Fumio Niwa

Prolific and long-lived writer whose novel deriding the old caused a sensation

In 1947 Fumio Niwa, who was to become one of Japan's most prolific authors - he wrote over 500 works - caused, at the age of 43, a literary and social sensation with his novel Iyagarase no Nedai (The Hateful Age). The book was a fierce and unprecedented attack on the traditional Japanese veneration for the very old, which Niwa unsparingly depicts as anachronistic and socially pernicious.

Fumio Niwa, writer: born Yokkaichi, Japan 22 November 1904; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Tokyo 20 April 2005.

In 1947 Fumio Niwa, who was to become one of Japan's most prolific authors - he wrote over 500 works - caused, at the age of 43, a literary and social sensation with his novel Iyagarase no Nedai (The Hateful Age). The book was a fierce and unprecedented attack on the traditional Japanese veneration for the very old, which Niwa unsparingly depicts as anachronistic and socially pernicious.

The recent increase in people living into their eighties and nineties makes the story even more disturbing today. It paints a distressingly frank picture of senility in all its physical and sociological aspects, and has become a kind of source book for studies on the phenomenon of ageing. The married couple in the novel who have to take care of a tiresome old granny try to rationalise their feelings:

"Yes," thought Senko [the wife], "granny was like some sort of disease visited permanently upon their family, and now afflicting the third generation."

Her husband, Itami, is even more outspoken:

. . . in that little body of hers the spite, hypocrisy and dishonesty of 86 years have coagulated into a solid core of wickedness.

This struck a particular nerve in the public, for Niwa's shockingly disrespectful caricature of old age also inspired a guilty sense of liberation in all those afflicted by grouchy and mettlesome old folks.

So the couple hit upon what they feel is a "good" solution - to unload the old crone on an older sister living with her painter husband in a remote country region. They force Senko's younger sister Ruriko to hoist her on her back and carry her all the way to the nearest railway station, then to endure a four-hour journey to a distant terminus, from which Ruriko totes the exhausted old woman many more miles to their relative's cramped hilltop house. Their exasperation is both comic and pitiful.

All this excursion is described with excruciating honesty in Ivan Morris's exemplary English version, one of his many masterpieces of literary translation from the Japanese. It can be found in his great anthology Modern Japanese Stories (1962).

Niwa, the author of this broadside, was the first son of the Buddhist hereditary priest of Sogenji Temple (at Yokkaichi, in Mie Prefecture) that belongs to the True Pure Band Sect. The family had held this temple for over 200 years, and the eldest son was expected to perpetuate the family tradition. After graduating in Japanese Literature from Waseda University in Tokyo, he returned to Sogenji. But, while he was fascinated by the rituals, he found he could no longer bear the oppressive atmosphere of the place, and after two years he abandoned the priesthood and went to live in Tokyo, where, although he was allergic to alcohol, he became a prominent figure in the bars of the Ginza.

Another reason why he left the temple was his strange relationship with his mother. At first a very severe character, she mellowed when she fell in love with a young actor in the itinerant Kansai Kabuki Company and ran away from the temple to live with him. Her character influenced Niwa's fictional portraits of passionate women.

At first Niwa had to rely on memories of his agitated childhood and youth. Yet he had no wish to describe himself in his fictions. He worked with a journalist's objectivity, though with a tendency to sensationalise. Many of his early works were explicit erotic fantasies that were censored. His first story to draw general attention was "Ayu" ("Sweetfish", 1932), serialised in the literary magazine Bungei Shinju. The following year, he published his first novel, Zeiniku ("Superfluous Flesh"), which describes an adulterous affair involving the author himself. He was very good-looking and made many conquests: he was often compared with stage and screen idols like the kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro or the romantic cinema star Hasegawa Kazuo.

During the Pacific War, Niwa was a war correspondent with the Japanese navy, about which he wrote a documentary story, Kaisen ("Naval Engagement", 1942), which the great Oriental scholar Donald Keene praised as the finest of all wartime documentary fictions. During the American occupation, he was worried about being investigated by the US authorities for war crimes, but in the end he was not troubled. Niwa's The Hateful Age was published not long after the surrender, in 1947, and its controversial success fully established his literary reputation. Another of what the critics called "tales of the old and ugly", Shuchi, translated by Edward Seidensticker as A Touch of Shyness (1953), received high critical praise.

Towards the end of his life Niwa turned again to Buddhism. His novel Habi to Hato ("The Serpent and the Dove", 1953) was about the many new religious cults flourishing in Japan after the Second World War. Among his best works in this late genre is Bodaiju (1955-56) a wonderfully evocative novel, translated as The Buddha Tree by Kenneth Strong in 1966. Then Niwa began publishing, at the age of 65, the five-volume Shinran (1969), a biographical account of the great Heian Period Buddhist saint, followed, in 1983 when he was 79, by his eight-volume life of another celebrated priest, Rennyo, who died on a pilgrimage to India.

Ironically, after his attacks on the Japanese veneration of the old, Niwa himself in old age became a sufferer from Alzheimer's disease. As executive director of the Japan Professional Writers' Guild, he had encouraged all writers to improve their health by joining him on the golf links - they called it "The Niwa Golf School". His generosity towards his fellow writers was remarkable. He organised a health insurance system for them and bought land for a writers' graveyard.

But, as his health degenerated, he became more and more unpredictable. When his wife started accusing him about past love affairs, he tried to strangle her; she took refuge in an old people's home. Niwa's daughter, Keiko Honda, in Chichi Niwa Fumio - Kaigo no Hibi (Days of Care, 1997), draws a portrait of him in old age that is touching in its tender clarity. She remarks: "He was getting more and more like Buddha, while his wife was becoming more and more of a shrew."

In the end, when Niwa was 100, the old age he had so much derided, and despised so vigorously, claimed its inevitable revenge.

James Kirkup

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?