Online book translation review: Seventeen Parts 1 and 2 by Kenzaburo Oe

Seventeen Part 1, the first part of a short two-part novel by Kenzaburo Oe, stirred up so much trouble in his home country of Japan that the publisher was threatened with death by far-right political groups (uyoku dantai) if the second part were brought out.  Thankfully, both Seventeen and Death of a Political Youth, the second part of the tale (renamed and published almost in secret to avoid a violent backlash) have been translated into English and posted on the blog Tokyo Damage Report.  Oe’s work taken as a whole is funny, sad, and horribly depressing all at once and is well worth a read, assuming the reader has a strong stomach.

Before we look at Seventeen, though, we need to travel back to the year 1960. Japan was still in the process of rebuilding after the destruction of World War II and hosted (as it still does) a large US military presence. The constitutional monarchy re-established by the Allies after the war ended allowed various parties, both on the right and the left, to get back into the game of politics and to openly debate the role of Japan in the world. Many of these debates reflected the capitalist/nationalist vs. socialist/communist divide of the Cold War, and naturally, this stirred up a lot of student political activity, both on the left and right.

On October 12, 1960, in the midst of this tension, a 17 year-old nationalist student activist named Otoya Yamaguchi rushed the stage of a televised speech in a lecture hall in Tokyo and ran a traditional samurai sword through the speaker, Socialist Party chairman and Diet representative Inejiro Asanuma, killing him almost instantly.

A photographer captured the assassination as it happened. (Source: Yasushi Nagao - © 1960 United Press International)

This photograph looks staged, but it’s not.  The assassination as it happened.  (Source: Yasushi Nagao – © 1960 United Press International)

Shortly after the assassination and Yamaguchi’s jail cell suicide a few weeks later, the novelist Kenzaburo Oe wrote a novel about the whole incident – told from the perspective of the young assassin.  The first half of Seventeen, released in 1961, tells the story of the protagonist, a high school student who has just turned 17 years old.  The main character and narrator of this tale calls himself “Seventeen”, and his age does contribute a lot to the story.  Seventeen is an awkward, perpetually pissed off kid.  His family is generally is cold and distant and his elder sister loathes him (for good reason – he flips out in Chapter 1 and gives her a severe eye injury during an argument.)  After poking his sister’s eye out, Seventeen exiles himself to a shed in his family’s backyard where he sleeps, broods, and mopes about his problems.)  Seventeen’s school life is miserable, and his only friend is a stray cat that stop by his shed sometimes.

So far, with the possible exception of the eye-poking, this sounds like a pretty typical coming of age story about an awkward teenager.  In most of these kinds of stories, the teenage protagonist comes to some kind of revelation about himself and grows as a person (see Catcher In The Rye for the classic example.)  Our protagonist here also comes to a revelation about himself, but it leads him to a bloody end.  Seventeen is a coming of age tragedy.

The first half of Seventeen plays out almost like a teenage comedy, complete with dick jokes.  However, halfway through the first part, Seventeen discovers meaning in an uyoku, or far-right nationalist, group, where he finds like-minded friends.  At this point, the story takes a serious turn for the political.  Seventeen also finds that his new status as a right-wing activist has earned him a degree of fear, if not of respect, from classmates and teachers who previously just despised him.  As a fervent young nationalist, Seventeen soon finds himself at the front line of a street fight with left-wing students during a series of protests in Tokyo against the renewal of a controversial US-Japan security treaty.  The second part of Seventeen, Death of a Political Youth, is far more serious than the first part and pretty much depicts Seventeen’s descent into insanity, his assassination of an unnamed left-wing politician as he makes a televised speech, and his short stay in prison before he kills himself.  (Note that this isn’t really a spoiler – it’s exactly what happened to the real-life politician Asanuma and his assassin Yamaguchi.)

Of course, there’s no way to know exactly what was in Yamaguchi’s mind when he decided to kill Asanuma.  But we do know that he was motivated by nationalist sentiment, and Oe’s work parodies that movement – much of the second part of the novel involves Seventeen obsessing over and seeing visions of “the Emperor” – not the actual living Emperor (then Hirohito) but some kind of idealized figure, more like God than a mere human.  In fact, reading Seventeen in 2016, especially in the West, reminds me of the kind of religious fanaticism that seems to inspire violent acts – both of the jihadi and of the extremist Christian anti-government variety.*  Seventeen’s fanaticism doesn’t seem very different.

An uyoku van. The writing on the van are political slogans.

An uyoku van.  These vans are driven around by uyoku guys who dress in paramilitary uniforms and shout at people. The writing on the van is right-wing political stuff.

It should be noted that the right wing in Japan also had a literary side to it, and writers like Yukio Mishima did a lot to push the nationalist agenda (he’s a good writer as well and is well worth a read, despite his weird retro views on worshipping the Emperor and all that stuff.  He also tried to overthrow the Japanese government in 1970 with a group of five other guys and committed actual medieval hardcore ritual suicide with a sword when he failed.  Mishima was somewhat nuts.)

Anyway, if all the above stuff sounds interesting to you, here are the links to the translations.  The translator does an interesting job with the writing.  He’s definitely going for the “feeling” of the text more than literal accuracy. I very much doubt that Oe included the phrase “Shake that ass!” in his original work. But I don’t mind. Also, this seems to be the only English translation of Death of a Political Youth around, so if you want to read it and can’t read Japanese, you don’t actually have a choice in the matter.

Seventeen

Death of a Political Youth

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*If you don’t live in the United States, you might not know about this strain of fanaticism – I’m not sure how much it really exists outside of the US.  Eric Rudolph (the 1996 Olympics bomber) was one of these bastards.

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