Tokyo of the Mind: A Study of the Figurative Language of Abe Kobo

F igurative language plays an essential part, if not the leading role, in the literature of Abe Kōbō. Because traditional Japanese literature has developed outside of Western literary development, the Japanese novel (shosetsu) is different from European or American novels in that it often lacks what Westerners would consider a substantial “plot” or “story line.”

Whereas it is this plot and story line that contribute so much to, the Western novel, it is the mood or description which tend to highlight, Japanese fiction. In the works of Abe Kobo (b. l924), one of the most, famous contemporary authors of Japan, this mood or description is created, by a strong use of figurative language.

There can be no question that Abe Kobo realizes the power of, figurative language; he uses metaphor and simile with skillful precision, like a surgeon manipulates scalpel and thread.  Yet Abe does not merely use standard “A is like B” or “A is B” comparisons with monotonous repetition. Rather, Abe is as comfortable with complex and extended tropes as today’s highly trained specialist is with an open-heart operation.  A major reason, for the author’s precise and extensive use of complex rhetorical devices, especially metaphors and similes, comes from his scientific training.  Following the war, Abe completed medical school at the University of Tokyo (as his father before him).  Although a licensed physician, Abe has dedicated his life to fiction and drama (notably television and theater). It is with- in the boundaries of fiction in particular (c.f., The Woman in The Dunes) that Abe has become most famous outside of Japan. Likewise, it is through literature that Abe has developed such a refined style and such rich figurative language.

Through an understanding of the role of figurative language in Abe’s style, the reader may come to grasp Abe’s (often seemingly incoherent) novels as a whole.  Because examples of figurative language — especially cases of metaphor and simile — may be found so frequently in the author’s works, many specific patterns tend to emerge. These patterns consist of leitmotifs, repetitious syntactical units, specific types of vehicle and tenor, and a host of reoccurring literary devices. Because the patterns in Abe’s works are so conspicuous, they lend themselves well to analysis.  The aim of this study is to closely examine these linguistical and structural patterns.  The thesis is that through close attention to details, one learns that Abe’s use of metaphor and simile provides the spinal column for his narratives.

Figurative language may be found in any body of literature in the world; it is in no way particular to the novels of Japan, nor to the specific novels of Abe Kōbō.  Yet new examples of figurative speech are more and more rare as each new book is published; as Solomon stated so long ago, there is nothing new under the sun.  Yet many of Abe’s metaphors and similes are unique in that they are variations of the usual.  Upon occasion Abe creates a metaphor or simile which appears to be radically new.  He does not profess an interest in the traditional kind of figurative language found in Japanese literature.  This is because Abe sees himself as belonging to the future, and not to the past.  He believes in abandoning nationality and national traits to create a more international society.  In his essay “The Dark Side of Cherry Blossoms” Abe clearly states the dangers of dwelling on national traits and nationalism in general.  In this article the author chastises the New Theater in Japan for its retrogressive emphasis on the emotions of traditional society.  The symbol that Abe sees these “old” young people yearning towards is the cherry blossom (sakura). In this polemical statement of the function of art Abe explains his own disillusion with cherry blossoms:

I was seventeen when I first became acquainted with Dostoevsky and read his works with consuming excitement.  That was the year that war broke out between Japan and America.  I think that was when the cherry blossoms began to scatter within me.  Ever since, I have never succeeded in liking cherry blossoms.  No matter how beautifully the cherry blossoms have glowed in the light of the torches held up by the inquisitors, it has only been because of the intensity of the darkness around them.  The cherry blossoms that have opened will scatter one day.  But will they really?  The torches of the atomic age may engulf the whole earth in their fires before the cherry blossoms fall.

In this passage Abe clearly indicates his concern for the dangers of the past rising to obscure the future.  Moreover, he expresses his concern metaphorically; the author intends for his metaphors and similes to open a new international experience for the reader.  It is for this reason that Abe’s works are so popular with the Avant-garde in Japan and a growing group of admirers in the West.

Because Abe hopes to create a new literature, he has had to develop a way to communicate his modern sentiments to an international audience.  He has achieved this through creating a literature rich in rhetorical devices.  The two specific structures of figurative language which will be examined most carefully in this paper are metaphor and simile.  The reader will observe that this study focuses upon Abe’s praxis, not upon theoretical questions which concern limitations or refinements of how metaphor and simile should be defined or distinguished from one another.  Consequently, within the entire scope of this study a “metaphor” is to be understood as any comparison between a vehicle (quantity “A”) and tenor (quantity “B”) that relies on the conjunctions “is,” “was,” “seemed to be,” “became,” “re-born,” “changed into,” or “turned into.” The connecting words of a “simile” include “like,” “compared to,” “as if,” “perhaps become,” “as,” “contrasted with,” or “symbol of.” The most common of these linking words include “is,” “was,” and “like.” In terms of sheer numbers, by far “like” or “as if” comparisons occur more so than any other.

However, not all the examples of figurative speech to be discussed in this study are metaphors and similes.  Many illustrations of other types of figurative language are also contained in Abe’s works.  These examples of Abe’s style will not be analyzed at length, but a few shall be mentioned to illustrate the richness of Abe’s style and his skill and determination to see and describe things in an avant-garde way.  Taken at random, the following illustrations of figurative language show how Abe employs the literary devices of metonymy, euphemism, zeugma, synecdoche, and syllogism.  The reader will be able to discern, at a later point, how comparable the clever and sparkling use of language is in these instances to the figurative speech found in Abe’s metaphors and similes.

Metonymy, the use of a name of one attribute of thing in place of the name itself, is a literary trope which Abe appears to use on occasion.  In The Face of Another, a novel Abe wrote in l964, the word “situation,” or  perhaps even “life” is changed to a more concrete and visual noun: “kite.”  Abe then extends this metaphor to create the following passage: “.  .  .  the more I thought about it the more my kite filled with holes until at length the paper tore away, leaving only the skeleton” (64/p. 90).  By changing “situation” or “life” to a concrete object, Abe can more accurately describe its damage or even destruction.  In the context of The Face of Another, this passage illustrates a connection between the male protagonist and his alter ego.

Another literary trope which is used frequently by Abe Kōbō is the euphemism.  A standard dictionary defines “euphemism” as a “substitution of mild or indirect expressions to relate a more harsh reality,” but Abe often reverses the process -he substitutes a harsh or fresh expression for a plain reality.  For example, when the man in Secret Rendezvous, a novel written by Abe in l977, wishes to say: “I feel excited,” the author has him ‘state instead: “I felt that particles of electricity had been sprinkled across my chest and arms” (77/p.  l24).  In another (more normative) example, instead of the main character feeling “an uneasy peace,” he feels “a peace like balancing on the point of a needle” (77/p.  ll2).  Thus, Abe uses the euphemism to enrich the variety of his figurative language.

Several examples of a relatively rare trope, the zeugma, may be found occasionally in Abe Kōbō’s works.  Often Abe uses a single verb in relation to two subjects or objects, however the verb is actually appropriate for only one of the subjects.  Abe also mixes active and passive voice on occasion.  The jumbled syntax leads to such passages as the following: “In the distance an iron grill was violently slammed shut, sounding through ramifications of pipes, finally striking my ears as a sigh from the earth”  (66/p.  263).  Although the vehicle and tenor of this comparison are both “sound,” the passage-is a good example of a zeugma in that the grill is slammed shut, then strikes the character’s ears.

Occasionally Abe chooses to create a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to describe the entire thing; this literary trope is known as a synecdoche.  One example found in The face of Another.  Another reads: “The moldy smell that filled the exhibition room for example, a sort of atmosphere of decadence, was good proof of that (that the Noh mask .  .  .  seemed bent on rejecting life)’(64/p.  68).  Here it is the mask of the Noh theater that represents the self.  In being similar to the human face, the mask is used to describe the entire person.

Syllogisms also appear in Abe’s figurative language.  Often the l” author uses this type of faulty reasoning to create pseudo-logical statements that reflect the thinking of his characters.  At the conclusion of Secret Rendezvous the Horse-man states: “When will you accept the ugliness ll of health? If animal history has been the history of evolution, then the history of mankind has been one of retrogression.  Hooray for monsters!  Monsters are the great embodiments of the weak!” (77/p.  l72).  The basic flaw in the Horse-man’s logic is that he has separated human history from animal history.  Yet the two have evolved side by side, if not one inside the other.

In other examples of syllogistic logic Abe writes: “It was not always that the greater served the lesser.  In the case of a fishnet, a finely woven one catches both great and small.  Even in the net of thoughts, the finer the better” (59/p.  48).  In this passage Abe takes a general idea, expands it, and then concludes with a false hypothesis.  Another passage ex presses the view of the male protagonist in The Box Man:

The naked body and the body are different.  The naked body uses the actual physical body of its material and is a work of art kneaded by fingers which are eyes.  Although the physical body might be hers, concerning the proprietorship of the naked body, I had not intention of retreating in impotent envy” (73/p.  48).

Abe Kōbō has had an enormously productive career.  By 1972, Abe had produced over two-hundred works for radio, television, theater, newspaper, magazines, journals, and the cinema.  These works -especially his novels -have been translated into nine languages (including Russian, Swedish, Chinese, Hungarian, Dutch and Italian).  Some critics point out that Abe is more popular in the West than in Japan, but this sentiment is clearly exaggerated.  Abe Kōbō’s name is known by practically all Japanese, although not all admire him or have experienced his works or productions.  Yet, it would be fair to say that many Japanese do not understand Abe.  According to one scholar, this author is “very difficult to read, which explains his inability to attract a large following outside of the ranks of the Japanese avant-garde.”

Most of Abe’s works deal with lonely, helpless and predominantly male characters “on the brink of an identity crisis.”  These stories revolve around responses of modern man to his over-populated, impersonal and industrialized society.  The novels that have been translated into English include Secret Rendezvous (1977), The Box Man (1973), The Ruined Map (1966), The Face of Another (1964), The Woman in The Dunes (1962), and Inter Ice Age 4 (1959). Four of Abe’s most famous short stories have been published in the scholarly journal Japan Quarterly.  These stories include “The Red Cocoon” (1950), “The Dog,” “The Stick” (l957) and the surrealistic “Dream Soldier” (1957).  A spectacular play of the Absurd -“Friends” -has also been rendered into English (l969); this play is still running in Tokyo today.  A complete list of these works and their Japanese titles may be found in Chart l.

Ten of Abe’s works have been chosen for this study.  These works include every major novel of his published in English except The Woman in the Dunes.  An arbitrary decision was made to exclude this latter novel, known in Japanese as Sunna no Onna, because the work can be described as one long, extended metaphor.  Consequently, The Woman in the Dunes raises metaphor and simile to the level of symbolism and this fact would adversely color and distort the typological analysis of the metaphor and simile in Abe’s oeuvres.  On the other hand, the four short stories written between l950 and l957 are valuable to this study since they illustrate the author’s early use of figurative language.  Abe’s play “Friends” has not been included in the research of this paper because it is the only play translated into English; using it would have made this study less homogeneous and more inconclusive.

Two other works by Abe Kōbō published in English have been used for the critical insights and opinions which they contain, but not to illustrate specific examples of metaphor and simile.  These two works are nonfictive essays published in academic journals: “The Frontier Within” (Japan Quarterly, l975) and, “The Dark Side of the Cherry Blossoms” (Journal of Japanese Studies, l982).

Methodology. Exploratory readings of the ten works under examination in this study lead to the discovery that certain patterns of figurative language exist in Abe’s fiction.  For example, it was apparent that Abe’s metaphors and similes often liken people or objects to food.  This find to a large extent determined the choice and scope of the present study.  Once the topic was selected, several tentative typological categories of metaphors and similes were devised and the novels and stories were reexamined with greater scrutiny.  The rereading of the works produced, in turn, a revision of the categories into the classification system outlined in the chart below:

l.  vehicle-tenor relationship
a.  complex
b.  person-thing
c.  thing-person
d.  person-person
e.  thing-thing
1) abstract/concrete
2) concrete/abstract
3) abstract/abstract
4) concrete/concrete
5) animate/inanimate
6) inanimate/animate
7) animate/animate
8) inanimate/inanimate

II.  sensory perception
a.  sight
b.  sound
c.  smell
d.  touch/taste
e.  mixed senses

III.  purpose of passage
a.  positive value
b.  negative value
c.  neutral value

IV.  function and effect of passage
a.  prescriptive function
1) negative (to insult or to demean)
2) positive (to compliment or to raise)
b.  descriptive function: neutral (to inform or to show)

The four distinct areas of the classification which were developed encompass the relationship between the vehicle and tenor, the senses used in the comparison, and the specific function and effect of the comparison.

The relationships between the vehicle and tenor are easily grouped into distinct categories of “A” and “B.” These relationships occur most frequently between a thing and a thing, yet many illustrations of a person to a thing, a thing to a person or even a person to another person may be found.  Often, however, the comparisons were more complicated than a simple A = B comparison.  These passages have been referred to as “complex.”  Each of these natural divisions have been termed “Categories” and have been used as the basis of organization for the chapters in this study.  These categories may be summarized as:

  • Category I Complex
  • Category II Person to Thing
  • Category III Thing to Person
  • Category IV Person to Person
  • Category V Thing to Thing.‘

The complex category of this group consists of structures which are more complicated than the A = B form of metaphor and simile.  A few of these structures, expressed in mathematical terms, look like this: A = B = C, or, A ; B = C = D, or, A = BCDEF, or, A = B; C = D, or even, a

The remaining four categories (II through V) relate a single vehicle to a tenor.  Within the pairs of people and people, people and things, and things and people, Abe uses a fairly standard style to express his metaphorical ideas.  However, the comparisons of thing to thing appeared to be too large for a single category.  Thus, after carefully examining such comparisons, it was noted that two sets of sub-categories could be clearly distinguished.  In the first of these sub-groupings analogies concern the shape” or “form” of a particular “thing” or object.  Many of the vehicles and tenors of Abe’s metaphors and similes are distinguished by whether-they are “abstract” or “concrete” objects, and the scope of comparisons which are possible fall into four categories:

a – abstract to concrete
b – concrete to abstract
c – abstract to abstract
d – concrete to concrete ·

A second sub-division categorizes vehicles and tenors according to whether they are “animate” or “inanimate.” Feasible relationships here involve these comparisons between vehicle and tenor:

e – animate to inanimate
f – inanimate to animate
g – animate to animate
h – inanimate to inanimate

One flaw in this system that was subsequently resolved is the tendency for these two secondary categories to overlap in the case of a given vehicle or tenor and, even, within particular metaphors or similes.  For example, if an “oyster” is compared to a “cloud,” the “oyster” can be said to be both concrete and animate and the “cloud” may be termed “abstract” and “inanimate.”  Thus, the text surrounding the vehicle and tenor must be carefully analyzed to determine which sub-category is more important to the whole of the passage.

Any illustration of figurative language may be examined in terms of the senses used to make the comparison.  One of the most frequent sensory perceptions used to create the imagery in a metaphor or simile is sight.  The majority of examples of figurative language are based on an image -this image is perceived through vision.  Other senses which suggest imagery include sound, smell, and touch.

The purpose of each passage is rather difficult to determine; the results of such a classification are clearly subjective.  Each of Abe’s passages tend to have “positive,” “neutral” or “negative” emphasis.  Careful reading of these selections has shown that there are approximately equal numbers of “neutral” and “negative” examples in Abe’s figurative language; the “positive category is so lacking that it is virtually insignificant.

The “neutral” examples of Abe’s metaphors and similes may be classified due to their brevity, balance and minimal function.  Almost all of Abe’s neutral passages appear to be basic and undeveloped, yet they are striking.  Most of these illustrations are especially terse.  Likewise, a passage is neutral because it has a certain balance; it produces an effect which is partially negative and partially positive, In addition, neutral comparisons are for the most part perfunctory; they make a “statement of fact,” as it were, for the author’s narrative.  On the other hand, Abe’s negative comparisons tend to be well developed and substantial.  These examples of metaphors and similes also tie in more directly with the text; whereas a “neutral” comparison often floats between two ideas, the “negative” use of figurative speech seems to tie the various ideas together.

The last classification system that is germane to a description of the style of Abe Kōbō’s works concerns the function and effect of the passage.  Many of Abe’s metaphors and similes appear to be either prescriptive or descriptive in function.  It seemed important to categorize and measure the possible function of a given passage when statements were being recorded on file cards because they were later to be isolated from the text and microscopically analyzed at the level of metaphor or simile.  However, measurement of function and effect turned out to be a difficult process involving highly subjective judgments.  Therefore, this part of the classification system was largely ignored in the actual writing of this study.

Once the theoretical development of the entire classification system was complete (see page 9), the research process could be started.  The material for this study was created from the ten works of Abe Kōbō previously mentioned.  To be more precise, each passage which was recorded during the Q formation of the classification system was once again examined and then entered on a file card.  At this time each passage was codified according to the five divisions of classification.  In all, over one thousand w passages were accumulated and then codified in the course of research.  A typical entry would be labeled with notations similar to the following: “6M 5(i/i) si o d”.  This notation indicates that the passage was “c g written in 196M (e.g., The Face of Another), that it is a comparison between an inanimate thing and another inanimate thing (Category V), that the imagery evoked by this passage is created visually (sight), while the passage itself is of neutral value and highly descriptive.  This technical analysis V pertains specifically to the following: “With transparent non-expression, like rays of sunlight filtering through a forest swept with the cold winds g of winter.  .  .” (6M/p.  92).  Although the “cold winds of winter” could be felt (e.g., “touch” in addition to “sight”), the focus of this comparison concerns non-expression and sun rays -two inanimate objects that could only  be perceived visually.

The last step in the research process was to cross-index entries in the card file.  The second file recorded the vehicle and tenor content of each passage (cf., “fish,” “T,” “shadow”).  Color-coded cards were used to maintain a clear distinction between the vehicles and tenors in this cross-index and those in the first file.  Since only “A” and “B” were noted, it was impossible to include the complex passages in this cross-reference system.  However, about sixteen-hundred vehicles and tenors were eventually identified, and their frequency has been tabulated in Chart 2.

The three main chapters of this study concern the formal categories established during the research process.  The following chapter of this work examines Categories TI, III and IV.  These categories involve comparisons between a person and a thing, a thing and a person, and a person and a person.  Over two hundred passages which describe people in metaphor and simile are examined in this chapter.

The third chapter concerns the large thing-to-thing comparisons in Category IV.  Over four hundred examples of this type of analogy are discussed in Chapter Ill, which is further broken down into metaphors and similes which involve an analysis of “abstract,” “concrete,” “animate,” and “inanimate” objects.  Chapter IV is devoted to the complex passages of Category I.  Discussion in this chapter centers upon the particular structure and syntax of Abe’s complex metaphors and similes.

For the complete listing of thematic stories, see Jim Luce Writes.

See also by Jim Luce


People as Figures in Abe Kōbō’s Metaphors and Similes


Objects and Things as Figures of Speech in the Works of Abe Kōbō


Style and Complexity in Abe Kōbō’s Metaphors and Similes

This thesis was supervised by Joel L. Wilkinson, Chairperson, General Literature Program.  It was dedicated to Ryuichi Hirabayashi, The College of Wooster, l978 l979, and Dr. Donald MacKenzie, The College of Wooster, l949 l98l.

An Independent Study Thesis Presented in Partial fulfillment of the Requirements of The College of Wooster and The Cultural Area Studies Program (Major Area: East Asia), l98l – l982. This thesis was supervised by Joel L. Wilkinson, Chairperson, General Literature Program.  It was dedicated to Ryuichi Hirabayashi, The College of Wooster, l978 – l979, and Dr. Donald MacKenzie, The College of Wooster, l949 – l98l.

The Luce Index
89 – Abe Kōbō’

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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce ( writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (, he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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