Mushanokoji's Good Natured Man

Mushanokoji’s Good Natured Man 3

Jibun, the I-character, attends an alumni reunion, where he is offended by some of the mildly off-colour gossip shared by his former classmates. His beloved Tsuru is not far from his thoughts at any time, an object of absolute purity. Hence, I have borrowed an anonymous erotic artwork from late in the Meiji era (1868-1912) to emphasize this contrast. The short haircut of the man marks the image clearly as Meiji, a period when Japan was rapidly absorbing Western influences and fashions.

This particular genre of art is called shunga, and dates from the fourteenth century. Shunga means ‘spring picture’ — ‘spring’ being a euphemism for ‘sex’. The brilliant artist Hokusai was famous for his shunga prints, as well as for his ukiyoe (‘pictures of the floating world’).

Jibun cannot help become an object of self-parody. This flows from his continual self-questioning and moralising, as much as from his obsessiveness about his beloved Tsuru, with whom he has never even spoken.

Saneatsu Mushanokoji at 33 years of age, in 1918 (source)

Yet Jibun remains a close proxy for the author, the utopian philosopher Mushanokoji himself. Towards the end of the chapter, in Jibun’s thoughts, I believe, can be observed a subtle ambivalence that lies at the heart of a serious aspiration to self-transcendence.

Worthwhile to note, then, is Jibun’s reference to himself as a ‘moral scholar’, an occupation that he feels lifts him above the gossip, both as participant and object. The literal translation of the Japanese term he uses for that occupation, dōgakusha, is in fact ‘scholar of the way’: that is to say, the (Chinese) way of the Tao, as in Lao Tzu’s Tao de Ching (meaning approximately, ‘the way of integrity’). The strict sense of the term is ‘Taoist scholar’, which seems inappropriate here.

By late Meiji, however, the word may refer just as well to a Confucian philosopher, or to something more like ‘moralist‘ in general. Moreover, it has taken on a mocking connotation of eccentricitya scholarly person who is so concerned with morality and reason that they are in the dark about affairs of the world.


3

The next day, the 30th, was a Saturday. An alumni meeting was arranged at a friend’s house in Okubo. It had been raining lightly until noon, but by the time I left home at about one o’clock in the afternoon to go to Okubo, the showers had lifted so much that I hardly needed an umbrella. I walked to Yotsuya, furling and unfurling my umbrella along the way, and took the Kobu tram.

Tsuru lived in Okubo! I didn’t know exactly where, but it turns out to have been about a hundred doors away from my friend’s house.

I seldom visited my friend, but the times when I went there after Tsuru moved house, I could not help thinking of her, and wondering if we might be travelling together on the tram. Perhaps we might meet along the way.

I had to wait quite a while to get on the tram, but there was no one who looked like Tsuru. I alighted at Okubo and was surprised at how bad the street was along my way. It was so uneven at one point, that one of the teeth on my high geta clogs was nearly knocked off, which goes to show just how shocking the streets are in that part of town.

Trams queued at the south side of Ueno Park, Tokyo, late Meji Period (Sumitomo Mitsui Trust, Town Archives)

It occurred to me that Tsuru had to go along this awful road every day on her way to school. It reminded me of a time a year before last, when I had visited her.

“Run and see!” I smiled, mouthing the words to myself.

It was the year before last, when, wanting to see her, I went out to her school. Not wishing to go straight up to the entrance, I stayed on the main street for some distance further, heading for the next right turn. As I approached it, I could not see any sign of her. When I had come about thirty metres, I saw a group of four or so female students standing at the corner, looking around behind them.

Someone was running after them, doing their best to catch up.

I wondered if it were Tsuru. Not an unusual thought. Whenever I see a female student of her age, or a woman coming from a distance, or a woman from behind, whatever the time or place, I wonder whether it might be Tsuru. I can notice this tendency increasing, little by little. Ten times out of ten it would not be she. And yet still I wonder.

This time, though, it was Tsuru who came running up. Wearing high geta, running madly after them. The weather was fine that day. So was the road. The girls waiting were all wearing low koma-geta.

Her face flushed, she came running up to them and bowed, saying, “Thank you for waiting.”

At this point, I would not have been fifteen feet away from her. Looking at her for a moment, I made to turn right. Then Tsuru said something. I heard the others answer, “Because you were running too fast!” At that moment, I was already rounding the corner. She was bending down to pick up the tooth that had come away from her high geta.

At that moment, I fancied that she and I exchanged glances. I walked on in a daze for some thirty metres. When I turned around, no one was there any more.

I had the thought that Okubo was a place with bad roads. So that memory came flooding back again.

“Run and see!” would be something I would say to tease her, after we were married, when we put on our high geta to go out walking together. The time may never come when we can tease each other. Yet, in my imagination I can do it as much as I like.

When I arrived at my friend’s house, there were already four or five people there.

Eventually more assembled, until there were about fifteen. Some I had not seen in three or four years. Among them were officers at military college. Others have gone on to become scholars. Some have wives and children.

When we get together, everyone returns to a time six or seven years ago. We are all friends from then. Those who cannot inhabit their mindset from that past era cannot enthuse in each other’s company at one of these events. However, age is a factor that does not affect the conversation.

One group of as many as five or six were eagerly discussing geishas. Among them were even some members who had in the past disdained talk of that sort. I had the thought that these fellows had become hungry for a woman too. It was disconcerting to see their brazen, idiotic interest in the conversation reflected on their faces. I was uncomfortable listening, but from time to time, could not help overhearing some offensive scraps.  Somebody or other was loved by a geisha or had fallen in love with one. Someone uttered the words, “department store,” which popped into my ear.

Listening to their stories, I decided that I ought never to indulge in geishas, no matter how strongly I hunger for a woman. I do not envy men who enjoy a night with a beautiful woman in this way.

A man with a Western-style haircut makes love to a woman in traditional Japanese dress. Shunga print, 1880 (anon)

At the previous alumni meeting, it came out that so-and-so had taken a spouse. That became a topic again this year, along with talk about items such as who had become engaged to marry, who pre-engaged, and so on. Someone was talking sarcastically about someone’s having become a father.

As a moral scholar, I find it unacceptable to make jokes about sexual issues like this, and to bandy around solemn matters merely for the sake of recreation.

Hence my own ideas about women. I can’t help but think that there is a huge discrepancy between the way different people think about marriage. Everything was fine when we were enjoying ourselves chatting, but when the gossip started, the words coming out of their mouths made me feel disinclined to come and see them again in future.

They are no doubt men who would laugh at the sight of Rodin’s The Kiss.

However, by and large, today’s reunion was a great success. Not a single person was as intoxicated as at previous alumni meetings, not one with even a hint of red in his face. One cannot allow oneself to become drunk with people like them, considering their interests.

It was after ten o’clock when everyone went home laughing out loud, chorusing about having eating and exerted themselves too much, and they all said they enjoyed themselves. They had never experienced such childlike amusement anywhere else.

We travelled cheerfully together by tram as far as Yotsuya. There we split up to go our separate ways. It had stopped raining, but there was a “haze” around us and the sky was thick with clouds. The clouds had grown darker, grayish at the edges. They were moving fast, and the moon, on this the seventeenth day of its cycle, would sometimes show its bright face.

I mused while walking back through the quiet, gas-lit city streets.

If I were able to marry Tsuru… If I attended an alumni meeting then, the same sneerers would probably be there. I would repay their ridicule with righteous indignation. No one ridicules me because to do so means to fight with me in the true sense of the word. They may feel free to mock as hard as they like, as far as I am concerned, but nobody dares.

However, our marriage would make a good topic for gossip, and those fools might try making fun of me.

If they did, I would answer them like this:

“Yes, it was love at first sight and we married. I am sorry to say that I cannot be interested in as many women as you are because I know something of true love. I cannot do everything.”

While I spoke, I would make an expression as though I were biting through a bitter tasting bug. It would be most embarrassing. Yet I am unable to rise above reacting like this.

If I am able to transcend that, already I am no longer a moral scholar. No longer a pedagogue.

If everyone remained silent at that moment, I would probably just change the subject. But I knew that if someone wanted to ridicule me, I would be unable to hold my peace. I smiled at the thought.

I arrived home at around 11:30 and immediately settled into my cold bed.


Notes and Further Reading

  • geta: Japanese footwear, consisting of a wooden base held on by fabric straps, similar to ‘thongs’ or ‘flipflops’. They may be elevated by one or two so-called ‘teeth’. or wooden blocks.
  • koma-geta: a style of geta with low teeth.
  • seventeenth day of [the moon’s] cycle: Known as Tachimachizuki (‘standing and waiting’). As the moon rises progressively later during this phase, one has to ‘stand and wait’ for it to appear. See Rikumo Journal.

James Mark Shields (2018). “Future Perfect: Tolstoy and the Structures of Agrarian-Buddhist Utopianism in Taishō Japan,” Religions 9 (5), 161. html or pdf

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

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