J314 The Meiji Years

Let us consider the background of the novel form in modern Japan. To be sure, it has its origins in the Edo period (1600-1868) when a monetary economy and the rise of a bourgeoisie created a "class" to consume new literary artifacts. Transportation, population, literacy and publishing were all on the rise. Gesaku--or playful--fiction, which is parodic, episodic and self-referential, was popular, as was Kabuki, renga, and haiku, not to mention the visual arts of woodblock prints, painting, etc. The shosetsu came into existence, only in the mid-Meiji period.

The Meiji period was one of the most intense, change-filled epoch's on record. In 1868 Japan was politically fragmented, militarily weak, economically backward and primarily and agrarian society. By 1912, Japan was unified, economically dynamic and had undergone an industrial revolution. Iniitally, the political leadership was guided by some broad principles stated in the Charter Oath of 1868. Of course, there were costs. In the face of the threat of Western imperialism, Japan's leaders knew Japan would have to be politically integrated, militarily mobilizable, well-educated and extremely hard working, frugal and disciplined. Therefore, the "new Japan" was created largely from the top down with the interests of the state, as expressed in terms of the Emperor, paramount. Japan soon came up with its own version of Imperialism to go along with its new Capitalism. Individualism was respected only in the sense that the release of individual energies was perceived of something that was of essential value to the state. One expressed one's loyalty to the emperor by studying and working hard, and by achieving success for the state, by making Japan a "Rich Country with a Strong Army."


From a long-range perspective, there is every reason to argue that this rapid, top-down driven social and economic change, created a distorted Japan, an Imperialistic Japan focused on surviving/thriving in a ruthless international environment in which the Great white nations dictated to the rest of the world. This meant individuals sacrificed themselves for the state, and rather than values of individual freedom and liberty, the society and the culture rewarded duty, discipline, loyalty to the emperor and submissiveness to those in authority. Authority, from mid-Meiji times on, was exclusively male authority. The Civil Codes adopted in 1890 defined a patriarchal family structure in which men dominated the family entirely, bequeathed to their eldest sons, and could divorce their wives with impunity. Women could not vote, nor could they attend political meetings. Women did receive education but were separated from males at an early juncture and at the secondary level were expected to learn in order to become "good wives and mothers."

Feeling that since Japan was in the throes of a rapid transformation, it ought to have a literature worthy of the new experiences that the society was encountering--i.e., the experiences of modernity or of becoming modern--younger Japanese writers began to call from a pull away from the beautiful but rigid limitations of the classical language and the creation of a modern vernacular language that made realistic prose and convincing dialogue possible. Called the genbun'itchi movement, it was much discussed in the 1880s after Mozome Takami wrote an essay of that title in 1886. It was the fortuitous coming together of a Waseda University Shakespeare professor and a Russian language student that really got the movement toward colloquial language off the ground. Tsubouchi Shoyo offered the framework in his essay, Shosetsu shinzui, or the Essence of the Shosetsu.

Published in 1885–86, Tsubouchi Shoyo's Shosetsu shinzui (The Essence of the Novel) was the first major work of modern Japanese literary criticism. In the essay, Shoyo, an author and literary scholar, attacked the loosely constructed plots and weak characterizations of contemporary Japanese novels and urged writers to concentrate on analyses of personality in realistic situations. He also rejected didacticism as a legitimate purpose of fiction, insisting instead on the importance of artistic values. The work also expressed Shoyo's conviction that novels, hitherto despised by the intellectuals, were worthy of even a scholar's attention.

The main function of the novel is to accurately portray human emotions. Novels or fiction can do four things: 1) ennoble one's character by presenting that which is beautiful; 2) learn to evaluate good and evil; 3) learn about other times, other places; and 4) teach literary style and modes of expression. But to do all this, the novel must become accessible to readers, and in order for this to occur, colloquial language must be introduced. (from: http://www.britannica.com/ebi/article-9322655)

This Futabatei Shimei did in his 1889 novel, Ukigumo, called Japan's first modern novel, a portrait of life in modernizing Japan focusing on yuppies of the day and their posturing and maneuverings. Other writers followed suit in the 1890s and we could say that the shosetsu was established as a form by that time, though it really achieved maturity and a high level of accomplishment at the hands of Natsume Soseki.

The shosetsu that developed in the 1890s and after, was never wedded to the Aristotelian model of the interpretive beginning, middle, end. Doing away with the tension of a beginning that potentially contains the destination and closure of the narrative, the shosetsu also rejects the acceleration of a counterforce that will brake the narrative movement to the standstill of an ending. As Masao Miyoshi points out, the shosetsu is not an expression of order and suppression as the novel is, but an expression of space, decentralization and dispersal. There may no omnipotent creator/author driving the text, but rather a shamaness who articulates the tribal spirit by hearkening to it. This was perhaps especially true of the hybrid form of the shosetsu which soon developed, the shishosetsu, or watakushi-shosetsu, or the I-Novel, a confessional or autobiographical form of fiction in which the author only thinly disguised his identity and wrote the details of a writer's life--and loves, of course. Influenced by French naturalism, these authors aimed for frank disclosure even if it were quite shocking.

If we contrast this shosetsu or shishosetsu with the western novel, we see that the modern, Western novel expresses the problematic of the individual in the contradiction between formal constraints in emplotment and the ideological characterization of the individual as a free agent. The hero struggles against obstacles in order to overcome them and make his mark on society. The shosetsu is the reverse: while the character is always defined in the close texture of society, thus imparting to the character an approximation of a role, the plot is open-ended and spacious, as if one's true existence is irrelevant to the actual details of living, the acts and events of actuality.

If the novel is a "credible fabrication which is yet constantly held up as false," the shosetsu is an "incredible fabrication that is nonetheless held up as truthful." (Miyoshi) Art is hidden while honesty and sincerity are displayed. The shosetsu is an art that refuses to acknowledge art. An author's will is directed to allowing order to emerge between the self, the work, and the reader, rather than within the work itself. Unplanned, the narrative usually unfolds, its shape constantly being altered along the way. There may be no real conclusion. In writing and reading shosetsu, the individual is expected to merge with others, to hearken back to the voice of the tribe. Contextuality is all-important.

Roland Barthes argues that the past tense (preterit) and third person narration in the western novel "are nothing but the fateful gesture with which the writer draws attention to the mask he is wearing." In Japan, weak first/third person distinction = "nothing but the fateful gesture with which the writer draws attention to his/her naked face, which, whether he/she is aware of it or not, is no more than a mask." Dispersed and decentralized, the reader and the writer may become aware of the space outside the work as much as what is inside it.


Natsume Sôseki

Not that the "problem of individualism" has not been treated by Japanese writers. As anyone who has read, Natsume Sôseki knows, he had some grave reservations about the costs involved in the rush to westernize and modernize. In Kokoro, he evokes a vision of a society in which human relationships fail because real communication is so difficult. So he describes loneliness, alienation and mental anguish and breakdown. He wonders, we might say, what a society will function like if everyone is looking out for their own interests. What mechanism will operate to ensure that people will be moral and ethical? What if people act exclusively in terms of their own selfish interests? In this world, people are psychologically vulnerable, driven by fears and anxieties. Though human nature may not be evil, there are certainly dark corners in the human soul which do not bear the light of day so well.


In November 1914, just three months after completing Kokoro, Sôseki delivered a public lecture at the elite Gakushuin University on Watakushi no kojinshugi (My Individualism). In this lecture he reminisced:

At the university, I majored in English literature. What exactly is English literature, you may well ask. I myself did not know the answer to that after three years of furious study. Our instructor in those days was Professor Dixon. He would make us read poetry aloud, read prose passages to him, do composition; he would scold us for dropping articles, angrily explode when we mispronounced things. His exam questions were always of one kind: give Wordsworth's birth and death dates, five the number of Shakespeare's folios, list the works of Scott in chronological order. . .Can this be English literature? Is this any way to instill an understanding of what literature is, English or otherwise? All right, you say, forge through on your own. But this is like the proverbial blind man peeking through the fence. I would wander about in the library searching for something that would give me a start. But there was nothing. This was not simply because I lacked motivation; the field was represented by the most meager collection of books. For three years I studied, and at the end I still did not know what literature was. This, I might say, was the source of my agony.

His struggle and agony took the form of a period of study in England where he was quite isolated and may have suffered depression and even a mental breakdown. But he continued to work very hard on his quest to understand what literature is, and what it does. As he explained in his lecture:

I worked hard and strove to accomplish something. But none of the books I read helped me tear through the sack. I could search from one end of London to the other, I felt, and never find what I needed. I stayed in my room, thinking how absurd this all was. No amount of reading was going to fill this emptiness in the pit of my stomach. And when I resigned myself to the hopelessness of my task, I could no longer see any point to my reading books.

It was then that I realized that my only hope for salvation lay in fashioning for myself a conception of what literature is, working from the ground up and relying on nothing but my own efforts. . .My next step was to strengthen--perhaps I should say build anew--the foundations on which I stood in my study of literature. For this, I began to read books that had nothing to do with literature. If, before, I had been dependent on others, if I had been other-centered, it occurred to me now that I must become self-centered. I became absorbed in scientific studies, philosophical speculation, anything that would support this position. . .Self-centeredness became for me a new beginning, I confess, and it helped me to find what I thought would be my life's work. I resolved to write books, to tell people that they need not imitate Westerners, that running blindly after others as they were doing would only cause them great anxiety. . . .

My anxiety disappeared without a trace. I looked out on London's gloom with a happy heart. I felt that after years of agony my pick had at last struck a vein of ore. A ray of light had broken through the fog and illuminated the way I must take.

At the time I experienced this enlightenment, I had been in England for more than a year. There was no hope of my accomplishing the task I had set for myself while I was in a foreign country. I decided to collect all the materials I could find and to complete my work after returning to Japan.

Upon his return, he moved into teaching for a while until he began to serialize his fiction in the Asahi Newspaper--and get well paid for it.

While he believed in the independence of the individual, his commitment to individualism was qualified as he explained in his famous speech to Gakushuin students:

If you want to carry out the development of your individuality, you must respect the individuality of others. If you want to utilize the powers in your possession, you must be fully cognizant of the duty that accompanies it. If you wish to demonstrate your financial power, you must respect its concomitant responsibilitiers....Unless a man has attained some degree of ethical culture, there is no value in his developing his individuality, no value in using his power or wealth. . . .When a man is devoid of character, everything he does presents a threat. When he seeks to develop his individuality without restraints, he obstructs others; when he attempts to use power, he merely abuses it; when he tries to use money, he corrupts society. . . .

. . .I simply believe that freedom without a sense of duty is not true freedom, for such self-indulgent freedom cannot exist in society. . .I sincerely wish for all of you to be free. At the same time I want to make very certain that you understand what is meant by duty.


Perhpas a tough, but fair question is What does he mean by "some degree of ethical culture?" Where would one get that ehtical culute? On what would it be based? The suggestion is made that there will always be some ideology informing any given writer or critic's interpreation or "take" on any given situation. Same applies to us as readers. So, in what would Sôseki's beliefs, his ideology be rooted? Ther is a lot of evidence to suggest that Chinese philosophy meant a lot to him. He found that Chinese philosophers asked a lot of good ethcal questions, and they posited that it was essential for individuals to morally cultivate themselves, to follow the Confucian Way; to place themselves on a path to moral and spiritual development. The goal would be to become someone embodying "higher" human wisdom and understanding, [erhaps embraching, as Marcus suggests, the sokuten-kyoshi (則天去私) philosophy of "Following the Way of Heaven and Leaving the Self Behind." Wouldn't that sort of person, who does not necessarily put his own "egotistical self" first, but who is capable of thinking of the universal good, the well-being of others, be a better member of society, a more responsible citizen?

But even understanding one's duty, one's sense of moral responsibility, doesn't mean that the individual will be freed from experiencing loneliness. As he states:

[I]ndividualism is not forever running with the group, forming cliques that thrash around blindly in the interests of power and money. That is why there lurks beneath the surface of [t]his philosophy a loneliness unknown to others. As soon as we deny our little groups, then I simply go my way and I let the other man go his, unhindered. sometimes, in some instances, we cannot avoid becoming scattered. That is what is lonely.

So, as Kokoro seems to make so abundantly clear, "loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves." (30) This is what we have to watch out for. something about which we should be wary. Writers have a responsibility to talk about things like this, things that matter! It is up to writers, Sôseki believed, to speak the truth about what they see, even if it is not a pleasant, enjoyable truth. He was fond of saying: "No fine is charged if one does not buy or read a literary work!" In other words, people will only read fiction if they are drawn to it, if they enjoy or appreciate it.

He describes a four-stage process by which a reader might get pulled into and learn from a piece of literature:

There is no signboard declaring "We sell truths!" nor a band of hired musicians advertising truths with fanfare. Still, truth gradually reveals itself--moves, struts and marches, pushing aside everything else without hesitation, as calmly as Heaven's Will. The reader first rubs his eyes and watches with pleasure the fresh, stimulating sight. He then nods his head, for what he sees is an indisputable fact: he has the pleasure of hearing something within him answer the call from outside. Third, the reader realizes he has made a discovery, and thereby he gains the pleasure of having unearthed a fact that has been buried. Fourth, he is pleasantly surprised, for now he finds out that his discovery was a truth about human nature, though it was made in an unlikely place.

Our SLOs for" Interpreting Texts" suggest that understanding the dynamic relationship between author, reader and text is very important. Doesn't it seem that Sôseki has been actively thinking about this process and coming to understand it? He paints a picture in the passage above about the dynamics of how something starts to dawn on the reader's mend as s/he enters into and reads the text. Then something resonates within the reader, as the reader engages more deeply with the text, engsges with what the author has to say, and then the reader steps up in order to "answer the call," to deal with the questions that the text poses. The reader becomes excited and feels good about the discovery that is occurring while reading, and this pleasure and satisfaction intensifies when the reader comes to appreciate how much is at stake:the reader has unearthed or discovered some fundamental truth about human nature, about oneself, about the possibilities for living a better life, for understanding the world and appreciating our place in it. This is important. This is what can be at stake in the reading process.

You may feel that Sôseki is not very optimistic about human nature, or the human condition; and, indeed, he seems to align himself with the Chinese philosopher Xunzi, a proponent of the darker side of Confucianism, who thought that human nature is sketchy and unreliable, at best. Basically, deep down, human beings are not necessarily good. They can be evil, in fact. They can behave disreputably. Why? Because they are selfish. But nor is Sôseki a total pessimist. Admittedly, the picture he paints is not a cheerful one. It can be fairly bleak. Betrayal, living like a mummy, living in this version of death we call life (to quote Bob Dylan), or committing suicide--these are the main options which face his older male characters.

Yet if there is a ray of hope in this narrative, it is that through Sensei's Testament and his death, indeed, a "new life" might be lodged in I's breast. (129) Then, there can be a transfer of real knowledge from teacher to student. The Sensei now becomes a true sensei. He is finally able to teach somebody something; and "I" may learn. There is hope in this great possibility. Up until this point in his life, Sensei has not been able to do anything; when I says that "I always called him Sensei," it is highly ironic because Sensei really is not a Sensei, not a teacher. The title is an empty one; it has no content, no meaning, no truth. He has no students, no job, no children, no disciplies. He has no one to teach, no one to pass along what he has learned about life through his deeply personal experiences. He thought he was so much better than his family, than his Uncle who deceived and robbed himof his inheritance, and disrespected his own brother in the process.

Sensei lived his life taking the moral high-ground. He was above the evil-doing ways of his untrustworthy uncle. But, when push came to shove, what did he do when he was faced with a critical choice? He acted out of fear, out of insecurity; all of a sudden, his love for Ojosan became a competition that he refused to lose. Even though K. was his best friend, he was not above throwing him under the bus, not if it meant he could protect himself from harm and win the day, win the girl, get the best of his opponent. What is what it became all about. So many times he had wanted to tell K.; but K., who trusted his friend, confessed his feelings for Ojosan to Sensei first. Sensei was stunned. "He's beaten me to it!" (204) The first emotion he feels is pain; then fear; then Sensei goes rigid like a piece of stone or iron. He is frozen.

When it was time to stand up and do the right thing, he thought of himself first; he put his own ego and self-interest first. He prioritized his own welfare over that of his best friend, someone whom he loved and admired. But he did not want to lose to him. "Through cunning I have won," he writes. "But as a man, I have lost." (228) Yes, Sensei, you did lose something. You lost part of your soul, part of your humanity. These days, we like to use the expression, "Oh, that is not who you are. You are better than that." Well, it turned out that Sensei wasn't; he was who he was. This was a difficult truth about himself to face. He made his move, and part of his move was to throw back in K.'s face the very words he had uttered about people with no spiritual aspirations being idiots. Ouch! At this point, Sensei did not just want to best an opponent; he wanted to demolish him, to crush him. Then he went behind K.'s back and asked Okusan for Ojosan's hand in marriage. So how much better than his uncle was he?

This is Sensei's dark truth; he stood at the abyss, looked into his own "Heart," his own soul, and learned exactly of what he was capable. But by revealing his dark truth to the one person he can trust in this world, the one person he can believe in, someone he can see as sincere, he finally does something. It may not be an act of redemption, but in this little act of coming clean, of owning up to what he did, of taking the opportunity to convert his experience into a teaching--to provide "I" with the lesson that I believed he wanted Sensei to teach him--does Sensei finally acheive something substantial in the end? Once the truth is revealed, he cannot live with it; he can no longer live among his fellow human beings, not even with beloved wife. He has to take the final steps on his journey alone. He will tell all, leave no secrets unrevealed, immerse himself in shame in order to do something worthwhile. in order to complete his journey and become a real Sensei, to finally teach somebody something. He lets "I" in on his secret, the knowledge that his life esperience taught him. He passes it on for whatever good it might do "I."

Will it help "I"? Earlier, Sensei was sketptical that it would. What will "I" do with all this truth that Sensei has passed along to him? Remember, we don't know the final disposition, we don't know where things will actually go after I finishes reading Sensei's Testament. All we know is that he is still on that train, still heading for Tokyo, where the one light in that city in which he can believe, may already be snuffed out. But the author has left the ending open for us to enter into, to become active readers and thinkers and to figure things out for ourselves. Where do we stand? Do we know? Are we sure? Would we act very differently from Sensei. I am sure we would all like to think so; we want to believe that about ourselves. Just as Sensei wanted to be better than his Uncle, we as readers all want to be better than young Sensei. We won't ever make a mistake like that. Will we?

The novel ends with a kind of "freeze frame" like at the end of a film. "I" is sitting on the train, manuscript in hand. He has had a close encounter with the truth. Sensei has forced him "into the shadows of this dark world of ours." He tells "I" not to flinch, not to be afraid; to take whatever will be of use to him from Sensei's Testament and move on. Sensei makes it clear that what he means by "darkness" is a "moral darkness." (128) You say you wish to grow and learn; here is your chance, my young friend. Can you do it? To paraphrase the Aaron Sorkin film, A Few Good Men, can you handle the truth? We don't know exactly what" I" will he do with the hard truth that Sensei is teaching him. It is about what is inside us, and how we operate, how we function in the world, in life. Will he learn from it and grow? Will he avoid the mistakes his mentor made? Can we be hopeful that the next generation that the young "I" represents, will do a better job of communicating, of forging genuine human bonds between one another? Will they do a better job of trusting each other and being worthy of the trust of others?

So here is something for us to grab on to in this novel and it is considerably more than just a single, fragile straw. It is a sturdy limb, a lifeline with which we may pull ourselves up to some higher ground, we cam reach a higher level of understanding. We as readers may learn along with "I" and we may also get better ourselves. This is the hope for the future. We can get better. Indeed, we must get better and make the world a better place, too. Right? What else can we do?


Tanizaki Jun'ichirô

Nine years younger than Sôseki was Tanizaki Jun'ichirô who was born into a merchant family in downtown (shitamachi) Tokyo in 1886. His mother, Seki, was by all accounts beautiful and he idolized her and always had a special thing for beautiful, powerful women. He was coddled, breastfed until he was five or six or so, and indulged, encouraged to "play" (asobi) and fantasize, including playing the game of "brothel." Began to write in last year of primary school and was encouraged by a teacher who introduced him to Ueda Akinari, the Genji, etc. Studied both classic Confucian texts at a Chinese Academy, and European culture with four English women.

After primary-school he moved in with a restaurant family in Tsukiji and attended First Middle-school where he was very successful. Entering the First Higher School to study English law, Tanizaki soon switched to English Literature. He soon began publishing in various literary journals, including "The Tatooer," a challenge to the prevailing Naturalism and shishosetsu style. Strongly praised by Nagai Kafu in a review as unique, mysterious writer. His career was launched.

Tanizaki became a thoroughgoing devotee of things western until he moved from Yokohama, where he had lived, to Kansai after the great Earthquake of September 1923. Startled literary world when he toyed with giving his wife Chiyo to novelist Sato Haruo which he eventually did in 1927 sending out formal announcements, etc. Meanwhile, he was drawn to Nezu Matsuko, also married, whom he would eventually settle down with in 1935. Drawn into Genji monogatari which he studied and rewrote in the 1930s, when he also wrote Shunkinsho (A Portrait of Shunkin).


Enchi Fumiko

In Masks, Enchi takes the shosetsu to unparalleled levels of complexity through rich imagery and brilliant use of intertextuality. Bringing together the issues of shamanism and feminine power, Noh, masks, the Genji, she evokes a powerful energy in her work. Like Tanizaki before her, Enchi immersed herself in the Genji and came up with a modern "translation" or reinterpretation of it.

In a text that works as a good companion piece to Kokoro, Enchi Fumiko points to a different kind of darkness in The Waiting Years. Those who had virtually no voice in Soseki's work are addressed in Enchi's. What does the patriarchal family system do to women? How does it silence, repress and psychologically demean women? How does it thoroughly subjugate and corrupt women? Are there any options? Do women have any control, any power they can exert? If so, where might it come from?

The Waiting Years opens in the mid-1880s, just at the time when the popular rights movement was spreading and becoming radicalized. For the first time, poor peasants were being mobilized and engaging in political violence. In 1883, a particularly ruthless and authoritarian official, Mishima Michitsune [the Kawashima Michiaki of our text] was appointed provincial governor of Fukushima Prefecture. He conscripted poor peasants to build roads, closed down lectures and meetings sponsored by popular rights activists, and dispatched sword-wielding police to break up protest demonstrations, etc. Enchi, then, sets the stage for us by linking her villainous character, Yukitomo Shirakawa, with the infamous "demon governor," this relentless suppresser of popular rights.