The Broken Commandment (1906) – Tōson SHIMAZAKI

Doing some research for my Honours project, I cam across this novel. To say it was hard to track down is an understatement – I’m pretty sure it’s out of print everywhere, so I had to raid my university library, who thankfully had a copy. Said copy was old, battered and falling apart, so it’s clear this is not a novel on the top of everyone’s reading list. Which is sad, really, because it’s actually rather good.

“Tell no one” is the three word motto Ushimatsu lives by, having been taught by his father to never reveal his secret. His secret being, of course that his family are eta (burakumin, as they are now called), or the lowest caste of Japanese society, the untouchables. With the modernisation of Japan, though, he has become a teacher, and the fear of being found out by the establishment is his greatest fear. This fear is what drives the narrative – in the beginning, the lodge in which Ushimatsu is staying discovers that another of their lodgers is a burakumin, and summarily expels him. Rather than have this same humiliation happen to himself, Ushimatsu leaves. Of course, the fact that he had no real reason to leave brings his own identity into question, and when your own boss is trying to kick you out of the school because you are too modern-thinking, this is not necessarily a good idea.

Also problematic for Ushimatsu is his fanatic following of Inoki-sensei, a prominent scholar, who also happens to be a burakumin. Some of the crap the other character’s come out with about the fact that any burakumin could be this intelligent and well-spoken can only be a miracle is something one must take in one’s stride, but it really drives home the point that Shimazaki is trying to make. Despite seeing someone like Inoki making his way in the world having “come out” as a burakumin does not make is any easier for Ushimatsu, who cannot even bring himself to reveal his secret when he meets finally gets a chance to meet Inoki. There’s clearly some deep repression going on, but from the attitudes of the other characters, it’s easy to understand.

Kenneth Strong, the translator of my edition (though I’m not sure anyone else has bothered to translate this, anyway) highlights in his introduction that Shimazaki is considered to be one of Japan’s first naturalist writers, and there’s a lot to take from this. The Broken Commandment finds its setting in the hills of Nagano, the alps outside of Tokyo, and there are some spectacular descriptions of the countryside, complete with falling snow covering pines, and the rather quaint mountain villages where the action takes place. He also spends a lot of time describing to us the slaughter of a bull (for reasons which I will let you discover on your own), and the rather graphic nature of this scene may be shocking – but it’s important to remember that the burakumin were outcasts because they worked with animals – dead animals, in particular – so something like this makes perfect sense in context.

Of course, one could just as easily read this as a gay novel. I’m not sure that was ever Shimazaki’s intention, but for a modern Western reader, it’s not hard to see the parallels between Ushimatsu’s struggle to maintain this secret for fear of persecution and ostracisation as a burakumin with the struggles many people around the world face today coming out. And by making that link, Ushimatsu’s desire to simultaneously tell everyone he knows and to take his secret to the grave becomes clearly understandable. His inner struggle is immense, and Shimazaki does a good job of highlighting this.

The ending’s a bit rubbish – the whole thing seems rather contrived – but of course, this was not Shimazaki’s point. His intention to highlight the problems faced by the “new commoners” of post-Meiji Japan seems to far outweigh any concern he might have for writing a well-structured, reader-satisfying novel, particularly when the modern novel was still so young in Japan.

This is not a novel that should be locked away in my university’s library. There’s a lot to love here, and as an example of early modern Japanese literature, it must surely stand among some of the very best. Leaving cultural and historical significance aside, though, it easily resonates with a modern audience – this is the story of a man struggling with a secret identity, the revelation of which could ruin his very way of life. This is an age-old story, and one that you should all go and seek out.

Just as a final aside, I’ve used the word burakumin in this review when referring to the new commoners – Kenneth Strong’s translation uses the older word eta, which is no longer considered politically correct in Japanese…

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