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Oriental Society

Dr. Steven Dodd (SOAS) on ‘The Life & Death of Kajii Motojiro’

Kajii Motojiro was a poet and writer born in Tokyo in 1901, mainly writing in the Showa and Taisho periods, but influenced by the 1868 Meiji Restoration and the interest in Western values and culture. His work comprised only about 20 novellas and short stories, yet the lyrical, melancholy nature of his oeuvre has touched the heart of his readers. Born in 1901, he died in only 1932. Dr. Dodd was especially interested in the concept of impending mortality and finitude in Motojiro’s work. Tragically, KM he was inflicted with tuberculosis at a very young age, largely due to the urban landscape of Japan and the industrialisation epidemic taking place, and people working long hours and night shifts, alternating the same beds; but, like other poets in Western literature whom he idolised who were diagnosed with the disease, it sparked his creativity and his feeling of optimism and intrinsic value in life-experiences. Another influence was the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, which shattered the lives of KM’s contemporaries.

As Dr. Dodd went on to explain in his talk, KM’s work had a certain innocence and profundity, almost a hypnotic metaphysical ring to it. At that period in Japan, the literary world was either obsessed with proletarianism (the works of Marxism and Kropotkin) or modernism (a way of life based on art, culture, and a way of looking at things from an artificial third person standpoint. This is like Kerouac and the Beat Generation). Modernism saw Japan in terms of materialism, department stores, medicines, tenement blocks, ‘amber and jade’ liqueur bottles, baseball and window displays – it was liberal regeneration. In KM’s most celebrated work, ‘Lemons’, the protagonist buys a lemon from a fruit stand, places famous for their garish and vaudeville lighting and vibrant colours of apples, melons, and polished satsumas. The lemon brings him dreams of California suns and a conception of wonder at the ‘other’ world, the West. He is a wanderer in Osaka, Ginza (thus a Gimbura) and Kyoto, looking at people’s lives and admiring the prosaisms and minutiae of everyday people. He then goes into a famous art bookshop called Maruzen, inadvertently leaving the lemon in the shop by accident. The boy walks out and remembers his mistake. He then ‘wishes that lemon could be a bomb to blow this world to smithereens’. In a similar story about voyeurism, the insipidity of the character is transformed into a beautiful sense of him realising what he really is. He sees ‘the one, the other, and then me, a third person – o how we live and experience each other, but we will never know’. So this sense of angst and identity was being explored in a parallel sense with Baudelaire and later Camus, Heidegger and Sartre’s existentialism. However, KM was optimistic about the state of the world instead of feeling himself an ‘obscenely naked, confused mass’ and admired its nuances and vacillating wonder. It is all about discussing absolute questions – ontology, mortality and nothingness.

KM in a sense was a part of the collective consciousness – he too wanted to know what being Japanese actually meant. Was it the new age of modernity, or was it the old fantasy of Yamato? In Motojiro’s tuberculosis period, he was sent to the onsen or hot spring, where the loneliness he felt affected his writing and psychical reflection. However, he used to yearn to be back in the yugashima of Tokyo and the literary salons there, full of men discussing philosophy and thought. He felt he was missing out on his friends like the poet Sakutaro Hagiwara, Masaoka Shiki, Kobayashi Hideo and Kawabata Yasunari. Dr. Dodd explained that in fact Kajii Motojiro wanted to suffer what the literary greats like Yeats and Coleridge had suffered, so that he could talk about his illness, instead of be denigrated as an immoral person and ostracised from society.

Here I quote two passages from "Aru kokoro no fuukei" (ある心の風景):

His thoughts gradually become clearer, like a silhouette emerging from a thick fog. The scenery that disperses and condenses before his eyes begins to seem at times completely familiar, and then at other times completely unknown. Then a certain point is reached, and Takashi can no longer distinguish between his thoughts and the late-night town. His melancholy and the oleander in the darkness are one. An unseen electric lamp traces out an earthen wall, merging its shadow with the darkness, and there his resignation too takes solid form.

At such times, the ring of the Korean bell causes Takashi's heart to tremble. At times, Takashi feels as if his shell of a body is left behind on the street and only the sound of the bell passes through the town. At other times it feels as if a clear mountain stream flows out from near his waist and into his body. It flows about within him, and cleanses his sickness-fouled blood.

I'm gradually getting better.

Dhruv Ghulati OS (MNF)


DATE POSTED: 13 March 2009

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