Mushanokoji's Good Natured Man

Mushanokoji’s Good Natured Man 2

The wave recalls Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, but this print is by another famous ukiyoe artist. Here Hiroshige depicts a Japanese crane, the “bird of happiness,” symbol also of good luck, long life, and fidelity. Mushanokoji uses the Japanese word for crane—tsuru—as the name of his “ideal woman,” Tsuru, whom the “I” in the novella obsesses over.

It is a powerful and economical gesture by Mushanokoji. He invests the young woman’s name with symbolic overtones that encapsulate Jibun’s quest for happiness. Tsuru embodies Jibun’s ideal—or rather, he projects his ideal upon her. In the same action, he internalizes an image of Tsuru, such that she is contained in his psyche.

Although I refer to the narrator-protagonist as Jibun, this is simply the word for “myself” (reflexive pronoun) that occurs throughout the Japanese text. It is a convenient way to refer to him in the third person—a commonplace in English criticism on the I-novel (shishosetsu) (see, e.g., Fowler).

Crane flying over wave, ukiyoe woodblock print by Utogawa Hiroshige (1797-1858)

Mushanokoji’s use of symbolism contributes to the economy of the work as it unfolds before us. This brief chapter is minimalist in the way it develops the outlines of Jibun’s psyche, through his reflecting upon his own peculiar thought processes. Less is more. Bear in mind the autobiographical, confessional nature of the I-novel. We can think of these reflections as sincere observations, not necessarily fictions.

We like to consider ourselves as rational beings, and to present ourself as such when we express our ideas and opinions to others. But underneath, how much of our inner dialogue is actually obsessive, repetitive, circular, and self-contradictory? We tend not to speak of such thoughts, but prefer to keep them private.


2

I arrived home a little before lunch.

Mother, myself and my niece, who turned four this year, lunched together. Father went to the office every day, and my older brother and his wife were overseas on company business.

My niece Haru-chan was spending the day with her grandmother. When my father returned, he had his own business to attend to, as devoted as he is to his granddaughter.

I love Haru-chan too. She calls me “uncle-chan” and is very fond of me, but I cannot say that I am totally enamoured. I live at home without anyone to love but myself.

It was a cheerful meal with Haru-chan. I don’t know how many times my mother and I laughed. The child is truly endearing even when she is annoyed or being selfish and starts crying. However, even when she laughs, I am not as enamoured with her as Mother is. Other people’s children may be adorable, but my niece is much more so. One’s own children are probably the most adorable of all.

Anonymous infant girl, ca. 1910

I find Haru-chan cute, but I am preoccupied. Sometimes I feel faintly repulsed when Mother, or especially Father, becomes quite so enthralled. Nevertheless, if I had children of my own I would be enthralled as well, and through my children, my wife would be as well, the four of us.

We finished our meal and I returned to my room.

I was fine during lunch, but back in my room, I became lonely and started to miss Tsuru, whom I had not seen for a long time. Yet I felt uncomfortable about going to see her, which would only make me feel lonelier. I am sure she has no say in regard to our marriage.

Still, not knowing how she is, I do so much desire to see her.

Then I realized it was a Friday. I am a rather superstitious person, and as I put no stock in human intelligence, I entertain a belief in fate. Though not believing strongly enough to rely on fate, I accept it to some degree. You might say I am relatively superstitious. I believe in fate even as I dismiss it. At the very least, I pay it some heed.

I have heard that Fridays are considered unlucky by Westerners. For two or three years now, I have resisted going out to see her on Fridays, even when I wanted to. Nevertheless, sometimes I venture out, albeit unwillingly, because such superstitions are misguided. Since she moved house, I had to go further to see her. Especially not wanting to go on a Friday, but knowing it would be superstitious of me not to, I sometimes went anyway. It would be better I did not see her when I am like that.

I had not seen Tsuru in almost a year but found the prospect of going out on a Friday disagreeable. Yet I wanted to see her.

I realized that for such a precious, long-awaited meeting, it made little difference whether the circumstances were favourable or unfavourable and it might be best not to see her at all. Thus I abandoned the idea.

Happily!

I picked up Munch’s book but could not bring myself to read it. I was lonely and unable to help feeling that I was merely an imaginary person, unable to do or say anything worthwhile. At times I have a premonition I am going to die young from a natural disaster. Probably just a fantasy, but I am sure I will be killed by a lightning strike or a meteorite.

Alternatively, I might die young from lung disease. Somehow I fancy that I will not live long, but will immediately feel as if I can live forever and do not believe I will die any time soon. Then again, natural disasters can be lethal, especially lightning and meteorites.

Great talents mature late. I am a man of the future, one of high degree, but when the time comes, I must die, no matter how hard I resist. I wish I were someone who had nothing to achieve, but I have many things to do and would hate to die.

In any case, I have not been able to taste love, nor do any work I enjoy. I do not know the joy of being a father and cannot help feeling as if I am going to die.

I went outside to dispel my loneliness.

Ginza, Tokyo, ca, 1910 (Meiji/Taisho)

The day was gloomy and overcast. In the same mood, I walked aimlessly through the colourless town, a solitary feeling in my heart. I was unable to cry, but as I walked my loneliness worsened and I became tearful. I felt as if my personality had risen to a superior level. I felt as if I were better than the other people in the street. I felt pity and sympathy for everyone.

What is the purpose of your life? I asked myself.

Are you living for your country, your home, your parents, your husband, your children, or yourself?

Is it for the sake of the one you love? Do you have anyone to love?


Notes and References

  • I-novel (shishosetsu): Bear in mind that the shishosetsu was not formally theorized until at least ten years after the present novella appeared, when the attribution of “first I-novel” was made retrospectively.
  • Haru-chan: The meaning of haru is spring (the season). The ‘diminutive suffix’ -chan attached to a person’s name expresses that the speaker finds them endearing.

Fowler, Edward. The Rhetoric of Confession: Shishosetsu in Early Twentieth-Century Japanese Fiction. Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1988. Full text, html (UC Press E-Books Collection.)

English translation of Saneatsu Mushanokoji’s Omedetakihito (1910) by Michael Guest © 2022

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