Monday, 18 June 2012

FUMIO NIWA The Buddha Tree (1956)

Tuttle Classics, 2000

It was soon obvious to Mineyo that he was trying to keep away from her.  Then again –– it's too selfish to begin to avoid her so suddenly, he would remind himself.  Yet he no longer felt the temptation to take the easiest way, to give way wholly to his lust till it should free him at last by burning itself out.  There had been other such moments of repentance in the past; but on every occasion his courage had failed him, even when the break would have been easiest –– at the time of his marriage.  That was why he was still so weak even now, when his wife's flight, the result of all his previous failures, was forcing a decision upon him.

Translated by KENNETH STRONG (1966)

The NovelSoshu is a thirty-nine year old Buddhist priest of the True Pure Land Sect, whose Butsuoji temple is located in the small Japanese farming community of Tan'ami.  The clergy of this sect, which was founded by the 12th Century Buddhist saint Shinran, are permitted to marry, eat meat and live normal lives outside their everyday duties as priests, which include the regular reciting of sutras, or prayers, in the homes of parishioners who wish to honour their dead ancestors.  

Soshu is well-liked by his parishioners and considered a good 'guardian' for the temple along with his wife Renko and mother-in-law Mineyo.  It was Mineyo, then a childless young widow of thirty-four, who originally decided to adopt him into the 'temple family' and pay for his education and ordination into the priesthood.  But her motives for doing so were less pure than they seemed.  She soon began to sleep with Soshu and, in time, arranged his marriage to Renko to ensure he would always be available to satisfy her lust.

Years pass and Renko gives birth to a son, Ryokun.  But all is not well within the self-enclosed world of the Butsuoji temple.  Renko, tired of Soshu's infidelity and his habit of ignoring her, seeks refuge in the arms of a famous kabuki actor and flees the claustrophobic life she's forced to live as a member of the temple family, leaving her son in the care of Mineyo who, at fifty-four, continues to seek sexual gratification from her unwilling, morally-compromised lover.  Soshu is disgusted by the lust he feels for Mineyo but remains too weak-willed to end their affair, suffering continual pangs of guilt because he knows his behaviour makes him spiritually unworthy to advise his parishioners who, in their igonorance, continue to view him as their social and moral superior. 

The situation appears hopeless until Soshu meets Tomoko, a young widow who has recently moved to Tan'ami at the request of her wealthy businessman lover, Yamaji.  Tomoko hates Yamaji – a cruel man whose treatment of her borders on the bestial –– but is trapped, as Soshu is trapped by the misperceptions of his congregation, by her dependence on lover's generosity to keep her fed, clothed and housed.  Tomoko falls in love with Soshu, in whom she recognizes a kindred spirit desperate to regain his dignity and self-respect, and her feelings are eagerly returned.  Soshu dreams of marrying her –– in fact, his parishioners are anxious for him to remarry in the wake of Renko's flight from the temple –– but realizes he must marry one of their daughters in order to retain his position as the community's long-serving priest.  Doing this, however, will not only be a betrayal of the intense love he and Tomoko now feel for each other but will also result in Mineyo, whom he no longer despises but no longer sleeps with, being forced to leave Butsuoji to make way for his new bride.

Tomoko, in the meantime, has her own problems to face.  Although her resolve has been strengthened by her love for Soshu, she finds herself unable to make a clean break with Yamaji, who continues to treat her like a whore in exchange for paying her bills and keeping a roof over her head.  Although she and Soshu are able to meet in secret and spend an evening together at an inn (where they resist the urge to have sex to protect their rediscovered purity), she still baulks at taking the irrevocable step of leaving Yamaji and abandoning everything his wealth and lust have given her.  They go on a trip together, during which Yamaji treats her more like his wife than his mistress, her pining for Soshu gradually diminishing as she realizes she will always lack the courage needed to leave her domineering lover.

Soshu, who is unaware of what Tomoko has admitted to herself, reaches an important decision while she's away.  He calls a special parishioners meeting for the purpose of making what he hints will be a very important announcement.  The announcement takes the form of a long and startling confession, in which he blames himself and Mineyo equally for their affair (which has been an open secret in the town for twenty years) and for driving his wife from the temple.  He tells his congregation that he can no longer serve as their priest because he's morally unworthy to hold such a respected position in the Tan'ami community.  He regains his dignity by publicly confessing his sins and privately renouncing his love for Tomoko who, lacking his willpower if not his honesty, chooses to place financial security and the needs of her young daughter above those of her own tortured heart.

This long, morally complex, occasionally melodramatic tale of lust, jealousy and unrequited love denied remains as strangely relevant in 2012 as it must have been in the still tradition-bound Japan of 1956.  The struggles Niwa depicts through the characters of Soshu and Tomoko –– between lust and renunciation, acceptance of human weakness and our clumsy efforts to deny it, the desire to preserve traditional values in the face of rampant materialism –– call into question the ongoing value of religion in societies, Western as well as Oriental, in which spirituality has become increasingly subordinate to the demands of the flesh and the self-interested seizing of the moment.  Soshu happens to be a Buddhist clergyman, but he could just as easily be a Baptist, a Catholic or an American television evangelist, publicly preaching virtue while privately indulging in a life of sin his parishioners are fully aware of but willingly turn a blind eye to for the sake of making their own lives less complicated.  While The Buddha Tree is not an easy book to read (or even to find nowadays) –– it contains a lot of Buddhist theology which, while sometimes interesting in itself, isn't strictly essential to its plot –– its message that a life of compassionate self-acceptance is preferable to a life of self-imposed damnation remains, even today, a difficult one to ignore. 

FUMIO NIWA, c. 1945
The WriterBorn in 1904, Fumio Niwa was the descendant of a long line of Buddhist priests and, as the eldest son of the eldest son, was expected to carry on the tradition of temple life just as his ancestors had done for centuries before him.  After earning a degree in Japanese literature from Waseda University, Niwa dutifully returned to the family temple in the town of Yokkaichi and began to study for the priesthood –– studies he abandoned in 1932 so he could return to Tokyo and reinvent himself as a writer.

He first rose to prominence with the story Ayu [Sweetfish], which was serialized in the literary magazine Bungei Shinju.  In 1933 he published his first novel, Zeiniku [Superfluous Flesh] – an erotic tale of an adulterous affair based on an affair he himself had recently conducted with a married woman.  It was to be the first of eighty novels, many of which, like Bodaiju [The Buddha Tree], drew their inspiration directly from the circumstances of his own, often very turbulent life.  The character of Renko in Bodaiju, for example, was based on his mother –– a woman who abandoned him and his clergyman father to run off with and eventually re-marry a kabuki actor.  Niwa's relationships with women were forever clouded by this childhood trauma and perhaps explain his incredible success as a seducer in his adult years.  The character of Ryokun –– the son and future heir to the priesthood who struggles to understand why his mother has abandoned him was identified by many critics as being a realistic self-portrait of the writer during his own uncertain childhood.

Niwa served as a war correspondent during World War Two and in 1942 published the novel Kaisen [Naval Engagement], based on the time he spent aboard the Japanese flagship Chokai and his subsequent wounding during the battle of Savo Island.  The book, like its sequel Kaeranu Chutai [Lost Company], were both heavily censored by Japan's military government – neither the first nor the last time that author's work would bring him into conflict with the authorities.  Although he feared that he might be prosecuted as a war criminal during the US Army's post-war Occupation of Japan, Niwa was never arrested or even questioned by the country's temporary rulers.  He went on to win every major Japanese literary award and to serve as the long-time director of the Japanese Writer's Association –– a position that allowed him to purchase the land required to build a writer's cemetery and create a health fund to ensure his fellow authors would always have access to medical treatment as and when they needed it.

FUMIO NIWA, c. 1960
Although Niwa's work was often criticized for what was seen as its immorality and its over-emphasis on the erotic side of life, it was his story Iyagarase no Nenrei [The Hateful Age], published in 1947, that proved to be his most controversial work of fiction.  Its depiction of a senile  grandmother who becomes the bane of her family's lives went very much against the grain of Japanese society at the time, calling into question its long-standing traditions of venerating and caring for the elderly.  His attacks on post-war Japan's materialism and greed met with similar controversy.  His last great works were a five volume biography of the Buddhist saint Shinran and an eight volume life of Rennyo, a 15th Century Japanese monk who died while on a pilgrimage to India.  The last of these appeared when the author was well into his eighties.

Ironically, Niwa himself would live to be a hundred years old, dying in 2005 from the combination of old age and Alzheimer's Disease.

Copies of the 2000 Tuttle Classics edition of The Buddha Tree*, ranging in price from US$15.90 to US$0.90, can be found on US Amazon by clicking HERE.  The same retailer also offers the book in Kindle eBook format priced (I think) at US$9.99.  Bear in mind that, as with everything else that Amazon sells, prices and availability may vary dramatically depending on which region of the world you live in and what the company's marketing and shipping departments and/or its online (usually US-based) retailing partners believe you should have access to.

Tuttle Classics has not reprinted the The Buddha Tree since its original US publication in 2000.  While the company continues to sell a small range of translated classic and contemporary Japanese literature, it appears to have permanently deleted this novel and most of the other excellent Japanese novels it formerly published from its catalogue.

To my knowledge, there are currently no other English translations of the work of FUMIO NIWA available in either traditional print or eBook formats.

[*Thanks to the anonymous commenter who advised me in December 2014 that copies of The Buddha Tree are now obtainable via US Amazon.  This was not the case when this post was originally published in June 2012.]

You might also enjoy:
JAMES JONES To The End of the War (2011)
RK NARAYAN The Guide (1958)


  1. This novel is available in English via the Tuttle Classics publications, which you have a picture included in the beginning of this post.

  2. @ Anonymous: Thanks for the information. The post has now been updated.