The Saddest Book Ever: “No Longer Human” Unveils the Tragic Life and Downfall of Death-Obsessed Writer Osamu Dazai

“Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.” 

– Osamu Dazai, “No Longer Human”

That is the haunting opening of “No Longer Human” by Osamu Dazai, a novel just as known for its infamy as for the complex and dark themes it deals with and its disturbing content. The book has even played a part in a teen girl’s double-murder case: “A character in Dazai’s novel called Oba Yozo tries to adapt, cope and fit in but fails to become a human. The girl identified with that. In her notebook, she has scribbled ‘to fail to be human, to be disqualified as a human being’. This is an excerpt from the book…The counselor also stated that the girl used to identify with the characters in the Japanese author’s novel and reacted similarly.” In other translations, the book’s title translates directly to “Disqualified From Being Human” or “A Shameful Life.” Dazai writes, “And now I had become a madman. Even if released, I would be forever branded on the forehand with the word ‘madman’, or perhaps, ‘reject.’ Disqualified as a human being. I had now ceased utterly to be a human being.”

But what does it mean to no longer be human? This is the question that first came to my mind when I read the title. Did it mean the narrator was a monster? After all, he does say, “I no longer feel any connection to these monsters [people], despite being one myself” and “being human is given, but keeping our humanity is a choice.” Does he see himself as someone who isn’t good enough to be a part of humanity? Someone who is too distant — forsaken by those around him? Ultimately, the answer lies in the author’s view of society and himself. 

Dazai believes that society is just us: individuals. He says, “What, I wondered, did he mean by ‘society’? The plural of human beings? Where was the substance of this thing called ‘society’? I had spent my whole life thinking that society must certainly be something powerful, harsh, and severe, but…“Don’t you mean yourself?” ‘Society won’t stand for it.’ ‘It’s not society. You’re the one who won’t stand for it – right?’ ‘If you do such a thing society will make you suffer for it.’ ‘It’s not society. It’s you, isn’t it?’ ‘Before you know it, you’ll be ostracized by society.’ ‘It’s not society. You’re going to do the ostracizing, aren’t you?’…From then on, however, I came to hold, almost as a philosophical conviction, the belief: What is society but an individual?” And as Dazai feared other people, he could never feel a part of society: “I have always shaken with fright before human beings. Unable as I was to feel the least particle of confidence in my ability to speak and act like a human being, I kept my solitary agonies locked in my breast…I feigned an innocent optimism; I gradually perfected myself in the role of the farcical eccentric.” So, Dazai believes that being truly human means being a part of society’s homogenous masses, and any deviation from them means losing your humanity.

“No Longer Human” is a book fundamentally about someone who thinks too differently from others — from the rest of society. To mask the loneliness, alienation and eternal isolation that results from this, the book’s protagonist, Oba Yozo, wears the mask of a clown. He hides his internal pain behind a joking, self-deprecating and naive facade when the reality of his true self is far from joyful. This reminds me of a similar book that came after “No Longer Human”: “Confessions of a Mask.” Like Yozo in “No Longer Human,” the protagonist of “Confessions of a Mask,” Kochan, is also a young Japanese man who, from the earliest stages of his life, felt he was irrevocably different from those around him — an outsider not quite fitting his society’s expectations and standards, causing him to wear a “mask” to hide his true self and fear others finding out about his pretending. Yozo and Kochan lose themselves through their own self-hatred and inability to fit in. Do they even know who they really are anymore, or do they know and are trying to hide it? In this way, neither of them can be fully “human,” fully part of society.

“No Longer Human” is one of the highest-selling books in Japan to this day, despite being written in 1948. Much of the book deals with loneliness and isolation — a problem that continues to plague Japan and the rest of the world. A recent government survey in Japan reveals that approximately 1.5 million individuals known as hikikomori (a term that originated in the 1980s) or shut-ins have become reclusive and withdrawn from society, living mostly within the confines of their homes, showing how the book’s themes are universal and still relevant in modern times. However, to truly understand “No Longer Human,” it’s important to go back in time and understand the history that influenced it.

“No Longer Human” was written in post-war Japan. The country was recovering from a tragic hit to its population, and many young people felt hollow, confused and directionless after the horrors of intense battle, where they were encouraged to give their all for their country. It was seen as dishonorable to survive without fighting until your last breath. It would make sense that one wouldn’t feel very connected to humanity after that. The crimes and terrors of war and bloodshed leave an impact on everybody. It was during this time that Dazai wrote his best works, detailing the experiences and emotions of war survivors. While he seems to have trouble understanding what makes people tick, he writes and expresses himself beautifully, being able to show the perspective of fictional and real people and their struggles. “No Longer Human” was meant to speak to the youth of Japan and what they might have been feeling. It shows the darkest depths of the human psyche and succumbing to one’s vices. Dazai’s wealthy family was also feeling the brunt of Japan’s changing politics, as it was entering a new democratic era. The changing culture and world that Dazai found himself in all influenced his novel.   

Many people speculate that although “No Longer Human” is written through the lens of a fictional character — which is a sort of alter ego of Dazai’s — it is partly autobiographical, as many of the events that occur in the book parallel Dazai’s life and downfall. Now, Dazai was no ordinary man. He wasn’t your average Joe. He was born into a wealthy and influential aristocratic family that was deeply involved in Japanese politics. From a young age, he showed a strong love for literature and a talent for writing. He diligently read European and American novels, and many of his works got inspiration from the West. He was also a good student and seemed like he was destined for success. But tragedy struck when his literary hero, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, took his own life. Some believe this event may have sparked Dazai’s fascination with suicide. After this, Dazai’s life quickly spiraled — he began abusing alcohol and drugs, spending all his money on prostitutes, failing his classes at university, and getting involved in Communism, much to the dismay of his politically-involved family. As Dazai increasingly showed no interest in his family’s matters, he became their “black sheep,” as he wanted to pursue a career in writing rather than in politics. Also, when he started a serious relationship with a geisha, his family did not approve and threatened to cut him off. This growing rift between him and his family likely contributed to his depression.

The book starts off showing three pictures of the book’s main character, Oba Yozo — one as a little boy, one as a young man and one as an adult. Each image shows a certain flaw that stands out about Yozo, but the last one is the most eerie, as it shows him with no expression at all. His eyes are dead, his expression almost frozen. He isn’t capable of expressing human emotions. He can’t understand how other people go between their true selves and their “fake selves,” the masks they wear for the rest of the world, so easily. That is where his torment lies. He says, “I am convinced that human life is filled with many pure, happy, serene examples of insincerity … people who seem unaware even that they are deceiving one another … I find it difficult to understand the kind of human being who lives, or who is sure he can live, purely, happily, serenely while engaged in deceit … If I had only known that one thing I should never have had to dread human beings so.” People fear what they don’t understand, and Yozo fears humans because he doesn’t understand them. Yozo feels that the life he has lived is so depraved and wicked that he can’t be considered a “normal” human. He thinks that his stages of growing up, from childhood to adulthood, are all disingenuous and fake, which he tries to hide by getting drunk, acting like a clown and further losing himself. He also can’t seem to understand the depth of other people’s basic struggles: “If my neighbors manage to survive without killing themselves, without going mad, maintaining an interest in political parties, not yielding to despair, resolutely pursuing the fight for existence, can their griefs really be genuine?” Yozo seems obsessed with living genuinely, with not lying about who he really is, and the fact that he can’t seem to do so and can’t relate to those around him makes him fear being caught as an “imposter” trying to fit in, so he tries to trick people into liking him. 

Throughout the book, Yozo seems to be trying to demonstrate how evil he is. You aren’t supposed to like him, and he doesn’t want you to. He doesn’t want redemption. He wants to prove his own inhumanity. He says, “Something impure, dark, reeking of the shady character always hovers above me.” He resents himself and doesn’t think he’s worthy of love. He’s quite handsome and intelligent, but his sociopath-like state and lack of direction make his life empty and meaningless. However, the book’s conclusion tells a different story. When talking about Yozo, a barmaid that knew him well says, “It’s his father’s fault… The Yozo we knew was so easy-going and amusing, and if only he hadn’t drunk—no, even though he did drink—he was a good boy, an angel.” Despite him committing many crimes and evil acts throughout his life, he’s described as “an angel,” showing that maybe the way Yozo viewed himself was too harsh.

Dazai, through Yozo, also shows a particular distaste toward people in general. His superficial and empty charm may trick others into not seeing his true nature, and there is one time when he manipulated a pharmacist to give him heroin. As he sees himself as an outlier, an “independent variable” in mathematical terms, he treats other humans like aliens who could never understand him. While this may come off as pretentious and narcissistic, that doesn’t seem to be his goal. And, as he grew up wealthy and privileged to some respect compared to the common, non-aristocratic folk, his hatred of humans is further cemented as he sees people kiss up to his influential family for personal gain. He doesn’t have many friends, and the one person who saw through his mask, the one he wore to hide his true self with humor, he befriended out of fear to manipulate them. Aside from people, Dazai also doesn’t seem to be a fan of dogs, who many people call “a man’s best friend.” As a matter of fact, he actually wrote a lengthy rant about how much he hates dogs in another novel, but that’s a story for another time. 

You would think that the tragedy that kept befalling Dazai would prevent him from having a successful literary career, but for artists, there tends to be a correlation between depression, mental illness and creativity. Many people know of the “tortured artist” archetype and artists who struggled with mental illness and depression, such as poet Sylvia Plath, who wrote the timeless line “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am”, and Vincent Van Gogh, who cut off his own ear in a fit of madness. Unlike artists like Picasso, for example, whose tragic life was only relevant to his art in regards to how it tainted its subjects, Dazai made his imperfections and internal turmoil the subject of his works. So, the more flawed and tormented he was, the more soulful and thought-provoking his writing became. His melancholy and introspective-yet-simplistic writing style became a feature unique to him. 

“No Longer Human” isn’t an easy book to read. It isn’t the kind of book you would read to get out of a reading slump or relax at the beach on a sunny day. It’s the kind of book that leaves you feeling hollow and troubled as you reach its conclusion. The struggles and degradation of Yozo are written with such sincerity and matter-of-factness that it’s almost shocking. You are reading through the perspective of an antihero, someone who regrets the life they themselves have lived. Yozo — or Dazai (however you want to look at it) — has a very nihilistic and pessimistic view of the world. He says only money makes people happy, that most people aren’t genuine in their interactions and always lie to each other, and that there is no point, no meaning to life or living. Dazai writes, “All that can happen now is that one foul, humiliating sin will be piled on another, and my sufferings will become only the more acute. I want to die. I must die. Living itself is the source of sin.” These words show the portrayal of a man struggling with depression, self-hatred, low self-esteem and a loss of purpose. Some psychologists see depression as a self-destruct mechanism. According to them, it is a biological reaction that happens when a person feels that their life has no purpose and they are useless to society. This causes their body to slowly destroy itself, making them lose their desire to eat and take care of themselves, causing them to slowly begin to decay. So, Yozo’s perspective of the world may have been very harmful to himself. At one point, he tries to commit double suicide with a bar hostess he barely knew; she ends up drowning, but he is saved. This moment eerily parallels the end of Dazai’s own life. 

Shortly after finishing “No Longer Human,” he committed suicide with his lover, Tomie, by drowning themselves in a small river near their home. Reported strangulation marks around his neck after the body was found led some to speculate he may have been murdered or unwillingly forced to drown. A quote from “The Saga of Osamu Dazai” reads: “Tomie was in the last year of Dazai’s life his frequent companion in his workroom and the neighborhood bars, his adoring disciple, and, as Kitagaki christens her for her unrelenting urge towards suicide, his ‘angel of death’…” Even if he did not exactly want to kill himself, he seemed at a point where he would not fight an urgent suggestion.”

Years later, “No Longer Human” still has a big following. A simple search on social media like TikTok, under a hashtag like #BookTok, would show this book pop up under multiple book recommendations videos. A trending TikTok sound goes like this: “Tell me, Dazai. Why is it you wish to die?” “Let’s turn that question around,” someone replies. “Is there really any value to this thing we call … living?” Dazai Osamu and his works’ increasing popularity comes on the heels of the anime series “Bungo Stray Dogs,” which translates to “Literary Stray Dogs,” where Dazai’s character is introduced floating upside down in a river after a suicide attempt (the real author tried to take his own life five times). Dazai’s character in the anime is a morally gray, ruthless killer and an enigmatic genius who can quickly go from joking around to being terrifying, making him fall under the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” archetype. A former executive in a criminal organization called the Port Mafia, he decides to turn a new leaf after the death of his best friend and help people by joining the Armed Detective Agency. His ability is called “No Longer Human,” after Dazai’s most famous book, and it nullifies the abilities of all the other characters with a single touch. However, some critics say that Dazai’s characterization in the anime is insulting to the real author due to how the topic of his depression is approached. They say that, in the show, his suicide attempts are treated like a running gag, with other characters essentially saying, “Oh, there goes Dazai trying to commit suicide again” whenever it happens. But besides the anime’s problematic and insensitive aspects, it has made more young people discover Dazai’s books. 

Why is Dazai Osamu so popular among young people? Aside from his novel’s vulnerability and despite him being unable to relate to others, his book was written with the intention to “echo the sentiments of youth.” Many young people often feel lost, feel fearful of others and their expectations, and have trouble fitting in. All these themes in the book are universal. And with the uncertainties in the world, it’s easy to lose hope. Like Yozo says, “In this life, it is easy to die, to build life is hard.” It is harder than ever to live a happy life, with economic struggles and wars. Dazai wrote, “Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness. Everything passes.” Perhaps that is what many feel — stuck in a world that is neither good nor bad, just tolerable, where everything seems to pass.