Shiga Naoya’s story ‘‘Han’s Crime’’ first appeared in 1913 in Shirakaba (White Birch), a literary magazine founded by Shiga and a group of wealthy university students. ‘‘Han’s Crime’’ was well-received when it was first published; several critics considered it an almost perfect short story, saying it exemplified Shiga’s sparse, psychologically probing style. Told almost entirely through dialogue, the story attempts to unravel the truth behind the violent death of Han’s wife, a young circus performer. It seems clear that Han has killed his wife in the midst of a knife-throwing act; he and his colleagues are called in before the judge to testify. The judge’s duty is to determine whether Han’s crime was premeditated (murder) or accidental (manslaughter). As the story progresses, however, what at first seems clear becomes more difficult to pin down. In his confession, Han reveals that he himself does not know whether he committed murder or was simply involved in a tragic accident. If Han does not know his own motivations, he suggests, they must remain unknown to those who would judge him. After listening to Han’s testimony, the judge reaches his verdict, finding Han ‘‘innocent.’’
Primarily known as a writer of short fiction, Shiga occupies a central position in modern Japanese literary history, even though he did not publish very many works. During his lifetime, critics went so far as to call him a ‘‘god of literature.’’ One contemporary even asserted that Shiga was the only living writer whose works had a classical quality that revealed something new each time they were read. Shiga and his fellow Shirakaba authors developed a form of literature called shishosetsu, or ‘‘I-Novel,’’ which resembles Western confessional literature to some extent, but also, according to Edward Fowler, seeks ‘‘to transcribe the world’’ as the author experienced it and ‘‘to authorize a self . . . in a society unwilling to acknowledge the individual as a viable social unit.’’ Critics note ‘‘Han’s Crime’’ in particular for its psychological acuity and intellectual honesty.
The story begins with an account of the crime: In the midst of a performance, Han, a young Chinese juggler, severs his wife’s carotid artery with one of his knives. The young woman dies instantly, and Han is arrested.
The body of the story consists of the judge’s questioning the owner-manager of the circus troupe, the Chinese stagehand, and finally Han himself. In questioning the three men, the judge attempts to decide whether Han’s wife’s death was premeditated murder or manslaughter.
The owner-manager tells the judge that Han’s act is very difficult and requires steady nerves and complete concentration as well as intuition. He does not know whether the killing was intentional or accidental.
The Chinese stagehand testifies that Han and his wife were kind and gentle people who treated friends and acquaintances well and never argued with others. Han had become a Christian the previous year and spent much of his spare time reading Christian literature. The stagehand recollects, however, that Han and his wife did not get along, especially since the death of their infant son soon after his birth. Han never hit his wife, but he would stare at her angrily. He once told the stagehand that his love for her had died but that he would not consider a divorce. Han’s wife was not in a position to leave the marriage either because, having spent four years on the road with a circus performer, no one respectable would marry her. The stagehand believes that Han read the Bible and sermons to repent his angry feelings for his wife. The stagehand acknowledges that when he witnessed her death, his first thought had been, ‘‘He’s murdered her,’’ but now he cannot be so certain. The stagehand suspects that his knowledge of Han’s hatred for his wife probably influenced his thinking. He tells the judge that Han...
(The entire section is 1,120 words.)