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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

GLOBAL APPEAL 2015: Reflecting on Leprosy’s Literary Heritage

Talk event recalls Tamio Hojo, youthful author of Life’s First Night.

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Tamio Hojo

Tamio Hojo, often held up as the leading example of the genre of writing known in Japan as hansenbyo bungaku or leprosy literature, was the subject of a panel discussion in Tokyo on January 30 held in connection with Global Appeal 2015.

Co-hosted by The Nippon Foundation and Hojo’s hometown of Anan in Tokushima Prefecture, western Japan, the event was attended by over 200 people.

Hojo lived from 1914 to 1937. Diagnosed with leprosy at 19 and committed to a sanatorium the following year, he wrote in fictional form about his experience of leprosy and of sanatorium life. Like many sanatorium residents, he lived under an assumed name to protect his family from discrimination.*

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Fumihiko Takayama: Until his death, Hojo never accepted that he was a leprosy patient.

His best-known work is Inochi no shoya (Life’s First Night). It was published in the literary magazine Bungakkai (Literary World) in 1936, just one year before he died aged 23.

Yasunari Kawabata, who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, championed Hojo’s writing. He once wrote of him, “It is a wonder of literature to make us see a man living a more vital life than ours, in spite of the fact he has been effectively prevented from living in society.”

Panelist Fumihiko Takayama, a non-fiction writer who has authored a book on Hojo, said, “I think what lay behind Kawabata’s great enthusiasm for Hojo was the feeling of loneliness Kawabata experienced as a result of losing his parents when he was a child.”

‘OBSESSIVE’ EFFORTS

Well-known actor Daijiro Harada read passages from Life’s First Night, following which Takayama discussed why he wrote Hibana — Hojo Tamio no shogai (The Spark — The Life of Tamio Hojo). “Reading Life’s First Night makes other novels seem trivial, such is its impact,” he said. “In all likelihood, Hojo went to his death never thinking of himself as a leprosy patient. He made nightly entries in his diary and recorded his impressions. I think he felt he had to write to survive. He stood firm in resisting being seen as a leprosy patient.”

It was the “obsessive” efforts of Kawabata that helped to get Life’s First Night published, according to Takayama. Kawabata was also responsible for seeing that a collection of Hojo’s writing was published posthumously, he said.

“Life’s First Night makes other novels seem trivial, such is its impact.”

Nippon Foundation Chairman Yohei Sasakawa, who was one of the panelists, said his late father Ryoichi and Kawabata had been elementary school classmates and kept in touch. “My father was dedicated to eradicating leprosy, and Kawabata was supportive of Hojo. Leprosy was a common thread and I believe they must have discussed Hojo,” he said.

“In the midst of his fears, Hojo had to cling to literature,” said Takayama, noting that the nation’s sanatoriums were also fertile ground for writers of poetry. “Both as a record and as literature, in no other country have leprosy patients produced such a body of work.”

QUOTE

“Had he lived, he would have received the Nobel Prize before I did.”
— Yasunari Kawabata

FOOTNOTE

* For decades, Hojo’s true identity was never disclosed. Only last year, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, did the Anan authorities gain the consent of Hojo’s descendants to reveal, for the first time, his real name — Koji Shichijo — in a booklet published by the town’s cultural association.