Shugoro Yamamoto*

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Contemporary Japanese Writers

Shugoro Yamamoto*

Shugoro Yamamoto* 山本周五郎

Shugoro 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 popular works by established writers---to refuse the award.

Yamamoto, whose real name is Satomu Shimizu, became an apprentice at a pawnshop after graduating from elementary school. The proprietor possessed an accommodating view toward academic studies and was especially fond of the highly ambitious Satomu. Satomu, too, has said that he was greatly influenced by this man, from whom he took his pseudonym.

The shop suffered damages in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and Satomu escaped temporarily to the Kansai region. Yamamoto's debut, Sumadera fukin (Near the Sumadera Temple), was based on his experiences during that time.

After the publication of his first book, however, Yamamotoappeared 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 his novel Nihon fudoki (Lives of Great Japanese Women), about the 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 award him with enough.

Mominoki wa nokotta (The Fir Trees 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 and one who has been vilified throughout Japanese literature, as a good man who fights to the end without giving in to solitude 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, Yamamotowrote about characters that 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 sixty-three.

Yamamoto's novels are most commonly characterized by the words "period," "historical," and "popular," but the author himself rejected categorization of popular and serious fiction, demonstrating a consistent pursuit of universal validity and a commitment to technique. Furthermore, he always wrote from the perspective of the common people, illustrating the lives of ordinary folk living their lives 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 town 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 humankind. Yamamoto's eye for observation, his perspective positioned among the common people, and his warm gaze can be felt in all of his works. As a result, his works have been recreated over and over again in various forms that reach out to the hearts of the general public, such as film, television drama, and stage performance. Akahige shinryotan (Tales of Red Beard's Consultations), which was made into the film Red Beard directed Akira Kurosawa, is just one example.

The YamamotoShugoro Awardwas established after the author's death in celebration of his achievements. A prestigious award, it is presented to novels and other literary works with outstanding narratives.


* Nihon fudoki (Shinchosha revised edition, 1958, 294 pages)

* Mominoki wa nokotta (Kodansha, 1958, two volumes, total of 612 pages)

* Akahige shinryotan (Kodansha, 1962, 257 pages)

* Sabu (Shinchosha, 1963, 283 pages)