Modern Japanese Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.