Today we feature one of International PEN’s most important 1930s members. From its founding, International PEN wanted to create a centre in Japan, but it was not until 1935 that the ‘Nippon PEN Club’ was founded under the Presidency of the groundbreaking poet and novelist, Tōson Shimazaki.
Shimazaki, in his novels The Broken Commandment(1906) and The Family (1910-11) had spearheaded the creation of Japanese naturalist literature. His subsequent work, New Life (1918-1919), which narrated his extramarital relations with his niece, sparked a national scandal, forcing him to flee to France. He returned to Japan in the late 1920s and published his epic historical novel, Before The Dawn (1929), which told the story of the Meiji Restoration and the mid-to late nineteenth century westernization of Japan.
From the start Nippon PEN, which received money from the Japanese government, was very successful, with 105 founding members and its own journal. Shimazaki was key to its success. On its founding, he spoke of the Club’s importance at this perilous moment for the world when ‘the East and the West are entering a stage of great transition’. He also discussed the isolation of many Japanese writers since the Meiji Restoration, and his hopes that PEN networks would help Japanese writers reach a broader global audience.
These ambitions spearheaded a program of translations of Japanese literature, and high profile participation in PEN events. Shimazaki travelled to the 1936 International PEN Congress in Buenos Aires. Urgent issues were discussed at the Congress, including the Spanish Civil War, Italian Fascism, and the plight of refugees. He introduced himself and Japanese PEN, to the Congress by speaking ‘a few words in Japanese’. He followed up this introduction by referring to Goethe’s dream of ‘world literature’ and proposing that the organisation make the dream a reality by establishing an international review. In a subsequent essay he suggested that the world literature of Goethe’s dream had shifted its coordinates beyond Europe, and eastwards to Tokyo, and described Japanese literature as a ‘literary melting pot’ which has absorbed the literatures of the world and produced a new literature from the ‘chaos’. Nippon PEN’s proposal that the 1940 International PEN Congress be held in Tokyo was accepted; the outbreak of war made the event impossible and Shimazaki was to die in 1943.
There was, however, a hugely successful congress in Tokyo in 1957, which sought to showcase not only Japan to visitors from all over the world but to develop East-West relations within PEN itself. In many ways, this was Shimazaki’s true legacy.