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Ueda Akinari 1734-1809 : scholar, poet, writer of fiction Young, Blake Morgan


Ueda Akinari was born in Osaka in 1734 to an unwed mother but, adopted by a prosperous merchant who lived nearby, he grew up in well-to-do circumstances in the commercial center of eighteenth-century Japan. His temperament inclined him toward literature and scholarship, but the more utilitarian values of the merchant class in which he was raised led to an inner conflict that he resolved, if at all, only during the last few years of his life. When his adoptive father died in 1761 he dutifully took over the family business, but continued his literary activities on the side, and when the shop was destroyed by fire in 1771 he made no attempt to rebuild it. For the next few years he trained as a physician, and began his own medical practice in 1776. This new occupation was more compatible with his literary avocations, but in 1787 a combination of failing health and dissatisfaction with his work drove him to retire and devote his full time to study and writing. In spite of poverty, f ailing eyesight, worsening health, and a nagging conscience over doing nothing productive, he continued this way of life until his death in Kyoto in 1809. His reputation today rests almost entirely on Ugetsu monogatari. a collection of ghostly tales that he published in 1776, just shortly after becoming a physician. Although it represents only a fraction of his total output, it has so outshone all his other writings that few people associate his name with anything else, and the average person tends to think of him as an inveterate romantic, obsessed with magic and the occult. This study is an attempt to broaden that view; to create a portrait of the total man based on his own statements and the comments of those who knew him, and to show the nature and variety of his major works. Akinari first broke into literary circles in his late teens, writing haiku poetry. In his early thirties he produced two collections of humorous stories about the townsman class, which sold well when they appeared and are now generally regarded as the last significant ukiyo-zōahi to be written. Gradually, however, he was steered away from popular literature toward more serious pursuits. Uaetsu was his attempt to recreate the beauty of Japanese classical literature in contemporary fiction. After completing it he concentrated on studying the old masterpieces and writing commentaries on them. He had tried his hand at waka verse early in his career, and after moving to Kyoto in 1793 he became quite active in the capital's poetry circles for a time. He also practiced the art of preparing tea, and fashioned tea vessels of his own design. Having a strict and moralistic outlook, he deplored frivolity and hypocrisy, but saw that the world was full of such vices. Unable to compromise his principles, he constantly felt alienated from society, enjoying the companionship of just a few close friends. Far from being a dreamer, he was meticulously rationalistic, insisting on evidence for all of his conclusions. Resolute in his own convictions, he engaged in a prolonged dispute with Motoori Norinaga, perhaps the foremost scholar of the day, condemning the man's indifference to logic. His views on society and the meaning of life were expressed in both satirical sketches and straightforward statements. In Harusame monogatari, his last major work, he used the medium of fiction to sum up his views on ancient Japanese history, scholarship, literature, religion, ethics, morality, and the nature of man. In his writings, as in his personal life, he stood alone, proudly independent. He drew inspiration from many sources, but refused to adhere to any one teacher or school, and though he has influenced generations of younger writers, there are none who can be called his disciples. In a country where people traditionally find their identity within their peer group, Akinari to the end zealously remained an individual.

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