Interview with Sally Suzuki about Genres and Origins of the Shosetsu

Sally Suzuki is media director and co-founder of the collaborative online journal Beholdmyswarthyface.com.

Welcome, Sally. Today I want to talk to you about the origins of the Japanese shōsetsu and the genres included in this term. But before we get to that, could you remind our readers of the genres of novel that exist in the West?

Well, let’s see. There’s the detective novel, the adventure novel, the autobiographical novel, the epistolary novel, the utopian novel, dystopian novel, the existentialist novel, novel of manners, proletarian novel, erotic novel, anti-novel, allegorical novel, the picaresque novel, spy novel, the series novel, roman a clef, romance novel, psychological novel, bildungsroman, science fiction novel, gothic novel, graphic novel, mystery novel, historical novel, and, more recently, the hypertext novel. I would say that nearly all works of fiction in the west, canonical or otherwise, fit into at least one of these genres.


And is there a similar taxonomy for the shōsetsu?

The shōsetsu taxonomist’s job is more complicated, not least because the modern Japanese shōsetsu can be traced back to two separate origins: native (Japan and China) and Western. In fact, it’s debatable whether the terms “shōsetsu” and “novel” correspond at all. Until the Meiji period, the word shōsetsu, or hsiao-shuo in Chinese, referred specifically to haishi 稗史, or “unorthodox histories,” as opposed to the official histories, or seishi 正史. Shōsetsu consisted of “fabrications” rather than “truth” and were thus considered light entertainment, stuff for women and children. It wasn’t until 1885 that Tsubouchi Shōyō redefined the term to correspond to the newly imported concept of the Western roman. 

So the word shōsetsu went from meaning “mere fabrications intended to arouse pleasure” to “a format for portraying psychological truth.” 


That’s right. And the change occurred not only in meaning but in status as well. Shōyō’s designation of shōsetsu as “high art” — a completely new concept to the Japanese at the time — gave the form a certain bourgeois respectability that was previously lacking. As I mentioned, haishi were not highly regarded among the ruling classes. To them, only official histories were worthy of attention. Everything else was light reading. The idea that “fabrications” could be taken seriously was unheard of.

But didn’t Motoori Norinaga defend the value of fabrications in his essays “Ashiwake obune” (1757) and “Isonokami no sasamegoto” (1763), citing The Tale of Genji as the high point in Japanese writing?


Yes, but Motoori’s view was heterodoxy at the time. It was a challenge to the standard Buddhist/Confucian view that the purpose of writing is to convey moral law. 


I see. What about after Shōyō? Did the modern shōsetsu retain features of previous narrative forms — say, gesaku or yomihon — or were they disposed of altogether?

Well, typically traditional narrative forms die hard, partly because they are built into the language itself. Thus many of the earlier features inevitably survived. For example, the political novels (seiji shōsetsu) of the early Meiji period rely heavily on Tokugawa-era conventions, such as those found in yomihon and other haishi genres.

So the old conventions persisted.

Many of them, yes. And still do, I might add.


You mentioned a preponderance of novel genres in Japan. How many are there, to be exact?

Well, Beholdmyswarthyface and I are currently compiling an Online Encyclopedia of Modern Japan, and in it we have a section called “Genres of Shōsetsu and Proto-shōsetsu.” In that section alone there are over 140 entries.

Wow. That’s a lot of genres.


Indeed. I should warn readers that many of the entries have yet to be written. [Laughter]

Well, hopefully some of our readers will volunteer to write a few.


That would be great. You can contact us through the blog. It’s a huge project, for the completion of which we need all the help we can get. 


Is this preponderance of genres in any way related to the shōsetsu’s having two sources of origin?

I think so. The fact that these two very different sources collided to produce a complex smörgåsbord certainly cannot be ignored. Others might see it as another example of the tendency in Japanese culture to categorize phenomena into an ever-increasing number of ever-smaller units.


Well, Sally, I want to thank you for talking with NJ.

Thank you. I have been a fan of your site for years, and look forward to more collaborations.

Ryan MORRISON
August 30, 2010

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.

6 Responses

  1. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    …so? I want to see the 140 genres :)

  2. Sally Suzuki Says:

    The 140 genres are listed here, https://docs.google.com/View?id=dc7p3bmj_59d6d28hfp , about half way down the page, in the section titled “III. Types of Shōsetsu and Proto-shōsetsu.”

  3. Jarvis32 Says:

    You, Sally, are a saucy pedantic wretch! Go chide late schoolboys, and sour prentices!

  4. Aaron Says:

    This article goes to such lengths to use accurate orthography that it pains me to see horrifically outdated, toneless Wade–Giles thrown in there for 小说. Might I suggest: xiǎoshuō

  5. Sally Suzuki Says:

    Aaron,

    You’re absolutely right. I
    don’t know what got over me. I’ll ask the NJ editing team to make the change, although it might already be too late.

  6. Saibancho Says:

    ‘The term akakohon came into use after the beginning of the Meiji period (1668-1912). ‘

    Shouldn’t that read 1868-1912….?