The year before last I was expelled from my family and, reduced to poverty overnight, was left to wander the streets, begging help for various quarters, barely managing to stay alive from one day to the next, and just when I'd begun to think I might be able to support myself with my writing, I came down with a serious illness. Thanks to the compassion of others, I was able to rent a small house in Funabashi, Chiba, next to the muddy sea, and spent the summer there alone, convalescing. Though battling an illness that each and every night left my robe literally drenched with sweat, I had no choice but to press ahead with my work. The cold half pint of milk I drank each morning was the only thing that gave me a certain peculiar sense of the joy in life; my mental anguish and exhaustion were such that the oleanders blooming in one corner of the garden appeared to me merely flicking tongues of flame...

Osamu Dazai, "Seascape with Figures in Gold" (1939)

Osamu DAZAI (太宰治, 1909-1948) was the enfant terrible of Japanese fiction, an outcast in a rigidly conformist society and a hero among Japanese youth to this day. Not that there was much that could be called heroic in life, as he careened from self-inflicted disaster to another, shattering the lives of others as he went... and writing about it all, shamelessly recounting the sordid details and at the same time harshly criticizing his own actions.


Dazai was born Shuji Tsushima, the eighth surviving child of a wealthy landowner in Tsugaru, a remote corner of Japan hidden at the northern tip of Tohoku. An excellent student at school and an able writer even then, his life only started to change when his idol writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa committed suicide in 1927. Shuji started to neglect his studies, spending his allowance on clothes, booze and geisha and dabbling with Marxism, at the time heavily suppressed by the government. On December 10, 1929, the night before year-end exams that he had no hopes of passing, Shuji attempted to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, but he survived and managed to graduate next year.

Shuji enrolled in the French Literature Department of the University of Tokyo and promptly stopped studying again. In October, he ran away with geisha Hatsuyo Oyama, and was formally expelled from the family. Nine days after the expulsion, Shuji attempted suicide with sleeping pills again with another woman, 19-year-old waitress Shimeko Tanabe. Shimeko died, but Shuji lived. Shocked by the events, Shuji's family intervened to drop a police investigation, his allowance was reinstated and in December Shuji and Hatsuyo were married.

This moderately happy state of affairs didn't last long, as Shuji was arrested for his involvement with the banned Communist Party and, upon learning this, his elder brother Bunji promptly cut off his allowance again. Shuji went into hiding, but Bunji managed to get word to him that charges would be dropped and the allowance reinstated yet again if he solemnly promised to graduate and swear off any involvement with the party, and Shuji took up the offer.

In what was probably a surprise to all parties concerned, Shuji kept his promise and managed to settle down a bit. The next few years were productive, Shuji wrote at a feverish pace and used the pen name "Osamu Dazai" for the first time in a short story called "Train" (1933), his first experiment with the first-person autobiographical style that later became his trademark. But in 1935, it started to become clear that Dazai could not graduate, and he failed an entrance exam at a Tokyo newspaper as well. He finished The Final Years, intended to be his farewell to the world, and tried to hang himself on March 19, 1935 -- failing yet again.

Worse was yet to come, as less than three weeks after his third suicide attempt Dazai developed acute appendicitis and was hospitalized, during which time he become addicted to Pabinal, a morphine-based painkiller. After fighting the addiction for a year, in October 1936 he was taken to a mental institution, locked in a room and forced to quite cold turkey. The "treatment" lasted over a month, during which time Dazai's wife Hatsuyo committed adultery with his best friend Zenshiro Kodate. This eventually came to light and Dazai, mortified, divorced Hatsuyo and married Michiko Ishihara. Their first daughter, Sonoko, was born in June 1941.

Japan entered the Pacific War in December, but Dazai was excused from the draft because of his chronic chest problems. The censors became more reluctant to accept Dazai's offbeat work, but he managed to publish quite a bit anyway, remaining one of the very few authors who managed to turn out interesting material in those years. His house was firebombed twice, but Dazai's family escaped unscathed, with a son, Masaki, born in 1944. His third child, daughter Satoko (who later became famous writer Yuko Tsushima), was born in May 1947.

In July 1947 Dazai's best-known work, The Setting Sun (Shayô, 斜陽) was published, propelling an already popular writer into a celebrity. Not that this seemed to help Dazai much: always a heavy drinker, he was turning into an actual alcoholic, he had already fathered a child out of wedlock with a fan, and his health was also rapidly deteriorating. At this time Dazai met Tomie Yamazaki, a beautician and war widow who had lost her husband after 10 days of married life. Dazai effectively abandoned his wife and children and moved in with Tomie, writing his quasi-autobiography Ningen Shikkaku (人間失格, usually translated "No Longer Human" but perhaps closer in meaning to "Disqualified from Humanity") at the hot-spring resort Atami. On June 13, 1948, Dazai and Tomie finally succeeded, drowning themselves in the Tamagawa Canal.


As noted above, Dazai's most characteristic style is first-person and autobiographical, his tales thinly disguised and painfully factual stories of what has happened to him, or perhaps more what he has done to himself. At his best these can be both poetic and wrenching, although all too often Dazai veers off the knife's edge into being either embarassingly explicit or merely whining pathetically. The overall tone is distinctly downbeat, occasionally outright suicidal, although in some works there is quite a bit of black humor as well. His original Japanese has a tendency to feature jawbreaker sentences several pages long, but fortunately these have mostly been made more reasonable in translation.

Brief Bibliography

Titles given also in English if the novel or story collection in question has been translated.

1935: Doke no Hana
1937: Nijusseiki Kishu; Kyoko no Hoko
1939: Ai to Bi ni Tsuite; Joseito; Bannen (The Twilight Years)
1940: Onna no Ketto
1941: Shin Hamuretto (The New Hamlet)
1942: Seigi to Bisho
1943: Udaijin Sanetomo
1944: Tsugaru
1945: Otogi Zoshi (Fairy Tales); Sekibetsu; Shin Shokokubanashi
1946: Pandora no Hako; Fuyu no Hanabi
1947: Kyoshin no Kami; Shayo (Setting Sun); Biyon no Tsuma; Tokatonton
1948: Nyoze Gabun; Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human); Goodbye


Dazai, Osamu. Self Portraits: Stories. Kodansha 1992.

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