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,

the writer had emerged as someone who loved, struggled and suffered. He was no longer a mere narrator or an impassive observer. Love had come to be recognized as the motivating force behind much of life, and was no longer mocked as a kind of malady that temporarily robbed people of their senses.

Another critic, quoted by Keene, put it in another way by saying that Tokoku was the first Japanese writer “to explore seriously the nature and potentialities of self and to try to integrate a philosophy of self into an overall view of life.”

In Western culture this is not a particularly original or spectacular endeavor—every schoolchild is encouraged to do just that. In Japan, where the self is defined by its place in a larger entity, be it a family, a company, or the whole country, it is not only a difficult but a potentially dangerous thing to do. To be an individualist in Japan is to cut oneself off from society, which, in a sense, is like being a Christian cut off from God—there is nothing to hold on to anymore. There is Christianity itself, of course, but even that is hard to maintain under pressure to conform in a society with very different traditions. Tokoku cracked under the strain. He committed suicide in 1894 at twenty-six.

Natsume Soseki, still regarded by most Japanese as one of their greatest writers, was equally preoccupied with the concept of Western individualism. The integrity of the individual, regardless of social pressures to conform, was his main goal in personal life and his main literary theme. He wrote in Kokoro (“Heart”), one of his best-known novels: “We are born in the present time, filled with liberty, independence, and self. But as the price we have to pay for it, we have to feel loneliness.” He might have overstated the influence of individualism on Japanese society in general, but the loneliness was certainly keenly felt by many intellectuals. The characters of his stories all suffer from an incapacity to form intimate relationships. Soseki committed suicide in 1916.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke, perhaps best known in the West for the two short stories that Kurosawa Akira combined in his film Rashomon, set most of his stories in the Japanese past, which he treated with profound cynicism. Most of his characters come to grief because of their overriding egoism. He once wrote that when he saw “people who keep asserting their ugly selves, I feel both hate and disgust, as well as being overwhelmed.” But as Keene rightly points out:

the reverence with which Akutagawa treated Christian materials contrasts with the cynicism he often displayed toward Japanese heroes and paragons of samurai behaviour…. Egoism could be transcended through divine grace, but not by a careful observance of any code of etiquette.

Akutagawa felt miserably cut off from his fellow men and committed suicide in 1927 with a Christian Bible by his pillow.

Dazai Osamu, another writer obsessed with his tortured self, was deeply attached to his family and seems to have done everything to alienate himself from it—he was a drunkard, a drug addict, a social sponger, and a compulsive attempter of suicide, mostly with lovers, one of whom died while he survived. His writing is a kind of chronicle of his misbehavior, how it affected others, specifically his family, and how this in turn made him feel guilty. It is a masochistic kind of work, which many practitioners of the so-called “I novel” (novels about the self) indulge in. It is, however, a highly regarded literary genre in Japan, combining naturalism, Romanticism, and a Japanese tradition of confessional essays and poetry. Private confessions are, of course, a typical expression of people who are socially bottled up, a condition familiar to most Japanese. Dazai, too, tried to transcend the Japanese social condition, first through Marxism, then through Christianity: “I could almost say that nearly all my suffering is related to this most difficult task, posed by this man called Jesus—’Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ ” He committed suicide with a lover in 1948.

Of course, not all Japanese writers are attached to Christianity or Marxism, and most do not commit suicide. But the psychological pattern is pervasive enough to suggest that it has some general significance. In the first English biography of Dazai Osamu, Phyllis I. Lyons quotes a Japanese critic speaking of “the inability of Japanese to understand what the West means by self.”* The search for self in the Japanese novel, as with many obsessive pursuits, often leads to a psychological cul-de-sac from which the writer knows no way out. Like adolescents, Japanese “I novelists” spend enormous energy in trying to catch their own shadows.

When Japanese are left with nothing but their “selves,” unbridled by Japanese social constraints and unchecked by universal values, they tend to become monstrous egoists with no sense of proportion—a bit like those eccentric Japanese founders of new religions who buy whole pages of The New York Times in order to proclaim their intention to establish eternal peace. Such people do not claim a special relationship with God; they are God. This explains, perhaps, why Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman has enjoyed such a wide appeal among Japanese intellectuals.

Among the most interesting periods discussed in Keene’s study is the period of the 1930s and 1940s. He describes it well. One can almost hear the sighs of relief with which most writers tied themselves to the anti-Western nationalist cause. All the ambivalence toward the West, which was almost the object of a cult but at the same time elusive and above all indifferent to the struggles of Japanese authors, was resolved by the wave of patriotism. The tireless seekers of independent selves now submerged themselves in the Japanese mass; even—or perhaps one should say, especially—Marxists rallied to the cause. As Keene says, “The success of the Japanese police in inducing people to renounce Communism was almost unbelievable. Hardly a single writer or artist took refuge abroad rather than submit to a public confession of error.” The difference from Germany, in this respect, hardly needs to be pointed out.

Perhaps logically the greatest worshipers of Western culture often became the most fanatic patriots. The poet Takamura Kotaro was such a man. He spent time in America and France, where he said he felt completely at home. His love for the West was sometimes expressed in a hatred for his countrymen, as in this poem written in 1911:

Cheekbones protruding, lips thick, eyes triangular,
Face like a netsuke carved by the master Sangoro,
A blank expression, as if his soul was removed,
Ignorant of himself, fidgety,
Small-minded, self-satisfied,
Monkey-like, fox-like, squirrel-like, gudgeon-like,
minnow-like, potsherd-like, gargoyle- faced Japanese!

This sentiment was not untypical of Japanese writers desperately trying to identify with the West. Nor, however, was the sentiment Takamura expressed in this poem written two decades later (addressed to Chiang Kai-shek):

My country, Japan, is not destroying yours, sir;
We’re only destroying anti-Japanese thought.
If you, sir, persist in your anti- Japanism, you will also perish.
My country, Japan, has now attacked America and England.
America and England have been rejected by the Heaven and Earth of East Asia.
Their allies will be crushed.
Does this bode good or ill for your country, sir?
Reflect, sir, reflect!

The wild dream of uniting Asia under the benign leadership of the Japanese emperor and his fellow descendants from the sun was, however, only a temporary solution for Japanese intellectuals. Most were disillusioned by the end of the war and the B-29s took care of those who were not. From the ruins arose the energetic modern culture we know today. The Meiji goal of catching up with the West has, in many respects, been reached. But has the old conflict between self and others finally been solved? And have the Japanese found their place in the world? The example of Mishima suggests that they have not. Many consider him typical of Japan’s cultural schizophrenia. Part of him wanted to be a samurai, part of him a pop star in a Hawaiian shirt. But he may not have been as representative of postwar Japan as many people appear to think. And Keene’s assertion that “his reputation, both in Japan and in the West, has continued to grow and now seems likely to endure,” may be true in the West, but not in Japan.

When discussed at all these days, Mishima is seen by most Japanese as a complete anachronism, an embarrassing remnant of the past most people are content to forget. Some aspects of Mishima—specifically his homosexuality and extremist politics—are so embarrassing to many Japanese that they do not wish these to be discussed at all, least of all by foreigners. The refusal of the first Tokyo International Film Festival to screen Paul Schrader’s film Mishima seems to have been a result of this. Keene, alas, does not discuss the seamier side of Mishima’s life at all.

The Japanese may be right, however, to see Mishima as an anachronism. After all, Mishima, almost alone among his contemporaries, went through the same mental process as prewar writers. His models, certainly in the early stages of his life, were almost entirely Western: Oscar Wilde, Raymond Radiguet, Rainer Maria Rilke, et al. As a literary man of action he reminds one not so much of a samurai as of Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian he much admired. Mishima’s yearning, later in life, for a glorious Japanese past was as artificial as the worship of things Western by Meiji intellectuals. Keene is surely right when he says, “The Japan he loved was an abstraction; the West he loved was what made up his daily life.” The past was a fantasy to lend meaning to a present from which he, like so many of his predecessors, appears to have felt cut off.

In many respects, his Hawaiian shirts notwithstanding, Mishima was the last of the men of Meiji. Things have changed since Japan became the source of modernity instead of breathless and anxiously trying to catch up with the West. Keene does not tell us what these changes are and how they affect contemporary literature, since he discusses no writer born after the war. This is perhaps as it should be in an account of the “dawn to the West” in Japan. But, although it is too early to speak of a Western dusk, we now live in an age in which the West is beginning to dawn to the East.

Perhaps the most significant change is that Japanese intellectuals appear to be much less obsessed with the West. In a way many contemporary playwrights and novelists are more like the hedonists of the Edo period against whom the men of Meiji reacted. The theater, especially, has an air of irreverent frivolity and bawdiness not seen for centuries. And most contemporary novelists appear to be less interested in torturing themselves—if not their readers—by searching for elusive selves than in chronicling the latest minutiae of fashion. Even “rabu” is not talked about much anymore these days, and Christianity and Marxism have become distinctly unfashionable.

But if this makes postwar Japanese better-adjusted people than their forebears, they are also less cosmopolitan. Mishima was probably the last Japanese writer who was equally at home in Western, classical Chinese, and Japanese literature. This is perhaps why such critics as Keene rate him so highly. In fact, Keene himself is rather like a man of Meiji, slightly contemptuous of the “frivolity” of some pre-“Enlightenment” traditions. Judged by Western literary standards—that is, by the standards of an individualist tradition—the best days of modern Japanese literature may be over. But then Western standards have, it seems, become increasingly less relevant to Japanese writers. Just as the importance of oil painters searching to express their anguished souls has been eclipsed in Japan by a much more native tradition of applied arts—design, printmaking, and so forth.

Japanese journalists like to call the present age “Showa Genroku.” Showa refers to the reign of the present emperor, Genroku to the Golden Age of merchant culture in the seventeenth century. If the economic miracle has brought trade wars, crass consumerism, and vulgarity, it has also allowed the Japanese to be more unself-consciously themselves—for how long one doesn’t know; that depends a bit on pressures from the outside world. But even if Japanese writers have ended up rejecting many lessons from the West, the story of how they acquired them is a fascinating one, and nobody has told it better in any language, including Japanese, than Professor Keene.

This Issue

September 26, 1985