A Short History of the Japan P.E.N. Club

The catalyst for creation of the Japan P.E.N. Club was a letter which arrived from London in March 1935. Sent by Miyazaki Katsutarō, a first secretary of the Japanese Embassy in London, and received by Amō Eiji, an information officer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this semi- official correspondence passed along an International PEN London office message asking Japan to establish its own organization for international fellowship of writers. The letter also asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to act as an intermediary in making this happen. Amō discussed the request with Yanagisawa Ken, head of section three of the ministry’s Cultural Affairs Department, and Yanagisawa immediately and enthusiastically set to work. Asking 17 writers to attend, in June he held the first preliminary meeting. After many subsequent meetings to prepare for organization establishment, the founding congress of the Japan P.E.N. Club convened on November 26, 1935.
This same year also saw the creation of two literary prizes that are now the most prestigious in Japan: The Akutagawa Prize and the Naoki Prize. At the time, however, the Japanese literary world had already been placed on a wartime footing as fascistic state controls were imposed. A centralized literary association known as the Patriotic Association for Japanese Literature was established in 1942 and came to have a strong influence in controlling literature. In this non-literary environment, a war literature flourished, with an increasing number of works being written in collaboration with state policy. It was during such a period, the “winter” of Japanese literature, that the Japan P.E.N. Club was founded.
Shimazaki Tōson was elected as the first president of the Japan P.E.N. Club. At the time, he was 63 years old and had just finished writing the major novel Yoakemae (published in English as Before the Dawn), which he had been working on since 1929. Releasing the novels Hakai (published in English as The Broken Commandment), Haru (Spring), and Ie (published in English as The Family) before 1911, Shimazaki became a leading representative of the literary movement known as Japanese naturalism. In addition, his 1897 lyric poetry collection Wakanashū (“Collection of Young Herbs”) is considered a historical landmark that served as the starting point for modern Japanese poetry. Traveling to Europe in 1913, Shimazaki lived in France for a little more than three years. In his speech at the first general meeting of the Japan P.E.N. Club, Shimazaki said, “During my stay in France, I received the nickname ‘Paris village chief’ from the Japanese people I knew there. Remembering that, I have decided to think of myself now as the “PEN Club village chief” and take on the village chief’s job until such time as there is a more well-defined form for this small public role, which includes the making of various contacts and promoting mutual friendship in the international literary world.” He went on to explain that he considered the president to have four duties for the time being: To select Japanese literature and introduce it overseas; to issue newsletters enabling members to report publications and other information to each other; to gather information on conditions overseas from members who travel abroad; and to communicate with PEN centers in other countries and assist members going abroad for study and observation. He concluded as follows: “To associate with the people of the world, helping to develop a sense of affinity for each other, is not an insignificant thing. It is my hope that by not overlooking these new opportunities, our members will also invigorate the literature of our own country.”
First president Shimazaki Tōson died on August 22, 1943. The second president was Masamune Hakuchō, who was an author of naturalistic fiction as well as being active as a literary critic, cultural critic, essayist, and travel writer. However, the Pacific War had already begun back in December 1941, and with members being drafted one after another, member meetings and board meetings went unheld, and the Japan P.E.N. Club became an organization existing in name only.
In the immediate aftermath of Japan’s defeat in 1945, efforts began to rebuild the Japan P.E.N. Club. Writers met many times to prepare, and the Japan P.E.N. Club began its postwar existence with the holding of the “rebuilding congress” in February 1947. Shiga Naoya was elected as the third president. Beginning his writing career as one of the Shirakaba (White Birch) school of writers, Shiga pioneered new and original territory for the psychological novel with realistic “I-novels” such as Wakai (Reconciliation) and An’ya kōro (published in English as A Dark Night’s Passage). He came to be revered as the “patron saint of literature.”
The Japan P.E.N. Club’s readmission to International PEN was unanimously approved at the 20th International PEN Congress, held in Copenhagen (Denmark) in June 1948. For Japanese to travel overseas at that time, however, there was the problem of obtaining foreign currency, and the approval of the occupation forces’ Allied Council of Japan was necessary. So there was no choice but to give up the idea of sending a representative to the Copenhagen congress. President Shiga sent a long message to the congress. In it, he reported on literature and cultural movements, reading trends, and ideological thinking in postwar Japan; he set forth the human ideal of living in a world at peace together with members of all PEN centers, and he stated the desire to cooperate in the development of literature and culture across political and national borders. At the congress, this message was released along with a message from the fourth president of International PEN, Maurice Maeterlinck of Belgium.
On June 23, three weeks after the approval for the Japan P.E.N. Club to rejoin International PEN, a board meeting was held and Kawabata Yasunari was elected as the fourth president. Kawabata initially accepted the appointment as president on the condition that it should be limited to a one-year term, but he continued to serve as president for a little over 18 years (until October 1965). With works such as Izu no odoriko (published in English as The Izu Dancer), Yukiguni (published in English as Snow Country) and Sembazuru (published in English as Thousand Cranes), Kawabata played a major role in giving the Japanese aesthetic tradition a place in the domain of world literature.
In April 1950, 19 Japan P.E.N. Club representatives, including President Kawabata, visited the atomic bomb sites in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with meetings and lectures being held in both cities. The following statement was released: “We pledge that we, as writers, will strive with sincere good faith to safeguard world peace.”
In September 1957, Tokyo hosted Asia’s first International PEN Congress. Attending the 29th International PEN Congress in Tokyo were 208 Japan P.E.N. Club members and 171 representatives from 30 centers in 26 countries. The congress theme was “Mutual Influences Between Eastern and Western Literature.” There was a typhoon warning on the day of the opening ceremony. President Kawabata received a warm round of applause from the gathered writers for a welcoming speech that added a touch of humor by mentioning the typhoon: “International PEN is supposed to transcend politics, human rights, and nationality, but even we are today buffeted by the typhoon of politics. Still, we want to believe that our tower of ideals will not fall. We hope it will be there standing beautiful in the clear sky after the typhoon has passed.” At the closing ceremony, he said, “This thing that we call ‘literature’ and the literary exchanges that occur between countries and peoples began thousands of years ago and will never end. So there can be no literature closing ceremony. Through this literary exchange that has no closing ceremony, I want to sustain and spread the fruits of this congress, ensuring their lasting presence in the world.”
In March 1958, President Kawabata was elected as vice president of International PEN.
In March 1965, the presentation ceremony was held for the Tokyo Olympic Commemorative Japan P.E.N. Club Literary Awards for foreign authors, with the top prize being won by British poet James Kirkup for his poem sequence Japan Marine. In October, Kawabata resigned as president for health reasons. Serizawa Kōjirō was elected the fifth president. For works that include Burujoa (Bourgeois), Pari ni shisu (To Die in Paris), and Ningen no unmei (Human Destiny), Serizawa received critical acclaim as a writer of profound realism and humanism; he also has a strong critical reputation abroad. In November, the Japan P.E.N. Club 30th anniversary celebration was held. In February 1966, the date of November 26 was designated “PEN Day,” and it was decided that a social event should be held every year on that day.
In October 1968, Kawabata Yasunari was selected to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. In the reason given for his selection, it states “as a writer, he imparts a moral-esthetic cultural awareness with unique artistry, thereby, in his way, contributing to the spiritual bridge-building between East and West.” PEN Day in November of that year also became a day of celebration for Kawabata’s Nobel Prize. President Serizawa offered the following congratulatory remarks: “From the start, the activities of International PEN have been centered in Europe, but not only did Yasunari Kawabata get International PEN to look to the East, he also endeavored to introduce Japanese literature overseas, where it was almost unknown. This awarding of the Nobel Prize in literature to Kawabata’s works has steadfastly exposed Japanese literature to the entire world.”
In November 1972, the Japan P.E.N. Club held the International Forum on Japanese Cultural Studies. With 39 countries participating, the event was attended by 620 people, including 181 foreign scholars of Japanese culture attending from overseas and 88 attending from within Japan, 238 Japan P.E.N. Club members and other Japan-related persons, and 113 observers.
In November 1974, Nakamura Mitsuo was elected as the sixth president. A critic, playwright, and novelist, Nakamura gained a strong reputation as a preeminent writer of critical biographies for works such as Futabatei Shimei ron (A Critical Study of Futabatei Shimei), Shiga Naoya ron (A Critical Study of Shiga Naoya), Kotoba naki uta—Nakahara Chūya ron (Songs without Words—A Critical Study of Nakahara Chūya). In a press conference after taking office, he expressed his wishes as follows, “I want to make P.E.N. Club an association that protects freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is the same both inside and outside P.E.N. Club. Even inside, I want to create an ethos in which people can fully speak their minds in a debate without leaving behind any persistent resentment. It should always be possible to discuss freedom of speech. Still, that does not be mean that I want to turn this into an association in which we cannot have any fun. I want this to be an organization that protects important freedoms while having fun.”
In May 1975, Ishikawa Tatsuzō was elected as the seventh president. For works such as Ikite iru heitai (Living Soldiers), Kekkon no seitai (An Ecology of Marriage), and Ningen no kabe (The Human Wall), he received critical acclaim as a leading presence among writers addressing social issues with a sensitive awareness of the times.
In July 1977, Takahashi Kenji was elected as the eighth president. Known as a scholar of German literature and authority on Herman Hesse and Erich Kastner, Takahashi translated many works, including those of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the speech he gave upon becoming president, he said, “I believe that if writers can joins hands and hearts both inside Japan and throughout the world, it will without a doubt lead to something significant, something that would not happen otherwise.”
In May 1981, Inoue Yasushi was elected as the ninth president. Known for wide-ranging creativity across genres such as I-novels, contemporary novels, and historical novels (including some set in western Asia), he received critical acclaim for his mature contemplation of life and his skilled storytelling. He also showed extraordinary ability in his brilliant essays on art and history and in his poetry and criticism.
In May 1984, the 47th International PEN Congress was held in Tokyo. There were 45 participating PEN centers and 623 attendees, including 219 people from abroad, 351 Japan P.E.N. Club members, and 53 members of the general public. The congress theme was: Literature in the Nuclear Age: Why Do We Write?
Opening the congress, President Inoue received strong applause when he said, “‘Literature in the Nuclear Age’—I believe that this theme has supreme priority in claiming the unceasing attention of writers living in the modern age. Gone is the age of seeking only one’s own individual happiness. If others are not happy, then how can one possibly be happy oneself? Looking at the historical events of the Hollyhock Hill Conference recorded in the ancient Chinese classic Mencius and learning from the wisdom of a pledge made there before an altar—a pledge never to use the waters of the Yellow River to flood neighboring nations or to use the waters as a military weapon—I find that I want to take a stand as a writer who believes in man and in the history of mankind that he has created.”
Other aspects of this congress that deserve special mention include: The passing, by representatives, of a congress resolution calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons; President Inoue’s nomination to be vice president of International PEN; and the Writers for Peace Committee’s approval of the creation of the “Day of Peace” (The Day of Writers for Peace). The approved resolution for the Day of Peace calls for PEN centers to hold activities on March 3. This date was proposed by the Japan P.E.N. Club as it is the day of Japan’s traditional Doll Festival for girls. In one room of the congress site there was an exhibition of atomic-bomb-related materials. Displaying photographs and articles from the atomic bombing sites in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this exhibition received strong attention and interest from foreign members. Following the closing of the congress, International PEN vice-president Peter Elstob (England) and 13 other foreign PEN members visited Hiroshima.
March 3, 1985 was the date of the first symposium for the Day of Peace established at the International PEN Congress in Tokyo. For the event, an emblem was created that pictured a dove before the shining sun as a symbolic prayer for world peace. Since then, the Japan P.E.N. Club has continued to hold Day of Peace symposiums each year at locations across Japan. In June 1985, novelist Endō Shūsaku was elected as the 10th president. Baptized a Catholic at the age of 11, when he went abroad to France to study as a Catholic student, he became the first Japanese student to study overseas after the war. His subject of study was contemporary Catholic literature of France. In novels such as Chinmoku (published in English as Silence) and Shikai no hotori (By the Dead Sea), Endō considers the existence of faith. He was also active in genres such as humorous novels and historical novels. President Endō stated his ambition as follows, “I wonder if the Japan P.E.N. Club couldn’t undertake the kind of international exchange in Japanese literature and journalism that is not being done by the government. The excellence of Japanese literature has still not been adequately introduced to the world. In Europe today, ‘Japan fever’ has risen to a considerable pitch, so I am thinking about exporting Japanese literature. We should create many more Japanologists throughout the world, and the Japan P.E.N. Club should be of service to those Japanologists.”
In April 1989, poet Ōoka Makoto was elected as the 11th president. With the exception of the 12th president, the heads of the Japan P.E.N. Club from the 11th president to the present are all still active in the literary world. Leaving their literary accomplishments for later generations to judge and limiting the extensive comments on each president’s literary resume to the first ten, from here onward we present only notices of new presidents taking office and listings of other important events.
In October 1990, the Japan P.E.N. Club presented the “Japanese Literature in Foreign Languages 1945–1990” exhibition at the 42nd Frankfurt Book Fair.
In April 1993, literary critic Ozaki Hokki was elected as the 12th president.
In September 1994, a Japan P.E.N. Club contingent (a group of four led by Miyoshi Tōru as acting president) visited the PEN centers in Shanghai and Beijing to lay a foundation for exchange between Japanese and Chinese PEN members.
In May 1995, the first Japan–China PEN Exchange China Visit delegation (a group of five led by President Ozaki) visited Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai.
In November 1996, the Asia Pacific PEN Conference was held with 31 foreign participants from 14 PEN centers and four writers organizations. The activities were divided into the following four sessions for presentations and debate: “Language and Literature,” “Discrimination and Literature,” “Environment and Literature,” and “War and Literature.” A delegation from the China PEN Centre visited Japan in conjunction with this conference. Every other year since then, visits have been exchanged between China and Japan.
In April 1997, philosopher and critic Umehara Takeshi was elected as the 13th president.
In November 2001, in conjunction with PEN Day, the Japan P.E.N. Club Digital Library website was opened. In December, a lecture meeting titled “Thoughts on War and Peace Today” was held to consider the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan.
In March 2002, construction was completed on the new Japan P.E.N. Club building.
In April 2003, playwright and novelist Hisashi Inoue was elected as the 14th president.
In May 2007, novelist Atōda Takashi was elected as the 15th president.
In February 2008, the World PEN Forum “Natural Disaster and Culture” was held. At the 74th International PEN Congress in Bogota, Columbia, unanimous approval was received for the holding of International PEN Congress Tokyo 2010. An executive committee was established to handle preparations for the congress, which has the theme “Environment and Literature.”

Kiyohara Yasumasa
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