Nakajima Atsushi (1909-1942), a genius scholar and writer, wrote prolifically within the short span of ten-odd years from when his work first appeared in print until his death at age thirty-three. Yet, despite this early passing so long ago, his brilliant thoughts and ideas expressed in writing continue to impress readers of all ages around the world.
Last updated: April 8, 2022
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Nakajima was born to a family of Chinese classics scholars in May, 1909. (Other notable writers were born that same year, including: Ōoka Shōhei in March, Dazai Osamu in June, and Matsumoto Seichō in December.) Being from such a family, Nakajima naturally grew up well versed in Chinese poetry and Japanese history; however, his curiosity did not get locked up in merely one field of knowledge. He was also an accomplished student of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Assyria as well as Western literature and philosophy. He is known to have been one of the very first few people in Japan to have read Franz Kafka in English before anyone else began to pay attention to the Bohemian novelist.
He also became interested in the ethnology of the Microasian islands when he lived in Palau, and traveled around the main island with the sculptor, Hijikata Hisakatsu, who lived among Palauans for more than a decade prior, and shared much valuable folklore with Nakajima.
It’s clear Nakajima was a man of abundant curiosity, pouring passion into whatever subject fancied him without a predisposition for a particular field of focus. That pure, beautiful, and intelligent mind shines through in his writing, and when we read Nakajima, we cannot help but feel, beneath his dignified style and a parade of slightly intimidating kanji characters, his warmth, compassion, and nobility.
Nakajima’s death at such a young age, when he was just getting started and in possession of such immense talent to share and present to the world, was a big loss for humanity. Still, he is remembered and cherished by many and remains to this day a real scholar of the real.
The Life of Nakajima Atsushi
Nakajima Atsushi. Timeline. Nakajima Atsushi zenshū 3, timeline by Katsumata Hiroshi. Chikuma bunko, 2021, pp. 445-459.
Nakajima Atsushi. Timeline. Ri Ryō-Sangetsu ki-Deshi-Meijin den, timeline by Gunji Katsuyoshi. Kadokawa bunko, 1996, pp. 246-256.
Ochner, Nobuko Miyama. “A Japanese Writer in Micronesia: Nakajima Atsushi’s Experiences of 1941-42.” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, vol. 21, no. 1, 1987, pp. 37–58, https://doi.org/10.2307/488892.
Ochner, Nobuko Miyama, and Nakajima Atsushi. “Wu-Jing’s Admiration: Nakajima Atsushi’s Gojō Tan’i.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 41, no. 2, 1986, pp. 221–37, https://doi.org/10.2307/2384666.
Yamashita Masafumi. Nakajima Atsushi: Hito to bungaku. https://chuo-u.repo.nii.ac.jp.
May 5: Nakajima Atsushi is born in Yotsuya-ku (now, Shinjuku-ku), Tokyo. His father, Tabito, is a middle school teacher, having passed the licensing examination in Chinese classics required by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. Atsushi’s mother, Chiyo, is also an elementary school teacher and said to be quite an intelligent woman. His grandfather, Keitarō, alias Buzan, and his uncle, Tan, alias Tonan, are Chinese classics scholars, and another uncle, Tasuku, is a researcher of Chinese ancient script.
Parents get divorced. Atsushi is taken into the care of his father’s parents in Saitama.
Father, Tabito, marries for the second time.
Enters elementary school in Nara where his father is now positioned.
Father is transferred to Shizuoka and Atsushi takes up schooling in an elementary school in Shizuoka.
Transfers once again, this time to a school in Keijō (now, Seoul), South Korea due to the relocation of his father overseas.
Graduates from Yongsan Elementary School and enters Keijō Public Middle School.
Stepmother dies of puerperal fever five days after giving birth to his sister, Sumiko.
Father marries again for the third time.
Atsushi’s second stepmother gives birth to triplets—two boys and a girl. In March, Atsushi takes the entrance exam for First Higher School, Japan at the end of his fourth year in middle school. Although students don’t typically take this exam until their fifth year, Atsushi does so a year earlier, and passes. In April, enters First Higher School in Tokyo (now, Tokyo University) as a student in the general education department and moves into the dormitory. Back to back, first in August, then in October, his newborn brothers pass away.
In April, suffers from pleurisy and takes a leave of absence from school for one year. Focuses on recovery. His first ever printed work, “Shimoda no on’na” is published in Kōyūkai zasshi vol. 313 (a school publication).
Atsushi recovers successfully from his bout with pleurisy but now finds himself stricken with frequent asthma attacks. In April, leaves the dormitory and moves into the home of an acquaintance of his uncle’s, Okamoto, a lawyer in Shibuya. Atsushi’s cousin Ayako, who is two years his junior, also stays with the Okamotos and attends Japan Women’s University as an English literature major. During this time, Atsushi also helps Ayako with her graduation thesis.
In February, becomes one of First Higher School, Japan’s literature club members and is involved in editing the school’s literary magazine, Kōyūkai zasshi. In June, publishes two short stories, “Warabi-take-rōjin” and “Junsa no iru fūkei.”
In March, his little sister (the surviving member of the triplet babies) passes away. Atsushi graduates from First Higher School, Japan and enters Tokyo Imperial University as a student of the Japanese literature department. In June, his uncle, Tonan, passes away. Atsushi makes good use of his summer vacation and reads the complete works of Nagai Kafū and Tanizaki Junichirō. His friend, Kugimoto Hisaharu, introduces him to a tutoring opportunity, and around October, Atsushi takes on the role as private Japanese teacher to a British Embassy lieutenant commander and navy accountant named A. R. Thatcher for one year.
In March, meets and falls in love at first sight with his future wife, Hashimoto Taka. Atsushi courts her passionately, but there are issues: she is engaged to another man, he is still a student, and there is a wide gap in their educational backgrounds. They have a hard time moving things forward and obtaining consent. Later, they gain approval for marriage on condition it happens after his graduation. During summer vacation, reads the complete works of Ueda Bin, Masaoka Shiki, and Mori Ōgai in preparation for his graduation thesis. Also finishes a three-volume collection of shōgi match moves made by Amano Sōho, a shōgi prodigy from the Edo period.
In August, travels the south of Manchuria and the northern part of China. In the fall, takes the entrance test for The Asahi Shimbun (one of the largest newspaper companies in Japan), but fails to pass the second level physical examination. Some suggest possible reasons for failing may have been because of his chronic asthma and slight frame which might have led examiners to believe he was unhealthy. (Later in life at the age of thirty-two, physical records indicate he measured in at 159 centimeters tall, with a weight of only 45kg; compared to the average contemporary adult male, he was about ten kilograms underweight.) Finalizes a short story “Tonan sensei” inspired by the life of his uncle, Tonan.
Donates poetry books written by his grandfather and uncle to the library at Tokyo Imperial University, namely Enkōdō shibun by his grandfather, Buzan, and Tonan zonkō by his uncle, Tonan. In March, graduates from university. Atsushi’s graduation thesis, “Tanbiha no kenkyū (Study of the Aesthetic School)” discusses the aesthetic inclination of certain group members of Subaru magazine including Mori Ōgai and Ueda Bin. In April, enters graduate school. His chosen subject: “The study of Mori Ōgai.” That same month, becomes a teacher at Yokohama Women’s High School through an introduction from father, Tabito. His wife, Taka, goes home to Aichi to give birth to their son, Takeshi. In August, does an initial translation of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers with his school mate, Kimura Yukio, for their assistant professor. Reads Franz Kafka in English and translates some portions.
In February, submits “Toragari” (Tiger hunt) to Chūō kōron’s prize competition. In March, leaves graduate school. In the summer, through the competition organizer’s announcement, finds out “Toragari” is awarded honorable mention (still missing the prize). In the fall, experiences great fear for his life due to severe asthma attacks.
In April, through an introduction from Kugimoto Hisaharu, gets to know Miyoshi Shirō who teaches with Kugimoto at Asano Gakuen middle school in Yokohama city. Turns out, Miyoshi went to the same middle school in Keijō, Korea as Atsushi, Miyoshi following Atsushi by two years. Strikes up an interest in Latin and Greek languages. Enjoys David Garnett’s works. Among his favorite books are Liezi and Zhuangzi. Holds a book club and reads Blaise Pascal’s Pensées with his colleagues.
In February, attends Feodor Chaliapin’s vocal recital held at Tokyo Metropolitan Hibiya Public Hall. On April 25, his second stepmother passes away. Around June, begins visiting with Fukada Kyūya after being introduced to him by Miyoshi Shirō. In August, goes on a trip to China. Meets up with Miyoshi Shirō at Shanghai pier and travels to Hangzhou and Suzhou. From November to December, finishes “Rōshitsu ki” (Record of an insidious malady) and “Kamereon nikki” (Chameleon diary). Becomes an avid reader of Han Fei, Wang Wei, and Gao Qi. Reads the complete works of Anatole France in English.
In January, Atsushi’s daughter passes away just three days after her birth. In the fall, his asthma acts up. In November and December, creates “Waka gohyaku shu (Five hundred poems).
Enjoys flower craft and music. In August, finishes translating Aldous Huxley’s essay entitled “Pascal.”
In January, finishes “Gojō tan’ni” (Wu-Jing’s admiration). His asthma attacks worsen. Develops an interest in sumō, music, and astronomy. His enthusiasm for sumō has him carrying around wrestlers’ win-lose record charts in place of a teaching notebook. Kugimoto Hisaharu becomes the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture’s supervising officer for school books and textbooks, and gets involved in the compiling of material for Japanese textbooks used for schools in China. Through the good offices of Kugimoto, Atsushi is later employed as a secretary in a similar effort to provide Japanese textbooks to students in the colonies of Micronesia, such as Palau.
In February, his second son, Noboru, is born. In the summer, starts reading Robert Louis Stevenson. Absorbs himself in the works of Plato and material regarding ancient Egypt and Assyria. Suffers from frequent asthma attacks and reduces his teaching time to one or two days a week toward the end of the year.
In February, begins considering a move to Micronesia to allow his asthma to benefit from the warm climate. In March, submits to Yokohama Women’s High School a request for sabbatical. In June, with the confirmation of his appointment to work at the South Seas Agency of the Japanese government in Palau, he attempts to visit Fukada Kyūya one last time before his departure, but Fukada isn’t at his residence; Atsushi leaves a memo and manuscripts of a few stories to Fukada. On June 16, submits resignation notice to Yokohama Women’s High School. On the 28, boards a ship departing from Yokohama port; The 6th of July marks his arrival in Koror, Palau. Assumes role as a secretary of Japanese textbook compilations in the South Seas Agency. (Palau’s population at the time is 141,259, and among those, 90,072 residents are Japanese. Thirty-four elementary schools managed by the Japanese government are operated within the country.)
Immediately after his arrival, Atsushi is afflicted with amoebic dysentery and suffers from a high fever and severe diarrhea. After recovering, comes down with dengue fever. Remains sick until the end of August. In the late fall, among those manuscripts left with Fukada Kyūya, “Sangetsu ki” (The moon over the mountain) and “Moji ka” (Calamitous script) are accepted to appear in the print issue of Bungakukai slated for February, 1942. November 19, granted licensure from the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture allowing him to teach Japanese subject material at the high school level; (Atsushi was provided a license by the government without taking the actual test.) On December 31, presents a request to return to work back in Japan due to continuing asthma-related concerns.
In January, travels around the main island of Palau over a period of two weeks with Hijikata Hisakatsu, a sculptor well versed in the Palauan people and their culture. In February, publishes “Sangetsu ki” and “Moji ka” as a compilation piece entitled “Kotan” (Classic stories) in Bungakukai. On March 17, returns to Japan on an assigned trip from Palau. Contracts pneumonia due to a sudden change in climate. In May, publishes the story “Hikari to kaze to yume” (Light, wind, and dreams) in Bungakukai. On July 15, publishes a book using the same title, Hikari to kaze to yume, with the Chikuma Shobō publishing house. Included in the book are the stories, “Kitsune tsuki,” “Mi’i’ra,” “Sangetsu ki,” “Moji ka,” (collectively entitled: “Kotan”) “Tonan sensei,” “Toragari,” and “Hikari to kaze to yume.”
Around the end of July, submits resignation notice to the South Seas Agency of the Japanese government, and officially resigns on September 7. Around the end of October, completes a piece that would later be known as “Ri Ryō” (Li Ling). November 15, publishes a book, Nantō tan (Stories of the South Islands), with the publishing company, Kyō No Mondai Sha. Around that same time, his asthma is profoundly aggravated, and with a weakened heart, Atsushi is hospitalized in Okada Clinic in Setagaya-ku. On December 1, Bunko publishes “Meijin den” (Legend of the master).
At six o’clock in the morning, December 4, Atsushi passes away at the age of thirty-three.
Several of his stories begin to appear in print posthumously. In January, the essay, “Tako no ki no shita de” (Beneath a pandanus tree) is published in Shin sōsaku (a self-published magazine organized by Funayama Kaoru). “Deshi” (The disciple) soon follows in February and is printed in Chūō kōron. In July, Bungakukai publishes “Ri Ryō” (Li Ling).
Footnote from Doc: In 2021, Maplopo publishes Doc and Reiko’s favorite Nakajima story, “Legend of the Master.” Have you read it yet? 😉