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Literature Perusal: The Calamity of Letters (Mojika)              



By Masatoshi Iguchi




Atsushi Nakajima (中島 敦, 5 May 1909 - 4 December 1942) was a brilliant star appeared in the later stage of the golden age of Japanese literature in the Taisho to the early Showa Era (1910-1940s). Although he had lived only thirty-three year and produced less than twenty novels, including unfinished ones, the artistry of his works was highly evaluated, as some of them were adopted in school textbooks. A few pieces, viz. Sangetsuki (山月記) and Meijinden (名人傳), were introduced overseas, translated into English under the name of The Moon over the Mountain and Legend of the Master, respectively, as well as some other languages.[1]


Below is a short biography abstracted from literature, viz. A Critical Biography of Nakajima Atsushi: From the Viewpoint of the family’s Academic Tradition , by Yoshihiro Murayama (2002)[2] and Photographic Materials of Atsushi Nakajima, by Yukinobu Tanabe. [3]


The Nakajima family was traditionally a palanquin manufacturer that was prosperous during the Yedo Period but Atsushi’s grandfather Busan (撫山, 1829-1911), the Twelfth Head of the family [4], became a master of Confucian, founded a private school and educated all his six sons, including his father Tabito (田人, 1874-1945), to be Classic Chinese scholars, except one of them who later turned to be an Anglican priest [5]. Atsushi is said to have inherited a half of his smart brain from his mother Chiyoko (née Okazaki, 1885-1921) who was a talented school teacher from a warrior-class family, but it was fateful for Atsushi that she was divorced before her son’s birthday and left the Nakajima family, leaving him there. [6]


Atsushi’s life was turbulent thereafter, as his father who was a middle-school teacher was assigned to move from Tokyo to Nara, Shizuoka, Keijo (Seoul in Korea), Ryojun (Port Arthur) and other places, and his relationship with his two step-mothers was not good at all. Nevertheless, his talent blossomed so as he was able to read the Four Books and Five Classic (四書五經) in his middle-school days and recite the whole story of The Journey to the West (西遊記), an account on the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘) who travelled to the Western Regions with three followers to fetch Buddhist Sutras, in later years. His interest further developed into Occidental literature as well as Japanese classics. He metaphysically pursued what himself was, or what a human was, as could be sensed in his works. People who had met him unanimously admired his extraordinary talent, as they recalled in their books and articles.


When he was a student of The First Higher School, Tokyo, he wrote and contributed several novels to the alumni bulletin. He is said to have been very good at English but, to the surprise of others, entered the Department of National Literature in the Tokyo Imperial University in 1930. He was absorbed in reading almost all works of Ougai Mori, Kafu Nagai, Junichiro Tanizaki, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde et al., and wrote “A study on the Aesthetic School” for his BA thesis. He wrote a novel, Tonan Sensei (Lit. Teacher Tonan), a story about his uncle Tonan (斗南, 1859- 1906), but it was only to be published after his death. He proceeded to the graduate school to study Ougai Mori, despite at that time studying classic literature was common and modern works were ignored in academia, although the study was not to be finished.


In 1933, he became a teacher of English and the national language at Yokohama-Gakuen Girl’s High School, invited by a disciple of Busan (Atsushi’s grandfather), Katsunosuke Tanuma, who was then the owner of the school. Two years later, Atsushi married Taka (née Hashimoto), surmounting various difficulties. For him, the life in Yokohama was most satisfactory and enjoyable. He was active in teaching, learning Latin and Greek besides various modern languages, and reading a number of works by Anatole France, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Lafcadio Hearn and others. Amongst, he is said to have been intoxicated by the beautiful dreams of Robert Louis Stevenson. He also read a number of books about ancient Assyria and Egypt, stimulated by Plato. In 1934, he wrote a novel, Toragari (虎狩, Lit. Tiger hunting), a story about his relationship with a Korean class mate in the Keijo Middle School, and submitted it to the “Chuokouron” magazine (and received an Honourable Mention). After that he drafted some more novels, including Sangetsuki (山月記).


Around that time, his chronic asthma which commenced in his middle school days worsened. Imitating the sickly Robert Louis Stevenson who moved to the temperate Pacific Islands, he had decided, for changing air, to reside in the Palau Islands, the then under the administration of Japan, in June 1941 but, matters were made worse as he suffered from amoebic dysentery and dengue fever. Although he wrote some novels about his experience in the southern islands, he returned to Tokyo exhausted in March 1942. He was finally hospitalised in November and passed away on the 4th December 1942.


Among Nakajima’s works, Sangetsuki (山月記, The Moon Over the Mountain) and Mojika (文字禍, The Calamity of letters) were published under the name of “Old Tales (古譚, Kotan)” in a magazine, “Bungakukai (文學界)” in December 1942, just before he returned from Palau. In March, Kitsunetsuki (狐憑, Forebodings) and Miira (木乃伊, Mummy) were added in the category of “Old Tales”, and together with Tonan Sensei (斗南先生, Teacher Tonan), Toragari (虎狩, Tiger hunting) and Hikari to Kaze to Yume (光と風と夢, Light, Wind and Dreams), published in a the form of a book under the title of “Hikari to Kaze to Yume”. Meijinden (名人傳, Legend of the Master) was published in the December issue of “Bunko (文庫)” from Mikasa Shobo Publishing. His posthumous work, Riryou (李陵, Li Ling) was published in July 1943, the next year of his death, in “Bungakukai (文學界)”. The rest of his works were published after the Pacific War, in 1948 and subsequent years.


Mojika (文字禍, Lit. The Calamity of Letters), a novel that told of an old scholar Nabu-ahe-eriba who investigated the spirit of letter by order of King Ashurbanipal of Ancient Assyria, was created on the knowledge which the author had acquired from various sources, in contrast to Sangetuski (山月記) which was an adaptation of a Tang Dynasty novel, Renhuzhuan (人虎傳, Tale of the Human Tiger by Li Jingliang (李景亮), and Meijinnden (名人傳) which was a compilation of several episodes in the book of Liezi (列子). As the major source of literature, four books about Babylonia and Assyria were listed in a bulletin article [7] but it is apparent that the author had referred to many others as will be mentioned in the next section (test translation). It is remarkable that for this novel the author had prepared detailed memorandums and a prototype manuscript, as found after his death in his study. [8]


As to the relationship between letters and sounds, it was assumed in literature that the author was presumably inspired by Anatole France’sThe Garden of Epicurus, [9] viz. a scene in which “When Epicurus was working in his library, the shade of Cadmus emerged and told him that he chose twenty-two Egyptian hieroglyphs and made them into twenty-two letters, Phoenician alphabets, which each had one single sound, providing by the combination of letters with the means of depicting faithfully all sounds of words.”[10] Also assumed to have been influential in literature [11] to the author with respect to the function of letters was a paragraph inThe Dialogue of Phaedrus and Socrates by Plato [12] in which, according to Socrates, the King Tamus of Thebe who invited Themus, the inventor of letters and many other items, divined, “For this invention of yours will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learnt it, by causing them to neglect their memory, inasmuch as, from their confidence in writing, they will recollect by the external aid of foreign symbols, and not by the internal use of their own faculties. . . .”


As to the translation of this novel, an English translation found in the Internet is an article, “The Curse of Writing” by David Boyd in 2021 [13], which was contributed to Renyxa, an internal magazine of the Department of Contemporary Literary Studies, Tokyo University. This translation seems to have been made in a manner to follow the plot of the novel smoothly, adding and subtracting words and phrases anywhere, with little concern about the artistry that the author had pursued.


A Spanish translation has been published in the form of a book under the name of La Catástrofe de las Letras, included in a book: El Poeta que Rugió a la Luna y se Convirtió en Tigre, translated by Makiko Sese and Daniel Villa Gracia 2017 [14]. Although the present writer (Masatoshi Iguchi) has no capacity to comment on a Spanish manuscript, the translation seems to be quite exact to the original Japanese text.


A problem with the translation of this novel is the title of the book. Besides “The Curse of Writing” by David Boyd, “The Curse of Graphs”[15], “The Curse of Glyphs”[16], and “The Curse of Letters”[17] are found in MA and PhD theses. Although these titles stand on the side of the spirit of letters that had cursed Nabu-ahe-eriba, or the revealer of the secret of letters, the word corresponding to “curse” appeared only once in the original text, in the last sentence, “Massive books — hundreds of heavy clay tablets — fell on this libellant with a terrifying sound of cursing voice and he was miserably crushed to death.” Perhaps, the Spanish title, “La catástrofe de las letras” is more objective. The new title, “The calamity of letters”, is the direct, or the word-to-word translation of the original title, signifying the calamity or disaster that Nabu-ahe-eriba had suffered from.


The early death of Nakajima is truly regrettable. Among other things, the readers might wish had his works been translated by himself into English and other foreign languages to be available for us today.


Having read this novel, I (Masatoshi Iguchi) have realised that I am suffered not only form the spirit of letters but also from that of computers. Ever since I first met a machine called PDP-8 equipped with a Teletype fifty years ago, my memory that was congenitally very bad has gradually worsened to such an extent that today I have to always consult the spelling of words as well as the form of Chinese characters with my computer. I suppose the victim of computers is not only me.


April 2022.


Masatoshi Iguchi




References and Notes

[1] Atsushi Nakajima, Nobuko Ochner (trans), Paul McCarthy (trans), The Moon Over the Mountain, and Other Stories, Autumn Hill Books, 2011; Atsushi Nakajima, Reiko Kane (trans), Doc Kane (trans), Legend of the Master, Maplop, 2020; Atsushi Nakajima (au), Makiko Sese (trans.), Daniel Villa Gracia (trans): El poeta que rugió a la luna y se convirtió en tigre, Hermida Editores S.L. 2017

[2] Yoshihiro Murayama, A Critical Biography of Nakajima Atsushi: From the Viewpoint of the family’s Academic Tradition, Chuokoron-Shinsha, 15 Sept. 2002 (A book in Japanese: 村山吉廣, 『評伝・中島敦 - 家学からの視点』, 中央公論新社, 2002. 9. 15).

[3] Yukinobu Tanabe (ed.), Photographic Materials of Atsushi Nakajima, Sourinsha Publishing, 1 December 1981. (A book in Japanese: 田鍋 幸信 (編), 写真資料中島敦, 創林社, 1 December 1981).

[4] The ancestor of the family is said to have been the lord of Nakashima Manor in Owari (the present-day Aich Prefecture) in the Civil War Period (16th c). In the early Yedo Period, the Eleventh Head of the family, Seiyemon (? - 1637) moved to Yedo from Kyoto.

[5] Kwanbun (漢文, Chinese literature) was traditionally an important liberal arts subject in education in Japan, just as Latin was in Europe. Even in the present translator’s senior high school time (1950s), Kwanbun was a compulsory subject.

[6] At the age when the great majority of women stayed at home for family, Chiyoko received education in The Tokyo Women's Teacher Training College, the first governmental higher education organ for women, established in 1874. As to the divorce, Taka (Atsushi’s widow) told she had heard that the reason was a love affair of Chiyoko: Both Chiyoko and Tabito wished to reconcile but the surrounding family members did not permit them. In: Yukinobu Tanabe (ed.), Nakajima Atsushi - Light and Shadow, Yushindo, 1989 (田鍋幸信(編); 『中島敦・光と影』, 新有堂, 1989).

[7] Ryo Matsumura, “Nakajima Atsushi’s ‘Kotan (Old tales)’: Voice and Letters”, Bull. Kokugo Kokubungaku Soc. (38) 76-85, 1995 (松村良, 中島敦『古譚』: 〈声〉と〈文字〉をめぐって, 学習院大学国語国文学会誌 (38), 76-85, 1995-03-15). The four books listed were: (1) A. T. Olmstead, History of Assyria, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, New York, 1923, (2) Morris Jastrow, Jr., The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, J. B. Lippincott Co., 1915, (3) Phillip van Ness Myers, Ancient History (2nd Revised Ed.), Gin and Co., 1904 and (4) James Henry Breasted, Ancient Times - A History of The Early World (2nd Revised Ed.) , Gin and Co., 1935

[8] Tomoyuki Yasufuku, “The ‘Mojika’ by Nakajima Atsushi - The process of its formation”, Bull. Bukkyo University Dept. Lierature, Kyoto, (07) 2001.05.11 (安福智行, 『中島敦「文字禍」論: その成立過程について』, 仏教大学京都語文 (07) 2001.05.11.)

[9] Anatole France (au), Frederic Chapman (trans), The Garden of Epicurus, The Bodley Head, London, 1908. Cited in: Evelyn Huang, “Nakajima Atsushi Influences of Romanticism and Taoism (MA Thesis, Seton Hall University)”, 2009., but the original article is obscure. The source of citation in this introduction is different from that in Evelyn Huang’s thesis.

[10] Anatole France (au), Frederic Chapman (trans), The Garden of Epicurus, The Bodley Head, London, 1908, p.153 (How I discoursed one night with an apparition on the first origins of the Alphabet). The part of citation in Evelyn Huang’ thesis (Ref. [8]) is different from that in this Introduction.

[11] The name, “Mitsuru Sasaki” is mentioned in the thesis of Evelyn Huang (Ref. [8]), but the source is uncertain. No indication is found at least in Mitsuru Sasaki’ book, The Literature of Atsushi Nakajima, Oufusha, 1975 (佐々木充, 『中島敦の文学 (近代の文学 10)』, 桜楓社, 1970) .

[12] J. Wright, The Phædrus, Lysis, and Protagoras of Plato, John W. Parker, London, 1846, p.85.

[13] David Boyd, “The Curse of Writing: Atsushi Nakajima (1942)”, Renyxa, Department of Contemporary Literary Studies, 2020. renyxa01002004-3.pdf (David Boyd, れにくさ No.10, 東京大学現代文芸論研究室, 2020)

[14] Atsushi Nakajima (au), Makiko Sese (trans.), Daniel Villa Gracia (trans): El poeta que rugió a la luna y se convirtió en tigre, Hermida Editores S.L. 2017

[15] Evelyn Huang, “Nakajima Atsushi Influences of Romanticism and Taoism (MA Thesis, Seton Hall University)”. 2009.

[16] Christopher J Lowy, “At the Intersection of Script and Literature: Writing as Aesthetic in Modern and Contemporary Japanese-language Literature (PhD thesis, University of Washington, 2021)”.;jsessionid

[17] Scott Charles Langton, “The Works of Nakajima Atsushi: War is war and literature (MA Thesis, Ohio State University, 1992)”.