Witty to the end, award-winning writer Maruya dies at 87

October 15, 2012


Impressed by the wit and humor in British literature, Saiichi Maruya tried to move away from the characteristic of Japanese writing that emphasized events closely linked to the author's life.

Maruya, a writer, literary critic and recipient of the government's distinguished Order of Culture award in 2011, died on Oct. 13. He was 87.

When he was asked what he based his writing on, Maruya once said, "I have always placed importance on anything I thought strange."

Born in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, Maruya grew up when Japan went to war with China. When he heard news that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor and was at war with the United States, Maruya recalled thinking: "Why is Japan fighting against such a major power? Japan is a strange nation."

In one of his earliest works, "Sasamakura" (which has been translated into English as "Grass For My Pillow"), the main character is a college employee with a past as a draft dodger. In the 2003 work "Kagayaku hi no Miya" (The palace on a bright day), Maruya’s main character is a female scholar who takes a contrary stand within Japanese literary circles.

In such works, he wrote about characters who confronted authority and those in influential positions.

Maruya studied classical Japanese literature, including poetry, during his student days. With that background, he once said the only writer in Japan who could serve as a model for him was Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote "The Tale of Genji," the 11th century work widely considered the world's first novel.

To develop his own writing style, Maruya began translating English novels. Among the many pieces he translated were James Joyce's "Ulysses," which he worked on in collaboration with two other individuals, and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

Maruya graduated from the University of Tokyo with a degree in English literature and taught for a time at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo.

In 1968, he won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for "Toshi no Nokori" (The rest of the year). His other important works are "Onna Zakari" (translated into English as "A Mature Woman") and "Tatta Hitori no Hanran" (translated into English as "Singular Rebellion.")

He was also noted for his book reviews and served as producer of review pages in the Shukan Asahi weekly magazine as well as The Mainichi Shimbun.

Maruya said that improving the quality of book reviews in Japan was one of the things he was most proud of.

At one time, he said: "I still have a few ideas for novels and criticism. I want to die as an active writer."

In May this year, Maruya penned a piece for The Asahi Shimbun in memory of the late music critic Hidekazu Yoshida. Although Maruya was in the hospital at the time, his room was laid out almost like his work place as he had brought in books and writing equipment. In turning over his contribution to a reporter, Maruya said, "Do you want me to write anything else?"

The title of his piece on Yoshida can be translated as "We were created through him."

Those words would also perfectly match descriptions of Maruya.

The playwright Masakazu Yamazaki recalled a recent experience that demonstrated Maruya's wry sense of humor.

In the summer, Maruya sent Yamazaki a volume from his vast collection as a means of giving away keepsakes to close friends.

Yamazaki called Maruya and said, "I don't know how to respond because it is like you are saying, 'I am about to die.'"

According to Yamazaki, Maruya replied, "I sympathize with you because I had a similar experience in the past."

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Saiichi Maruya in October 2011 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Saiichi Maruya in October 2011 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Saiichi Maruya in October 2011 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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