Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era Vol. I: Fiction
Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era Vol. II: Poetry, Drama, Criticism
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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.