Shuhei Fujisawa*

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Contemporary Japanese Writers

Shuhei Fujisawa*

Shuhei Fujisawa* 藤沢周平

Shūhei Fujisawa (1927–1997)  grew up in the Shonai region of Yamagata in northeastern Japan, a locale that has had a great influence on his writing. An avid reader of novels since he was in elementary school, Fujisawa paid his own way through Yamagata Normal School, where he became deeply involved in creative writing through the school’s literary journal, Saihyōsen (Icebreaker). After graduation, he was posted to Yutagawa Middle School, where he taught Japanese and social studies while contributing to the magazine Pureryūdo (Prelude). He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, however, and forced to take a leave from his job to undergo a major operation.
Fujisawa arrived in Tokyo in 1957 and joined a trade newspaper, but later drifted from one publication to another as his employers went bankrupt. Meanwhile, he continued writing serious literature with the dream of becoming a novelist. He was dealt a severe blow, however, when his wife, whom he had married in 1959, suddenly died at the age of 28 in 1963. To soothe an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, Fujisawa began writing historical novels and submitting his work to the literary magazine All yomimono.

Fujisawa remarried in 1969, and in 1971 he debuted with the novel Kurai umi (The Dark Sea), which received the All Yomimono Prize for New Writers and was short-listed for the Naoki Prize. In 1973 he received the Naoki Prize for Ansatsu no nenrin (The Annals of Assassination), which portrayed the harsh fate that befalls low-ranking samurai behind the scenes of a power struggle.

The story goes as follows. Kasai Keinosuke has stopped speaking to his old friend Kaihara Kingo since the ritual suicide of Kasai’s father following a failed attempt to assassinate a chief retainer. Kaihara, however, invites Kasai to his house for the first time in a long while, where Kasai finds the domain’s three chief retainers waiting for him. They ask him to assassinate Mineoka Hyōgo, reputed to be one of the most important figures in the domain. They say that Mineoka is the very person driving the domain to ruin by hawking off its assets and padding his own pockets. Kasai feels there is something suspect about the story told by the three retainers. But when Kasai learns that his mother, in an effort to protect her son after her husband’s death, had given herself to Mineoka Hyōgo?the very man his father had tried to kill?he is driven to fury. Without any concern for the interdomain politics involved, he sets out to kill Mineoka for revenge.

The novel Gimin ga kakeru (There Go the Righteous) opens with an unfair but not uncommon order in which the shogun demands that three daimyo switch their territories among one another. The decree is the product of string-pulling by the Kawagoe domain, but an order from the shogun, however unjust, must be obeyed unequivocally. Shōnai lord Sakai Tadakata, his son, and the domain’s retainers attempt to negotiate a cancellation of the order, or at least to have the domain to which they will be transferred padded with additional land. In order to achieve this, however, land taxes must be raised. In steps Lord Matsudaira, Shōnai’s new lord, notorious for imposing high taxes. Alarmed, the domain’s peasants receive guidance from village heads and elders. Severe punishments such as death were generally meted out to peasants who formed factions and disobeyed their lords. However, the Shōnai peasants travel to Edo, the capital, in droves to appeal to the shogun.

The long-selling novel Semishigure (Chorus of Cicadas) is set in the fictional Unasaka domain of the Shōnai region at the end of the Edo period (1603?1867). The father of Maki Bunshiro, a 15-year-old who devotes his time to the sword and his studies, is executed for treason. Bunshirō’s life begins to change course the day he goes to claim his father’s body. He must move to a lesser residence, leaving behind his next-door neighbor and childhood friend, Fuku, a girl for whom he has feelings. His close friend Shimazaki Yosaburō decides to dedicate his life to his studies and leaves for Edo. Another close friend, the openhearted Owada Ippei, continues helping Bunshirō in every way he can. Bunshirō polishes his skills with the sword and climbs up the ranks at his training hall. Meanwhile there have been few ripples in the political struggle that resulted in his father’s execution because a balance of power has been struck among the factions. Bunshirō, now in an important position, learns that his father had been highly regarded by the peasants in the surrounding areas. Fuku, now an adult, is showered with the affections of the domain lord and bears his son, who becomes the source of subsequent infighting. Bunshirō still has feelings for Fuku and jumps into the midst of the political battles. A younger generation that includes Bunshirō ushers in a new era for the Unasaka domain. Twenty years later, Bunshirō, now a village magistrate, visits the nunnery Fuku has joined. She confesses that she had been in love with Bunshirō, and they finally consummate their relationship. However, what awaits them, yet again, is separation.

* Ansatsu no nenrin (Bungeishunju, 1973, 309 pages, Naoki Prize)
* Gimin ga kakeru (Chuo Koronsha, 1976, 334 pages)
* Semishigure (Bungeishunju, 1988, 436 pages)

Books by Shuhei Fujisawa*
  • Book

    The Bamboo Sword and Other Samurai Tales

    This collection of eight short stories presents a cross-section of society as it was in Edo-period (1603-1867) Japan, depicting the lives of people from all walks of life in a realistic and convincing way. Although his stories may involve sudden death fro …