Obituary: Kojiro Serizawa
Saturday 10 April 1993
THE ARCHIPELAGO of Japan is studded with thousands of 'literature stones' engraved with poetry or prose by all kinds of writers, the living and the dead, the world-famous and the only locally revered, the native and the foreign, from Basho to Blunden. A few years ago, as I was wandering along the seashore of Kojiro Serizawa's home town, Numazu, at the famous scenic spot known as Sembon Matsubara ('Beach of a Thousand Pines'), I discovered one of these stones bearing a Serizawa quotation:
When I was very small, I was taken away from my mother and father, who had been reduced to utter poverty, and I was standing here on this beach listening to the sound of the waves and the voices of the winds, thinking and dreaming of faraway foreign lands.
It was a sort of mystic revelation that was to occur again at the end of his life.
That small boy from Numazu, a fishing port on the Izu Peninsula, was indeed someone who travelled widely for most of his long life. He was born into a wealthy family of fishing-boat owners, but in 1902, when he was five, his father gave away all his property to the Tenrikyo sect, abandoning Kojiro and his 10 siblings to the care of his uncle and grandparents.
In 1910 he was awarded a scholarship that allowed him to attend the local schools, and in 1915 he became an assistant teacher there, before starting studies in French law from 1916 at the Dai-ichi Kotogakko, now part of Tokyo University. His first short stories appeared in the university magazine. In 1919, he switched to economics.
It was around this time that he had what he described as a platonic love affair with a woman whom he calls 'MA'. After graduating from Tokyo University in 1922, he became a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. But in 1925, after she had been studying in Germany, his mysterious platonic love got married in Berlin, and Serizawa never recovered from the emotional shock, though in the same year he himself married a woman he was to love deeply all his life.
They left for Paris, where he studied economics and sociology at the Sorbonne for four years, during which time he met many prominent writers and artists, and travelled widely in Britain, Italy and Spain. But the stress of completing his graduation thesis brought on tuberculosis, and he had to enter a Swiss sanatorium, a situation resembling that in Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain. He slowly got better, and in 1929 returned to Tokyo with his wife and two-year-old daughter.
In 1930, his short story 'Bourgeois', written while still recuperating from tuberculosis, won a prize from the literary magazine Kaizo. He had begun teaching economics at Chuo University, and during the next two years his copious writings appeared in various journals and newspapers; he became known as a writer with strong individuality and liberal ideals. In 1932, he began writing a serial novel for the Asahi, but this met with the disapproval of the university authorities, and rather than be censored he resigned his post. He decided to devote his life to literature and the defence of free expression in all forms of writing. In 1935, he helped form the Japan branch of the PEN Club (30 years later, on the death of Yasunari Kawabata, he became its president, a position he held for 10 years with great distinction). In 1938, he travelled to China. When the Pacific war broke out he refused military service, and was exempted because of his weak health.
In 1951, Serizawa attended the International PEN Club meeting in Lausanne, and had an audience with the Pope. His best-known novel, Pari ni shisu ('To Die in Paris', 1953), was a best-seller and translated into French, becoming one of the first modern Japanese novels to make an impression on the French public: it was serialised in the women's magazine Marie-Claire. Another of his novels, Samurai no matsuei ('Descendant of the Samurai', 1955), was a success in both French and Polish translations. These two French translations won the Academie Francaise prize in 1957, and in the same year Serizawa was nominated for the Nobel prize.
His enormous epic novel Ningen no inmei ('Human Destiny'), completed in 1968, comprised three parts in 14 volumes and received the Prize for Artistic Merit. In 1970 a literary museum bearing his name and that of another great writer associated with Izu, the late Yasushi Inoue, was opened in Numazu, to house a collection of their books and papers.
After his wife's death in 1981, Serizawa stopped writing. Four years later, at the age of 89, he fell mortally ill. In an interview with the Asahi he described how he was so weak, he could not even go to the lavatory unaided. He was looked after by his third daughter in the house he had built for his family in Nakano, Tokyo, just after the Second World War.
It was while he was in extremis that Serizawa had his second mystical revelation, when he heard the voice of God commanding him to start writing again in order to help God save the world from barbarism. God told him: 'If you help me with your writing, I shall restore you to health, but if you don't I shall stop your breath immediately.' And Serizawa answered: 'Yes, I will help you.' Overnight, he miraculously recovered. He began writing prolifically again, publishing a new novel every year, with titles like The Smile of God and God's Affection.
Serizawa saw in the collapse of Eastern Bloc dictatorships and the fall of the Soviet Union's Communist system the confirmation of God's promise to him that he would rid the earth of all evil. God had told him He would trample into the dust people who became rotten with greed, and became involved in political and financial scandals. So he went on writing, and the eighth volume in a new series of novels is to be published in August: he had been hoping to complete the series with a ninth, but it was not to be. God told him: 'Until I get this world cleaned up, keep your health and strength to help me.' Serizawa did indeed remain healthy to the end, and practised yoga every night before going to bed.
There has been what the Japanese call a 'quiet boom' in Serizawa's novels, but critics are divided about their quality, especially the later visionary ones. His supporters say they form 'the Bible of the contemporary world' but his detractors claim they are the misguided efforts of a deteriorating intellect. He wrote so much in his last years that admirers came to visit him to check that it was indeed he who was doing all the writing.
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