Love and Empathy for the Oppressed: Remembering Yūko Tsushima

I met Yūko Tsushima when we were introduced by Kenji Nakagami in the late 1970s.

They had been members together of the group that produced the small literary magazine Bungei Shuto. It surprised me to learn that she kept the fact that she was writing fiction secret from her mother. She wouldn’t allow the magazine to be mailed to her; she collected her copy in person. She was also hiding the fact that Osamu Dazai was her father from her fellow members of the group. In other words, she went to extraordinary lengths to cancel out the conditions one would think would be to her advantage in becoming a writer and to start out instead as an ordinary person. In fact, you might say this shaped her writing. Yet I often felt that her ability to tell stories was probably a gift inherited from her father.

I always thought of Yūko Tsushima in relation to Kenji Nakagami. If Nakagami was a younger brother to me, Tsushima was a younger sister. In 1991, I joined the two of them in a gathering of writers opposed to the Gulf War. But Nakagami died a year later. Since then, apart from editing his complete works, I have not been active in the literary field. It was after that point, however, that Yūko Tsushima became a special figure to me.

Perhaps I saw her as a stand-in for Nakagami. She was in fact not unlike him, as an author who wrote about marginal beings—illegitimate children, orphans, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, animals. She was a writer who had empathy and a deep love for the oppressed. And she was active on their behalf in many parts of the world. For example, she once taught a course at a French university about the literature of the Ainu.

But Yūko Tsushima was more than a stand-in for Kenji Nakagami. I looked on in amazement as, in recent years, one after another, she developed styles that were each different from anything she had written previously. The book I especially admired is Ōgon no yume no uta (Golden Dream Songs; 2010), because it coincided perfectly with my own Sekaishi no kōzō (The Structure of World History; 2010). And then last year there was Jakka Dofuni (Jakka Dukhuni; serialized in Subaru magazine), a work that has no parallel in the history of world literature. With a streak like that, she had me wondering what on earth she would write next.

It is not well known in Japan that Yūko Tsushima was a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She wrote a wide variety of works that were entirely worthy of the award, and she was active internationally. If only she had lived a little longer, she would probably have won. Also, I walked with her a number of times in demonstrations against nuclear power in front of the Diet. It is sad to think that I can’t do that any more.

Asahi Shimbun, February 23, 2016

(Translated by Geraldine Harcourt)