter in “The Sound of Hammering” is quite similar to the manner of certain works by Dazai that qualify in some measure as autobiographical. One can hardly doubt that the actual letter struck a deeply sympathetic chord in Dazai.

Two works in this volume, “Memories” and “On the Question of Apparel,” would certainly be regarded by most Japanese critics as primarily autobiographical. “Memories” recounts the childhood and adolescence of a figure whose circumstances closely resemble those of the young Dazai, while “On the Question of Apparel” describes with deadpan humor a number of mishaps that occur to an author with Dazai’s drinking habits. While the degree of personal revelation present in any Dazai work is difficult to gauge with precision, both of these compositions ask the reader to accept the narrator’s word that the events actually happened to him. Like “The Sound of Hammering,” “Memories” and “On the Question of Apparel” together suggest the range of Osamu Dazai when he writes in a mode of personal revelation.

The remaining eight stories in this book show Dazai as an inventive storyteller, rather than as a craftsman of reminiscence. With the exception of “Undine” and “Monkey Island,” these works were all composed between the time of Dazai’s marriage to Michiko in 1939 and the end of the war in 1945. As mentioned earlier, these years were relatively quiet ones for Dazai, a period when he worked to consolidate his writing skills, learning above all to diversify the autobiographical impulse by integrating his personal obsessions with fairly orthodox methods of storytelling. Dazai’s own personal involvement in the tales will sometimes be obscure to the reader unfamiliar with his writings. It might be remarked here that, in order to provide some guidance on this and other matters, each of the tales in this volume has a prefatory note.

Though impelled to embody his personal concerns in these tales as well, Dazai was not bound by certain natural limitations of his semi-autobiographical mode. In these more fictional tales, he could evoke realms of fantasy, juxtaposing them in some instances with the real world. In addition, he was able to give his characters greater scope for individual initiative than he was willing to permit the autobiographical figures. Characters in these less realistic tales are often beset with difficulties, but they sometimes attempt to surmount them. Doubts and uncertainties in the latter group of stories come more from the author breaking into his narrative to voice an opinion than from the characters acting out the story. As the prefatory notes will make clear, a number of these non-realistic tales are based on such diverse sources as the New Testament and the medieval Otogi Zōshi tales. Perhaps Dazai used these sources as offering scope for action which his own experience would not validate.

Dazai frequently ends a tale on an inconclusive note—most obviously when he has a narrator confess to bewilderment concerning the significance of the very tale he has just told. Although this might be regarded as a technical feature—the author’s way of prompting the reader to dwell on the work—it seems more likely that Dazai was giving vent to his own sense of things. How fitting for an author who flirted so with suicide to hesitate in writing “Finis” to end a story as well.


It remains only to remark that the translations that follow try to convey, in some measure, the highly idiosyncratic flavor of Osamu Dazai. In pursuing this goal, I have generally followed the author’s practice of frequently omitting quotation marks for what appear to be direct quotations. Though violating standard English practice, such a procedure helps, in my judgment, to preserve something of the author’s idiosyncratic quality.



Beginning in 1912 with the death of Emperor Meiji, this account is closely tied to the circumstances of the author’s own life. Just three years old at the time of his earliest memory, the narrator goes on to relate episodes from his childhood and adolescence in a fashion both piecemeal and informative. The memories come to his mind with apparent spontaneity, evoked by free association and unrelated to any design other than that of a loose chronology. By the time “Memories” is over, a decade and a half has elapsed and the narrator is about to enter college.

In his abrupt style of recollection, even those people intimately involved in the narrator’s early life come and go with alacrity. An aunt occupies the center of attention for several paragraphs, only to be succeeded by a nursemaid. A few characters from the earlier sections of the narrative are recalled later, but most of them never return. Those that remain in the reader’s mind do so by virtue of a striking detail or vivid turn of phrase from their moment in the narrative. Dazai typically subordinates his cast of secondary characters to his autobiographical self; in “Memories” the lesser characters serve mainly as agents of the narrator’s upbringing.

In the final stage of this account, references to a curious affair of the heart coalesce into an ongoing episode. Smitten in mid-adolescence, the hero is bedeviled by two problems. His love, a mere maid in the household, would hardly make a welcome match in the eyes of his prestigious family. And, to complicate matters, his younger brother also seems taken with the same girl.

Readers might wonder why the author, after recounting so many fragmentary recollections, ends his narration with this more sustained episode. In the story, the affair emerges quite naturally; and, in retrospect, it seems to confirm the portrait of the narrator suggested by earlier events. From almost the very beginning, many of the narrator’s important gestures occur only in his imagination. The affair in question is no exception, and thus one might argue that it ends in self-delusion rather than in thwarted love.

The final scene of “Memories” shows Dazai using a photograph for symbolic effect, a tactic more widely employed in his novel No Longer Human. By this stage of the game the loss of the maid Miyo should have taught the narrator a lesson about himself. In the company of his brother and putative rival, however, he seems still imprisoned by the inward nature of his outlook. Dazai concludes on a characteristic note of uncertainty: Will his narrator, that figure who represents in some measure his own youthful self, break free of his confining introspection? Or will he, as the graveyard scene and fortune-telling episode early in the narrative portend, stay trapped in his habit of self-dramatization and in his belief that he is a victim of fate?


I was standing by our front gate as twilight fell. My aunt was there too in a quilted wrap, the kind a nursemaid Often wears when carrying an infant strapped on her back. The road before our house had grown dim and everything was hushed. I have never forgotten that moment.

She was speaking of the emperor, and I can still remember bits and snatches of what she said—His Majesty . . . gone into seclusion . . . a true living god. Filled with wonder, I repeated certain words— A . . . true . . . god . . .

Then I must have said the wrong thing. No, my aunt scolded, you should say, Gone into seclusion. I knew exactly where the emperor had gone, but I asked about it anyway. I still remember how she laughed at that.

Emperor Meiji had been on the throne forty-two years when I was born. When he passed away, I was only three years old.

I guess it was about then that my aunt took me to visit some relatives. Their village was about five miles away, near a broad waterfall in the mountains. I remember how white the water looked against the green moss as it cascaded down the cliff. I didn’t know the man who held me on his shoulders to watch. When he showed me the votive pictures in the shrine below the falls, I became very lonely. Eventually I broke into tears and called out, “Auntie! Auntie!”

In a hollow some distance off, my relatives and my aunt had spread rugs on the ground. They were making lots of noise when I cried out, but my aunt heard and jumped up immediately. She must have slipped just then, however, for she stumbled as though making a bow. The others couldn’t resist teasing her. “Look!” they cried, “she’s already drunk.” As I watched these things occurring far down in the hollow, I felt so ashamed that I finally began screaming at the top of my lungs.

While still a child, I dreamed one evening that my aunt was going away and leaving me behind. I saw her standing in our front entranceway, totally occupying it with her bulk. Her breasts seemed large and red, and perspiration trickled down her skin. I can’t stand you, she hissed, prompting me to run over and press my cheek to her breasts. No, I begged, please don’t leave. Sobbing, I pleaded with her again and again. When my aunt shook me awake, I hugged her right there in bed and kept on crying. Even after I was fully aware, I wept quietly for a long time. Afterward I didn’t tell anyone of my dream, not even my aunt. I remember plenty of things about my aunt from those early days. But I don’t remember anyone else, even though there were surely many people in the house besides my father and mother. That’s because our family included my great-grandmother and grandmother, my three older brothers and four older sisters, and my younger brother too. Then there was my aunt and her four daughters. Except for my aunt, however, I was hardly aware of anyone. Not, at least, until I was four or five years old.

We must have had five or six tall apple trees in our big garden out back. I remember a cloudy day when some girls were climbing about in those trees. The garden had a chrysanthemum patch as well, and I vaguely recall a crowd of girls gazing at the flowers in full bloom. They were standing in the rain with umbrellas. I suppose they were sisters and cousins of mine.

From the time I was five or six years old my memories become quite definite. Around that time a maid named Také taught me how to read. She really wanted me to learn, and we read all kinds of books together. Since I was a sickly child, I often read in bed. When we ran out of books, Také would bring back an armful from places like the village Sunday school and have me read them. I learned to read silently too. That’s why I could finish one book after another without getting tired.

Také also taught me about right and wrong. Often we went to a temple where she would show me Buddhist hell paintings and explain the punishments they depicted. Sinners condemned to hell for arson carried flaming red baskets upon their backs, while those who had kept mistresses writhed in the grip of a green snake with two heads. The paintings depicted a lake of blood and a mountain of spikes, as well as a bottomless pit called “The Abyss” that gave off white smoke. Thin, pale wretches, wailing through barely opened mouths, were strewn over all these regions. Tell a lie, Také said, and you’d end up the same way—a sinner in hell with your tongue plucked out by devils. Hearing this, I screamed in terror.

The temple graveyard was on a small hill out back, with requiem posts1 clustered along the hedge-rose border. Besides the usual prayers in brush writing, each of the posts carried a dark, metal wheel. Fastened in a slot high on the post, each wheel seemed to me then about the size of the full moon. Spin the wheel once, Také explained, and if it clattered round and round and came to a stop without turning back, then you would go to heaven. But, she warned, if the wheel started back, you’d end up in hell.

Také would give a push and the wheel would spin smoothly until it slowed to a complete stop. When I tried, however, the wheel sometimes turned back. I think it was in the autumn that I went alone to the temple to test my luck. The wheels seemed to be in league with one another, for they all turned back regardless of which one I pushed. Though tired and angry, I kept myself under control and stubbornly pushed them time after time. As dusk fell, I finally gave up and left the graveyard in despair.

My parents must have been living in Tokyo about that time, and I was taken by my aunt for a visit. I’m told we were there a long while, but I don’t remember much about my stay. I do remember an old lady who came to the house every so often. I couldn’t stand her and cried each time she showed up. Once she brought along a toy postal truck painted red, but it merely bored me.

Then I started going to the village grade school, and that left me with different memories altogether. Suddenly Také was no longer around. I learned that she had gone off to marry someone from a fishing village. She left without telling me this, apparently out of fear that I might follow her. It must have been the next year that Také came to visit us during the Festival of the Dead.2 She seemed rather cold toward me, however, and when she asked how I was doing at school, I didn’t answer. I suppose someone else told her. She didn’t really compliment me. She just said, Don’t get too big for your britches.

At about the same time certain events led to my aunt’s departure as well. Having no son to carry on the family name, my aunt decided that her oldest daughter would marry a dentist who would be adopted to continue the family line. Her second daughter got married and left, while the third died while still young. Taking along her oldest daughter and the new husband, as well as her fourth daughter, my aunt established a separate branch of the family in a distant town. The move occurred in the winter, and I was to go along. As the time to leave drew near, I crouched in a corner of the sleigh next to my aunt. That’s when my next older brother came up and slapped my rump right where it pressed against the lower end of the hood. “Hey there, little bridegroom!” he sneered, thumping me time and again. Gritting my teeth, I put up with his insolence. Indeed I thought my aunt was adopting me as well as the dentist. But when school began once again, I was sent back to my village.

I ceased being a child soon after entering grade school. It was then that my younger brother’s nurse taught me something that took my breath away. It was a beautiful summer day, and the grass by the vacant house out back had grown tall and dense. I must have been about seven, and my brother’s nurse could not have been more than thirteen or fourteen. My brother was three years younger than I, and the nurse shooed him off. She said, “Go get some leaf-grass”—that’s our word for clover back home. Then she added, “And make sure it’s got four leaves too.” After he left, she put her arms around me, and we started rolling around in the tall grass.

Thereafter we would play our secret little game in the storehouse or in one of the closets. My younger brother was always in our way. He even started howling one day when we left him outside the closet, an event that put my next older brother on to us. Having found out from my little brother what the trouble was, my older brother opened the closet door. The nurse did not get upset; she merely said that we were looking for a lost coin.

I was always telling fibs too. On the Girls’ Festival3 day of my second or third year in grade school, I told the teacher that my family wanted me home early to help arrange the doll display. Having lied my way out of class, I went home during the first period and told everyone school was out for the Peach Festival. My assistance wasn’t needed, but I got the dolls from their boxes all the same.

I had lots of fun collecting bird eggs too. There were always plenty of sparrow eggs right under the tiles of our storehouse roof. But starlings and crows didn’t nest there, and I had to turn to my classmates for these eggs. (The crow eggs were green and seemed to glow, while the starling eggs were covered with strange speckles.) In return for the eggs, I would hand over a bunch of my books. Wrapped in cotton, the eggs in my collection eventually filled an entire drawer of my desk.

My next older brother must have suspected something. One evening he asked to borrow two books, a volume of Western fairy tales and a work whose title I’ve forgotten. My brother did this from spite, and I hated him for it. The books were gone, for I had traded them both for eggs. If I admitted this, my brother would have gone to reclaim them. So I told him the books were around somewhere and I would look for them. Lamp in hand, I searched my own room and then went all over the house. My broths laughed as he followed me about. He kept saying, They’re not here, are they? And I kept insisting, They are too. I even climbed up to the highest kitchen shelf for a look. Finally my brother told me to forget it.

The compositions I wrote for school were mostly hokum. I tried to portray myself as a model boy, for I believed people would applaud me for that. I even plagiarized. The essay entitled “My Younger Brother’s Silhouette” was a masterpiece according to my teacher, but I actually lifted it word for word from a selection of prize stories in a magazine for youngsters. The teacher had me make a clean copy with a brush and enter the work in a contest. When a bookish classmate found out what I had done, I prayed that he would die.

“Autumn Evening,” composed about the same time, was also praised by my teacher. I began this sketch by mentioning a headache I got from studying, and then went on to describe how I went out on the veranda and looked at the garden. I gazed entranced upon the quiet scene, the moon shining brightly, the goldfish and the carp swimming about in the pond. When a burst of laughter came from a nearby room where my mother and some other people were gathered, I snapped out of the reverie and my headache was suddenly gone—that’s how the sketch ended.

There wasn’t a word of truth to this. I took the description of the garden from my older sister’s composition notebook. Above all, I don’t remember studying enough to get a headache. I hated school and never read a textbook. I only read entertaining books. My family thought I was studying as long as I was reading something or other.

But when I put down the truth, things always went wrong. When I wrote that Father and Mother didn’t love me, the assistant disciplinarian called me into the teachers’ room for a scolding. Assigned the topic, “What If a War Breaks Out?” I wrote how frightening war could be—worse even than an earthquake, lightning, fire, or one’s own father.4 That’s why I said that I would flee to the hills, at the same time urging my teacher to join me. After all, my teacher was only human, and war would scare him just like it would me.

This time the assistant disciplinarian and the school principal both questioned me. When asked what prompted these words, I took a gamble and said I was only joking. The assistant disciplinarian made a note in his book—Full of mischief! Then a brief battle of wits ensued between the two of us. Did I believe, he asked, that all men were equal? After all, the assistant disciplinarian went on, I had written that my teacher was only human too. I hesitated before replying that, Yes, I thought so. Really, I was slow with my tongue.

If, the assistant disciplinarian continued, he himself was equal to the principal, why didn’t they get the same salary? I thought about that awhile and said, Isn’t it because your work is different?

His thin face set off by the wire frames of his spectacles, the assistant disciplinarian immediately recorded my answer in his book. And then this man whom I had long admired asked whether or not he and I were equal to my own father. That one I just couldn’t answer.

A busy man, my father was seldom at home. Even when he was, he usually didn’t bother about his children. I once wanted a fountain pen like his, but was too afraid to ask for one. After wrestling with the problem, I fell back on pretending to talk in my sleep. Lying in bed one evening, I kept murmuring, Fountain pen ... fountain pen ... Father was talking with a guest in the next room, and my words were meant for him. Needless to say, they never reached his ear, let alone his heart.

Once my younger brother and I were playing in the large family storehouse piled high with sacks of rice when Father planted himself in the doorway and shouted, Get out of here! Get out, you monkeys! With the sunlight at his back, father loomed there like a dark shadow. My stomach turns even yet when I recall how frightened I was.

I didn’t feel close to Mother, either. I was first raised by a nursemaid, then by my aunt. Until the second or third year of grade school, I didn’t really get to know my mother. Some years later, as she lay in her bedding next to mine, Mother noticed how my blanket was moving about. What was I up to? she asked suspiciously. Well, two of the manservants had taught me something, and Mother’s question put me on the spot. I managed to say that my hip was sore, however, and that I was rubbing it. You needn’t be so rough about it, Mother replied. Her voice sounded drowsy. I massaged my hip awhile, without saying anything.

My memories of Mother are mostly dismal ones. There was the time I got my older brother’s suit from the storehouse and put it on. Then, strolling among the flower beds in the garden out back, I hummed a mournful tune that I had made up and then shed a few tears besides. Suddenly I felt that, while wearing this particular outfit, I might try fooling around with the student who did our household accounts. So I sent a maid to call him. He didn’t come, though, even though I waited a long time. In my anxiety I ran the tip of my shoe along the bamboo fence. Finally my patience gave way and, with both fists thrust into my pockets, I let out a wail. When Mother found me, she got me out of that suit and, for some reason or other, gave me a good spanking. I felt utterly ashamed.

Even as a child I wanted to be well dressed. My shirts had to be made of white flannel, and I wouldn’t even wear one unless it had buttons on the cuffs. My undershirt collar must be white too, for I let it show an inch or two above my shirt collar. During the Full Moon Festival5 the students in the village all dressed up in their Sunday best for school. I always chose my flannel kimono with the wide brown stripes for this occasion. Arriving at school, I would glide along the corridor with tiny steps, just like a girl. I made sure no one was around, since I didn’t want people knowing what a fop I was.

Everyone kept saying that I was the ugliest boy in the family. And if they had known how fussy I was about clothes, they would surely have had a good laugh at my expense. I pretended not to care about my appearance, and this seemed to do the trick. I gave the impression of being dull and uncouth, no doubt about it. At mealtime my brothers and I sat on the floor, a tray before each of us. Grandmother and Mother were also present. It was awful hearing them remark over and over how ugly I was.

Actually I was quite proud of myself. I’d go down to the maids’ quarters and ask offhandedly who was the best boy in the family. The girls usually said that my oldest brother was. Then they added that Shūcha—that’s me—was second best. I resented being second, but blushed to hear it all the same. Indeed, I wanted them to say I was better than my oldest brother.

It wasn’t just my looks that displeased Grand-mother. I was clumsy as well. At every meal she cautioned me about holding my chopsticks properly. She even said that the way I bowed made my rump stick out indecently. I had to sit properly in front of her and make one bow after another. No matter how often I tried, she never once complimented me.

Grandmother was a headache for me in other ways too. When a theater troupe came from Tokyo to celebrate the opening of our village playhouse, I went to every performance without fail. My father had built the playhouse, so I always had a good seat for nothing. Each day when I got home from school, I hurriedly changed into a soft kimono. Then I ran off to the playhouse, a narrow chain dangling from my sash with a pencil attached to the end. That’s how I first got to know about Kabuki. While watching the performances, I would shed one tear after another.

Even before this time I had been something of a performer myself. I really enjoyed calling the manservants and maids together and telling old stories or else showing films and slides. After the Tokyo troupe had left, I rounded up my younger brother and my cousins to put on my own show. I arranged three Kyogen pieces for the program—Yamanaka Shikanosuke, The House of the Dove, and a comic dance known as Kappore. The first had a teahouse scene set in a valley, during which Shikanosuke gains a follower named Hayakawa Ayunosuke. Adapting the scene from a text in a young peoples’ magazine, I took infinite pains to cast the words in Kabuki rhythms: “Your humble servant/A man known to the world as/Shikanosuke.” From The House of the Dove, a long novel that I had read over and over (and never without crying), I selected an especially pathetic section to render as a two-act play. Since the Tokyo troupe always ended its program with the entire cast performing Kappore, I decided to include the dance as well.

With five or six days of rehearsing over, we scheduled our first performance for that evening. We had set up the stage on the wide veranda before the library-storehouse, with a small curtain suspended in front. It was still broad daylight when Grandmother came by, but she didn’t notice the wire. When her jaw got caught on it, she cried out, You pack of river bums!6 Stop it! That wire could’ve killed me.

Despite this incident, we gathered ten or so manservants and maids for the evening performance. The memory of Grandmother’s words weighed heavily upon me. While performing the title role in Yamanaka Shikanosuke and that of the boy in The House of the Dove, and even while dancing Kappore, I felt isolated and completely listless. Eventually I put on such plays as The Rustler, The House of the Broken Plate, and Shuntoku Maru, but Grandmother always looked disgusted.

Though I didn’t much care for Grandmother, I was grateful to her on sleepless nights all the same. From the third or fourth year of grade school, I had suffered from insomnia. Midnight would be long past, and I would still be lying awake in bed. Since I cried so often at night, the family tried to come up with remedies for my insomnia. Lick sugar before bed, I was told, or else count the ticking of the clock. I tried other suggestions, like cooling my feet in a pan of water or placing a leaf from the “sleeping tree” under my pillow. But nothing seemed to work. A bundle of nerves, I would anxiously turn over one thing after another in my mind. This only made falling asleep more difficult. I had a succession of bad nights after secretly playing with Father’s pince-nez and cracking the lens.

The notions shop two doors away handled several kinds of books and magazines. One day I was looking at the illustrations inside the front cover of a ladies journal, one of them a watercolor of a yellow mermaid. I wanted this illustration so badly that I decided to steal it. I had quietly torn the page out when the young manager sharply called out my boyhood name, Osako! Osako! I flung the magazine to the floor and rushed home. Blunders such as this one kept me awake for nights on end.

Sometimes I’d lie in bed needlessly worrying that a fire might break out. I wondered, What if the house burned down? and after that I couldn’t sleep at all.

One evening I was heading for the toilet just before bedtime. The room where the family accounts were kept was right across the hallway from my destination. The room was dark, and the student who kept the accounts was running a movie projector. The picture on the sliding door hardly seemed bigger than a matchbox, but I could make out a polar bear about to plunge off an ice floe into the sea. Observing this, I sensed something unbearably sad about the student. Back in bed, I thought about the movie scene and reflected as well on the life of this student, my heart pounding all the while. What would I do if the film caught fire? I wondered. Beset by these worries, I couldn’t get to sleep until almost dawn. On nights such as this, I would feel especially grateful to my grandmother.

Around eight o’clock in the evening, a maid would come to my room and lie next to me until I fell asleep. Since I felt sorry for her, I would lie still with my eyes closed. As soon as she left, I’d start praying that I could fall asleep. I would toss and turn until almost ten o’clock, then break into a whimper and get up. By that time the whole family other than Grandmother would be in bed.

Grandmother would still be in the kitchen by the large hearth, sitting across from the night watchman. Ensconced between them in my quilted pajamas, I would dejectedly listen to their inevitable gossip about people in the village. Late one night, as I leaned over to hear, the beat of a great drum echoed from afar. People were still up, celebrating the Insect-Expulsion Festival,7 an occasion when farmers try various means of ridding their fields of harmful pests. I have not forgotten how reassuring it was to know that others were still awake.

That far-off drumbeat brings other memories to mind. My oldest brother was at a university in Tokyo around then, and whenever he came back for a summer vacation, he brought word of the latest trends in music and literature. My brother studied drama, and he even published a one-act play in a local magazine. Called The Struggle, it was much discussed by the young people hereabouts. Along with my other brothers and sisters, I had listened to him recite the play just after he had finished the manuscript. Everyone had complained that it didn’t make sense. I alone understood, even down to the poetic curtain line, “Ah, how dark the night is!” However, I did think the title should be The Thistle rather than The Struggle. And in tiny letters I wrote this opinion in a corner of some used manuscript paper. Perhaps my brother didn’t notice, for he published the play without changing the title.

My brother’s large collection of phonograph records had both Japanese and Western melodies. I already knew the Japanese melodies because of the geishas who came to our house. Whenever he gave a party, my father would send word to a city some distance away to request their services. I remember being hugged by these geishas from the age of four or five. I recall watching them dance too, and listening to their songs, “Once Upon a Time” and “The Tangerine Boat from Ki Province.”

As I lay in bed one night, a fine melody filtered out of my brother’s room. I lifted my head from the pillow, listening closely. The next morning I got up early and went over. I selected one record after another and played every one on my brother’s phonograph. At last I found the melody that had so excited me last night, a samisen ballad about the ill-fated drummer Ranchō.8

Nevertheless, I felt much closer to my second oldest brother. After graduating with honors from a Tokyo business school, he had come back to work in the family bank. This brother was treated callously, just like I was. Mother and Father said he was the worst boy in the family (after me, of course), so I figured looks were the problem with him too. He would sometimes say to me, I don’t need anything now—but if only I’d been born good-looking. Then, turning to me, he would ask teasingly, What do you think of that, Shu?

Despite such bantering, I never thought my brother so ill-favored. I regarded him as one of the smarter boys in the family, too. He seemed to drink every day and then quarrel with Grandmother. Each time this happened, I felt a secret hatred for her.

With my third brother, the one just older than me, I was always feuding. He knew many of my secrets, and that made me uneasy. He looked quite a bit like my little brother, and everyone remarked how handsome he was. I was, so to speak, being squeezed from above and below, and I could hardly bear it. When this older brother went off to high school in Tokyo, I breathed a sigh of relief.

My little brother was the family baby. He had a gentle look as well, and this endeared him to Father and Mother. I was always jealous and would hit him now and then. Mother would scold me, and then I’d resent her too. I must have been about nine or ten when the problem with the lice occurred. They were all over me, scattered like sesame seeds on the seams of my underwear and my shirt. When my brother grinned about this, I just knocked him down—I really did. His head began swelling in several places, and that worried me. I got hold of some ointment labeled “For External Use Only” and applied it to his bruises.

I had four older sisters, all of them fond of me. The oldest one died, however, and the next one left to get married. The two youngest sisters went off to school, each to a different town. Whenever their vacation came to an end, the two of them had to go seven or eight miles from our village to reach the nearest train station. During the summer they could. take our horse-drawn carriage. When the hail was blowing about in the fall, however, or the snow melting in the spring, they had no choice except to walk. They might have gone by sleigh during the winter, but the sleigh happened to make them both sick. That’s why they ended up walking then too. Whenever they were due back in the winter, I’d go out to the edge of our village where the lumber was piled up. Even after the sun went down, the road remained bright in the snow. When the flickering lamps that my sisters carried finally emerged from the woods of the next village, I would throw up my arms and let out a whoop.

The school of the older sister happened to be in a smaller town. Because of that, the souvenirs she brought back could not compare with the younger sister’s. Once she took from her basket five or six packets of incense-sparklers and handed them to me. I’m so sorry, she said, a blush upon her cheeks. At that moment I felt my breast constrict. According to my family, this sister too was homely.

She had lived in a separate room with my great-grandmother until she went away to school, so how could I avoid thinking of her as the old lady’s daughter? Then, about the time I was finishing grade school, my great-grandmother passed away. I caught a glimpse of the small, rigid body dressed in a white kimono as it was being placed in the coffin. I fretted about what to do if this scene kept haunting me.

I graduated from grade school in due course, but I was too frail for high school. My family decided to send me to a special intermediate school for one year to see if I got stronger. If I did, Father would send me to high school here in the province. My older brothers had all studied in Tokyo, but that would be bad for my health. I didn’t care much about going to high school, anyhow. But I did get some sympathy from my teachers by writing about how frail I was.

The intermediate school belonged to the county, a new unit of government back then. Five or six villages and towns had gotten together and put up the building in a pine grove more than a mile from my home. Many bright students from grade schools throughout the area were enrolled, and I had to maintain the honor of my own school against this competition. I had to strive to be the best, even though I would often be absent because of my health.

Nonetheless, I didn’t study there either. To one headed for high school, the place seemed dirty and unpleasant. I spent most of every class drawing a cartoon serial. During recess I would explain the characters to my classmates and even give impersonations of them. I filled four or five notebooks with such cartoons.

With my elbow braced on the desk and my chin resting in my palm, I would gaze outside for a whole hour. My seat was near the window where a fly had been crushed against the pane. Glimpsed from the side, the fly astonished me time and again. It almost seemed to be a large pheasant or a mountain dove.

I would play hookey with five or six friends and together we would head for the marsh just beyond the pine grove. While loitering at the edge of the water, we’d gossip about the girls in our class, then roll up our kimono skirts to stare at each other’s fuzz. It was great fun to compare how we were all doing.

I kept my distance from every girl at school, though. I was so easily aroused that I had to watch myself. Two or three of the girls had a crush on me, but I was a coward and pretended not to notice.

I would go into Father’s library and take down the volume of paintings from the Imperial Art Exhibition. As I gazed at a nude painting buried somewhere among the pages, my cheeks would begin to glow. Another thing I would do is put my pair of pet rabbits in the same cage, my heart pounding as the male climbed on and hunched its back. By doing these things I kept my own urge from getting out of hand.

I was really a prig and didn’t tell anyone about the massaging. When I read how harmful it was, I decided to stop. But nothing seemed to work.

Since I walked all the way to school and back each day, my body grew stronger. At the same time little pimples came out on my forehead like millet grains, much to my embarrassment. I would paint them with a red ointment.

That same year my oldest brother got married. On the evening of the wedding my younger brother and I tiptoed up to the bride’s room and peeked in. She was having her hair done, with her back to the door. I caught a glimpse of the pale, white face in the mirror, then fled with my younger brother in tow.

“What’s so great about her?” I swaggered. Ashamed of my forehead and the red ointment, I reacted all the more violently.

As winter drew near I had to start studying for the entrance exam to high school. I looked over the book ads in the magazines, then ordered various reference works from Tokyo. I arranged them on my shelves, but didn’t do any reading. The high school of my choice, located in the province’s largest city, would attract two or three times more applicants than it could admit. Now and then I was overcome with fear; I must get down to studying or else I would fail the exam. A week of hard work would restore my confidence. During these bouts of study I would stay up until midnight and usually get up at four the next morning. A maid named Tami stayed by me. I’d have her keep the charcoal fire going and make the tea. No matter how late she stayed up, Tami always came to wake me at four o’clock the next morning. While I puzzled over an arithmetic problem involving a mouse and the numbers of her offspring, Tami sat quietly nearby reading a novel. Presently she was replaced by a fat, elderly maid. When I heard that Mother was behind this change and thought of what her motive might be, I could only frown.

Early the following spring, while the snow was still deep, my father coughed up blood in a Tokyo hospital and died. The local paper published his obituary in a special edition, an event that affected me more than the death itself. My own name appeared in the paper too, on a list of people from the gentry.

Father’s body was brought home in a great coffin mounted upon a sleigh. I went along with a large crowd to meet the hearse near the next village. Eventually a long procession of sleighs glided from the woods. The hood of each vehicle reflected the moonlight, creating a lovely scene.

The next day our family gathered in the shrine room where the coffin rested. When the lid was opened, everyone burst into tears. Father seemed to be asleep, his prominent nose looking very straight and pale. Enticed by the weeping, I too shed some tears.

For the next month the house was in such chaos that one might have thought a fire had occurred. I forgot about my studies altogether. And, when the time for the final exam arrived, I could only give haphazard answers. The examiner knew about my family, though, and I was graded third highest among the group. I suspected that my memory was starting to weaken. For the first time ever, I felt I could not handle an exam without preparing for it.


Although my scores were low, I passed the exam for high school that spring. The school was in a small town on the coast and, when the time came, I had to leave my own village. I dressed quite stylishly for the trip—new hakama,9 dark stockings, laced boots. In place of the blanket I had been using, I threw a woolen cloak over my shoulders and deliberately left it unbuttoned. When I reached my destination, a dry-goods store with an old tattered noren curtain hanging in the front entrance, I took off this outfit. The shop was run by distant relatives to whom I became deeply indebted over time.

There are people who get suddenly worked up over anything whatever, and I’m one of them. Now that I was in high school, I’d put on my student cap and new hakama just to go to the public bathhouse. Catching my reflection in the shop windows along the way, I’d even nod my head and smile.

I couldn’t get excited about school, however. Not that the place wasn’t nice enough. The building was situated at the edge of town, with a park behind extending to the Tsugaru Strait. It was painted white outside, and inside there were wide hallways and classrooms with high ceilings. During class one could hear the hiss of the waves and the sough of the pines.

But the teachers in that school were always persecuting me. As early as orientation day the gymnastics instructor called me a smart aleck and started hitting me. That really hurt, since he was the very person who had been so gentle with me on the oral examination. Knowing that my father had passed away, he had understood why I wasn’t prepared for the entrance exam. When he had mentioned this, I had hung my head for his benefit.

Then the other instructors started hitting me. They gave all sorts of reasons for dishing out such punishment. I was yawning, grinning, or whatever. My unrestrained yawning apparently became a subject of conversation in the teachers’ room. It amused me to think what dumb things they talked about there.

One day a student from my own village called me over to the sand dune in the schoolyard. You’re bound to flunk, he warned, as long as they keep hitting you like that. And, he added, you really do act like a smart aleck. I was dumbfounded. That afternoon after class, I hurriedly set out for home along the beach. With no one else around, I sighed as the waves licked against my shoes. I raised my arm, wiping the sweat from my brow with my shirt sleeve. A gray sail, astonishingly large, wavered past my very eyes.

I was a petal quivering in the slightest breeze, about to fall any moment. Even the slightest insult made me think of dying. Believing I would amount to something before long, I stood up for my honor so firmly that I could not allow even an adult to make light of me. That’s why failing at school would have been a disaster. From that time on I became tense in the classroom, so anxious was I to pay attention. During every lesson I believed myself in a room with a hundred invisible foes. I could not let my guard down in the least. Every morning before setting out for school, I turned up a playing card on the desk in search of my daily fortune. A heart was lucky, a diamond promising; a club was foreboding, while a spade meant certain disaster. At this time of my life, spades turned up day after day.

With an exam coming soon, I memorized every word of my natural history, geography, and ethics textbooks. I was finicky, and for me the exam was a matter of do or die. But my method turned out to be faulty. Inexorably I felt hemmed in and unable to adapt to the exam. Certain questions I answered almost to perfection. In other cases, however, I tripped over the words and phrases in my confusion and ended up soiling the test booklet with mere gibberish.

Nonetheless, my marks that first term were the third highest in the class. Even in deportment I received an A. I seized my report card in one hand and, holding my shoes in the other, dashed out to the beach. Having been tormented by the prospect of failing, now I was absolutely elated.

With the term over, I made preparations to go home for my first vacation from high school. My younger brother and his friends would hear of my brief experience in glowing terms. I stuffed everything I had acquired into the trunk, going so far as to include even the sitting cushions.

Tossed about in the carriage, I came out of the woods of the neighboring village. The rich green of the rice paddies spread out like the sea, and the familiar roof of my own home, with its red tiles, rose conspicuously in the distance. I gazed toward home as though I had been away for ten years.

Never have I been so elated as during the month of that vacation. To my younger brother I boasted of the school as something one might dream of. In my telling, even the small coastal town seemed part of a vision.

I was supposed to paint five watercolors and collect ten rare insects for my homework. I spent the whole month wandering through the fields and the river valleys, sketching the landscape and looking for insects. I took my younger brother along for help. He could hold the collector’s kit, with the tweezers and jar of poison, while I carried the net on my shoulder. I chased after locusts and cabbage butterflies all day long. When night fell, I would get a crackling fire going in the park and, as the insects flew by, flail away at them with a net or a broom.

My next older brother was enrolled in the sculpture division at art school. He was making a bust of my next older sister, who had just graduated from a girls’ school. While he fiddled with clay beneath the chestnut tree in the garden, I stood nearby sketching her portrait time and again.

She may have taken her posing quite seriously, but my brother and I merely poked fun at each other’s work. My sister was usually more impressed with my work, yet my brother only ridiculed my talent. When you’re young, he claimed, everyone says you’re gifted. He dismissed my writing too, calling it grade-schoolish. In return I was openly contemptuous of his abilities.

One evening this brother came over to where I slept and whispered, “Osa! I’ve got a bug for you!” Squatting on the floor, he slid a tissue wrapping beneath the edge of the mosquito net. He knew I was collecting rare insects. And when I heard the scratching noise inside the tissue as the insect struggled to get out, I realized what kinship meant. I undid the paper roughly, and my brother gasped, “He’ll get away! Look! Look!” I could see it was only a stag beetle, but I put it down as “sheathed and winged,” one of my ten types, and handed it in.

I was depressed to see the vacation end. Returning all alone to my second-floor room at the dry-goods store, I opened my trunk and almost burst into tears. At such times I always sought refuge in a bookstore. There was one close by, and I hurried there now. Just to see all the books lining the shelves would lighten my mood as if by magic. This particular store had one corner containing a half dozen volumes that I couldn’t buy even though I wanted to. Now and then I would linger there and peek inside the covers. I would try to act casual, but my knees would be shaking. Of course, I didn’t go to bookstores just to read articles on anatomy. I went because any book gave me comfort and solace at the time.

My schoolwork, however, became more and more boring. Nothing was worse than coloring in the mountain ranges, harbors, and rivers on an outline map. I was a stickler about things, so I would spend three or four hours at this. In history and certain other classes the teachers told us to take notes on the main points of the lectures. Listening to a lecture was like reading a textbook, so the students merely copied sentences straight from the book. Being attached to grades, I worked away at such tasks day after day.

In the fall there were various athletic events for the high-school students in town. Out in the countryside we had never played baseball, so I only knew such terms as “center field,” “deep short,” and “bases loaded” from books. Eventually I learned how to watch a game, but I didn’t get worked up about it. Whenever my own school competed in tennis, judo, or even baseball, I had to join the cheering section. This made me dislike high school all the more.

Our head cheerleader would look purposely shabby as he climbed the knoll in the schoolyard corner and, holding a fan with the rising sun insignia, give us a pep talk. Reacting to him, the students would cry out with glee, “Slob! You slob!” When a match took place, this cheerleader leaped up during every break in the action and started waving his fan. “ALL STAND UP!” he’d shout in his funny English. And we would get up, our tiny purple banners flapping in unison, and sing the fight song: “Our Foe is Worthy, But ...” It was quite embarrassing. When I spied an opportunity, I’d slip away from the cheering section and go home.

Not that I myself never played sports. My complexion had a faint darkness, which I blamed on the massaging. I became flustered when people mentioned my face, for they seemed to be indicating this secret vice of mine. Somehow or other I felt I must improve my color. That’s why I took up sports.

I had long fretted about my complexion. As early as my fourth or fifth year of elementary school, my next older brother had already spoken to me of democratic ideas.10 Then I heard certain complaints, even from Mother. She once told visitors to our home that democracy had meant much higher taxes and that most of the family harvest now went to the government. I was quite confused by the various things I heard. At the same, I tried to be democratic toward our family’s servants. In the summer I lent a hand to the men mowing the lawn, and in the winter I helped shovel snow from the roof. Eventually I discovered that my help wasn’t welcome. It even seems the men had to redo the part of the lawn that I had tried to mow. To tell the truth, I was actually trying to improve my color. But even hard work didn’t do any good.

During high school I got into sports because of my complexion. On the way home from school in the summer, I always took a dip in the ocean. I liked to use the breast stroke, keeping my legs wide apart, just as a frog might. With my head sticking straight out of the water, I could observe various things even as I swam—the delicate shading of the waves, the fresh leaves on shore, the drifting clouds. I kept my head stretched out like a turtle. If I could bring my face even a bit closer to the sun, I’d get a tan that much quicker.

There was a large graveyard behind the house where I lived. I laid out a hundred-meter course for myself and took up sprinting in earnest. Since the graveyard was surrounded by a dense row of tall poplars, I could loiter within the grounds and examine one requiem post after another whenever I got tired. I read some unforgettable phrases— “Moonlight Penetrates the Pool Bottom,” for example, or “Three Worlds, One Purpose.”

One day, on a dark, moist gravestone covered with liverwort, I made out some writing that said, “The Deceased, Jakushō Seiryō.” Ascribed to the dead man in accord with Buddhist practice, the name evoked the solitude and quiet of the grave. Disturbed by this discovery, I made up several lines of verse and wrote them down on the white paper that had recently been folded like a lotus leaf and left before the grave. Intended to suggest a certain French poet, the lines read: I am in the ground now, together with the maggots. With my index finger I traced the words in mud as delicately as a ghost might have done.

The next evening I went to the grave before I did my sprinting. The words of the ghost had washed away in the rain that morning, so none of the bereaved kin would have been offended by seeing them on a visit to the grave. The white lotus leaves had torn in places.

Even as I fooled around like this, I got better at running. My leg muscles began to bulge too, but my complexion remained the same as ever. Beneath the deep tan on my face a pale, dirty color still lingered. It was quite unsavory.

I was very intrigued by my face. When weary of reading, I would take out a hand mirror and gaze at myself. Smiling, frowning, looking contemplative with my cheek resting on my palm, I never got bored. I mastered certain expressions guaranteed to make people laugh. Wrinkling my nose, pursing my mouth, and squinting, I would turn myself into a charming bear cub. I chose that particular look when puzzled or dissatisfied.

Around this time my next older sister was in the local hospital because of an illness. If I showed her my bear-cub face, she would roll about in bed laughing hard and holding her stomach. My sister had a middle-aged maid from home for company, but she was still lonely. That’s why my visits meant a lot to her. My slow footsteps in the hospital corridor echoed louder than those of other people, so my sister could hear me approaching her room. By the time I got there, she would be elated.

If I didn’t visit her for a week, my sister would send the maid to fetch me. With a solemn look the maid would say, You’d better come or your sister’s temperature will go up. She’ll be worse off then.

I was now fourteen or fifteen, and veins had become faintly visible on the back of my hand. I felt something strange and momentous taking place within me. I was secretly in love with a classmate, a short fellow with dark skin. We always walked home together after school, blushing when our little fingers merely grazed one another. Once, as we were heading along the back road after school, my friend noticed a lizard swimming right in a ditch where parsley and chickweed grew wild. Without a word he scooped up the lizard and gave it to me. I couldn’t stand such creatures, but I pretended to be overjoyed as I wrapped this one in my handkerchief. Back home, I released the lizard in the garden pool where it swam around, its tiny head wavering. I looked in the pool the next morning, but the lizard was gone.

Stuck on myself, I never considered telling my companion how I felt. I usually didn’t say much to him, anyway. With the skinny girl from next door, it was even worse. She was a student too, and I was quite aware of her. Even when I came toward her on the street, though, I quickly looked away as if in contempt.

One night in autumn a fire broke out near our house. Along with the others I got up to watch the flames shooting from the darkness of the neighborhood shrine and the sparks scattering all around. A grove of dark cedars loomed above the flames, and small birds darted through the air like innumerable fluttering leaves. I knew perfectly well that the girl was standing in her white pajamas by the gate next door and looking at me. I kept gazing toward the fire, though, with the side of my face toward her. I figured the glare of the flames would make my profile glitter and look splendid.

Being this way, I couldn’t initiate anything on my own, neither with this classmate nor with the girl next door. When alone, though, I would act bold. I’d close one eye and laugh at myself in the mirror, or carve a thin mouth in the desktop with a knife and press my lips to it. When I colored it with red ink afterwards, the mouth turned so dark and ugly I gouged it out with my knife.

One spring morning as I was heading for my third-year class in high school, I stopped on a bridge and leaned against the vermilion-painted railing. A wide stream flowed below, just like the Sumida River, and I drifted into a reverie the like of which I had never known. I felt as though someone else was behind me, and that I myself was always assuming some pose or other. I would comment on my every gesture, no matter how slight, as if I were standing beside my own self. Now he’s perplexed and is just looking at his palm—that’s what I would say. Or maybe—He muttered something now while scratching behind his ear. Because of this habit, I could no longer act on the spur of the moment, as one less aware of himself would. When I came out of that reverie on the bridge, I trembled in my loneliness. And, while still in this mood, I thought of my past and my future. I went on across the bridge, various memories coming to mind, my footgear clattering on the floorboards. Again, I fell to dreaming. And I finally let out a sigh. Could I really become someone?

That’s when I started getting fretful. Since I couldn’t be satisfied with anything, I kept writhing about in vain. Masks in one layer after another—as many as ten or twenty—had fastened themselves upon me, and I could no longer tell how sad any one of them really was. In the end I found a dreary way out of my dilemma—I would be a writer. There were many others who were subject to this same sort of incomprehensible agitation, and all of them would be my confederates.

My younger brother had started high school by then, and the two of us shared a room. After talking over the matter, we got together with five or six friends and began a little magazine. A large printing shop stood just down the street on the other side, and I easily arranged to have our magazine produced there. I had the shop use a pretty lithograph for the front cover too. When everything was ready, we distributed copies to our classmates.

Thereafter I published something in each monthly issue. At first I wrote philosophic stories on ethical questions. I proved adept at composing a few lines in the style of the fragmentary essay. We kept the magazine going for about a year, but I got into trouble with my oldest brother about it.

Anxious about this mania for writing, my brother sent me a long letter from home. Chemistry uses equations, he wrote, while geometry depends on theorems. With literature, however, there wasn’t anything equivalent to these equations or theorems that helped clarify matters. That’s why genuine understanding of literature came only with age and the right circumstances.

My brother had written in a formal and stiff manner, and I agreed with what he said. In fact, he had set down my very qualifications. Responding immediately, I wrote that I was truly fortunate to have such a splendid older brother. His letter was right on the mark. However, I had to point out that my interest in literature didn’t hamper my studies. Indeed, I worked all the harder because of it. I let my brother know exactly where I stood, mixing in some exaggerated feeling here and there.

More than anything, I felt I had to stand out from the crowd. The very thought kept me at my books, and, from the third year of high school, I was always at the head of the class. For someone who doesn’t want to be thought a drudge, that’s quite an accomplishment. Instead of my classmates jeering at me, I actually brought them to heel, including the judo champ we had nicknamed Octopus. In one corner of the room there was a large jar for wastepaper. Sometimes I would point to it and wonder out loud if an octopus could fit inside. The champ would stick his head in the jar and let out a strange, reverberating laugh.

The good-looking fellows in class were devoted to me as well. Even when I cut out triangular, hexagonal, and flower-shaped plasters and pasted them over my pimples, no one joked about it.

The pimples were distressing all the same, especially when they kept on spreading. Each morning when I awoke, I would run my hand over my face to see how things were. I bought all sorts of ointments, but nothing seemed to work. Before going to the drugstore, I’d write down the name of the ointment. Do you have any of this? I would ask, showing the scrap of paper with the writing. I had to make it seem I was doing someone else a favor.

I was horny—that’s what the pimples really showed. The mere thought made me dizzy with shame. Actually, I’d be better off dead. My face attained its greatest notoriety within my family just about then. My oldest sister, who had gone to live with her husband’s household, supposedly said that no woman would come to our own house as my bride. Informed of this, I applied even more ointment.

My younger brother worried about my pimples too. Time after time he went to buy medicine in my stead. As children my brother and I had never gotten along; when he took the entrance exam for high school, I prayed that he would fail. After we began living together away from home, though, I gradually came to appreciate my brother’s even temper. As he grew up, he turned quiet and shy. Occasionally he submitted an essay to the magazine, but his writing was flat. His grades didn’t look good next to mine either, and this troubled him. I would be sympathetic, and then he’d get even more discouraged. His hair came down in a widow’s peak over his forehead, something he detested as effeminate. He sincerely believed that his narrow forehead had made him a dunce.

When I was with someone during this period of my life, I would either reveal everything about myself or else conceal it. To be honest, the only one I really confided in was this brother of mine. He told me everything about himself and I did the same.

One dark night in early autumn we went out to the harbor wharf. A breeze was blowing in from the strait as we talked about the red string my Japanese-language teacher had once described. The teacher had said that each boy in the class had such a string tied to the baby toe of his right foot, but no one could see it. The other end was always attached to a girl’s baby toe. The string was very long, and it wouldn’t break even when the boy and girl were far apart. It wouldn’t tangle either, even if the two of them met right on the street. And, our teacher said, this string meant that the boy and girl were destined to marry each other.

When I first heard this story, I was so excited that I rushed home to tell my younger brother. And that evening on the wharf, listening to the waves and the cry of the sea gulls, we spoke of the red string once again.

What’s your wife-to-be doing right now? I asked.

My brother shook the wharf railing two or three times with both hands. Then, somewhat awkwardly, he said, She’s walking in a garden.

That was just like my brother. Yes, a young girl in large wooden clogs, walking in a garden with her fan and gazing at the primroses—how perfect for him.

Now it was my turn. Gazing out at the dark sea, I said, Mine’s wearing a red sash. And then I closed my mouth tight. A ferry boat heading across the strait seemed to roll on the horizon, its windows entirely lit up as though the boat were actually a large inn.

One thing I had kept from my brother. When I came back for the vacation that summer, a new maid was Working in the house. Wearing a red sash over her yukata, this petite girl had been very abrupt in helping me out of my shirt and trousers. Her name, I had learned, was Miyo.

Whenever I went to bed, I would secretly light up a cigarette and think of various ways to begin a story. At some point Miyo must have detected this habit. One evening, after laying out the bedding, she placed a tobacco tray right beside my pillow. When she came in the next morning to straighten up, I told her that I smoked on the sly and she should not bring me the tray. All right, she said, a sullen look on her face.

When a troupe of storytellers and musicians came to our village that summer, the household servants were allowed to see a performance. You go too, my brother and I were told. But at that period of our lives, we only made fun of such provincial amusements. Instead of the theater, we headed for the rice paddies to catch fireflies. We had gone almost as far as the woods of the neighboring village, but the dew was so heavy we came back with only twenty or so fireflies in our cage.

Presently the servants came wandering in from the theater. I had Miyo spread the bedding and hang up the mosquito net. Then my brother and I turned out the light and released the fireflies inside the net. As they glided back and forth, Miyo stood outside the net watching. I sprawled out on the bedding alongside my brother, more aware of Miyo’s dim figure than of the faint glowing of the fireflies.

“Was the performance interesting?” I asked, a little awkwardly. Until then, I had never talked to a maid about anything other than her household chores.

“No,” Miyo answered softly.

I burst out laughing. But my younger brother remained silent as he waved his fan at a firefly caught on the edge of the net. Somehow or other I felt very odd.

After that, I became quite conscious of Miyo. Whenever the red string was mentioned, it was her image that came to mind.


I was in the fourth year of high school now, and several classmates came over to visit almost every day. I would serve cuttlefish and wine, then tell them all sorts of nonsense. A book’s just come out, I once said. It tells how to light charcoal. Another time I showed them my copy of The Brute Machine, a novel by an up-and-coming writer. I had smeared oil over the cover, so that I could exclaim, Here’s how they’re selling things nowadays. A queer binding job, isn’t it? I astonished them again with a work entitled My Lovely Friend. I had cut out certain parts and arranged for a printer I knew to insert some outrageous paragraphs of my own. This book, I told my friends, was truly a rare specimen.

Miyo began to fade from memory. Anyway, I had this odd feeling of guilt over two people falling in love in the same household. Besides, I never had anything good to say about girls. I’d think of Miyo for only a moment, but still I’d get angry with myself. So I didn’t say anything about her to my friends, let alone to my brother.

Then I read a well-known novel11 by a Russian author that gave me pause. The work tells of a woman who gets sent to prison. Her downfall begins when her employer’s nephew, a university student from the nobility, manages to seduce her. I lost track of the general sense of the novel, but I did put a bookmark of pressed leaves at the page where they kiss for the first time beneath a wildly blooming lilac. For me, a great novel wasn’t about other people; I couldn’t avoid seeing myself and Miyo in this couple. If only I were bolder, I’d act like that student. Just thinking about these things plunged me into despair. Timid and provincial, I had led a totally dull life. I would prefer instead to be a glorious martyr.

I told my younger brother these thoughts one evening after we went to bed. I had meant to be serious, but the pose I assumed got in the way. I ended up acting flippant—patting my neck, rubbing my hands together, and speaking without any elegance whatever. How pathetic that habit forced me to act this way.

My younger brother listened in bed, his tongue flicking across his thin lower lip. He did not turn toward me.

Will you marry her? he asked. It seemed a difficult question to ask.

For some reason or other I was taken aback. Who knows, I shrugged, if that’s even possible? I tried to sound disheartened.

My brother suggested that such a marriage wasn’t very likely. He sounded surprisingly circumspect and grown-up.

Listening to him, I realized how I truly felt. I was offended and angry. Sitting up on the bedding, I lowered my voice and insisted, That’s why I’m going to carry on this fight.

My younger brother twisted about under his calico blanket, as if he were going to say something. He glanced at me and smiled slightly. I too broke out laughing and said, Well then, since I’ll be leaving . . . Then I extended my hand toward him.

My brother stuck his right hand out from the blanket. I shook his limp fingers several times, laughing softly.

It was easier to convince my friends. They pretended to rack their brains as they heard me out, but that was merely for effect, as I well knew. They would accept my plan in the end. And that’s exactly what did happen.

During the summer vacation of that fourth year, I virtually dragged two of these friends home with me, insisting that the three of us prepare for our college entrance exam together. I also wanted to show off Miyo to them, but this I kept to myself. I prayed that neither of my friends would seem disreputable in the eyes of my family. The friends of my older brothers were all from well-known families in the region and wore jackets complete with all the buttons. My friends had every button but two missing.

At that time a large chicken coop stood near the vacant house out back. There was also a caretaker’s shed where the three of us could spend the morning studying. The outside of this shed was painted green and white, while the inside had a wood floor about four tatami mats12 large and a new table and chairs, the furniture varnished and arranged in an orderly manner. There were two wide doors, one to the north and the other to the east, along with a casement window facing south. When someone opened the window and doors, the wind always blew in and riffled the pages of our books. Outside a flock of yellow chicks ran in and out of the grass that grew as thickly as ever around the shed.

The three of us would look forward to lunchtime, eagerly trying to guess which of the maids would come to fetch us. If it was someone other than Miyo, we would make a fuss by pounding on the table and clicking our tongues. When Miyo came, we would fall silent, only to burst out laughing when she left. One fine morning my younger brother joined us to study. As noon approached, we began our usual guessing game. My brother kept to himself, however, pacing back and forth near the window as he memorized his English vocabulary cards. The rest of us made all sorts of jokes; we threw books at one another and stomped on the floor. I also went so far as to get personal with my brother. Anxious to draw him into the fun, I said, You’re pretty damned quiet today. What’s the matter with you? Then, chewing lightly on my own lip, I glared at him.

Shut up! he yelled. His right arm whirled about, and several vocabulary cards flew from his hand. I turned away in amazement. And suddenly I made an unpleasant decision. From now on, I’d give up on Miyo. Within a few minutes I was doubling over with laughter, as though nothing had happened.

Luckily someone other than Miyo came to announce lunch. We went back in single file to the main house, taking the narrow path that ran through the bean field. I lingered behind, whooping it up as I tore off one round leaf after another.

From the very beginning I had never thought I’d be the victim. At the moment I was merely disgusted, nothing more. My clusters of white lilacs had been soiled with mud. And I was all the more disgusted when the prankster turned out to be my own flesh and blood.

For two or three days thereafter I fretted over all sorts of things. Wouldn’t Miyo herself have walked in the garden? My brother had been almost embarrassed when shaking my hand. In brief, hadn’t I been taken in? For me, nothing was more humiliating than that.

During this period one misfortune followed another. My friends, my brother, and I were all seated at the table one day as Miyo served lunch. Even while doing this, she crisply waved a round fan with a monkey’s face painted in red. I would watch her carefully, to see which one of us she fanned the most. When I realized that she favored my brother, I gave way to despair and let my fork clatter onto the plate.

Everyone was banding together to torment me. I rashly suspected my friends of knowing all along. I’d better just forget about Miyo—that’s what I told myself.

Several days thereafter I went out to the shed in the morning while neglecting to remove the package with five or six cigarettes by my pillow. Later, realizing my mistake, I rushed back only to find the room made up and the cigarettes gone. Now I was in for it. I called Miyo and asked reproachfully, What happened to the cigarettes? Did someone find out?

She looked gravely at me and shook her head. The next moment she stood on her tiptoes, reached behind the upper wall panel, and brought out the small green package with its sketch of two flying golden bats.

This episode restored my courage a hundredfold and revived my earlier determination. All the same I felt disheartened over my brother’s role in the affair. I was uncomfortable with him because of this; and, in the company of my friends too, I stopped making a fuss about Miyo. From now on I wouldn’t try to entice her. Instead, I would wait for her to make the next move. I was able to give her lots of opportunities too. I often summoned her to my room and told her to do useless chores. Whenever she came in, I somehow managed to assume a relaxed and carefree pose.

In order to attract Miyo, I paid close attention to my face. The pimples had now disappeared, but I maintained the treatments out of habit. Among my possessions was a compact, a beautiful silvery thing with a lid carved entirely in the pattern of a long, twisting vine. I gave myself an occasional facial, putting a little of my heart in the task each time.

I figured it was now up to Miyo—except that the right moment didn’t come. Every so often I would slip out of the shed where we were studying and go back to the main house. Catching a glimpse of her flailing away with her broom, I would bite my lip.

The summer vacation finally came to an end, obliging me to leave home along with my younger brother and my friends. If only I could instill a small memory in Miyo, something to remember me by until the next vacation. But nothing ever happened.

When the day came to leave, we all piled into the family carriage with its dark hood. Miyo was at the front door for the leavetaking, along with the other members of the household. She kept her eyes on the ground without looking at my brother or me. The light green cord that usually held up the sleeves of her kimono was untied; she kept fumbling it like a rosary, even as the carriage pulled away. I left home on that occasion filled with regret.

In the autumn I went with my younger brother to a hot-spring village on the coast, a trip that took about thirty minutes by train from the school town. Our youngest sister had been ill and she had come to this village to take the waters. I lived there awhile, in a house Mother was renting, just to prepare for my college entrance exam. Since there was no escaping my reputation as a bright student, I had to demonstrate that I could graduate from high school and go on to college. I came to hate school more and more, but something drove me to study with all my might.

I would stay overnight with my mother and sister at the rented house, commuting back and forth to school each day by train. My friends came to the village every Sunday for a visit. By then, Miyo was only a distant memory to all of us. We would go out for a picnic, selecting a large flat rock by the sea upon which to have our beef stew and wine. My brother had a beautiful voice and knew lots of new songS. He would teach us some of them, and we’d sing together. When we finally got tired of this, we would lie down on the rock and take a nap. By the time we awoke, the tide would be in, cutting off the rock from the shore. For a moment we seemed to be dreaming yet.

I saw these friends during the week too. I’d get depressed if even a day went by without them.

One autumn day when a brisk wind was blowing, one of my teachers struck me on both cheeks in class. It was an arbitrary punishment for some gallant deed of mine, and my friends were livid. After school, the entire fourth-year class gathered in the natural history room and talked about getting the teacher fired. There were even students who clamored, Strike! A strike! I was quite upset by all this. If you’re going on strike just for my saké, please stop it, I begged. I don’t hate the teacher. It’s not important, not really. I went among them making this plea.

Coward! Egotist!—that’s what my friends called me. Gasping for breath, I hurried from the room and went all the way back to our rented house. When I arrived, I headed straight for the bathhouse. There was a plantain tree in a corner of the garden just outside the window. The wind had stripped it bare, except for a few leaves that remained to cast a greenish shadow onto the bath water. I sat on the edge of the pool, sinking into a reverie like someone already half-dead.

When haunted by a shameful memory, I would try to get rid of it by going off alone and mumbling, Oh well . . . I pictured myself wandering among the students and murmuring, It’s not important, not really. I scooped water from the pool and let it trickle back over and over. And I kept repeating the words, Oh well . . . Oh well . . .

The next day the teacher apologized to the class. The strike never occurred, then, and things were patched up between the students and me. Nonetheless, the mishap cast a pall over my life. Miyo was often in my thoughts after that. Without her, I might well go to pieces.

My sister’s treatment had ended, and she was supposed to depart with Mother on Saturday. I decided to go along, on the pretext of seeing them safely home. I kept the trip secret from my friends, and I didn’t tell my brother why I was really going home. I thought he would know anyhow.

I set out from the village with my mother, sister, and brother, the latter accompanying us only as far as the school town. There we all paid a courtesy visit to the people at the dry-goods store who were helping my brother and me, then headed for the station and the trip home. As the train for home was about to pull out of the station, my brother stood on the platform and pressed his pale forehead with its widow’s peak to the window. Don’t give up!—that’s all he said. Not on your life, I blithely replied. I was certainly in a good humor.

Yet by the time we had passed the last village and the family carriage was drawing close to home, I was very much on edge. The sun had gone down, and both the sky and surrounding hills were pitch dark. Listening to the rice fields rustle in the autumn wind, I was suddenly terror-stricken. I kept my eyes on the darkness outside the window, my head jerking back in surprise whenever a pale clump of Japanese pamas grass loomed up from the roadside.

Virtually the entire household was crowded under the dim entry lamp to greet us. As the carriage halted, Miyo herself came bustling out, her shoulders hunched against the cold.

That evening, lying in bed in a second-floor room, I thought of something depressing. I was tormented by the idea of mediocrity. Hadn’t I been a fool in this affair? Anyone could fall for a woman. And yet, I told myself, with me it was different. I couldn’t put it in a word. There simply wasn’t anything vulgar involved, that’s all. I mean vulgar in every sense too. But wouldn’t any man in love make the same claim? Still, I mused, sticking to my guns even as I choked on my cigarette smoke, in my Case there’s a philosophy at stake.

During the night, while pondering the family quarrel that would surely erupt over my marriage plans, I attained an almost chilling sort of courage. I would never do anything mediocre—of that I was convinced. And I would definitely make my mark in the world. Thinking over these things, I became quite lonely-without knowing why, either. I couldn’t get to sleep, so I gave myself a massage. During that time I put Miyo out of my mind. I would not defile her along with myself.

When I awoke early the next morning, the sky was bright and dear—perfect autumn weather. I got up immediately in order to gather some grapes in our arbor. I had Miyo come too, with a large bamboo basket. In giving her instructions, I tried my best to sound nonchalant, so that no one would get suspicious.

The arbor, which was in the southeast part of the field across from our home, covered an area roughly equal to twenty tatami mats. As the grapes ripened, a reed screen was normally set up about the arbor. We opened the little wicket gate in one corner and went into the enclosure. A few yellow bees were buzzing about in the warm enveloping air. Sunlight filtered through the screen and the grape leaves, casting Miyo in a pale green light.

On the way over I had devised one plan after another, my mouth twisting in a villainous smile. It felt so awkward to be alone with her, however, that I almost got irritated. Upon entering the enclosure, I had purposely left the wicket gate open.

Since I was tall, I didn’t need a stool to reach the grapes. I began snipping off the clusters with my garden shears and handing them to Miyo one by one. She would quickly wipe the dew with her clean apron and put each cluster into the basket below. For what seemed a long time neither of us spoke. I was getting quite resentful when Miyo, reaching for the last cluster, quickly drew back her hand.

I shoved the grapes at her and shouted, What’re you doing! My tongue clicked in disapproval.

Groaning, Miyo seized her right wrist with her left hand.

You got stung? I asked.

Yes, she replied, her eyes squinting as if dazzled by something.

Fool! I scolded.

She smiled and didn’t say anything.

I couldn’t remain there any longer. I’ll get some ointment for it, I said, and hurried toward the gate.

Having taken her back to the main house, I looked for the ammonia in our medicine cabinet. When I spotted the purple tinted glass, I seized the bottle and shoved it toward her as roughly as possible. I wouldn’t treat the sting myself.

A bus with a gray tarpaulin for a roof had just started running to our village and back. Tossed about in this humble vehicle, I departed that very afternoon. Everyone urged me to take the family carriage, but I felt that its shimmering black finish and its coat-of-arms were far too aristocratic for me. Holding in my lap the basket of grapes that Miyo and I had gathered, I gazed with profound feeling upon the fallen leaves that covered the country road. Having done my best to instill a small memory, I was at peace with myself. Miyo was mine now. I could relax.

The vacation that winter was my last as a high-school student. As the day drew near for going home, my younger brother and I felt a certain awkwardness toward one another.

Arriving at home, we went over to the kitchen hearth and sat down. We were on the floor, directly across from one another, with our legs crossed. As we glanced around anxiously, our eyes met two or three times. Miyo was nowhere about.

After dinner, my second oldest brother invited us to his room. We sat around the charcoal brazier to play cards, but every card in the deck seemed blank to me. While conversing with my older brother, I seized an opportunity to ask, Isn’t one of the maids missing? I tried to sound casual, keeping my face hidden behind the five or six cards in my hand as though truly absorbed in the game. It was fortunate that my younger brother was present. If pressed by my older brother, I’d make a clean breast of everything.

My older brother cocked his head this way and that. While deciding which card to play next, he mumbled, You mean Miyo? She had a quarrel with Granny and went home. An obstinate bitch, if ever there was one.

He threw down a card. I played one of mine, and my younger brother, without a word, played his.

Four or five days later I went out to the caretaker’s shed by the chicken coop. The young caretaker, who liked to read novels, filled me in on what had really occurred. Miyo had been defiled by a manservant. It had happened only once; but when the other maids found out, she could not bear to stay on. The manservant had done other mischief too and had already been sent away. But the caretaker had to spill the entire story, including the manservant’s boast of how Miyo had murmured, but only after the deed, Stop! Stop it now!

With New Year’s Day past and the winter vacation nearly gone, my younger brother and I went into the family library to look at various book collections and scroll paintings. As the snow fluttered down on the skylight, I gazed around eagerly. Since Father’s death, my oldest brother had been making changes as the new head of the family. I could see something different each time I visited—from the selection of books and paintings to the newly decorated rooms. I unrolled a painting that my oldest brother must have sought out quite recently—a depiction of yellow roses scattering on water.

My younger brother brought over a large box of photographs and started going through the collection quickly, warming his fingertips now and then with his white breath. After a time he showed me a newly mounted print. Miyo must have gone to my aunt’s house with Mother, for the print showed all three women. Mother sat by herself on a low couch while Miyo and my aunt, who were the same height, stood behind. The garden was in the background, with roses blooming in abundance.

My brother and I sat next to one another and gazed momentarily upon this print. In my own heart I had long ago made peace with my brother. I had hesitated to tell him of this other business concerning Miyo, and so he still didn’t know about it. I could now look at the photo with a show of equanimity. Miyo must have moved slightly, blurring the outline of her head and shoulders. My aunt, her hands folded upon her sash, was squinting. They even look like one another, I thought.



The literal title of this tale, “An Account of Taking on the Guise of a Fish,” has been altered to “Undine” in the interests of euphony. Undine figures in Western mythology as a female water spirit who can become human by marrying a man and bearing a child. This title has been chosen for want of a better one, and in the hope that it will prove memorable with readers.

According to some critics Dazai’s story calls to mind a famous Japanese tale by the eighteenth-century exponent of the ghostly and macabre, Ueda Akinari. Akinari’s tale, “The Carp That Came into My Dream,” features a Buddhist priest named Kōgi, possibly an actual person from early in the Heian period (794-1185). In the tale, Kōgi practices compassion by purchasing the entire catch of certain fishermen, then releasing the fish and painting them as they swim away.

With a setting of almost idyllic beauty, “Undine” might impress one initially for its simplicity and charm. Both of the main characters—a charcoal-maker and his daughter, Suwa—are simple people who seem quite at home in their surroundings. They need not speak to each other often. The rural argot they do employ in their occasional exchanges (an argot that I have not attempted to convey in the translation) only underlines how rooted they are in their own environment.

As the tale unfolds, Suwa comes to regard her idyllic existence as merely a pointless routine. This change in her outlook eventually leads to the final climactic scene, which takes place after the girl hurries to the waterfall on sheer instinct. Her end might well be understood with reference to several earlier scenes that, though seemingly fortuitous at the time, take on meaning as the function of water as a unifying symbol becomes apparent. In one of these scenes a student perishes at the waterfall, while in another the brothers Saburō and Hachirō are separated at a stream. The story concludes with Suwa attempting to escape her father and to join up with a friend, impulses that have come to her by way of the tale of the serpent and the death by drowning of the young student.

The peaceful tenor of life early in “Undine” is disturbed by specific actions as well as by Suwa’s state of mind. The greatest disruption—and the one most cryptically described—occurs when her father returns to the hut late at night. What he attempts in this brief scene confirms that he is drunk and also deeply frustrated over his daughter’s alienation from him. However, a second symbolic network in the tale, even more obscure than the one related to Suwa’s fate, gives a different complexion to this drunken attempt at violence. Suwa, it will be noted, arranges her hair before awaiting her father’s return. Here, she seems to be her usual innocent self, and perhaps she is. However, a curious gesture of hers from earlier in the story—the placing of her father’s finger into her mouth after she hears his tale of Saburō and Hachirō—becomes quite ominous in retrospect and makes one wonder, for a moment at least, whether Dazai doesn’t see her as a temptress, though perhaps an unwitting one.

“Undine” portrays a girl who eventually undergoes the stresses of puberty while living alone with her stolid father. Having rejected him, she instinctively heads toward the waterfall and the pool, the milieu that has come to represent for her the possibility of companionship and consolation. Like the student, she ends up being pulled into the depths—whether to be destroyed or fulfilled the author does not say.


In the far north of Honshu there’s a row of low hills known as the Bonju Range. Only three or four hundred meters high at best, these hills don’t appear on an ordinary map.

Long ago the entire area was apparently under the sea, and people in the region still say that the hero Yoshitsune once came here by boat. It happened after he had gone into hiding and was fleeing northward toward the shores of faraway Ezo. His boat ran aground—there’s a square patch of red soil some ten meters across on a low tree-covered hill midway along the range that shows where he landed.

They call this particular place Bald Horse Hill. That’s because, from the village below, the patch of red soil is supposed to resemble a galloping horse. In fac