Thursday, January 30, 2014

¡Toro! ¡Toro! Japan?

Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue 

“The large, eye-catching announcement ran in the Osaka New Evening Post in mid-December 1946: early the next year, from January 20, the paper would sponsor a three-day bullfighting tournament at Hanshin Baseball Stadium…” So begins this prize-winning debut by Japanese author, Yasushi Inoue. Set in in the ruins of Osaka just shortly after the war, in a city all but demolished by the sixth-month U.S firebombing campaign in which more than 10,00 civilians were killed and the city’s heavy industrial sector destroyed, Bullfight (Japanese: Tōgyū) involves the struggles of small-time, mild-mannered newspaper editor who decides (in fact is persuaded) to risk it all, to gamble the fate of the very paper that employs him, by hosting a bullfighting tournament in the devastated city in the hope both of turning a profit and boosting the spirits of his demoralized compatriots. 

Kyodatsu is the name given to the condition of exhaustion and despair that plagued the Japanese as a people, following their defeat and humiliation at the end of the World War II and throughout the American occupation. Writes John W. Dower in his illuminating treatment of the period, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II: “Whether in war or in defeat, such collective exhaustion did appear to be the ‘great enemy’ to a vast array of observers. Just as it could erode reverence for the throne, so it might impede postwar reconstruction—not to mention undermining the whole idealistic enterprise of promoting democracy in a shattered land.”

It was a condition the poet Horiguchi Daigaku (like the protagonist of this story) sought to help his countrymen transcend:

The country has become small
and powerless.
food scarce,
shame plentiful,
life fragile.
Stop grieving!
Raise your eyes
to the treetops,
to the sky.

What better way to achieve this than with a bullfight? Strange, anomalous, as this may sound, there is in fact an old, much-cherished tradition of bullfighting in Japan, in Kyushu and the Ryukyu Islands, dating back as far as the late 17th century. Popularly called ushi-zumo, “sumo bullfighting,” (at least by foreigners), the sport indeed bears a greater resemble to sumo wrestling than to Spanish and Portuguese bullfighting in which a man confronts a bull and, after much pomp and sadism, kills it. Tōgyū, by contrast, pits bull against bull; horns locked, each bull with attendant coach tries to force the other bull to give way. That is it. The bulls are not killed; they are not injured; blood is rarely if ever shed.

It reminds me of the remarkable Japanese baseball tradition of playing for a tie as the ideal outcome of any game: in that way wa (group harmony) is maintained—no one loses face and everyone ends a winner. Which is surely not the case in Spanish bullfighting, a sport over which I have nearly come to blows with the ghost of Hemingway, not to mention with at least two of my more ardent Spanish friends. For while I have never seen a bullfight in Spain, I did see one in the ancient Roman arena of the southern French city of Nîmes, a city—with its innumerable bullfighting clubs—steeped in the rites, rituals, and lore of Spanish tauromachia. For all my anticipation, I did not find the bullfight beautiful; I did not find it graceful or sporting or refined. Given the odds against the bull, I saw no courage in the spectacle at all. It was farcical really, a sham, a precious stage play of posturing and poses, all very much for show. And of course it was ritually, elaborately cruel.

Not so with the Japanese version we see in Inoue’s curiously delightful tale. Here, though nearly everything goes wrong, the contests prove a balm, a victory for all. Writes Ian Buruma, “To the Japanese, always acutely conscious of their ranking among nations, sporting victories were one way to soothe memories of wartime defeats.” It therefore comes as no surprise that this spare and simple novella, first published in 1949, earned the fledgling author both the admiration of his people and the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.  

Yasushi Inoue, born in 1907, worked as a journalist and literary editor for many years, only beginning his prolific career as an author in 1949 with Bullfight. He went on to publish 50 novels and 150 short stories, both historical and contemporary. In 1976 Inoue was presented with the Order of Culture, the highest honor granted for artistic merit in Japan. He died in 1991. (Thanks to Pushkin Press)

Here you can watch a little ushi-zumo for yourself:

Peter Adam Nash

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