Kunikida Doppo Criticism - Essay

David Chibbett (essay head 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 giving me the opportunity to grow up in the country. If I had gone with my parents to somewhere like Tokyo when I was seven years old, I should be a completely different person. I believe that … my heart would not have been capable of receiving and understanding the noble sentiments of poetry. As it was, I spent seven of the happiest years in my life roaming around the fields and hills near my home.’

These, however, are the reflections of maturity and any inference that Doppo was a dreamy and introspective child is negated by two facts. His childhood nickname was Garikame or ‘Scratcher’, given to him because of his habit of using his nails in fights, and, secondly, it is clear both from what he wrote about himself and from the ‘boy’ characters in his stories that he was addicted to playing at soldiers. Like Shōsaku in “The Self-Made Man,” his boyhood heroes were Napoleon and Hideyoshi.4 Fighting and playing at soldiers may be indications of imagination, but not of sensitivity. 1878, the year the family moved to Nishi(ki)mi, also saw the birth of Doppo's younger brother Shūji who was destined to be a stalwart companion to his elder brother, accompanying him on many of his journeys and even featuring, in a minor way, in some of Doppo's stories.

Like many boys of his period, Doppo's opportunity to carry on living at home was limited by the considerations of education. In June 1883 his father was transferred back to the town of Yamaguchi and Doppo was obliged to enter a new school, the Kondō Junior School. Just two years later in July 1885, when Doppo was not yet fourteen, Sempachi was moved again to the town of Hagi, and to avoid even more disruption of his education, Doppo was obliged to stay on as a boarder at the Yamaguchi Middle School to which he had graduated earlier the same year. Little is really known about Doppo's performance at school, but it appears that he was gifted enough to get by without having to work too hard, and he also displayed some aptitude for art. More importantly, it was during his time at Middle School that he first came into contact with western literature in the form of Japanese translations of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea which he read avidly alongside his favourite Japanese novels which seem in the main to have been the medieval war chronicles such as the Taiheiki and the Heike Monogatari. Such tastes seem not unusual for the son of a samurai warrior and it was these Japanese novels which gave him his first youthful ambition, as he later recorded in Shinkobunrin, published in January 1907:

‘I was a boy possessed of fierce ambition. My whole aim was to become a great general and leave my name for posterity.’

There were, of course, many other boys in Japan at that time with precisely the same ambition, as there are likely to be in any country at any time.

In 1886 the Japanese educational system was reformed, one of the consequences of which was that the Yamaguchi Middle School where Doppo studied was closed down and re-established as the Yamaguchi High School. The direct result of this as far as Doppo was concerned was that it greatly extended the period he would have to study before he reached university requirements. Being young and ambitious, he made the decision that rather than wait the extra years he would leave school and travel up to Tokyo where he hoped eventually to make his career as a politician. In this he had his father's approval. Among the young men of his time this was a common ambition stemming directly from the resurgence of national consciousness after the initial period of westernisation, and like most of them, Doppo failed to realise his hopes. However, in going to Tokyo, he was unwittingly taking the road to a very different kind of fame from the one he intended. The decision to leave home and go to Tokyo is definitely one of the turning points on which Doppo's literary career revolves although it was to be more than ten years before it bore any really worthwhile results—a period in which Doppo had a variety of experiences which were ultimately to determine the type of writer he was to become.

Doppo arrived in Tokyo in April 1887. Like Victorian London, Tokyo was the Mecca for all young men of ambition in Japan. Although under the Tokugawa rulers it had (under the name Edo) been the de facto capital of Japan for more than 250 years, in 1887 it had been the titular capital for less than twenty. It was the political, social and cultural centre of Japan for the new class of young Japanese anxious to participate in the formation of the new state. It was a place where fortunes could be won and names made.

Sooner or later all Japanese writers or would-be writers gravitated to Tokyo to study their craft under a master in the traditional manner and most of them continued to live there. When searching the pages of Meiji literature, it is hard to find the names of any writers who worked anywhere else in Japan, with the exception of a few country-based writers such as Miyazawa Kenji and Nagatsuka Takashi. Doppo, of course, was well aware of all this and was resolved to make the best of his opportunities.

The first year after his arrival he spent studying at a private law school in Kanda, chosen for him by his father. Training in the law was considered to be one of the ideal methods of advancement for the prospective politician. At the same time he joined the Dai Nihon Seinen Kyōkai, a youth organisation which was one of many springing up all over Japan at that time, particularly in Tokyo. This organisation published a magazine called Seinen Shikai and it was in issue number eight of this (March 1888) that Doppo's first known work appeared. It was entitled “Gunsho ni watare,” and was a typical piece of juvenilia urging the youth of Japan to do great deeds for the country. There are no portents in it of anything that was to come.

Although Doppo left no clear statement of his motives for doing so, he decided to leave the law school in early 1888, joining instead the English department of the Tōkyō Senmon Gakkō. This college, later to become Waseda University, had been founded in October 1882 by the statesman Ōkuma Shigenobu and originally consisted of just three departments with seventy or eighty students. Although there were more departments in 1888, the college was substantially unchanged by the time Doppo became a student there.

It seems probable that he was dissatisfied with the value of his law school training and progress and thought that the knowledge of a foreign language such as English would in the long term be of more use to him. It is clear, however, that he was still determined on a career in politics, because after a year of study, he transferred in September 1889 to the department of English and Politics. Whatever his ultimate intentions, however, Doppo used his time at college well, although in the end he left before receiving a degree. He read widely and omnivorously, ranging from books on the English constitution and the speeches of Gladstone to the works of Carlyle, the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and the poetry of Wordsworth.

In such time as he had left over from his college work and his reading he went for strolls in the Tokyo suburbs where he first became familiar with the scenery he was later so graphically to describe in “Musashino.” What we know of his life at this time is largely derived from “Ano jibun” (“In Those Days”), an autobiographical piece which Doppo published in June 1906. It is from the pages of this work that we learn how he spent his time, what he read, and most important of all how he underwent the spiritual transformation which was to affect his whole life and his career as a writer.

Towards the end of 1889 he began to attend a nearby Christian church where he was taken by a college friend named Satō (re-named Kimura in “Ano jibun”). One should perhaps beware of statements of religious revelation, particularly when they are made in retrospect, but Doppo's account is convincing enough and indicates that he became a Christian, at first at any rate, rather through intellectual conviction than emotional. In “Ano jibun,” he says:

‘I became obsessed with such questions as “Where have we come from? Where are we going? What are we? …” The two of us (Doppo and Satō) were walking along one day discussing a multitude of things, although I don't remember what they were in any detail. In his usual grave voice Kimura (Satō) asked me:

“Don't you believe that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem to save mankind?” There is nothing very special in that question itself, but in my heart I felt that there was a kind of power in the word “Bethlehem” and I felt as I had never felt before.’

This account is perhaps vague enough to have the ring of truth (no high-flown construction has been placed on his earliest encounter with Christians and Christianity), and it seems a reasonable inference that his taste in western literature, particularly Wordsworth, would have tended to lead him in the direction of Christianity. Once his decision to join the church had been made, this would have had the effect of reinforcing his love of Wordsworth's poetry and the poetry would equally have reinforced his Christian beliefs.

After at least a year of attending church he was finally baptised on 4 January, 1891 by Uemura Masahisa who was the local minister. Earlier, in October 1890, Doppo had joined the Seinen Bungakkai (Young Men's Literary Society) which had been formed at the college. Every month some notable figure from Tokyo literary society would be invited along to give a talk which would later be published in the society's magazine along with members' own works. It is obvious that Doppo's interests at this period were beginning to direct themselves towards literature.

During the early part of 1891 there was trouble at the Tōkyō Senmon Gakkō with student strikes and this was no doubt a factor in Doppo's decision to leave the college at the end of March without graduating. On 1 May he returned to his parents' home (they had moved again to another small village in Yamaguchi Prefecture) where he spent two months of leisure in reading and going for walks in the mountains and on fishing trips with his brother. In addition to his beloved Wordsworth, Doppo began also to read the works of Byron, Emerson and Shakespeare.

This life of leisure could not last, however, for the Kunikida family was beginning to feel the pinch of lack of money and Sempachi could no longer afford to support his son. Doppo was obliged to look for employment. Bearing in mind Wordsworth's dictum ‘I wish to be considered as a teacher, or nothing’, he decided to open up a private school. This he did in October 1891 at the village of Matsushita where he taught English and mathematics to about thirty pupils. This venture was not a success, however, not least because Doppo continually pined for Tokyo life. By the beginning of 1892 he was beginning to weary of life in the country as he indicates in a letter to a friend dated 1 January, 1892:

‘Last New Year I was in Tokyo and having a good time. This year I am in the country and it is not the same. It is almost as if the celebration of New Year is confined to city society, the reason perhaps being that country people are not yet used to the new calendar (i.e. the western calendar).’

In February Doppo closed down his school and in June returned to Tokyo, this time with his brother. This year in the country was, however, of great importance in Doppo's career as a writer and in his development as a man. It gave the leisure for philosophical speculation. He subsequently used this year's experiences as the basis for several of his short stories, including “Tomioka Sensei” (“Teacher Tomioka”) and “Shōnen no Hiai” (“The Sorrows of a Young Man”). His finances had also been replenished enough to enable him to live, modestly enough, for a fairly lengthy period without having to seek work. His preoccupation with religious speculation continued. In a letter to his friend Tamura Sanji dated 22 September, 1892 he wrote:

‘How to live is the first question and the last. I mean this not in a physical but in a moral and ethical sense. In the words of Christianity, “Search for the kingdom of heaven”.’

By the beginning of 1893 Doppo was in sore financial difficulties and had to borrow from friends to live. He was forced to live in the cheapest lodgings he could find and to search for work. Having had his fill of teaching for the time being and perhaps being subconsciously propelled towards a writing career, he succeeded in gaining a post as a reporter on the Jiyū Shimbun, the organ newspaper of the Jiyūtō political party. He took up his duties on 13 February, 1893, but it was to prove a disastrous mistake. We are fortunate in having a very accurate and detailed portrait of Doppo's life at this time and for the next four years, because from 2 February he began to keep a diary. This was published after his death as the Azamuzakaru no ki (Record of an Honest Man) and is a further indication of Doppo's desire to write. He was later to prove that he had the makings of a fine journalist, but evidently he had great personal difficulties with the staff of the Jiyū Shimbun, particularly Kanemori, the head of the company which published the newspaper. He had been working there for less than three weeks when he felt compelled to record his feelings in his diary (entry for 2 March):

‘Mr Kanemori is very cold towards me. He won't give me any responsibility, pays me no salary, and won't talk to me. It is reaching the point where there is danger of he and I being unable to work together.’

Having taken the job simply in order to earn a living, Doppo found that the paper was giving him very little money at all, and even when he did receive the salary of 3 yen on 31 March, it was not enough to keep him going. Goaded by poverty and the frustrations of a job which, in these circumstances at any rate, he did not like doing, Doppo reached a momentous decision which he recorded in his diary on 21 March, 1893:

‘Last night was one of the most critical nights of my life. I firmly resolved to make my way in the world by writing. I will use all my powers to become “a teacher of mankind” through what I write … I do not desire to become a famous author. … If I can just teach the world the truth about love, sincerity and labour, all my aspirations will be fulfilled.’

By now the career in politics was truly a thing of the past and in this statement confided to his diary, we can see the fusion of two elements which had been dominating Doppo's thought ever since leaving college, the desire to teach and the desire to write. Four years were still to pass before Doppo wrote his first work of fiction and even though the decision to become a writer had finally been made, the forces of economic necessity still prevented him from taking up his pen in earnest.

At the beginning of April, Doppo resigned his post on the Jiyū Shimbun and went home for a month, returning to Tokyo on 8 May. The rest of the spring and summer that year Doppo spent in earnest self-examination and reading, living for the most part on borrowed money. In his diary during the months of June and July, he recorded the titles of all the books he had been reading, the most influential of which were the inevitable Wordsworth and the works of Ivan Turgenev which he encountered for the first time in the translations of Futabatei Shimei.5

Minor disaster struck in August when his father, Sempachi, lost his job, making the financial downfall of the Kunikida family imminent and the need for Doppo to find some remunerative work imperative. Driven by necessity, Doppo turned to a friend whom he had met in his days at the Tōkyō Senmon Gakkō. This was the critic and journalist, founder of the Minyūsha publishing company, Tokutomi Sohō6 whom Doppo visited on 5 September.

Through an introduction given him by Tokutomi, Doppo secured a post at the Tsuruya Gakkan school in the small township of Saeki in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu. He was to teach English and mathematics to about thirty pupils, together with a little German to those who wanted to learn it, for which he was to receive the comparatively good salary of 25 yen a month. He arrived in Saeki with his brother at the end of September, and the year he was to spend at the Tsuruya Gakkan was destined to prove one of the happiest times in his short life, and perhaps the most important influence on his development as a writer.

As far as his teaching went, Doppo's time at Saeki was not particularly successful, mainly because the other teachers approved neither of his method (which was to be sharply critical and sparing of praise—the apparent opposite of his predecessor at the school) and, more importantly, because of his Christianity. At the same time, however, the job as such was sufficiently undemanding to allow him plenty of spare time for reflection and his favourite leisure pursuits of fishing and rambling in the countryside. And everywhere he took with him the poems of Wordsworth. In a later story, “Koharu” (“Indian Summer”), he wrote:

‘It was during my time at Saeki that I read Wordsworth most fervently of all. I felt that, rather than a teacher, I was a pupil learning about nature with Wordsworth as my guide.’

In his diary entry for 15 January, 1894, he went even further in his praise of the English poet:

‘Confucius, Buddha, Christ, Socrates, Plato and Wordsworth are all of the same type.’

In fact, references to Wordsworth occur frequently in Doppo's diary throughout this period and it is probable that he was never at any time, either before or after, quite so heavily influenced by him. He was also at his most fervent in his Christianity doubtless under the influence of the niggling persecutions he received at the hands of his colleagues at the school.7 So wearisome had his life at the school become to him by the early summer of 1894 that in a letter to a friend, Ōkubo Yoshogorō, dated 27 June, he wrote:

‘Rather than teach a hundred pupils at a salary of a hundred yen, I would find it much more rewarding to have just three pupils and be independent. Country people are a collection of fools and the beauty of the nature surrounding them does not necessarily reflect in their hearts.’

At the beginning of July 1894, just like the young teacher in “Old Gen,” Doppo moved to new lodgings near Katsura harbour, but the respite provided by this was short-lived and he finally left Saeki on 1 August, the very day that the Sino-Japanese war broke out. He was then twenty-three years old and still was no nearer to fulfilling his ambition to become a writer.

Tokutomi Sohō had helped him before and Doppo decided that he had nothing to lose by asking for his help once again. At this time Tokutomi was in charge of the Kokumin Shimbun (People's Newspaper) which he had founded in 1890 as a progressive, democratic paper for the middle classes. However, as reports came in of the worsening relations between Japan and China, the tone of the paper, under Tokutomi's influence, became increasingly jingoistic. Doppo's appeal to Tokutomi for help was for a second time not in vain and he was taken on the staff of the Kokumin Shimbun as a reporter, with the aim of making himself `the ideal reporter'. Soon after his appointment he was sent to join the warship Chiyoda-maru8 to act as a war correspondent.

The Chiyoda-maru was basically a patrol vessel and seldom directly involved in front-line fighting. Nevertheless it provided a golden opportunity for Doppo to demonstrate his talents both as a reporter and as a writer. He hit upon the idea of addressing his despatches in the form of letters to his brother which, on publication in the Kokumin Shimbun, had the effect of summoning public attention. After his death in 1908, all Doppo's despatches from the Chiyoda-maru (which was in fact the second ship on which he served) were collected and published under the title Aitei Tsūshin (Despatches to my Beloved Brother).

These reports have some historical importance, but a glance at the despatch headings reveals that Doppo was not entirely concerned with military matters, a considerable number of them being concerned with ship-board life and the customs of the people in the ports which the Chiyoda-maru visited. It would be understandable if a patriotic young Japanese such as Doppo engaged, but not actively, in a short and successful war, were to be carried away by martial ardour and jingoism. Such, however, was not the case with Doppo who above all else was a humanitarian. The prospect of human confrontation and sudden death had a numbing effect on his mind and soul. In his diary he recorded his feelings (entry for 6 November, 1894):

‘I am forgetting all about my beloved nature … As I engage in war, I am becoming almost devoid of feeling. I once took great pleasure in minute examination of nature, but now I have become indifferent to it.’

Speedy victory for Japan in the war with China meant that by March 1895 Doppo was back in Tokyo having resumed his job on the Kokumin Shimbun with increased reputation. In fact, so greatly had his reputation increased that when a post on the editorial board of the Kokumin no Tomo (The Nation's Friend), a periodical published by Tokutomi's Minyūsha, fell vacant, Tokutomi had no hesitation in appointing Doppo. This was in April 1895. This appointment was indirectly to lead him to the grand and tragic passion of his life.

At the beginning of June, Doppo, along with reporters from the Mainichi Shimbun and the Kokumin Shimbun was...

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Edward Fowler (review date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of River Mist and Other Stories, in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, August, 1984, pp. 757-58.

[In the following review of River Mist and Other Stories, Fowler takes exception to David Chibbett's critical assessment of Doppo and critiques Chibbett's translations of the author's stories.]

How wonderful to have, at last, [River Mist and Other Stories] a book-length collection in English of Kunikida Doppo's works; yet how very disappointing that it is so severely flawed.

Doppo was not an author of the first rank, but he most certainly deserves to be anthologized, even three-quarters of a century after...

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Maya Mortimer (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reflexivity in the Stories of Kunikida Doppo,” in Japan Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, April-June, 1984, pp. 159-63.

[In the following essay, Mortimer discusses reflexivity in several of Doppo's short stories]

The word “reflexivity” has become an inescapable and, perhaps, all-too-fashionable term of contemporary literary criticism. At the risk of simplification, one might say that it is used to indicate the way in which a literary text defines itself as literature, and it involves the presumption that every literary text, implicitly or explicitly, exhibits some degree of self-contemplation, some reflection upon its own textual status. One may well accept...

(The entire section is 2802 words.)