Image description: A person in blue reaches out for a blistering sunset. The text reads,
Image description: A person in blue reaches out for a blistering sunset. The text reads,


The Setting Sun: East and West or East vs West?

A reflection on The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai, whilst focusing on how the translator’s biases affect the translation of the piece.

Oct 8, 2023

Most, even avid, readers skip the foreword or the preface of a novel. I myself have found it unnecessary to start a book with a literary critique of what lies ahead. But I was intrigued by the foreword by Donald Keene to Osamu Dazai’s novel, The Setting Sun. In fact, it remains the one piece of this book that stuck with me the most with its absolute arrogance and proud misinterpretation of the text.
The foreword lacks no amount of flamboyant praise for the work as one would expect. That is how they usually go, prefaces and dedications and elaborate analyses of literary works. However, even without having read a single line from the actual text by Dazai, the interpretation that Keene presents seemed to be rooted in profound biases about the disposition of Asian societies towards European and North American cultures and histories. It is important to note that Keene is the translator of the text, which I remember left me wondering whether the translation itself would allow for a different reading from Keene’s.
Surprisingly, it did. The Setting Sun is a masterfully written account of life in Japan after World War II, specifically among the aristocracy. It depicts the fall of the upper echelons of Japanese society and the loss of certain traditions and expressions of culture to the crudeness and practicality that can ensure the survival of a nation still in the beginning of recovery from a devastating war. In Keene’s interpretation, this fall of aristocracy is sparked by the emergence of youth movements that try to copy European intellectuals and have chosen to “free” themselves of their Japanese identity. He writes: “The fact remains that almost everywhere in Japan, education has brought with it a profound respect for Western culture, and sometimes a genuine love… the Japanese woman who abandoned the traditional kimono in favor of a dress is not merely imitating some Hollywood star; she is liberating herself from the nuisance of the elaborate series of robes — unbearably hot in summer and impractical at any time of the year in the offices and busses she must cope with today — the face of Japan is changing every day as taste, convenience, and economic necessity dictate.”
While one can find enough evidence in Dazai’s text to support the basis of this claim, which is that Western culture and customs replace the Japanese ones out of necessity, Keene’s stance is far from being as central to the work as he presents it. It is true that Dazai’s characters are as interested and well-versed in The Tale of Genji as in Goethe’s works, but they carry no sentiment of abandoning their Japanese identity or considering their traditional lifestyle a hassle. In fact, this newly emerging culture seems like a rather balanced mix of Eastern work practices and ethics and Western expressions of art and social life. Dazai, being a representative of this aristocratic youth that abandoned their social status, called after his work “People of the setting sun,” does not lament the fall of the Japanese aristocracy. What I gleaned from the text is a sense of grief and anger that the aristocracy failed to safe keep Japan during the war, that they remained comfortably oblivious or chose to be ignorant to the horrors of the war, even if their own children paid the ultimate price, just so they kept their status. The characters in the book definitely seem more affected and inspired by Bolshevik and French socialist movements that went hand in hand with Surrealism and Romanticism in literature than simply by Western philosophy as a whole, as Keene suggests in his foreword. To Keene, it is surprising that “Japan, which has borrowed so much from the West, has never taken more to Christianity,” which proves his profound misunderstanding of the text. Because Dazai never claims Japan to be in need of a new spirituality or traditions, only of a new social order that prioritizes people’s well-being and togetherness over social status. The author emphasizes this by showing that the non-aristocratic families were far more resilient than the aristocracy that refused to adapt to and learn from the changing times and thus was doomed to failure.
It is strange that Keene, who is a renowned Japanologist, took a stance that was so dismissive of the internal progress of Japan and put Western culture on a pedestal. The tone of the foreword is the tone of somebody writing about watching a child grow: slightly melancholy and nostalgic as if wishing the child would remain unchanged, yet also proud to see them grow as expected of them.
I now realize that perhaps Keene’s insights are like a time capsule of the biases and views of Europeans and North Americans from his generation. His foreword was as much a retelling of his time and place as Dazai’s work. But, it is sad to see that some of these ideas persist today, even if the focus has now shifted away from the East Asian countries. Plenty of European and North American narratives about Asia as a whole infantilize the cultures of the region and wish for their stagnation, so that they remain “authentic” as relics of a time gone by. Today, the focus falls on the Central Asian, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. I can imagine a scholar of Middle Eastern Islamic cultures writing about the hijab or the kandura like Keene wrote about the kimono. And it is a shame that the ideas equating appreciation of Western culture with admiration and a desire to adapt it remain so prevalent today.
But perhaps my interpretation is also just a product of my own zeitgeist. I have lived in a globalized world, in which Western superiority has been mostly questioned and the mutual exchange of cultures has been encouraged. I have been present at the difficult conversations about neocolonialism that were valued more than the one-sided retelling of world history. I have experienced firsthand how youth movements respond to this globalization, not by abandoning our identities, but by enhancing them with multicultural knowledge and values. If there is one defining characteristic of our generation’s equivalent of the society “of the setting sun,” it is the search for intersectional identity, and perhaps we will mark the fall of the Western-gaze interpretation of life outside of Western Europe and North America.
Yana Peeva is Senior Columns Editor. Email them at
gazelle logo