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Fumio Niwa: 菩提樹 (The Buddha Tree)

This clearly semi-autobiographical novel is set in a Buddhist temple. Niwa himself trained as priest, though he abandoned the profession to become a writer. However, he could count back to fifteen generations of priests at the same temple. It was a Japanese tradition that the priesthood passed from father to son. This novel takes place primarily in and around the Temple of the Merciful Buddha (Butsuoji in Japanese). We follow the story partly through Ryokun Getsudo, a nine-year old boy and, presumably based, at least in part, on Niwa himself. His grandmother, Mineyo, had been married to the priest of the temple but the priest had died when she was only thirty-four, leaving only a daughter, Renko. Mineyo had adopted an adult son – apparently not unusual in Japan – Soshu, who became the priest. It was understood that when Renko came of age, she would marry Soshu. However, when he was adopted, she was only eight.

Mineyo was still a very attractive woman, while Soshu was a young man who did not want to wait till his intended was of age. As a result, mainly at the instigation of Mineyo, Mineyo and Soshu conduct a passionate affair. Once Renko came of age, Mineyo tried to delay the wedding but finally she had to agree. However, the marriage did not stop the affair between Mineyo and her now son-in-law. Renko was naturally somewhat surprised that she was not to sleep with her husband but, being innocent of the ways of the world, accepted this, unaware that her husband was sleeping with her mother. Eventually the married couple did sleep together and Renko became pregnant and gave birth to Ryokun. The relationship between mother-in-law and son-in-law did not stop.

At the start of the book, Renko, a bit more worldly wise than she was, has realised what is going on. On more than one occasion she has run off, once with Ryokun, who is somewhat surprised and bemused and naturally has no idea what is going on. In particular, he has no idea who the Kabuki actor with his mother is. He is, of course, Renko’s lover. At the start of the book, Renko has again disappeared and this time she has been gone for a month and shows no sign of coming back. Ryokun is, not surprisingly, bitterly upset. Though Mineyo looks after him he is not too fond of her. Indeed, the only adult he is fond of in the temple is Shoju, brother of Mineyo’s late husband. Shoju is a simple man and has effectively been relegated to a menial position by Mineyo, though he is a priest, but he does not complain, happy to serve, happy to befriend Ryokun and happy to tell him, to some degree, what is going on.

Despite Mineyo’s care (or, perhaps, because of it) Ryokun runs wild. He indulges in reckless behaviour with his less courageous friend, Nobu, which nearly has serious consequences. Clearly, part of this is protest at the loss of hos mother. It is not helped by the fact that Soshu, to Mineyo’s disgust, all too often takes Ryokun’s side.

Soshu is a priest and, as such, has to assist his parishioners with their spiritual and other problems, which he generally does. As a result, we get several stories about their affairs, from the story of the Communist who is nevertheless, a parishioner of the temple to the woman who comes to Soshu for help because she cannot stand her husband any longer, from the man who wants Soshu to help him get rid of his mistress to the various ghosts that visit the temple. However, the main one concerns a new parishioner, Mrs Kushimoto, and her adult daughter Tomoko. Mrs Kushimoto is a widower and very much taken by the priest (ten years her junior). However, she has financial problems and is helped by Yamaji, a rich local man who is the main financial supporter of the temple. He has his price and his price is Tomoko, whom he takes as his mistress. He arrives when it is convenient, has (often rough) sex with her and then leaves. However, he does pay and Tomoko, herself a mother, feels she has no choice, in order to help her mother and daughter. Soshu is sympathetic but cannot upset Yamaji too much, as the temple is very dependent on him financially. When Mrs Kushimoto dies, he becomes more sympathetic and more enamoured of Tomoko. Meanwhile, there is a move on the part of the temple council to find another wife for Soshu.

Soshu, of course, has feelings of guilt about his behaviour but does not seem to be able to control his sexual urges for Mineyo. He also worries about the effect on his son (Neither Mineyo nor he himself was in any position to guide him, to prevent the warping of his character. Sooner or later he would find out their secret; and then, no doubt, he would hate both father and grandmother..) Ultimately, Soshu, though essentially a good man, realises his situation is unsustainable.

Niwa tells an excellent story of the inevitable conflicts between the spiritual life and the real world, whether that real world is concerned with material and commercial matters or sexual desire. Can we as humans sublimate our real world issues to lead a wholly spiritual life? Niwa’s answer is clear: we cannot. In telling his story, he gives us a vivid and detailed picture of the temple, both its physical structure as well as its various activities and rituals. Ultimately, though, while set in a temple and about priests, the book is all about human weaknesses and failings.

Publishing history

First published in 1955 by Shinchōsha
First English translation by Charles Tuttle in 1966
Translated by Kenneth Strong