Obituary: Junnosuke Yoshiyuki

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The Independent Online
Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, writer; born Okayama 1 April 1923; died Tokyo 26 July 1994.

The red-light district of Tokyo, the Yoshiwara, which had existed since around 1600, was abolished under the Prostitution Prevention Law in 1957, though it had already been long in decline. It had always been one of the favourite settings for popular novelists, and Junnosuke Yoshiyuki may be considered as one of the last celebrants of a bygone world of prostitution and a major artist in the depiction of the lives of modern ladies of the night.

His mother was a beautician, his father an avant-garde writer, both occupations that must have influenced the young boy. The family moved from provincial Okayama when he was only three to the capital, Tokyo. Junnosuke entered the English literature department of Tokyo University in 1945, and his writings started to appear in small coterie magazines. But, like many Japanese artists and writers, he dropped out of university, and started working for a scandal magazine. He adopted a Baudelairean 'dandy' pose and frequented the post-war bars, cabarets and 'Gay Quarters'. But he also helped to found a literary magazine, Ashi ('Reed').

The style of life he was leading caused him to develop tuberculosis, and in 1954 he was hospitalised. His enforced leisure helped him to write his first story, 'Shuu' ('Sudden Shower'), which won the Akutagawa Prize and laid the basis for his literary reputation. It describes in detached, analytical style his relations with a prostitute, and is obviously autobiographical in what the Japanese call the 'I Novel' genre. He was linked with other writers of his generation like Yasuoka Shotaro, Shusaku Endo and Shumon Miura in his brilliant evocations of urban life and descriptions of scenery. But there was a deeper purpose in his theme, which was to reappear in nearly all his work. He wanted to study human relationships and their values through the medium of sex and prostitution. The postwar mood of disillusionment made him see the love-lives of men and women as fragile and unreliable, fleeting, irresponsible. He saw behind the masks of convention and conformity and searched deeply into the true sources of human behaviour. A translation of this story can be found in the Penguin New Writing in Japan.

His cool objectivity and mordant black humour found a suitable theme in 'Honoo no naka' ('Among the Flames', 1956), about his sexual adventures in wartime Tokyo. In the same year Yoshiyuki published his first novel, Genshoku no machi ('Street of Primary Colours'), about prostitutes and their clients, both male and females, set in the feverish night-life of downtown Tokyo's strip-joints and houses of assignation. A similar subject is found in Shofu no heya ('The Prostitute's Room') - a striking tale of romanticised sexuality and personal depravity that shocked Japan.

Yoshiyuki became a prolific writer of novels, short stories and collections of interviews, for which he had a great gift. In 1963 he had a great best-seller, Suna no ue no shokubutsugun ('Vegetable Garden in the Sand'). He won the Junichiro Tanizaki Prize in 1970 with his best-known work in the West, Anshitsu ('The Dark Room'), which was translated into English in 1976 and, recently, into French. Yugure made ('Until Evening') was awarded the Noma Literary Prize in 1978.

Yoshiyuki had been ill with cancer for several years, but he bore it with his typical dandyish nonchalance. He kept on working cheerfully to the end on his last novel, Medama ('Eyeballs'), though he admitted to a friend that 'writing this novel is taking all my energy now'. His balanced view of life was echoed in his balanced view of death; he stipulated in his will that no funeral ceremonies were to be held, for 'the dead are too much of a trouble to the living'.