Obituary: Yamazaki Masakazu

Renowned playwright, critic and philosopher Yamazaki Masakazu has passed away at the age of 86.

Yamazaki Masakazu, playwright and literary critic, born 26 March 1934; died 19 August 2020. Portrait published by MEXT when announcing Professor Yamazaki would receive the Order of Culture, Japan’s top cultural award, in 2018. COURTESY MEXT

Active as a playwright and critic on a number of fronts in Japan and overseas, Yamazaki Masakazu was a graduate of Kyoto University, studied at Yale University, and served as professor at Kansai University and at Osaka University. He was successively appointed President of the University of East Asia, and chaired the Central Council for Education, an advisory organ to the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Professor Yamazaki was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1999 and made a Person of Cultural Merit in 2006. He was elected Member of the Japan Art Academy in 2011 and awarded the Order of Culture in 2018. Professor Yamazaki was extremely productive, but his most important works are the play Zeami (1963, Kishida Prize for Drama), and the critical works Yawarakai kojinshugi no tanjo (Birth of soft individualism, Yoshino Sakuzo Prize, 1984), Ogai, Tatakau kacho (Ogai: Combative patriarch, Yomiuri Prize for Literature, 1972), and Shako-suru Ningen: Homo Sociabilis (Socially engaged human beings: Homo sociabilis, 2003). His numerous plays include Oedipus shoten (The ascension of Oedipus, Yomiuri Prize for Literature, 1984) and GHETTO (1995).

GHETTO portrays the potential for freedom of the mind when constrained by absolute external forces. The play was staged on behalf of the areas struck by disaster in the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of 1995. 

Professor Yamazaki himself was a victim of the earthquake disaster as he lived in Nishinomiya City, Hyogo Prefecture at the time. Awakened by huge tremors at 5:46 in the morning, Professor Yamazaki said that he immediately thought that Tokyo, 570 kilometers away, had been destroyed.

As a critic, Professor Yamazaki was mainly active in Tokyo at the time and he used the hours spent commuting between his home in Nishinomiya and Tokyo to reexamine Japan as a nation. 

As support for the reconstruction effort flowed from overseas and other regions of Japan, Professor Yamazaki said, “The victims of the disaster need more than rice balls. We must not forget how much culture can do to help the victims of disasters.” In June 1995, Yamazaki staged GHETTO in Kobe, one of the cities stricken by the disaster. A play with emotional impact, GHETTO was also performed in Tokyo at a later stage. 

Hailed as an intellectual giant, Professor Yamazaki was a homo sociabilis as suggested by the title of his book of the same name. He never wearied of dialogs and exchanges with people in Japan and overseas; rather, he seemed to enjoy them. In particular, he greatly valued exchanges with young reporters and editors, saying, “editors are my colleagues.” Professor Yamazaki was involved from the start with the Suntory Foundation where he set up the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities in 1979. The prize honors individuals who have made original, distinguished contributions in research or criticism through publications that adopt a broad perspective on society and culture. It is awarded in four categories: Political Science and Economics, Literary and Art Criticism, Life and Society, and History and Civilization. The prize discovered many young researchers who were subsequently active in the world of criticism. Until the end, Professor Yamazaki continued to involve himself with the Suntory Foundation project and the discovery and promotion of young researchers. 

Highly acclaimed as a playwright and critic, Professor Yamazaki was also one of the intellects advising the Sato Cabinet (1964–72) and the Ohira Cabinet (1978–80).

Professor Yamazaki also took a personal interest in the image and conduct of Japan on the international stage.

He was involved in the establishment of The Japan Journal and served as chair of the editorial board for a long time. 

What about his thoughts on overseas communication? 

I would like to share the thoughts that Professor Yamazaki confided to The Japan Journal.

The life of a country in the world is similar to the life of an individual in society. Both must let others know about them but to do so, they need to be discreet and sensitive. Excessive pride is displeasing and if you only emphasize personality, you will likely be taken for an oddball or an eccentric. In particular, countries like Japan, which were defeated in the war and then made a rapid recovery, must take special care with regard to public relations. If, in all innocence, you advertise the successes and virtues of your own country, you may be seen as self-righteous or invite censure for arrogance.

On the other hand, the wider world is not very well informed about Japan. For many years, Japan was slighted as “the country without a face.

Public relations efforts are an urgent issue for the nation, but mature knowledge and intuition are required when putting them into practice, and you must know both yourself and the other party. It is essential to communicate a kind of universality that is understood around the world and not the idiosyncrasies of Japan, to share our hardships with the world, and to communicate Japan as an international nation that takes measures seriously.   

We learnt a lot from Professor Yamazaki with his enthusiasm and youthful smiling face.

We offer sincere prayers for the soul of Yamazaki Masakazu in the next world. 


Note: This article first appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2020 issue of the Japan Journal.


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