‘The Catch’ by Kenzaburõ Õe: articulating the necessity for change in Japanese society
In August, Japan remembered the fateful days of the nuclear explosions (in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and 76 years of redemption following their warmongering engagements with other countries. Nevertheless, it’s curious to link certain tangible changes in Japanese society during the 20th Century and present changes with US imperialism. “The Catch” is a reflection of this.
The Catch in the Eyes of Kenzaburõ Õe
To expand this analysis, consider a shift of analysis to the narrative literary and political discourse which, in some instances, can go hand in hand and can point to the same motivation: positionings before a definite end, caused by the necessary changes for survival.
We understand that, with the reopening of the country at the end of the Edo period or the Shogunato Tokugawa, Japan began an intense road to modernisation to stay on par with other countries after years of technological, social, political, and cultural gaps. The Japanese narrative of the 19th and 20th Centuries presented the possibility of re-appropriation of European methods and mechanisms to modernise the narrative.
Japan, Japanese culture, and Japanese ideals continue to be the primary scenario but, they coexist with national elements and western elements simultaneously, being inevitable and consecrating the necessary change to ‘pertain’ to the Modern era.
In the month of August, it should be considered relevant to remember the work ‘The Catch’ (1957) by Kenzaburõ Õe, which won the Akutagawa Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. Kenzaburõ Õe successfully connected the transition of changes that exist in the context of the war, the transition of rural zones to urban zones, and the positioning and displacement of the boy against all of these elements.
The Catch: Narrative and Context
‘The Catch’ is, effectively, a black American prisoner of war, who appears wounded in the rural zone where a boy and his family live. They look after the prisoner of war just as the others in the community do. The categorisation of prey encapsulates everything from skin colour, language, his muscular build, and his position as an enemy, distancing him by kilometres from the Japanese inhabitants.
Anna Kazumi Sthal explains: “the rural town is a microcosm, it is like a very good mirror of Japanese reality, much better than the great modernised city” (Kazumi Sthal, 2020: 121). Essentially, the sensations of the boy before the soldier are dual: “I was becoming accustomed to the black soldier and that filled me with pride and caused an exultant joy to grow inside me.
But when the black soldier surged like a spring, in a gesture that made the chain of the trap he was tied to sound harshly, again the fear found strength within me to the point that every centimetre of my skin bristled.” (Õe, 1994: 70). The rural zone and everything that constituted this peripheral place in The Catch would represent a part of the Japanese essence; distanced from the urban zone which was a manifestation of modernisation in the mid-1940s.
In consequence, the imaginary social varies between the rural zone and the urban zone: the boy would represent the peripheral subject who fused with nature and coexists with other people in the village – forming a distinct imagining from that of the urban zone – such as through other less modern codes.
Later, one of the sensations offered to us by Kenzaburõ Õe is the difference that can exist between a rural zone and an urban zone: “One time in ‘the city’, attached to the hip of my father, I walked in the streets without looking at the little boys who provoked me. (…) And I believed that, had it not been for the older people that undoubtedly watched us from the front of their shops, I would have knocked them all out.” (Õe, 1994: 49).
Kenzaburõ Õe presents the distinction in how the characters act around the American soldier, including at the bureaucratic level. Whilst the villagers continue caring for the soldier, in the city they didn’t respond directly to what was asked of them. “[In reference to what could happen with the soldier] Do you believe yourselves capable of assuming the most minimal responsibility?” (Õe, 1994: 53).
The most obvious of the small pieces of this chapter’s plot is the final sensation of the boy. The accumulation of sensations and feelings influenced by the temperature, the uncertainty, and the devaluation of a country boy in the capital: “I parted them with my feet to pass up to the edge of the brown, cloudy, and dirty water. I felt infinitely miserable and devalued.” (Õe, 1994: 53).
The boy’s reflection in the water does not explicitly appear, but his reflection could be analysed as the same as the water; brown, cloudy and dirty, as he was feeling.
The boy’s place was the jungle and his closest relationship was with nature. We can appreciate in the work how the boy enjoys his relationship with that environment and Kazumi Sthal explains: “… the animistic, is a determined power that resides in distinct elements of nature, a kingdom that the boy, before integrating himself with more formal socialisation; remains a native habitant.” (Kazumi Sthal, 2020: 115). That Japanese boy, in the context of war, felt strange in the urban zone and complete in the rural zone.
If the rural zone forms a sort of mirror of the Japanese reality, one can consider the boy a mirror of childhood in Japanese society in the context of a world war. A society that had not only been changing for 40 years to mould itself to modern world standards, but that also had a strong military presence and provoked military confrontations in the first years of the 20th Century. However, the boy’s place is the rural zone; the mirror of Japanese reality.
Now, how do we relate the imperialist American effect with the changes that can exist in a society, including the westernisation of the narrative without the necessity to omit essential elements of Japanese literature?
Remember the USA demanded the opening of the country to the modern capitalist exterior, ending the period of Edo or Shogunato Tokugawa, and starting, in that way, modern reconstruction and allowing many abrupt and sudden changes. Moreover, the violent and fateful nuclear attack on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just like the battle of Osaka in the 19th Century, habilitated the forced Japanese surrender.
Japan’s needs are still the same as in those two periods of history: to forge its own path and stop two of the great countries of the world. In every aspect, modernisation was a necessary change for Japan; a necessity that began during the Meiji period and which would be present in the 21st Century before a rupture in Japanese tradition and its peaceful discourse.
In that way, the 76-year tradition of commemorating the Japanese surrender that ended the Second World War suffered a rupture this week. The tradition relied upon commemoration and compliance to maintain world peace, surmounting the apologies by the Japanese government for their warmongering attitude during the 20th Century. It involves a tradition started by a socialist leader, Tomiichi Murayama, in 1995, but the ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, decided to end this part of the commemoration.
This departure is a highly political move that ex-Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe started during his premiership in 2013. It consists of political and military manoeuvring, although both politicians promoted world peace and repeated pacifist discourse. In omitting the apologies, Abe´s intention was to promote the military participation of Japan in international conflicts and position itself on par with other countries without the intention of generating military conflict.
And, taking the posture of imitating his predecessor, Sugo maintained this distance from apologies for the actions of his country. This leaked out in messages from the Chancellery of China and Korea, urging the strengthening of ties to the future and improving the trust with neighbouring countries.
Returning to ‘The Catch’, we can ponder that Õe maintains an animist narrative as Kazumi Sthal suggests, and nature in Japan is found associated – in its majority – with Shintoism (Shintoism; devoted religion in Japan, based on veneration to the Kami or the gods of nature, nature is central and represented as strength, as is venerated in the Kojiki). Being that way, Õe is positioned with one foot in the door of that which we could consider as Japanese and the other foot in the western; being able to coexist with both, as is the case today.
Now that ‘The Catch’ would represent the invader that brings all that can be attributed to the western and foreign category, and occurring in a rural zone confronts one with two extremes, being able to coexist, but then we find the Japanese essence falls away to western representation. This does not mean to say that it has a nationalist or anti-USA message.
We suppose that Kenzaburõ Õe manifests the fatal end of the rural zone. However, the end could not have been so different in the urban zone, where the military should be in charge: “Now at the start of the meeting, Chupatintas struck a sledgehammer to explain to the children, in the local dialect, that the black soldier had to be taken to the capital of the province.
He added that, contrary to the intentions of the beginning, according to which the army had to come and take charge of the prisoner – owing probably to a misunderstanding and the disorder that reined within the military – it suited the village to take him under guard to ‘the city’; those were the orders”. (Õe, 1994: 92).
We can understand this outcome as a necessary turn for the plot, a twist that would trace the coexistence between the Japanese and the West; although if one side should win, it would be rural Japan. Dedicating the narrative of Kenzaburõ Õe; “finding the way of being understood from the periphery.” (Kazumi Sthal, 2020: 116). Articulating with agility the relationships of countryside-city, child-adult, nature-concrete, centre, and periphery.
Kazumi Sthal, Anna, “Class 5: Kenzaburõ Õe”, in Glances: Japanese Literature of the 20th Century. Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires: Malba, 2020. Õe, Kenzaburõ, The Catch. Barcelona: Anagrama, 1994.
TR: David Crowe