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The Frontier Within by Abe Kobo, edited and translated by Richard F. Calichman

Kobo Abe (to use the more familiar Westernised name-order), who died in 1993, is well-known as one of the most significant writers to have emerged out of post-war Japan. He began his writing career as a poet (having taken a medical degree on the condition he did not practice), and went on to produce work in all literary genres, from drama to belles-lettres. Abe was one of the first modern Japanese science-fiction authors; he also collaborated on film scripts based on several of his novels, perhaps the best-known of which is The Woman in the Dunes (1962). Other novels likely to be familiar to Western readers are The Ark Sakura (1984) and Kangaroo Notebook (1991); plays by Abe available in English translation include The Ghost is Here (1958) and The Man Who Turned into a Stick (1969).

The Frontier Within by Abe Kobo, edited and translated by Richard F. Calichman
Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kobo, Kobo Abe, Richard F Calichman (trans.) (Columbia University Press, June 2013)

Abe’s essays, on the other hand, are less well-known, and this collection seeks to remedy the deficiency. To Western readers, Abe usually appears as an existentialist, which is, at least at first, not that surprising, since he admitted to being influenced by Western authors like Kafka and Dostoevsky as well as philosophers such as Heidegger and Nietzsche. To that end, as Professor Richard Calichman notes in his fine introduction to this volume of Abe’s essays, he has been characterized by critics as “the most un-Japanese” of modern Japanese writers, because he often appeared less “exotic” than they expected, or dealt with themes which somehow were not to be found in others’ productions. Indeed, Calichman identifies a tendency in the West to actually want Japanese literature to be full of kimonos, cherry-blossoms, geishas and other Japanese “things”, otherwise they are not really seen as authentic.

When Abe came upon the scene in the 1960s, many readers were startled, but soon reconciled themselves to his work by defining it as “Western-influenced”. Critics were therefore able to categorize him as somehow “avant-garde” from a Japanese standpoint, yet indebted to Western cultural or philosophical ideas from another, and thus could be readily interpreted from that angle. The publication of this book of Abe’s essays has as its purpose the broadening of Western perceptions of this writer. The essays deal with matters of social concern, with what Matthew Arnold would have called “criticism of life”, and range from the purely literary to essays entitled “Discovering America”, the lead essay dealing with anti-Semitism, and “Possibilities for Education Today”. There is, however, a common theme which applies to all of them; as Calichman puts it, Abe is concerned here with “articulating a notion of the social in which individuals are not co-opted or appropriated strictly as parts within a unified and comprehensive whole, but are rather granted a measure of freedom through which to explore the world and others (including, significantly, the self as well as others) in all their alterity.” In other words, as Thomas Lamarre puts it rather more succinctly on the back cover, Abe wants “to produce a non-fascist mode of existence within art and literature,” which, he ultimately hopes, will translate into a “non-fascist” way of life for everyone in a more general sense, and will move from the imaginative world of art and literature to everyday existence.

 

Richard Calichman is Professor of Japanese Studies at the City College of New York, as well as the author of two books on Takeuchi Yoshimi, the late distinguished Japanese cultural critic and China scholar—and his introduction at times seems too geared towards readers steeped in lit-crit jargon, as the word “alterity” suggests in the passage just quoted. Concepts such as “essentialism” should have been more thoroughly explained. The essays in this collection more suited to a general educated reader include “Discovering America,” “Possibilities for Education Today” and “The Military Look”. For literary specialists, there are “Poetry and Poets (Consciousness and the Unconscious)” and “Theory and Practice in Literature”.

However, readers should be warned that Abe’s prose is often philosophical, reflective and occasionally quite difficult to understand; he has an enviably profound grasp of complex thinkers such as Sartre, Marx, Darwin, Heidegger and Georg Simmel, and he sometimes cites or refers to lesser-known figures such as Karl Löwith, Julius Lips, as well as a whole range of Japanese writers from the educator Yukichi Fukuzawa (whose Autobiography may be familiar to some Western readers) to novelists such as Sei Ito, whose name is practically unknown to English readers. Fortunately, Professor Calichman has thoughtfully provided a useful glossary of Abe’s references, so complete that he even includes figures such as Poe, Kafka, Einstein, Freud and Tolstoy, well-known to the literary scholars which are the book’s target audience but also to general educated readers. The depth of Abe’s knowledge and command of Western thought, history and culture can be plumbed simply by looking through this glossary, and it is extremely impressive.

 

Of the essays in this book, “Discovering America” may be taken as an example of what to expect from Abe, and demonstrates amply his “criticism of life”. Calichman notes that Japanese writers critical of America have often been ignored or dismissed by American scholars, and upon reading this essay, which was written as far back as 1957, the reader can see why. It was less than two decades after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War and it was in the beginning stages of the Cold War; at that time Abe was still a member of the Japanese communist party (he was thrown out a few years later), and believed that the Americans, who still occupied parts of his country, were not to be trusted. He believed that they were the aggressors in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, and he understood American “democracy” as a myth which concealed the imposition of state power, to which Abe was implacably imposed.

Abe does not stop with attacking the United States as imperialists; he raises questions about discrimination against blacks and against Jews (a topic he returns to in the lead essay), and compares the plight of these two groups with what had been happening in Nazi Germany. Abe is far too subtle a writer to suggest that the Americans are Nazis, however; the point he make is more applicable to the Nazi Party’s behaviour in the 1930s, when Jews were excluded from German life. For Abe, the prejudice against blacks is even worse, “far more violent and nihilistic than anti-Semitism,” as he put it, ending with the striking words “The Nazis believed that Jews had to be killed, whereas American farmers never even saw the need to kill blacks.” What horrified Abe was the disguise by which the United States concealed its real motives; the Americans did not blatantly thrust people into gas chambers, but advanced their persecution subtly and with great propagandistic sophistication, by which they fooled the so-called “free world” and pulled the wool over the eyes of their own people effectively and completely. These themes appear again and again in the essays, examined from different angles and giving profound insights into human existence.

Abe is not just a polemicist and he is certainly no rabid anti-Westerner or even anti-American. His prose is straightforward and incisive without being strident, and he often employs understatement or flat language. His use of foreign sources serves to make Western readers sit up and take notice; Abe is not an isolated Japanese scholar venting his rage on a world he doesn’t really understand, but a man who has a thorough grasp of Western culture, history and literature, which on many levels he admires and respects. He is aware of the dangers of both collectivism and over-individualization, and his essays may be read as those of someone looking for a via media, and someone who knows that there is a real connection between art and life. If we can find a way to exist in a “non-fascist” way within the confines of art, then there is some hope that life outside art can perhaps begin to imitate it.


John Butler is Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His latest book is an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert's Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012).