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.”
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.
- 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.
- haikaika 俳諧化: the technique of rendering into haikai (eccentric poetry) something typically not regarded as eccentric.
- 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).”
- zokka 俗化: the “secularization” of things thought to be sacred.
- 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
- honkadori 本歌取り: a more commonly known term usually translated as “allusive variation.”
- 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.
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
- 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).
- Such as that of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694).
- 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.”
- “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.