From freshly scorched earth arose an important literary ethos which sought to produce existential works of psychological significance. Post-war author Abe Kōbō encapsulates the downtrodden consciousness of the Japanese people in his abstract short story “Akai Mayu” (1950).
In the midst of wartime chaos, authors in Japan could not help but layer their stories with criticism of their own government, yet due to ruthless censorship of perceived subversive content, such literature was forcibly banned until after the war’s conclusion. Soon after conflict ceased in 1942, authors picked up the pen with newfound freedom, and began to openly reflect on the damages their country had both suffered and caused. Writing from a severely diminished sense of identity in the wake of devastation, these newly motivated writers stripped bare the Japanese ego in their search for the meaning of existence. Thus, from freshly scorched earth arose an important literary ethos which sought to produce existential works of psychological significance.
Abe Kōbō’s “Akai Mayu” (“Red Cocoon, 1950) is a poignant example of the changes taking place in the early post-war literary sphere. The anonymity of the story’s disoriented protagonist allows for an intimate look into the state of the Japanese psyche at the time. Throughout the war, the citizens of Japan had been fueled by nationalistic pride, impressed upon them by their boastful government. Yet with the proceeding defeat came the annihilation of pride, and the people of Japan found themselves utterly lost and helpless. The bleak, confused surrealism of Kōbō’s narrative perfectly captures the disorienting darkness which had consumed the hearts and minds of the Japanese citizens:
“When I take a piss against a telephone pole, sometimes there’s a scrap of rope hanging down, and I want to hang myself. The rope, looking at my neck out of the corner of its eye, says: ‘Let’s rest, brother.’ And I want to rest, too. But I can’t rest. I’m not the rope’s brother, and besides, I still can’t understand why I can’t find a house” (CAMJL, 449.)
The protagonist’s progression of consciousness is fragile, abstract, and wandering. He struggles to understand the concept of ownership—a continuing theme throughout the story—and further wrestles with the notion of his own existence. “The wandering Jew—is that who I am?” (450.) Unable to conjure a concrete resolution, he ultimately surrenders complete control over his existence. Thus, with “no ‘I’ to return to” (451) the anonymous man silently unravels to an infant state of consciousness, removed from identity and ego. “In the end, I’m gone. Afterward, there remained a big empty cocoon” (451.) He, like so many of his countrymen in the aftermath of WWII, can find confidence in neither his country, nor himself, and is thus reduced to a mere trinket in the hands of greater foreign powers.
Kōbō’s anonymous man is connected to the spirit of Japan the through an abstract deconstruction of consciousness: “Inside the cocoon, time stopped. Outside, it was dark, but inside the cocoon it was always evening. Illumined from within, it glowed red with the colors of sunset” (451.) The empty cocoon seems to envelope the entire collective mind of a suffering Japan, citizens of which are isolated, homeless, and lost in repentance for the atrocities their own leaders had caused. The vivid existentialism in “Akai Mayu” illustrates the bold creativity with which postwar authors ventured beyond the question of individual identity. Previous authors had wrestled with feelings of alienation amidst a transnational culture, yet the anguish felt in postwar Japan prompted a new vein of psychology which was fixed on understanding the essence of being. In a sense, postwar literature developed from an alienated and broken nation who craved to know, “why am I?”
- Rimer, J. Thomas. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature. Abridged. ed. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. 449-451. Print.
© 2015 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.