#JanuaryinJapan: Nakagami Kenji

Nakagami Kenji: The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto, transl. Eve Zimmerman. Stone Bridge Press, 1999.

Like many other countries, Japan has an outcast community of untouchables – the Burakumin. Unlike in other countries, this underclass is not discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnic group, but because of their occupation: traditionally, they engaged in jobs considered undesirable or polluting according to Shintoism or Buddhism. such as animal slaughter, leather-making, prison officers, executioners. They are mentioned as a separate caste during the Heian period, but it’s during the Edo shogunate (from the early 17th century) that they become considered as ‘less than human’. This discrimination officially ended in 1871 with the abolition of the feudal caste system, but the Burakumin continued to live in segregated communities until the 1960s, and are still socially discriminated against when it comes to employment or marriage if their ancestry is discovered.

So it’s not surprising that Nakagami Kenji was the only post-war Japanese author to admit that he was of Burakumin origin, and, throughout his short life, he tried to give a voice to this community on the margins of Japanese society. The Burakumin have a reputation for being poor, dirty, chaotic and criminal – so a handy comparison in Europe might be the Roma communities. Nakagami himself said once in an interview: ‘I write for a public that cannot read me. My mother, my sister, my brothers are illiterate like all the Burakumin.’ But at the same time, he is writing about the Burakumin families of his day to allow the rest of Japanese (and international) society an insight into their daily lives. He also felt that he was writing ‘against the clock’, as these Burakumin neighbourhoods were being pulled down in a well-meant (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempt at assimilation.

At first glance, these are indeed chaotic, brutal and sad lives that he describes. ‘The Cape’ is the first in a loose family chronicle of a post-war Burakumin family, seen predominantly through the eyes of Akiyuki, who feels like a double outsider: both in Japanese society and in his own family. He is the only son in his family who has a father who never lived with his mother. His family history is complicated by remarriages and adoptions: he has two older half-sisters who have married (and one has moved far away from their home town) and a half-brother who hung himself. He is a labourer in his shady brother-in-law’s construction company and lives with his mother, stepfather and a younger stepbrother. Akiyuki feels that the whole family is based on lies, whether outright lies or lies of omission. is constantly haunted by the image of his real father who had two other children by different mothers, one of which is a ‘coddled girl’ from a ‘proper’ family, while the other is a prostitute. He is terrified of ending up like his ‘lustful father’ and has thus far abstained from any sexual relationships.

It is an atmosphere of Greek tragedy, heightened by poverty, alcohol, obsession with sex and lack of education. There are petty (and not so petty) sibling rivalries and squabbles, family feuds and gossip, violent and drunken scenes, and it all escalates, leading to murder and incest. Yet would it be fair to blame it all on the outcaste status? The neighbourhood is full of other outsiders and misfits: drug addicts, prostitutes, new immigrants. Besides, in many ways, this reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, featuring another dysfunctional but far wealthier and certainly not marginalised family unable to escape their tragic fate.

There are two other stories in this volume, in addition to ‘The Cape’. ‘House on Fire’ is still very much rooted in Akiyuki’s family and universe, although the characters don’t appear with any names. Instead, we have ‘the mother’, ‘that man (father)’, ‘son’ and so on. This was an earlier version of ‘The Cape’, and it centers around the bastard son of an arsonist, who hears that his father has been badly hurt in an accident and remembers his father’s endless appetite for violence and destruction. Here too we have the matriarchal family line and the struggle and hatred between father and son powerfully described – which must have been revolutionary for Japan at the time, where family lineages are still very patriarchal.

The third story ‘Red Hair’ is quite different: far less plot, more reliant on atmosphere. Kozo is a disaffected young man whose unskilled job is about to be made redundant. The only thing he looks forward to in his life is the red-headed woman waiting for him at home. Very graphic sex with her provides a welcome release for all the frustrations going on in his life. Their relationship, however, is so fragile, as we see when they meet with a neighbouring couple, who try to dig into the red-haired woman’s past, which they suspect is unsavoury. Ultimately, as the young lovers look at the rain and decide to go back to bed, they recognise that all they have is that moment of pleasure, and the illusion that they can prolong it at will.

There are few translations of Nakagami available in English (the French seem to like him more), but this particular edition – if you can find it second-hand – has a very informative preface and afterword by the translator. Tony is the only other book blogger who has reviewed Nakagami, as far as I know, but if you have read him, do leave your comments and links below.

I am linking this once again to the wonderful Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Meredith.

21 thoughts on “#JanuaryinJapan: Nakagami Kenji”

  1. Excellent review! I didn’t know the Japanese had a caste system although it’s hardly surprising now I come to think about it. I’ll see if I can track down a secondhand copy without resorting to Amazon.

    1. I think our Japanese professors must have been very enlightened and modern for that period, because I don’t think that many Japanese thought about the Burakumin at all during the period of the economic boom (and once the integration initiatives started in the 1960s), but our two teachers were full of compassion and told us about the Burakumin very early on. We didn’t read Nakagami in class (maybe he was too tricky for our grasp of Japanese), but we certainly knew about him.

  2. It’s a shame this one’s so hard to find, Marina Sofia, because it sounds like a fascinating look at a side of Japanese life that a lot of us don’t know much about. I know that publishers can’t do everything, but I’d love to have more translations available…

    1. I am glad that Tokyo Ueno Station tackles the less savoury aspects of Japanese life. Much like this book, it shows that part of the population that officials would rather forget about or claim that they only have themselves to blame.

  3. Great review! I thought of Taro Aso’s remarks about Burakumin (in 2001, so not that recent) when you mentioned the stigma. I’m not sure how things have changed since then, but I think this book would still be relevant.

    1. I am sure it is still happening – as we know, there is also discrimination against zainichi and others of foreign extraction. I thought Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri also did an excellent job in giving voice to those who have slipped through the ‘accepted’ norms of Japanese society. The book is almost ambivalent: in a way, it proves the point about the lives of the Burakumin being chaotic and full of violence, yet at the same time it shows how poverty and lack of education make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  4. Gosh, fascinating post, Marina. I knew nothing of these caste issues, nor of the author, so it does seem a shame that his work is not that easily available and I wonder if it’s because his subject matter doesn’t fit comfortably into what is perceived as Japanese writing? Certainly, I did know that social structures are quite rigid in Japan, but this is a whole new section of Japanese society for me!

    1. Yes, it’s certainly not cherry blossoms and origami! It’s funny, but I think there have been two waves of Japanese culture in my lifetime. There was a fashion for Japanese literature and films in the 1970s and 80s (time of the Japanese economic miracle etc.) which focused more on the samurai, geishas, kimonos, old men’s sexual fantasies and the like, and now there seems to be a bit of resurgence (with more women authors being published, which is exciting), with the focus more on alienation, outsider, crime (Kirino, Murata, Ogawa), a sort of magical realism and old man’s sexual fantasies (Murakami) or else on the cute and cosy side of things, perhaps with an emphasis on cats.

  5. I had no idea about this Japanese caste system. This sounds like a really fascinating insight into a world perhaps many of us in Europe wouldn’t know much if anything about.

    1. It was not that dissimilar from two books about precarious lifestyles in contemporary America, to be honest: Willy Vlautin and Nickolas Butler. But with the added discrimination based upon your social origin (they can usually trace it back based upon your name – although this is beginning to change). Nakagami also claimed that other Japanese writers had Burakumin ancestors (MIshima, for example), but wouldn’t admit to it.

  6. How (sadly) fascinating about the Burakumin. What a tragedy that there are outcasts in every culture. I’m not a great fan of shot stories, as they end too soon for me, but I do appreciate your review of this.

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