[Interview with Gerard Meudal, Liberation 14 Dec 89, occasioned by the publication by Fayard of Nakagami's "The Sea of Dead Trees" in French translation. My translation from the French. - jack]
"I write for a public that cannot read me. My mother, my sister, my brothers are illiterate like all the Burakumin." Kenji Nakagami was born in 1946 in the ghetto of Shingu, one of the Burakus who form the pariahs of Japanese society. The subject is taboo in Japan. Nakagami is one of the few to tackle it openly.
An enfant terrible of Japanese letters, he defines himself as a "child of shame". Jazz buff, militant of the extreme left, baggage handler at Tokyo Airport, he presents an image unclassifiable as that of a writer - the more disturbing the more he proclaims his status as a pariah. All his books evoke the life of a Burakumin, both those he has already published and those he has planned. "A Thousand Years of Pleasure", a collection of short stories, has already been translated into French. "Misaki" (The Cape), the first volume in a cycle of novels which won him the Akutagawa Prize in 1975, has not yet been translated. Curiously, it is the second volume, "The Sea of Dead Trees", which is now coming out. It is a family chronicle of the life of the Burakumin. Out of a family history extraordinarily complicated by remarriages and adoptions emerges the character of Akiyuki. He is a labourer in a small firm. He lives with his mother, stepfather and numerous stepbrothers. He is constantly haunted by the image of the Other, his real father who simultaneously had three children by three different mothers. Akiyuki finds himself endowed with brothers and sisters he does not know. In an atmosphere of Greek tragedy, soaked with ancestral hatreds and gossip, it ends in violation of all prohibitions, murder and incest.
LIBERATION: The existence of the Burakumin is practically never touched on in Japan. Nevertheless, are you forced to be the only one to proclaim yourself as such?
NAKAGAMI: Among writers I am the only one to say it. In Japan, there is a tendency never to say things openly. One always dilutes truths with floods of politeness. When one offers a gift, one says "take this horrible thing." When one speaks of one's family, one says "my idiot of a son." I am a Burakumin, I am like a child of shame. There have been other writers in my position, but they never avowed their origins. Kawabata, for example, or Mishima.
LIBERATION: How did you become a writer, in these conditions?
NAKAGAMI: I became a writer when I learned of my different condition, on leaving my ghetto. I could learn to read and write after the war, because at that time the Americans had instituted compulsory education for all in Japan. My mother forbade me to read, saying it would drive me mad. When I recall this education, it was almost a luxury for a writer. Japanese literature, in its origins, was narrative and founded on oral tradition. The No, the Kabuki came from there, that tradition in which I was bathed.
LIBERATION: Did your condition pose problems of integration into literary milieux?
NAKAGAMI: The literary milieux try hard to comprehend the problem of the Burakumin. The difficulties I met were more of a personal kind. When someone presents me to the outside world as a writer representative of Japan, it's difficult to take that on. Japan wants to show foreigners beautiful things like the No and the Kabuki while forgetting that all that comes from the Buraku. Japan has appropriated them without making their origins clear, just like the tradition of the Ainus or that of Okinawa. I sometimes have a feeling of being used.
LIBERATION: Hasn't the situation evolved since the war?
NAKAGAMI: The discrimination is just as strong, notably at the times of marriage and getting a job. An example: in the great Japanese combines there is not one Burakumin, because directories exist that list the names of all the Buraku in Japan, and these permit their elimination. The existence of these directories was not revealed until twelve years ago. After the scandal it was decided to stop the practice. But only three months ago it was discovered that these Buraku directories had been computerized.
[ If anyone knows more about this, PLEASE tell the RISKS Digest about it! This is an abuse of computer power on a scale comparable to the South African pass laws. - jack ]
LIBERATION: A Japanese critic, Yomota Inuhiko, while remarking that your literary debut coincided with the suicide of Mishima, wrote that your work seemed "to develop in its own way a problematic inherited directly from Mishima".
NAKAGAMI: I don't feel influenced by Mishima, though I have a feeling of intimacy with him and I very much like his writings. I am aware of his Buraku origins (through his great-grandfather). As writers, there is nothing in common between us beyond a certain interest in the emperor. He felt admiration for him, I a numb fear. I am the mirror image of Mishima, as on a playing card.
LIBERATION: Are there any writers who have influenced you?
NAKAGAMI: Faulkner, Genet and Celine were shocks to me. Faulkner and Genet above all were revolutionary writers. Genet introduced marginality into literature and Faulkner introduced the Third World, the South. Among Japanese writers, my model is Tanizaki. But I'm not worried. If I reach his age, I hope to reach his level and pass it. It's true that he died very old; that leaves me a bit of a margin.
[Most of what I know about the Burakumin comes from the Minority Rights Group Report No.3, Japan's Minorities: Burakumin, Koreans, Ainu, Okinawans, available from M.R.G., 29 Craven Street, London WC2N 5NT (ISSN for their series: 0305-6252). - jack]
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