JIN-309 -- The Way of Ryotaro Shiba

J@pan Inc Magazine Presents:

T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R

Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 309
Tuesday February 15, 2005 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: The Way of Ryotaro Shiba

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@@ VIEWPOINT: The Way of Ryotaro Shiba

February 12 marked the ninth anniversary of the passing of
Ryotaro Shiba, novelist, essayist, travel writer. Yet 250
paperback editions of his 350 books still line store shelves.

His sales figures startle. The novel "Ryoma ga Yuku," about
Sakamoto Ryoma, the Meiji Restoration hero, has sold 21.5
million copies; "Saka no Ue no Kumo," the story of the
destruction of the Baltic fleet during the Russo-Japanese War,
14.45 million; "Tobu ga Gotoku," about Takamori Saigo,
11 million. Even his less popular historical novels have
sales figures in the millions. In the travel/essay genre,
his "Kaido wo Yuku" (Travels by the Old Highways) has sold
10.09 million copies, and his "Kono Kuni no Katachi"
(The Shape of This Country), 3.6 million.

Altogether, including such genres as dialogues with other
authors, more than 180 million copies of his books have
been printed--more than one copy for every man, woman,
and child in Japan. There are several reasons for his
continuing popularity.

Beginning with "Ryoma ga Yuku," written over 40 years ago,
his works continue to meet the current of the times.
Today, when there are no promising politicians, many readers
wish for a leader like the hero of a Shiba novel. As well,
readers of his essays wonder what Shiba would have thought
of a current problem.

A further reason for his continuing popularity is that he
wrote historical novels with panache. Although a man of
scholarly bent, his novels do not smell of the lamp. He
brought a fecund imagination to historical fiction and
intuited the motives of great figures. In short, his
characters come alive on the page.

Part of his immense readability stems from his staying
aloof from theories and schools of literature. "I want
to write about representative men," he said in the
afterword to "Moeyo Ken." "I feel that was my motivation
for becoming a novelist. I have never been conscious of
creating anything grand like art or literature."

In December 1970, at the age of 47, Shiba set out on his
first trip to gather material for what would become the
43-volume series "Travels by the Old Highways."

Why did he begin traveling in 1970? The promise of the
rapid economic growth of the 1950s had been realized in
the 1960s. Japan had reached par with the advanced nations,
as symbolized by its holding the Olympics in Tokyo in
1964. But by 1970, with a fridge in the kitchen and car
in the garage, the dream had turned sour. Houses were
being rebuilt in concrete. Jerry-built cookie-cutter
apartment blocks dotted the landscape. Signboards swung
from utility poles in towns and billboards greeted drivers
on pork-barrel highways cut through forest. The Chisso
Corporation was on trial for having dumped an estimated
27 tons of mercury into Minamata Bay, part of the
Shiranui Sea, off Kyushu, from 1932 to 1968.

The loss was brought home to Shiba when he climbed
to the top of the former site of Azuchi Castle, today
in Shiga Prefecture. Moved by the beauty of the lake
from there many years ago, he had returned. But
after an arduous climb to the summit, he saw no water.
The lake, once an important transport route, had
been reclaimed.

In the latter half of the heady years of high economic
growth the Japanese had undertaken such reclamation projects
without compunction. The sites of festivals and the
crossroads and byways that had been witnesses to the carnage
of history--all were fast disappearing. Shiba, with a
sense of urgency, began traveling. He felt compelled to
sound the alarm.

Shiba translated the English word "identity" as "sato,"
one's home or village. The spirit of one's home, the
diversity of the Japanese, evident as one travels from
valley to valley--these things excited him. He endeavored
to capture them. The result was this large literary work
called "Kaido wo Yuku."

The anniversary of his death has been marked by publication
of a 15-volume set of his essays, the launch of a glossy
weekly magazine illustrating "Kaido wo Yuku," and the
reissue of the series in a large (10.5 pt typeface) format.

From January 2006 NHK will begin a yearlong broadcast of an
adaptation of Shiba's novel "Komyo ga Tsuji." For the
Japanese, the way of Shiba Ryotaro seems endless.

-- Burritt Sabin

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Written and edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)


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