How to kill the mood

Today -- actually, last night leading into today -- is/was Tanabata, the one night in the year when Vega and Altair can get it on. Since it's a huge pan-Asian holiday with a romantic theme and summer clothing customs, the web is jam-packed with information on the topic and I won't bother repeating any here. Instead, I thought it'd be nice to see what one of my favorite suicidal Japanese writers, DAZAI Osamu, had to say about the matter. Excuse the quick translation.

This year's Tanabata affected me more deeply than usual. Tanabata is a girl's holiday. It's an evening when girls pray to the Weaver [Vega] to help them become better at weaving, sewing and other handicrafts. I hear that in China they celebrate with streamers of five colors tied to the end of poles, but in Japan, we take bamboo, freshly picked and with the leaves still attached, tie paper in five colors from it, and stand it up by the door. Sometimes the girls write secret prayers on the paper, too, in a shaky, uneven hand.
Seven or eight years ago, I went to the hot springs in Joushuu, but thanks to all kinds of trouble I couldn't stay on top of the mountain in the hot spring so I wandered down to Minakana at the foot of the mountain. When I crossed the bridge and came into the town, it was Tanabata: red, yellow and green colored paper was rustling beneath the bamboo leaves. Ah, everyone's living so modestly, I thought, suddenly feeling revitalised.
I can still remember the colors of that Tanabata vividly, but I didn't see that kind of decorating of the bamboo for a few years after that. Well, no, I guess I saw it every year, but it never made an impression on me. But, for some reason, this year the Tanabata decorations standing here and there around Mitaka really caught my eye. That made me want to know exactly what kind of festival Tanabata is, and so I looked it up in two or three dictionaries. But whichever dictionary I checked, all that was written was "Festival during which people pray to become better at handicrafts". That didn't satisfy me. I had been hearing ever since I was a kid that it had some more important meaning. Wasn't this supposed to be the one night in the year that the Cowherd [Altair] and the Weaver can enjoy each other's company? When I was a boy, I believed that those colored paper and bamboo decorations we put up were for the benefit of the Cowherd and the Weaver, a sign to show that we were happy for them this night. In other words, I'd thought it was a holiday for we in the world below to celebrate the Cowherd and the Weaver's yearly good fortune, so now hearing that it was a night for girls to pray that they would get better at writing and darning, and that those bamboo decorations were also just to hold the prayers, well, it felt a little strange. Man, I thought, girls seriously don't miss a beat when it comes to figuring out ways to get theirs. Putting together this plan where they attached their own requests to the general goodwill for the weaver is just way too calculating. Grasping, even.
Most of all, it was just cruel to the weaver. Tonight's the night she's supposed to be enjoying her once-a-year meeting with her man, but the clamoring flood of petitions from the world below must totally ruin the mood. But, since that night's so good to the Weaver herself, she probably has no choice but to listen to the wishes of the girls below too. And so the girls see that weakness in the Weaver's personality and without any reserve or consideration busily make their requests. Sheesh. Girls are like that right from the cradle.
But boys don't do that sort of thing. They know that it's not polite to bother the weaver with greedy wishes on a night she'd rather not have everyone bothering her. Hell, I've refrained from even looking up at the sky on Tanabata, ever since I was a young boy. I was just wishing, deep within my little chest, that they could enjoy a fun night without wind or rain getting in the way. I thought looking at lovers who can only meet once a year, through a telescope of all things, was completely rude and utterly without class. I would have been ashamed to act like such a peeping Tom.
Thinking about these things while walking around town on Tanabata, I suddenly wanted to write a novel. It'd be about lovers here in the world below who have also promised to only meet once a year. Or maybe a married couple who for some unfortunate reason can't live together, that'd work too. On that night, the bamboo and colored paper decoration would be standing by the entrance to the woman's house.
While I was thinking this through, it started to feel stupid, and then I suddenly had a shady thought: instead of writing a cheesy novel like that, maybe I should try to do it for real myself. Go to see some woman at her house tonight and then go home later pretending nothing had happened. Then, next year on Tanabata, go there again, and again pretend nothing had happened when I went home afterwards. Do that for five or six years, then finally open up to the woman. Do you know what night it is that I come by every year? It's Tanabata, I'd explain to her, laughing, and she'd probably think I was totally awesome. Let me see, where can I go tonight, I thought, narrowing my eyes, but of course I had no such place I could go to anyway. I don't like women, so I don't know a single one. Or maybe it's the other way around: because I don't know any women, so I don't like them. Well, either way, I couldn't think of any woman to visit. I smiled bitterly. A bamboo decoration was standing at the entrance to a Soba shop. I saw something written on the colored paper. I stopped to read it. It was written in a little girl's shaky handwriting:
What a relief! The girls of today aren't just wishing for things for themselves. This request was more innocent, I thought. I read those words on that colored paper over and over again. I couldn't leave for a while. This wish will definitely get to the Weaver, I thought. Its humbleness was its greatest asset.
Ever since 1937, Tanabata has started to mean something different to Japan. The 7th of July, 1937: the day of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the unforgettable gunshot. My cheeky ponderings evaporated completely, like mist.

That's the biggest problem with reading things written during the 1930s and 40s in Japan. They start off entertaining, and then raise those uncomfortable, uncomfortable issues, and you're just not sure you should be enjoying them any more. Dazai's politics weren't exactly the pacifist, anti-fascist kind, but nor was he a vicious warmonger -- and plus, on a personal level, he'd made at least three suicide attempts by the time he wrote this. What are you supposed to make of that?

Happy Tanabata.

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That's what you get for switching over entirely to the solar calendar.

Here in China, folks can be angry today, and then when the Lunar comes around, they can celebrate "Chinese Valentine's Day" with no worries.

Pascale Soleil:

Hmm, and apparently a raging misogynist too! Sounds like a swell guy...


Also, in China you have the advantage that you can say "on this day in 1000 b.c.e." or whatever, instead of "on the day equivalent to this day, except on the lunar calendar, in 1000 b.c.e."

Pascale: yeah, I'm not sure why but Japan's Great Writers of the early and mid-20th C had a tendency towards tooldom.


I think these authors need to be engaged on their own terms. After all, they're dead, and not especially influential any longer, so they pose little danger and it's clearly unfair to ask that they change. As for the politics, I think it would be an odd piece of writing that commented on that particular time in Japan and didn't mention the Japanese people's feelings about what was happening in the world, and their place in it. He is writing about the Folk, a folk festival and the people's perceptions of their place in history on an given day. A preoccupation with the Folk rings alarm bells with us now, but needn't damn a man's honest appraisal of the world around him 65 years ago.

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