Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ishikawa Jun’s “Moon Gems”

This rough draft just in from Tunisia-based German orientalist and biblical commentator Johann Weiß:
Nine years after winning the fourth annual Akutagawa award for his novel Fugen,[1] Ishikawa Jun (1899-1987) wrote the short story Meigetsushu (1946)[2] , publishing it in Mitabungaku soon after Japan's surrender. In this essay I will examine how Ishikawa, by associating his narrator[3] with the old world of Edo’s shitamachi,[4] creates in his story “Moon Gems” the persona of watashi— the marginalized and self-effacing narrator through whom the author makes a plea of resistance that, although disguised in humor and indirection, is at once aesthetic and political.
Three Figures on the Margins: Watashi and His Two Foils
Out of place in his geographic and historical setting, the unnamed narrator of "Moon Gems" is the quintessential "superfluous man,"[5] trapped in a cramped and shabby apartment in the Yamanote section of Tokyo in 1945. The only place that offers him any freedom is a windy, vacant lot near his house. Usually, in circumstances of war the individual is faced with three options: escape, collaboration, or political resistance. However, for watashi, by this point in the war fleeing the country is out of the question, and Japan's provincial regions certainly offer nothing better; and although working for “Boots” as a propaganda writer might offer him some security, the kind of false freedom procured by selling-out are not what he seeks; and, thirdly, while joining an underground political movement might provide him with the hope of ending the decade-long nightmare, it is altogether too risky – besides, he was never the adventurous, physical type to begin with. Thus, our unnamed narrator instead opts for a fourth way out: the withdrawal into the imagination, symbolized by the “acte gratuit” of learning to ride a bicycle. Absurd though the act may be, symbolically it amounts to a powerful expression of resistance which offers him a chance to clamber out from his underground state (“chika isshaku no kubonda ichi”), even if it is to an only slightly higher elevation. What is important is that this transformation is of a spiritual and imaginative sort, and will thus require no more than these few feet.[6]
The story is divided into three parts and begins with the narrator's New Year’s visit to the Tomioka Hachiman jingū, the Shintō shrine dedicated to the gods of war.[7] But rather than praying for the success of Japanese forces fighting abroad or for a storm to halt the allied troops’ encroachment upon the mainland— as would be expected of any loyal citizen— the irreverent watashi wishes instead for the gods to bestow upon him the courage and skill needed for the simple task of riding a bike. Though his experience with the bike eventually becomes a symbolic act of noncompliance and escape, he initially takes up the challenge in order to emerge from the snake-pit (“hebi no ana,” 33) of his underground state, and to find his proper role in the "vital operations of the day" (“tōseiyūyō no jitsumu”), which would most certainly involve collaboration of some sort. Ishikawa thus makes clear from the start that watashi is in no way a heroic figure of any proletariat or anarchist resistance. Rather, it is through his association with the vanished world of old Edo— the “mukashi no shitamachi” (36)— which began to erode in the early Meiji period and which by the time of the story had been wholly marginalized by the Westernizing Yamanote culture (Isoda, 15), that watashi is unwittingly made into a model figure of non-compliance. Aesthetically and temperamentally, watashi is allied not with the Yamanote-centered culture of modern Japan, but rather with this old world of Edo, which has been tragically shrunk to a single plot of land— the only place that still retains some vestiges (“sono omokage”) of the old culture; and this alliance itself becomes a kind of political statement. Significantly, watashi designates this plot of land as his sanctuary:
『今日ではわづかに山の手の一部にそのおもかげを在しているところがある。紺屋の張場でこそないが、今わたしのいう空地がそれにあたる』(Ishikawa 1966, 36-7)[8]
With his world pulled out from under him, watashi retreats to his underground state, where he momentarily entertains the thought of joining some political resistance movement (though it is hard to imagine any remaining at this point in the war). He decides, however, against such risky endeavors in favor of the far more safe and expedient route to spiritual salvation: riding around and around a vacant, windy lot on a old and dingy bicycle. "I know I must rise,” he proclaims triumphantly, “and casting off this state of ignominy, crawl out upon the ground, there to climb to the height of a single foot and make my made dash through the reality that impinges upon all of us" (Tyler, 39). The moment of comic deflation comes, of course, when we find what this grand task actually involves.[9]
During his interview with “Boots”— a "certain gentleman" from a "certain firm" (all proper names, with the exception of Mr. Gūka, are concealed for the ostensible purposes of “national security”)— watashi reveals a degree of envy for the comfort, assurance, and quasi-freedom available only to the conforming citizens. That he is tempted by the conveniences of obedience is revealed in his adulatory description of the interviewer's military boots, which transfix him as he "submit[s] to the[ir] beautiful shine" (41). He even "dreams of owning" such a lovely pair, which he fancies would well suit his new bike. But so long as he is unable to ride a bicycle, he tells himself, he is forever barred from the world of these shiny boots, and, dejected, he returns to his subterranean state. We must bear in mind, then, that it is not by choice but by default that he begins his symbolic act of resistance.
Significantly, watashi chooses as his bike instructor a young girl from the neighborhood whose left leg is markedly shorter than her right. The technique of drawing attention to easily overlooked similarities through startling juxtapositions is a common technique of kyōka poetry, and one that is frequently employed by Ishikawa, as I will discuss later in this essay. Indeed, the poor, crippled girl and the erudite, aging man[10]— who seem to have nothing in common— do make for an odd pair. Yet they share one important similarity: both are marginalized figures. In this sense, the girl serves as a foil for watashi, since it is through her presentation that certain features of the narrator are emphasized. For example, the girl’s debilitating limp precludes her from taking part in the activities of the Girls’ Volunteer Corps (女子挺身隊), which would otherwise be mandatory. Similarly, our narrator, although not physically handicapped, is, according to the ethos of the day, "morally handicapped" for his reluctance to participate in Japan’s noble project of unifying Asia under the Japanese emperor. Though it is true that his age disqualifies him from military service, watashi would still be obliged to serve in some capacity. Yet, as evidenced by his refusal to use his writing in the service of empire and by his request to work in physical labor— absurd given his age and clumsiness— watashi is entirely uneager to comply, and thus, like the girl, is relegated to a marginal and underground existence. The main difference, of course, is that, compared with the girl, watashi more willfully brings about his own marginalization.
Yet this link of a mutually-shared marginalization is not evident at first glance; rather, it is conveyed subtly and through understatement, and, almost counterintuitively, through Ishikawa’s highlighting of their jarring differences: the girl’s graceful handling of the bike in contrast to the old man's clumsiness, the bike that yields to the caresses of the girl in contrast to the way it intractably resists him, and so on. Thus, the more Ishikawa brings out these kyōka-esque differences, the more we are made aware of the existential similarities shared by these two characters.
The pair begin their first lesson on the windy, vacant lot, above which lives the story's heroic figure, the famed hermit-poet Mr. Gūka, who, as Tyler points out in his notes, is based on Nagai Kafū 永井荷風 (1879-1959).[11] Having never actually met the cliff-dwelling poet, watashi knows the enigmatic figure only peripherally, through his distant observations and the second-hand accounts of neighbors. Yet despite watashi’s understated claim that his interest in the poet is limited to his footwear and to the occasionally shared glance, it is apparent that a sort of spiritual bond links the two, as watashi sees in Mr. Gūka the ideal to which he himself (however unsuccessfully) aspires. While to other neighbors, Gūka might be no more than an old curmudgeon, to watashi he is the heroic, world-renouncing hermit who thinks nothing of his contemporary world and its human-reeking ("ningen kusai") vulgarity, and who is instead wholly committed to the pursuit of art and the reconstruction of a vanished past.[12] This hero-hermit lives as if in a vacuum, hermetically sealed from the vulgar world and its passing fads. “The Lotus,” our narrator explains, “lives alone and is said to be engaged in the composition of a work that he chooses to keep from all eyes” (Tyler, 46). We also learn from our narrator that he seldom takes visitors. His withdrawal into art is so complete that the world of “facts”— of war, privations, fear, and death— concern him little, or if they do, they repulse him enough to drive him further into the world of art, imagination and nostalgia. This is Gūka’s preferred method of resistance— of turning his back on the present in pursuit of the lost world of the plebian Edo culture (“mukashi no shitamachi”)— and it also comes to serve as watashi’s model for resistance. Thus, much in the same way that the presentation of the limp girl highlighted watashi’s own marginalization, so too does the presentation of Gūka reveal watashi’s own aesthetic— and by implication, political— temperament.
Kyōka, Ōta Nanpo and Ishikawa’s Mad Prose
The influence of Edo culture and art – particularly of kyōka poetry— looms large in the writings of Ishikawa, and this is nowhere more evident than in “Moon Gems,” which despite being a work of prose employs many of the techniques perfected by the old kyōka masters. The most noteworthy stylistic mentor to Ishikawa was Ōta Nanpo大田南畝 (1749-1823), the great poet of the Tenmei 天明 era (1781-1789), which, along with the Genroku 元禄 (1688-1703) and Bunka/Bunsei 文化・文政 (1804-1830) eras, ranks as one of the "three pinnacles in the cultural history of the Tokugawa period." Tyler explains:
For Ishikawa, Tenmei was a time when a panoply of kyōka poets, sharebon novelists, ukiyoe artists, nanga painters, and patrons of the arts – Ōta Nanpo, Santō Kyoden, Suzuki Harunobu, Watanabe Kazan, and Tsutaya Jūsaburō . . . formed a series of coteries, or kyōka-ren, in which by setting aside the social distinctions of Tokugawa feudalism and, furthermore, ‘secularizing’ (zokuka) the traditional canon of Japanese literature, they recreated themselves as ‘disguised Genjis’ (yatsushi Genji) and ‘glorified Komachis.’ (Tyler, 187)

The Princeton Companion to Japanese Literature defines kyōka or kyōku as “mad poems. Waka with a humorous or witty cast of language or thought,” and goes on to note that “word plays involving several meanings were especially popular” (287). The genre, it points out, was intended to “appeal to a popular audience” (287). Among the major collections of kyōka, which is said to begin with the Gyōgetsubō’s Sake Hyakushu in the early 14th century, is the joint work of Ōta Nampo and Akera Kankō, titled Manzai Kyōkashū and compiled in 1783 (361). The Companion also notes in the same entry:
Kyōka – ‘mad waka’ – were composed from fairly early times, as early as the Kamakura period. But at that period waka was so highly esteemed that ‘mad waka’ was a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. That fact explains why kyōka really developed in Muromachi, and chiefly in Edo, times. Given the cultivation necessary to effect difference, and the desire to write poems that made the difference, it will be clear that the practice was chiefly that of the warrior aristocracy and of learned townspeople. (360)

Until quite recently, non-native scholars of Japanese literature have tended to overlook kyōka poetry, focusing instead on the “purer” waka forms of earlier periods. Donald Keene, perhaps the most conspicuous of the previous generation of scholars, apparently was not too fond of kyōka, calling it a "minor form of poetry." In his World Within Walls, Keene wrote that "their [i.e., the kyōka poets'] fascination with trivialities . . . was clearly the result of a disinclination or inability to face the world seriously" (Keene, 519). "We are apt to form the impression," he continues, "that the kyōka poets lacked subjects of their own; that was why they so often resorted to parody.”[13] However, as I discuss later in this essay, it is clear from “Moon Gems” that Ishikawa Jun did not share this view. Even in his earlier work “Mar’s Song” (Marusu no uta, 1937), Ishikawa was already touting the glory days of the refined kyōshi poets as an alternative to the miserable present, which was just beginning to spiral out of control. What Ishikawa found in kyōka poetry and their Edo coteries of the Tenmei period was a sort of utopian heterocosm of art which offered an alternative to the nightmare of present Japan.
Ōta Nanpo 大田南畝 (1749-1823), aka Shokusanjin 蜀山人, was a late Edo writer of kyōka and kyōshi poetry, who also wrote kokkeibon, hanashibon, kibyōshi and other kinds of prose. He is best remembered though for his seminal works of poetry, most notably Shokusan hyakushu 蜀山百首 (1818), Manzaishū 万歳集 (A Thousand Centuries of Kyōka, 1783), and Neboke sensei bunshū 寝惚先生文集 (Professor Sleepy Head’s Poems, 1767) (Princeton, 216). According to Tyler, he was "the grand master of the kyōka coteries," and was both a "samurai bureaucrat and a literary light" (188). He was to 20th-century writers Ishikawa and Kafū the supreme model of Edo culture and elegance, admired for his "anti-establishment stance and iconoclastic humor, his cultivated air of aloofness, his uncompromising adroitness at playing the game of public versus private personae (omote/ura), his disdain for personal revelation, and his ability to generate fictions or fabrications that have an artistic integrity independent of the author's life" (Tyler, 189).[14] In a time when the I-novel (“watakushi shosetsu”) and other self-revelatory genres of fiction dominated literary salons, "Ishikawa surely found Nanpo's 'shadowless' transparency to be enviably cool" (Tyler, 189).
Although “Moon Gems” is a work of prose, it shares with kyōka poetry some important features, namely, the use of irony, comic absurdity, and foil techniques of contrast and juxtaposition. Just as such features distinguished kyōka from earlier orthodox forms of haikai and waka— which, after all, had the same formal structure as kyōka— similarly it was these very features that set Ishikawa Jun's writings apart from the orthodoxy of the realist and naturalist literature of the Meiji and early-Taishō periods, and the proletariat and Shirakaba schools of the late-Taishō and early-Shōwa periods. “Moon Gems” particularly abounds with such kyōka-esque stylistics; in fact, the story seems to progress incrementally along this series of startling contrasts, which lead the reader as if across a river, hopping from one image to the next.
As mentioned earlier, in the opening scene we first encounter our prankster-narrator as he is making a highly irreverent, if not treasonous, prayer at the country's central war shrine, the Hachiman jingū. Next we have the parodic description of the interviewer's conspicuously large boots, which to the narrator’s excitable mind appear to overwhelm not only the man but the entire room, as if to symbolize the whole swollen and pompous age. We also have the story's central absurdity – the utterly futile exercise of an aging man belatedly learning to ride a bicycle at the height of the most brutal war in Japan's (and mankind’s) history.
Next, we have the supposed “largess” of the bicycle dealer, who we find out later is overcharging watashi with his "monthly installments of ten yen"— an exorbitant price for an old clunky bike (Tyler, 43). Following this is the narrator’s descriptions of Gūka, which focuses not on the poet’s unmatched literary genius, but rather on his ridiculous attire (47). Specifically, watashi singles out for description Gūka’s komageta clogs, which allow him to move about the earth light years ahead of men, and which serve as a contrast to watashi’s nearly immobile bike that, spinning endlessly in a 3-foot radius circle, goes nowhere (47). In the climactic scene, the labored movements of this clunky bike are compared rather incongruously with the "eight swift stallions of Emperor Mu of the Chou" (48). And, finally, the human vow shared between the girl and watashi (52) is a striking contrast to the ideal of Buddhist non-attachment exemplified by Gūka, whose solitary figure— clutching his books as he watches with an expressionless face his house burn to ash— appears in the imagination of the narrator in the final scene.
The work's climax occurs at the end of Section Two, on the night before the March 10th Tokyo air raids. On this particular night, the moon "seem[s] to have rejuvenated the old bike somehow" and watashi is swept up in a whirlwind that fuses a revived past with an illuminated present. A particularly moving description, the passage here is quoted in full:
Grasping at the light, I climbed aboard . . . As I rode, the wheels of the bike streamed round and round like sprays of water circulating in a fountain. They spun and gained momentum until before long I began to wonder where the bike would carry me. Oh, ancient and iridescent stones that glow in the darkest of nights! Oh, gems of the moon! How rare you are! And how difficult to obtain! The clusters of jewels that filled the small hollow of my hands amounted to nothing more than beams of moonlight that danced about the handlebars. How wonderful it would feel to master the bicycle . . . at least half as well as the little girl . . . faster . . . one fraction of a second faster . . . it has been misery struggling with you, bicycle . . . let me ride smoothly, gracefully, naturally . . . we are no longer here . . . it is long, long ago . . . once upon a time . . . a poet from the West was saying . . . long before anyone else . . . 'Nothing is more likely to propel us headlong down the path to barbarism than a single-minded obsessions with spiritual purity . . . .' (49-50).

In what is his first successful ride, watashi summons here in a sort of ghost dance the spirits of the past (Ōta Nanpo and Emperor Mu of the Chō Dynasty), while the titular image of the “meigetsushu” or "moon gems" beams down to dance upon the spokes of the old bike, transforming both it and its rider into something beautiful and new. The vacant plot of land— what remains of “mukashi no shitamachi”— is illuminated by the moon, and the vanished world of the past returns (“ima wa mukashi”). Even the water of the old Venice-esque Edo, which by the Shōwa era had mostly dried up to into a “city of land,” reappears: “sharin wa mizu no nagareru gotoku meguri . .” (44) The once-clunky bicycle crystallizes into a symbol of the transformative powers of the imagination, which at times allow us to transcend, Ishikawa seems to tell us, the limits of this world. Swept up in this flow, watashi, in his altered state, experiences a sort of Taoist epiphany where he is "able to gauge not only how Gūka made his mad dash through terrestrial time but also the elan with which the little girl rode a bike" (48). Significantly, he is no longer the active agent of the sentence, but rather is now “done upon” by verbs in the causative voice (“doko made watashi o hashirashimeru no ka wakaranai,” 44).
This mysterious scene of spiritual transformation, however, comes to a halt in the third and final section, when the historical realities crash upon the story with colossal violence. Here, the bicycle, having been half-mastered by our narrator, returns to its original state as a clunky, old commodity. "Real-world" facts – in this case, the notorious March 10th firebombing of Tokyo in which over a hundred thousands civilians were burned to death in a single night – intrude upon the scene to destroy (momentarily at least) the perfectly self-contained and private world of watashi's imagination that we saw in the previous chapter, propelling us along with him into the horrors of the historical moment.[15] Though at the center of this maelstrom, watashi survives to describe the scene to us in terse understatement, avoiding all metaphor. The spiritual transformation of the previous scene has been interrupted, and with it the magic and madness of expression – of kyōka – is lost. “Mukashi no shitamachi,” culturally marginalized decades before, is now physically demolished. The girl who only a moment ago had been transformed into an "equestrienne" is once again limp:
She was no longer the little girl who rode a bicycle with the greatest of ease. She was a young lady who would go through life handicapped, sadly enough, by a bad leg (51).

In “Moon Gems,” as in other works, Ishikawa shows a tremendous sensitivity toward the complex interplay of fact and fiction. The world of "facts" (i.e., the "objective" conditions of historical and political realities) and the world of "fictions" (i.e., the filtrations of the world through subjective mind(s) or imagination(s)) seem to interact in a sort of contrapuntal dance where each, vying for dominance, informs and affects the other. Pure fiction is an impossibility, as is pure fact, since the former requires an external impetus and the latter mediation and interpretation. Rather, a balancing act is required, and it is Ishikawa who, always conscious of the pendulum forever swinging between these two realms, seems more than any other writer to be aware of the distinction— or rather the interaction— between the two poles. We see this awareness also in “Mar’s Song,” in which the story’s narrator, like watashi of “Moon Gems, struggles to continue his work of fiction amid the incessant interruptions from the ubiquitous war chorus, “Mar’s Song.” In “Moon Gems,” it is no longer just the noxious eruptions of song in the streets; instead, the facts of the day – specifically, the worsening news from abroad, the invasion of the homeland, the “shattered gem” suicidal fanaticism (“gyokusuisen玉砕戦) that is prolonging the war — have accumulated to such a point that they can no longer be kept at bay. These external circumstances themselves abruptly barge in to the work, forcing the writer aside, and the more authority and presence they hold, the less room there is for the imagination, play, levity and creativity that belong to the realm of fiction; the prevalence of one excludes that of the other.
On the day following the attacks, with the wasted city and its charred bodies before him, our narrator can only hint at the scene by referring to the Toribeno crematorium and burial grounds of ancient Kyoto.[16] The space required for any modicum of imagination, humor or levity has been choked out by this scene smoldering before him, leaving the narrator with only one option: to describe, without irony, in the naked description of realism (in something similar to Tayama Katai’srokotsunaru byōsha[17]), the smell of the charred and burning bodies (“mono no yakeru nioi,” 49):
That was the smell that had permeated my clothing. I stopped, and letting the brush hang idly by my side, I fell into a wooden silence. My sadness knew no bounds (53).

Here the narrator has shifted from the realm of kyōka to the realm of traditional waka, which values the directness of subjective expression over innovation and technical skill, and is nearly always about loss and sadness. This, indeed, is no time for kyōka.
But in Ishikawa’s works, the narrative voice is continuously roving between the worlds of fact and fiction, and one world never permanently usurps the other. Toward the end of this final section of “Moon Gems,” the narrator's transformational powers of imagination are revived in a vision of the hermit Mr. Gūka, who appears to watashi’s imagination in sadly heroic form, holding his only remaining possessions – a few manuscripts – while standing against the burnt remains of his hut. Like a giga comic painting 戯画, the tragi-comic vision appears in our narrator's head:
Man stripped of everything but his manuscript, standing on a rise, blown by intemperate winds, and bathed in a shower of sparks, as he quietly watched his house collapse in flames. (Tyler, )
In the scene following the bombing, words fail the narrator, and the only appropriate response is silence: language lacks the stuff needed to articulate such large-scale devastation. But in the end the word survives, as the narrator composes again a kyōka ("Love Song for a Bicycle"), after which the bright moon returns, and the bike— our symbol for the transformative power of imagination— shines once again after a good polishing. The “mukashi no shitamachi” of Edo seems to be have been exhumed, though not as a physical space, but as a subjective realm in the imagination of watashi. But this time watashi’s attachment for the vehicle is gone. Does this loss of attachment mark the defeat of the imagination? Or, having "completed the circle," has our narrator reached a stage of enlightenment where the tool (hōben) is no longer needed? The story ends in ambiguous terms, suggesting that a variety of interpretations are possible.
Thus, the bicycle, which has served as symbol for the transformative powers of imagination and art, also functions as watashi’s “vehicle”— or “hōben”— for a sort of spiritual enlightenment. The “vehicle,” Ishikawa seems to imply, is but a means to an end, and in fact could be anything— a shovel, a tricycle, the sutras, music, classical art, linked verse, or anything else— so long as it enables the narrator to flee, in some capacity, the burdens of the historical moment and reach his idol, Mr. Gūka, who through his own “vehicle” has already attained a sort of liberation. In this essay, I have shown how Ishikawa, by buffeting his story’s narrator, watashi, with the two fellow marginalized figures of Gūka and the girl, and by associating him with the lost world of Edo and its plebian culture, has created this powerful persona of watashi, through whom he has made a plea of resistance that is both aesthetic and political.

Works Cited
Dower 1999
John Dower. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War Two. W.W. Norton and Company. 1999.
Ishikawa 1966
Ishikawa Jun 石川淳. Meigetsushu 明月珠. In vol. 2 of Ishikawa Jun Zenshū 石川淳全集. Chikuma Shobō, 1966.
Ishikawa 1998
Ishikawa Jun. The Legend of Gold and Other Stories, trans. William Jefferson Tyler. University of Hawaii Press, 1998.
Ishikawa 2007
Ishikawa Jun石川淳. Ishikawa Jun Tanpen shōsetsusen 石川淳短篇小説選. Ed. Sugeno Akimasa菅野昭正. Chikuma Shobō, 2007.
Miner, et al 1985
Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell. The Princeton companion to classical Japanese literature. Princeton University Press, 1985.
Richie 1999
Donald Richie. Tokyo: A View of the City. Reaktion, 1999.
Isoda 1990
Isoda Kōichi 磯田光一. Shisō to shite no tōkyō : kindai bungaku shiron nōto 思想としての東京 : 近代文学史論ノート. Kodansha, 1990.
Keene 1976
Donald Keene. World within walls: Japanese literature of the pre-modern era, 1600-1867. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
Britannica Online Encyclopedia. January 12, 2008.
Fukagawa: A Blue-Collar Working District” Posted on the “Edo Castle” website at January 16, 2008.
“Sumptuary Laws of Kansei Reforms.” Posted on the “Berkeley Spectacle” website. January 15, 2008.

[1] Translated by William J. Tyler as The Bodhisattva, or, Samantabhadra (1990).
[2] Meigetsushu is translated as “Moon Gems,” and is included in William J. Tyler’s The Legend of Gold and Other Stories (1998).
[3] In general terms, mitate can be described as the depiction of one thing through the presentation of something else. In traditional waka, it is also associated with a kind of “elegant confusion,” such as that seen in the famous poem where falling cherry blossoms petals are mistaken for snow. In Ishikawa’s story “Moon Gems,” the story’s narrator, watashi, is given an added depth through the mitate presentation of the two supporting characters, Gūka and the young girl.
[4] According to Donald Richie, the term shitamachi refers to the "'towns below' and refers to those areas beneath the castle but still within the city limits. Edward Seidensticker has felicitously translated the term as 'Low City' – the hills became the Yamanote, the 'High City'. He has also estimated that the Low City, which gave Edo so much of its character, only occupied about one-fifth of the city. . . . It now occupies even less, the High City has grown so much. Yet the traditional Low City perseveres, even now remaining different in feeling from the Westernized Yamanote. Now comprised (according to the Shitamachi Museum) of Kanda, Nihombashi, Kyobashi, Shitaya (Ueno), Asakusa, Honjo and Fukagawa, it still retains what little is left of the feel of old Edo - distinctly plebian, also fun-loving, less inhibited than those remains of areas where the military aristocracy, the shogunate, observed its rules of decorum"
(Richie, 23).
[5] The term “superfluous man,” or Lishny Chelovek in Russian, is described as “a character type whose frequent recurrence in 19th-century Russian literature is sufficiently striking to make him a national archetype. He is usually an aristocrat, intelligent, well-educated, and informed by idealism and goodwill but incapable, for reasons as complex as Hamlet's, of engaging in effective action” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Though he gives us no clues regarding his family’s social status, the narrator of “Moon Gems” certainly fits the rest of this description.
[6] In a corrupt age, if engagement with the world is a form of compliance, then its opposite— withdrawal from the world— must be a kind of resistance. Yet in much of the Western discourse on resistance, silence is often regarded as tantamount to collaboration, and political and artistic resistance is thought to require the active struggle against an illegitimate or oppressive force. In the Chinese and Japanese traditions, the wenren (or bunjin) 文人 eremetic mode of resistance has been the predominate strain, and the withdrawal from the world—particularly when it is the withdrawal into the arts practiced by the cultivated man of taste— is seen as one of its most poignant forms. As Tyler notes, if we wish to understand the subject of Japanese literary resistance, we must first comprehend the phenomenon in the terminology of its own tradition rather than in the terms of Western discourse. For example, in “Moon Gems” alone we see several different expressions of resistance: watashi’s dedication to uselessness— an act that implicitly questions the value of what convention wisdom deems “useful” (45); the world-renouncing attitude displayed by Gūka, and, to some extent, watashi (46); the respectful references to continental literature and culture in a time of war with China (48); and the use of a self-debasing, comic humility as a counterpoint to the hubris and pretension of nationalist ideology (47).
[7] One of more than sixty Hachiman shrines in Tokyo, the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine 富岡八幡神宮 is located in the blue-collar Fukugawa district of Tokyo and "was built around 1625, not long after the main canal from Edo to Gyotoku was completed. The shrine is dedicated to the war god, Hachiman. Many of Japan's major cities— especially cities that have served at the headquarters of the bakufu military government— have shrines to Hachiman" (
[8] “Today there are only a few places that retain such vestiges [of shitamachi], and they are to be found only in a part of the Yamanote section of the city. This space that I have chosen, though not a dyer’s lot, is one of the few still left” (my translation).
[9] Indeed, this sort of comic spirit is one of the aspects that distinguish wartime and post-war “shin-gesakusha” writers such as Dazai Osamu, Ibuse Masuji, Oda Sakunosuke, and Ishikawa Jun as pliant voices of resistance.
[10] Though the exact age of the narrator is not given, we can safely assume that he is approximately the same age Ishikawa was at the time (forty-six), as evidenced by the girl’s referring to him as “oyaji” and by the narrator’s following description about himself: 『わたしはもはやさう若いともいへない年輩になつてゐいて』 (Ishikawa 1966, 36)
[11] Gūka or ("Lotus Flower") shares with Kafū's (or "Lotus Breeze") the same character for lotus, . Whether or not the image of Mr. Gūka – or of Kafū, for that matter— that watashi (and Ishikawa) construct corresponds to the characters themselves is not clear, and nor is it important, since it is watashi and his filtered visions of Mr. Gūka and the world that are our main concern in this story. What is clear, however, is that the world associated with Gūka is the ideal to which watashi aspires, and that what the imperfect watashi sees in Mr. Gūka is the perfected image of himself.
[12] In fact, many of Kafū’s works— most notably Bokutō kidan, Ame shōshō, and Sumidagawa— are self-conscious exercises in the creation and destruction of an imagined past. In Ame shōshō, Kafū writes through one of his characters: "The samisen, with the Kabuki and the Ukiyoe, had little to do with our society and our standards. It was not a living voice. A murmur from the past, it was an art whose sweet-sad melancholy could produce limitless emotions and poetic impulses – it was like ‘the woman of Shang, unaware that her country was lost, who went on singing, beyond the river, of the flower in the inner garden’. . . . In sum, we were toying with Edo music as with antiques" (Seidensticker, 263-4).
[13] Keene takes for granted the notion that, for art to be “serious,” it must avoid parody, take as its subject “original” matters, and not rely too heavily on traditional forms and subjects. Other scholars, such as Roy Andrew Miller, disagree. In his essay “On the Difficulty of Japanese Translation,” Miller argues that the entire canon of Japanese literature should be seen as a continuous process of rewriting— or retranslating for a new age— the works of the preceding ages. If Miller is correct in his thesis, then judging a work by its degree of “originality” can no longer be an appropriate method of artistic appraisal.
[14] Like Ishikawa, Ōta Nanpo too suffered the sting of censorship. Often running up against Tokugawa orthodoxy in the Tenmei era (1781-1789), Nanpo had many of his works banned and was even arrested under the Kansei Reforms 寛政の改革 of 1787-1793, a series of strict sumptuary laws issued by the statesman Matsudaira Sadanobu 松平定信 (1759-1829) in order to strengthen the Tokugawa regime. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, they were intended to "to restore the sinking financial and moral condition of the Tokugawa government." In addition to Nanpo, those punished included Santō Kyoden, Tsutaya Jūzaburou, Utamaro, and other gyōji (censors who initially allowed the books to be printed) were exiled from Edo. These reforms set the tone for the later, more repressive Tempo Reforms 天保の改革 of 1842-47.
[15] A total of sixty-six Japanese cities were heavily bombed by US forces during WWII. The firebombing of Tokyo began in early 1945 and continued up through the final days of the war. The worst damage was suffered on Mach 10, 1945, when approximately 100,000 civilians were killed and 65 percent of all homes destroyed. Other than the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the March 10 Tokyo air raids proved to be the deadliest single attack on the Japanese mainland by US forces (Dower, 45-46).
[16] The Toribeno in Kyoto 鳥辺野 is the customary site for cremation and burial in Kyoto. It appears in Genji monogatari and other works of pre-modern literature.
[17] In his 1904 essay “Rokotsu naru byōsha『露骨なる描写』, Tayama Katai 田山花袋 ( 1872-1930) made his attack on what he considered to be the excesses of the literary language, and advocated instead the use of a direct, colloquial prose that was free of unnecessary ornamentation.


Anonymous said...


Here's a list of particularities of culture that appear in the work:

Torinobe in Kyoto 鳥辺- customary site for cremation and burial in Kyoto. (appears in Genji). reference to something (Houjouki?) on p 53?

The Hachiman Shrine 八万神宮 "was built around 1625, not long after the main canal from Edo to Gyotoku was completed. The shrine is dedicated to the war god, Hachiman. Many of Japan's major cities -- especially cities that have served at the headquarters of the bakufu (military government) -- have shrines to Hachiman." (

Ōta Nanpo 大田南畝 (1749-1823), aka Shokusanjin 蜀山人- elegant model of Edo culture, "The grand master of the kyouka coteries" (188); "samurai bureaucrat and a literary light", recognized at early age by Hiraga Gennai (1728-1779); kyōka poet in Tenmei style; suffered under Kansei Reforms (1787-1793); admired by Ishikawa for his "anti-establishment stance and iconoclastic humor, his cultivated air of aloofness, his uncompormising adroitness at playing the game of public versus private personae (omote/ura), his disdain for personal revelation, and his ability to generate fictions or fabrications that have an artistic integrity independent iof the author's life" (Tyler, 189). In a time when the I-novel dominated literary salons, "Ishikawa surely found Napo's 'shadowless' transparency to be enviably cool" (Tyler, 189). Authored Shokusan hyakushuu, Manzaishuu, 寝惚先生文集 (Neboke sensei bunshuu, 1767), 万載狂歌集(狂歌集), 甲駅新話(洒落本), 半日閑話(随筆), 浮世絵類考, 瓊浦又綴(けいほゆうてつ)(1804年), 調布日記

Nihonbungaku houkokukai 日本文学報告会- Japanese Literature in Service to the Nation, founded on May 26, 1942.

wenren eremetic tradition 文人

kazan literati

Along with Genroku 元禄 (1688-1703) and Bunka/Bunsei 文化・文政 (1804-1830), the Tenmei period 天明 (1781-1789) was one of the "three pinnacles in the cultural history of the Tokugawa period." According to Tyler, "for Ishikawa, Tenmei was a time when a panoply of kyouka poets, sharebon novelists, ukiyoe artists, nanga painters, and patrons of the arts -- Oota Nanpo, Santou Kyoden, Suzuki Harunobu, Watanabe Kazan, and Tsutaya Juusaburou . . . formed a series of coteries, or kyouka-ren, in which by setting aside the social distinctions of Tokugawa feudalism and, furthermore, `secularizing' (zokuka) the traditional canon of Japanese literature, they recreated themselves as 'disguised Genjis' (yatsushi Genji) and 'glorified Komachis' (mitate Komachi, in a legacy that is known to us today via the special genre of woodblook prints known as surimono" (187).

Tokugawa orthodoxy in Tenmei era (1781-1789)

Kansei Reforms 寛政の改革 - Numeruos sumptuary laws issued by Matsudaira Sadanobu 松平定信 (1759-1829) in order to strengthen the Tokugawa regime. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, they were a "series of conservative measures promoted (largely during the Kansei era [1789–1801]) by the Japanese statesman Matsudaira Sadanobu between 1787 and 1793 to restore the sinking financial and moral condition of the Tokugawa government." Among those punished were Santou Kyoden, Tsutaya Juuzaburou, Utamaro, and other gyouji (censors who intially allowed the books to be printed) were exiled from Edo. These reforms set the tone for the later, more repressive Tempo Reforms Tenpou Kaikaku of 1842-47. For more on such sumptuary laws, see

Hiraga Gennai (1728-1779)-

67 Japanese cities were firebombed by US forces during WWII. The firebombing of Tokyo began in early 1945 and continued up through the final days of the war. The worst damage was suffered on Mach 10, 1945, when approximately 100,000 civilians were killed and over 1,000,000 homes destroyed. For photos, see


Anonymous said...


1. The phrase "the pen is more powerful than the sword" may not be true in times of war, but is certainly true in narrating war memories and critiquing the war. Ishikawa's political novel is powerful that way because it is ostensibly about hermits and misfits but it is by no means escapist. I would like to see a clearer and more complex discourse on your understanding of time, history and the power of words, without which one cannot fully understand Ishikawa Jun. I think there are points in your essay where you presented an argument in "fact" and "fiction," which is a bit confusing, but a good starting point to rethink the relationship between the narration of history and literature, and how the two are entwined.

2. Ishikawa Jun as a modernist writer can be more fully explored. Consider situating his works in the development of modanizumu from the 20s to the 50s.

3. Your quotes from Tyler are well-chosen, but I cannot but feel that Tyler more or less governs the arguments of the paper, and I am not seeing a breakthrough yet. There is no doubt that the ideas and arguments are yours and many of them well-put, but without a breakthrough, it remains a term paper, not a thesis. By breakthrough I don't mean refuting Tyler's reading, but to bring it a step further by some means or another--contextualize the story differently, include stories outside the scope of his book, etc. Don't choose anything overly long or obscure for an M.A. thesis. It's not so much the scope but the way you formulate a thesis. We can discuss that in person.

4. Finally, think carefully on how you would like to contextualize your author(s) or your stories--in terms of literary history, literary devices, aesthetics, history, politics, or a combination of these aspects. The context determines your thesis.

5. There is a chapter on Ishikawa Jun in Zadankai Showa Bungakushi, Inoue Hisashi and Komori Yoichi (ed), Shueisha, vol.4. That volume may help you contextualize Ishikawa Jun among writers of his time and the historical moment. What is the avant-garde circa 1940s?


Anonymous said...


"There are moments when the radical gesture is to do nothing"

-Your Mother