Nagai, Kafu 1879–1959

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Nagai, Kafū 1879–1959

(Nagai Kafū, Sokichi Nagai)


Born December 3, 1879, in Tokyo, Japan; died of a hemorrhaging stomach ulcer, April 10, 1959, in Ichikawa, Japan; son of Kyuichiro (poet "Kagen," government official, and executive) and Tsune (daughter of Washizu Kido, a Confucian ethics scholar) Nagai; married wife, Yone, September, 1912 (divorced, 1914); married wife, Yaeji (a geisha), 1914 (divorced). Education: Attended Gyosei Gakko, Kalamazoo College, and Princeton University.


Apprentice playwright, 1900-01; correspondent, Yamato Shinbun, 1901; trainee, Yokohama Specie Bank, New York, NY, 1907, Lyon branch, 1907-08; writer in Japan, beginning 1908; professor of French literature, Keio University, 1910-16; publisher of Mita Bungaku, beginning 1910; publisher of Bunmei and Kagetsu, beginning 1916. Military service: Worked in Japanese Legation Office, Washington, DC, during Russo-Japanese War.


Japanese Academy of Arts.


Imperial Cultural Medal; Bunka Kunsho (Order of Culture), 1952.


Yashin, Biikusha (Tokyo, Japan), 1902.

Jigoku no hana, Kinko do (Tokyo, Japan), 1902.

Yume no onna, Shinseisha (Tokyo, Japan), 1903.

Joyu Nana, Shinseisha (Tokyo, Japan), 1903.

Koi to yaiba, Shinseisha (Tokyo, Japan), 1903.

Amerika monogatari, Hakubunkan (Tokyo, Japan), 1908, Fukutake Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1983, English translation published as American Stories, translated and with an introduction by Mitsuko Iriye, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Furansu monogatari, Hakubunkan (Tokyo, Japan), 1909.

Kanraku, Ekifu sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1909.

Kafū shu, Ekifu sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1909.

Sumidagawa, Momiyama Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1909, translation by Donald Keene published as "The River Sumida," in Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, edited by Donald Keene, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1965.

Reisho, Sakura Shobo (Tokyo, Japan), 1910.

Botan no kyaku, Momiyama Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1911.

Ko cha no ato, Momiyama Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1911.

Shinkyo yawa, Momiyama Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1912.

Sangoshu, Momiyama Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1913.

Chiruyanagi mado no yu bae, Momiyama Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1914.

Natsu sugata, Momiyama Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1915.

Shinpen Furansu monogatari, Hakubunkan (Tokyo, Japan), 1915.

Hiyori geta, Momiyama Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1915.

Saiyu nisshi sho, [Tokyo, Japan], 1917.

Udekurabe, privately printed, 1917, Shinbashido (Tokyo, Japan), 1918, translation by Kurt Meiss- ner and Ralph Friederich published as Geisha in Rivalry, Tuttle (Rutland, VT), 1963, translation by Stephen Snyder published as Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Dancho tei zakko, Momiyama Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1918.

Okamezasa, Shun'yo do (Tokyo, Japan), 1918.

Kafū zenshu, 6 volumes, Shun'yo do (Tokyo, Japan), 1918-1923.

Edo geijutsuron, Shun'yo do (Tokyo, Japan), 1920.

Mitsugashiwa kozue no yoarashi, Shun'yo do (Tokyo, Japan), 1921.

Aki no wakare, Shun'yo do (Tokyo, Japan), 1922.

Futarizuma, To ko kaku Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1923.

Azabu zakki, Shun'yo do (Tokyo, Japan), 1924.

Shitaya so wa, Shun'yo do (Tokyo, Japan), 1924.

Kafū bunko, Shun'yo do (Tokyo, Japan), 1926.

Tsuyu no atosaki, Chu o Koronsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1931, translation by Lane Dunlop published as During the Rains, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1994.

Kafū zuihitsu, Chu o Koronsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1933.

Fuyu no hae, privately published (Tokyo, Japan), 1935.

Kihen no ki, Seito sha (Tokyo, Japan), 1936.

Bokuto kitan, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1937, translation by Edward G. Seidensticker published as "A Strange Tale from East of the River," in his Kafū the Scribbler: The Life and Writings of Nagai Kafū, 1879-1959, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1965, reprinted, University of Michigan, Center for Japanese Studies (Ann Arbor, MI), 1990.

Omokage, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1938.

Kunsai manpitsu, Fuzanbo (Tokyo, Japan), 1939.

Yukidoke; hoka roppen, Nagai Kafū saku, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1939.

Towazugatari, Fuso Shobo (Tokyo, Japan), 1946.

Raiho sha, Chikuma Shobo (Tokyo, Japan), 1946.

Hikage no hana, Chu o Koronsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1946.

Ukishizumi, Chu o Koronsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1947.

Risai nichiroku, Fuso Shobo (Tokyo, Japan), 1947.

Kunsho, Fuso Shobo (Tokyo, Japan), 1947.

Kafū nichireki, Fuso Shobo (Tokyo, Japan), 1947.

Kafū kushu, Hosokawa Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1948.

Henkikan ginso, Chikuma Shobo (Tokyo, Japan), 1948.

Kafū zenshu, 24 volumes, Chu o Koronsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1948-1953.

Odoriko, Chikuma Shobo (Tokyo, Japan), 1949.

Zasso en, Chu o Koronsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1949.

Katsushika miyage, Chu o Koronsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1950.

Ratai, Chu o Koronsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1954.

Katsushika koyomi, Mainichi Shinbunsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1956.

Azumabashi, Chu o Koronsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1957.

Nagai Kafū nikki, To to Shobo (Tokyo, Japan), 1957-1958.

Kafū zenshu, 28 volumes, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1962-1965.

Udekurabe, Kadokawa Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1969.

A Strange Tale from East of the River and Other Stories, translated by Edward Seidensticker, C.E. Tuttle Co. (Tokyo, Japan), 1972.

Shinkyō yawa: Udekurabe yori gekika, sanmaku rokuba, Kokuritsu Gekijo (Tokyo, Japan), 1979.

Kafū zuihitsu, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1981.

Nagai Kafū, Kawade Shoboō Shinsha (Tokyo, Japan), 1981.

Nagai Kafū, Shimizu Shoin (Tokyo, Japan), 1984.

Kafū Shoshi, Shuppan Nyususha (Tokyo, Japan), 1985.

Kafū zenshu, 30 volumes to date, Iwanami Shoten (Tokyo, Japan), 1992—.

Nagai Kafū, Nihon Tosho Senta (Tokyo, Japan), 1994.

During the Rains and Flowers in the Shade: Two Novellas, translated by Lane Dunlop, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1994.


Katsushika jo wa, (libretto), produced in Tokyo at Asakusa Ko en Rokku Opera-kan, May, 1938.

Also author of Dancho tei nichijo, 1959.


Sokichi Nagai, who wrote under the name Kafū Nagai, is best known for his descriptions of Japan in transition. Through numerous story collections and novels, Nagai rehearsed his nostalgia for the old traditions of Japan while laying bare the ugliness of Japan's modernized cities. His work was variously lauded and dismissed; as Sakagami Hiroichi noted in Dictionary of Literary Biography, reviewers "regard Kafu as the most acute critic of Tokyo in transition—the writer who most perspicaciously described the ugly realities of the city—and as the writer who described Tokyo's cultural features that never should have been, but ultimately were, forever lost." Nagai's writing offers a glimpse, and an elegy, of Japan's past.

Nagai was born in Tokyo on December 3, 1879. His parents, Kyuichiro and Tsune, were wealthy, powerful, and artistic. Hiroichi described the family: "Kafū's father had studied Confucian ethics with Washizu Kido, a scholar at the Meirindo academy operated by the Owari domain, and being drawn toward Chinese poetry Kyuichiro had attained fame for his poetic compositions in Chinese and published ten volumes of Chinese poetry under the pen name of Kagen." Kyuichiro was, moreover, a successful government official and a wealthy business executive. Nagai's mother, Tsune, was a proficient musician and was also the daughter of the famous Confucian scholar with whom Nagai's father had studied; as a group, then, Nagai's family seem to have been almost toxically illustrious. They demanded equal measures of success from Nagai; as Hiroichi remarked: "The successful Kyuichiro was often the object of the young Kafū's fear and rebellion, but many of Kafū's writings reveal a profound respect for his father's education and the manner in which he combined Asian and Western qualities in his life."

After Nagai failed the entrance exam to the top school in Tokyo, he spent some time studying languages and literature in Shanghai. In June of 1900, he began to study with Fukuchi Ochi, a Kabuki playwright. This training is much in evidence in Nagai's first efforts, in which traditional Japanese culture seems almost a forgotten treasure. In Yashin (1902), Nagai tells the story of a man who inherits an old Japanese store but loses it when he tries to make it into a newfangled department store. Nagai's second novel, Jigoku no hana (1902), tells the story of a governess who must strike out on her own after the family she served has collapsed. The novel brought Nagai instant success, and he continued its themes with his next novel, Yume no onna (1903), in which a Samurai's daughter becomes a prostitute and then an assignation house owner.

Even though Nagai had achieved some success as an author, his father insisted that he travel to the United States to learn banking. He began by studying in Tacoma, Washington, and then studied briefly at Kalamazoo College. He worked for a short time at the New York branch of the Yokohama Specie Bank, transferred to the Lyon branch, and then gave up banking altogether. He returned to Japan influenced by his travels, but dedicated to celebrating Japanese traditions as a writer. Hiroichi explained: "The experiences that Kafū had in the United States and France nurtured the individualism that characterized his life. He was not blinded by the superficial display of Western culture, but he was attuned to the foundations of individual freedom and independence that sustained the material surfaces of that culture, and even after he returned to Japan, Nagai resolved that he would seek to establish his own life on those foundations."

Many of the stories in Amerika monogatari (1908) reflect on Nagai's experiences abroad; the twenty-four works include both travel narratives and short stories, all of which explore the author's feelings while overseas. Hiroichi described the volume: "Some works recount the bleak lives of Japanese living overseas; some reveal the tragicomic fates of men who become martyrs to pleasure; some condemn the feudal paternalism of the Japanese family and extol the familial love enjoyed in free lands; and others present night scenes of brothels and narrow alleyways." A companion collection, Furansu monogatari (1909), includes a similarly various assortment of works, including critical essays and lyrical evocations of French culture.

Nagai began to write more and more determinedly about the regrettable rise of commercial culture in Japan; often, he would focus his stories on the world of the geisha and traditional Japanese arts. In Sumidagawa (1909), Nagai tells the story of a young man's first experience of love. J. Thomas Rimer, writing for the Encyclopedia of World Literature, commented that the novel "shows certain of the hallmarks of [Nagai's] mature style, which include an ability to create an ironic view of the present reflected through an appreciation of the beauties of traditional urban Japanese culture, an elegant and elegiac prose style, and an interest in the nuances of the erotic lives of his characters, many of them from the demimonde. N[agai] came to write about such supposedly degraded persons because he felt they represented the truth about society; for him, middle-class respectability represented an essential falsehood."

During the 1910s, Nagai served as professor of French literature at Keio University and began to publish a series of journals: Mita Bungaku, Bunmei, and Kagetsu. In the pages of these magazines, Nagai presented his readers with literature of a new style. Hiroichi explained: "[He] fostered the talents of influential new writers such as Kubota Manraro, Minakami Takitaro, Sato Haruo, and Horiguchi Daigaku, a group that became known as the Mita School." During this period, Nagai endured two brief marriages: the first to Yone, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and the second to Yaeji, a Shinbashi geisha. Each marriage led quickly to divorce, apparently due to Nagai's infidelity. By 1916, both of Nagai's marriages had ended, his father had died, and he resigned from the university. He continued to pursue his literary career, focusing more and more on the conflict between tradition and change in Japanese culture. Rimer commented: "[Nagai] continued to write about the byways of contemporary Japanese culture, finding the lyric impetus in the erotic world of the geishas and mistresses who functioned in perhaps the only area of life that remained resistant to change in a rapidly modernizing Japan. In an oblique fashion, N[agai] served as a sort of cultural critic through his evocation, half lyrical, half ironic, of a vanishing lifestyle that represented for him a time when Japanese culture had been of a piece."

Udekurabe, published in 1918 and translated first as Geisha in Rivalry (1963) and later as Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale (2007), reveals characters and concepts that dominated Nagai's life and his fiction. Set in Tokyo's demimonde, the world of courtesans, geishas, and prostitutes, the book tells the story of Komayo, a courtesan who had married a client, was widowed, and returned to her profession. Soon she acquires three lovers: one who wants to redeem her, one whom she uses for his money even though she finds him personally repulsive, and the third—a young actor who plays a woman on stage—because she falls in love with him. "In the end," Donald Richie concluded in his Japan Times review, "three lovers prove disastrous."

What makes Udekurabe stand out from other depictions of the geisha in popular culture is its unromantic description of Komayo's life. In Nagai's fiction, Komayo is an individual who makes her own decisions and deals with the consequences of them; she is not a victim of male sexual abuse. Komayo negotiates with her clients and even pits them against one another in a bid to profit from their rivalry. Interestingly, Snyder pointed out, Nagai tailored his scenes to fit the tolerance of the times: in the first publicly available version of Udekurabe, published in 1918, Komayo is much more subservient to her client's whims than she appears in the earlier, privately printed edition. "In her first private encounter with Yoshioka, her former lover," wrote Stephen Snyder in Fictions of Desire: Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafu, "… the Komako of the original Bunmei edition succumbs to his advances with little or no negotiation, no sense that their parting under less than agreeable circumstances and the ensuing years have any bearing on a renewed sexual relationship. The Komako of the private edition, however, seems to vacillate; she grows quiet, almost sullen, obviously recalling the serious wrong Yoshioka has done her in the past." "Kafu," Snyder stated, "seems consciously to be re-creating a tougher, more independent Komayo; she is less made-to-order geisha, more human being."

Even Nagai's depiction of contemporary Tokyo lacks romantic or exotic qualities. "All along the streets and alleys where geisha houses stood," Stephen Mansfield remarked in his Metropolis description of some of the sites described in Nagai's fiction, "fires were burned in braziers outside entrances and lanterns hung to greet the spirits of the dead during Obon, or All Souls Night festival, a sight that even in 1918, when Kafu's Udekurabe … was published, seemed more reminiscent of a former age. ‘Somehow [in] this new world of telephones and electric lights,’ the narrator remarks, ‘the smoke of the welcome fires burning in front of the houses seemed out of place, and it gave things a pensive air.’"

Nagai continues his unromantic depiction of the demimonde in Tsuyu no atosaki, first published in 1931, which was translated in the collection During the Rains and Flowers in the Shade: Two Novellas. The first novella tells the story of the prostitute Kimie, who is being stalked and harassed by one of her lovers. The second relates the encounters between O-Chiyo, a prostitute, and Jukichi, the man she supports with her earnings. The two stories "do not, however, call up Kafu's romantic view of the past," declared Celeste Loughman in World Literature Today. "Here are no pretty gardens or latticed doors, only dark alleys where ‘at high noon ancient rats the size of weasels went about their business at will.’ Neither are there any refined courtesans, only vulgar geishas and what the author regarded as a westernized form of unlicensed prostitute, the cafe waitress." The tales in During the Rains and Flowers in the Shade, Loughman concluded, "have interest and appeal because of Kafu's dispas- sionate, vivid pictures of life in Tokyo's decaying pleasure quarters."

One of Nagai's most famous novels of this type, Bokuto kidan (1937, translated as A Strange Tale from East of the River, 1965), tells of a writer who has an affair with a prostitute, Oyuki, during the period in which he composes a novel. Oyuki—who knows nothing of his work—falls in love with him, and he eventually must stop seeing her. Hiroichi added: "A work of fiction that the protagonist is busily writing is also included in the work, and some critics have detected the influence of André Gide in the three-dimensional solidarity that this technique adds to the novel." Rimer commented: "A brilliant command of detail combined with a sense of evanescence allows N[agai] to produce a striking evocation of psychology, time, and place. N[agai]'s treatment of the liaison mixes introspection, literary reference, and acute observation with an expression of his own intense disdain for the forces of order in the society."

During World War II, Nagai refused to participate in the war effort and was therefore restricted from publishing during the course of the war. Nonetheless, he resumed his career as soon as the war ended, publishing a slew of works composed during his enforced vacation. Nagai's writing brings an unusual blend of Western and traditional concerns to the Japanese literary tradition; the individualistic spirit of America, for example, informs his books even as traditional Japanese culture acts as their protagonist. His work thus tells the story of the painful transition from traditional cultures, when the beautiful old arts are lost and no invigorating spirit is won. Nagai died in 1959.



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 180: Japanese Fiction Writers, 1868-1945, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, 3rd edition, 4 volumes, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Seidensticker, Edward, Kafū the Scribbler: The Life and Writings of Nagai Kafū, 1879-1959, University of Michigan, Center of Japanese Studies (Ann Arbor, MI), 1990.

Snyder, Stephen, Fictions of Desire: Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafū, University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 51, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.


Far Eastern Economic Review, August 3, 1995, Jeffrey Hantover, review of During the Rains and Flowers in the Shade: Two Novellas, p. 39.

Japan Quarterly, October-December, 1994, David C. Earhart, "Nagai Kafū's Wartime Diary: The Enormity of Nothing," pp. 488-504.

Japan Times, October 14, 2007, Donald Richie, "Nagai Kafu's Geisha: Expurgated, Revised, Then Finally Fully Exposed."

Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, November, 1988, Steven D. Carter, "What's So Strange about A Strange Tale?," pp. 151-168.

Publishers Weekly, March 27, 2000, "American Stories," p. 56.

WMU News, January 17, 2007, "Famous Japanese Author Lived and Wrote in Kalamazoo."

World Literature Today, March 22, 1995, Celeste Loughman, review of During the Rains and Flowers in the Shade, p. 438.


Columbia University Press Web site, (June 19, 2008), author profile and review of Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale.

Metropolis, (June 19, 2008), Stephen Mansfield, "Kafu's City."