Japan Deconstructed

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A Japanese banknote with a portrait of Natsume Sōseki

Donald Keene’s magnum opus, fifteen years in the writing, was A History of Japanese Literature in four immense volumes, an account of the entire national literature from the eighth-century creation chronicles to Mishima Yukio in the 1960s. Anyone who has spent his professional life sweating and cursing over Japanese texts is awestruck by the quantity of Japanese writing Keene managed to absorb—he was a Herculean reader. Detractors complain that he was more descriptive than critical, but that is a cavil designed to reduce him to life size.

John Treat, in his introduction to The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature, derogates Keene for precisely what others say his work lacks: his critical judgment. In Keene’s unequivocal verdicts as a critic—“lightweight,” “immoralist,” “never fully understood”—Treat finds an intention to leave his readers with something permanent:

His literary history was one, he believed, that would not require amendment. It would be the truth of modern Japanese literature rather than a cultured appreciation of it…. This is the naïve dream of some historians: to fix and make a sure record of the past.

Treat lists additional complaints, but he concludes with what feels like an intended compliment when he reckons it is Keene’s history to which his book will be compared.

Treat’s purpose is to “reexamine certain key conjunctions in the history of Japan’s modern literature where we can excavate just how literary texts came to embody emerging, dominant or resistant strategies of power in society.” He has read Jürgen Habermas and Fredric Jameson, who together do their share of the conceptual heavy lifting in his book, and so it comes as no surprise that he should focus on capitalism as the principal socioeconomic force reflected in and acting formatively upon the works of fiction he considers.

Moving from the late nineteenth century to the present by leaps and bounds, Treat arrives at a conclusion that links late-stage capitalism to the end of modernity and, ipso facto, to the demise of modern Japanese literature. If he has provided a cogent description of “modernity” in this study, I have not found it. He does, however, characterize certain social and psychological transformations as inimical to the modern: the atomization of Japanese society in the 1980s, for example, for which he holds the proliferation of manga significantly responsible. In support of his claim, he quotes a literary critic who asserts that a book can be shared with others at a public reading but that “manga is never manga except when you direct your gaze at someone who is no other but you.” With that shift from “by all of us” to “just for you,” Treat writes, “Japan started to edge past its short-lived, modern forms of literary colloquy and now approaches the precipice of what comes next.”

Treat argues that…

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