Toshio Mori, Japanese Hamlet (Review)

Toshio Mori (Courtesy: Nancy Wong, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Toshio Mori (Courtesy: Nancy Wong, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

What I love about the Library of America is the variety of works it features in its Story of the Week program. Because of my interest in Japan and Japanese writers, I was particularly attracted to Toshio Mori’s story, “Japanese Hamlet”, that they published a couple of weeks ago. Toshio Mori was one of the first Japanese-American writers to be published in America – and he was best known for short stories. Two things that make him interesting to me.

According to Wikipedia, Mori was born in Oakland, California in 1910. Like many Japanese-Americans, he was interned in a camp (for him, the Topaz War Relocation Centre in Utah) during World War 2. According to LOA, the story “Japanese Hamlet” was written in 1939, but wasn’t published until 1946 – in a magazine called the Pacific Citizen which was apparently the “leading magazine of the Pacific Asian American community”. It was then titled “The School Boy Hamlet”. It appeared later, as “Japanese Hamlet”, in his collection The Chauvinist and other stories, published in 1979, the year before his death.

The story is told by an unnamed first person narrator. He talks of a man, Tom Fukunaga, who “was a schoolboy in a Piedmont home. He had been one since his freshman days in high school. When he was thirty-one he was still a schoolboy”. This Tom, who “did not want anything in the world but to be a Shakespearean actor”,  visits the narrator regularly to recite Shakespeare to him. He’s a schoolboy because he still lives at the school, and has not got a job because he is perfecting his acting skills. Our narrator is happy to hear the recitation because “there was little for me to do in the evenings”.

Tom’s family is not happy with his decision, calling him “a good-for-nothing loafer” who “ought to be ashamed of himself for being a schoolboy at his age”. He tells his relatives that he’s “not loafing” but “studying very hard”. We learn that an uncle visits him regularly trying “to persuade him to quit stage hopes and schoolboy attitude”. His parents have disowned him, his uncle says, and “pretty soon your relatives will drop you”. But Tom is unmoved. He has his goal and will not be swayed from it. He lives on five dollars a week, plus room and board, presumably covered by his family. He feels no guilt about this.

So, what do we have here? We have the would-be artist persisting with his dream. We also have the suggestion of Japanese culture not understanding the pursuit of an individual goal over one’s responsibility to family and community. Then we add the fact that Tom’s favourite role is Hamlet, the quintessential dreamer and procrastinator. I like the complexity of this criss-crossing themes and ideas. Life, we know and Mori shows, is not a simple this-then-that but a complex web of interacting influences.

In all this it’s not clear who the narrator is – a friend, old teacher, neighbour? Is he American or Japanese? Interesting that Mori has chosen to tell the story through a first person narrator, and yet has told us nothing about this narrator. What is the narrator’s role? He (presumably “he”) mediates between us and Tom’s story but he is also an actor in the story. This complicates our response to Tom, I think, because we see him through the eyes of another, but we don’t know who that other is. Regardless of who the narrator is, he starts to be “afraid that Tom’s energy and time were wasted and I helped along to waste it.” He tries to encourage Tom to contact some theatre people, fearing “we are wasting our lives”. Interesting, here, that the narrator is not only worried about enabling Tom to waste his life but about wasting his own. Eventually, the narrator starts to dread Tom’s presence “as if his figure reminded me of my part in the mock play that his life was”. One night he suggests Tom give it up for a while because it is “destroying” him. Tom simply ceases to come.

The narrator feels “bad” because he knew Tom would “never abandon his ambition”. And, while he knew Tom would never become a great Shakespearean actor, he admired “his simple persistence”. The story ends quietly, with no clear resolution – though we do see Tom once again.

LOA’s introductory notes quote a literary scholar, David Palumbo-Liu, who says that while the story seems to offer a simple message, ‘it masks an underlying tension from “a faith in the power of Art to transcend race, ethnicity, and history.””  Ethnicity is not mentioned in the story, except in the title under which it was eventually published – and it is of course  implied in Tom’s name. However, LOA continues, Palumbo-Liu expands his argument: “In a world of racial difference, to be Hamlet, Tom cannot be Japanese; to be Japanese, Tom cannot be Hamlet. Yet the myth of universal art denies that there is any contradiction since, in being an artist, Tom can do both.” LOA suggests that Tom is much like Mori himself who also persevered with his writing, hoping to reach “a wide American audience”.

Not knowing Mori’s oeuvre, I don’t know whether he intended this story to be what Palumbo-Lui sees. I don’t know, either, whether he intended it to be about Japanese culture’s emphasis on duty over individuality, since many Western families would also look askance at a young person not getting a job. What I do know is that although its “simple” message is about the perseverance of a passionate artist, it’s not a simple story. I’m glad to have been introduced to Toshio Mori.

Toshio Mori
“Japanese Hamlet”
First published: in Pacific Citizen, August 17, 1946
Available: Online at the Library of America

6 thoughts on “Toshio Mori, Japanese Hamlet (Review)

  1. It’s interesting that in some senses this has nothing to do with “Japanese”. It’s a story set in the US – written in (not translated into) English. The writer is of Japanese family origin – the ethnic difference high-lighted by his experience of being displaced/incarcerated during the (again, typical US) paranoia (fostered by no-good opportunists) during the early era of the Pacific war – but other than that…it’s a story which resonates throughout the world – the stage upon which Shakespeare’s plays have made their mark – especially that of Hamlet. I once worked with an English teacher whose identification with Hamlet was – if not palpable – then integral to how he saw himself. His mother had married his uncle following his father’s death. It was a fraught relationship – the tragedy being the uncle/step-father’s suicide – having called my colleague to his house! Bizarre and terribly tragic.

    • Thanks Jim … it is interesting that the story itself does not specifically refer to ethnicity at all. I’d love to read more Mori, to get a broader sense of his themes and concerns. That scholar – Palumbo-Lui – goes down a very esoteric path.

      As for war-time paranoia, I guess we have to admit to the same here, eh?

      That’s a sad story about that English teacher’s mother.

      • That is a wonderful idea the Modern Library have had for an anthology and Japanese Hamlet sounds fascinating. There are some Russian 19th century stories that are in this tradition – Turgenev’s Lear Of the Steppes and Leskov’s classic Lady Macbeth Of the Mtensk District. What about An Othello From the Outback!

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