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Rabu’ Conquers All

Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era Vol. I: Fiction

by Donald Keene
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1327 pp., $60.00

Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era Vol. II: Poetry, Drama, Criticism

by Donald Keene
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 685 pp., $40.00

Listening to the anguished cries going up in Washington these days of Japanese might wiping out American industries, it seems almost unbelievable that a little over a century ago Japan was a wholly traditional society living in more or less splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Japanese culture, to a large extent, was a “world within walls”—the apt title of Professor Keene’s study, published nine years ago, of premodern Japanese literature. By the middle of the nineteenth century it was a decadent world and the walls were rapidly crumbling, but it was a self-contained little universe yet to be directly confronted with the West, then at the peak of its power. The Industrial Revolution was still distant thunder to the Japanese, most of whom, especially in the rural areas, were living in the economic middle ages.

The literature of the period reflected this isolation. As Keene puts it in the introduction to his most recent history of modern Japanese writing: “Literature of the mid-nineteenth century so little imitated the literature being written elsewhere that it had become almost unintelligible outside Japan, the equivalent of family jokes.” Jokes, moreover, that were only intelligible to a small number of Japanese up on the latest fashions in the major cities, the setting for most early nineteenth-century fiction.

When this cozy universe was finally challenged by barbarians rude enough to want to enter it by force, there were two things the Japanese could do: fight them or join them. Both methods were tried. And the Japanese, though unimpressed with Western manners and bathing habits—or rather the lack thereof—were quite impressed with foreign fire power. They wisely perceived that the barbarians had something they did not and decided to acquire it fast. After restoring the power of the emperor, a shadowy figure-head secluded in his Kyoto palace, and moving the capital to Edo, renaming it Tokyo, an energetic new class of mostly country samurai set to work to make Japan a modern nation, modeled after the Western powers.

As US congressmen keep on reminding us, the Japanese succeeded admirably in this aim. But there was a price to be paid for making a traditional Asian country with few natural resources into the world’s second economic power in little over one hundred years. A horrible war and several ecological disasters are part of the story. What it did to the psyche of a people to be turned first into fake Westerners, then fanatical patriots, and finally “salary men” of the Economic Miracle, is at least as important a story. And this is the underlying theme of Keene’s two volumes—both monuments of impeccable scholarship and excellent prose. They describe how the modern world impinged on the consciousness of Japanese sensitive enough to articulate it in literature.

The emphasis is on literature. Keene does not attempt to make general statements on Japanese cultural history. He discusses politics and other nonliterary matters only as they influenced particular writers and literary schools. And he does not really discuss popular culture—even in literature—at all. This makes it more difficult for nonspecialist readers to get a large sense of Japanese writing. Examples from popular genres—usually less influenced by foreign trends—would have put the “Westernization” of the literary elites in perspective. The type of literature selected by Keene is fiction as high culture, itself a modern innovation inspired by the West. Traditionally, Japanese fiction was a type of popular entertainment.

Also, comparisons between writers and contemporary painters, composers, or even film makers would have offered an even clearer view of what Japanese artists in the modern world were up against. One fascinating question, never to my knowledge answered, is why Japanese oil painting has been such a miserable failure, while novelists have often succeeded. Both the modern Japanese novel and oil painting were based on Western models; both are expressions of individualism. Some of the Japanese writers had severe difficulties, about which Keene has much to say.

Up until very recently modern was virtually synonymous with Western. Nineteenth-century Japan was faced with a problem most third world countries are still struggling with: how to catch up with a civilization that is technologically far advanced without having one’s own identity, values, and traditions swamped by it. There are many possible solutions and Japan tried them all, in literature as in other fields: wholesale imitation of the advanced culture; filling the vacuum of discarded values with new creeds, from Christianity to Marxism; rejection of foreign culture and revival of national myths; an obsessive search for “self” in a cultural wasteland; blending of native traditions and modern techniques; finally, the building of a new culture linked with the old, using the best of all worlds, East, West, old, and new.

The last solution is of course the most desirable. Has it been achieved in Japanese literature and drama? Keene appears to think so. He quotes from a preface written in 1885 by the critic, novelist, and playwright Tsubouchi Shoyo claiming that “our fiction will finally surpass the European novel and take a glorious place on the altar of the arts along with painting, music and poetry.” “Dawn to the West,” writes Keene, “tells how Tsubouchi’s hopes became a reality.” It is an extravagant claim about which one can argue; just as one can argue about the merits of Mishima Yukio, with whom Keene ends his volume on fiction. Perhaps it is a matter of taste. Keene argues that Mishima came “as close as any Japanese” to “attain the ranks of the undisputed masters of the century.” My feeling is that Mishima, though certainly a talented writer, was more interesting as the embodiment of Japan’s cultural dilemma: how to reconcile one’s Japaneseness with the modern Western world. I don’t think he found the solution. And though this particular psychodrama may have been the spark that lit his creative impulse, it limited him, too—just as it limited so many other Japanese writers and thinkers. His obsession with combining Western literary attitudes with samurai virtues was like a sore tooth which he couldn’t leave alone. And now that Japan is the modern world, it is an obsession that, though still around, is at least less acute.

Mishima’s dramatic suicide—he disemboweled himself in the ritual samurai manner—appears to have been partly caused by his dilemma. But then a remarkable number of modern Japanese writers committed suicide, though most not as histrionically as Mishima. Such writers as Kitamura Tokoku, Arishima Takeo, Natsume Soseki, Dazai Osamu, and Akutagawa Ryunosuke all, in their different ways, struggled to find their place in a world in which modernity was still defined by the West.

Kitamura, Arishima, and Natsume (commonly referred to by his first name, Soseki) all lived in the Meiji period, lasting from 1868 to 1912. It was perhaps the most dramatic period in modern cultural history. In the mad rush for modernity, traditions were discarded almost overnight. “Civilization and Enlightenment” was the official slogan of the day. But iconoclasm, as is usually the case, went hand in hand with a pompous use of certain old cultural symbols to give the newly modern nation an air of respectability (think of the neoclassical taste for the grandiose of socialist nation-builders). Traditional fiction and theater were considered to be hopelessly depraved. But instead of abolishing such despised literary forms as gesaku—chronicles of the demimonde—and Kabuki drama, they were tied to the cause of “Enlightenment”—a bit like using literature to propagate the “Four Modernizations” in Deng Xiaoping’s China. Henceforth Kabuki plays and novels were to stress such enlightened values as patriotism, loyalty to the emperor, filial piety, and, of course, modernization.

Another literary genre typical for nation-building societies is the political novel. This is the literary equivalent of social-realist painting, still much in vogue in third world countries, socialist or otherwise. Cardboard characters are made to stand for ideals in stories contrived to promote earnest messages. The novels of Benjamin Disraeli often served as models for Japanese writers of political novels. The genre did not last long (it lives on, however, in such developing countries as Indonesia) and Meiji political novels are now only read by specialists. Such writers are interesting nonetheless, and we can only be grateful to Keene for not only ploughing through volumes of often third-rate literature, but putting these works in their proper historical perspective.

The most important spur to the development of modern Japanese literature was the remarkable number of translations of Western works. The first attempts at imitating Western models were often amusing. One early man of the theater, Kawakami Otojiro, staged a performance of Hamlet, in which he made the Danish prince enter the stage on a bicycle—both came from the West and it was thus quite appropriate to combine the two. But such exotic experiments aside, Japanese writers learned some important things from the West. One of them, according to Tanizaki Junichiro, perhaps the greatest modern Japanese writer to date, was love.

What he meant was this: traditional Japanese writers had written extensively about love. But it was usually carnal love, between elegant rakes and courtesans, languid princes and bored ladies of the imperial court, merchants and prostitutes. Love as an ideal, in the Platonic, Christian, or chivalric sense, did not exist. There was not even a Japanese word for it. Meiji writers resorted to using the English word “love” (“rabu”). Ai, the Chinese word for love which comes closest to the Western concept, also came to be used, but in the words of Sakaguchi Ango, a post–Second World War angry young man of letters: “We Japanese still cannot use the word without feeling a sense of falseness.”

Kitamura Tokoku was a particularly interesting writer in this respect. He was a member of the Romantic movement, which lasted for about fifteen years between 1889 and 1904. “Rabu” was one of his main subjects. Kitamura (usually referred to as Tokoku) often contrasted the “lust” in traditional Japanese fiction (specifically that of the Edo period) and the ideal form of love in the modern, Christian, Western world. Keene quotes from one of Kitamura’s essays: “Consider what a distance separates lust from love in literature. Lust gives free rein to man’s lowest animal nature; love is the expansion of the exquisiteness of man’s divine spirit.” Tokoku was baptized in 1888. He was one of the first of a long line of Japanese writers and intellectuals who sought to fill the vacuum left by discarded Japanese traditions with universal ideals. In his case it was Christianity and romantic love. In the case of many others it was to be Marxism.

Keene is surely right to view Tokoku and his fellow Romantics as the first truly modern Japanese writers; modern, that is, as defined by the West. This view is not so much owing to any literary greatness—which none of them had—but because, as Keene says,

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