In response to:

Japan Deconstructed from the August 16, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

John Nathan is always worth reading, even when it’s an unhappy review of my book The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature [NYR, August 16]. While he reports on only a few of the chapters, I find myself often in agreement when it comes to what he does focus on. Nathan read the book carefully, perhaps more carefully than anyone will in our niche field of Japanese literary studies. He summarizes many of my arguments correctly, and I am grateful for that. But I would appreciate a chance to set the record straight on a few points.

My definition of “modern” is not absent, in fact, but on display on nearly every page. Not just the traditional signal dilemma of a novel’s individual at loggerheads with his or her society, as Nathan’s own work, most recently on Natsume Sōseki, reiterates for us, but more than that: it lies in the diverse and often semi-submerged machinations of a nation-state that would create convinced readers along with obedient citizens, as well as in the manifold dissents of writers not always along for the ride. If this makes my method “contextualist,” I can only say that literary scholarship almost always is: the alternative to mapping the course of modern Japanese literature along the lines of national history are the philological, the aesthetic, the biographical, or, as is Nathan’s favored choice, the psychological. Each is a “context.” The advantage of my approach is that history boasts an archive far larger than any of the others, the psychological the scantiest and thus the most elusive.

Nathan thinks my choice of writers “eccentric,” in part because I deny his own favorites, Mishima Yukio and Ōe Kenzaburō, their own chapters. Mishima and Ōe were always better critics than novelists, an observation frequently found in the copious scholarship on them already (including Nathan’s and my own); and I already made ample room in my literary history for one poor writer, Murakami Haruki. As he is the best-known Japanese writer ever, the appropriate word for Murakami is surely not “eccentric” but “representative,” proof that present-day Japanese literature with ambitions to entertain the world needs to be quirky at every turn.

Nathan ends his review hoping that my book’s conclusion, wherein I speculate that modern Japanese fiction is morphing into something no longer modern, Japanese, or even literary, is wrong. I would add that I’d like to be wrong, too, but each day the news brings us further confirmation that our species is indeed being “stalked” by forces, natural and manmade, that might sweep all of us and our countries’ books away. My hope is that there will be something to take our place even if it is no longer precisely us or our stories, Japan’s included.

John Whittier Treat
Seattle, Washington
Emeritus Professor
Yale University