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

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