(Dark) Family Secrets

Without a doubt, Japanese literature is one of the major literature in the world. Both in terms of quantity and quality, it easily ranks as one of the most prolific and most prominent. It stands on the same level as the fabled English literature, where age, volume, and diversity is concerned. One of the most widely recognized first-published novels, Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari (源氏物語), traces its provenance from this part of the world of literature. Haiku, a popular form of poetry, also originated in Japan. Japanese literature also produced some of the most influential writers in the contemporary. The works of Haruki Murakami, Shūsaku Endō, Yukio Mishima, and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, among others, elevated Japanese literature to global prominence. Not to be outdone, it has produced two Nobel Laureates in Literature: Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburō Ōe (1994). 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature awardee Kazuo Ishiguro is also ethnically Japanese.

Under this vast literary umbrella, different forms of literature exist and thrive, even forms that are not often revered in other countries, such as diaries, travel accounts, and books of random thoughts. It was also under the umbrella of Japanese literature that several literary movements that define the landscape of modern literature. One such movement is the watakushi shōsetsu or shishōsetsu. To English readers, we call it the I novel. Shishōsetsu started in the early 20th century and is a form of confessional literature that borrows elements from the writer’s own life. Another popular form of shishōsetsu involved the writer incorporating his or her own thoughts, musings, or attitudes toward a particular daily event into his or her own work. With its prevalence in Japanese literature, staunch readers of works of Japanese literature have encountered at least one work of I novel. Ōe’s A Personal Matter is one fine example of an I novel.

Works of shishōsetsu are the bread and butter of some of the most prominent names in Japanese literature. One of the most prominent names this literary movement has produced was Naoya Shiga (志賀直哉, Shiga Naoya). The descendant of an aristocratic samurai family, Shiga’s interest in literature and reading started at a young age. He attended the Department of English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University but did not finish his degree. After ditching his university degree, he, along with a bunch of friends, founded the journal Shirakaba (White Birch), the literary publication of the Shirakaba-ha (White birch society). His story As Far as Abashiri (Abashiri made) was also part of the initial issue.

“I remember that on the day before you left, I told you that I wanted to change my way of life, and you asked me why I didn’t resign from my company right away. This is no place for me to go into details, but I really do want another kind of life. But here, too, I seem incapable of doing anything. That I myself at times become tired of my own weakness is, I’m afraid, no consolation to you.”

Naoya Shiga, A Dark Night’s Passing

Shiga’s first stories such as The Razor (Kamisori, 1910), Han’s Crime (Han no hanzai, 1913), and Seibei and his Gourds (Seibei to hyotan, 1913) were also published in the journal. Short stories and novellas formed the majority of Shiga’s oeuvre. This makes his only full-length novel, An’ya kōro ((暗夜行路), a cornerstone of his literary career. Like most novels from the period, An’ya kōro was initially published in serialized form in the socialist magazine Kaizō between 1921 and 1937. This series was collectively published as a book in two volumes, with the first part published in 1922 by Shinchosha and the second part published in 1937 shortly after the series ended. It was eventually made available to anglophone readers as A Dark Night’s Passing through an English translation by Edwin McClellan.

Considered by many literary pundits as Shiga’s major and representative work, A Dark Night’s Passing captured major events in the life of Tokitō Kensaku, the novel’s main protagonist. At the start of the story, Tokitō was already a young man living in Tokyo. He was living with Oei, his grandfather’s mistress. An aspiring writer, his circle of friends was comprised of intellects and fellow aspiring writers. In the novel’s first of four parts, the readers learn that something was weighing on Tokitō’s mind. He was struggling with bouts of depression after a marriage proposal did not push through. To keep his intrusive thoughts at bay, he roamed the city by night. He wandered around with his friends, spending their time drinking in dingy bars. They would also flirt with geishas until Tokitō eventually started visiting brothels on his own.

Rather than focus on his career as a writer, Tokitō was slowly sliding into a life of decadence. The money his grandfather has bequeathed to him ensured that he can maintain the lifestyle he currently has. Nevertheless, the dream of becoming a writer still burns brightly in him. To snap out of the lull he found himself in and find inspiration and motivation to pursue a serious career in writing, he decided to embark on a journey. In the novel’s second part, we read about Tokitō’s trip to the seaside town of Onomichi where he spent several months. It was not inspiration, however, that he found on the coast despite renting a place with a lovely view. His neighbors were also friendly but loneliness soon enveloped him. With no one to keep him company, he started fantasizing about Oei who he proposed marriage to. Oei was older than him by more or less two decades.

As fate would have it, things were not going Tokitō’s way. Oei rejected his proposal. This again prompted Tokitō to travel. From the coast of the Inland Sea, he moved back with Oei in Tokyo before finally relocating to Kyoto which he decided to be his home. The third part of the novel captured this part of Tokitō’s life. In Kyoto, the prospect of marriage once again arose. During a walking escapade, he came across a young lady who immediately caught his attention. Through a friend, he learned that the young lady was named Naoko. Months of traveling across Japan led him to this point. The dust has settled and it was starting to look like Tokitō is getting a grip on his life. Finally, as he was settling down in the comforts of married life, Tokitō mastered the balancing act. But the joke’s on Tokitō as big waves once again threaten to throw him off course.

“I must start working seriously. I live and work as though I were in a tight box, I feel so constrained. I must learn to feel free, free to do what I want with a sense of purpose and comfort and generosity. I want to walk with a firm step, swinging my arms, not with such timidity and purposelessness as I do now. I musn’t hurry but I mustn’t stop. And I can’t be like the feeble light, wistfully waiting for the coming of the storm.”

Naoya Shiga, A Dark Night’s Passing

A Dark Night’s Passing is character driven. One can then surmise that the novel was bereft of a robust plot. After all, the novel is considered a work of shishōsetsu. The story was more concerned with capturing the psychological profile of its main character who was also doubled as the conduit of the writer. But as McClellan highlighted in the Translator’s notes, while the novel borrowed elements from the writer’s own life, the novel contained a healthy dose of fiction, more than is typically contained in most literary works that fall under the category of an I-novel. Nevertheless, the novel earned prominence for offering glimpses into the author’s own life. The novel also captured the complexity of his psychological profile through moments of introspection: Perhaps I’m not so unfortunate, Kensaku thought.  I have often acted like a spoiled child, wanting to do only what I felt like doing; yet there are those who have forgiven me, who have offered me love.  And this love is more important than the hurts I have received because of my birth.

The insight into the writer’s own life was among the major achievements of the novel. Beyond these insights, the novel tackled seminal subjects, such as the novel’s overriding theme. The complexities and dynamics of families were palpably captured in the novel. The intricacies of families are a recurring theme in Shiga’s literary works. Some of the short stories that preceded A Dark Night’s Passing highlighted his feud with his father. In itself, the feud between father and son was interesting because of the patriarchal nature of Japanese society in the early 20th century. With fathers the absolute authority and the dominant voice in the household, it was rare for children to challenge their own fathers or even have any conflict with them lest they be disowned.

After all, there are no perfect family portraits. Tokitō’s family showed that. Tokitō’s family has a complicated history and was plagued by issues, as is common in most families. Following the death of his mother when he was just six years old, Tokitō was sent to his grandfather and Oei who raised him. Despite this, Tokitō maintained a close relationship with his older brother, Nobuyuki; Nobuyuki bailed him out on many instances. He was also friendly with his two younger sisters. However, he was estranged from his father. His father kept himself at a distance and Tokitō grew up believing this was normal. His father’s rejection of him, however, has a profound impact on the young man’s life.

What undermines the stability of any family are deeply buried dark secrets. Tokitō’s family has some and it was the unraveling of this secret that was also the key event in the second part of the novel. It was also this secret that was the key to understanding the attitude of Tokitō’s father toward him. Interestingly, Tokitō’s father never made an appearance in the story but he still loomed above the story because of the influence he has on Tokitō’s life. He had a hand in major events in Tokitō’s life, events that impacted him both positively and negatively. Elsewhere, the story of Tokitō was filled with details of romantic yearnings, and, conversely, of indiscretions. Imperfect relationships were ubiquitous in the story and in his wanderings, Tokitō realized that women are often at a disadvantage when relationships go south: He asked himself why it was that women were so relentlessly pursued by their own past sins while men were not.

“I don’t want to think that the fate that awaitnts this planet will necessarily determine the fate of mankind. The other animals do not know what fate will befall our planet. Only man knows, and only man fights against it. And behind his instinctive, insatiable ambition is this blind will to resist his fate. The conscious part of man acknowledges the inevitability of his end. But this bilnd will in him completely refuses to do so.”

Naoya Shiga, A Dark Night’s Passing

The novel, however, does not reduce itself to a mere chronicle of a young man’s life and the complexities of his family. Through the story of Tokitō, Shiga managed to subtly underscore the plights of the tortured artist. We read not only about Tokitō’s struggles to find peace with his family and the world at large but we also read about his struggles in finding motivation to move forward with his writing. We read about his constant mood swings. However, his fortune and his decadent attitude at the start, sympathizing with Tokitō’s plights can be a challenge. He was, especially at the start, an unlikeable character. It was hard relating to the struggles of one born into a rich background, and who can do as he pleases, i.e. spend time wandering to rekindle the spark he lost.

But with the change in landscape, so did Tokitō’s attitude and understanding of the world. His character development and his introspection as the moved forward were among the more fascinating facets of the novel. In this aspect, the novel was also the coming-of-age of the book’s hero, or more appropriately, antihero. His story was glued together by Shiga’s writing. The descriptive nature of his writing made different places come alive. With Tokitō as the guide, he made readers navigate city streets, pleasure quarters, and even the temples of Tokyo, Kyoto, Kamakura, Ise, Nara, and Tottori. Shiga captured the atmosphere of the period while also probing into the intricacies of Japanese culture. Beyond the patriarchal society, Shiga provided a glimpse into the lengthy and elaborate rituals of courtship. We also read about arranged marriages, a common practice during the period.

A Dark Night’s Passing was no easy read – the story dragged and was longer than necessary – but it succeeded in providing the portrait of a rootless and imperfect character. Shiga triumphed in capturing and exploring a fractured soul who, despite the odds, endeavored to find peace with his family, with himself, and with the world in general. We read about Tokitō’s struggles in finding his spark as a writer but we also read about his desire to be a better version of himself. The fact that he did not always succeed ultimately made him a character many can relate to. Parts-family saga, parts-bildungsroman, A Dark Night Passing is an absorbing story about a young man’s passage through his personal darkness, a personal success that engraved Shiga in the halls of esteemed works of Japanese literature. Interestingly, the completion of the series virtually marked the end of Shiga’s literary career which was often marked by long periods of inactivity.

“We all know that mankind will eventually disappear. But this knowledge does not bring despair to our daily lives. Sometimes it is true, when we contemplate the destiny of the human race, we may feel unbearably forlorn. But this forlornness is of the kind we fell whe we think about infinity. The strange thing is that while we recognize the inevitability of man’s extinction, we ignore it emotionally. And the desperate struggle for progress continues.”

Naoya Shiga, A Dark Night’s Passing


Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

Prior to 2021, Naoya Shiga was a name that barely rang any bell of familiarity when I first encountered it. Nevertheless, sans any iota on who he was or what the book was about, I acquired Shiga’s A Dark Night’s Passing. I acquired the book simply because I knew that it was a work of Japanese literature. You see, it has been my desire to expand my horizons beyond the mainstream Japanese writers, e.g. Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Kenzaburō Ōe, and their ilk. So, despite this lack of information on both the writer and the book, I made A Dark Night’s Passing part of my 2022 Japanese literature month. From the title alone, the story sounded rather ominous. Sure enough, Shiga took me through a roller coaster ride that situated me in the book’s hero’s mind. It was, overall, a good and very absorbing read although the story was too long and it dragged. The main character was also barely likable but his transformation was fascinating to witness nevertheless.

Book Specs

Author: Naoya Shiga (志賀直哉)
Translator (from Japanese): Edwin McClellan
Publisher: Kodansha International
Publishing Date: 1981 (1921 – 1937)
Number of Pages: 408
Genre: Literary, I Novel


Tells the story of a young man’s passage through a sequence of disturbing experiences to a hard-worn truce with the destructive forces within himself (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

Naoya Shiga (志賀直哉, Shiga Naoya) was born on February 20, 1883,  in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture to a banker and descendant of an aristocratic samurai family. In 1885, Shiga’s family moved to Tokyo to live with his paternal grandparents. n his youth he was influenced by the Christian educator Uchimura Kanzō, but he struggled with his new religion. After graduating from the Gakushuin Peer’s Senior High School in 1906, he entered the Department of English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University before moving to the Japanese literature department. However, he was not a dedicated student and did not finish his degree. He left two years after enrolling at the university. 

Shiga was an avid reader of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lafcadio Hearn. Along with Mushanokōji Saneatsu, Arishima Takeo, Satomi Ton, and other friends of his from his Peers School days, Shiga co-founded the journal Shirakaba (White birch), the literary publication of the Shirakaba-ha (White birch society), in 1910. In the journal’s first issue, Shiga contributed the story As Far as Abashiri (Abashiri made). Shirakaba was key in the rise of a seminal Japanese literary movement that focused on individualism and Tolstoyan humanitarianism. He contributed more stories to the journal before Shiga moved away from the group after he found that the movement’s idealism was not compatible with his.

Shiga gained recognition for his short stories that dealt extensively with dysfunctional families. His works were also characterized by first-person confessions which catapulted Shiga among the finest and most popular writers of shishōsetsu (“I,” or autobiographical, fiction). Among his popular shishōsetsu works are the novella Wakai (1917; “Reconciliation”) and An’ya kōro (written in two parts between 1921 and 1937; A Dark Night’s Passing), his only full-length novel. An’ya kōro is also cited as his masterpiece. “Kinosaki nite” (1917; At Kinosaki) is another fine example of confessional literature. Following the 1920s, Shiga wrote sparingly, with An’ya kōro virtually marking the end of his literary career.

Shiga was referred top as “bungaku no kamisama” or patron saint of literature. He even served as the first post-war president of the Japan PEN Club from 1947 to 1948. His works also influenced other writers. In 1949, he was awarded the Order of Culture. He passed away on October 21, 1971 due to pneumonia.