Ishikawa Jun and the Other Modern

Ishikawa Jun

When you try to sum up the whole of Edo using some newfangled literary theory, she slips away, laughing at you in derision. This is because it is the Edoites — and not, as most scholars assume, their descendants — who truly deserve the label of “modern.”

— Ishikawa Jun, “On the Ways of Thinking of the People of Edo” (1943)

What is “modern” in the Japanese context? Is all that is recent “modern”? Or are there competing forces that run through the last few centuries of Japanese history, each vying for the title of “modern”?

According to the conventional wisdom, Japan’s “modernity” begins with the opening up of the country and the inception of the modern nation-state, which was founded upon a fusion of ideologies: the neo-Confucianism of the Tokugawa period, the emperor system newly revived to bolster the authority and legitimacy of the new regime, and Westernization, which was used to overhaul not only scientific, legal, and political systems, but artistic and literary ones as well. Specifically in literature, the introduction of Western ideas led to the wholesale adoption of previously disparaged notions of mimesis, realism, and naturalistic depiction — concepts which were in vogue among the Victorians and others in the late 19th century. With the help of Tsubouchi Shōyō (1859-1935) and other “modernizers” who sought to do away with the “old” and “vulgar” Edo literary traditions and elevate literature to the realm of “high art,” this new ideology of realism quickly gained prominence, effectively marginalizing the literary traditions of Edo — which, unlike the Western literature of the day, had no pretensions to loftiness.

But for Ishikawa Jun (1899-1987) this narrative of the modern is a false one. For Ishikawa, the real modern was the plebeian culture of the Edo period (1603-1868) that was pushed into the margins at the advent of Meiji: kibyōshi prints, sharebon novels, and haikai and kyōka poetry. Like Nagai Kafū (1879-1959), Ishikawa turned to this period as source of sanity, sophistication, and refinement, especially during the war years, seeing it as “more modern than the Japan of the first half of the twentieth century” (Legend 219).

Ishikawa traced the roots of this “modern” tradition as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which saw the flourishing not only of new forms of art but of an entirely new kind of civilization. This Tang spirit was revived centuries later in Japan “during the liberal years of the Meiwa, An’ei, and Tenmei,” when it was forged into a culture that consciously pitted itself against the prevailing neo-Confucianism of Tokugawa (Legend 218-219). Hattori Nankaku 服部南郭 (1683-1759), Ōta Nanpo 大田南畝 (1749-1823), aka Shokusanjin 蜀山人, and others helped to revive this vision of the modern as an alternative to the rigid ideologies and government restrictions of the day. Similarly, Ishikawa continued this project in the twentieth century by helping to create a vision of Japan’s past that countered the essentialistic “Japanism” orthodoxy (Nihonshugi) of his day. As William J. Tyler notes, “there are many Japans within Japan; and Ishikawa’s championing of Edo and the Tenmei literati also represents his counterbalance to the orientalism promoted by officialdom or the concept of a ‘national literature’ (kokumin bungaku) in which writers were called upon to effect their ‘return to Japan’ (Nihon e no kaiki)” (Legend 195).

In his works, Ishikawa repeatedly returns to the fundamental questions of what the past is (both literary and historical), who it belongs to, and who determines what it meant. The two narratives of “the modern” described above continue to vie for dominance to this day, but a broader historical perspective might reveal that neither represents the authentic version and that they are instead dual aspects of the same modern experience — a Janus-faced symbol for the Japanese “modern.”

So what exactly was so “modern” about these Edoites? In his essay “On the Ways of Thinking of the People of Edo” (Edojin no hassōhō ni tsuite; 1943), Ishikawa Jun describes the important features of the Tenmei kyōka poets, and in doing so, reveals much about his own philosophy of and approach to literature. He argues in his essay that it was “the secularization (zokka) or haikai-ization (haikaika) of ideas [which] constituted the special genius of the denizens of Edo” (Legend, 250). To Ishikawa, it was this ability to “make shabby” — i.e., to deconstruct, deflate, or poke holes in the utopian myths (either political or aesthetic) propped up to serve various ends — that the Edo plebeians (chōnin) possessed and his contemporaries lacked. This ability to “haikai-ize” requires a high degree of sophistication and flexibility of thought, and it was the lack of this quality in his contemporaries that Ishikawa saw as the fatal flaw that led the nation (and much of Asia) to the brink of total destruction.

Just as the Tenmei poets secularized canonical works such as the Kokinwakashū 古今和歌集 (905) and the Tōshisen 唐詩選 (Selection of Tang Poems, late 16th century) in anthologies like the Mansai Kyōkashū 『万載狂歌集』 (A Thousand Centuries of Kyōka, 1783), Ishikawa used similar strategies to “secularize” the ostensibly sacred and inviolable forms that he found all around him, from political and national ideologies, to religious texts and dominant literary movements. On the surface, “On the Ways of Thinking of the People of Edo” is a description and analysis of the literary devices of a poetic movement over two centuries old, but a deeper look reveals that the work actually forms a treatise that is both an indirect attack on the literature (and civilization) of Ishikawa’s own age and a revealing personal admission about Ishikawa’s own process of creation.
Important terms from “On the Ways of Thinking of the People of Edo”

  1. ga 雅 and zoku 俗: the courtly (ga) and the worldly (zoku), the tension between which is stressed in Ishikawa’s essay and a theme in most of his works.
  2. haikaika 俳諧化: the technique of rendering into haikai (eccentric poetry) something typically not regarded as eccentric.
  3. yatsushi やつし: the technique of “making shabby, disguising,” or, “as a prefix in ukiyo-e titles, [the term is] suggestive of parody and informality” (Designed for Pleasure, 255). Adding to this, Tyler writes, “derive[d] from the verb ‘yatsusu,’ meaning ‘to disguise,’ ‘yatsushi’ refers originally to the act of a highborn person traveling incognito . . . [and] implies the aristocratic descent into the plebian (i.e., the courtly Genji becoming an Edo townsman [in Yatsushi Genji]) (Legend, 253).”
  4. zokka 俗化: the “secularization” of things thought to be sacred.
  5. mitate 見立て: in general, the term “means ‘selection’ and signifies imagery that combines at least two completely different subjects, often drawn from the high culture and popular culture respectively: for example, a scene from classical literature reenacted by fashionably dressed contemporary figures” (Designed for Pleasure, 62). 1
  6. honkadori 本歌取り: a more commonly known term usually translated as “allusive variation.”
  7. tōkai-buri 韜晦振り: a technique of mystification used by the author who for whatever reason wishes to hide himself in his work.

In his 1937 short story “Mars’ Song” (of The Legend of Gold and Other Stories, 『石川淳短篇小説選』), translated as “The Song of Mars” by Zeljko Cipris), Ishikawa parodies the watakushi shōsetsu narrative structure, particularly that of tenkō or “conversion” novels, which were self-indulgent diatribes of former leftists who had renounced their radical views and joined the “national cause.” “Mars’ Song,” in which the inverse phenomenon occurs, can thus be read as a haikai of this genre. Also, Ōta Nanpo is referred to in this story (as he is in others) as a model of sanity for a narrator who, trapped in the historical moment, has only this nostalgic past to turn to as a “last bastion of resistance” (Legend, 181). With Nanpo and other kyōka poets as his guide, the narrator is able to “look unblinkingly at the harsh facts of life,” and see through the empty slogans and symbols that surround him. Contrasted with watashi — a sort of last-sane-man figure — the other characters lack “the mental armor … [needed] to take up the challenge and argue” against this jingoistic fervor (Legend 572).

Ishikawa’s well-wrought miniature piece “Moon Gems” (『現代日本の文学 (18) 曾呂利噺、白猫・明月珠・焼跡のイエス・鷹・虹・八幡縁起・修羅・諸国畸人伝』, 1945), too, can be read as a haikai-esque parody of the I-novel (watakushi shōsetsu). It can also be seen, as Katō Koichi points out, “as a parody of Chinese tales about Taoist immortals in which watashi [the narrator], rides a bike rather than a cloud” (Katō 21). Furthermore, the two competing visions of the “modern” are presented in this story most clearly: on the one hand is the single-minded pursuit of what I call the “Fukuzawa vision of the modern” (associated with empire, industrialization, and Westernization), which is represented by the character “Boots.” It is this vision of the modern that is responsible for the horrific situation the narrator finds himself in, and which he sees as “more likely to propel one headlong down the path to barbarism” (191). Contrasted with this is the alternative vision of the modern: that of the multiple-minded Tenmei kyōka poets, whose world watashi and his eccentric neighbor, the poet Gūka (modeled after Nagai Kafū), seek as refuge.

The Legend of Gold” (『石川淳短篇小説選』, 1946) is a work that parodies both the Japanese genre of travel literature (kikōbun2) and Jacobus de Varagine’s (1230-1298) Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend, a retelling of the stories of the Christian saints. Echoes of Edo narrative styles can also be heard throughout the work, such as when an authorial voice suddenly interrupts the action to comment about the text — a technique often employed by Santō Kyōden (1761-1816) in his kibyōshi. In this work, Ishikawa also refashions worn-out literary tropes into yatsushi forms, an example being the once chaste and submissive wife who is transformed into a prostitute working the infamous Honmoku streets of Yokohama. As Tyler notes, “In the process of her transformation, the woman in red has discarded the courtliness of speech and classic refinement of romance, or the best aspects of Japan as it used to be” (Legend 209).

Finally, there is “Jesus of the Ruins” (『石川淳短篇小説選』, 1946) a yatsushi retelling of the story of Jesus, set in Ueno immediately after the war. The horrors of the past are over, and there is hope that Japan can experience a revival of the “truly modern” tradition, which had been confined to the shadows for so long. Emerging out of this post-war blank slate, however, is not the urbane plebeian culture that Ishikawa perhaps had hoped for; rather, what appears is the more ambiguous figure of the “wild child” of Ueno, who might be read as a symbol for postwar Japan’s return to the primitive state of nikutai (“flesh”)3, and whom we are not sure whether to welcome or abhor.

Unlike Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (1886-1965) who employed a kind of Platonic idealism in seeking not the particulars of reality but the forms behind the particulars, the literature of Ishikawa Jun can in a sense be seen as the opposite project: one of deconstruction, or the dismantling of predetermined forms, tropes, ideologies, and other established categories of thought. Once dismantled, Ishikawa then reassembles these pieces into new forms, as if to say, like Thomas in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), “Es konnte auch anders sein.” 4


  1. In the visual arts, mitate-e are “allusive pictures,” and, more specifically, the term is “used in ukiyo-e to describe works in which a classical or other well-known theme is cleverly reinterpreted, often with a modish twist, and in a modern setting” (249). In the case of ukiyo-e, it was painter and print designer Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764) who “developed the convention [of mitate-e] more than any other artist of his time” (62).
  2. Such as that of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694).
  3. It was in this immediate postwar period that Tamura Taijirō 田村 泰次郎 (1911-1983), Sakaguchi Ango 坂口安吾 (1906-1955) and others helped to create the popular literary movement later known as nikutai no bungaku, or “literature of the flesh.”
  4. “It could just as well have been otherwise.” In Kundera’s novel, Thomas comes to reject the “es muss sein” fatalism exemplified by Beethoven in his last string quartet in favor of a nondeterministic understanding of human events.


Chiba 2004
Chiba Shunji 千葉俊二, ed, et al. Nihon kindai bungaku hyōronsen 日本近代文学評論選. Iwanami shoten, 2004.
de Bary 2005
William Theodore de Bary, ed, et. al. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Vol. 2. Columbia Press, 2005.
Ishikawa 1973
Ishikawa Jun 石川淳. Kankanroku 間間録. Tokyo: Mainichi Shinbun, 1973.
Ishikawa 1977
Ishikawa Jun 石川淳. Isai zadan: Ishikawa Jun Taidanshū夷齋座談 : 石川淳対談集. Chūō kōronsha 中央公論社, 1977.

Ishikawa 1998
Ishikawa Jun. The Legend of Gold and Other Stories, trans. William Jefferson Tyler. University of Hawaii Press, 1998.
Ishikawa 2007
Ishikawa Jun 石川淳. Ishikawa Jun tanpen shōsetsusen 石川淳短篇小説選. Ed. Sugeno Akimasa 菅野昭正. Chikuma Shobō, 2007.
Katō 1994
Katō Kōichi 加藤弘一. Kosumosu no chie コスモスの知慧. Chikuma shobō, 1994.
Meech 2008
Julia Meech, ed, et. al. Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680-1860. Washington Press, 2008.
Miner, et al 1985
Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell. The Princeton companion to classical Japanese literature. Princeton University Press, 1985.
Tyler 2008
William J. Tyler, ed. Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913-1938. University of Hawaii Press, 2008.

August 6, 2008

Ryan Morrison grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and went to school in California. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tokyo. His blog is Beholdmyswarthyface.

13 Responses

  1. Kiliman Says:

    The Edoites as more ‘modern’ than contemporary Japanese… it’s a seemingly paradoxical but challenging thought.
    Anyway, it’s a fact that 20th and 21st century Japanese could sometimes use a soupcon of Edoesque shabby-izing sophistication.

  2. James Says:

    Thanks for another thought-provoking piece. I’ll be exploring more of Ishikawa’s works.

  3. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    How do you see Sōseki fitting into the Edo vs Meiji takes on modernity, as defined here? Seems to me that he’s big on shabbification, but also pretty invested in realism (at least in certain novels and on certain topics).

  4. M-Bone Says:

    Very interesting essay.

  5. Ryan Morrison Says:

    It’s an interesting question. I wish you’d posted this yesterday before I met with my prof, who’s a Sōseki expert of sorts. She’d be able to answer this.

    My general impression is that Sōseki lacked the kind of nostalgia for Edo that we see in later writers like Ishikawa Jun and Nagai Kafū. Perhaps he was still too close to the period to feel any nostalgia for it, or perhaps things had gotten that bad yet.

    Sōseki did, however, appear to relish his role as critic of modernity (particularly of the Fukuzawan sort), but he seemed to come at it from a different angle. I think he was altogether too stern, ethical, and grandfatherly (even though he died before reaching a grandfatherly age) to enjoy the relatively rowdy and sexualized culture of the Edo plebes. Then again, I could be totally off here.

    One example: Sōseki constructs a sort of alternative to the Fukuzawan modern in his novel Kusamakura, in which a first-person narrator leaves the modern city to pursue his solitary, utopian vision of art. But the sources of this vision seem to be Rousseau and the solipsistic Romantics, and the wenren literati of China and Japan, rather than the Edo poets.

    But if anyone knows of any instances of him drawing from Edo culture (particularly from the haikai poets), do let me know.

    Final note: My apologies for the excessive 渋み of this article! I’ll try to add a little 軽み to the next one!

  6. Ryan Morrison Says:

    Should read: “things hadn’t gotten that bad yet.”

  7. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    True, Soseki’s literary roots obviously have more to do with China and Europe than Edo.

    He does come off as stern and grandfatherly nowadays, but he wrote an awful lot of comedy on the theme of “rowdy/unruly plebes vs pompous, arrogant blowhards”. (That’s basically the entire plot of Botchan, for example.) This bears some similarity to the common Edo theme of witty and unruly city types messing with, and besting, out-of-their-depth bumpkins and blowhards.

    The lack of sexiness I will not argue with…

    Re haikai poets, this doesn’t really address the point, but Soseki once said that although there’s nothing like haikai in European poetry, there’s plenty that resembles senryu (俳諧の趣味ですか、西洋には有りませんな。川柳といふやうなものは西洋の詩の中にもありますが、俳句趣味のものは詩の中にもないし、又それが詩の本質を形作つても居ない). This is potentially interesting because it seems to me, judging from the books that they left behind, the true plebes of Edo were much fonder of senryu than haikai. (Making fun of haikai poets for being pompous but cheap in the pleasure quarters was pretty common IIRC.)

    Different topic: Did Ishikawa have anything to say about Shiki in re this topic? My understanding is that Shiki loved and drew on pre-Meiji traditions to propose by example his own idea of “modernity” in literature: fewer in-jokes (e.g. renku), less wordplay, more impartial observation, etc. I guess these ideas bear some similarity to the “Fukuzawan” literary project, but I feel like there’s a difference in that Shiki did not reject the entire Japanese literary canon — aside from the obvious haikai poets, he was also a big fan of the man’yoshu as opposed to the kokinshu, etc.

    Also (again IIRC, sorry) didn’t Shiki’s criticism help shape the understanding of what had, in retrospect, been the “high art” of the Edo period?

  8. Yuki Says:




  9. Ryan Morrison Says:

    Matt: Thanks for pointing out the「俳味」essay. Hadn’t seen that before. I forget how useful Aozora can be. (I’d like to form a committee someday to translate the entire Aozora Bunko collection into English. I may need your help.)

    About Shiki, I think Ishikawa blames him in one of his essays for reducing linked-verse haikai to single-verse haiku, and for giving rise to the “cult of haiku.” I’ll have to go back and dig up that quote.

    But I confess I know very little about Shiki, so I’ll have to get back to you on your question about his relation to the Edo poets, and his particular modernist project.

    Yuki: コメントありがとう。是非、現代や未来の日本人のために、その昔ながらの「日本らしさや良さ」を再発見するよう頑張ってください。見つけたら教えてちょうだい。

  10. We Have Never Been Modern « Forbidden City Says:

    […] — Ishikawa Jun, “On the Ways of Thinking of the People of Edo” (1943), via the excellent Neojaponisme […]

  11. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Possibly of interest (found via coincidence!).

    Relevant excerpts:

    ‘Soseki’s approach to the modern novel as art was substantially different from the dominant trends among young Japanese writers of the time. Soseki resisted naturalism, for example, a style popular among Western writers […] and which was especially attractive to most aspiring Japanese writers during Meiji. Some scholars consider this naturalist approach to be the real origin of modern Japanese literature (Benl 1953, 33). [!!!] Soseki, however, was more attracted to the Chinese and Japanese classics.’

    ‘Karatani Kojin has suggested that Soseki was greatly influenced in his style of writing by an approach called shaseibun (“sketching”). During his student days in Tokyo, Soseki was good friends with Masaoka Shiki. Shiki had developed this new approach to writing and he and Soseki practiced it together in the composition of haiku poetry. Soseki apparently intended his first novel, Wagahai wa neko de aru (I Am a Cat), as an experiment in “sketching.” This approach to writing was “an attempt to revitalize language in all its diversity.” […] Also, Soseki relied heavily on a narrator in his works. […] Soseki compared this approach “in every way” to that of haiku poetry.’

    (Obviously he would be talking here about post-Shiki haiku rather than pre-Shiki haikai/renku/senryu…)

  12. Ryan Morrison Says:

    Definitely of interest. Thanks for posting the link. The article looks vaguely familiar– I think I might have read parts of it a while back.

    And if you ever see anything about Ishikawa Jun, too, let me know– there’s not a whole lot out there in English.

  13. chico desnudo Says:

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