Childhood & Early Life
Osamu Dazai was born Shūji Tsushima, on June 19, 1909, into an affluent landowner’s family in Kanagi, situated in Tōhoku, in the Aomori Prefecture, Northern Japan.
He was the eighth surviving child in the family. His early years were spent in his family mansion, with 30 people.
Dazai's father, Gen'emon Tsushima, later became involved in politics and was also offered a membership of the ‘House of Peers.’ Thus, Dazai mostly grew up in the absence of his father. His mother, Tane, was also mostly ill. Thus, he was raised by his aunt, Kiye, and his servants.
In 1916, he joined the ‘Kanagi Elementary.’ His father died from lung cancer on March 4, 1923. In April that year, he joined the ‘Aomori High School.’ In 1927, he joined the literature department of ‘Hirosaki University.’
He started gaining interest in Edo culture. He also started studying “gidayū,” the chants used in puppet plays.
By 1928, he started editing student papers and served as a member of the college newspaper team. He also published a magazine titled ‘Saibō bungei’ (‘Cell Literature’) with his friends.
However, it is said that Dazai had gradually started to lose interest in work much earlier, in 1927, after his idol, author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, committed suicide. He then began investing in alcohol, clothes, and prostitutes. He also experimented with Marxism.
On December 10, 1929, Tsushima attempted suicide for the first time but survived. The following year, he graduated. He then joined the French literature department of ‘Tokyo University’ in 1930 but never attended a lecture.
In October that year, he ran away with a prostitute named Hatsuyo Oyama, and his family disowned him. He left the university without a degree after 5 years.
Some sources mention he was expelled from the university and had then attempted suicide by drowning, at a beach in Kamakura. A 19-year-old bar hostess named Shimeko Tanabe attempted suicide with him. Shimeko died, but Dazai was saved by a fishing boat.
He was suspected of being involved in Shimeko’s death, but his family’s influence saved him from further investigations. He then married Hatsuyo.
He also promised to stop associating himself with the ‘Japanese Communist Party’ on the condition that his allowance would be increased.
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Dazai then began networking with writers such as Masuji Ibuse and managed to get some works published. He then officially adopted the pseudonym "Osamu Dazai" for writing a short story titled ‘Ressha’ in 1933. It was the first time he used the first-person autobiographical style that became his signature style later.
However, he failed to secure a job at a Tokyo newspaper. He finished writing ‘The Final Years,’ as his farewell to life, and tried to commit suicide again, by hanging, on March 19, 1935. However, he failed again.
He then suffered from appendicitis and was admitted to a hospital. There, he developed an addiction to ‘Pabinal,’ a morphine-based painkiller. In October 1936, he was admitted to a mental institution and was forced to quit drugs.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Dazai wrote many novels and short stories. His first story, ‘Gyofukuki’ (1933), depicted suicide. Some of his other stories were ‘Dōke no hana’ (‘The Flowers of Buffoonery,’ 1935), ‘Gyakkō’ (‘Against the Current,’ 1935), and ‘Kyōgen no kami’ (‘The God of Farce,’ 1936).
He also wrote an epistolary novel titled ‘Kyokō no Haru’ (‘False Spring,’ 1936) and published a collection titled ‘Bannen’ (‘Declining Years,’ 1936).
Writing During the War
Although Japan entered the Pacific War in December 1941, Dazai escaped being drafted in the army, due to tuberculosis.
He, however, continued to write during this time. Many of his works were retellings of stories of Japanese writer and poet Ihara Saikaku. Dazai’s wartime writings included ‘Udaijin Sanetomo’ (‘Minister of the Right Sanetomo,’ 1943), ‘Tsugaru’ (1944), ‘Pandora no hako’ (‘Pandora's Box,’ 1945–1946), and ‘Otogizōshi’ (‘Fairy Tales,’ 1945).
One of his most famous post-war works was the depiction of a war-ravaged Tokyo in ‘Viyon no Tsuma’ (‘Villon's Wife,’ 1947), which narrated the tale of the wife of a poet.
In July 1947, Dazai wrote another masterpiece, ‘Shayo’ (‘The Setting Sun,’ translated in 1956), which narrated the fall of the Japanese nobility in the post-war era. It is believed this was based on the diary of Shizuko Ōta, who was a fan of Dazai's writings and who first met Dazai in 1941.
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Dazai then started working on the novel ‘Ningen Shikkaku’ (‘No Longer Human,’ 1948) at Atami, a hot-spring resort. He then moved to Ōmiya and finished the novel. It was an autobiographical work, narrating the story of a self-destructive man. It is now considered a Japanese classic and has been translated into many languages.
In 1948, Dazai also worked on a novelette that was supposed to be serialized in the ‘Asahi Shimbun’ newspaper. The work was named ‘Guddo bai’ (Japanese pronunciation of "Goodbye"). However, it remained incomplete.
He is remembered as one of the main proponents of the “I novel” genre that focused on autobiographical confession-style writings. He is also considered a major contributor to the “Buraiha,” or the “Decadent School” of literature, which depicted the existential crisis in the post-war scene in Japan.
Family, Personal Life, & Death
In December 1930, he married Hatsuyo. Later, during his treatment for drug addiction, Hatsuyo began an affair with his best friend, Zenshirō Kodate. This drove Dazai to attempt a double suicide with his wife. They consumed sleeping pills but did not die. He then divorced her.
Dazai then married Michiko Ishihara. She was a school teacher. In June 1941, they had a daughter, Sonoko.
He had a son, Masaki, in 1944, and another daughter, his third child, Satoko, in May 1947. Satoko later became a renowned author under the pseudonym “Yūko Tsushima.” During the American bombing of Tokyo, his house was destroyed twice. However, his family escaped unhurt.
He had another daughter (out of wedlock), Haruko, with his fan Shizuko Ōta, in 1947. Following this, Dazai met Tomie Yamazaki, who was a beautician. Tomie had lost her husband after 10 days of marriage. Dazai soon left his wife and children and started living with Tomie.
He and Tomie committed suicide by plunging into the rain-fed ‘Tamagawa Reservoir’ in Tokyo, on June 13, 1948. Their corpses were discovered on June 19, Dazai’s 39th birthday. His grave can be found at the Zenrin-ji temple in Mitaka, Tokyo.
‘No Longer Human’ was made into a film by director Genjiro Arato. It also inspired a few episodes of the anime series ‘Aoi Bungaku.’ A serialized manga in the ‘Comic Bunch’ magazine was based on the same novel.
It has been featured in the Japanese light-novel series ‘Book Girl.’
His works are referred to in the ‘Book Girl’ manga and anime series. ‘Kotaro Azumi,’ the primary character in the anime series ‘Tsuki ga Kirei,’ and ‘Ken Kaneki’ from Tokyo Ghoul’ have been found quoting Dazai.
The anime ‘Bungo Stray Dogs’ has a character named after Dazai.