Japanese Prose Literature from 1000 CE and counting.
The editor of Lafcadio Hearn’s Japan (Hearn was an earlier populariser of Japanoiserie in the west) has observed that the classic Western attitude to Japan goes through three stages: unreasoning infatuation; heedless dislike; and finally acceptance. As he puts it “more like marriage than a love affair”.
I first went to Japan in 1983 and freely admit to having experienced the three stages so described. These days, the bubble economy of the 1980s is a distant memory and Japan is only our third biggest trading partner. Japanese investment in Australia has been in retreat for at least 20 years and Toyota is just the last of a long line of failed ventures.
So why bother? The answer of course lies in a culture that is a brilliant meld of tradition and innovation (though maybe not quite as unique as the Japanese like to think) and its cultural productions which, properly considered, really are uniquely rewarding.
So let’s begin at the beginning. And I do mean the beginning at least as far as the novel goes.
Some picaresque (and fairly pornographic) efforts from the Romans to one side (eg the Satyricon) the first novel ever was Genji Monogatari written in the early 11th century Heian Japan. This is a world with nothing in common with the more familiar Tokugawa period scenario of samurai, geisha and ninja. Not surprisingly, its author was a woman - Shikibu Murasaki. Genji is a massive house brick of a book and is usually consumed, at least in translation, in sensible abridgments. In common with its many descendants, part of its success is in capturing the atmosphere of a moment in time (or at least what the reader is persuaded must be that atmosphere) and few works succeed so completely in communicating a world which to most readers (including and perhaps especially to modern Japanese) is truly alien. The effete aristos who comprise Lady Murasaki’s subject matter do not engender a lot of sympathy but they are fascinating. Part of the problem in knowing how to react to this work is embedded in the potential Japanese has as a language to obscure agency. Unlike an inflected language the subject has no marker; unlike a syntactic language word order is not a reliable guide to grammatical meaning. Particles that follow nouns are capable of resolving the confusion but only if the composer so wishes. In the pitch dark veranda houses of 10th century Japan on a moonless night a certain amount of ambiguity was evidently considered desirable.
For a more immediately simpatico rendering of this era see the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Shonagon writes about the minutiae of Court life with sardonic wit. It is a world where the first thing you do on returning from a romantic tryst at day break is pen a “morning after poem” and despatch it forthwith. A typical excursion involves listening to cuckoos and inspecting a noble house where the quaint singing of the peasantry is the occasion for amusement.
In the history of literature it is vanishingly rare to have even one female perspective into such a distant time and place. In the whole history of classical Latin and Greek we have nothing like it except a few poems by Sappho. To have two female perspectives within a comparable time frame is pretty close to a miracle. And in fact there is a whole corpus of female poetry and diaries beyond the scope of this article. See the Anthology of Japanese Literature edited by Donald Keene.
But the gentle world which permitted this literary output – and remember, no output without an audience – was about to end. Yup, the blokes were in the saddle again.
Interestingly they found no reason to disrupt the outward form of things. An emperor would continue but real power would be exercised by soldiers. Three ”tent government” regimes– the Kamakura, Ashikaga and Tokugawa Shogunates - ruled or attempted to rule Japan from the 12th century CE until the Meiji restoration in the 1860s. The emperor in Kyoto reigned, the Shogun ruled. The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi in 1643 is one of the few literary productions we have written by a professional killer. Given his profession – training sword fighters to survive in a violent age – it is hardly surprising that the numerous aphorisms, all eminently quotable, are also all practically useless. No point in giving the competition a leg up when the stakes are so high. As he puts it: “amatueristic martial arts are the source of serious wounds”.
The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War by way of contrast was written by Yagyu Menenori an official in the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1632 – effectively head of the secret service – and is at pains to bend Zen Buddhist techniques (such as the contradiction in terms) in the service of the State. For example: “[if] myriad people are saved by the killing of one man. Would not this be a true example of ‘the sword that kills is the sword that gives life?’”
A more authentic version of this Buddhist view is in Kamo no Chomei’s “Account of my Hut” hut “ written in the early 13th century and which introduces themes which recur regularly in Japanese literature, particularly of disengagement from the contemporary world whose worth is illusory and the flowing river, always there but never the same.
Under the Tokugawa Shogunate Japan was a closed country from the early 17th century until the 1860s. Contacts with the West and China were closely controlled and confined to the port of Nagasaki. Christianity was ruthlessly suppressed and an attempt made to enforce strict caste distinctions between samurai, merchants and farmers. It is not surprising therefore that the cultural productions of the era owe nothing to Western models. Perhaps the most famous writer of the period is Matsu Bassho whose haiku in Japanese literature have the status of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He also wrote prose, particularly about his extensive travels in Japan. His The Narrow Road to Oku is a very early example of the high flown travel genre; strangely reminiscent of Samuel Johnson’s Walking Tour of Western Scotland and the Isles.
Notwithstanding the essentially reactionary nature of Tokugawa rule these centuries were also a period of massive and sustained economic development. By the time the American fleet obtained trading rights in the 1860s Japan was already ripe for radical change. The Last Shogun by Ryotaro Shiba is a well-researched novel set in this era. In Australia it would probably be classed as “faction” and marketed as non-fiction but the Japanese thankfully still know the difference between history and historical fiction.
The Meiji Restoration and entailed a thorough going commitment to adapt and utilise Western technology to preserve and strengthen the Japanese State. And it succeeded. Along with Thailand, Japan is the only Asian country to escape Western invasion and domination in the late 19th century. Inevitably however the influence of the West could not be confined to the means of production and the weapons of war. That this process would culminate in a military dominated regime whose armed forces routinely committed atrocities that would make Genghis Khan blush and ended in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was by no means a forgone conclusion. At the time it seemed that the breakdown of the Tokugawa caste system and introduction of Western idea and persons was a historic opportunity.
Those of us who visited Japan before “kokusaika” –internationalisation – was government policy are a little miffed to find that in fact the road we are on has been trampled to the stubble by many before. By the late 19th century Westerners were everywhere in Japan: proselytizing (with very limited success); doing business; training technicians and teaching English (even then the real international language). Compulsory primary school education quickly produced a massive reading public. Per head of population the Japanese consume more novels than any other nation. There are still 18,000 odd book stores in the country compared to 6,000 in the United States. And from the beginning of this cultural efflorescence the Japanese were fascinated by the intersection of the West and their own powerful traditions.
Natsume Soseki is the Meiji era novelist who captures this extraordinary time. In Kokoro he writes about young people encountering a world full of new possibilities and problems. In I am a Cat, his first person narrator, a cat of course, engages in fairly savage satire at the expense of his middle class owners and their pretentious circle of friends.
Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country tells the relationship between an onsen (hot spring resort) geisha and an effete and independently wealthy ballet critic (who has never seen an actual ballet). This story, which has the potential to offend on just about every imaginable level, manages to transcend the Pretty Woman cliché, and becomes a serious meditation on the possibilities of love in the context of human selfishness. It all ends badly of course but also provides a vivid picture of the life of an onsen resort; one of Japans truly great contributions to civilized hedonism.
Junichiro Tanizaki is perhaps the greatest Japanese novelist to come to maturity before the Second World War. His Makioka Sisters bears comparison with anything Tolstoy wrote and is a brilliant evocation of the world destroyed by the war. Tanizaki’s The Key is an acute insight into one kind of dysfunctional marriage while his Naomi is a clear eyed study of what happens when sexual attraction overwhelms common sense.
All of these pre-war writers succeed in conveying a world which is exotic, sensual and yet recogniseably modern. Western readers accustomed to the obliqueness of their 19th century tradition on matters sexual are usually pleasantly surprised by Japanese directness in this area (which is not to say that these writers are engaged in erotica; they are just not products of a Judaeo-Christian ethical system).The characters are constrained (or left free to indulge their passions) by forces and expectations particular to pre-war Japan but they respond in ways that make sense given their context. Of particular note is the theme of male female difference and the feminine tradition which went underground at the end of the Heian era can be seen struggling to assert itself.
What these writers do not do is give any insight into the mindset which produced the Rape of Nanking. Unlike the Germans, the Japanese have been slow to come to grips with the enormities committed in their name. There is no Japanese Gunter Grass.
That the “old Japan” is a world that is ceasing to exist remains a preoccupation of Japanese literature, sometimes solipsistically so. For mine, the most unfortunate expression of this obsession is the work of Yukio Mishima. Thirst for Love – the mercifully short (but very readable) early novel about an affair between an agricultural labourer and an upper class land owner is an example of his quasi-feudal world view tinged by sado-masochism. The very ambitious tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, (which he completed before committing seppuku after a failed right wing coup in 1970) is unfortunately very heavy going. By way of example, in Runaway Horses the series’ protagonist seeks to save a young man (whom he believes to be a reincarnation of a deceased childhood friend) from involvement with right wing fanatics in the early 1930s. He fails and the debate one might have expected about the merits of the militarist’s agenda simply never eventuates. Mishima is a post war writer who glamourizes what most observers now see as an aberration – the ultra-nationalist exceptionalism of the 1930s militarists.
Mishima eventually expressed his disappointment at the new Japan by committing seppuku and, it has to be said, at least had the courage of his fascistic convictions. I suspect the reason for his high profile in translation has a lot to do with Confessions of a Mask, a semi-autobiographical early work which deals with the protagonist’s crypto-homosexuality and seemed to promise a radical critique of Japanese culture. Mishima was a radical but not in the way most of us had hoped. There is however an excellent movie about his life Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters which is definitely worth seeing.
Mishima’s suicide seems something of an over reaction. Post war Japanese fiction, has lost none of it vigour, nor its unique voice. Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes – about an amateur entomologist abducted by coastal villagers to assist in their fight against encroaching sand - is an early example of the tendency to the surreal and is reprised in spades in the work of Haruki Murakami.
Murukami’s novels are enormously popular and with good reason. He treads the border between speculative fiction and literature. His disengaged, hedonistic but ultimately decent protagonists guilessly act as vectors for their more driven and damaged counter parties. Norwegian Wood gives meaning to the cliché achingly beautiful and is one of the great doomed love stories this reviewer has read. Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World on the other hand is just really strange and seems to be a kind of metaphor for the use of computing memory. I could be wrong. South of the Border West of the Sun is another doomed love story and Dance, Dance, Dance will make you think twice about your next spontaneous visit to a country hotel.
Some might say that Murakami is a little slick. He found a winning formula and keeps pumping it out. The more heavy weight literary contender post war is Kenzabaro Oe. He has indeed won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His work can be difficult to find in English but the recently published The Changeling is an attempt to understand the suicide of his real life brother in law Juzo Itami (the director inter alia of Tampopo and Marusa no Onna) and is set in immediate post war Shikoku. As such it deals with many of the recurrent themes of his work - his father’s quixotic death at the end of World war Two; his life as a literary author of international standing; his brain damaged son, Hikari; his hatred of the militarists who led Japan into World War Two. It is both irritatingly narcissistic and episodically profound.
Much less well known in the West but extremely famous in Japan is Yasushi Inoue. Inoue was a prolific writer especially of historical novels which were meticulously researched. His The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan is an accurate recreation of the “sengoku jidai’ warring states period in the 16th century. Fans of the Japan Total War real time strategy game will be impressed.
Banana Yoshimoto is a “younger” writer (relatively speaking) who writes about the generation disaffected with the values that made the economic miracle of the 60s and the bubble economy of the 80s possible. K.P. and Daidokoro are tales of disaffected twenty something trying to break out of the expectations of their elders.
The next big thing in Japanese literature has been a while coming but make no mistake it will arrive. I say this notwithstanding a somewhat depressing popular culture inhabited by supercilious panel show hosts food programmes (sound familiar?) and simpering “tarento” (of both genders). Having reached the third stage of acceptance of Japan you know that still waters run deep.