Osamu Dazai: A Great Japanese Author with a Tragic Life

In the recent years, a lot of Japanese authors have been making waves in the international literary scene. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the most popular contemporary fiction writer is Haruki Murakami, who has earned acclaim for several works such as Norweigan Wood, Sputnik Sweetheart, and Kafka on the Shore. Meanwhile, the dawn of the prior century saw the rise of Osamu Dazai.

By 日本語: 林忠彦(大正7年-平成2年) English: Tadahiko Hayashi(1918-1990) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Osamu Dazai is believed to be the best fiction author in modern-day Japan by the twentieth century. His works were positively received in Japan, as he was considered to be a pioneer in fiction writing for that period. However, his immense talent is perpetually overshadowed by the tragic events that kept recurring in his life. All of those will be tackled later on in this article.

The Biography of Osamu Dazai: His Early Life, Birthday, Relationships, and Tragic End

Dazai hails from an aristocratic family in the Kanagi region of Japan, the Tsushima clan. His birth name was Shuji Tsushima before he took on Osamu Dazai as his pen name. He was born on the 19th of June 1909 to a life of privilege, in a big mansion filled with servants. Their luxuries can be attributed to the great political influence that was received by his father, Tushima Gen’emon.

The Tsushima family was rather big, with eleven children born under Gen’emon and Tane Tsushima. However, after the birth of the eleventh child, Tane’s health deteriorated rapidly. With his father busy, and his mother sick most of the time, Shuji was always in the company of their family’s maids and workers who were responsible for bringing him up.

At his pre-adolescent years, Shuji already showed a lot of potential with his writing. He participated in literary magazines, wrote self-published poems, and even wrote on the newspaper at Hirosaki University. Interesting enough, Shuji was not majoring on anything related to literary, instead, he was majoring in theatre - gidayu in particular. Gidayu is a form of puppet theatre which stems from the Edo period. This unconventional choice for a college degree comes from his fascination with Edo culture, and anything related to ancient Japan.

He was having a good start with his university life when all of a sudden Ryunosuke Akutagawa who was his favorite author committed suicide. This event caused him unexplainable grief, and sooner or later, his life would be driven by this decision. The great potential he was showing in school soon shifted into missed classes and failed exams. To make things worse, Shuji developed a drinking problem and an affinity for hiring prostitutes.

In 1929, while still studying at the University, Shuji attempted to commit suicide for the very first time. He was unsuccessful during this time, but it would only lead to a series of more suicide attempts. Luckily, he was able to finally graduate from the University in 1930, and he immediately pursued further studies at the Tokyo Imperial University during the same year.

At the Tokyo Imperial University, Shuji decided to pursue a degree in French Literature which was aligned with his literary interests. However, he was then again plagued with serious mental health problems which caused him to make terrible decisions at the time, eventually causing him to stop studying.

One of the bad decisions he made during his time in Tokyo Imperial University is to run off with a geisha whom he has developed a relationship with - Hatsuyo Oyama. Coming from an aristocratic family, they did not approve of Shuji and the geisha’s relationship, to a point where they collectively decided to disown him from the family. Unfortunately, Shuji eventually moved past his relationship with Hatsuyo.

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Around two weeks after his family decided to expel him, Shuji attempted to commit suicide for the second time. This time, he was accompanied by another girl, who was not  Hatsuyo. Instead, it was Shimeko Tanabe - a hostess whom he met in a bar. Together, the pair attempted to drown off a beach. Shuji ended up surviving yet again another attempt through the assistance of a nearby fishing boat, but Shimeko was not as fortunate.

After the suicide attempt, the police conducted an investigation on Shimeko’s death, with Shuji, singled out as an accomplice. He was charged for his involvement in the suicide, but these were dropped later on when his family intervened. The second suicide attempt brought Shuji’s family together to help him get back on his feet. His financial support was once again restored, and the family members helped him recover from the incident. Once he was back on his feet, he reignited his relationship with Hatsuyo and the pair eventually ended up getting married.

However, Shuji was once again expelled from his family after he affiliated himself with the Japanese Communist Party. Such political group was banned from existence in Japan at the time. His financial support was once again cut-off as he went into hiding due to his affiliations with the communists. However, his family did not want to give up on him so they tried to reach out him to the best of their abilities. They gave Shuji an ultimatum, they will support him financially again if he promises that he will finish his French Literature degree and stay away from the communist party. Shuji willingly accepted this offer, which he ended up keeping.

The next years in Shuji’s life were peaceful in contrast to the turmoil he experienced in the past years. While studying at the University, he was mentored by an esteemed Japanese writer Masuji Ibuse, and he spent his time honing his art. During this time, he was able to get his literary works published, thanks to the support of Masuji. Through Masuji, he was also able to meet more people in the literary community which solidified his budding writer status. These years were spent by Shuji honing his craft.

During this time, he also took up the pen name “Osamu Dazai” which was the name he used to publish Ressha in 1933. This particular work was pivotal for the new Osamu, as it was with this work where he was able to find his voice. The writing style used in Ressha became his signature writing style for the succeeding novels - it was an autobiography that was written in a first-person perspective.

Despite working hard and writing non-stop, Shuji still experienced hardships at the University which prevented him from finishing his degree. This realization took another toll on Shuji’s mental health and he once again attempted to commit suicide for the third time. Driven by the idea of not being able to graduate, as well as failing to land a job on the Tokyo Newspaper, Shuji wrote a short story and proceeded to hang himself. The literary piece was entitled The Final Years, which was aptly titled as Shuji intended this to be his suicide note to the world. Like the first two attempts, his third suicide attempt was once again a failure.

Unrelated to the suicide attempt, Osamu’s health deteriorated a few weeks after. It was found that he had acute appendicitis which required him to be on medication. One of the painkillers he was taking, Pabinal, proved to be highly addictive to Osamu. The next year, Osamu’s addiction to Pabinal took a toll on his life. He battled the addiction, but unfortunately lost most of the time. This prompted the people around Osamu to have him locked in a mental institution which would help him deal with this problem.

During his time at the mental institution, Hatsuyo became unfaithful and ended up cheating on Osamu with his closest friend, Zenshiro Kodate. Upon finding out about the affair, Osamu confronted his wife and the two attempted to commit suicide together. The pair attempted to overdose on sleeping pills, but both were unsuccessful at the attempt. Afterwards, they proceeded with the paperwork to formally dissolve their marriage.

It was not long when Osamu remarried Michiko Ishihara, who was a teacher at the time. His marriage to Michiko proved to be beneficial in his life, as his next few years were quiet and peaceful. However, he still produced a lot of literary works with a grim theme, though some were definitely more subdued. Some of his notable works during this time are Bannen, which is a tribute to the years of his adolescence where he spent a lot of time in isolation. 

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was in the era of Japan’s rehabilitation post-war when Shuji or Osamu’s popularity reached its peak. His first popular work post-war os Viyon no Tsuma, which was set in a post-war Tokyo. The protagonist of the story was a woman who was suffering after the war had left her with nothing. His next novel was Shayo, which is also known for its English title The Setting Sun.

His work in The Setting Sun was heavily influenced by Shizuko Ota, a Japanese lady who wrote a diary of the events that transcribed in her life after the war. Aside from being a big fan of Osamu, Shizuko ended up having an affair with Osamu. Hence, Osamu has an illegitimate daughter with Shizuko.

After having a daughter out of wedlock, Osamu’s life began spiraling into turmoil once again. His mental health declined, causing him to become an alcoholic. Having been diagnosed with tuberculosis before the war, his health was not improving either.  In the end, he ended up abandoning his second wife as well as his mistress. His next relationship would end up to be his last.

The last lady in Osamu Dazai’s life is Tome Yamazaki, who worked as a beautician in a salon. The two developed a relationship and started living together. During their time together, Osamu wrote his most popular novel of all-time - Ningen Shikkaku or No Longer Human. He was able to successfully finish the novel before successfully committing suicide one last time with Tomie. The two drowned themselves in a nearby river from their home.

Osamu Dazai’s Memorable Quotes from His Books: Nuggets of Wisdom

In this section, snippets of his popular works will be seen. This will provide the reader with a perspective on the theme depicted by Osamu in his novels.

Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human

One of the most memorable quotes from Osamu Dazai’s hit novel goes: “I am convinced that human life is filled with many pure, happy, serene examples of insincerity, truly splendid of their kind-of people deceiving one another without (strangely enough) any wounds being inflicted, of people who seem unaware even that they are deceiving one another.”

This quote, in particular, is coming from Osamu’s last novel No Longer Human, which he finished right before committing suicide successfully. Interesting enough, that book also features a protagonist who shared extremely similar experiences to Osamu himself - back in his days as Shuji. Hence, it is considered to be a fiction with autobiographical themes.

Going back to the quote, it is a reflection of the suffering which the protagonist is perpetually plagued with throughout the novel. In retrospect, this could be Osamu channeling his own grief coming from his own life experiences.

Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun

Another beautiful, but a rather melancholic quote from Osamu Dazi comes from his novel The Setting Sun. It goes ““To wait. In our lives, we know joy, anger, sorrow, and a hundred other emotions, but these emotions all together occupy a bare one percent of our time. The remaining ninety-nine percent is just living in waiting. I wait in momentary expectation, feeling as though my breasts are being crushed, for the sound in the corridor of the footsteps of happiness. Empty. Oh, life is too painful, the reality that confirms the universal belief that it is best not to be born.” 

While the novel tackles the fall of the aristocratic families in the modern-day post-war Japan, the quote shared above goes to channel a familiar feeling that a person feels at least once in his lifetime. The difference is that in Osamu Dazai’s life, the perpetual feeling of emptiness never left him alone. He acts on his thought that “it is best not to be born” by committing suicide.

Osamu Dazai in Pop Culture/Anime: Bungo Stray Dogs

There is no doubt that Osamu Dazai has become a popular figure in Japan - not just because of his great contribution to the literary world, but also due to the tragic events that perpetually plagued his life. His popularity transcended to modern day pop culture, so it comes to no surprise that a popular manga/anime series has a character inspired by him.

The story of Bungo Stray Dogs revolves around mystery solving agents of the ADA or the “Armed Detective Agency”. They are highly skilled detectives who are hired to complete several tasks for a mission. An interesting thing about this series is that the characters are inspired by real life persons - to be exact, they are inspired by real authors.

The characters in this hit anime show include iconic international writers such as Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and  Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It also pays homage to homegrown writers, such as Osamu Dazai and his very first literary idol, Ryunosuke Akutagawa among others.

The show was adapted from a manga written by Kafka Asigiri, which was published sometime in 2012 by popular Japanese company Young Ace. The anime adaptation was aired in 2016, and it was positively received by anime fans not just in Japan but even in other parts of the world. In fact, an anime film is scheduled to be released in the first half of 2018.