When Principles Aren’t Enough – Christianity in View of Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun

So… this is part-book review, part-religious monologue—thinking out loud, really. It’s just a personal reflection. It could come across preachy or possibly offensive, neither of which is my intention. Please feel free to skip if this isn’t your cup of tea. โค

I appreciate you all, so much.

You have heard that it was said, โ€˜You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.โ€™ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
—Matthew 5:43-45

As I write this, it’s 12:40 AM, Saturday morning, and we in the U.S. still do not know the outcome of the election.

We do know that our country is split down the middle. Actually, fractured would be a better description. There are some, on all sides, who are terrified about the future and for their own safety. This is just the tip of an iceberg that has been growing for a very long time. In some ways, it has little to do with presidents, and much to do with people.

With that weight on my heart, I’ve been meditating on the above verse. By meditating… I mean the phrase “love your enemies” came into my head a few weeks ago, as spoken on the Jesus movie by actor Brian Deacon. (The way he said it with a confident conviction is something that stuck with me since childhood.) Later on, I saw the phrase on a church billboard as I was driving one day. Then a friend quoted it to me, unprompted and out of the blue. It won’t stop following me around…

So, what does this all have to do with a somewhat obscure 1947 Japanese novel? For a Christian, and to my surprise, literally everything.

The great struggle I have with the verse is, of course, actually living by it. The characters in Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun grapple with similar conflicts, or rather, with living by principles in general. They come to rather different conclusions.

In the last analysis my death is a natural one—man cannot live exclusively for principles.

The Setting Sun, ch. 7

Victims. Victims of a transitional period of morality. That is what we both certainly are.

The Setting Sun, ch. 8

The overarching theme of the book is this: when life circumstances become terrible, destruction—of traditions, others, or one’s self—is a natural reaction. When things get bad enough, when simply living day-to-day is a struggle, leading a good and noble life is not only difficult—it’s unreasonable. Pursuing a hedonistic life, putting one’s self first when it comes down to the wire, may be the only way for us to survive.

Does this sound familiar?

The two main characters, Kazuko and her brother Naoji, have certainly suffered enormously. Former aristocrats brought low by Japan’s defeat, they are forced to piece together a new life much humbler than the one they had enjoyed before WWII. Naoji, a veteran, resorts to narcotics and sex to numb his war experiences. Divorced and childless, Kazuko searches desperately for a man to save her from feeling trapped by her ailing family. Their mother alone takes the changes with relative, old-world grace, but it is understood her battle, in a sense, is over: it is the young who have to struggle with their new identities most.

Dazai takes a critical approach to Christianity in The Setting Sun by using Catholic imagery and inverting it with Kazuko’s misplaced Scriptural references. Our narrator, aching in her desire for emotional and physical intimacy, fastens on to the phrase “wise as serpents and harmless as a doves” (Matthew 10:16) but applies it in her pursuit of a lover (ch. 4). She compares herself to the Virgin Mary (ch. 8), substituting personal pride and happiness for righteousness, in an effort at self-validation regardless of the cost or consequences. The author seems to suggest that biblical morality is outdated, stifling to the human soul, and is only practical when life is going well.

I want to provide a reflection and a rebuttal, specifically to Dazai’s portrayal of Christianity.

Dazai is accurate in his assessment that it is not natural—perhaps not even, on the surface, rational—to stay true to principles when your world is falling to pieces. After all, if you’re being torn apart, externally or internally, your natural inclination is to withdraw, or to fight back. Hurt, or be hurt. Be the alpha or be nobody. Make people pay for what they’ve done to you.

As this novel illustrates, the World Wars proved, very awfully, that tradition alone doesn’t save us from hell. Those of us living in the West may view the Allies’ victory through rose-colored glasses sometimes, but the truth is, the wars were a tragedy no matter who won. Between 100,000 and 200,000 people died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone–some instantly, some in slow and terrible deaths. Most of them were civilians.

This is one of the less graphic photos. More on Wikimedia.

I’m reminded that even if we lived in “perfectly” organized societies with common traditions, we’d still be a mess, just like the nations who slaughtered each other en masse for over three decades. Conflict and greed are parts of the human condition.

Christianity as a “rule book” could be viewed in the same cynical light, as it seems Dazai did. It’s inarguable there are many unkind, immoral, or outright cruel people who call themselves Christians, and this has been the case all throughout history. These people didn’t even live by the principles they espoused. God will judge them just as He will judge us all.

There are also many different world philosophies. You could just as soon choose another. Though the narrator Kazuko appears to practice Christianity, it is in reality a different philosophy that she follows, and to a certain extent, it works for her. She still demonstrates selfless love for her mother. Let down, however, by the rest of the world, Kazuko turns upon others (such as her lover’s wife) by putting her own desires first and acting against her altruistic better half.

It was Kazuko’s character arc which led me to reaffirm that Christianity, which claims to be something special, isn’t and cannot be just a philosophy or lifestyle.

More than ever, I’m convinced that to be a Christian means to be completely loyal to a Person. This Person is someone you believe to be perfect and therefore the only Person who deserves ultimate loyalty—above political parties, your partner, your parents, everyone. The principles follow afterwards, just as Jesus said “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

I don’t find it easy to follow His commandments, especially in the year 2020, and they rarely come naturally, with often some level of struggle involved. But I keep trying to live by them because I love Him with my whole being.

Without giving too much away, I can say the ending of Dazai’s novel shows the ultimate outcome of the divergent paths taken by Kazuko and Naoji. Unrestrained by moral bounds, they get what they want, or at least what they pursued with their hearts and souls. It seems like Dazai has not presented readers a happy ending but rather a “natural outcome,” leaving the conclusion and judgment to us.

But what if you insist that a natural outcome is not enough, that you could find a better ending for your life story? If I lived “exclusively for principles,” I could not trust myself to stay on course when things get really bad. But I know from experience that living loyally to Christ in the midst of struggle will lead to a better, happier outcome for me than Kazuko’s. So I live for Him, instead of principles. I will try to love my enemies, because I love Him. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, I’ll be guarded against every natural urge towards harm, such as those inflicted by Dazai’s characters.

Christ only asks us to pursue what seems unreasonable, short-term, so that we can be—through Him—separated from all evil and eternally reunited with God. It’s this reunion, and eternal love, that I long for more than anything else.


  1. I don’t believe in religion since I have seen it doing bad things mostly. But needless to say the people who started this religion had a better things in mind but with time bad people used for their benefits. Anyway I belive in mankind and good things and I aspire people with great quality. Interestingly when I see people with great quality and achievements, all of them share same quality and they all are very grounded people (here I am not talking about political achievements, its achievements in science and tech and literature etc). I personally being an average human in terms of all social and intellectual metric try to help others and be grounded but somehow feels difficult. Somewhere egotism kicks in or supiriorrity complex takes the control. The seed is deep down in the social milieu they I grew up. But deep down my heart I belive we all should have strong principles but not rigid and we should be nice to others. Some boxer I read on internet said a good thing that people on social media are so rude these days, because they can easily get away with it without being punched on his/her face!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true—people can be so horrible on the internet, much more than they would dare to be in person. Kindness is underrated; we all struggle with it sometimes.


  2. HI Marian.

    Very thoughtful analysis and I have come to the same conclusions as you when I read literature written by people who live without hope.

    I also agree that there are many people who would call themselves Christians, but they really have never surrendered their lives to Him.

    I remember a conversation I had this time last year in Israel. I was talking to a Jewish man who was pointing out that it was Sakkot and everyone was living in tents and confessing their sins, and then when it’s time to leave, they leave all sorts of garbage after them. While I was in Israel I saw so many people, Jews, Christians and Muslims attempting to make themselves righteous in their own strength.

    I told this man that it is impossible to make ourselves righteous. The purpose of Christ was God coming to earth and paying the penalty for our sin nature and then covering our unrighteousness with His righteousness.

    Most people stop there, but that is a truncated grace. The full story is that after Christ has saved us the Holy Spirit then comes to live in us and begins completing a good work in us that continually perfects until that time we meet Him face to face.

    That’s a lot of Christianize, I know, but the bottom line is, I cannot love others that I want to hate, unless the power of God’s spirit is in me. I cannot do the right, moral thing when I want to do the selfish thing, unless His Spirit is working inside of me. I cannot contradict the nature I was born with unless the Trinity intervenes.

    I cannot even think to do good things without the Spirit’s prodding. Yes, I know unbelievers do good things. But they cannot do supernatural things, like love those that hate them or bless those that curse them.

    I suppose you could argue that you know unbelievers who have acted altruistically. In this lifetime no one is separated from God. Unbelievers receive the Spirit’s prodding or drawing to him. They then draw near to God or run away because they’d rather “reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” as Milton put it.

    In the end every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord: those of us because we want to and those because they have to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Beautifully written, Sharon. Yes, sanctification is an ongoing, lifelong process. And without the Spirit we would not be able to overcome the world’s temptations.

      Your comment makes me think further about free will and the meaning of being made in God’s Image. I don’t have anything to add to that, except thank you for sharing. โค


  3. i’ve just been reading Robert Lynd on Bunyan and he sites the same sort of reality-based spiritual interpretation… Bunyan was kind of literal person, assigning religious aspects to everything he touched. sort of reality through pink lens, or some such…


    1. That’s interesting… I’d like to read more about Bunyan. I read a short biography a long time ago, and of course Pilgrim’s Progress, but I barely remember it.

      From my own experience, I’d generally caution against examining *every* single aspect of life through religious framing, at least if the object is to find a definite “answer.” It would presuppose we have a perfect understanding of how things relate to each other in that context. It can cause a lot of confusion and anxiety when taken to an extreme… Just my 2c though, I’m no preacher. ๐Ÿ™‚ The relationship between spiritual health and mental health is a tricky topic.


  4. Great post! I tend to like stories that end with natural outcomes and not always a perfectly neat ending.

    The idea of living for principle that you speak of sort of reminds me of literalists (I think that’s the word) — you know, people who live strictly by the RULES and can be so rigid and stringent that they leave no room for reason or rationality. Christians, specifically, should know that we cannot keep the laws or commandments, though we always work toward following them. Knowing that, we understand that Jesus died for us because we cannot keep His commandments and could not stand perfect before a holy God. But therein is the difference between living for Christ (who saves) and living for those principles <– which cannot save us. Literalists spend too much energy trying to follow so many religious rules and laws (and I suppose that can apply to anything in life, like you mention), and it will never bring fulfillment or satisfaction. It's un-human to be so rigid.


    1. Yes, I’ve noticed the Japanese literature I’ve read, so far, has this naturalist quality to it. It can be very frustrating (as in this novel) but there’s an appeal to it, too.

      You sum up the problem with legalism really well. I wonder why humans tend to fall into one extreme or the other. Maybe in both cases, we believe a false notion that we can attain “greatness”/goodness by strict willpower or unbridled/free behavior. Looking to ourselves to be the heroes of our lives…


  5. Thank you for this article Marian! I’ve come across it while searching on whether Osamu Dazai was Christian. No mention. I read No Longer Human recently and from the beginning of the book a repeating principle seemed to show itself. We are to be in this world but not of it. While only twice is Christian or God mentioned in the book, the vibe I get from the main character who cannot relate nor understand humans/humanity spoke to me. While living for Christ and repudiating the sinful flesh, it arguably feels as though we are no longer human. I wasn’t sure whether you had read this book and had a similar reaction? Take care!


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