By Joanna Heath
There is an impressive Meiji-period house that has stood with a stately elegance since it was built in 1907 in the rural Japanese town of Kanagi. Now surrounded by modern shops, offices and car-parks, this dimly-lit house remains filled with the same aroma of its cypress wood beams as when the influential Tsushima family first occupied it. The house was a favourite place for my parents to take our guests when we were living in Kanagi in the early 1990’s. Literary pilgrims still travel deep into the Aomori prefecture to see inside the birthplace and family home of Dazai Osamu. Though urbanisation has since led to the town being absorbed into the city of Goshogawara in 2005, perhaps he and I would share similar memories of Kanagi as a place pink with cherry blossom in the spring, white with snow in the winter and surrounded by a patchwork landscape of rice fields.
Dazai Osamu (1909-1948) is often cited as one of the greatest Japanese writers of the twentieth century. His short and tragic life, filled with scandal and romance, makes his own story as captivating as his fiction. Indeed, many of his writings are considered to be semi-autobiographical, none more so than his No Longer Human (1948) completed shortly before his final (and fatal) suicide attempt.
Despite the ‘notebook’ chapters of No Longer Human ostensibly documenting the reflections of the fictional protagonist Ōba, the narrative from the very outset convincingly depicts life as it must have been for Dazai in Kanagi. From his fascination with the modern train station to his resentment of the unvaried diet in his rural family home, readers cannot help but assume that the memories are Dazai’s own.
Ōba soon demonstrates his distaste for the mundane and the utilitarian, which extends to his views about food. As a child he becomes increasingly disturbed by the solemnity of the three mealtimes that punctuate the day. Even confectionery offered to the schoolboy is treated with deep suspicion that it is part of another mindless ritual associated with the notion of ‘hunger’ with which he claims to be unfamiliar. The passage has become one of Dazai’s most memorable:
‘Again, I have never known what it means to be hungry. I don’t mean by this statement that I was raised in a well-to-do family—I have no such banal intent. I mean that I have had not the remotest idea of the nature of the sensation of “hunger.” It sounds peculiar to say it, but I have never been aware that my stomach was empty. When as a boy I returned home from school the people at home would make a great fuss over me. “You must be hungry. We remember what it’s like, how terribly hungry you feel by the time you get home from school. How about some jelly beans? There’s cake and biscuits too.” Seeking to please, as I invariably did, I would mumble that I was hungry, and stuff a dozen jelly beans in my mouth, but what they meant by feeling hungry completely escaped me.’ (pp. 22-23)
English translations fail to gloss the specific confectionery offered to Ōba. Jelly beans, cake and biscuits can mean a multitude of things to people not only in different places but also of different generations. However, even without the Japanese text to hand, readers might quickly realise that Ōba’s rural farming family, which Dazai is at pains to make clear is very modest and simple, do in fact have access to some surprising luxuries. The mention of the confectionery is closely framed by assertions of the family’s humble context. This tension reflects Dazai’s own, who belonged to one of the wealthiest landowning families in the region but who would always prefer to identify himself in more modest terms. He even said of himself that he had been born into the wrong class. It is possible that the character Ōba shares this embarrassment about his wealthy origins.
The Japanese text is of course less ambiguous about the food offered to the schoolboy. Perhaps Dazai allows us to deduce the actual ease of the family’s life in order to reinforce the disgust he evinces in the book regarding the way in which beautiful and decorative food becomes subsumed into the family’s mundane routine of eating to satisfy hunger. That even luxurious goods could be treated in such a way is apparently at odds with the protagonist’s naive insistence that the beautiful should not be useful.
Amanattō (“Jelly beans”) 甘納豆
These individually candied red beans originated in Tokyo in the late nineteenth century, so it is unlikely that many families in the remote north of Japan would have had access to the delicacy. However, the adzuki beans have long been a common ingredient throughout Asia so families who could afford to enjoy sugar and syrup would have been able to make them at home.
Here is how Amy made them at home:
400g black beans (I cheated and used ones from a tin! You can use dry beans, but you need to soak them with baking soda overnight, and then boil them for an hour before moving on to the next step of the recipe.)
600 ml water
800g granulated or caster sugar
200g icing sugar
- Heat the water and granulated sugar in a large pan. Simmer for about 20 minutes. This makes the syrup.
- Add the beans and simmer for a further hour.
- Drain the beans.
- Put the beans in a large mixing bowl and toss with the icing sugar.
- Spread the beans out on a baking tray and put in a warm oven for 10 minutes.
- I then left mine overnight to cool completely and to allow the sugar to crystalise on the surface.
Kasutera (“Cake”) カステラ
The name is a Japanese transliteration of Castella, introduced as ‘bread of Castile’ by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Somewhat similar to a Madeira sponge, the cake has become ubiquitous in Japan, but for centuries was considered an extravagant cake due to its high sugar and honey content. Once again it is clear that Ōba’s household, isolated from the merchant ports, were still in a position to share in the tastes of the higher classes.
Here is how Nico made this cake at home:
150g granulated sugar
2 tbsp. honey
100g white flour
25 g warm water or milk
1 tbsp. matcha green tea powder (this is optional; original kasutera has no matcha, but I added it to give it a more interesting flavour, and colour)
- Whisk eggs and sugar together, for over 10 minutes, so that the batter nearly triples in size.
- Add the honey to the warm water or milk, and add this to the batter and continue whisking for 2 more minutes.
- Add the flour (with green tea powder) gradually, and keep on whisking for 3 more minutes.
- Line a rectangular tin with baking paper, and pour the batter into the tin (make sure you leave 2cm between the batter and the tin’s brim).
- With a spatula, cut through the batter so as to release any air bubbles.
- Bake in the oven at 180°C for 10 minutes, and then at 160°C for 30 minutes. When you insert a skewer and it comes out clean, the cake is ready! Leave it to cool and then cut off the crust on the four sides so that it looks neater – the Japanese way.
Pan (“Biscuits”) パン
Translated ‘biscuits’ in the book, pan is actually the generic term for ‘bread’, again a corruption of the Portuguese term since bread had been introduced at the same time as kasutera. It is not clear exactly what sort of bread or biscuit Dazai had in mind here, but the employment once more of a foreign term rather than an indigenous sweet reinforces the sense that Ōba was from an affluent family.
For a savoury taste of Dazai’s culinary environment, why not drop into his house in Kanagi next time you are in Aomori? The museum website details a wide range of what they claim to be his ‘favourite’ dishes!
Dazai Osamu. No Longer Human (trans. Donald Keene). New York: New Directions, 1958
Dazai’s museum website http://dazai.or.jp/en/museum/gourmet.html