A History of Modern Japanese Literary Criticism: Act One, Scene 1

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Disclaimer: The following is for reference only. Its sole purpose is to give readers an overview of the history of modern Japanese literary criticism. I have avoided using all features common to the dramatic form, including plot, character development, humor, word play, Verfremdungseffekt, involution, and any explicit or implicit references to myself, Ryan Morrison, and the narrow world I inhabit.

Dramatis personæ, in order of appearance:

  • Tsubouchi Shōyō 坪内逍遥 (1859-1935)
  • Futabatei Shimei 二葉亭四迷 (1864-1909)
  • Mori Ōgai 森鴎外 (1862-1922)
  • Yamaji Aizan 山路愛山 (1864-1917)
  • Kitamura Tōkoku 北村透谷 (1868-1894)
  • Masaoka Shiki 正岡子規 (1867-1902)
  • Takayama Chogyū 高山樗牛 (1871-1902)
  • Tayama Katai 田山花袋 (1872-1930)
  • Hasegawa Tenkei 長谷川天渓 (1876-1940)
  • Sōma Gyofū 相馬御風 (1883-1950)
  • Shimamura Hōgetsu 島村抱月 (1871-1918)
  • Abe Jirō 阿部次郎 (1883-1959)
  • Natsume Sōseki 夏目漱石 (1867-1917)
  • Uozumi Setsuo 魚住折蘆 (1883-1910)
  • Ishikawa Takuboku 石川啄木 (1886-1912)
  • Uchida Roan 内田魯庵 (1868-1929)
  • Ōsugi Sakae 大杉栄 (1885-1923)

Act 1: The Meiji and Taishō Periods

  Act 1, Scene 1

1885-7

Tsubouchi Shōyō: Away with the past and its frivolous traditions, its didacticism (kanzen chōaku) and improbable romances! Like the Jacobins of the French Revolution, we shall turn back the clock to the Year Zero and begin anew! Let the modern novel supplant our substandard genres. Young writers, take as your model the novels of Victorian England, which through natural description and psychological realism faithfully portray modern life and human emotions!

Futabatei Shimei: I hear you, Shōyō. However, your novel Portraits of Contemporary Students (1885) is clearly flawed. Take a look at my new novel, Ukigumo (1887). Let it be remembered as Japan’s first authentic novel (honkaku shōsetsu), and the first to unify the spoken and written languages (genbun itchi)!

1891

Mori Ōgai: You were right, Shōyō, when you elsewhere warned of the dangers of a merely subjective kind of criticism. But you were wrong to insist that criticism was not dependent upon the idée. Empirical observation alone is not sufficient. You see, the Germans have made me an Idealist (kyokuchishugi), while the English tradition has made you a Realist (shizenshugi). But realism does not go far enough: we must grasp the idée that lies behind the thing. Contrary to your claims, Shakespeare’s works abound with ideas.

Shōyō: You’re missing my point. I’m not claiming that there are no ideas in Shakespeare. I admit they are everywhere. Shakespeare presents us with manifold ideas, in dramatized form; yet he himself adheres to none.

Ōgai: One cannot avoid the idée! It is the foundation of all art!

Shōyō: Oy vey, I can see this is going nowhere . . .

Shōyō was right, the debate — which would become known as the botsurisō ronsō, or the “submerged ideals debate” — was in fact going nowhere, largely due to the confusion over the new terms myōsō, risō, shisō (idée, ideal and thought, respectively). Like most subsequent literary debates, this one would peter out before reaching a consensus. Now it is 1893, and Yamaji Aizan and Kitamura Tōkoku are arguing over the social role of literature.

Yamaji Aizan: Novels must enlighten the public. If they don’t, they are useless. The writer is responsible first and foremost to his society.

Kitamura Tōkoku: Cut the crap. The sole duty of the writer is to faithfully record his internal life (naibu no seimei). The external world — historical events, social realities, the public, other people — exists only for his amusement.

Yamaji Aizan: Oh, my naïve Tōkoku. There are two worlds, you see, the “real world” (jitsusekai) and the “conceptual world” (sōsekai). The task of the writer is to mediate between the two. Today there are two kinds of writer: those like the Ken’yūsha writers who turn a blind eye to reality, preferring instead fantasy and abstruse wordplay, and those like Hirotsu Ryūrō, Kawakami Bizan and Izumi Kyōka who boldly confront the bitter realities of life in their “social novels” (shakai shōsetsu), “tragic novels” (hisan shōsetsu), “profound novels” (shinkoku shōsetsu), and “conceptual novels” (kannen shōsetsu). What with all that’s going on now — rapid industrialization, the new Constitution, the recent Sino-Japanese War — how can we retreat into solipsism?

The debate ends inconclusively, and the individual-society problematic is to remain a major fault line in literature for years to come. It is now 1898, and Masaoka Shiki is calling for a revolution in poetry.

Masaoka Shiki: Tsurayuki sucks, his Kokinshū is a worthless document! The essence of our poetic tradition is to be found instead in the unadorned language of the Manyōshū and the manful haiku of Buson! Away with the girlish poetry of Bashō! We must reform hokku — we shall henceforth call it haiku! — through selective realism, “sketching” (shasei), and a commitment to “sincerity” (makoto).

Three years pass. It is now late 1901, and the fervent nationalism that swept the country during the Sino-Japanese War has produced a wave of romantic individualism. At the head of this movement to forge a “modern self” is Takayama Chogyū, who, having abandoned the jingoistic Japonism (Nihonshugi) in favor of a Nietzsche-inspired egoism, now expounds a philosophy based on “instinct” (honnō).

Takayama Chogyū: The most we can hope for in this life, friends, is the satisfaction of desire. Ethics should be replaced with aesthetics, animalism, sex, love. Away with the tradition, with Saikaku, with Genroku haiku. Only Chikamatsu should be spared, for he espoused a kind of proto-individualism, and his young sensuous heroines were quite vivid. Where are the great critics of our age? Where is our Tolstoy, our Whitman, Ibsen, or Zola? We haven’t any, I’m afraid; here are only obsequious flatterers.

Tayama Katai: I dig your egoism, Chogyū, but I still detect a romantic sensibility in your style. In prose writing, let us have plain delineation (heimen byōsha) and scientific naturalism. (Which means, in practice, that I get to describe in great detail my obsession with pre-nubile girls (shōjobyō)!)

1906-7

Hasegawa Tenkei: O, ours is a spiritless age of despair and disillusionment (genmetsu jidai). Materialism and science have made empty symbols of things: the temple, that shrine, a distant landscape. Katai is right the only artistic method appropriate in such a time is “an unadorned art which portrays the truth.”

Sōma Gyofū: You make it sound as if objectivity were possible, truth knowable, as if writing itself were a passive activity. But the writer, friend, is no transparent glass through which the Real is transmitted; rather, he must actively incorporate his own subjectivity into his work. Just look at what’s happening in Europe, where science and its pretensions of objectivity are destroying an entire civilization!

Two years have passed. It is now late 1909.

Shimamura Hōgetsu: It is the duty of art to bear witness to the world (sekai o kanshō). Let us have more “conceptual novels” that address social ills! Let us embrace and cultivate our subjectivity! Long live Naturalism!

Abe Jirō: Don’t get your hopes up, Hōgetsu. Nagai Kafū was recently attacked for his Epicureanism (kyōrakushugi), yet a closer look reveals that Epicureanism and Naturalism (as practiced here) are really two sides of the same coin. Japanese Naturalism in fact very has little to do with French Naturalism. It’s closer to Romanticism. Mark my words, the end of the Naturalists’ reign is nigh!

Uozumi Setsuo: Abe’s right. Japanese Naturalism was bound to fall into decline due to its irreconcilably diverse origins, namely, scientific determinism and egocentrism.

Natsume Sōseki: Isms, isms, isms. No ism can contain the whole. Or even if it could, we wouldn’t know it, having only half-digested western thought. Our so-called “civilization,” friends, will forever remain a botched one so long as it’s externally motivated (gaihatsuteki).

Ishikawa Takuboku: The High Treason Incident this year has exposed the barbarity that lies just beneath the surface of our suffocating age (jidai heisoku). Ours now is the formidable task of resolving the contradictions inherent in the socio-economic system. Naturalism sure isn’t up to it, so let us forge a new kind of literature, inspired by the anarcho-socialism of Russia!

1912-13

Uchida Roan: Has anyone noticed how poppy literature is getting? It’s well-nigh become a national business. I say it’s time to get serious and start writing political novels and shed this old notion of Shōyō’s — which I once supported — that the novel should be concerned primarily with human emotions.

Ōsugi Sakae: The High Treason Incident has ushered us into a new wintry age (fuyu no jidai). Resistance requires “the expansion of life” (sei no kakujū), and a subscription to Kindai Shisō (Modern Thought), my new anarchist magazine.

(To be continued…)

Ryan MORRISON
November 12, 2009

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.

9 Responses

  1. Chuckles Says:

    Very good.

    1. You might give more attention to tandem developments in Japanese Journalism that were later employed in Japanese literature to produce the anarchism of Osugi Sakae & co.

    2. […I say it’s time to get serious and start writing political novels…]

    Political novels heavily influenced by journalism and a style of reportage developed in previous eras. Fossils of this style can still be found in 21st century Japanese Journalism and Literature. Also, Kudos on noting the shift in Roan’s thought.

  2. Chuckles Says:

    Very good.

    1. You might give more attention to tandem developments in Japanese Journalism that were later employed in Japanese literature to produce the anarchism of Osugi Sakae & co.

    2. […I say it’s time to get serious and start writing political novels…]

    Political novels heavily influenced by journalism and a style of reportage developed in previous eras. Fossils of this style can still be found in 21st century Japanese Journalism and Literature. Also, Kudos on noting the shift in Uchida Roan’s thought.

  3. M-Bone Says:

    Is Izumi Kyoka passed out in the corner?

  4. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    When I finally manage to get into Japanese Studies, I am *so* bringing this to class.

  5. Connor Says:

    this is beriberi helpful

    get it cause of mori ogai

    do you get it

    you probably get it

  6. Connor Says:

    No but seriously please post more of these distillations. I for one am getting a lot out of this.

  7. Ryan Morrson Says:

    Chuckles: Good point. You’re absolutely right about journalism’s influence, particularly on the bundan of the 10s, 20s and 30s. I think I mention its influence in the next installment.

    M-Bone: You’re right. Kyoka deserves more than a brief cameo. He did live till 1937, so maybe he’ll show up in the next scene.

    Leonard: I would be honored to have this shared with your class.

    Connor: Josh? Josh Landars?

  8. xee Says:

    masterful!

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