The Critical Response in Japan to Richard Wright

By Kiuchi, Toru; Hakutani, Yoshinobu | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Critical Response in Japan to Richard Wright

Kiuchi, Toru, Hakutani, Yoshinobu, The Mississippi Quarterly

RICHARD WRIGHT WAS INTRODUCED TO THE LITERARY PUBLIC in Japan in 1940 by Moriya Emori, who translated Native Son (Tokyo: Hibonkaku Press). Emori, a leftist poet, was editor-in-chief of The Red Flag [Akahata], an official newspaper for the Japan Communist Party. The year 1940 marked a turning point in Japanese history: World War II had begun in Europe the previous year, and the Pacific War broke out the following year, involving Japan, the United States, and Britain. It is remarkable that Emori was able to obtain a copy of such a radical, epoch-making novel written in America and to publish its translation when a strict censorship was enforced and Japan had severed its cultural ties with America. Only a leftist with an influential literary position was able to accomplish such a task. Curiously, however, the cover of the first edition featured a picture of palm trees and an African hut, which suggests that the designer of the cover misunderstood the meaning of the word Native.

Preoccupied with the war, general readers and literary critics alike paid little attention to Native Son during this period, when reading books in English, let alone discussing them, was regarded as unpatriotic. Wright criticism, in effect, did not begin until the 1950s when translations of other works by Wright appeared: The God That Failed (1950), edited by Richard Crossman, Black Boy (1952), Uncle Tom's Children (1955), and The Outsider (1955). In the early riffles, Marxist politics and criticism had a great number of intellectual followers, and in 1954, a group of leftist critics launched a new organization, the Association of Negro Studies, in the city of Kobe. They began publishing a journal called Negro Studies, renamed Black Studies in 1983. The 1960 issue (no. 12) was devoted to Wright. A year earlier the newspaper Red Flag had published in eight installments a translation of "Big Boy Leaves Home."

In the late forties and in the fifties, critics were unanimous in applauding Native Son not only as a culturally influential literary document but as a well-constructed narrative. Tadatoshi Saito's reading is representative: Native Son is successful not only as protest literature but in its organization of fictional material. Wright's basic philosophy in the novel, Saito observes, is Marxist, but the structure of the novel betrays his latent desire to explore existentialism. (1) Similarly, Isao Sekiguchi, in "Richard Wright's Fiction: A Study of Its Environment," reads Native Son as a sharper attack on racial prejudice than Uncle Tom's Children and regards the novel not merely as protest fiction but as a superb representation of a black man's self-determination. (2)

In the aftermath of World War II, many of the Japanese people were forced to lead a roofless urban life as "outsiders." Out of this chaotic cultural climate emerged a school of young writers who called themselves apres-guerre and tried to create a new form of literature. Younglike writers and critics, exploring the theme of alienation in their own writings, became interested in reading such novels as Camus's The Stranger and Wright's The Outsider. Some of the critics in the fifties were also fascinated by Wright's concept of double vision for African Americans, as shown in The Outsider. Fukuo Hashimoto, for example, notes in Modern Literature [Kindai Bungaku], now defunct, that Wright attempted to create in Black Boy the outsider with double vision. (3) Even though such nonfiction works as Black Power, The Color Curtain, and Pagan Spain were not translated into Japanese, many academic critics commented on Wright's racial and cultural discourse. Reviewing White Man, Listen! for Negro Studies, Yuriko Ishida, a woman critic, read the book as a psychological analysis of the Asian and African elite, who were trying to blend European culture into their lives under white rule.4 Takeo Hamamoto, for instance, comparing Wright with Yoshie Hotta, a Japanese novelist, observed that both Asians and African Americans are united by the color of their skin but that they are separated by their religions. …

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