Osamu Dazai was born Shji Tsushima in 1909 in Kanagi, a small town in the Aomori Prefecture of the Japanese island of Honshu. His family held extensive lands, the taxes on which entitled his father, Gen’emon, to move eventually from an elective seat in the lower house into the upper house of the diet. The tenth of eleven children, Dazai was initially cared for by a nursemaid, then later by a favorite aunt and a staff of servants, because his parents were unable to do so. Dazai’s mother, Tane, was exhausted by the successive pregnancies, and his father was either preoccupied with financial matters, when at home, or absent from Kanagi altogether during the legislative sessions.
During his childhood, Dazai enjoyed a comparative freedom, as his elder brothers were already being groomed to undertake the responsibility of maintaining the family fortune and reputation. Once his marked intelligence became evident, the family insisted that Dazai excel in his studies, an obligation that he diligently met throughout his elementary schooling in Kanagi. He began to founder, however, at the secondary level, when he encountered the competition of more select students and the severe scrutiny of teachers relatively indifferent to his prestigious name.
Billeted in the higher school town of Hirosaki, some twenty miles from the family home, Dazai began to cultivate certain fashionable tastes, perhaps as an escape from the relentless scholastic demands confronting him. He dressed flamboyantly and attended the local teahouses, took lessons in ballad chanting, and even courted a young geisha named Koyama Hatsuyo, whom he later insisted upon marrying in spite of his family’s shocked disapproval.
During his years in higher school, Dazai did not confine his study to the conservative curriculum, in part because of the influence of the radical ideas that made considerable headway in Japan during the 1920’s, a period of economic difficulty throughout the country. The impact of these ideas is apparent in his writings, in which he expresses the profound sense of guilt, shared by his older contemporary, Arishima Takeo, toward the tenant-farmers who worked the family lands partly to support his privileged existence. One of his earliest stories, published in 1930, depicts a youngster who joins a peasant band in rebellion against his own elder brother, a rural landowner of tyrannical arrogance....
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