Famous Japanese People – Osamu Dazai

Japan’s history is one of its major selling points on the global stage. Almost completely isolated until the 1800s, this small nation’s past is wholly unique and has gone on to shape it as one of the world’s most fascinating countries. Throughout this history, as with any other country, specific individuals have left a mark that echoes through the ages, their actions impacting on modern-day Japanese life in a myriad of ways.

The western world has been spoiled with regards to its literary exploits, leaving it somewhat ignorant of those further afield. While Japan is not known for its written expertise, one man crafted classics that rank as some of the nation’s greatest works; a cursed genius, making his name during some of Japan’s darkest days.

Note: due to the life of the great writer, this article contains themes that some may find upsetting.

Osamu Dazai Biography

Dazai was born as Shūji Tsushima in a remote corner of the northern Aomori Prefecture in 1909. The tenth child of a prestigious family, he was brought up in the Tsushima mansion, growing through the guidance of servants more than parents. His father was a high-ranking politician but died during Dazai’s teenage years. His mother was also often ill during his childhood.

Growing up in a well-off household, Dazai developed a notable talent for writing and storytelling from an early age. He studied literature at Hirosaki University during the 1920s, a time in which literature’s popularity exploded in Japan following the conclusion of WW1 in 1918. One of the greatest writers of the post-war period was Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, a man who Dazai idolised. However, in the same year Dazai started his university studies, Akutagawa committed suicide.

A shrine in Hirosaki covered in snow

A Life of Suicide

From that point onwards, Dazai began to lose control of his young life. His generous allowance was spent on indulgences, such as women and alcohol, and he eventually tried to take his own life in 1929, but failed. Despite moving on to study French Literature in Tokyo, his life became dominated by rebellion, as much against himself as anything else. He abandoned his studies soon after joining Tokyo Imperial University, running away with a Geisha named Hatsuyo Oyama, a move that left him disowned by his wealthy family. Not long after that, he attempted suicide again, this time by drowning in the sea off Kamakura with a young bar hostess. The girl died, but he survived. Dazai was charged for his role in the girl’s death but escaped formal punishment, his family coming to his rescue.

After being bailed out by his family once more for his involvement with the banned Japanese Communist Party, Dazai promised to calm down, marrying Oyama. The early 1930s were some of the most productive years of his writing career, with his first work under the pen name, ‘Train’, published in 1933. However, when he failed to graduate from Tokyo and failed to get a job at the local newspaper, his life fell into decline again. He wrote a book titled ‘The Final Years’, written in his now-famous autobiographical style, that was to serve as his last work. He attempted to take his own life once again soon after its publication, and failed once more.

Appendicitis hospitalised Dazai soon after his third suicide attempt, and a morphine-based addiction as a result of the treatment saw him entered into a mental institution in 1936. During his small time spent there, his wife cheated on him. The adultery left their relationship in tatters and, for a fourth time, Dazai attempted to take his life, this time with his wife. Once again, however, he survived. So did his wife, so they decided to get a divorce.

A ruined building, World War Two memorial in Hiroshima, Japan

Japan’s Great Wartime Author

Osamu Dazai is now largely recognised for his first-person autobiographical style, with his works said to have a unique connection to Dazai’s own life. Unsurprisingly motivated by his disastrous early years, during the 1930s and 40s Osamu Dazai wrote a collection of short stories that would go on to be published under a collection titled ‘Declining Years’. Titles such as ‘Against the Current’, ‘The God of Farce’ and ‘False Spring’ shone a light on the man’s contorted sense of what life in Japan meant for him.

In the early 1940s, World War Two arrived in Asia, and Japan found itself in conflict once more. While Japan censored most dark literature, Dazai’s popularity allowed him to publish works that others could not. It was during this period that Dazai rose to general acclaim, and the post-war period was the most successful of his career.

Dazai’s most acclaimed work is a book titled ‘The Setting Sun’. Released in 1947 after WWII, the story looked at the decline of Japanese nobility following the war, something which he was born into and was known to dislike.

No Longer Human

His most famous work, however, is a book titled ‘No Longer Human’. Seen by many as Dazai’s autobiography, he wrote the story in the late 1940s after leaving his then-wife and child to run away with a beautician and war widow named Tomie. The book told the story of a man born into wealth whose life encounters disaster after disaster, often mirroring his own.

Cold and unsentimental, the book is considered to be one of the classics of Japanese literature. It would also be the last book Dazai ever wrote. Just months after it was published, Dazai and Tomie were found dead by the side of Tamagawa Canal in Tokyo – Dazai had committed suicide at the fifth attempt.

A busy pedestrian crossing in Tokyo, Japan

Osamu Dazai’s Legacy

While on the surface, it may appear that Dazai’s success came as a result of his turbulent life, the manner of his writing makes his success more spectacular. Dazai is seen as heavily anti-tradition and, by virtue, quite anti-Japanese. While ‘The Setting Sun’ features heavily in school curriculums in Japan, ‘No Longer Human’ has taken on a life of its own, becoming almost a rite-of-passage for Japanese young adults in a world which feels increasingly detached. Adapted into every medium imaginable, Dazai’s final work symbolises a darker but nonetheless real side of Japan experienced by people every day.

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