Reading Japanese Literature

Reading Japanese Literature
Jackson, Jr.

LTMO 152c
Winter 1998
The Modern Japanese Novel

Context Reading One

On Reading Japanese Literature and the Question of “ Comparative Method“

Earl Jackson, Jr.
University of California, Santa Cruz

The Problem of Method

In 1927 the philosopher and cultural historian Tsuchida Kyõson (1891-1934) published an assessment of the state of Japanese literary criticism that retains a relevance today, not only with regards to the Japanese situation, but also for the academic community in North America. Kyõson begins with the observation that there must be a clear distinction made between literary criticism and literary history, strongly suggesting that the naive identification of the two often led to the predominance of the latter suppressing the development of the former. He writes:

The majority of Japanese literary scholars up to now have engaged in writing commentaries and exegesises on particular works. However, to define the work of Japanese literary scholars as exegesis and commentary of Japanese literary texts is in some senses a pointed critique of the field itself…Exegesis and commentary as the central focus of Japanese literary scholarship have become calcified and anachronistic practices, whose rigid continuance in the same vein could prove inhibitive to intellectual creativity.

Tsuchida Kyõson, Kokubungaku no Tetsugakuteki Kenkyû (Tokyo: Daiichi Shobõ, 1927), pp. 51-52

Of course, the evolution beyond this point in Japan has been more rapid and pervasive than in the west, largely because of the relative youth of the field outside Japan. Moreover, foreign scholars have had a double burden: they did not simply inherit an historical and exegetical „bent“ from the Japanese in founding Japanese literary studies abroad; before the question of „theory“ or „method“ could even be entertained, years of research and intellectual effort had to be devoted solely to translation, and to providing the historical and cultural background necessary to make any of this literature accessible. This kind of work will always of necessity include and be supported by translation and historical/cultural explication. However, the field has reached a point in its own history where it can no longer afford to define „Japanese literary studies“ as translation or as informational glosses on these translations.

On the other hand, we must not be too hasty in rushing to embrace a „strictly theoretical“ approach to Japanese literature, based exclusively on current norms of western critical theory. Our earliest models for the dissemination of non-European textual traditions are derived largely from writers whose scholarship was secondary to, or an accident originating from their service to the British Empire. While we cannot deny the immeasurable contribution to world thought made by these men through their translations and explications of Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Avestan, Chinese, and Japanese texts, this cannot blind us to the underlying attitudes of many these writers toward the very cultures they were allegedly „championing“. This scholarship was in many respects an extension of the imperialist causes and principles that served to justify their presence in the Middle East and Asia.1 There is little disinterested appreciation of these texts; the Graeco-Roman and Christian traditions figure prominently as the standard against which these „marginalia“ are measured. More insidious however, is the strategy inherent these practices: the value and significance within the texts under scrutiny is never received – it is granted by the administrator-scholars. Thus „understanding“ the non-European text becomes a form of legislation, an act of cultural aggression and control.

Writing about Japanese or Chinese literature in English, or in any western European language, is actually an experiment in comparative literature. An awareness of this fact is primary to the establishment of a methodological framework and the maintainance of a critical rigor essential to the intellectual and ethical integrity of such an endeavor.

In fact, even the phrase „Japanese literature“ already assumes much. The modern Japanese word for literature, bungaku , has a surprisingly short history as a concept unproblematically equivalent to ours. In dealing with pre-modern literature, we must also take into account the dual (triple?) history of bun (Chinese wen ), and the fact that at any point in its Chinese, Japanese, or Sino-Japanese histories, the term embraced more kinds of texts than would the word „literature“ as traditionally conceived in the west.2 Because the boundaries and configurations of „literature“ are drawn up differently in Japan, we cannot expect a rigid application of western literary critical standards to provide a basis for an appropriate response to Japanese texts.

An attempt at a comparative investigation of two or more apparently „corresponding“ areas of Japanese and Western European intellectual histories must be based on a recognition of two attitudes, easily assumed and equally destructive to the validity of the experiment:3

  • (1) the normative attitude: the practice of taking the western model as the norm; any redistribution of the themes of western model, or divergence in the configurations of these thematic representations are ignored, described as a „lack“ or an „insufficiency“ in the target culture.4
  • (2) the reductive attitude: the practice of subsuming the „corresponding“ aspects of the target culture under the same terminology for those aspects in the west, without a critical assessment of differences in underlying structural features of the respective objects of investigation, or the differences in the historico-cultural contexts in which the systems under comparison arise and function.5

The introduction of Asian texts into Western intellectual history necessitated not only translations from the original languages, but translation-like explications of the textual traditions, genres, and modes of presentation. However, once a critical context has been established, persistence in such apologetics tends to reinforce the very ethnocentrism and cultural myopia contact with such texts should challenge. The presentation of Classical Japanese literature is a case in point. To describe The Tales of Genji as a „novel“ in the early history of its „importation“ may be unavoidable; to advance our intimacy with this work without an examination of the applicability of the term „novel“ is to reduce the promise such texts hold for narratological research.6To discuss Nõ as a „drama“ (or worse still, a „tragedy“) is to ignore the organic relationship between Nõ performance norms and narrative traditions (katari ),7 as well as the irreconcilable differences between the conception of „self“ necessary for classical Western „drama“ and the dynamic absence of such a „self“ in Nõ presentation.

Of course, we cannot deny the need for a common critical language which can serve to illuminate the distinctive features of Japanese textual practices without homogenizing them. The development of such a vocabulary (or self-conscious reassessment of items already in the „lexicon“) is essential in any cross-cultural critical enterprise, and one which I would like to describe ideally as a three-stage process: heuristic, apologetic, and hermeneutic. By „heuristic“ I mean those strategies which serve primarily to educate as economically as possible within one specific frame of reference = the latinization of the names Confucius and Mencius would be an example of this. The „apologetic,“ while related to the heuristic, is more intimately involved with an implicit cultural heirarchy, whose maintainance is the secondary aim of such strategies: describing Nõ as a „lyric-drama,“ for example.8 The hermeneutic would be a strategy that would neutralize the hierarchy, while putting into question the historico-cultural situation that conditions the understanding of both self and Other.9

For another specific treatment of similar problems, in terms of contemporary Japanese art, see my review of the exhibition, Scream Against the Sky –

To Syllabus
To Japanese Literature Resources

Earl Jackson, Jr. – Copyright 1997-1998


1. For the history of such scholarship, and its political implications, see , Edward W. Said, Orientalism , (New York: Random House, 1978).

2. Chiba Sen’ichi, „Shinkaron to Bungaku,“ in Miyoshi Yukio, et al., Kindai Bungaku , I, (Tokyo: Yûhikaku, 1979), pp. 194-96.

3. For another description of East-West comparisons, by a Japanese thinker who was equally involved in literary and philosophical circles, see: Abe Jirõ, „Hikaku Bungaku Josetsu,“1932, rpt. in Zenshû , (Tokyo: Kadokawa, 1961) IX, 223-322.

4. To give two examples: Japanese is a post-positive language; naive descriptions of the language describe it as „lacking“ prepositions. Early accounts of haiku often occur in a mournful tone, deploring the absence of a long poem form. W. H. Blythe, one of the earliest „champions“ of haiku in the English language claims that the importance of the form in Japanese literature proves that „the Japanese imagination has wings only broad enough for tiny jaunts.“

5. To describe Nõ as a „drama“, or a „tragedy“ ignores the facts that the intrinsic structure of Nõ is consciously anti-mimetic; the underlying ontology and conception of an unstable „self“ precludes clear delineation of protagonist-antagonist dyads; the karmic ethos providing the situation is not comparable to moira , and is in effect anti-tragic.

6. Diana Spearman’s discussion of Genji in the context of her exploration of the social definitions of the „novel“ is highly suggestive, yet mostly because it raises more questions than it actually addresses concerning the particularity of our conception of the British novel, and whether or not the internal coherence of this definition of the „novel“ lends itself to the kind of restructuring the term requires to make it an applicable one for Japanese (or Chinese) fiction. Diana Spearman, The Novel and Society , (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), pp. 122 ff. I am indebted to Professor Janet Walker for bringing this text to my attention. Other questions regarding the „novel“ typology must be explored regarding the narrative structure of Genji both in terms of its relationship to lyric and to its relationship to other monogatari forms clearly beyond classification as „novel.“ On the former, see: Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, „The Operation of the Lyrical Mode in the Genji Monogatari ,“ in Ukifune : Love in the Tale of Genji , Andrew Pekarik, edit. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982); on the latter, see: Mitani Eiichi, Monogatari no Sekai (Tokyo: Yûseidõ, 1967), pp. 10 ff.

7. Frank Hoff, „How the Narrator Acts: Katari in the Nõ,“ Asian Theater Journal (Spring, 1985).

8. These stages are also subject to gradations. For example, in the case of the relationship between Chinese and Japanese poetics in the Heian period, Ki no Tsurayuki’s Japanese preface to the Kokin Waka Shû is heuristic-apologetic, while the Chinese preface is almost purely apolgetic; Kûkai’s Bunkyõ Hifuron is apologetic-hermeneutic. Dõgen’s re-readings of Chinese sutras in his Shobogenzo is decidedly hermeneutic.

9. For example: one Japanese scholar of world theater surmises that the western European interest in Asian theater forms in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries stems from the „same kind of ‚Romanticism‘ that expressed itself in the need to revitalize Greek and Medieval drama forms,“ as an attempt to recover the sense of „total theater“ lost through the adherence to post-Renaissance realist aesthetics on stage. Õshima Tsutomu, „Ongaku, Buyõ, Dorama: Engeki ni okeru Zentaisei,“ in Hikaku Geinõ Ron (Volume 10 of Nihon Koten Geinõ ) , edit. Kawatake Toshio and Umesao Tadao, (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1971), p. 307.

To Syllabus
To Japanese Literature Resources

Earl Jackson, Jr. – Copyright 1997-1998