Since I was a boy, I have been an avid reader of the epic Chinese tale Water Margin. Over the years, I have never known what it is I love about the book, only read and enjoyed the various Japanese translations of this story, full of marvelous characters and their heroic actions amid the magnificent Chinese natural landscape, a landscape of roiling clouds and fierce winds that is truly spine-tingling.

The story was compiled, took on its distinctive color, and became a popular favorite over many years, and it does not seem to convey the philosophy or knowledge of a single author. The characters are forces of nature, writ large, embodiments of the natural elements, committing one at of human selfishness and folly after another. However, there is nothing that makes you feel the sheer overflowing energy of life itself like this book.

one cannot help but note the Japanese people’s natural deficiency in this kind of devil-may-care vitality.

The Kamakura and Momoyama were periods of Japanese history known for robust vitality, but this spirit never seems to reach the level of its Chinese counterpart, maybe because of the difference in scale of our natural environment. The Japanese character is naturally nervous, fond of formalities, and easily resigned. Also we like to conform to current norms. Is there nothing we can do about this?

Every one of the characters in Water Margin is original and takes things to the extreme. The good are thoroughly good, the bad are rotten to the core, the delicate are truly delicate, the strong are heroically strong, the drunks and womanizers always entertain us by taking it one step too far. Whatever people do, they are full of inspiring confidence. Not one of them is like a Japanese politician, acting like a big shot, laughing heartily in public, and then behind the scenes going and wagging his tail to his master. Courage comes from believing in oneself, and you can’t take a heroic stance when you’re trembling his fear.

I just want to gain more and more of the kind of vitality you see in Water Margin; it is indispensable for me in building my own character. It is inextricably tied to my own creative spirit.

(Painter, living in Amagasaki, Hyogo)

Shiraga Kazuo, “Essay: The Openheartedness of Water Margin, ” Kobe Shimbum, April 2nd, 1964.