Dazai Osamu(1909-1948) was born in Kanagi in northern Japan as the tenth child of eleven children in 1909. His real name was Tsushima Shūji. His father, Tsushima Gen’emon was one of the largest landowners in Aomori prefecture, and served in both the lower and upper houses of the national legislature. In and out of school, he started writing stories. His first collection of short stories, The Final Years (Bannen) was published in 1936. Dazai’s life and work were closely intertwined. At the end of World War II Dazai became the literary voice and literary hero of his generation.
Dazai Osamu published a short story entitled, “Tokatonton” in
January, 1947. “Tokatonton” is a long letter from a 26-year-old former soldier of the Imperial Army who had been assigned to a coastal defense in Chiba Prefecture. Since the war ended, he has been working in a third-class post office run by his uncle in a settlement by the sea about five miles from Aomori city for a year. The man now urgently seeks advice on one thing from Dazai. The problem began when the man learned about Japan’s defeat through the Emperor’s radio announcement in his army compound on August 15, 1945. He wrote:
At noon on August 1945 we were ordered to line up in formation on the
parade grounds in front of the barracks and were made to listen to a
broadcast which we were told had been made by the Emperor himself but
which was unintelligible because it was almost completely jammed by static. Then a young first lieutenant dashed up onto a platform and said,
“You heard that? You know what’s happened? Japan has accepted the
Potsdam Declaration. (But it is just a political matter. We the soldiers
continue resisting until the last of us commits suicide, offering an apology
to the Emperor. I have already made up my mind so you should do the
same.) Dismissed!” The young lieutenant descended the platform, took
his glasses off, and as he walked away, tears streamed down his face. I
stood there. It grew foggy and dark, and a cold wind came blowing in
from somewhere. I fest as though my body were sinking by itself into the
Totally shocked, he made up his mind to die. It was then that he heard the tokatonton--- The someone pounding on nails came faintly from the barracks behind him. The feelings of desperate resolve instantly evaporated. The sound of hammering miraculously stripped the phantom of militarism from him. With an indescribably empty feeling, he stuffed his rucksack and went home.
According to the man, ever since that day, whenever he aspires to do something meaningful, he hears the tokatonton and his mind instantly goes blank. He worked on his memoir of army life very hard and long, and when he was about to write the last page of his memoir, he heard the tokatonton.Instantly, he was overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of the manuscript. He did not even feel like tearing the pages up. Instead, he has been using them as paper handkerchiefs. Then, there was a devaluation of the yen and everyone at his uncle’s post office was inundated by work. He thought that this was the time to repay his debt of obligation to his uncle. He began to work nonstop from morning to night. On the day when the turmoil caused by the devaluation had
finally to come to end, he again heard the tokatonton. From the moment everything seemed ridiculous. Thus he dozed all day on the busiest day at the post office.
The man fell in love with a young maid who worked in the one small inn. She came to his post office to make a substantial amount of deposits once a week. The female employees gossiped that she was a slut and knew how to look after her own interests. He could not believe that she was the calculating girl they said she was. He seriously thought about saying to her, “Even if you die, don’t become the plaything of men! What do material things matter? What does money matter?” He finally gathered enough courage to ask her out. The two walked toward the sea and sat down in the sand. In tears she told him that the deposits were not her money but her mistress’ and did not want to be misunderstood by him. At that instant he heard the tokatonton from a shack nearby, which left him speechless and incoherent in front of the girl. He felt that the whole thing was meaningless and it did not matter what the truth about her savings was because she was nothing but a stranger to him.2
In June (1946) he went to Aomori City on business and there he witnessed a workers’ demonstration. Looking at the demonstrator with full vitality, he was moved to tears. He thought that it was for freedom that Japan lost the war. He then heard the tokatonton,and that was the end of that. In August, there was a long-distance relay race between the villages along the seacoast. The runners ran stumbling until they came in front of the post office. There they let out a groan and fell to the ground. He thought that it was not their goal to help build a so-called cultural, as opposed to a military, nation by running a relay. It was close to being an empty passion which harmonized with his own feeling of emptiness. He began to play catch-ball with the other post-office workers. He felt refreshed when he played until he was ready to drop from fatigue. He thought he had found what he was looking for. Then, once again he heard the tokatonton. The sound quashed even empty passion.
Things are getting worse. Nowadays he hears the sound all the time. When he opens the newspaper and tries hard to read about the new Constitution, he hears the tokatonton. When his uncle consults him about a personnel problem within the post office and a fine idea springs to mind, he hears it. He cannot get away from the tokatonton.He pleads in his letter: “Please tell me. What is that sound? How can I escape it? Right now, I don’t know which way to turn because of this sound. Please, please send me an answer.”3The man ends his letter saying that he was hearing the tokatonton while writing the very letter.
Dazai was inspired to write “Tokatonton” by an actual letter he received from a man named Yasutomo Yujiro, a resident of Mito City in Ibaragi Prefecture. Dazai wrote the following to Yasutomo on September 30, 1946:
I plan to write about the sound of hammering that I read in your letter.
Of course, I would never dare to quote from your letter or anything of that sort…
I just would like to ask your permission to use the
hammering sound in your letter. I am thinking about writing on the
torment of today’s young people.
The young man in “Tokatonton” lives in northeastern Japan where Dazai himself came from. Dazai created a story based on the sound of hammering, the idea he acquired from a man’s letter, while adding his own perspective and experience. The empty feeling evoked by the hammering sound is exactly what the people felt at the end of the war. It was the time of uncertainty. Alan Wolfe in his Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu states:
Having been rocked back and forth between the violent extremes of
kamikaze heroism, atomic cataclysm, saturation bombing, and foreign
occupation, the immediate prospects in August 1945 were bleak. And if
the American presence turned out not to be the horror it had been
anticipated to be, the physical ruin accompanied by mass deprivation and
But that was not all---there was another dimension. Wolfe continues:
At the same time, however, unprecedented freedoms to organize,
militate, speak, write, if limited by scarce resources and a modicum of
military censorship, were rapidly being made available under the control
of the occupying Americans and their Supreme Command of the Allied Powers (SCAP). The resulting combination of marginal deprivation
(buffeted by American rations and black marketeering) and relative
freedom seemed to produce a mood of heady optimism and expressive
vitality. “New life” and “democracy” were the slogans, if not the genuine
aspirations, of the majority of the Japanese people.4
The young man’s experiences in “Tokatonton” are exactly what Japan and the Japanese people went through after August 1945. The man’s attempt at writing a memoir, the workers’ demonstration, and a long distance rally without any propaganda purpose all relate to “New life” and “democracy,” the very product of the period. Yet, to him it was far from an easy struggle---rather, it is the most serious inner torment. He fell in love with the young maid but he was unable to relate to her at a personal level. Everything and everyone seem disconnected and meaningless. “Tokatonton” reminds us that although rebuilding the nation was no doubt a momentous undertaking, it is not as big a work as transforming a man from a soldier of the Imperial Army into a free man of democratic society. A significant historical event indeed can change a nation and the people over night as the day in August 1945 did. This shows how under certain circumstances a nation and the people go through a transformation, both physical and spiritual as if all had traveled through time and space.
In “Tokatonton” the former soldier ended his letter with his desperate plea for help. Dazai gives the following answer to the hero regarding the devastating hammering sound:
Dear Sir: Yours is a self-conscious despair, isn’t it? I am afraid I don’t
have much sympathy for you. You still seem to be avoiding owning up to
a conduct which men would unanimously call shameful and which is
obviously so to everyone; no explanations will suffice. The true ideal
calls not for wisdom but for courage. ‘Matthew 10:28: And do not fear
those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can
destroy both soul and body in hell.’ This ‘fear’ is, it seems to me, more
them strike you like a bolt from the blue, then I assure you you will stop
hearing things. Yours in haste.5
It is an enigmatic comment. Yet, it is safe to say that Dazai was basically saying that he was not very sympathetic to the young man. To Dazai the young man’s torment seems not much of trouble. Dazai had been through a lot and his worst struggle is that with his own demon. Dazai took his postwar dissipation in both women and drink, the act that men would unanimously call shameful. In the early days of the war he had had an affair with a young woman named Ota Shizuko. One month after the publication of “Tokatonton” Dazai decided to resume the liaison.6 His life took its final downward spiral. After several unsuccessful attempts on his life earlier in his life, Dazai committed double-suicide with his mistress in 1948. On June 19, 1948 the bodies of Dazai and his mistress Tomie were found in the Tamagawa Canal on the morning of Dazai’s thirty-ninth birthday.
Dazai published a short story entitled “An Almanac of Pain (Kuno no nenkan,” in 1946. This work sheds light on Dazai’s stance on “new life” and “democracy.” He reflects on the present era in the work:
The number of people who had bad things to say about the Emperor
increased dramatically. But when I saw what was happening, I realized
how deeply I had come to love the Emperor. I professed myself a
conservative to my friends.
At ten, a democrat; at twenty, a communist; at thirty, a pure aesthete; at
forty, a conservative. And then does history repeat itself after all? I hope
that it does not.7
Unlike the former soldier in “Tokatonton” Dazai was able to reflect on the past in connection to the present situation because of his age and his special position in society. He had done enough in his life, as a matter of fact, more than he could handle. He did not wish to wait to see if history will repeat itself.
The story of “Tokatonton” is sad yet humorous, serious but somehow liberating. The sound of hammering may be the sound of a temple bell at the beginning of The Tale of Heike, which reminds the people of evanescence of this world. In Buddhist teaching, everything in this world is temporary and, therefore, to those who aspire to attain enlightenment it is empty and meaningless. “Tokatonton” was published in the same year as Shayō (The Setting Sun), his masterpiece. Shayo required Dazai to go through a rather painful reexamination of his troublesome life particularly during the war. Dazai needed to write “Tokatonton” in order to counterbalance the serious, pessimistic tone of Shayō and to transcendent the 1945 experience for himself as well as the people of his generation.
1 Frank Motofuji, trans., “A Sound of Hammering,” in Japan Quarterly, 16, No. 2 (1969), 195. The part in the parentheses is my addition.
2 “A Sound of Hammering,” 199.
3 Ibid., 201.
4 Alan Wolfe, Suicidal Narrative (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 167.
5 Motofuji, p. 202.
6 James O’Brien, Dazai Osamu (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1970): p. 120.
7 Phyllis I. Lyones, The Saga of Dazai Osamu: A Critical Study with Translations (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985), p. 270.