Kunikida Doppo Criticism

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David Chibbett (essay head 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: An introduction to Kunikida Doppo's River Mist and Other Stories, translated by David G. Chibbett, Paul Norbury Publications Limited, 1983, pp. ix-xxx.

[In the following introduction to his translation of Doppo’s River Mist and Other Stories, Chibbett employs Doppo's letters and autobiographical writings to discuss the author's life and works.]

Very little is known about the early life of Kunikida Doppo,1 his date of birth and even his parentage being matters of some controversy. Such information as exists is mostly in the form of reminiscences of childhood contemporaries sought out for publication after Doppo's death and consequently not altogether reliable. According to the most widely accepted tradition, Doppo was born on 30 August, 1871, in the small town of Chōshi in Chiba Prefecture where the Tone river flows out into the Pacific Ocean. His mother, Man-ko, came from the Awaji family who were tradesmen in Chōshi, and she had been married once before she met Doppo's father, Kunikida Sempachi.

It is on the fact of this previous marriage that doubts about Doppo's paternity rest.2 The name of Man-ko's first husband is given in the Awaji family register simply as Masajirō (a given-name, not a surname), and in recent years a body of Japanese scholarly opinion, led by Sakamoto Hiroshi, has insisted that this man was Doppo's real father. Naturally this theory has thrown into question the validity of Doppo's traditionally accepted birth date and opinions have varied by as much as two years.

Whatever the truth of Doppo's paternity, and it will probably never be known for certain, such matters are of less importance in determining the pattern of Doppo's life than is the background in which he grew up. It is the environment which shapes the man. Although his mother's ancestry was not particularly distinguished, his father, Sempachi, was a samurai retainer of the Wakizaka family, feudal lords of Harima fief in modern Hyōgō Prefecture. In earlier days when the feudal system had still been in operation, his was a position of considerable wealth, status and power. But after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government embarked on the process of shaping the country along western lines, and one of its earliest reforms was the abolition of the very system on the basis of which men like Sempachi held their positions.

In common with many thousands of other dispossessed samurai, Sempachi was forced to search for some other employment which he eventually found in 1875 when he was appointed as a minor official in the judiciary to serve in the Yamaguchi court in South western Honshū (the main island of Japan).

As an ex-samurai, Sempachi would have been reasonably well educated and aware of the importance of books and a good education. His family would also have been used to some wealth, although during Doppo's lifetime his father and mother seemed to have moved from one financial crisis to another, so that Doppo himself always had to work and struggle for advancement. However, financial considerations apart, Doppo was in no real sense disadvantaged by his background. For some years to come men of samurai descent were still widely respected in Japan and not a few prominent politicians and writers came from a similar class. By its very nature, Sempachi's employment on a court circuit involved many removals of residence and Doppo spent his earliest years travelling from town to town with his parents in Yamaguchi and Hiroshima Prefectures. However, in 1878 the family finally settled down in the village of Nishi(ki)mi3 in the Iwakuni district of Yamaguchi Prefecture, and Doppo entered the Nishi(ki)mi Junior School.

It is clear from what he subsequently wrote that the Iwakuni countryside made a profound impression on the young Doppo and he subsequently used it as the setting for his story “Kawagiri” (“River Mist”). Many years later he described this period in his life in the following terms:

‘I can never thank my parents enough for...

(The entire section is 14,675 words.)