Return to Tsugaru : Travels of Purple Tramp by Osamu Dazai (Kodansha International)

As a fairly recent transplant from the metropolis of Tokyo to the Tohoku area of Japan, also known as Tsugaru, I have become more interested in exploring the literary history of my newly adopted home. When my wife and I explored our new surroundings last summer, I couldn't help but notice the number of monuments dedicated to one of the area's most prolific writers – Osamu Dazai. I did not know he was originally from Aomori Prefecture. I also didn't know Dazai was a pen name he used. (His given name was Shuji Tsushima.)

I decided to introduce myself to Dazai by reading a book he had been commissioned to write. One of his friends in the publishing business had repeatedly suggested he write a travel piece about his hometown and he willingly accepted. It was meant to be a special volume in the New Fudoki Series.  (Fudoki 風土記means the records of the culture and geography of a province.)

Dazai spends three weeks exploring Aomori Prefecture and says, “Though I was born and brought up in Tsugaru and lived there for twenty years, the only places I knew were Kanagi, Goshogawara, Aomori, Hirosaki, Asamushi, and Owani. Of other towns and villages I knew not the least bit.”

This book was originally published in 1944 by Oyama Shoten and titled Tsugaru.  The English edition was translated by James Westerhoven (who had taught English at Hirosaki University for about ten years) and was published in 1985.

It was by pure coincidence, or maybe it was fate, that my travels with my wife around Aomori Prefecture last year seemed to have followed in the footsteps of Dazai's own wandering. Almost every chapter Dazai wrote was about a village or town we had also visited. Aside from his hometown of Kanagi and the closest large city, Goshogawara, Dazai takes us through towns with names like Kanita, Yomogita, Imabetsu, Minmaya and Cape Tappi.  He also has another goal in mind when he sets out on his trip: to see Take Koshino, the woman who raised him, whom he hasn't seen in thirty years.

What was intended to be a travel guide turns out to be more of a personal journey as Dazai shares with us not only his thoughts about the small towns and hamlets but also offers his opinions on the people of Tsugaru as well. Dazai's novels may have a reputation for being bleak and depressing but this travelogue and reminiscences  take the reader on a journey that's more fascinating than just reading facts about an area’s culture and geography.~Ernie Hoyt