Xenophobia in Edogawa Rampo’s “The Human Chair”

Cover of Edogawa's Japanese Tales of mystery and Imagination.
Cover of Edogawa’s Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle Publishing).

Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo’s “The Human Chair” (1925) is one of the most disturbing short stories I’ve read.  Tarō Hirai derived his pen name from the sound of the name of the American writer he greatly admired, Edgar Allan Poe.  Rampo, sometimes spelled Ranpo in English translation, became a popular Japanese short story writer in the 1920s.  His work continues to influence film, literature, and manga comics today.  His writing style incorporates aspects of detective and mystery fiction with elements of adventure, intrigue, the bizarre, and the grotesque.

The structure of “The Human Chair” is a story-within-a-story, a common literary strategy of horror tradition.  In the frame story, a young author named Yoshiko begins the day with her customary practice of reading letters from aspiring authors.  Yoshiko receives an anonymous letter from a man who claims to be a devoted chair maker, “ugly beyond description”, who wants to “describe in detail the terrible crime” he has committed.  The confession is a Kafkaesque account of a voyeuristic craftsman’s obsession with a chair he has been commissioned to build and how he uses it to conceal himself in order to spy on a society that he cannot participate in.  He builds a chair that he can live in!  On the surface of the confession, the interaction between the chair maker and his “sitters” culminates in his only being able to negotiate the world around him through the physiological stimulation of his senses, but the underpinning force of these experiences is revealed in the chair maker’s estrangement from himself.  His disaffection arises from his not having a real sense of home and place and is perverted by his sense of “the foreign”.

“As soon as I entered the chair I was swallowed up by complete darkness, and to everyone else in the world I no longer existed!”

Rampo creates an overreaching atmosphere of repulsion in the psychological creepiness of the chair maker’s voyeurism and physical assault on the women who sit on him while he is concealed in his chair.  His overt theft of money and precious objects seems to pale in comparison to the more criminal personal invasion he perpetrates on unaware and unsuspecting sitters.  One shudders with disgust at the very thought of being secretly embraced within a personal space.  The voyeurism and assaults begin in the cosmopolitan setting of the public foyer of “a foreign hotel located in Yokahama,” where there are many arbitrary sitters.  When the hotel changes proprietorship from “foreign” to Japanese ownership, “a drastic retrenchment in expenditures, abolishment of luxury fittings, and other steps to increase profits through economy” finds the well-crafted chair being put up for auction.  The chair is purchased by a high-ranking Japanese official who places it in his “Western-style study” for his wife to use.  The transition from the foreign/public space to a Japanese home/private space could be viewed as an interesting narrative feature to create verisimilitude and a realistic frame for the horror of the story to unfold.  The chair-maker, however, dwells on this transition in an especially peculiar way which amplifies the assault and voyeuristic elements of his confession.

About his experience in the foreign lobby, he says I “forgot all about my original intentions of committing robbery” in order to experience “a new whirlpool of maddening pleasure.”  The chair maker acknowledges that his extreme ugliness has prevented him from experiencing the company of women.   His first experience of love is directed toward a “European girl” in a way that has nothing to do with outward appearance, but is expressed in the qualities that the chair can reveals, such as “the feel of flesh, the sound of a voice, and body odor.”  When the European girl sits on him, he claims, “I could visualize myself hugging her, kissing her snowy white neck—if only I could remove that layer of leather.”   Despite being in a public place, his desire is for physiological stimulation and remains so for all the women who sit on him.  He describes his feeling as a “strange sort of love, limited to the senses of touch, hearing and smell, a love burning in a world of darkness.”  By confining the expression of his desire to a perverse physiological interaction with foreign women who come and go, his body eventually becomes so atrophied that he is forced to “crawl instead of walk.”  He has destroyed his own body by becoming an object.  Upon hearing about the selling of the hotel, he confesses that his many “love affairs” in the hotel were shallow, “somehow something had always been missing.”  Upon reflection, he concludes: “as a Japanese I really craved a lover of my own kind.”

“Even now, as I bring back to mind all my ‘love affairs,’ I can recall nothing but the touch of warm flesh.”

The foreign women who arbitrarily come to sit on him are flesh objects that thrill with their bodies, but the chair maker somehow believes that there could be potential for a deeper connection with a sitter of his own Japanese race.  The chair maker considers intimacy as only being possible with another Japanese person, yet he has stated clearly that his lack of family fortune and “bestial countenance” have been at the root of his isolation.  He has directed his real artistic skills at cabinet making to what he believes is a social “skill” for interacting with people, albeit a perverse skill in concealment.  He uses an exotic and foreign public place to rehearse his true desire to have a real relationship with Japanese woman.  It is ironic that by concealing himself in a public and foreign place he never has to be to be alone in what he perceives to be a proper Japanese environment.  Moving to the Japanese home changes that sense of distance from himself and the people he found in the cosmopolitan world.  The cosmopolitan world offered the deepest anonymity, far beyond physical concealment in a chair.  It offered concealment from himself as a person connected to a time, place, and people.

“You have no idea how much I loved this lady!  She was the first Japanese woman with whom I had ever come into such close contact, and moreover she possessed a wonderfully appealing body.  She seemed the answer to all my prayers.”

The chair maker often refers to his “relationship” with the Japanese official’s young wife in marital terms, proclaiming that he is “united with her as one.”  Is the union more than her reclining on him?  The sitters in the cosmopolitan world seem to come and go in a whimsical manner, but the chair maker’s private relationship is seemingly more profound.  He proclaims that “her soft body was always seated on my knees for the simple reason that she was engaged in a deep-thinking task.”  He is obsessed with her body in the same way that he was with previous sitters, but rather than dwelling solely on the physiological aspect of her being, he posits the notion of a metaphysical connection to the young wife’s Japanese thinking.  The chair maker also confuses the young woman’s love for the comfort of the chair with her love for him.  Nevertheless, he does eventually conclude that he will never find fulfillment as an object.  His “mad love” gives root to the idea that he must “convey his feelings to her.”  The notion of communicating seemed impossible in the foreign, cosmopolitan environment.  By identifying a connection in a shared sense of place and race, however, he posits the possibility of separating himself from his chair.  He wants to be recognized as a human by his beloved.  This xenophobic trope seems harsh today, but within the frame of the story it can be seen as a search for a sense of self as being connected to a community and a people in juxtaposition to isolation and narcissism.

** SPOILER – If you have not read the story there are spoilers in the final paragraphs. **

The confession reveals that Yoshinka is, of course, the object of the chair-maker’s desire.  In the same way that the chair maker believes that a meaningful relationship with a woman arises from a shared sense of home and race, a horrified Yoshinka leaves the European room and the chair to find “sanctuary in one of the Japanese rooms of her house.”   The continuation of a mistrust and fear of the foreign is interesting, especially in light of Rampo’s deep admiration for the work of Edgar Allen Poe.  Perhaps Rampo was using his audience’s prejudices as way to elevate their sense of horror.  On another level, it is also a critique of finding safety and identity in the familiar because we find out that the chair maker is not real at all, but a product of one of Yoshinko’s admirers who has sent a manuscript of his “own humble attempts at fictional writing.”  There remains a sense of mystery surrounding the ardent admirer’s method and timing in delivering the manuscript and revealing his purpose; however, the apparent blurring of fiction and reality calls into question the whole notion of uncovering terror as a function of what is foreign.  This takes on a weird resonance within the frame of the established horror genre where the familiar can often be the root of terror.  The fictional separation and conflict between a cosmopolitan space and the homeland as the ground for fear is also upset as the final twist is revealed.