Modern Japanese Literature
The modern period in Japanese literature dates from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and encompasses the Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), and Showa (1926-present) periods in Japanese political history.
During the Meiji era, such novelists as Futabatei Shimei and Shimazaki Toson sought to devise a new literature that rejected the traditional native forms and subjects in favor of ideas borrowed from contemporary Western literature. Among the most significant Western concepts to gain currency with Japanese writers of the period was the notion of individualism, which found uniquely Japanese expression in the confessional narratives of the shishosetsu, or I-novel. The loneliness of the self-aware individual became a sustained theme in novels of the period, notably in the works of Natsume Soseki. In addition, developments in fiction during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included colloquial reform of highly-stylized literary language and the rise of Naturalism, bringing with it a focus on ordinary protagonists and situations drawn from everyday life. Together these changes served to elevate the position of fiction within Japanese literature from mere entertainment into an art form of critical merit and social relevance. Writers of the Taisho and Showa periods continued formal experimentation, and individual authors embraced a variety of currents in world literature, including Marxism, Modernism, and—following the nuclear devastation of World War II—nihilism.
Throughout the phenomenal prosperity that has brought Japan to the forefront of the world economy since the 1970s, the condition of the individual in contemporary society has remained a prominent literary theme, as evidenced by the works of Abe Kobo, Nakagami Kenji, and others. While the period since 1868 has been dominated by innovations in prose, Japanese drama and lyric poetry have seen parallel developments. In drama, the stylized traditional forms of no, kabuki, and bunraku were maintained by classicists, although translations of Western theatrical productions and the development of shingeki, or "new drama," have gained prominence since World War II. In poetry, the introduction of Western concepts of free verse and the transformation, by Kawahigashi Hekigodo and others, of the traditional haiku form into a mode of self-expression represent significant innovations of the period.
Suna no onna [The Woman in the Dunes] (novel) 1962
Hako otoko [The Box Man] (novel) 1973
Ma no isan [Devil's Heritage] (novel) 1952
Rashomon, and Other Stories (short stories) 1952
Exotic Japanese Stories (short stories) 1964
Aru onna [A Certain Woman] (novel) 1919
Shayo [Setting Sun] (novel) 1947
Ningen shikkaku [No Longer Human] (novel) 1948
Onnazaka [The Waiting Years] (novel) 1957
Umi to dokuyaku [The Sea and Poison] (novel) 1958
Chimmoku [Silence] (novel) 1966
Kuchibue o fuku toki [When I Whistle] (novel) 1975
Sukyandaru [Scandal] (novel) 1986
Ukigumo [Drifting Clouds] (novel) 1887
Tsuki ni hoeru [Howling at the Moon] (poetry) 1917
Ukigumo [The Floating Cloud] (novel) 1953
Matsuri no ba [Ritual of Death] (novella) 1975
Takekurabe [Growing Up] (novella) 1895
Kuroi ame [Black Rain] (novel) 1966
Ryoju [The Hunting Gun]...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
SOURCE: "The Creation of Modern Japanese Poetry," in Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture, Kodansha International Ltd., 1971, pp. 131-56.
[In the following essay, Keene charts the transition of Japanese poetry during the Meiji era from traditional tanka and haiku forms to shintaishi, or "new-style poems," and also surveys later innovations in Japanese poetic techniques and themes.]
Modern Japanese poetry, like everything else modern in Japan, is generally traced back to the accession to undisputed authority of the Emperor Meiji in 1868. This political event did not immediately inspire floods of poetic composition; in fact, as far as I can determine, not a single poet sang the glories of the new reign, and no book of poetry of consequence was published for some years afterwards. But the new Emperor was to show himself conspicuously unlike many generations of his ancestors, rulers whose arrivals, activities and departures had been of little concern to poets. Though the Emperor's direct role in the movement of modernization was minor, he set the spirit of the new age in his oath taken in 1868, when he promised, among other things, to end old ignorance and to seek learning throughout the world. Poets were soon to call themselves proudly "Meiji men," meaning that they belonged to the new, enlightened generation.
Eighteen sixty-eight is of interest in the history of Japanese poetry for another reason. In that year two poets died whose works, though in the classical tanka form, suggest that they might ultimately have found a way out of the impasse in which Japanese poetry was trapped. The first, Okuma Kotomichi, sounded a new note in his book of poetic criticism Hitorigochi (1857): "The poets of the past are my teachers, but they are not myself. l am a son of my time and not of the past. Were I to follow blindly the poets of former times, I should forget my own humble identity. The poems I wrote might seem impressive, but their excellence would be entirely on the surface; they would be merchants in princes' raiment. My art would be pure deceit, like a performance of Kabuki." Despite his insistence that poetry reflect its time, however, Kotomichi's works are scarcely revolutionary: in diction and structure they are sometimes barely distinguishable from the poems in the Kokinshu written nine hundred years earlier. It would be hard to conceive of an English poet writing in 1850, with no intention of fraud, verses which might have antedated Chaucer, but in the Japan of the nineteenth century the language of the tanka was with few exceptions a thousand years old. Words of other than pure Japanese origin were not tolerated; it was as if the English poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had been obliged to confine themselves to words of Anglo-Saxon derivation, and Coleridge had therefore written "The Hoary Seafarer" instead of "The Ancient Mariner."
The subjects of poetry were also prescribed with minute exactness. There were, for example, twenty-five varieties of flowers which might properly be mentioned in a tanka: cherry blossoms, plum blossoms, wisteria, azalea, etc. Other flowers could be mentioned only at the risk of the poet being denounced as an eccentric or a revolutionary. The standard collections of poetry were known by heart, and the critical works of poetic dicta, most of them dating back to the thirteenth century, were not so much helpful guides as absolute prescriptions. The poet was encouraged to demonstrate originality of conception, while restricting himself to the language of the tenth-century collections, but what this meant in practice was merely minor variation. Perfection of classical diction, successful evocation of the poetry of the past, were the aims of centuries of poets. Of course an expert can trace currents even within this seemingly static poetic: the proportion of nouns might show a tendency to increase in certain periods, or there might be a greater use of metaphor in the love poems. But no self-respecting poet in 1850 would have said, "I enjoyed a quiet smoke," though people had been smoking for two hundred years. That is why Kotomichi's declaration seems so important for its day. Poets of the time reconciled their seemingly contradictory beliefs in the necessity for contemporary expression, and in the desirability of preserving the language and mood of the Kokinshu poetry, by writing chiefly about subjects which had not changed much in nine hundred years. "Fragrance alone, I thought, was in the wind, but since this morning the plum garden sends me blossoms too" is a poem which might have been written at any time over the centuries, and could still be composed today; indeed, such relatively static elements in Japanese life as the quiet appreciation of nature within one's own garden contributed to the preservation of the old poetic traditions.
The second of the poets who died in 1868, Tachibana Akemi, is a more striking figure. He was involved in the patriotic movements which resulted in the restoration of power to the Imperial Family, and his poetry reflects his activities far more vividly than Kotomichi's. He wrote, for example, a series of fifty tanka on the theme "Solitary Pleasures" including: "It is a pleasure when, a most infrequent treat, we've fish for dinner, and my children cry with joy, 'Yum-yum!' and gobble it down"; or, "It is a pleasure when, in a book which by chance I am perusing, I come on a character who is exactly like me"; or, "It is a pleasure when, in these days of delight in all things foreign, I come across a man who does not forget our Empire." These tanka have almost none of the traditional virtues of the form: they lack elegance, tone, depth, melody and so on. But in their different ways they point to possibilities of poetic expression which had largely been ignored: the pleasures (or sorrows) of ordinary life, the pleasures of the intellect, and the involvement of the poet in political activity. Tachibana Akemi's tanka, however, barely touched on these larger issues. It remained the task of the specifically modern poets to explore them.
Before 1868 Japanese poets who did not wish to write tanka had two other recognized possibilities open to them. The first was the haiku, a form which had originally allowed much greater freedom, especially in the vocabulary, than the hidebound tanka, but which by this time was even more saddled with hackneyed phraseology. Not one haiku poet of distinction was writing in 1868. The most important poetry was probably not that in Japanese but in Chinese. There was a thousand-year-old tradition of Japanese poets writing in Chinese, and probably the finest of this poetry was composed in the early nineteenth century. Poets who felt their thoughts too large to stuff into the thirty-one syllables of the tanka or into the even more cramped seventeen syllables of the haiku enjoyed the greater amplitude of the Chinese poem, which could run to thirty or more lines. This meant, however, writing in a language as unlike Japanese as Latin is unlike English. But just as English poets at times in the past chose Latin, not only for commemorative addresses but for their most personal poetry, so many Japanese found that certain things could be said easier in Chinese. For them Chinese was not the language of China, a foreign country, so much as a heritage from the Japanese past. Chinese influence was present in almost every variety of Japanese literature prior to 1868. It was only gradually superseded by influences from the West.
Modern Japanese literature was indeed to be distinguished most particularly by the presence of the West. Whether accepted or rejected, the West could not be ignored. The first stage in adapting Western influence was, inevitably, that of imitation. The Japanese have often been taxed with an excessive proclivity towards imitation, but it is difficult to see how they could have achieved the revolution in their literature without translation and imitation. It is surprising in fact how much the poets managed to salvage of the old traditions even when translating. The Japanese preference for alternating lines in five and seven syllables, going back at least to the seventh century, continued to be observed by almost all poets for decades. Even when translating English poetry they adhered to this rhythm, as in the version of "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" done by Yatabe Ryokichi (1852-99):
kane wa naritsutsu
no no ushi wa
shizuka ni ayumi
tagaesu hito mo
y oaku sarite
The mountains are misty
And, as the evening
The oxen on the lea
The ploughman too
Is weary and
At last departs;
In the twilight hour
Sometimes the adaptations were even freer, using Japanese equivalents in the imagery or construction, as in this version of "The Last Rose of Summer":
niwa no chigusa
mushi no ne mo
The thousand grasses in the garden
And the cries of insects too
Have dried up.
And turned forlorn.
Ah, the white chrysanthemum
Ah, the white chrysanthemum
Alone, after the others,
The rose, a flower without poetic significance for the Japanese, was here transformed into a chrysanthemum, and in place of Moore's "All her lovely companions/are faded and gone," a use of personification unfamiliar to the Japanese, we are told of the "thousand grasses" and "cries of insects" in the garden.
The first collection of modern poetry, Selection of Poems in the New Style (Shintaishi-sho), was published in 1882. It included fourteen translations of English and American poems, one French poem translated from an English version, and five original poems by the compilers. Among the English poems were "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, and two translations of Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life." The translators were scholars of English who happened to have become interested in poetry, and their versions, like the translations of professors elsewhere, had little poetic grace. The original poems are modelled on Western examples, sometimes with ludicrous results, as in Yatabe Ryokichi's attempt at rhymed Japanese verse:
haru wa monogoto
fuku kaze totemo atatakashi
niwa no sakura ya mono no hana
yo ni utsukushiku miyuru
nobe no hibari wa ito
kumoi haruka ni maite naku
In spring everything is full of
The blowing wind is really warm.
Cherry and peach, blossoming
Make an unusually pretty sight.
The lark of the moors, very high,
Sings as it soars far in the sky.
One compiler wrote disarmingly in the preface, "We are rather pleased with this selection of poems, but for all we know, the public may contemptuously dismiss it as an exceedingly strange and uncouth performance. Good and evil, however, are not eternal. Values change with the age and with what different generations believe. Even if our poems win no favor among people today, it may be that future generations of modern Japanese poets will attain the heights of Homer or Shakespeare. Some great poet, impressed by the new style of this collection, may contribute more talent and write poetry which will move men's hearts and make the very gods and demons weep."
As predicted, the collection was subjected to considerable abuse, part of it justified. We can only question the grasp of the principles of Western poetry revealed by Toyama Chuzan (1848-1900), the author of the poem entitled "On the Principles of Sociology," which begins with the lines, "The sun and moon in the heavens and even the barely visible stars all move because of a force called gravity." This was hardly an imitation of any English poem, but rather a combination of the new learning (especially the writings of Herbert Spencer) with the new poetic forms. One man wrote a full-length geography of the world entirely in the new verse! But Selection of Poems in the New Style was ridiculed less because of its poetical ineptitude than because the authors had deliberately mingled elegant and unrefined words including, for example, Chinese-derived expressions in Japanese contexts. Despite such criticisms, the collection exerted enormous influence, and the words "poems in the new style" (shintaishi) of the title came to be employed as the normal designation of the new poetry. Collections of this verse appeared in rapid succession during the following years.
The instant popularity of the new poetry was obviously not due to its exceptional beauty. It came rather as an explosive reaction to the overly familiar stereotypes of Japanese poetics. Tachibana Akemi in a satirical essay had derided the old poetry: "In early spring one writes of the morning sun gently shining and of the spreading mists; at the end of the year one speaks of the 'waves of years crawling shorewards' and of waiting for the spring. For flowers there is 'the blessing of rain' and for snow 'regret over leaving footprints.' Poetic language has come to mean such phrases and nothing else. A hundred out of a hundred poets, the year before last, last year, and this year too have merely strung together the same old phrases. How depressing!" Tachibana Akemi, not knowing about Western poetry, could offer no way out of the impasse except his homely little verses on daily life. With the new translations, however, it became apparent that poetry could have a much wider range than anyone had previously suspected.
First of all, poetry could be much longer and in many forms. Long poems had been popular in eighth-century Japan, and some new poets justified their long compositions in terms of Japanese tradition, but the inspiration for long poems, particularly on contemporary subjects, came directly from the West. Secondly, the subject matter was entirely new. The variety of topics treated by Western poets made some Japanese novices suppose, not surprisingly, that any subject, even the principles of sociology, might be celebrated in verse. The liberation from the old themes was sometimes excessive, and poets were eventually to discover that some hackneyed old topics still had validity, but it would never again be possible to limit Japanese poetry to the obviously "poetic." Finally, the language of Japanese poetry was enormously expanded, though not as much as the pioneers expected. Komuro Kyokuzan, the editor of one of the early collections, wrote, "Persons with unenlightened views, not realizing how the processes of civilization operate, assert that it is wrong to use in poetry any words except the old ones. This attitude in practice often leads to unfortunate results. For example, where once one spoke of a soldier carrying a bow and arrows, today he carries a Snyder, and there should therefore be no objection to writing of a soldier's Snyder. But when the critics insist that the poet must continue to refer to bows and arrows, does this not lead to an unfortunate result? They are mistaken because they do not realize that Snyder has already become a Japanese word." The argument is cogent, but unfortunately for Komuro Kyokuzan, the Snyder gun was not long afterwards replaced by a Japanese-made rifle, and the word Snyder, despite his predictions, never replaced bow and arrows.
Komuro Kyokuzan exemplified his theories of poetry with his "Ode to Liberty," translated in part by Sansom:
O Liberty, Ah Liberty, Liberty O
Liberty, we two are plighted until the world
And who shall part us? Yet in this world there
clouds that hide the moon and winds that destroy
The blossoms. Man is not master of his fate.
It is a long tale to tell
But once upon a time
There were men who wished
To give the people Liberty
And set up a republican government.
To that end…
The first volume of new verse by a single poet was the collection The Twelve Stone Tablets (Juni no ishizuka) by Yuasa Hangetsu, published in 1885. It consists of a series of poems based on the Old Testament, cast into the traditional rhythms in five and seven syllables of the ancient Japanese poetry. The language is replete with the stylistic devices of the past, and the vocabulary rich in old-fashioned elegance, but the presence of the Land of Canaan and the Walls of Jericho remind us that the enlightenment has occurred. The strongest cultural influence of the early Meiji period was indeed the translation of the New Testament, completed in 1879. This period marked the high point of Christianity in Japan, as many people were converted to the religion of the West, the source of the new culture. Believers and nonbelievers read the Bible and sang hymns. The hymns especially proved important in the development of the new poetry.
The first critical study of the new poetry, published in 1893, began with the remarks, "People constantly tell me, 'I am living in Meiji Japan, and I use the language of Meiji Japan. Why should I study the dead writings of the past and waste my time over the old circumlocutions?"' Owada Tateki, the author of this study, though sympathetic with the point of view expressed, felt that much was still to be learned from the past. He favored the use of modern Japanese, but noted how difficult it was to set standards for the ordinary, contemporary language of the Meiji era. In 1893 there was no standard spoken Japanese. The tradition of writing the spoken language was so recent that people were not even sure how to record common colloquial expressions, nor which words were standard speech and which were dialect. Owada felt that a certain artificiality was therefore inevitable. Above all, he counselled, there should be "moderation" in expression—avoidance of bizarre phraseology merely to achieve novelty of effect. He declared, for example, that "direct imitations of such Western expressions as 'the moon dances' or 'the mountains clap their hands' are likely to surprise, but they are not pleasing."
On the whole, however, Owada was optimistic about the future of Japanese poetry. "A new atmosphere is about to flood into our literary world. Already it is seeking cracks through which to gain admittance. Breathe in! Breathe in! Japanese poetry has its strange, unique beauty, but we must not forget that foreign poetry has extraordinary virtues. It would be a mistake to abandon our own traditions and adopt theirs in entirety, but if we add theirs to our own we shall widen our literary horizons. The long poem is unquestionably the special glory of their literatures; we should therefore transplant it in our garden, tender it, water it, and make Eastern flowers blossom on this Western plant. The Japanese Po Chü-i has long since completed his labors and sleeps in the ground. When will the day come that a Japanese Milton will write Paradise Lost at the Ishiyama Temple?"
Japanese Miltons, even of the mute, inglorious kind, were never to abound, but the lyricism of the past, assuming the freer and more varied forms inspired by the West, was to produce before long a fair number of Japanese Wordsworths, Shelleys, and eventually Verlaines. The lyric in the strict sense was to remain the dominant form for thirty or more years; many of the best lyrics are widely known even to school children in the musical settings later given them. Because the Japanese language was unable, like English, to rely on rhyme or a pronounced rhythm to differentiate poetry from prose, a sustained poem was difficult to manage, and the greatest successes continued to be in shorter works even after the tanka had been rejected for its excessive brevity.
The first collection of modern poetry still widely read today appeared in 1897. The fifty-one poems in Seedlings (Wakana-shu) by Shimazaki Toson (1872-1943) described the poet's youthful loves with an overt romanticism which captivated his readers. A few years later Toson related what his feelings had been when he published this collection: "A new era in poetry had at last arrived. It was like the coming of a beautiful dawn. Some poets shouted their words like the prophets of old, others cried their thoughts like the poets of the West; all seemed intoxicated with the light, their new voices, and a sense of fantasy. Youthful imagination awoke from an age-old sleep and clad itself in the language of the common people. Traditions took on fresh colors again. A brilliant light shone on the life and death ahead of them, and illuminated the grandeur and decline of the past. Most of that crowd of young poets were merely simple youths. Their art was immature and incomplete. But it was free of falsity or artifice. Their youthful lives flowed from their lips, and their tears of passion streaked their cheeks. Try to remember that their fresh, overflowing emotions made many young men all but forget food and sleep. And remember too that the pathos and anguish of recent times drove many young men mad. I too, forgetting my incompetence, joined my voice with those of the new poets."
Toson published two more collections of poetry, in 1899 and 1901, before turning to the novel. His most famous poem, "By the Old Castle of Komoro," appeared in 1900. Its opening lines are known to most Japanese:
By the old castle of Komoro
In white clouds, a wanderer laments.
The green chickweed has not sprouted,
The grass has yet to lay its carpet;
The silver coverlet on the hills around
Melting in the sun, the light snow flows.
Toson's indebtedness to the West included imitations of Shakespeare and of the "Ode to the West Wind." Other Japanese poets turned to Keats or to Browning. Susukida Kyukin (1877-1945) wrote one poem beginning, "Oh to be in Yamato, now that October's there." After this comically obvious imitation, he continues quite respectably:
I would follow a lane through the wood of
Kaminabi, with its sparse
To Ikaruga, at dawn, the dew on my hair—when
the tall grass
Ripples across the wide field of Heguri like a
And the colour fades from the dusty paper
window, and the sun is faint—
Between the wooden columns, insatiably, I peer
at the golden letters of
the precious age-old scriptures,
At the ancient Korean lyre, the grey unglazed
pottery and the gold and
silver paintings on the wall.
Without Browning the poet would probably not have conceived of this sentimental journey to Yamato, but once on his way he chooses images that are real and Japanese. In this respect the influence of English poetry on Japanese differed categorically from the centuries-old influence of Chinese poetry. Imitation of Browning enabled Susukida Kyukin to evoke effectively a Japanese scene, but imitation of Chinese poetry had generally imposed the obligation of describing China as well, even on poets who had never seen China. In a real sense, then, imitation of European poetry led to a liberation of Japanese poetry, giving direction to thoughts which poets had long entertained but never known how to express. Fortunately for the Japanese, the European languages were so remote in idiom that no possibility of closely imitating them existed; imitations were thus usually of conception rather than of imagery. The poem on Yamato in October is otherwise indebted to Browning in the use of enjambement, not unknown in traditional Japanese poetry, but generally avoided, in keeping with the dictates of Chinese poetics.
The most powerful Western influence on Japanese poetry came in 1905 with the translations by Ueda Bin (1874-1916) of the French Parnassian and Symbolist poets. Ueda's explanations of the functions of Symbolist poetry, based on the theories of Vigié-Lecoq, were to exert an enormous influence on subsequent Japanese poetry. His translations introduced to Japanese the works of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Verlaine, all of whom at once became favorite poets of the intellectuals. The popularity achieved by the French Symbolists in Japan is not entirely surprising, in view of the world-wide success of the movement, but that this poetry should have blotted out almost all other Western influences surely indicates some special affinity with the Japanese. In the introduction to his 1905 collection entitled Sound of the Tide (Kaicho-on), Ueda wrote, "The function of symbols consists in borrowing their help to create in the reader an emotional state similar to that in the poet's mind; they do not necessarily attempt to communicate the same conception to everyone. The reader who quietly savors the symbolist poetry may thus, in accordance with his own taste, sense an indescribable beauty which the poet himself has not explicitly stated. The explanation of a given poem may vary from person to person; the essential thing is that it arouse a similar emotional state."
Such views, as I have indicated, were borrowed from the West, but at the same time they represent quite accurately the special qualities of the traditional Japanese tanka. Since the ambiguities of the Japanese language are so extreme—in the tanka, for example, personal pronouns are rarely used, there is no distinction between singular and plural, often no distinction in tense, and the subject is usually unexpressed—it is natural for a given poem to produce different effects on different readers. The important thing, as in symbolist poetry, was the communication of the poet's mood, and here the shadings were extremely fine. The relatively straightforward poetic statements of Shimazaki Toson, reflecting the nineteenth-century English traditions, were welcomed by the general public, but the poets responded more enthusiastically to the indirection shared alike by the symbolists and their own country's classical poetry. If they had been urged to look to the past, to avoid contamination by foreign ideas, these poets would have been outraged. They would have declared that such obscurantism was contrary to the spirit of the enlightened Meiji age. But when told that eminent foreign poets had preferred ambiguity to informative clarity, the Japanese responded with double enthusiasm. Foreign appreciation of other Japanese traditional arts was to provide the impetus for Japanese rediscovery. When the German architect Bruno Taut proclaimed the uniquely Japanese beauty of the Katsura Palace, the Japanese rapidly and instinctively echoed his excitement. A Japanese love of ambiguity and suggestion, going back a thousand years, underlay the triumph of the Symbolist school.
Ueda Bin's translations were acclaimed not only because they introduced celebrated European poets to Japan, but because they were exceptionally beautiful as Japanese. He maintained in general the traditional fives and sevens of Japanese poetry, sometimes combining them in novel ways, as in the lines of five, five, five and seven syllables he used in translating Mallarmé's "Soupir." The vocabulary was entirely traditional, even slightly archaic, using the most natural Japanese words (rather than exotic, literally translated phrases) to communicate with remarkable fidelity the mood of the original. Ueda was a polyglot, and his collection Sound of the Tide includes a section from d'Annunzio's "Francesca da Rimini," a sonnet by Rossetti, some German lyrics, and even poems from the Provengal, but it was his translations from the French which affected most markedly the dominant stream in modern Japanese poetry.
English and American poetry on the whole has not been of great influence in Japan, at least since the time of Ueda Bin. For many years Japanese poetry remained under the spell of the French Symbolists, and they were succeeded by the Dadaists, Surrealists and so on. English poetry belonging to the same schools was welcomed, and T. S. Eliot in particular worked his gloomy magic on the younger poets, even before the war created bombed-out wastelands for them to celebrate, but his absorption with tradition and religion escaped them. For the most part, English and American poetry excited relatively little interest, perhaps because translations from the French were literarily superior, perhaps because of the allure of Paris, which captivated the Japanese in the twenties and thirties no less than the Americans. By the 1880's English had become the second language of Japan, and every schoolboy, however unlikely ever to leave his farm or fishing village, was required to study English until he could plod through one of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare or an 0. Henry story. But English tended to be thought of as a practical language, the language of commerce and information, not of poetry. Translation from the English was therefore generally left to teachers of English grammar, and most Japanese poets, as if to distinguish themselves from schoolmasters, studied French, though a few preferred German or Russian. Ueda Bin's translations influenced a whole generation of Japanese poets.
The volume of translated poetry, Corals (Sangoshu), published by the great novelist and poet Nagai Kafu in 1913, was also from the French, and consisted chiefly of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Henri de Régnier, and the Contesse de Noailles. Kafu's translations are close to the original, sometimes in the classical tongue and sometimes, a great rarity in those days, in the colloquial. His translation of Verlaine's "Colloque Sentimental" was particularly successful.
Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé,
Deux formes a tout à l'heure passé.
Samui samushii furuniwa ni
Ima shi totta futatsu no katachi.
By choosing for "solitaire et glacé" two Japanese words, both beginning with the sound samu, Kafu intensified the weariness of the atmosphere. Later in the poem we find
—Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne?
—Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu'il m'en
—Omae wa tanoshii mukashi no koto wo oboete
—Naze oboete iro to ossharu no desu?
Here the distinction between the tu employed by the man to the woman and the vous used by her in reply is preserved in the Japanese, though not possible in English. The tone is colloquial yet poetic, and completely natural, replacing such un-Japanese conceptions as extase ancienne with the familiar tanoshii mukashi no koto, "happy bygone things."
It is striking that although Kafu spent four years in the United States as a young man, including one year at Kalamazoo College, he never felt impelled to translate English poetry. His subsequent residence in France was only one year, including a bare two months in Paris, but his passion for French poetry and all things French remained with him for the rest of his long life, and influenced many younger men.
The next important collection of translated poetry was again from the French. The translator, Horiguchi Daigaku (b. 1892), was to gain fame in his own right as a poet, but his translations of Samain, Jammes, Apollinaire, and Cocteau, published after his return to Japan from France in 1924, exerted an extraordinary influence on modern Japanese writing. Most leading critics of Japanese literature today wrote on French poetry before turning to the works of their compatriots, and many developments in the Japanese novel may also be traced in terms of the effects of translations of novels by Cocteau and his generation. France itself was the dream of most young poets, painters and intellectuals, a sentiment commemorated by Hagiwara Sakutaro, the finest modern poet, in verses beginning:
I wish I could go to France,
But France is too far away …
The Japanese painters who studied in Paris (most leading contemporaries spent a few years there) all depicted the Riviera, Montmartre, and the other frequently represented scenes. The poets, on the other hand, were much freer in their borrowings. Horiguchi Daigaku, for example, rewrote a fable of La Fontaine in the style of Apollinaire, but managed to remain Japanese:
There was a cicada.
He spent the whole summer singing.
The winter came.
What a fix, what a fix!
It was worth it.
Much earlier, the poet Kitahara Hakushu (1885-1942) had exploited the possibilities of exoticism, but his exoticism was drawn from the Japanese past, and not a recent importation:
I believe in the heretical teachings of a
degenerate age, the witchcraft of
the Christian God,
The captains of the black ships, the marvellous
land of the Red Hairs,
The scarlet glass, the sharp-scented carnation,
The calico, arrack, and vinho tinto of the
The blue-eyed Dominicans chanting the liturgy
who tell me even in
Of the God of the forbidden faith, or of the
The cunning device that makes a mustard seed
big as an apple,
The strange collapsible spyglass that looks even
Hakushu attempted in this poem to intoxicate the reader with bizarre words derived from the Portuguese or Dutch dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Japan was first in contact with the West. Often the sound of the words, rather than their meanings, was uppermost; Hakushu delighted in the cadences of deus, kapitan, araki, bateren, birodo, and his poetry was heavy with absinthe, the odor of chloroform, the sobbing of violins, the putrefying of marble, and the moans of sick children. His exoticism easily turned into a fin-de-siècle overripeness, but his symbolism was sometimes simple and effective:
The acacia blossoms gold and red are falling,
In the dusky autumn light they fall.
My sorrow wears the thin flannel garb of one-
When I walk the towpath along the water
Your gentle sighs are falling,
The acacia blossoms gold and red are falling.
In this poem, a lingering trace of his partiality for exoticism, Hakushu deliberately wrote of the acacia, a foreign tree, rather than the normal Japanese cherry blossoms, which to modern poets would be anathema. Hakushu's early fondness for the sound of foreign words, however, eventually led him to appreciate the peculiar capabilities of Japanese sounds. As so often in Japan, the young man's passion for the exotic developed later in life into a rediscovery of the traditionally Japanese. Hakushu published in 1923 one of his most celebrated poems, "Chinese Pines" (Rakuyosho), in which sound is at least as important as meaning:
karamatsu no hayashi wo
karamatsu wo shimijimi to
karamatsu wa sabishikarikeri
tabi yuku wa sabishikarikeri.
karamatsu no hayashi wo
karamatsu no hayashi ni
karamatsu no hayashi ni irite
mata oku michi wa
Passing the forest of Chinese
I stared profoundly at the
How lonely were the Chinese pines.
How lonely it was to travel.
Coming out of the forest of
I entered the forest of Chinese
Entering the forest of Chinese
Again the road within
The last of the eight stanzas runs:
yo no naka yo, aware
tsune nakedo ureshikarikeri
yama kawa ni yamagawa no
karamatsu ni karamatsu no
Oh world, how sad you are,
Inconstant, and yet joyous.
In the hills and rivers, the sound
of the mountain streams
In the Chinese pines the wind of
the Chinese pines.
In the final stanza Hakushu not only demonstrates the special musical qualities of the Japanese language, but deliberately employs the most hackneyed of the old Buddhist images, the transience of worldly things. The slightly novel twist, the discovery of joy even in this impermanence, suggests the aged philosopher who, after his solitary walk in the forest of pines carpeted with fallen needles, finds a quiet happiness in his solitude. We may think this typically and pleasingly Oriental. Indeed, it is normal for Western critics to observe with satisfaction that the Japanese poet, after years of aping Western ways, has at last returned to the ancient traditions of his own country. We should not, however, forget that these sentiments were expressed by a man whose earlier poetry was chiefly influenced by French symbolism. Moreover, although the emotions are sincerely stated, the fact that Hakushu, writing in 1923, should have chosen the language of a thousand years before to describe the truth taught him by his walk through the forest, suggests how acutely aware he was of performing a Japanese action, doing what Japanese poets traditionally did. In his walk along the towpath amidst the falling acacia blossoms, Hakushu was the poet, the lover, not necessarily Japanese, but not un-Japanese. As he walked through the pine forest he saw himself as a Japanese, almost with the eyes of an outsider, and he relished the beauties of the Japanese language, almost with the ears of an outsider, as once he himself had delighted in the strange music of arrack, vinho tinto and velvet. Though he states, using the ancient classical language, that the world is aware (sad) and tsune nakedo (inconstant), he has not returned miraculously to the outlook of the ancient Japanese; he has discovered that their manner of expression suits him at this stage of his life, as French symbolism had suited him earlier. He himself remains that enigma, the Japanese in the twentieth century.
Hakushu's poem on the pine forest is cast in the traditional alternating lines of five and seven syllables, and is in classical language. This was a deliberate case of archaism, one might suppose, but the retention of these features of traditional Japanese poetry was general until the 1920's, and did not entirely disappear afterwards. The classical language had certain advantages over the modern tongue. Its greater variety of inflections enabled the poet, if he chose, to be more concise than modern language permits, or, on the other hand, to draw out a single word the full length of a line for special effect. For example, in Hakushu's poem "Chinese Pines" sabishikarikeri, meaning "it was lonely," is grammatically a single word in seven syllables; the modern word sabishikatta is not only two syllables shorter, but its double consonant destroys the prolonged, mournful tone desired.
Japanese poets found it hard to sense overtones in words without poetic ancestry. Writing modern Japanese was for them what writing poetry in Basic English or even in Esperanto would be for us. Even revolutionary poetry was cast in the classical grammar:
(The entire section is 16935 words.)
J. Thomas Rimer
SOURCE: "Japanese Theatre: Languages and Pilgrimage," in Pilgrimages: Aspects of Japanese Literature and Culture, University of Hawaii Press, 1988, pp. 71-90.
[In the following essay, Rimer provides a historical overview of Japanese theater, focusing on three representative works of classical and modern Japanese drama.]
When I first began to attend performances by Japanese contemporary theatre companies in the 1950s, I was puzzled by what I took to be a disparity between the power of the texts chosen for performance and the quality of the acting available to make those texts come alive on the stage. To see Pirandello, Molière,...
(The entire section is 21700 words.)
Noriko Mizuta Lippit
SOURCE: "Ironic Perspective and Self-Dramatization in the Confessional I-Novel of Japan," in Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature, M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1980, pp. 13-38.
[In the following essay, Lippit examines the types and major characteristics of the Japanese "I-novel. "]
The most peculiarly characteristic form of the modern Japanese novel is the I-novel, in which the author appears as the protagonist and describes his private affairs and experiences. Avoiding the use of fictional devices, the author presents his state of mind, ideas and realization almost directly. Not only is the subject matter narrowly...
(The entire section is 30508 words.)
Robert E. Morrell
SOURCE: "A Selection of New Style Verse (Shintaishisho, 1882)," in Literature East and West, Vol. XIX, Nos. 1-4, January-December, 1975, pp. 9-33.
[In the following essay, Morrell elucidates the influence on Japanese poetry of Shintaishio, an anthology of western poetry published in Japanese translation in 1882.]
In August, 1882, Maruzen Bookstore in Tokyo—still a favorite haunt for the foreign traveler in Japan—published a small booklet of nineteen poems, fourteen translations from English and five original pieces. The collection's three authors were all professors at Tokyo University; they were not...
(The entire section is 23923 words.)
Hibbett, Howard, ed. Contemporary Japanese Literature: An Anthology of Fiction, Film, and Other Writing since 1945. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, 468 p.
Includes works not previously translated into English by such writers as Kurahashi Yumiko, Abe Kobo, Mishima Yukio, Nagai Tatsuo, and Tanizaki Jun'ichiro.
Anderson, G. L. "Japan: Modern Literature." In Asian Literature in English: A Guide to Information Sources, pp. 139-69. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.
Annotated guide to primary and secondary sources.
Marks, Alfred H. and Bort, Barry D. Guide to...
(The entire section is 776 words.)