Nagai Kafū (永井 荷風), born Nagai Sōkichi (永井 壮吉), December 4, 1879 - April 30, 1959, was a Japanese novelist, playwright, essayist, and diarist. His works are noted for their depictions of life in early 20th-century Tokyo, especially among geisha, prostitutes, cabaret dancers, and other denizens of the city's lively entertainment districts.
Among his major works are:
- American Stories (あめりか物語, Amerika Monogatari, 1908)
- Geisha in Rivalry (腕くらべ, Ude Kurabe, 1916-1917)
- A Strange Tale from East of the River (濹東綺譚, Bokutō Kitan, 1937)
- His diaries, especially Danchōtei Nichijō (断腸亭日乗, written 1917-1959)
Kafū was born at Kanetomi-chō 45, Koishikawa-ku [now Kasuga-chō, Bunkyō-ku], Tokyo, the eldest son of Nagai Kyūichirō (永井 久一郎), his father, who was then 28 years old, and Nagai Tsune (永井 恆), then 19. Kyūichirō was a scholar, bureaucrat, and businessman who later became known for his Chinese poetry. Kafū had three brothers and one sister. When the second son was born in 1883, Kafū was sent to live with his mother's family. In 1884, he attended the kindergarten affiliated with the Ochanomizu women's teachers' college, and his father visited Europe on government business. Kafū returned to his parents' home in January 1886, when he entered elementary school.
In 1891, he attended a private English-language school in Kanda, Tokyo. In 1894, he became ill, perhaps with scrofula, and spent several months in 1895 in a hospital in Odawara. He began studying the shakuhachi and Chinese poetry in 1896 at the age of 17. In February of the following year, he made his first of many visits to the Yoshiwara red-light district. The same year, he graduated from middle school and failed the entrance exam for university. With his mother and younger brothers, he visited Shanghai, where his father was now working for the shipping company Nippon Yusen. He returned to Japan in the autumn and enrolled in the Chinese-language department of a foreign-language college.
In 1898, he began writing short stories and studied with the novelist Hirotsu Yūrō (広津 柳浪), and in 1899 he became involved in writing and performing rakugo and dropped out of the foreign-language school. In 1900, he began publishing short stories. In 1901, he got a job briefly as a newspaper reporter and later began studying French.
The following timeline is based on notes that he appended to the 11th handwritten volume of Danchōtei Nichijō:
- 1903: Travels to the United States. Stays in Tacoma, Washington.
- 1904: Visits the St. Louis Exposition. Enrolls in Kalamazoo College in Michigan.
- 1905: Moves to New York City and begins working for a Japanese bank.
- 1906: Travels to Lyon, Paris, and London, and then returns to Japan. Publishes American Stories.
- 1907: Publishes Furansu Monogatari (French Stories), which is immediately suppressed.
- 1908 - 1911: Has many stories published and some plays performed.
- 1912: Marries.
- 1913: Father dies. Publishes collection of translated poems. Gets divorced. Takes on a mistress.
- 1914: Marries again.
- 1915: Anthology of works published. Divorces again. Lives for several months in a geisha house.
- 1916: Launches a literary magazine.
- 1918: First volume of collected works published.
- 1919: Second and third volumes of collected works published. Takes on a mistress.
- 1920: Play performed at Imperial Theater. Lets mistress go.
- 1921 - 1922: Several plays performed in Tokyo.
- 1923 - 1944: Continues to write, though publications become less frequent.
- 1945: Tokyo home destroyed in air raids. Moves to apartment, which is also destroyed.
Kafū continued to write and keep his diary until his death in 1959. The edition of his collected works published by Iwanami Shoten in the 1990s runs to 30 volumes.
Kafū's writing style varied depending on his genre and audience. Reflecting his study of classical Chinese and his wide reading of premodern Japanese texts, his diaries and some of his essays are written in the highly literary bungo (文語) style. Most of his plays and novels, in contrast, are written in a modern style typical of the era in which he wrote, and the dialogue spoken by his characters seems particularly natural and unaffected.