Origins of Modern Japanese Literature / Edition 1

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Since its publication in Japan ten years ago, the Origins of Modern Japanese Literature has become a landmark book, playing a pivotal role in defining discussions of modernity in that country. Against a history of relative inattention on the part of Western translators to modern Asian critical theory, this first English publication is sure to have a profound effect on current cultural criticism in the West. It is both the boldest critique of modern Japanese literary history to appear in the post-war era and a major theoretical intervention, which calls into question the idea of modernity that informs Western consciousness.
In a sweeping reinterpretation of nineteenth-and twentieth-century Japanese literature, Karatani Kojin forces a reconsideration of the very assumptions underlying our concepts of modernity. In his analysis, such familiar terms as origin, modern, literature, and the state reveal themselves to be ideological constructs. Karatani weaves many separate strands into an argument that exposes what has been hidden in both Japanese and Western accounts of the development of modern culture. Among these strands are: the "discovery" of landscape in painting and literature and its relation to the inwardness of individual consciousness; the similar "discovery" in Japanese drama of the naked face as another kind of landscape produced by interiority; the challenge to the dominance of Chinese characters in writing; the emergence of confessional literature as an outgrowth of the repression of sexuality and the body; the conversion of the samurai class to Christianity; the mythologizing of tuberculosis, cancer, and illness in general as a producer of meaning; and the "discovery" of "the child" as an independent category of human being.
A work that will be important beyond the confines of literary studies, Karatani's analysis challenges basic Western presumptions of theoretical centrality and originality and disturbs the binary opposition of the "West" to its so-called "other." Origins of Modern Japanese Literature should be read by all those with an interest in the development of cultural concepts and in the interrelating factors that have determined modernity.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"I have hopes that Karatani's book--one of those infrequent moments in which a rare philosophical intelligence rises to the occasion of full national and historical statement—will also have a fundamental impact on literary criticism in the West. . . . For Origins has some lessons for us about critical pluralism, in addition to its principal message, which turns on that old and new topic of modernity itself."—Fredric Jameson, from the Preface
Library Journal
While this work of literary theory, which first appeared in Japanese in 1980, concentrates on the literature and thought of the 1980s, it challenges readers to reinterpret the literature of the entire Meiji Period (1868-1926) in six discrete essays plus a forward by Frederick Jameson and materials added for the English and paperback editions. Karatani (literature, Hosei Univ.) is at his most provocative when discussing the ``discovery'' of landscape in painting and literature as well as of the child as a human being. In his examinations of such important Meiji writers as Soseki, Kunidida Doppo, Tayama Katai, and Tsubouchi Shoyo, he offers insightful cultural criticism of subjects such as ethnography, religion, language, and modernity in the West and East. This far-reaching and bold reconsideration of Japanese literary history can be appreciated by scholars of modern thought and literature, above all those versed in Japanese studies.-- D.E. Perushek, Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville
Translation of the landmark work published ten years ago in Japan where it has played a pivotal role in defining discussion of modernity via a sweeping reinterpretation of 19th- and 20th-century Japanese literature. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822313236
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/1/1993
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Karatani Kojin is Professor of Humanities at Hosei University in Tokyo, Japan. Brett de Bary is Professor of Japanese Literature at Cornell University.

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Read an Excerpt

Origins of Modern Japanese Literature

By Karatani Kojin, Brett de Bary

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1323-6


The Discovery of Landscape


Natsume Soseki published the notes from his lectures on English literature at Tokyo University under the title A Theory of Literature (Bungakuron) in 1906, just three years after returning from London. By that time he had already attracted attention as a novelist and had immersed himself in the writing of fiction. Since he initially conceived of A Theory of Literature in terms of a ten-year plan, its publication at this point in time signaled his abandonment of that plan. A Theory of Literature as we know it today, then, is just one small part of Soseki's original, ambitious conception. Soseki expressed mixed feelings in the preface he attached to the work: a sense of estrangement, as one who had become absorbed in creative writing, toward these "vague, impractical speculations," as well as a feeling that he really could not give up his vision. Certainly both these sentiments were genuine; they were, in fact, the very basis for Soseki's creative activity.

To state the problem in different terms, we might say that Soseki's preface reveals an awareness that readers of his time would be unprepared for the appearance of his Theory of Literature and that they would find it somewhat odd. This surely proved to be the case, not only in Soseki's time, but in our own. Even if we grant that Soseki as an individual was compelled by some necessity to produce such a work, there was nothing inevitable about its appearance in Japanese (or even Western) literary history. The Theory of Literature was a flower that bloomed out of season and therefore left no seed—Soseki himself must have been keenly aware of this. Looked at in either the Japanese or the Western context, Soseki's vision was an abrupt and solitary one which he himself must have found disorienting. In his preface he explains, just as Sensei, in the novel Kokoro (The heart, 1914), did in his "Last Testament," why this unusual book had to be written. For this reason his preface is written in an extremely personal style which contrasts strikingly with the formal style of the work itself. Soseki felt compelled to explain his own passion and what had given rise to it.

I was determined, in this work, to solve the problem of defining the nature of literature. I resolved to devote a year or more to the first stage of my research on this problem.

I shut myself up in my room in my boarding house and packed all the works of literature I owned away in my wicker trunk. For I believed that reading literature in order to understand the nature of literature was like washing blood with blood. I vowed to probe the psychological origins of literature: what led to its appearance, development, and decline. And I vowed to explore the social factors that brought literature into this world and caused it to flourish or wither.

"What is literature?" was the question Soseki wanted to address, yet this was the very thing that made his passion so private, so difficult to share with others. The question itself was too new. For British readers of the time, literature was literature. Insofar as "literature" was something that encompassed them, the kind of doubt Soseki harbored could not arise. Of course, as Michel Foucault has observed, the concept of "literature" itself was a relative newcomer to European civilization in the nineteenth century. Soseki, although his very life was encompassed by "literature," could not escape from his doubts about it. They were doubts that seemed all the more iconoclastic in Japan of 1908, where "literature" had just firmly established itself. Soseki's view was seen, not as an anachronism, but as an eccentricity. Certainly this response must have dampened his ardor for theory. We might at first glance take A Theory of Literature to be literary theory. It appears, that is, to be something written about literature from the inside. But a number of essays in the book (the one on "Evaluating Literature," for example) suggest that Soseki originally conceived of something much more fundamental.

The first notion that Soseki subjected to doubt was that of the universal character of English literature. Of course, by this I do not mean to imply that Soseki's aim was simply to relativize English literature by juxtaposing it to kanbungaku, that diverse corpus of texts written in Chinese ideographs (or kanbun) in which he had immersed himself while growing up. His real concern was to point out that that universality was not a priori, but historical. It was, moreover, a universality premised upon the concealment of its own origins. "When I appeal to my own experience, I learn that the realm of poetry created by Shakespeare does not possess that universality that European critics ascribe to it. For us as Japanese it requires years of training to develop a proper appreciation of Shakespeare, and even then this is only a dim appreciation based on a deliberate adaptation of our sensibilities."

Let me expand on Soseki's statement. To the poets and playwrights trained in Latin, the "universal tongue" of their time, Shakespeare's work was beneath consideration. It continued to be ignored until the nineteenth century, when the German romantic movement discovered Shakespeare along with "literature." It was at this juncture that the image of Shakespeare—individual of genius, self-conscious artist, poet at once realist and romantic—was born. But Shakespeare's drama was quite different from realism; it was closer, one might say, to the work of Chikamatsu Monzaemon. This was pointed out by Soseki when he wrote about the translations of Shakespeare by Tsubouchi Shoyo. Shakespeare was not a realist, and he was not attempting to represent what was "human." When the notion of universality was established in nineteenth-century Europe, its own historicity had to be concealed.

Soseki had no choice but to reject such notions as the history of literature (bungakushi) because he was aware of the historicity of the very term "literature." History, like literature, was established and came to prominence in the nineteenth century; to view the past in a historical framework meant to take the existence of universals as self-evident.

Soseki reacted against the "history of literature." But he was not therefore saying that Japanese could be permitted a unique way of reading literature. It was his questioning of the concepts of "literature" and "history" that were dominant in his own time that led him to develop his concept of "autonomy" (jiko hon'i).

Whether it be social mores, customs, or emotions, we must not recognize the existence only of those social mores, customs, and emotions that have manifested themselves in the West. Nor should the attainments reached, after many transitions, by Western civilization at this point in time set the standard, however much it may set a standard for them. This is particularly true in the case of literature. It is commonly said that Japanese literature is immature. Unfortunately, I, too, hold this view. But to admit that one's literature is immature is quite a different thing from taking the West as a standard. If the immature Japanese literature of today develops, we cannot categorically declare it will become like the literature of contemporary Russia. Nor will it follow stages identical to those whereby modern French literature produced Hugo, then Balzac, then Zola. Since no one can logically maintain that there is only a single path a developing literature can follow, or a single point it should attain, it is rash to assert that the trends of Western literature today will be those of Japanese literature tomorrow. We should not leap to the conclusion that developments in Western literature are absolute. Perhaps, where the physical sciences are concerned, we may say that a certain idea is "new" or "correct." But since the path of progress twists and turns, branching off at many different points, it is impossible to say that what is "new" in the West is necessarily correct for Japan. If we set aside abstractions and examine the actual situation of literature in many different countries today, we can easily see that there is no orthodox path of development....

For that matter, we might say that it was a very precarious tight-rope act which brought Western painting to where it is today. A moment's loss of balance would have resulted in a very different history. I have perhaps not developed this point sufficiently, but it can be deduced from my earlier remarks that there are infinite possibilities in the history of painting: Western painting has followed one line, and Japanese genre painting another. I have used painting as an example, but there are many others. And it is the same with literature. Therefore, to take Western literature as we have been taught it as the sole truth and constantly appeal to that in determining our own affairs is terribly limiting. I don't deny that there is a factual basis for history. But what we have been taught is "history" can be assembled in many different ways within our minds and, given the right conditions, these other visions are always capable of being realized....

In the preceding sections I have discussed three problems which arise when history is seen as a continuous development. One is a tendency to abandon the old and indiscriminately pursue the new. Another is the tendency to affix the label of an "ism" to a work which has appeared spontaneously and as a result of treating the work as representative of this "ism," to mistake it for a whole which cannot be broken up, despite the inappropriateness of such an approach. Finally, we have the confusion which arises when, in response to changing times, the meaning of the "ism" itself changes.

The methodology I wish to propose now, while not unrelated to history, nevertheless does not hinge on a notion of historical development. Rather than classifying literary works on the basis of an "ism" (which, in turn, is based on the notion that a specific period or individual can be identified in terms of distinguishing characteristics) we should look only at characteristics of the work itself, quite apart from its author or the age in which it was written. We should approach all works—ancient or modern, Eastern or Western—in this way. They should be analyzed on the basis of formal and thematic criteria alone.

As the foregoing quote makes clear, Soseki took exception to the view that history was continuous and inevitable, as well as to the hidden ethnocentrism of the "history" that emerged in nineteenth century Europe. Moreover, he rejected the idea that a literary work could be reduced to a whole called "the spirit of the age" or "the author," and emphasized "only those characteristics manifested in the work itself." Soseki's approach here may be seen as a kind of formalist analysis, but of course it preceded the appearance of the formalist movement and formalist theory. Soseki's F+f formula, which he elaborates in A Theory of Literature, is also implicit in the approach he advocates in the cited passage.

"Romanticism" and "naturalism," for example, are products of history, and they appeared in historical sequence, but Soseki insists that they be seen, rather, as "elements" in a work:

I've already defined the two types of literature and the ways in which both are important. It is a superficial view to maintain that one school should be expelled from the literary world and the other should dominate it. Because the two schools have different names, some people assume that they are in fierce opposition, that the Romantic School and the Naturalist School glare at each other from within sturdy fortifications and across deep moats. But in reality it is only the names which are contending with each other, content passes back and forth freely between the two schools and there is a great deal of commingling. We can expect this to give rise to some works which, depending on the reader's viewpoint or interpretation, could be considered Naturalist as well as Romantic. Even if one tried to draw a firm line between the two schools, countless mutations would emerge out of the grey zone between the perfect objectivity attributed to the Naturalists and the perfect subjectivity of the Romantics. Each of these strains would combine with other strains to produce new breeds, which would in turn produce a second order of changes, until ultimately it would be impossible to distinguish the Romantic from the Naturalist. We can escape from the erroneous tendencies in contemporary criticism by carefully dissecting each work, identifying which passages are Romantic, and in what sense, and which are Naturalist, and in what sense. And no matter which way we identify a passage, we should not be content with simply applying one label or the other, but we should point out the admixture of "foreign elements" each contains.

Soseki is obviously expressing a formalist perspective here. His theory identified metaphor and simile as basic patterns in linguistic expression; the former characterizing the romantic style and the latter the naturalist. He expressed this insight well in advance of Roman Jakobsen, who proposed that the "tendency" of a literary work be identified on the basis of whether metaphorical or metonymical elements predominated. The experience of living in Europe as an outsider attempting to come to terms with "literature" in the West, however, was shared by both men. Since it was necessary for a critique of ethnocentrism from within Europe to arise before the contributions even of Russian formalism were properly recognized, we can imagine just how isolated the efforts of Soseki, as a Japanese critic, were. But it was not simply because of his sense of isolation that Soseki finally abandoned his Theory of Literature.

Soseki could not accept what Michel Foucault defines as "the principle of identity" in European thought. For Soseki, structures were entities which were interchangeable and capable of redefinition. Once a certain structure has been selected and identified as universal, history, of necessity, comes to be seen as linear. But it was not Soseki's intention to set up an opposition between Japanese literature and Western literature and thereby to assert their differences and relativity, for he was skeptical of identity in the case of Japanese literature, as well. It was simply that once he had discovered that structures could be assembled and reassembled, Soseki was led immediately to question why history should be defined in one way and not another, and even (with Pascal) why "I" should be "here rather than there." Formalism and structuralism, of course, do not address themselves to these problems.

Perhaps it is relevant to note here that Soseki was sent out for adoption by his parents as an infant and grew to a certain age believing that his adoptive parents were his real parents. Having seen himself as an interchangeable existence, he must have conceived of the bond between parent and child as not at all a natural but an interchangeable one. The child of natural parents may not immediately perceive an element of cruel gameplaying involved in this. For even if Soseki had an intellectual understanding of his childhood situation, he would have been compelled to doubt why he was "here" rather than "there." It was very likely this doubt which sustained his creative life. In this sense we might say that it was not because he had given up on theory that Soseki became involved with creative writing—but rather that his theory that gave birth to his fiction. I do not, of course, mean to imply that Soseki was at heart a theoretist or that his real aim was to write a theory of literature. What I am saying is that there was no other mode of existence possible for him except as theoretician—that is, as a person who maintained a certain distance between himself and "literature."


The strongly personal tone of Soseki's preface to the Theory of Literature suggests that the role of theoretician was something he embraced reluctantly and as if perforce. He explains how he came to entertain the question "What is the nature of literature?"

As a child I enjoyed studying the Chinese classics. Although the time I spent in this kind of study was not long, it was from the Chinese classics that I learned, however vaguely and obscurely, what literature was. In my heart, I hoped that it would be the same way when I read English literature, and that I would not necessarily begrudge giving my whole life, if that were necessary, to its study. I had years ahead of me. I cannot say that I lacked the time to study English literature. But what I resent is that despite my study I never mastered it. When I graduated I was plagued by the fear that somehow I had been cheated by English literature.

There was a basis for Soseki's fear that he had been "cheated" by English literature. Only those who have come to accept "literature" as natural cannot detect this "cheating." Nor should we invoke vague generalizations about the identity crisis of one who confronts an alien culture. To do this would be to assume there was something self-evident about "literature" and to lose sight of its ideological nature. Soseki had some inkling of the ideological nature of literature because of his familiarity with kanbungaku. Of course, kanbungaku as Soseki knew it was not simply the "literature of China," nor was he attempting to compare it with Western literature. Soseki was in no position to pursue idle comparisons between kanbungaku and Western literature. In point of fact, Soseki himself could not even grasp kanbungaku as a tangible existence, for by his own time it had already become something uncertain and irretrievable, something which could only be imagined on the other shore, as it were, of "literature."


Excerpted from Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Karatani Kojin, Brett de Bary. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword: In the Mirror of Alternate Modernities,
1 The Discovery of Landscape,
2 The Discovery of Interiority,
3 Confession as a System,
4 Sickness As Meaning,
5 The Discovery of the Child,
6 On the Power to Construct,
7 The Extinction of Genres (1991),

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