Japanese Literature After World War II

AS the 50th-anniversary year of World War II draws to a close, a recap of Japanese literature shows that writers have rushed to fill in the creative gap imposed during the conflict, although lingering wartime effects can easily be seen.

When the war ended in 1945, Japanese literature was at an extremely low ebb. The pressure exerted on writers by the military to write in support of the war had on the whole been successful. Many wrote stories and poems that they refused to have included in postwar collections of their writings. Only those who could count on receiving royalties from old works were able to refuse to support the ideals of the "Greater East Asia War."

Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, one who resisted, withdrew to the country, where he continued to work on "The Makioka Sisters," though it could not be published commercially because its relaxed portrayal of life in 1930s Japan was judged to be incompatible with the urgency of the war. But in general, literature remained dormant during the emergency.

Hardly had the war ended than a rush to publish began. Even those who had most ardently supported the war did not take long to adjust to the new climate, and (with rare exceptions) did not attempt either to justify their collaboration or to repent. Writers with backlogs of unpublished works were the first to benefit when wartime restrictions ended.

But before long, the American occupation authorities initiated a new kind of censorship, intended to wipe out militarism and feudalistic thought. This affected the theater particularly. Many of the best-known plays of the Kabuki repertory exalt loyalty, filial piety, and other traditional virtues. But on the whole, writers rejoiced over their newly acquired freedom, though some ironically spoke of the "ration" of democracy the Americans had provided along with rations of foodstuffs.

In 1946, Dazai Osamu (1909-1948), probably the best writer of the immediate postwar years, recalled, "1942, 1943, 1944, 1945 - those were terrible years for us.... But I did not stop writing. I thought that unless I kept on writing doggedly, to the very end, come what may, I would prove myself to be a fake."

The end of censorship not only encouraged new writers but also made possible the unexpurgated publication of the classics of Japanese literature. Tanizaki's translation into modern Japanese of "The Tale of Genji," the supreme work of the literature, could not be published in full during the war because of irregularities it describes in the lineage of the imperial family; and the novels of Saikaku were heavily censored because of their erotic content. Now anything - or almost anything - could be freely published, and writers responded with a flood of new writing. At a time when few other pleasures were available to the public, literature sold as never before. Numerous literary magazines were founded, most of them lasting only a few issues.

The war years figured relatively little in the new fiction, but one novel, "Zone of Emptiness" (1952), by Noma Hiroshi (1915-1991), was acclaimed as a classic and included by enthusiasts in their lists of the best 100 books of all time. This account of a wartime military post was admired because of its revelation of what the Japanese Army was really like, as opposed to the wartime glorifications. And disillusionment with communism in practice, as opposed to its ideals, eventually affected almost all Japanese writers who had ever joined the party or expressed sympathy.

The earlier war years have tended to be overshadowed in contemporary Japanese literature by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the minds of many, the bombs changed Japan from an aggressor into a victim. Innumerable poems and stories have recalled the horrible effects of the bombs, none more successfully than the quietly stated "Black Rain" (1966), by Ibuse Masuji (1898-1993). Oe Kenzaburo (1935) has repeatedly returned in his writings to the bomb and its threat to the survival of humanity. He is also one of the few writers to say forcefully that Japan must make sufficient amends to China and other countries that were the victims of Japanese wartime aggression.

But for most Japanese writers, the war, and even the bombs, have receded into the distance as new crises occupy their attention.

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