The Reading Life Japanese Literature Project
The very first book I reviewed in 2010 was The Tales of Ise by Arihara no Narihara, a collection of short poetic works written in the late 10th century. These poems deal largely with the ritual of courtly love in medieval Japan. We learn of the elaborate conventions a man had to use in attempting to court a Nobel lady. A man might hope after months of courtship to be given a flower that had been touched by the object of his affections.
Things are quite a bit different by the time we get to the post WWII world of The Dark Room by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki. (1924 to 1994- Yoshiyuki was a professional writer and journalist who won several prestigious literary awards. ) In this autobiographical novel our courtly hero utters such romantic lines as
"pull off your pants promptly, I only have a few minutes on my lunch break". What courtly lady of the late 20th century could resist the enthralling flattery inherent in "your sexual skills are on a par with a lesbian prostitute I see regularly".
There seems a near obsession with prostitutes in contemporary Japanese literature. We see this in the work of Natsuo Kirinio and in The Rivalry by Nagai Kafu . In some of the works of Junichiro Tanizaki we also see relationships between the sexes treated as fetish based economic encounters. Haruki Murakami gives prostitutes a large part in many of his novels. Junnosuke Yoshiyuki loved prostitutes and the world of the pleasure quarters. The central character of The Dark Room sees his lose of traditional values as a result of the Japanese defeat in WWII. Japanese values were based on the belief in the sacredness of the Emperor and the Samurai Code. Neither of these faiths could be sustained after the Japanese lost the war and the Emperor announced he was but a man.
There are a lot of interesting conversations between the central character and the women he encounters. As is the cliche, the narrator (the book is told in the first person)sees the prostitutes as women who were abused by men at an early age. This leads them to become lesbians and to seek power over men through prostitution. There are x-rated descriptions of all sorts of sexual encounters. There is no sense of condemning any of the characters in the plot of the book. This is a not a book about a sun lite world. There seems no possibility of long term meaningful human relations in the world of The Dark Room. There are a lot of conversations about the feelings of gay women toward men, each other and child rearing.
One of the things I learned from One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura (a really wonderful novel about immediate post WWII Japan that deserves a wider readership) is how hurt and shocked Japanese were when after WWII many Japanese women had little choice but to prostitute themselves to occupying troops. This really had a long lasting effect on the Japanese moral code. One of the very dominant themes of the post WWII Japanese novel is the treatment of the effect of the WWII defeat on Japanese culture. I think it was much worse than the effect of the defeat on German society. Germans could simply say "It was all caused by bad leaders who they personally never liked anyway". In Japan their core beliefs were destroyed.
The Dark Room is an interesting book. I am glad I read it but was also glad it was short! It was perhaps the enjoyment of reading the sex scenes that I liked best, I must admit.. The central character is really not a bad person but you feel no great sympathy for him or anyone else in the novel. This is, as far as I can tell, the only one of his several works that has been translated into English.
If you are just getting into the Japanese novel, you can wait a long while until you read The Dark Room and if you never do it is not a great loss. It is not a bad novel it is just that there are so many really great works that you should read first. On the other had, if you are nearing your 100th Japanese novel and enjoy some occasional x rated escapist reading (this is for sure an adults only book) then this might work for you.