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The Youth of Things

Life and Death in the Age of Kajii Motojiro

Stephen Dodd

Publication Year: 2014

When he died from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-one, Kajii Motojirō had written only twenty short stories. Yet his life and work, it is argued here, sheds light on a significant moment in Japanese history and, ultimately, adds to our understanding of how modern Japanese identity developed. By the time Kajii began to write in the mid-1920s there was heated debate among his peers over “legitimate” forms of literary expression: Japanese Romantics questioned the value of a western-inspired version of modernity; others were influenced by Marxist proletarian literature or modernist experimentation; still others tried to create a distinctly Japanese fictional style that concentrated on first-person perspective, the so-called “I-novel.” There was a general sense that Japan needed to reinvent itself, but writers and artists were at odds over what form this reinvention should take. Throughout his career, Kajii drew from these various camps but belonged to none of them, making his work an invaluable indicator of a culture in crisis and transition.

The Youth of Things is the first full-length book devoted to Kajii Motojirō. It brings together English translations of nearly all his completed stories with an analysis of his literature in the context of several major themes that locate him in 1920s Japan. In particular, Dodd links the writer’s work with the physical body: Kajii’s subjective literary presence was grounded first and foremost in his TB-stricken physical body, hence one cannot be studied without the other. His concerns with health and mortality drove him to play a central role in constructing a language for modern literature and to offer new insights into ideas that intrigued so many other Taishō intellectuals and writers. In addition, Kajii’s early years as a writer were strongly influenced by the cosmopolitan humanism of the White Birch (Shirakaba) school, but by the time his final work was published in the early 1930s, an environment of greater cultural introspection was beginning to take root, encapsulated in the expression “return to Japan” (nihon kaiki). Only a few years separate these two moments in time, but they represent a profound shift in the aspirations and expectations of a whole generation of writers. Through a study of Kajii’s writing, this book offers some sense of the demise of one cultural moment and the creation of another.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. 1-6

The matter of life and death sits at the heart of every question that people ask. Literature is one way of engaging with that matter.
The early death of Kajii Motojirō (1901–1932) from tuberculosis (TB) meant that he left about twenty finely crafted short stories and a larger number of unfinished works. He was already attracting positive responses...

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1. Illness as Empowerment

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pp. 7-35

As in Europe, TB had existed in Japan for centuries, but it was only with the rise of industrial society, particularly in its early stages, characterized by cramped and impoverished working conditions, that it reached epidemic proportions; Japanese rates of mortality peaked in 1918.1 Though Kajii grew up in a relatively prosperous household—his father worked for a shipping company—he did spend much of his earlier...

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2. Modernism and Its Endings

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pp. 36-71

My exploration in the preceding chapter of the links between Kajii and Baudelaire had the aim of demonstrating that, notwithstanding Kajii’s unwillingness to identify with Yokomitsu’s modernist experimentations, a modernist lens helps clarify some of the motivations that drive Kajii’s literary efforts. A number of scholars have recently shown...

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3. Things of Beauty

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pp. 72-110

During the 1930s, many writers and Japanese intellectuals became increasingly keen to identify a way of seeing that overlapped with broader concerns about national identity. In the course of the decade, literary and philosophical writings set forth a form of aesthetics often tinged with violence—what Alan Tansman has termed fascist...

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4. The Subject of Change

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pp. 111-140

In 1922, Kajii seemed to have a clear understanding of what it meant to exist as an individual in the world. His notebook entry of February 13 boldly declares, ...


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pp. 143-148

An unaccountable, sinister lump was constantly pressing onto my heart. What would you call it? Fretfulness? Repugnance? A hangover is sure to follow a drinking bout; if you drink every day, the moment of stupor arrives. And here it was. This was rather unfortunate...

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pp. 149-157

One day it so happened that the money order I’d been waiting for arrived from home. I decided to kill two birds with one stone by taking a trip to Hongō at the same time as cashing in the money order...

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On the Road

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pp. 158-162

I discovered the road during the season when the deutzias were in bloom.
When I worked out it was just as easy to get home from E station as from M station, and with hardly any difference in terms of distance, I was delighted. This wasn’t just because I enjoyed a change. To get the tram to...

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The Past

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pp. 163-165

The children stood outside with their father and grandmother, waiting for their mother to turn off the light and come out.
When they left, not a single person came to see them off. The dishes they ate their final dinner on, the lamp they kept on until the last moment: these had been promised to the greengrocer and would remain there...

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After the Snow

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pp. 166-174

Just at the point when Gyōichi was torn between staying on at the university and finding a job, the professor he once studied under found him a position. While not perfect, this satisfied his desire to continue his studies and it also guaranteed a livelihood. The professor set him up at a desk in a corner of the research office that he ran...

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Landscapes of the Heart

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pp. 175-184

Takashi gazed at the slumbering street from the window of his room. Other windows showed no sign of life, and deep night’s stillness gathered halo-like around streetlamps. The whirring of golden insects was broken from time to time only by the sound of their collisions...

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The Ascension of K, or K’s Drowning

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pp. 185-190

Your letter suggests you are perplexed about a number of possibilities concerning K’s drowning. Was it an accident or suicide? If it was suicide, what prompted it? Or maybe he had given up hope and died after contracting an incurable disease? Though I became acquainted...

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Winter Days

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pp. 191-205

It was almost the time of the winter solstice. From his window, Takashi could see low-lying houses and, in their gardens and gateways, stands of trees, their leaves stripped further with each day’s passing...

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Under the Cherry Trees

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pp. 206-208

Under the cherry trees, corpses are buried!
You can be sure of that. How else to explain such an unbelievably magnificent display of blossoms? I’ve been feeling uneasy these past couple of days, unable to trust their beauty. But now, finally, I’ve come to an understanding. Under the cherry trees, corpses are buried. You can be sure of that...

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Instrumental Illusions

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pp. 209-211

One autumn, a young pianist came from France. He stayed through winter and performed a whole range of pieces with great skill in the tradition of his country. The works included some from the classical German repertoire, but he brought along many pieces of French origin that we’d known only by hearsay until then and hardly ever got to...

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The Story of the Bamboo Pipe

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pp. 212-214

I had the pick of two routes when going out for a walk. One was the road that followed the valley. The other was a mountain path you entered from the roadside when you crossed the suspension bridge over the valley. The road had a view, but by its very nature it led to all sorts...

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Blue Sky

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pp. 215-217

One afternoon in late spring, I was sunbathing on top of the embankment that follows the village road. Huge clouds hung motionless in the sky. Their earthward facing sides had taken on a dark lilac hue. There was a vague sense of boundless pathos in those clouds, with...

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Winter Flies

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pp. 218-228

What do I mean by winter flies?
Flies that totter around; flies unable to escape even when you come close with your fingers; flies that take off just when you think they’ve lost the capacity for flight. At what point exactly did they come to lose the lawless streak and repulsive agility they had in summertime? They’re darker...

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Certain Feelings on a Cliff Top

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pp. 229-240

It was a muggy night in summer. Two young men were chatting at a certain café in the Yamanote part of town. The manner of their talk suggested they were not especially close friends. Unlike areas such as the Ginza, the solitary customer in a small Yamanote café is not...

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pp. 241-244

Cats’ ears are really strange. They’re thin and cold. Hair grows on the outside, but they’re shiny on the inside, like the skin of a bamboo shoot. They’re made of something peculiar that’s difficult to describe, both hard and soft. From the time I was a child, any mention of cats’ ears has filled me with an overwhelming desire to clip them with...

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Scroll of Darkness

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pp. 245-249

According to the news, a notorious burglar who’s been causing a stir recently in Tokyo has been caught. It seems he was able to run for miles even in complete darkness with the aid of a single stick. Constantly flailing the stick in front of his body, he’d make his escape anywhere...

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pp. 250-256

Look up at the starry sky. Countless bats flit about soundlessly. You can’t actually see them, but the way starlight flickers out of sight between moment and moment provides some sense that eerie creatures are flying around...

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The Carefree Patient

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pp. 257-272

Yoshida’s lungs were bad. As soon as the winter season came along and it turned cold, he developed a high fever the very next day and he began to cough badly. It was the sort of cough where you come close to spewing up all your guts from your chest. After four or five days, he...

Publication History

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pp. 273-274

Works Cited

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pp. 275-280


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pp. 281-288

About the Author, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780824838416
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824838409

Publication Year: 2014