Contemporary Japanese Writers

Kunio Tsuji*

Kunio Tsuji* 辻邦生

Kunio Tsuji (1925–1999)   graduated from the University of Tokyo with a degree in French literature, then studied at the University of Paris for three and a half years beginning in 1957. He embarked on a writing career soon after returning to Japan. His grounding in Greek classics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, along with his experiences in France, informed his historical novels.

Haikyōsha Yurianusu (Julian the Apostate) is a full, ambitious narrative of the life of the Roman emperor Julian (AD 331?363), who acceded to the throne at the age of 30 and died less than three years later. A follower of Roman polytheism, he was dubbed an apostate by later generations for his oppression of Christianity after it had been officially approved.

Tsuji is determined to clear Julian’s name. In the novel Julian loses his mother as a young child, and his father (the younger brother of the emperor Constantius) is later murdered by Constantius’s successor. Of all Julian’s kinfolk, he and his half brother Gallus are the only males to survive the massacre. They are kept under house arrest and given a Christian education. In the meantime, Julian discovers the Greek classics, becoming enamored of Plato and conceiving a desire to live the life of a philosopher. When Gallus is charged with rebellion against the throne and executed, Julian comes under suspicion as well but is rescued by Empress Eusebia. At age 24, he goes from being a bookish recluse to Caesar, leading hard-fought battles at Gaul and clashing politically with the eunuchs who surround the emperor and empress. Underlying the story is Julian’s spiritual love for Eusebia. It would be interesting to compare this work with Julian, the carefully researched novel by Gore Vidal.

Another well-known historical novel by Tsuji is Saigyō kaden (A Life of Saigyō). After taking the tonsure, the poet-monk Saigyō (1118?90) set out on a series of poetic journeys, honing his sensibility amid the beauties of nature. In this sense he was a precursor of the great haiku poet Bashō (1644?94) and the very embodiment of wabi (rustic simplicity) and sabi (loneliness), core concepts in Japanese aesthetics. With hana (cherry blossoms) as a motif, Tsuji portrays the life of Saigyō against the turbulent transition from an ancient court-centered society to new military rule by samurai. Saigyō loses his father at an early age and devotes himself to martial arts, seeking to acquire a low-level bureaucratic position. He especially excels at kemari (a court game similar to juggling a soccer ball) and becomes a guard to the emperor’s father, the retired emperor Toba. Saigyō falls in love with Taikenmon’in, the retired emperor’s consort, with whom he carries on a relationship until, awakened by the appeal of tanka and convinced that poetry has power to change men’s destinies, at age 23 he gives up this passion that means betrayal to his lord. He casts aside his rank and becomes a monk. The novel vividly depicts Saigyō working behind the scenes to save the court from political intrigue and crossing swords with leaders of the samurai class, the new force to be reckoned with.

The novel Hikari no daichi (Land of Light), which was serialized in a newspaper during Tsuji’s later years, is set in the sunshine-rich land of Tahiti. Aguri, a young resort worker in her early twenties, is one of Japan’s top surfers. She becomes embroiled in a power struggle among members of a new religion posing as Japanese tourists; they attempt to sacrifice her as a sacred virgin and she nearly dies at sea, but is rescued by a French former model named Josie. Aguri and Josie, neither of whom is able to love a man, are strongly attracted to one another, and in time Aguri comes to understand the meaning of her parents’ divorce. The author invests hope for the future of today’s stifled society in this innocent young girl who regains the light.

* Haikyōsha Yurianusu (Chuo Koronsha, 1972, 720 pages, Mainichi Art Award)
* Saigyō kaden (Shinchosha, 1995, 526 pages, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō Prize)
* Hikari no daichi (Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1996, 326 pages)