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Japan Notes / Osamu Dazai still captivates

The Japan News

Osamu Dazai’s gravestone is decorated with cherries left by fans at Zenrinji temple in Mitaka, Tokyo, on June 19.

By Etsuo Kono / Japan News Staff Writer An annual “cherry mourning” event in memory of renowned writer Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) was held at Zenrinji temple in Mitaka, Tokyo, on June 19. Even though 70 years have passed since his death, devoted college-aged fans lined up to place before his gravestone flowers, his favorite cigarettes, and of course cherries, which are connected with his later literary work.

“I think a person like him couldn’t live a long life even today,” said Kaede Nakajo, one of the fans who went to visit his grave and pray on the hot early summer day. “He was acutely sensitive to the world, and anyone so sensitive is likely to collapse in this day and age,” the 19-year-old female sophomore stressed.

Dazai lived in Mitaka from 1939 until 1948. After World War II, he published important works including “No Longer Human” (Ningen Shikkaku) and “The Setting Sun” (Shayo), which were both translated by Donald Keene.

Dazai eventually committed suicide with his mistress at the Tamagawa Josui canal near his house. The anniversary of his death is observed on June 19, when his body was found.

The popularity of Dazai’s works has endured over the years — the Shincho Bunko paperback version of “No Longer Human,” for example, has sold over 6.95 million copies.

“I think young people need role models to establish their own identities. Dazai was exceptional in all aspects, and as a person who was derailed from Japanese society his words still have a strong appeal,” said Elena Gallego, who has translated his short stories into Spanish.

A 19-year-old university student who came to visit the grave from Kagoshima Prefecture later headed to the shopping district in Shibuya, Tokyo. She was attending another event titled “Dazai Night,” in which comedian Naoki Matayoshi and other guests discussed Dazai’s attractions. Matayoshi is a winner of the Akutagawa prize, the most prestigious award for a novelist in Japan.

A popular manga called “Bungo Stray Dogs” has recently been translated into more than 10 languages, including Chinese, Korean and French. The comic depicts characters modeled on great writers, including Dazai.

“These days people tend to see the relatively positive sides of Dazai,” Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Tetsuo Ukai said of the recent trend.

“He has brilliant works based on the classical literature of both Japan and abroad. If these works were skillfully translated, foreign readers would love them more,” he added.

That night, I stopped at a small bar called Fumon in Shinjuku, Tokyo, operated by Seiko Hayashi, who appears as a character in one of Dazai’s short stories. The 90-year-old woman plans to close the establishment on June 28. Many regular customers are very sad about parting from her and the bar, which has become a gathering place for writers.

Few people remain who actually met Dazai during his life. Nevertheless, I believe Dazai’s words still light the way for young people both at home and abroad in this era of confusion.

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