Mark Gibeau reviews 'The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature' by John Whittier Treat

Mark Gibeau reviews 'The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature' by John Whittier Treat

The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature

by John Whittier Treat

University of Chicago Press (Footprint), $69 pb, 406 pp, 9780226545134

In his 1998 book, Japanese Literature as ‘fluctuation’ (‘Yuragi’ no nihon bungaku), Komori Yōichi deconstructs the concept of ‘modern Japanese literature’ by examining the Encyclopedia of Modern Japanese Literature (『日本近代文学大辞典』), an impressive work that, despite its six volumes, fails to provide an entry for the very thing it proposes to discuss: modern Japanese literature. This, Komori argues, is due to modern Japanese literature’s status as a ‘privileged sign’. Like the modern nation-state of Japan, it can only be defined indirectly, through a tautology of association and exclusion. That is, a work is modern only if it is not premodern. To not be premodern, a text must not only be written after the start of the Meiji period (1868–1912), it must also have been properly baptised at the font of European and American literature.

We know that Akutagawa Ryūnosuke is a modern writer not simply because he was active in the early twentieth century but because scholars have discerned in him traces of Anatole France. Had Akutagawa written gesaku, waka, monogatari, or in any other ‘premodern’ literary mode, he would be invisible to the editors of the encyclopedia, regardless of when he wrote. This logic of exclusion is applied to the other components of the phrase, ‘modern Japanese literature’. A work is Japanese if it is not non-Japanese, if it is written in Japanese by a Japanese person – though the concepts of Japanese l anguage and ‘Japaneseness’ are themselves hardly straightforward. A text is ‘literature’ only if it is not not literature, if it is not art, music, journalism, etc.

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Published in March 2019, no. 409

Mark Gibeau

Mark Gibeau is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Culture, History and Languages, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University. He lectures in Japanese language and literature and focuses primarily on postwar Japanese literature and literary translation. His most recent project is a retranslation of Dazai Osamu’s seminal novel, A Shameful Life (Ningen shikkaku), due to be published by Stone Bridge Press in November 2018.