Shugoro Yamamoto*

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Contemporary Japanese Writers

Shugoro Yamamoto*

Shugoro Yamamoto* 山本周五郎

Shūgorō Yamamoto ( (1903–1967)  ), an aloof, antisocial writer with little interest in other people's commentary, was the first novelist in the history of the Naoki Prize—given out for works of popular fiction by established writers—to refuse the award.

Yamamoto, whose real name was Satomu Shimizu, became an apprentice at a pawnshop after graduating from elementary school. The proprietor was supportive of his employees’ education and was especially fond of the highly ambitious Satomu. The author, too, has said that he was greatly influenced by this man, from whom he took his pen name.

The shop suffered damage in the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, and Satomu relocated temporarily to the Kansai region. His debut under the name of Shūgorō Yamamoto, Sumadera fukin (Near the Sumadera Temple), was based on his experiences during that time.

After the publication of his first book, however, Yamamoto came down on his luck. He scraped by on paychecks he received for the two or three pieces of young adult literature he wrote each month. Gradually, he began publishing works in popular-fiction magazines for adults, and in 1943 Nihon fudōki (Lives of Great Japanese Women), about women of samurai families who lived spirited lives despite their hardships, was chosen for the Naoki Prize. However, the author refused to accept the award. Since then, Yamamoto has declined all prizes, saying his readers reward him enough.

Momi no ki wa nokotta (The Fir Tree Remained), an outstanding novel Yamamoto wrote mid-career, is based on the Date Family Disturbance that took place in the 1660s and 1670s. Yamamoto portrayed Harada Kai (1618–71), a figure central to the incident who has been vilified throughout Japanese literature, as a good man who fights to the end without giving in to alienation or notoriety. The tale did not capture the public's attention when it was serialized in a national newspaper, but the book version became an instant bestseller.

In his later years, Yamamoto created many characters who remain well loved to this day. In Sabu, published in 1963, he depicted the pure and earnest friendship between the handsome and slick Eiji and the crass but sincere Sabu. In 1967, the author died at the age of 63.

Yamamoto's novels are most commonly characterized by the words "period," "historical," and "popular," but the author himself rejected any distinction between popular and serious fiction, demonstrating a consistent pursuit of universal validity and commitment to technique. Furthermore, he always wrote from the perspective of the common people, illustrating the lives of ordinary folk living their days to the fullest. In his own words:

“The issue is not what happened on such and such a day in the year 1600, but the sadness experienced by an apprentice in some merchant household in a neighborhood in Osaka . . . To explore what he tried to do from that sadness: that is the role of literature.”

What the author did through the medium of the historical novel was to make a case for the universality of the human condition. Yamamoto's eye for observation, his stance among the common people, and his warm gaze can be felt in all of his works. As a result, his works have been re-created over and over again in various forms that reach out to the hearts of the general public, such as film, television drama, and theater. Akahige shinryōtan (Tales of Red Beard's Consultations), which was made into the film Red Beard directed by Akira Kurosawa, is just one example.

The Yamamoto Shūgorō Award was established after the author's death in celebration of his achievements. This prestigious honor is presented to novels and other literary works of outstanding narrative.


* Nihon fudōki (Shinchosha, revised edition 1958, 294 pages)
* Momi no ki wa nokotta (Kodansha, 1958, two volumes, total of 612 pages)
* Akahige shinryōtan (Kodansha, 1962, 257 pages)
* Sabu (Shinchosha, 1963, 283 pages)