J@pan Inc -- Ryotaro Shiba, in Memorium

Reflections on the writer on the tenth anniversary of his death.
By Burritt Sabin

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the passing of Ryotaro Shiba (1923-1996), novelist, essayist, travel writer. Yet 250 paperback editions of his 350 books still line store shelves. In January NHK began a yearlong broadcast of an adaptation of Shiba's novel Komyo ga Tsuji. And recently the Asahi Shimbun held a symposium on Shiba.

His sales figures astonish. The novel Ryoma ga Yuku, about Ryoma Sakamoto, 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, another Meiji hero, 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, 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 contemporary problems.

He also remains popular because 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 fiction and intuited the motives of great figures. His characters come alive on the page.

The features of his style were several. Having cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter, he had a respect for facts. He took a journalistic approach to subject matter. He was never an omniscient narrator. Before Shiba there were period novels that were exercises in the imagination set against the backdrop of the past, or historical novels that recounted events as a court stenographer would record a trial. Not Shiba. He would lay documents side by side and offer imaginative interpretations. This documentary approach was highly accessible. His journalistic style was fresh and appealed to salaried workers in the information age. It was conversational, as if a favorite professor, prone to interesting digressions, were speaking. Shiba's style was modern. It was learned, yet popular, journalistic in approach, yet with the rhythm of a good storyteller. He single-handedly created the style of the historical novel. Now everyone has to write in this style to validate the genre.

The primary theme of his novels was the course of modern Japan and the meaning of being Japanese.

He pursued these themes in answer to a question arising from his intensely felt personal experience of the Second World War: Why had the Japanese fomented such a stupid war? He replaced the inevitability of history with the possibilities of history. He placed his characters at moments of historical decision, revealing that the seemingly inevitable flow of events depended on a series of individual decisions. He would examine these events through vivid human portraitures.

That is perhaps the reason the Japanese managerial class, confronted by tough decisions in the process of Japan's becoming an economic giant, turned to Shiba's fiction. He captured other readers through the optimism of the final chapter of Ryoma ga Yuku.

Shiba was the antithesis of Seicho Matsumoto, another writer with a wide readership. Matsumoto depicted the pathos of the class of people who were mere cogs in the wheel. He described the dark side of society. Shiba often described the aspirations and actions of leaders. The two embodied the lightness and darkness of modern Japan.

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 growth of the 1950s had been realized in the 1960s. Japan had reached par with the advanced nations, as symbolized by its hosting the 1964 Olympics. 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. 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 the hilltop 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 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."

He lived his last years during the post-bubble age. Just as he thought Japan's disastrous foray into militarism was an aberration, something inconsistent with the national character, he believed bubbles were not a Japanese tradition, the Japanese having always paid their debts, as at Portsmouth in 1905, and never having dabbled in speculation.

"The land of Japan is the foundation of the nation," he wrote in For Creating a Tomorrow for Japan. "To make that foundation the object of insane speculation is definitely not economics but rather a problem of logic. What vexes to where I gnash my teeth is that in terms of the sprit, the land feels as if it belongs to the people."

In the midst of the post-bubble years pessimism crept into Shiba's writing. He may have wondered whether the Japanese would ever return to their roots. His most important legacy was perhaps bequeathing a mirror for the Japanese to see themselves once more. JI