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Naoya, Shiga 1883-1971

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Japanese short story writer, novelist, critic, and essayist.

Shiga was one of the most influential Japanese fiction writers of the TaishŌ period (1912-26). Despite his comparatively modest output of one novel, three novellas, and a few dozen short stories, he has had a significant impact on subsequent generations of writers and remains one of Japan's most revered literary figures of the twentieth century. Shiga was associated with the Shirakaba (White Birch) school, a group of writers united by their opposition to naturalism, a pessimistic and deterministic literary philosophy prevalent in Japan in the early part of the century. Shiga and the other Shirakaba members were humanistic in their outlook and tended to base their fiction on autobiographical material. These authors, known as I-novelists, became the narrator-protagonists of novels which focused on the hero's emotional development. Shiga's An'ya Kōro (A Dark Night's Passing) is considered a major I-novel, and many of his most-admired short stories are fictionalized accounts of events in his life. Paradoxically, by focusing narrowly on his own personal experiences, often to the exclusion of events from the larger world, Shiga was able to create stories that capture something of a larger, quintessentially Japanese, view of life; and he himself, isolative and introspective, was hailed as a "god of fiction."

Biographical Information

Shiga was born in Ishimaki, in the northern part of Honshū, Japan's largest island. His family belonged to the samurai class, but his father, a strongly independent man, embarked on a successful business career. He was employed as a banker in Ishimaki but took a position with a business firm in Tokyo and moved his family there when Shiga was three years old. They moved into their clan's residence, and from this point on Shiga was raised by his grandparents. Shiga deeply loved his grandparents—his grandmother doted on him, and, as he later attested, his grandfather was one of the most influential people in his life. When Shiga was thirteen his mother died. He later recounted her death and his father's subsequent remarriage in "Haha no hi to atarashii haha" ("My Mother's Death and the Coming of My New Mother"). Shiga and his stepmother were fortunate in having a mutually affectionate and respectful relationship. In contrast, Shiga's relationship with his father was increasingly discordant. In 1900 Shiga became a follower of the Christian evangelist Uchimura Kanzo and as a result began to espouse social causes. The following year he planned to join a protest against the Ashio Copper Mine, which was polluting a local river and poisoning the nearby residents; but his father, who had business dealings with the mining company, forbid his son to participate. Although Shiga eventually complied with his father's demands, this incident marked the beginning of an estrangement between the two. Another clash centered around Shiga's love affair with one of the family's servants and his declared intention to marry the girl. His father, proud of the family's distinguished ancestry, vehemently opposed such a match. He separated the two by removing the maid from the household, and Shiga's infatuation eventually cooled. Tensions were exacerbated by what Shiga's father considered his son's idle and aimless lifestyle. Shiga had consistently been a mediocre student, first at Gakushuin Elementary School and later at Tokyo Imperial University. While in college Shiga became interested in writing—an activity his father thought useless—and he and his friends founded the literary magazine Shirakaba, which gave rise to the group of writers of the same name. Shiga dropped out of college in 1908, much to his family's dismay, and entered what was to be the most productive period of his writing career. In 1912 he published the novella Ōtsu junkichi, based on his love affair with the family servant. The publication of the novella occasioned another dispute between father and son which resulted in Shiga's moving out of the family residence.

In addition to ōtsu junkichi, Shiga produced several of his most famous short stories in the 1910s, including "Claudius's Journal," "Sebei's Gourds," "An Incident," and "Han's Crime." He also began work on A Dark Night's Passing, though the novel would not be completed until 1937. His marriage in 1914 to a widow who had a child precipitated a complete break from his family, and Shiga renounced his inheritance. However, after the birth of his second daughter in 1917 (the first had died shortly after birth the previous year), Shiga reconciled with his father, recording the reunion in his novella Wakai (Reconciliation). By the middle of the 1920s Shiga's productivity had markedly declined. He continued to work on A Dark Night's Passing throughout the decade, but after the novel's publication he produced little for the remainder of his life.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Many of Shiga's stories are autobiographical in origin, but the lines between fiction and reportage are frequently blurred in his works. Shiga has explained his technique of blending fact and fiction in his comments on the hero of A Dark Night's Passing. Shiga observed: "Kensaku the hero is by and large myself. I would say his actions approximate the things I would do, or would wish to do, or actually did, under the given circumstances." Thus, he may begin with an actual person (often himself) or event as his subject, but he then builds a fictional world around it. "An Incident," for example, is based on an actual accident that Shiga witnessed in which a young boy was run over by a streetcar. Around this account, he constructs a story told by a fictive narrator who focuses on the imaginary thoughts and impressions of the passengers on the streetcar. Also characteristic of much of Shiga's fiction is its psychologically probing quality. Whether he himself is clearly the narrator, as in Reconciliation, or the central figure is fabricated, as in "Han's Crime," he continually analyzes the psychological complexities of the protagonist. Shiga's stories are also noted for their careful structure, their precise detail, and evocative, poetic language.

Critical Reception

Shiga occupies a dominant position in modern Japanese fiction. As Donald Keene has noted, "No modern writer was more idolized than Shiga Naoya. A half-dozen writers were recognized as his disciples, and innumerable others were so greatly influenced by his writings as to recall Shiga on every page." Such prominent writers as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Tanizaki Junichiro, and Kawabata Yasunari have admired his work. Although some post-World War II critics have questioned the value and significance of his work, they concede that he remains an important figure, not only for his contribution to the development of the I-novel, but for his flawless style. Precise, compressed, and carefully controlled, Shiga's writing has been extolled for its ability to convey complex psychological states through suggestion, implication, and allusion.

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