Dazai Osamu

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Pseudonym for Tsushima Shuji. Nationality: Japanese. Born: Kanagi, 19 June 1909. Education: Educated in Kanagi grade school; middle school in Aomori City; higher school in Hirosaki, 1927-30; University of Tokyo, 1930. Family: Married 1) Oyama Hatsuyo in 1931; 2) Ishihara Michiko in 1939, one son and two daughters, including the writer Tsushima Yūko, q.v.Career: Journalist and writer. Illness, drinking, and drugs led to several suicide attempts. Died: 13 June 1948 (suicide).



Zenshu [Works]. 12 vols., 1955-56; revised edition, 1967-68, 1979.

Short Stories

Hashire Merosu. 1940; as Run, Melos, and Other Stories, 1988.

Shinshaku Shokoku Banashi [A Retelling of the Tales from the Province]. 1945.

Otogi Zoshi [A Collection of Fairy Tales]. 1945.

Biyon No Tsuma [Villon's Wife]. 1947.

Selected Stories, edited by James O'Brien. 1983.

Crackling Mountain and Other Stories. 1989.

Self-Portraits: Tales from the Life of Japan's Greatest Decadent Romantic. 1991.


Bannen [The Declining Years]. 1936.

Doke No Hana [The Flower of Buffoonery]. 1937.

Dasu Gemaine [Das Gemeine]. 1940.

Shin Hamuretto [The New Hamlet]. 1941.

Kojiki Gakusei [Beggar-Student]. 1941.

Kakekomi Uttae [The Indictment]. 1941.

Seigi to Bisho [Justice and Smile]. 1942.

Udaijin Sanetomo [Lord Sanetomo]. 1943.

Tsugaru. 1944; as Return to Tsugaru: Travels of a Purple Tramp, 1985.

Pandora no Hako [Pandora's Box]. 1946.

Shayo. 1947; as The Declining Sun, 1950; as The Setting Sun, 1956.

Ningen Shikkaku. 1948; as No Longer Human, 1953.


Fugaku Hyakkei [One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji]. 1940.

Tokyo Hakkei [Eight Views of Tokyo]. 1941.

Human Lost (in Japanese). 1941.


Critical Studies:

Landscapes and Portraits by Donald Keene, 1971; Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel by Masao Miyoshi, 1974; Dazai by James A. O'Brien, 1975; Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature by Makoto Ueda, 1976; The Saga of Dazai (includes stories) by Phyllis I. Lyons, 1985; Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai by Alan Wolfe, 1990.

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Even those who read Dazai's work with no previous knowledge of his life will rapidly start to form an image of the generic Dazai protagonist. A man relatively youthful but already feeling the weariness of age, brought up in a well-to-do family in northeastern Japan but now living in disgrace and penury, the Dazai character is usually scratching a desperate living by means of writing or drawing, or some menial bureaucratic job. He is a drunk and a womanizer, caught in an endless cycle of self-loathing, drink, misdemeanor, remorse, and further self-loathing. He usually has already attempted suicide and is thinking of trying it again.

Dazai's life and character did in fact conform very closely to this description. After dropping out of university he lived from hand to mouth on his writings. Twice married, a womanizer, and a drinker addicted to drugs as a result of his treatment for tuberculosis, he attempted suicide four times—twice with women—before he finally drowned himself with a mistress in 1948. It has been remarked that his life was almost the parody of the decadent artist.

The question then is what kind of writing emerged from this troubled existence. One obvious feature is that the act of writing, or of failing to write, is a central preoccupation of many of his pieces. Like many other twentieth-century writers he seems to have taken his first literary steps by looking back, recording his memories of the past, and trying to find how he came to want to write. Much of his writing is frankly autobiographical, presenting a linked series of vignettes from different periods of his life ("Memories," "An Almanac of Pain," "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji," "Eight Views of Tokyo"). "Memories" (also translated as "Recollections") in particular contains many scenes from Dazai's childhood and early youth that he afterwards reexplored in more tightly organized stories.

Distinguishing between a short story and an autobiographical fragment is always difficult in Japanese literature. Certain of Dazai's pieces are narrated straightforwardly in the first-person singular and seem to conform to circumstances of his life at the time they were written, so there is no external or internal evidence for regarding them as fictional. He merely shapes the narration of the whole and lays subtle stress on certain aspects and images that may give a kind of symbolic significance to the whole. Such pieces include "Thinking of Zenzo," "My Older Brothers," "Landscapes with Figures in Gold," and "On the Question of Apparel." As his career progressed, he tended to include passages referring the readers to scenes and information given in other writings. In every one of them there is the same distinctive authorial voice, with its mixture of self-pity and self-mockery, bonhomie and hurt incomprehension.

"Thinking of Zenzo" provides a good example of his use of minor incident for symbolic effect in these largely autobiographical first-person narratives. Superficially the story is that of an occasion when the narrator was invited to attend a dinner for artists and critics from the region of northeastern Japan where he was born. Extremely self-conscious, aware that many of the distinguished guests knew him only by his bad reputation, he goes in terror of disgracing himself. When it is his turn to introduce himself he speaks in an inaudible mumble, and then, on being asked to repeat, he tells them very rudely to shut up. It is apparent from the ensuing stony silence that his words, though muttered in an undertone, have been heard.

This central tale of a humiliation foretold is enclosed by another incident. At the beginning of the story the narrator agrees to buy some roses from a woman posing as a local farmer's wife. He does this even though he is certain she is a fake and that the roses won't bloom as she has promised. And yet, after he has returned from the banquet a friend who knows about roses tells him he thinks the flowers will bloom and are worth more than he paid for them. This allows the story to end with a kind of optimism: "I felt not a little contented. God exists…. They say to experience sorrow at any price. That the blue sky is most beautiful when seen through a prison cell window. And so on. I gave thanks" (translated by Ralph F. McCarthy). This curious mixture of prayer and mockery is typical of Dazai. What underlies almost all of his writing is a painfully simple question—is there any point to this or not? If he can derive some sense of coherence, of warmth, from an incident like this, even one aside from the main story, then the narrator sees some point in going on. If not, then the end of the story simply opens out over a pit of despair—as it does in "Cherries," "Father," "Merry Christmas," and many others. This kind of self-absorption can be both frustrating and depressing for the reader, so it is not surprising that Dazai's best works are those in which he makes use of some device to lever the story away from the narrating ego. The simplest way to do this is to tell somebody else's story. To this end he published reworked versions of Japanese folk tales ("Crackling Mountain," "Taking the Wen Away") and stories by Japanese writers from an earlier period ("A Poor Man's Got His Pride," "The Monkey's Mound"). Hashire Merosu ("Melos, Run!"), inspired by a poem by Schiller, has become something of a school anthology piece in Japan, probably because it is one of the few of Dazai's works that could be described as virtuous and uplifting.

Some of Dazai's strongest and most tightly organized stories are those in which the protagonist is not the usual self-tormenting male narrator but a woman. Biyon No Tsuma ("Villon's Wife") is about a woman married to a ne'er-do-well writer—the title is supposedly that of a story written by her husband. Tired of staying in their squalid apartment and looking after their child while her husband spends all the money on drink and other women, she eventually ends up working at one of the bars where he is a regular customer. In this and other works such as "Magic Lantern," "Hifu to Kokoro" ("Skin and the Heart"), and "Osan," we can admire the astonishing psychological exactness of the twists and turns of the woman's thoughts, and the skillful construction of dialogue. Because the main focus of the women's attention is not on themselves but on another—usually the pathetic and self-deceiving male figure—it is easier to sympathize both with them and with the object of their sympathy.

—James Raeside