Monday, December 3, 2012

"The River Sumida" by Nagai Kafū

This just in from Mabel Callahan:

I. Brief Synopsis

Nagai Kafū's (1879-1959) story takes place within one cycle of the calendar, and most of it is centered around the four seasonal fushime, or periods of seasonal transition. This fact is significant because the work as a whole can be seen as a meditation on transitions, not only of the seasonal type, but of personal transitions from youthful innocence to the realm of experience, or of the larger, more turbulent historical transitions from the pre-Westernized culture to the new modern Meiji state. The story begins at the fushime between late summer and early autumn, and it finishes in the early stage of summer. 

Kafū makes no claim to originality of plot. In fact, the story seems to be taken straight from your standard love story of the Edo theater, or from the collected works of Higuchi Ichiyō. Kafū’s innovation lies rather in how he refashions the story into a kind of anti-bunmeikaika novel, and in how he imaginatively reconstructs the rapidly vanishing culture of old Edo. 

The story is set in 1909 in the Shitamachi region of Tokyo, and develops as follows:

Ch. 1- Ragetsu, teacher of poetry, wanders to sister's house at night, half-drunk. Background on his disinheritance. 

Ch. 2-7: The Story of Chōkichi and O-ito.

Ch. 2- Chōkichi, 17, waits on bridge for O-ito, 15. O-ito finally arrives, informs him of her new profession.

Ch. 3- Autumn. Chōkichi is despondent, wanders streets, stalks O-ito.

Ch. 4- Chōkichi's troubles worsen.

Ch. 5- Early December. Chōkichi encounters a transformed O-ito.

Ch. 6-7- The theater world of Miyatoza. Chōkichi meets with old friend Kichi, who is now an actor.

Ch. 8-10: The Ragetsu Advises Chōkichi

Ch. 8: O-toyo meets with Ragetsu to discuss Chōkichi. Ragetsu, against his better intuition, sides with O-toyo. O-toyo takes omens from an Asakusa temple.

Ch. 9: While on a walk, Ragetsu advises Chōkichi to obey his mother and finish school rather than pursue a career in the theater. Chōkichi wanders streets, recalls Shunsui’s “Calendar of Plum Blossoms.”

Ch. 10: Beginning of summer. Melodramatic ending. Senzoku and Yoshiwara are underwater. Ragetsu visits sister, finds Chōkichi ill with typhoid fever, watches house while Chōkichi is taken to the hospital. Snoops about house, finds letter. Realizes that Chōkichi might have attempted suicide after losing O-ito and being advised not to become an actor. Ragetsu regrets the advice he gave the boy, and vows never again to betray the boy.

II. The Two Worlds of 1909 Japan - Meiji Modernity vs. Shitamachi Plebeian Culture

First, let me briefly define the two conflicting social spheres depicted in the story. The driving idea behind the Meiji period was modernization, which sought the creation of a westernized, industrial-capitalist nation-state. The center for this new nation-state was, of course, Tokyo, particularly the “high-city” regions surrounding and west of the Tokyo castle. The stated goal of the nation was bunmeikaika
, or “cultural enlightenment,” and risshin shussei, or “self-realization and social enhancement,” was the personal goal of much of its citizenry. Ambition and respectability were highly valued; inefficiency and backwardness – including the perceived “backwardness” of the old plebeian culture – were deplored. It is these modern materialist values that dominant the harsh, competitive, and egocentric world that Sanshirō and Hirota-sensei inhabit in Sōseki’s Sanshirō (1908). However, in Nagai Kafū’s story "The River Sumida,"  the older way of life can still be found in certain pockets of the low city near the river.

Located around the Sumida River and Edo Bay,  Kafū’s shitamachi culture was, in contrast to the top-down ideology of Meiji modernization, an amalgam of residual cultural inclinations that were developed and cultivated by the non-elite merchant class. Soon after the Meiji Restoration, the old “vulgar” arts born along these banks came to offer a kind of refuge – especially for Edo elegists such as Nagai Kafū – from the new capitalist ethic. Profligacy and aestheticism – the kind represented in Sumidagawa’s main character Ragetsu – together offered the possibility of resistance to official ideology. 

As Jinnai Hidenobu points out in Chapter Two of Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology (Tokyo kūkan jinruigaku in the original), in the early Edo period sacred places of worship developed not around the city’s center – as was the case in Europe – but in areas removed from the major centers of activity. In the high lands of early Edo, temples were built along the edges of hills, with the woods in the background; in the low city, the temples were set apart from the centers of town, and “jutted toward the water’s edge” (Jinnai, 87). Set apart, these sacred hubs served as a temporary escape from the commercial and personal attachments of the city, and they attracted a motley host of characters ranging from itinerant priests and nuns to musicians, entertainers, and, after the areas had evolved into akusho (or “places of ill-repute”), prostitutes and their customers. In such places, the sacred and the profane had always been inextricably linked, as both the pious pilgrim and the lustful young dandy sought different forms of what was essentially the same thing – escape from the quotidian and the attachments of the city. 

This aspect of the city is the focus of Kafū’s Sumidagawa, though not from the perspective of either pilgrim or dandy. Instead, the work is centered on a former kōshoku otoko (or “amorous man”) who has somewhat settled down, and a young boy who is torn between the high-city and low-city ideologies. Interestingly, the high city – the city’s political center – is barely even mentioned in the work, as all the action revolves instead around the Sumida River, where, in addition to worldly men of taste like Ragetsu, "sinister-looking men" gather around Asakusa Temple (193) and "evil-eyed rickshawmen loiter about" (202). 

But by the Meiji period, these hubs of escape were no longer limited only to those areas surrounding the major temples, but were expanded to include much of the lower city, whose culture served – if not geographically then at least imaginatively – as a sort of fantasy land where writers like Nagai Kafū and Mokutarō Kinoshita could retreat. Henry Smith observes in his essay “Sky and Water: The Deep Structures of Tokyo” that 

“For these 'medievalists,' as the architectural historian Takashi Hasegawa has called them, the appeal of the Edo landscape was essentially pictorial, as framed in the prints of Hiroshige or Kobayashi Kiyochika (1877-1915)" (33). 

The young, brooding Chōkichi too seeks refuge in these pictorial corners of the city, as evidenced by his numerous wanderings around these neighborhoods. During one such brood, he happens upon the address of the fictional Tanjirō of Tamenaga Shunsui's Calender of Plum Blossoms.[1]
"How he wished that he could have lived just such a life. . . The dreams spread their wings, the blue sky was bluer and higher. From the distance came the sound of a confectioner's flute. The weird, low strain, unexpected in these back streets, added a touch of sadness, mysterious and quite beyond description. . . . For a time Chōkichi forgot his dissatisfaction with his uncle. For a time he forgot the anguish of reality" (215).
Risking oversimplification, I think it might be possible to see each of the story’s characters in terms of their identification with either of two cultural spheres. Ragetsu and Chōkichi most obviously represent the newly marginalized Edo plebeian culture, while O-toyo, though a teacher of “vulgar music,” is clearly on the Meiji side of the ideological divide.
Shōfūan Ragetsu, the disinherited poet-profligate who teaches the composition of haikai poetry for a living, is the story’s hero. Roaming the night streets half-drunk, and stealing the occasional peep at the women bathing behind the fences, Ragetsu is a far cry from the model Meiji citizen of the day. Though once heir to a pawnshop in Koishikawa, he has been disinherited by his family for refusing to renounce his degenerate ways, and, although married (to a former prominent geisha), he and his wife are childless. But more importantly, it is above all his knowledge of and fondness for the old Edo art forms, along with his vow of loyalty to the boy at the end of the story – " . . . there would have been no point to it unless he helped Chōkichi become an actor, and brought him and O-ito together. The name of Shōfūan Ragetsu, master of poetry, man of the world, had been shamed" (217) – that place him firmly in the shitamachi camp.

For Nagai Kafū, it is exactly this figure of the profligate-scholar who serves as the perfect apparatus for critic of modernity, for he is, like the more intellectual Ōgaiian bōkansha (or “bystander”), also a kind of bystander who is close enough to the world to observe in detail the vanities and the desires that drive the age, yet who is distant enough to see beyond it, to a kind of eternal backdrop -- a kind of mono no aware -- that lies behind things. Such a brief but evocative vision comes in the first chapter after Ragetsu arrives at his sister’s house in Imado.

“Not quite sober yet, he would from time to time hum a strain of the ballad to himself. Then, his eyes closed, he would let out an unrestrained belch, and, swaying from side to side, glance over at his sister. She was in her forties, and the sad light of the lamp made the emaciated little figure look yet older. And she had once been the pretty, pampered daughter of a successful pawnbroker – the thought did not fill Ragetsu with nostalgia or sorrow or any other mood akin to reality. No, it took him beyond such feelings, and made him think only how very strange it all was. He had been young and handsome in those days himself. He had been popular with the ladies, and he had had his good times, and finally he had been disinherited for all of the seven lives to come. . . . [These memories] would stay in his memory and O-toyo’s as long as the two of them lived, and then one day he and his sister would be gone as well, and so the others would vanish like smoke” (184). 

In Chapter 7, Chōkichi, torn between the desire to become an actor and the duty to fulfill his mother's dream for him to become an official, sits down at Tōshōgū shrine to mull over his fate. Here he begins to perceive the existence of two distinct worlds – the exciting world of the theater, on the one hand, and the harsh world of contemporary Meiji Japan, on the other -- and realizes for the first time which side he is drawn to, and which side those around him are on.
"He compared the ways of the two women, the respectable one who was his mother, and the other, the woman with the past. And he compared the sort of person he had teaching him in school with the sort of person his uncle was" (198).
Other characters on the Shitamachi side of the divide include Kichi, the barber's son and old friend of Chōkichi, who has become an actor in a popular theater troupe, and now goes by the name “Tamamizu Saburō.” There is also the daughter of the pastry shop, O-ito, who is Chōkichi’s longtime friend, but who since beginning her geisha career has developed into quite the sophisticated little 15-year old lady, who has little time for the boyish Chōkichi. There is also the Yoshichō lady who recruits O-ito into the Shitamachi pleasure quarters. There is also Otaki, Ragetsu’s wife, who was once a top mistress at the Yoshiwara house. It is significant that she is contemptuously referred to as the “aunt from Koume” by O-toyo, who is on the other side of the divide. And finally, there is the third person narrator, who closely identifies with both Ragetsu and Chōkichi, yet who is not altogether unsympathetic toward O-toyo's sacrifices for the sake of her son.

On the other side, there are those characters who represent in one form or another the modern Meiji state and its bureaucracy. These include most prominently Ragetsu’s sister, O-toyo, who, despite between a "teacher of vulgar music" (211), clearly belongs in this category, as she will apparently stop at nothing to see her son Chōkichi leave the old Edo world and enter the elite ranks of Tokyo, even if it costs her everything in the process. Other characters that identify with this ethos include O-toyo's husband (who died soon after inheriting the failing business "Sagamiya"), O-ito's father (the deceased carpenter), O-ito's mother, Ragetsu’s dead father (who owned and ran the pawnshop "Sagamiya" in Koishikawa), and the "typical Meiji gentleman" who are the imagined future customers of O-ito (191).

[Still more to come from Mabel Callahan on the parallels between Sōseki's Sanshirō and Kafu's Sumidagawa, and on the various influences from Higuchi Ichiyō, Ise monogatari, and works of the yomihon genre!]


Anonymous said...


Here are some of my notes on the work:

Consubstantiality: Is Chōkichi to Sanshirō as Ragetsu is to Hirota-sensei?

Is Sumidagawa (1909) a Shitamachi rendering of Sōseki's 1908 Yamanote-centered novel Sanshirō? Probably not. But there are some notable similarities between the two works.


Chōkichi shows a preference for the old arts, theater, etc, while the story of the Sanshirō – who is more interested in Western culture and art than Edo culture— is of course a kind of portrait of the artist as a young man. Also, both show a strong dislike toward sports, gymnastics (197), and have a strong aversion to the “Yamato spirit” of the Meiji ideology. Of Chōkichi, the narrator of Sumidagawa writes:

"Always at the head of his class in art and calligraphy (indeed no one could rival him), he found his inclinations taking him in quite another direction from iron bars and judo and the other appurtenances of 'the Japanese spirit'" (Sumidagawa, 197).

The father-figures – Ragetsu and Hirota – are also in some significant ways reflections of each other. Ragetsu is the nostalgic poet-profligate of old Edo – a medievalist as architectural historian Takashi Hasegawa calls him – and a sort of spiritual father to Chōkichi, his consubstantial son. Similarly, Hirota – the Western-educated, old-ethic Confucian medievalist half-wary and half-embracing of the individualism and the egoism of the modern age – serves as the spiritual father of Sanshirō, who is his consubstantial son. The consubstantiality between Ragetsu and Chōkichi is made apparent in several instances, including this passage from Chapter 6, where Chōkichi is wandering about the city streets after seeing the theater.

"As he crossed Imado Bridge, the cold wind struck him square in the face, like a blow from a clenched fist. He shivered, and suddenly from the depths of his throat came a fragment of a Jōruri ballad. He scarcely knew where he had learned it. 'What more can one say? And yet . . .'" (206).

Chōkichi’s sudden recitation of a Jōruri ballad here makes it clear that the very spirit that possesses Ragetsu too possesses Chōkichi. In another scene, Ragetsu reluctantly advises Chōkichi not to worry his mother by becoming an actor— a scene that echoes another from Sanshirō, in which Hirota-sensei advises Sanshirō to obey his mother.

The contrasting relation between Yojirō and his actor-friend Kichi (or “Tamamizu Saburō) too echoes the relationship between Sanshirō and his more worldly companion,Yojirō. (208). The similarities in attitudes toward women between Yojiro and Kichi, and Sanshirō and Chōkichi are also evident.(quotes).


Anonymous said...

You also might want to talk about the works that influenced Sumidagawa:

1. Higuchi Ichiyō influence in Chōkichi/O-ito story. Takekurabe (1895-6) or Nigorie? Songs of innocence (Chōkichi- "would have been capable of putting her off with devious answers, it was true; but he disliked the trouble his conscience gave after so much lying"; also his awkward silence on 200- "Quite struck dumb by the sight of her, Chōkichi could but watch in silence" (200)) contrasted with songs of experience (O-ito's flattery when she visits O-toyo on p. 200- "And how have you been? . . . I've really been very bad about keeping in touch -- but it's all I can do to get out of the house" pretty maseteiru for a 15 year old!). Chōkichi and O-ito are both in between the two worlds, only O-ito is far closer to the world of experience than Chōkichi (194).

Similar parting scene in Higuchi story (190-1) (girl to become geisha, boy never to see her again) in ...... boy nervous, weak, worried, stammering, solemn; girl resigned to fate, strong, willful, light-hearted, more mature. .

Two-part elegy to the end of youth- 1) for Chōkichi ("It was clear to Chōkichi, as he thought of winter this year and last year, last year and the year before, as he went back through the years-- it was clear to him how much happiness a person loses as he grows up" (199)), and 2) to the end of Japan's youth, ie, the old, Edo culture. Elegiac description of decaying Shitamachi on 215-- "Mossy shingled roofs, rotting foundations, leaning pillars, dirty planks, drying rags and diapers, pots and cheap sweets for sale -- the dreary little houses went on in endless disorder, and when on occasion he would be surprised by an imposing gate, it would always be a factory" (215).

Also Chōkichi's longing for abstract woman - 206 (quote). suggests he is moving closer to world of experience. Conclusion- "Between the old and the young there was an unbridgeable chasm" (214) line refers at once to the Edo-Meiji division, to the more general youth-experience division, and, specifically, to the young Chōkichi's dilemma with his mother, his uncle, his school, and the rest of the adult world.

2. Edo yomihon involution. Chōkichi’s half-assed jisatsu misui at end echoes the jisatsu misui of the play in the earlier chapter.

3. Also Nō play Izutzu 井筒, and before that story of Ariwara no Narihira and his childhood companion, told in Chapter 23 of Ise Monogatari (the major difference of course is that in Ise Monogatari, the two childhood companions end up together).

Anonymous said...

And maybe include some quotes from Smith's "Sky and Water":

"The surfice of the River Sumida was broad and empty again, still and even sad. Over the upper reaches hung a bank of clouds, a last relic of summer, and thin lines of lightning flashed into the gathering night" (188).

Sky and water -- 192-3.

"With the morning sun pouring into it, the lane was bright to its deepest recesses. It was lined by more than little houses with latticed fronts: now, in the daylight, he saw that there were also high-roofed warehouses. There were board fences topped by spikes, and above the spikes the branches of pine trees" (195, Smith's horizontality of Tokyo skyline interrupted by spikes, pine trees, wires, etc.);

Sky scene and river- tiled roofs, factory chimneys, low sky, clouds -- "Because the sunglith was so strong, the tiled roofs and the rest of the scene across the river looked battered and dingy, and the clouds driven off by the wind formed an unmoving layer, considerably lower than the smoke from the factory chimneys" (196). horizontal roofline scene-- "Only the warm sun on the dirty shingled roofs told of the spring. The sky reflected blue from the stagnant water of Hikifune Canal" (210); advertisements all over city skyline "On dirty boards at the corners of houses were pasted advertisements for medicine and fortune-tellers, and scattered among them were notices that factory girls were needed" (212).


Anonymous said...


And here's a list of place names that appear in the work:

Sumidagawa 隅田川

Asakusa 浅草

Imado 今戸


Hikifune canal曳船

Azuma bridge吾妻橋 "swarming with people" (210)

Narihira Bridge 業平橋--

Inari Shrine稲荷神社?宮?

Matchi hill 待乳山- above Asakusa

Imado Hachiman-gu 今戸八幡宮- New Year's festivities held around it.

Komagome 駒込- where father currently buried

Yanaka 谷中- possible new site for burial

Koishikawa 小石川- site of Sagamiya pawn shop, which O-toyo's husband at one point inherited

Yoshichou芳町-- geisha house. where O-ito is to be employed

Sanya Canal山谷掘割

Keiyoji grove

Imado bridge今戸橋

Chōmeiji Temple長命寺?


Jikatamachi 地方町-- where O-ito and Chōkichi were grammar school students together

Miyatoza theater宮戸座--

Hashiba 羽柴- the lady from Hashiba who spots O-ito

Matsubaya 松林- location of Hashiba lady geisha house, where O-ito now works.





Asakusa Bridge浅草橋 -- Chōkichi wanders from Komagata to Kuramae to Asakusabashi to Bakurochou in the stalker chapter (194)

Meiji theater明治座

Ryougoku Bridge両国橋


Tōshōgū shrine東照宮-- where Chōkichi meditates.

Douryou-ji temple 同僚時- jar of sweets bought there

Awashima shrine--

Shintomiza theater新富座- where Ii Yōhō (1871-1932) troupe performs

Ryuuganji 了願寺- at Kameido, poetry meet scene, Chōkichi and Ragetsu walk there together for chat.

Oshiage Canal- the two walk along

Myōkenji 妙見寺temple-

Tenjin shrine亀戸天神宮

Tenjin Bridge天神橋

Other Particularities of Culture

Miyako Shinbun都新聞

Tokiwazu School 常磐津 Music Style

Ballad of Koina and Hanbei小いなと半兵衛 - "A story of violent but steadfast love between a geisha and a man of the merchant class. It is to be found in several schools of Edo balladry, including Tokiwazu." (Seidensticker's note)

Tamenaga Shunsui’s Spring Colors: A Plum Calendar (春色梅暦Shunshoku umegoyomi)[1]

Ballad of O-sai and Hachirōbei仇縁浮名棒-

Story of Izayoi 十六夜 and Seishin清心 from “Kosode Soga Azami no Ironui"小袖曽我薊色縫-- shinjū misui play performed by theater group at Miyatoza; previous waiting scene between Chōkichi and O-ito echoed in play (204 - "The singers took up again . . . .").

Nagauta長唄- style of song

Sanja festival三社祭

Dōjōji道成寺 No play, type of dance performed by O-ito in Sanja festival (189)

Otori Matsuri?

Senzoku street洗足-

Mabel Callahan