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Abnormal Genealogies: Diagnosing the Writer in 1920s Japan

Characters that suffer from some form of real or imagined mental disorder populate early twentieth-century Japanese literature. Many Japanese authors from this historical moment likewise publicly discussed their experiences with psychological ailments or their fear that they might be close to one such pathological experience. This essay considers why so many writers were interested in what was called “abnormal psychology” (hentai shinri), even to the point of embracing this self-conception as a foundation of their artistic personae.[1] I argue that Japan’s medicalization of “modern life” created an ambiguous position for “abnormal psychology,” simultaneously understood as a pathological condition and as proof of one’s genuine modernity. This double nature, and the genealogy of “abnormal artists” associated with it in the medical and critical literature, made “abnormal psychology” very attractive as a language for authors to explain themselves and assert the value of their work.

As a case study of these issues, I will discuss the responses to a 1923 survey titled “My Abnormal Psychology” (“Watashi no hentai shinri”), published in the popular psychology journal Abnormal Psychology (Hentai shinri).[2] Launched in 1917 as the monthly magazine of the Japanese Society of Psychiatry (Nihon seishin igakukai), Abnormal Psychology was created to offer the general public a view of “abnormality” not only as something “sick,” reduced to the fields of “psychopathology and criminology,” but as “the unusual in relation to the usual” such as “the many forms of abnormal psychology in geniuses and great people” (Abnormal, 1.1:2). The 1923 survey reflects the latter definition as it endeavors to ascertain whether “abnormal psychology” occurred more frequently among writers than among the general population, a common belief at the time in Japan. The survey asked dozens of writers and critics to answer the prompt “Do you posses any features that could be categorized as abnormal psychology?” (11.6:642). In 79 replies, published over the course of three issues from January to March 1923, respondents described experiences with mental disorders of all kinds, in many cases connecting their particular form of “abnormal psychology” with their creative work as artists and intellectuals. These responses demonstrate how, as contemporary discourses of Japanese modernity turned to the less salutary effects of industrialization, urbanization, and the speed of modern existence, individuals began to conceptualize modern artists and their work in conjunction with medical conditions purportedly caused by the overwhelming impact of modern life. “Abnormal psychology” became thus naturalized as the proper state of the modern artist, now understood as an individual who possessed an essentially superior sensitivity and lived modernity to its fullest extent.

Nervous Exhaustion as a Mark of the Modern Artistic Genius

The notion of artists as psychologically abnormal gained wide currency in early twentieth-century Japan in part because of the early 1900s dissemination of neurasthenia or nervous exhaustion (shinkei suijaku). Developed as a medical concept in the 1880s by American neurologist George Miller Beard (1839–1883), neurasthenia was a nebulously defined condition, often presented by medical literature and mass media as the result of experiencing the full brunt of modern civilization in intellectual workers.[3] Although it was discussed in heavily gendered and class-based terms, focusing on the minority of men who performed “brain” and not manual labor, neurasthenia became such a prevalent topic of discussion in Japan, and became so identified with the development of the country, that it was branded a “national disease.”[4] Combined with the symbolic value it carried as an essentially “modern” and elite ailment, the long and varied list of symptoms provided in medical literature made it very easy to self-diagnose.[5] A 1912 Japanese popular treatise on nervousness, for example, observes with exasperation how “a recent deplorable fashion in some people is to call oneself nervous. They believe being nervous makes them models of civilization and enlightenment . . . and consider this ‘illness of civilization’ a display of their condition as people of their time.”[6] Similar to Tom Lutz’s argument about the American iteration of the popularized disorder, neurasthenia provided a rapidly modernizing Japan with a discourse that could incorporate anxieties about the effect of modern technology on the human body into a worldview based around progress and development.[7] This perspective suggested that a certain degree of psychological abnormality was an inevitable result of the modern condition in those intellectual workers considered to be driving the country’s modernization. Thanks to the popularized discussion of neurasthenia, the Japanese public had access to images of “nervousness” that were characteristic enough to be recognizable, but also fuzzy enough to be reshaped to one’s convenience, and in any case had the legitimizing seal of modern scientific discourse. Thus, for men of the political and cultural elites, nervous weakness was often seen as proof of complete immersion in modern civilization: far from signaling a lack of fitness, the diagnosis was a badge to be worn with pride.

The identification of neurasthenia with modernity laid the groundwork for a Japanese boom of “genius theory,” or the proposition that creative genius was a form of mental abnormality. Originally popularized by Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso in his 1864 study Genio e follia (Genius and Madness), the idea gained a new meaning in 1910s Japan.[8] While Lombroso was apprehensive about the notion that the highest achievements of human creativity might be tied not to reason but to insanity, Japanese elaborations of his diagnosis unabashedly embraced the notion of the abnormal creative genius.[9] As explained above, one of the main reasons for this enthusiastic adoption of the “mad genius” narrative was the belief in neurasthenia as a necessary condition in modern intellectual workers. Another important factor was the change in the relative standing of the artists discussed by Lombroso and his followers in their diagnoses of “abnormal modern art.” Nineteenth-century cases like Van Gogh or Strindberg were discussed by their contemporary medical literature from a variety of points of view (some sympathetic, some disparaging), but in 1910s Japan, these artists were well-respected models and the value of their works as “modern art” was beyond discussion. For instance, the critic and English literature scholar Kuriyagawa Hakuson, writing in 1912, discusses the fates of Nietzsche and Maupassant as proof that modern writers suffer from the “urban illness” of “sick nerves,” but that nervous sickness makes them “superior degenerates,” a category that stands “between normal men and the insane.”[10] Thanks to these types of arguments, in 1910s Japan, modern artists’ mental illness was understood less as the unfortunate side effect of a heightened artistic sensibility than as an almost necessary condition for it, as the modern and the pathological became identified with each other. In order to be recognized as a representative of this particular modern sensibility, one had to signal that he or she was also intimately familiar with these kinds of characteristically modern pathological experiences.

“My Abnormal Psychology”

“Do you posses any features that could be categorized as abnormal psychology?” The question that Abnormal Psychology circulated might sound ridiculous or even offensive, but it was tackled very earnestly by the overwhelming majority of its addressees. The respondents understood that they were being consulted about their “abnormal psychology” thanks to their membership within a cohort of writers and intellectual workers thought to be especially prone to psychological abnormality, not because of individual circumstance. Connections between artistic creativity and psychopathology appear repeatedly in many responses, hinting at the fact that these ideas were not limited to a specific school or tendency, but rather enjoyed wide currency among Japanese writers in the 1920s. The surveyed authors embrace this identification and launch into enthusiastic exercises of self-diagnosis to explain their “abnormal psychology” as a central feature of their identity as artists, often drawing direct parallels between their own cases and those of famous nineteenth-century “mad geniuses.” Claiming these symptoms, I propose, is more a gesture of self-diagnosing as “artist” than as “abnormal.” These artists use the language of psychopathology to connect themselves with the aesthetic value of the canonical figures whose “abnormality” they claim to share.

The answer sent by poet Hagiwara Sakutarō (1886–1942) exemplifies this consciousness of the essential “abnormality” of artistic activity. Sakutarō, for many the key figure in the creation of Japanese free verse, writes:

There are people who call my poetry collection Howling at the Moon a classic work of abnormal psychology, but I hope that is not why you ask me this question. I do not think my psyche is that different from that of a regular person. However, depending on one’s understanding, all artists may have some form of abnormal psychology. It is not like we are clairvoyant or possessed by foxes, but we surpass ordinary people in our intuition of things. In that sense we could be abnormal. (Abnormal, 11.2:160)[11]

Sakutarō simultaneously claims that his psyche is not “that different from that of a regular person,” and also that he possesses a particular form of abnormality connected to a higher form of sensibility and expression, and specific to artists. For all his apprehension about why he has been sent the survey, he clearly understands that his response is expected to address the question not as a mere individual, but as an artist, highlighting the experiences that are shared with others who also possess artistic qualities, explicitly contrasted with “ordinary people.” Sakutarō thus claims the essential “abnormality” understood to lie at the heart of creative poetic work.

While Sakutarō cautiously abstains from any personal identification with specific mental disorders, other respondents have no qualms offering comprehensive lists of their pathological experiences. Mikami Otokichi (1891–1944), a popular author of historical fiction who had just broken into the literary scene of serialized novels, gives a detailed account of the relationship he sees between “abnormal psychology” and the labor of literary writing, showing how the language of “nervous weakness” as a chronic condition for “workers of the mind” remained current into the 1920s:

Presently I suffer from oversensitivity stemming from neurasthenia and I cannot leave my home. Up to now I have had self-suggested cerebral anemia, but four or five days ago, after completing a long piece that took me a month, I had a heart attack and was forced to stay in bed for two or three days with a heart block. Now I cannot write too fast for fear that I will have another heart attack. What is worse, after talking to [the novelist] Kasai Zenzō [(1887–1928)] about chronic asthma, I experienced psychosomatic asthma (zensoku no mane) for two or three hours. The doctor says my heart is absolutely healthy, and I am just fatigued from overload, but I feel weak. (Abnormal, 11.1:40)

Considering the prevalent understanding of the etiology of neurasthenia, it should come as no surprise that Mikami’s response establishes an immediate connection between the practice of writing and the source of his psychological troubles, directly linking the speed and amount of literary labor to his physical and mental health. More telling is Mikami’s implicit admission that the source of that diagnosis is none other than himself. His cerebral anemia is “self-suggested,” his asthma attacks are explicitly identified as psychosomatic reactions to a conversation with a fellow writer, and the only medical professional mentioned in the text reportedly considers the author’s heart to be “absolutely healthy.” Far from undermining the reliability of his self-diagnosis as “abnormal,” Mikami’s over-the-top hypochondria and familiarity with the medical language around his many imagined conditions emphasizes his intimate familiarity with “oversensitivity stemming from neurasthenia,” and by extension reinforces his self-presentation as a writer willing to go within an inch of losing his life to a creativity-induced heart attack if his art demands it.

The poet Satō Sōnosuke (1890–1942) offers a more ambiguous response in his tongue-in-cheek description of how contemporary psychology views writers:

I guess it is the nature of this business of writing poetry, but your journal probably considers us [poets] a den of abnormal psychology. There is the erotic obsession, walks at midnight, trips to deserted places, tendency to loneliness, and the sudden explosions of expression. There is also hypochondria, nervous tics, fickleness, inconstancy, ardor and cruelty, and egoism everywhere. Sometimes taking great care in one’s appearance, sometimes indifferent to the point of appearing androgynous, unable to control the bridles of this animal called oneself. (Abnormal, 11.2:155)

Satō’s ironic profile combines stereotypes of the early nineteenth-century Romantic poet in nocturnal solitude and the late nineteenth-century neurasthenic artist. He later states his belief that this imagery will continue to be current as long as artists admire “half-mad geniuses” like Bruno, Boehme, Leopardi, Kleist, Villon, Hoffmann, and “the anonymous mad poets that look out from the windows of an hospice for poor people in Florence” (11.2:155). Thus, Satō separates himself from these stereotypes by riffing on them with sarcastic delight. Yet, he provides a detailed list of “half-mad geniuses,” never questioning the worth of their art because of their “abnormality,” but reaffirming their value and relevance for contemporary artists, among whom he implicitly counts himself.

Satō’s response hints also at the widespread use of the discourses of “abnormal psychology” to discuss or express non-normative sexuality, from “erotic obsession” to “indifferent androgyny.” Novelist Ozaki Shirō (1898–1964), for instance, claims that his life is “dominated by abnormality” and, while he is impotent in real life, in his “artistic labor” he is able to experience sexual desire, which to him “exists as nothing more than an idea” (11.3:275). For Satō, Ozaki and others, artistic expression through the mediating para-scientific language of “abnormal psychology” offered a limited discursive space to explore their experience of sexuality, at a time when strict censorship practices stifled frank examinations of such issues.

Just as Satō does with his long list of “half-mad geniuses,” many other participants in the survey use their responses to claim direct connections with famous “abnormal” authors, positioning themselves as part of a particular genealogy of “abnormal psychology” specific to writers. Both the novelist Katō Takeo (1888–1956) and the poet Mizoguchi Hakuyō (1881–1945) claim to identify with the ostensibly obsessive compulsive behavior of author Izumi Kyōka (1873–1939), mentioning the same apparently well-known anecdote about how Kyōka would always walk two or three times around the mailbox every time he posted a letter, to make sure it had gone all the way in (11.2:154, 157–58).[12] The waka poet Namiki Akihito (1893–1956) claims to “still really enjoy reading Strindberg’s Inferno. . . . I feel strongly drawn towards his abnormal psyche. Maybe that means I’m also abnormal” (11.3:280).[13] Namiki’s fascination with Inferno prompts him to question his own abnormality, not the other way around. His interest in Strindberg’s work as an aesthetic model leads him to consider whether his attraction towards this “abnormal psyche,” a feature he reads both in the Swedish author and his work, would not mark him as well as “abnormal.” Katō and Mizoguchi both bring up the anecdote about Kyōka since they know that they are expected to explain themselves in the context of other circulating diagnoses of “abnormal” writers. Emphasizing their “bizarre” qualities, especially those symptoms codified as the typical “abnormal psychology” of the modern creative individual, helps these writers to insert themselves in the genealogy of “abnormal artists” that contemporary medicalized diagnoses of modern creative work had disseminated.

As these examples illustrate, particular medicalized understandings of artistic creativity appealed to writers as models around which to build their public identities. Self-diagnosing with “abnormal psychology” provided individuals a direct link to a particular understanding of the modern experience, and placed them in dialogue (if not direct genealogical connection) with an established canon of “abnormal writers” that were unequivocally recognized as epitomes of modern art. This is particularly significant in 1920s Japan, since it coincides with key changes in the material and economic realities of literary production that created for the first time a feasible path to writing as a professional career.[14] Moving away from earlier models centered around personal mentorship and commissioned serialized writing (particularly in newspapers or coterie journals), authors themselves started to become media brands in their own right, as publishers competed with one another to find the hot new commodity that would become the next bestseller. For these new authors, and for the publishers who marketed them, “psychological abnormality” offered both a mark of modernity, as well as a set of aesthetic and medical discourses to legitimize a new notion of literary value based on the authors’ sensibility, represented both as morbidly unique and as resonant with past “mad geniuses” of modern art.


[1] Even though in contemporary Japanese the word “hentai” has come to be restricted to the field of sexuality (for instance, in the colloquial phrase for sexual activity “ecchi suru,” literally “do the H[entai]”), in early twentieth century Japan it had a more general sense of “abnormal” (as a simple antonym of “jōtai,” or “normal”), and it was applied to phenomena as varied as mental illness, spirit possession, or criminal behavior. On the evolution of the term, see Kanno Satomi, “Hentai” no jidai (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2005).

[2] Abnormal Psychology published a total of 103 issues until its end in October 1926. Artists, and particularly writers, were featured often in the journal, regularly including not only poetry, serialized fiction, and reviews of literary works, but also in-depth biographical articles on particular artists who were deemed to embody some particular aspect of modern “abnormal psychology.” Abnormal Psychology will be cited hereafter in the text as (Abnormal, volume.number:page). All translations from the Japanese are mine.

[3] See George M. Beard, A Practical Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion, (Neurasthenia): Its Symptoms, Nature, Sequences, Treatment (New York: William Wood & Company, 1880), and American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1881).

[4] For the development of ideas about neurasthenia as a cultural phenomenon in the Meiji era (1868–1912) see Watarai Yoshiichi, Meiji no seishin isetsu: Shinkeibyō, shinkei suijaku, kamigakari (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 2003). Watarai’s study traces how Beard’s ideas were introduced in Japan as early as 1879, and how diagnoses of neurasthenia based on his model increased in Japanese hospitals in the decade between the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), with the corresponding growth of medical literature and popular monographs on the subject around the turn of the twentieth century (155–194).

[5] Beard's American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences includes a list that “is not supposed to be complete, but only representative and typical,” but takes up two full pages, listing all manner of conditions from “insomnia, flushing, drowsiness, bad dreams” to “dryness of the hair, falling away of the hair and beard, slow reaction of the skin, etc” (6–8).

[6] Nakamura Yuzuru, Shinkeishitsu to sono ryōhō (Tokyo: Keibunkan, 1912), 89.

[7] On the significance of neurasthenia in modern American culture see Tom Lutz, American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[8] Cesare Lombroso, Genio e follia (Milan: Giuseppe Chiusi, 1864), with further expanded editions in 1872, 1877, 1882, 1888, 1894. Immensely popular when it came out, Lombroso’s book was translated into all major European languages, but it was widely considered scientifically outdated by the beginning of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, after an earlier partial translation, Tensairon (On Genius), trans. Kuroyanagi Kunitarō (Tokyo: Fukyūsha, 1898), two different complete translations appeared in Japanese in 1914: Tensairon (On Genius), trans. Tsuji Jun (Tokyo: Uetake shoin, 1914), and Tensai to kyōjin (The Genius and the Madman), trans. Mori Magoichi (Tokyo: Bunseisha, 1914). Tsuji’s translation became an instant best-seller, going through over twenty editions in a short time. It was later reedited as Tensairon teisei (On Genius: Revised Edition) at least five different times until 1940.

[9] In the introduction to his work, Lombroso explicitly mentions his “feeling of horror at the thought of associating with idiots and criminals those individuals who represent the highest manifestations of the human spirit,” but explains how he eventually overcame his apprehensions with the theory that morbid features in the psychology of a genius were simply “a compensation for considerable development and progress accomplished in other directions” (The Man of Genius, trans. Havelock Ellis [London: Walter Scott, 1891], v). Thus, “Just as giants pay a heavy ransom for their stature in sterility and relative muscular and mental weakness, so the giants of thought expiate their intellectual force in degeneration and psychoses. It is thus that the signs of degeneration are found more frequently in men of genius than even in the insane” (vi).

[10] Kindai bungaku jikkō (Ten Lessons on Modern Literature) (Tokyo: Dai Nippon tosho, 1912), 54. Kuriyagawa’s study became a very popular title, and went through more than ninety editions, remaining in print until the postwar period.

[11] Hagiwara Sakutarō, Tsuki ni hoeru (Tokyo: Kanjōshisha & Hakujitsusha, 1917).

[12] Kyōka was famous among his contemporaries for his pathological fear of germs, and his multiple unique rituals and superstitions.

[13] Inferno (1898) describes August Strindberg's purported mental breakdown while he was living in Paris, after his divorce, from 1894 to 1897. There has been a rich discussion about the factuality of this reported experience of insanity. Some critics contend that Inferno, written directly in French, was rather an attempt by the author to reinvent his public image as a “Symbolist,” once he realized that “Naturalism” was falling out of fashion in the literary circles of the French capital. (See for instance Olof Lagercrantz, August Strindberg, trans. Anselm Hollo [New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1984], 258–287.) Inferno was translated into Japanese in 1914 by Sobu Rokurō as Kyōsha no kokuhaku: Strindberg jijoden Inferno (Confessions of a Madman: Strindberg’s Autobiography Inferno) (Tokyo: Gakkaidō Fukuoka shoten).

[14] See Yamamoto Yoshiaki, Kane to bungaku: Nihon kindai bungaku no keizai-shi (Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 2013), 15–23.