The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature

The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature

by John Whittier Treat


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226545134
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/03/2018
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 1,266,337
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Whittier Treat is professor emeritus in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University. He is the author of Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb and the novel The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House.

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Bird-Chasing Omatsu

It is 1868, before the boy-emperor Mutsuhito's new patrons have moved his throne from Kyoto but after rebel troops fighting in his name have occupied the shogun's seat in Edo. The civil war will not be over until the middle of the following year, but the Tokugawa military's tent administration (Bakufu), in and around Edo Castle since 1603, has already been renamed the Eastern Capital in anticipation of the emperor's arrival. The local population is unsure whether to pronounce the new name "Tokyo" or "Tokei," and they wouldn't be entirely certain until the turn of the following century, but that is only one sign of the confusion that reigns in former Edo. Soldiers are encamped in the streets of what would later be called Ginza but with none of its department stores yet, just freak shows (misemono), street merchants, fortune tellers, town criers (yomiuri), and gambling parlors (tekkaba). There, a young woman, beautiful but of the untouchable caste (hinin), sings songs from door to door for small coins in a form of begging euphemistically known as "birdchasing" (torioi), referring to the practice of dispersing harmful birds from fields with noise. Bird-chasing, along with so much street activity (such as hawkingnewspapers and cross-dressing in public), would be outlawed by the new government by the end of the first decade of the Meiji period.

This young woman, Omatsu (a name with all the plebian airs of "Molly"), never earns much but her good looks attract admirers. A soldier, Hamada, falls in love only to be swindled out of two hundred silver coins by Omatsu, who is still seeing another lover, fellow untouchable Osaka Kichi. Next to fall victim is clothing store clerk Chuzo. Infatuated with Omatsu, he is cheated out of money — actually, his employer's — by Omatsu in cahoots with her mother and Kichi.

More intrigue follows when Omatsu and Kichi head west to Kichi's hometown of Osaka, worried that the authorities are in pursuit. When a fellow criminal betrays them, Kichi is captured just outside Tokyo and imprisoned. But Omatsu escapes only to run into Chuzo, who, fearing his employer's wrath, has fled Tokyo meaning to commit suicide. Omatsu sees her opportunity. She says she deserves to die as well, and that it must be fate that has brought them together for a double suicide (shinju). But, Omatsu adds, what's the hurry? You still have some money left, so why not live as husband and wife? At least for a few months, until the cash runs out? Chuzo pledges his love to Omatsu. Fleeing further west to skirt the civil war, Chuzo falls ill. Omatsu nurses him, but their money is pilfered and they have to depend upon the kindness of a merchant, Sadajiro. Sadajiro suggests to Omatsu that she could earn a good living if she came to work for him as a geisha. Omatsu sees another opportunity. Dumping the ailing Chuzo, she follows Sadajiro only to realize that she has sold herself into virtual sexual slavery. Sadajiro confesses that he had been trailing her and Chuzo, and that it was he who stole the last of their money. He is in fact the notorious criminal Sakuzo, and he means to keep Omatsu for himself. Resisting him, Omatsu tumbles into the sea and is lost beneath the waves.

Until, that is, a passing steamer rescues her. Making her way to the home of Chuzo's father, Omatsu pretends to be his legal daughter-in-law who therefore is entitled to financial support. Worried that Chuzo will show up and expose her charade, she feigns illness until she judges the coast clear, and only then tells Chuzo's parents that, alas, their son is dead. Buddhist pieties pour out of her. Surely now, she says to the father, you can have no doubts my story is true. Chuzo's family is convinced until Hamada storms into the house. He calls Omatsu a liar and declares her a dokufu (literally a "poison woman," but more broadly, murderess) and tells the parents the real story in lieu of the false one they've heard from their pretend daughter-in-law. Soldiers arrive and take Omatsu away, not to prison but to Hamada's own house, where, still smitten, he devotes himself to her despite her low birth. "We are all brothers," he lectures her. Since they parted, Hamada has risen in the world, achieved all his worldly ambitions, and even wed the daughter of a powerful provincial lord. But his success is incomplete without Omatsu by his side. It may be wrong for a samurai to love a criminal, and an untouchable one at that, but love is shian no hoka — "blind."

Omatsu sees more opportunity. Yes, she says, I have always desired you, too. More than two years of bliss follow, with Omatsu more beautiful than ever and looking as if mushi mo korosazaru — she wouldn't kill a flea. Karma intervenes again, however, and Kichi, after his release from jail, is hired as a servant by Hamada and so crosses paths with his former accomplice. I have always, Omatsu tells the resurfaced Kichi, desired you. They hatch a plot against Hamada's legal wife, after whose departure the two lovers are free to lead a life of debauchery under Hamada's roof. Eventually, complications from their plot against Hamada's wife wrongly implicate Hamada himself. After he is hauled off to jail and commits suicide there, Omatsu and Kichi take his household valuables and head for Tokyo, where they hope to dwell undetected. But karma dictates otherwise. On their way east to the capital, they run into Sakuzo, who declares his intention to take Omatsu back from Kichi. When Kichi is killed in the ensuing struggle, Omatsu sees still more opportunity and goes to live with Sakuzo. She takes advantage of an unattended hunting rifle one day and tries to shoot him, but his angry pursuit of her is halted when a large bear eats him. The animal turns toward Omatsu. She runs and falls into a ravine, where an itinerant priest rescues her. Impressed by providence, she resolves to follow the Way of the Buddha and becomes the priest's disciple. Convinced that her beauty has been the cause of her downfall, she deliberately disfigures herself with tongs drawn from a fire.

For years she studies the holy sutras in a remote mountain village. But once a poison woman, always a poison woman. Longing for the big city, one night Omatsu sneaks into the priest's quarters intending to pocket enough money to return to Tokyo. When the priest awakes she pretends to be there to satisfy her carnal desires with him. The offended priest orders Omatsu out of the village, whose people beat her savagely as she leaves. Penniless, and with a face whose deliberate scars are festering and swollen, Omatsu turns to petty crime, resulting in her arrest and punishment all over again. Resolved to find her mother, she is caught in a terrible blizzard while making her way to Tokyo. As luck would have it, she runs into a now healthy and prosperous Chuzo. He gives her a little money as an act of compassion, enough to return her to the city and her mother, and even to pay for some medicine, but to no avail: her condition worsens, and on 9 February 1878, she dies, "running wildly like a mad dog," a fate in keeping with what is declared "the beastly nature of a beautiful woman" (bijo no jushin).

This is a true story, though truth, its definitions, and antonyms are what I explore in this chapter. My reading will be less interested in Omatsu as a female criminal at the start of Japanese literary modernity than it will be in the negotiation of the actual versus the imaginary in early Meiji. The account I start with here is distilled from a wildly successful woodblock book printed by entrepreneur Okura Magobei in 1878 in his relatively new publishing operation, Kin'eido, the same year that fountain pens and orchids as well as poison women were all the rage in Japan. The story might be absurd, but so is Henry Fielding's picaresque Tom Jones. Technically the format was that of a gokan: an illustrated, woodblock-printed kusazoshi (picture book) but bound in smaller format. Once denigrated by writer Tamenaga Shunsui (1790–1844) as playthings (gangu) for women and children, they served as a vehicle for popular fiction in the late Tokugawa period, often incorporating what we would consider "news." First written in kana syllabary, later with Sino-Japanese graphs glossed phonetically for reading by women and children, gokan were soon the most widespread of gesaku writing and in time built the mainstay readership of modern fiction. Their success was not without resistance, however: famed male writer Uchida Roan (1868–1929) commented in 1912 on how uncomfortable the sight of women reading still made him.

The appearance of Torioi Omatsu kaijo shinwa (The New Maritime Tales of Bird-Chasing Omatsu) sparked a major revival of the genre, producing "the first best-seller made by a newspaper." Shinwa was written in three volumes over approximately forty days by dramatist and gesaku writer Kubota Hikosaku (1846–98), who had been born into the family of a shogunal vassal (bakushin) only to slide down the social register after the Meiji Revolution. He worked various jobs: as a bureaucrat, assistant to kabuki dramatists, a hack journalist, a machiai (brothel) proprietor and finally, a tea ceremony devoteé and tutor. His Shinwa was overseen, however, by Kanagaki Robun (1829–94), a gesaku writer of humble origins who rose rather than fell in life, from being the son of a fishmonger to reach in time the upper echelon of the cultural establishment through ambition and hard work. Shinwa was illustrated by Yoshu Chikanobu and after it went on sale on 20 February 1878, sold an impressive eight thousand copies. It was sold without proper binding just to keep up with demand. It cost a little over twelve sen, roughly the price of a good gyunabe (beef bowl) — a relatively high price in part because of the expense of woodblock printing, which cost one yen per ten lines at the time. In the following years, dozens more gokan attempted to replicate Shinwa's success, and many did quite well, especially once the use of metal type after the early 1880s brought costs and prices down.

Shinwa was noteworthy in other ways. It was based, more or less, on a series of fourteen newspaper installments. No article had ever been serialized at such great length. Two or three parts had been the rule. They ran from 10 December 1877, to 11 January 1878 under the working title Torioi Omatsu no den (The Account of Bird-Chasing Omatsu) and with only one anonymous illustration. Unlike the gokan, the newspaper version was meant to be read rather than viewed, and for that reason it has been lauded as epochal (kakkiteki) in literary history. It was the first time a newspaper led readers to a novel, if we may use the term loosely. Close examination reveals that Shinwa is already unusual for a gokan. Sino-Japanese characters are provided with phonetic glosses to ease reading, and the illustrations and the text do not always match up. It may seem odd that Omatsu's exploits were reported as news, upstaging the 1877 Seinan War (also known as the Satsuma Rebellion), but that is what weekly news magazines still do.

The history of Japan's newspapers, per se, is not long, if we follow Albert Altman's definition of the medium as a "periodical in publication, mechanical in reduplication, available to all readers willing to pay the price, miscellaneous in content, timely in material, and published by a going concern." Preceded in the early seventeenth century by kawaraban (handbills that "effortlessly crossed the fluid borders of science, magic, astrology, folk belief, political/moral ideology, literature, poetry, and religion"), its proper history begins with the modern arrival of foreigners in Japan, who had their own periodicals in their restricted settlements. The Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser commenced in 1861; and in his 1881 book, Young Japan, foreign journalist John Reddie Black tells the story of explaining to a storeowner in 1872 that he needed to stock newspapers every day; the proprietor did not realize the news constantly changed, though in hindsight we might say he had a point.

Initially the press was an interest of the state and soon its arm. As early as 1857, Emperor Komei was listed as a subscriber to the Illustrated London News. The first Japanese-language newspaper was the Kanhan Batabia shinbun, a translation of a Dutch paper published in Java and sponsored by the Bakufu six years before the revolution. The first paper to use metal type was the 1869 Yokohama mainichi shinbun, a project underwritten by the Kanagawa prefectural governor. The Tokyo nichinichi shinbun had most of its print run purchased by the treasury (Okurasho), just as the Foreign Ministry subsidizes today's Japan Times. But the newspapers did not lack for readers. When train service started in 1872, newspapers were there for sale in the stations. Passengers were soon reading them on board. By 1873, there was a boom in newspaper publishing when the government counted seventy-nine nationwide. Newspapers around the world were key in the development of national modernity, not only because they began to make transparent the heretofore invisible workings of government, but because "the temporal distance between reader and event is bridged by the technology of instantaneous dispersal of news — which makes possible a relatively small temporal gap between reader and event." The development of a national postal system started in 1871, and newspapers enjoyed free delivery for a decade. Local libraries, which prohibited reading aloud along with smoking and conversation, were built and reading rooms (shinbun juransho) were set aside for newspapers, even in the prisons for the rising numbers of inmates who could read. This and the rationalization of publishing costs helped the Japanese, already highly literate, constitute a national readership united by the distribution of news and magazines. Newspapers, along with the telegraph, railroads, and steamships, meant that the face-to-face communications of the Tokugawa period were rapidly replaced with media that spread and accelerated contact between individuals and groups. Newspapers soon replaced the Tokugawa period's for-profit lending libraries (kashihon'ya) as the source of reading materials for the public. With the start of subscription home delivery in 1877, "the public acquired the habit of reading a fixed amount of printed material each day." The proliferation of newspapers in early the Meiji period, coupled with the introduction of inexpensive one-yen enbon editions of books at the start of the Showa period (1926–89), was the signature event in the creation of a national readership for fiction in Japan.

The audience for Kubota's Torioi Omatsu no den and the later Shinwa may have constituted the first modern readership in Japan by virtue of its scale, and it is not so far-fetched to think Omatsu's wide-ranging travels had something to do with the marketing of the newspaper outside Tokyo. That Shinwa appeared first in the newspapers and only later as a book points to how differently a story would be received as a collective news experience in lieu of a private literaryone. "As the book page yields the inside story of the author's mental adventures," noted Marshall McLuhan, "so the press page yields the inside story of the community in action and interaction."

Serialized reports, each approximately two columns in length and in time run for as long as six months, were an early form of media narrative dubbed tsuzukimono or tsuzukibanashi (continuing stories). They were defined by Nakamura Mitsuo as "writings in a documentary vein in a fictional form," indicating a telling generic confusion, or what Michael McKeon, speaking of seventeenth-century England, called the "double epistemological charge" of news to be historically objective yet "demystified as a 'romance' convention in disguise." Despite the fact that these tsuzukimono have to be regarded as news journalism (kiji) common at the time — the Omatsu no den installments were the same length as more unambiguous news items — these are held to be the precursors to the newspaper fiction (shinbun shosetsu) securely in place by the end of the nineteenth century. Like Omatsu's, the most popular were soon reissued as books that sold as genre hybrids (from our point of view) of news and entertainment. Shinwa, for example, retains the precise details of time, amounts of money, and people's ages but is also replete with the sorts of punning and other wordplay associated with gesaku and not news. In 1885, an essay published in the Yomiuri shinbun by journalist Kato Hyoko under his penname Renga Kanjin already noted the debt that fiction owed to newspapers' problematic precedent of publishing tsuzukimono in a medium dedicated to news:

A newsman would be ashamed to publish tawdry or lewd tsuzukibanashi. He can only take what is interesting or meritorious from what his reporters [tanbosha (poorly educated, underpaid menials)25] have managed to learn and, venturing into neither libel [hiki] nor obscenity, turn it into fiction or light frivolity, and hardly earn accolades from readers. As one person has said, these long stories resembling fiction are better published in reserved literary sections of the newspaper, than mixed with articles in the miscellany pages [zappo ran]. ... But since our Yomiuri shinbun cannot print fiction as news, in the coming year we will create a separate section for it. But no sooner than 1886 the Yomiuri stopped publishing tsuzukimono and replaced them with the generically secure shinbun shosetsu, making the transitional genre a brief one.


Excerpted from "The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature"
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Copyright © 2018 The University of Chicago.
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Table of Contents

Introduction. Modern, Japanese, Literary, History
Chapter One. Bird-Chasing Omatsu
Chapter Two. Midori’s Choice
Chapter Three. Sōseki Kills a Cat
Chapter Four. Narcissus in Taishō
Chapter Five. Imperial Japan’s Worst Writer
Chapter Six. Creole Japan
Chapter Seven. Beheaded Emperors and Absent Figures
Chapter Eight. Reading Comics/Writing Graffiti
Chapter Nine. Yoshimoto Banana in the Kitchen
Chapter Ten. Murakami Haruki and Multiple Personality
Conclusion. Takahashi Gen’ichirō’s Disappearing Future


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