Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

March 26, 2012

Okamoto Kanoko (writer)

Okamoto Kanoko (1899-1939; 岡本かの子; real name Onuki Kano) was a tanka poet and novelist  active in the years before WWII. She was born in Tokyo's Aoyama into the wealthy and distinguished Onuki family. From a young age she was carefully tutored in the Japanese classics, music, dance and calligraphy. She became highly accomplished and developed a charismatic personality. She was also precocious in other ways - she had many boyfriends and eloped with one of them.

When in Middle School she was inspired by her brother Onuki Shosen, who wanted to become a poet. He also introduced her to Tanizaki Junichiro. At age sixteen she started contributing tanka poetry to magazines as the famous Myojo (published by Yosano Akiko and her husband Tekkan). Her style in tanka was influenced by the passionate poetry of Yosano Akiko. Okamoto wrote her whole life tanka and published four poetry collections (a selection has been incorporated in Makoto Ueda's Modern Japanese Tanka).

In 1910 she married the cartoonist Okamoto Ippei whom she had met two years earlier. Their first child, Taro, was born a year later, and went on to become a famous avant-garde artist. Two more children died in infancy. At about the same time, also her brother Shosen and her father died - and her husband offered no support whatsoever at this crucial time. Okamoto had a nervous breakdown which caused her to turn to religion, and she would publish several books and essays on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and also give lectures on this subject.

Her marriage with Ippei was a very free one, on both sides. Okamoto Kanoko was something of a femme fatale and continued to see other young men and even persuaded her husband to let one of them live in their house.

In other to develop herself further as an artist, in 1929 she moved with her husband and son (plus one of her boyfriends) to Europe. They visited Paris, London and Berlin before touring the United States, and returned to Japan in 1932. Her son Taro stayed behind in Paris to study painting - he would only return to Japan after the death of his mother.

Her first story, Tsuru wa yamiki ("The Crane Falls Sick") was published in 1936 in Bungakkai with the support of Kawabata Yasunari, who was a constant admirer of her work. It is a biographical sketch about the last years of the famous author Akutagawa Ryunosuke, who had committed suicide in 1927. Okamoto met Akutagawa in the summer of 1923 in Kamakura, where he was staying in the same hotel. They had casual meetings and conversations. Four years later she saw him again, ruined by illness and looking like a sick crane. When she heard of his suicide she regretted not having talked to him at that occasion, as she thought she might have saved him. The work, although controversial (Tanizaki opposed its publication in Chuo Koron because of the unflattering portrayal of his sister-in-law, an actress for whom he wrote two film scripts), was a sensation and Okamoto received so many invitations to write from magazines that she worked at a furious pace - she wrote all her fiction, more than 30 short stories and novellas, in only three years time, from 1936 to 1939. In that year she died of a stroke, at the age of just forty-nine.

Okamoto's protagonists are often beautiful and dangerous femmes fatales, as in the work of Tanizaki Junichiro. For Okamoto, women are a life-giving force, like the ocean. The two keywords in her work are obsession and desire. She was not interested in social criticism. Her style is rich and highly rhetorical -it has a classical ring to it that reminded me of another baroque writer, Izumi Kyoka. Although Donald Keene calls her style "overblown," and takes her task for her "improbably similes and glittering neologisms," translator Tanaka Yukiko admires her "passages of unparallelled beauty." John Lewell calls her style "ornate and intense."

Perhaps because of this gaudiness and the difficulty of her prose, Okamoto is not a popular writer in present-day Japan. Only two anthologies of her stories are available as bunkobon. In English, several of her stories have been translated, but unfortunately scattered over different anthologies and scholarly journals. Recently, J. Keith Vincent has published beautiful renderings of two stories (see below) - I hope more will follow, for Okamoto Kanoko deserves it. Why not publish all her fiction in English?


Selected Works:
  • Tsuru wa yamiki ("The Crane Falls Sick," 1936).
    Her first story, a document about the writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke (see above). Aozora Bunko.
  • Konton Mibun ("In a Chaos," 1936).
    Kohatsu, a swimming teacher, faces a dilemma: Kaibara, a man who has supported her and her father financially, wants to marry her. But she prefers another admirer, Kaoru. She asks Kaibara to wait until after an important swimming contest. During the contest, she swims far out to sea... Aozora Bunko.
  • Boshi Jojo ("Mother and Son, a Lyric," 1937).
    A rather narcissistic autobiographical story that examines the passionate love of a mother towards her son who is in Paris to study painting. With almost incestuous feelings she pursues a young man who seen from the back resembles her son. Aozora Bunko.
  • Hana wa Tsuyoshi ("A Floral Pageant," 1937).
    Depicts the relationship between an overpowering woman and a sick man. She is devoted to flower arrangement and at 38 still unmarrried. He, from his side, will not marry her because she should devote herself to her art and not nurse a sick man. At a succesful exhibition she receives the news of the death of her lover... Aozora Bunko.
  • Kingyo Ryoran ("A Riot of Goldfish," 1937). 
    Mataichi has spent almost 20 years to breed a rare species of goldfish, which should exceed the beauty of Masako, a young woman living in a house on a cliff above his goldfish ponds he admires from a distance. Success does not come easy, but one passion fuels the other. Finally, he finds a wonderful type of goldfish in an old pond into which he has thrown defective specimens.  Aozora Bunko. Translated by J. Keith Vincent (Hesperus Press).
  • Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi ("The 53 Post Stations on the Tokaido," 1938).This story tells about a compulsive traveler who explores the historical and literary sites along the old Tokaido highway, even when he has to sacrifice his family for his obsession. Aozora Bunko.
  • Rogisho ("Portrait of an Old Geisha," 1938).
    Kosono, an elderly geisha, supports a young mechanic who dreams of becoming an inventor. But when the plans come to nothing, he feels trapped by her. She, however, doesn't release him and in fact seems to be siphoning off his young life force. Aozora Bunko. Translated in the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories.
  • Sushi ("The Sushi," 1939).
    About an elderly gentleman visiting a sushi shop, not so much because he likes fish, but because it calls up memories of his mother. Aozora Bunko.
  • Shokuma ("The Food Demon," 1939).
    The story of a pauper from Kyoto who teaches himself to be an accomplished chef to escape drudgery. Aozora Bunko.  Translated by J. Keith Vincent (Hesperus Press).
  • Karei ("The House Spirit", 1939).
    A young woman is destined to take over the family restaurant. She believes that submitting to her fate will cost her her happiness, but each time she is drawn back by an unseen hand. Aozora Bunko.
  • Kawa Akari ("The Gleam of the River," 1939).
    A search for Buddhist deliverance. Kinoshita doen't want to marry as he dislikes women after seeing the ugly quarrels between his mother and foster mother. He finds peace as a sailor, sailing around the South Seas.
  • Shojo Ruten ("Vicissitudes of Life," posthumous 1940)
    A search for identity by a young woman facing marriage. Choko's father was a wanderer who was adopted into a distinguished family. She feels she has something from his character and finds it diffcult to settle down. Finally, she goes to the ocean in the company of an idiot beggar. 

Based on information about Okamoto Kanoko from Japanese women novelists in the 20th century; Modern Japanese Novelists by John Lewell; and Dawn to the West by Donald Keene.