Today, I’d like to talk about Japanese love stories, and how a few of them compare to ones in the West.
First, let me introduce Lafcadio Hearn.
He was born in 1850, and was one of the first great writers to bring Japanese literature to the West. He is famous for his collections of translated and re-told Japanese legends and ghost stories.
His wife, a Japanese, told him a ghost story about a woman who was dying. On her deathbed, she made him promise never to marry again.
For a while, the husband mourned, but eventually he met a woman he loved and got married again.
After the wedding night, his ex-wife's ghost came to their bedside, and killed...
the new wife.
Follow me past the orange ghost.
Hearn was mortified by the story and asked his wife, why didn’t she kill her unfaithful husband? Why kill an innocent woman, who probably did not know anything of the promise, instead?
But his wife did not say, don't worry, it's only the old story. She didn't say it was old times, like in Grimm's fairy tales. She simply said, “That is not the Japanese way.”
I often wonder, was Hearn relieved or more horrified to hear her said that?
In love, as in other things in Japan, the form (and obey the rules!) is more important than the positive result. If you break the rule, in this case the family harmony, there are consequence. Even if you don't know the rule, because the tragedy is not that you die to pay for the mistake, but no one told you that rule.
So what are the rules of Japanese love stories?
There is a famous one by Soseki Natsume, probably the most celebrate novelist in Japan's history, titled “こころ” (“Kokoro” - “Feeling”).
The main character began living with a widowed landlord and her daughter, and he fell in love with the daughter. Later he suspected his childhood friend had also fallen in love with her.
The friend confessed this love for the daughter to the main character. The main character proposed marriage to the daughter, and shortly after, the friend committed suicide. The story ends there, but it's implied that because of this, the main character will, at some point, commit suicide too.
This story is often assigned to students in high school. We learned about main character and his friend's profound suffering, and the consequences (death) for breaking the “rules” of love. What was the main character supposed to do to play by the rules? The feeling among Japanese readers is that he was supposed to put aside his own feeling, step aside and let his childhood friend marry the girl, even though he was there first. This is considered noble in Japan. In the West it would be considered pathetic, even cowardly. How come he doesn't stand up and fight for the woman he loves?
Another Japanese favorite recurring story was from same author, titled “それから” (“Sorekara” - “And Then”). As in Kokoro, there is a love triangle with the main character, Daisuke, who is a rich young man, and his best friend competing for one woman both love. This time Daisuke character helped his friend to marry the woman Daisuke loved. But in this story, eventually Daisuke couldn’t help himself so he confessed his love for her to his friend.
His friend got so mad and told everybody who could ruin Daisuke, including his father and brother. Daisuke's father support him financially and he was supposed to just marry this girl according to father's wishes, but he broke that rule so now he is screwed. The story ends on quite a depressing tone. The whole situation was quite depressing and pathetic.
In the West, this is a straight tragedy story I think, and the main character is totally a victim of an evil friend who became an enemy. In Japan though, this is a cautionary tale. If you do the noble thing you have to do it perfectly, meaning step aside and keep your mouth shut. The main character brought on his own destruction by breaking the rule, expressing his true feeling and not keeping his mouth shut. Yes, the friend was bad, but the result was all Daisuke's fault.
Now let's talk about a Western love story - “The Graduate”.
In the climax, Benjamin grabs Elaine from the altar, stealing her from her groom. To the Japanese eye, Benjamin did a horrible dishonorable thing in front of all of their relatives, whom Benjamin owes respect to, because of their station. The Japanese conclude that the movie has a very grim ending. They are on a bus, lost and confused, shamed and dishonored with no way to make amend, and their future is very dark and they both know it.
Which I totally disagree with, and I think Western viewers did too. I didn’t see anything grim about it. He was the Harvard graduate! And I believe that time of America was the golden age, when anyone smart with a degree could do well. They love each other enough to take a big risk together. How could it go wrong?
But if you think about it, Daisuke from “And Then” and Benjamin from “The Graduate” was the same kind of character and in the same kind of environment. Both were graduates of fine universities and had the world as their oyster. Both were content to drift in life and take their time to discover. Daisuke’s downfall started with helping his friend to marry the woman he himself loved. Benjamin’s mistake was sleeping with the woman who was his future girlfriend’s mother.
If you consider the cultural different, both are the quite fatal mistakes.
Daisuke didn’t know what to do in his life, neither did Benjamin. They both broke their society's unwritten rules and both were both wasting away their fortunes. Luckily for them, their rich family support them without questions. Benjamin may support himself eventually, but Daisuke didn’t have to.
So, in the Graduate, love helped Benjamin to put himself together. In “And Then”, love ruined Daisuke.
Finally, I’d like to introduce “金色夜叉” Konjiki-Yasha
This is one of the most famous Japanese love story.
Atami, one of the most famous resort towns in Japan, is the story setting, and is proud of this enough to make a statue there. But you may not recognize them as lovers from the statue... Because the statue recreate the most famous scene which the guy, Kankichi, is stepping on her like a foot stool.
Kankichi had a fiancé called Omiya. But her parents forced her into marry the rich guy instead. He became a loan shark for revenge (so he could be richer than Omiya's rich husband). When they reunite, he humiliated her like I explained.
Because of the cheesy line he spat kicking her, many Japanese guys are literally in love with Kankichi. He said, “I will make the night cloud with my tears, this month, next month and for years to come!”
This story is vaguely similar with “Wuthering Heights”
Both guys love a woman who chooses the rich man instead. They both were driven by lost love and revenge.
But of course, Kathy did this with her own will, and she and Heathcliff always had a love and hate relationship. Because their love was so strong, they couldn’t control their hatred neither.
On the other hand, I very much doubt Kankichi ever loved Omiya.
She even helped Kankichi to study abroad, with her husband’s money. Talk about a loser!
If Heathcliff ever tried to kick her like that, she would have ripped him apart. That still would made the great love story.
What do you think?