Contemporary Japanese Writers

Jun Ishikawa*

Jun Ishikawa* 石川淳

Jun Ishikawa (1899–1987)  was born in Asakusa, a plebeian shitamachi section of Tokyo. He graduated with a degree in French literature from the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages and taught French at Keio University in 1923, moving the next year to Fukuoka University. After he voiced support for left-wing student causes, he was asked to resign. In 1936 he won the Akutagawa Prize for his story Fugen (The Bodhisattva). The postwar period was a highly productive time for him: he published works including Yakeato no Iesu (Christ amid the Ruins) and Shōjo kaitai (Virginal Conception) and became known as a member of the burai-ha, the "ruffian" school of writing, along with the likes of Osamu Dazai and Sakunosuke Oda. Ishikawa built a unique literary world based on a profound knowledge of Japanese, Chinese, and Western classics, bringing into play a free-ranging imagination and a critical attitude toward contemporary society tinged with the anarchist spirit of his youth. In his later years, Rokudō yugyō (Travels through the Six Lower Worlds) and Kyōfūki (Tale of a Mad Wind), works of fresh literary ambition with astonishingly imaginative stories, won him a huge following among young readers.

Hakutogin (Lays of the White-Haired) is set in Tokyo in 1921, a turbulent time marked by the assassination of Prime Minister Takashi Hara. Shin'ichi Obana, a 20-year-old college student, is engaged to Shōko, the granddaughter of a businessman with political ties, whom he wishes to marry for politically strategic reasons. At the same time, Shin'ichi is sleeping with Miwako, the second wife of his politician father, Shinsaku; he also has a girlfriend named Shimako, an actress and the younger sister of his anarchist friend Noboru. Shin'ichi's father wants to send his son to college overseas, not only because he is wary of Shin'ichi's relationship with Miwako, but because he is suspicious of the boy's friends, including Ryaku-den, Geta Tetsu, and Bura Han, who have terrorist leanings; Santarō Kozue, a cosmopolitan translator fluent in 19 languages; and the members of Shimako's theatrical troupe. Shinsaku fears that his son may become involved in an incident that could put an end to his own political life. Shin'ichi, too, after experiencing scheming, betrayal, and general madness, becomes aware that he really has no choice but to go overseas.

Ishikawa's later work Travels through the Six Lower Worlds is set in 8th-century Nara, the capital of Japan in the Tenpyō period, when Fujiwara no Nakamaro was in power. Odate, the leader of a band of brigands, has long wished to become an ascetic on nearby Mount Katsuragi. One evening, invited by the spirit Byakuroku, he crawls through a hole in a great cryptomeria and time-warps to the present era. From that point on, he travels freely between past and present. In the present, the stripper Matama gives birth to a son she names Tamamaru, quits her night job, and becomes a manager of cabarets and condominiums. In the past, Odate finds that Nakamaro has fallen out of favor with the empress and has been replaced by the Buddhist monk Dōkyō, who has worked his way into the empress's affections. Odate's travels through time afford him the opportunity to observe power struggles and Machiavellian schemes playing themselves out until finally, seen off by Byakuroku, he flies away to Mount Katsuragi.

Tale of a Mad Wind, a major work that took Ishikawa over ten years to write, focuses on the young woman Hime, whose ancestor was pilloried to death on Kyoto's Sanjō Ōhashi bridge and whose mother, because of a complicated love affair, was stabbed and left to die on a highway. Hime leaves her mother's bones at the foot of a mountain, enlisting the help of Mago to shovel through vast mounds of rubbish. While doing this, Mago unearths the naked body of a man. Mago and Hime, who have begun a sexual relationship, learn that the man is the former president of the Yanagi Trading Company who died on top of his beautiful secretary; his younger brother is the current head of the company. It was his brother-in-law, the managing director of the firm, who disposed of the body in an attempt to bury the scandal, but this does not please the dead man's son, who allies himself with the managing director's younger brother. A great battle ensues where friend and foe are indistinguishable and where space and time are twisted and transcended, followed by a great war between vengeful spirits and demons. Finally the story comes full circle, returning to the darkness of night at the base of the mountain.

* Hakutogin (Chuo Koronsha, 1957, 213 pages)
* Kyōfūki (Shueisha, 1980, two volumes, 452 pages and 459 pages)
* Rokudō yugyō (Shueisha, 1983, 397 pages)