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 Soseki

Not that the "problem of individualism" has not been treated by Japanese writers. As anyone who has read, Natsume Soseki 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, Soseki 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:

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.


But even understanding one's duty, one's sense of moral responsibility, doesn't relieve the individual 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.

It is up to writers, Soseki 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.

Soseki may not be an optimist about human nature, the human condition; but nor is he a total pessimist. Admittedly, the picture he paints is not a cheerful one. Betrayal, living like a mummy, living death, or suicide are the options which face his older characters. Yet if there is hope, it is that through Sensei's testament and his death, "new life" might lodge in I's breast. The transfer of real knowledge can take place. The Sensei may become a true sensei. He may teach; "I" may learn. The next generation may do a better job of communicating, of forging genuine human bonds between one another, a better job of trusting and being worthy of that trust.


Tanizaki Jun'ichiro

Nine years younger than Soseki was Tanizaki Jun'ichiro 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.