Despite a formidable reputation as a premier novelist of prewar Japan, Tson Shimazaki has remained largely unknown to Western readers, as his novels, always lengthy and complex, have daunted the enthusiasm of potential translators. This fine English version of his most significant and longest work of fiction presents the author’s compelling vision of the Westernization of his country. Before the Dawn has long assumed the status of a modern classic in Japan.
Tson, as he is usually called in Japan, was a prolific writer, and Before the Dawn took him many years to compose. The work first appeared in a monthly journal, in segments printed between 1929 and 1935. Tson revised it for publication in book form; book 1 appeared in 1932 and book 2 in 1935. Tson was already a famous writer when he undertook this tremendous effort, and the publication was to cap his long and distinguished career. He was the son of an important village official who lived on the old Kiso road, an important mountain artery in the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) that connected this remote area to the major road networks near what is now the modern city of Nagoya. Tson was able to use his family history as background for the novel, but his career took many twists and turns before he would return to the subject of his own childhood.
Tson spent his formative years in Tokyo, where he came in contact with new movements in Western literature and thought. His first great work of fiction was published in 1906, the epoch-making novel Hakai (1906; The Broken Commandment, 1974). In this story, Tson’s sense of the social and spiritual tensions in contemporary Japanese society were encapsulated in his account of a young teacher of the eta or outcast class, who faced bravely the hypocrisy of the world around him. Tson’s next novels, such as Haru (1908; spring) and Ie (1911; The Family, 1976), began to draw more specifically on his own personal experiences. In 1913, Tson went to France; after he returned to Japan during World War I, he published one of his most striking works, Shinsei (1919; new life), a lightly disguised account of his own spiritual rebirth in a European setting.
Tson was a lively correspondent with readers in Japan during his time in Paris, writing with insight and vigor of the artistic and intellectual brilliance he found in Europe’s “capital of light.” At the same time, however, his inevitable and growing sense of isolation and loneliness in an alien culture led him, as his diaries and other writings indicate, to reflect both on his own personal past and on the recent past of his own country, which had changed so remarkably since the coming of the Americans and the Europeans in the 1850’s and after. It was without question this extended trip outside his own cultural milieu that led Tson to contemplate the composition of a narrative to describe the significance of Japan’s recent experiences on both a human and a national scale. Once home, Tson undertook a considerable amount of research in order to reconstruct the kind of life his father had led, an existence that by the late 1920’s seemed almost impossibly remote. In a sense, Tson was attempting to catch and record a last glimpse of the past before it slipped away forever.
In Before the Dawn, Tson combined his ability to express larger social concerns, as he had done in The Broken Commandment, with his skills in delineating the personal, interior life of his major characters, an ability the novelist had perfected in his later novels. Tson chose as the main focus of a complicated story his loving recreation of his father in the character Hanz, who like his father, had witnessed and been afflicted by the vast changes that had come to Japan in the latter part of the nineteenth century. As the story progresses, Tson moves...
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