Friday, April 28, 2017

The Empty Mirror; by Janwillem van de Wetering

This small memoir, that ends on a tone of disillusion, is one of the best accounts of a Westerner coming to terms with Zen and meditation. The Empty Mirror, Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, written by the Dutch adventurer, businessman and author Janwillem van de Wetering, is not perfect (the end is a bit abrupt), but it is an honest and factual account, larded with interesting Zen stories, and on top of that, it is full of humor.
"The empty mirror," he said. "If you could really understand that, there would be nothing left here for you to look for." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)


In the past, my own interest in Zen was one of the motivators to study Chinese and Japanese in Leiden (coupled with my fascination for the philosophical Daoists, Laozi and Zhuangzi). At that time I did not yet know Van de Wetering's book - although it had just been published -, but in retrospect, when I read it in the late '80s, I found some truths here I had also sensed myself.

In other words, I realized why, despite my interest in Zen, I have never seriously considered entering a Zen monastery. In the first place a spiritual reason. By nature I am an academic rather than a practitioner. I approach Zen on an intellectual, or philosophical level. Objectively, this may not be the best way, but it is the approach that fits my personality.

The second reason is physical: I was never able to sit in the lotus position, not even the half lotus. I am just too large and too stiff. Janwillem van de Wetering had the same problem, and I feel his pain when he writes about his attempts to fold his legs!


The third reason is that I am too individualistic to fit in the groupist and hierarchic society of a Zen monastery. Van de Wetering had the luck to get his own room as a foreigner - the Japanese monks all slept in the same big dormitory. I don't like to do things at fixed times when others do them. I don't like to lie in awe on the floor in front of a Master, but as an egalitarian Dutchman would rather openly and freely discuss things with him.

The fourth reason is that there is too much beauty (next to the obvious pain) in the ordinary world. I can very much understand Janwillem's escapades from his restricted temple life to have a delicious beer! In my view, it should be possible to find the truth without giving up beauty... I am sure the irreverent and iconoclastic Van de Wetering must in the end have felt the same.
"Try!" the head monk said, "what a word! You mustn't try, you must do it." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
But back to the book. In 1958, Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008), appeared at the gate of the Daitokuji Zen Temple in Kyoto, asking to be admitted as a novice monk. The young Dutchman, son of a merchant, had already led an adventurous life, as trader in Cape Town, as member of a motorcycle gang, and next as a student of philosophy in London. Although he was originally interested in existentialism, his professor there suggested that he consider Zen Buddhism. So Van de Wetering was off to Japan, a country of which he neither knew the language nor the culture, and where he had no contacts. He just vaguely knew he wanted to practice Zen. He was one of the first, many would follow...
"Nothing matters, nothing is important, but it does matter and it is important to do whatever you are doing as well as possible." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
After promising to stay for at least eight months, Janwillem van de Wetering was miraculously accepted in Daitokuji, where he received guidance from Peter, an American studying there already for a longer time, who was also fluent in Japanese. Van de Wetering would stay for almost two years, struggling to find the meaning of life via Zen, until his money ran out.


The book provides a basic introduction to Zen, often via interesting stories. But more than that, it shows us the daily routine in a Zen monastery, not only the peaceful meditation, but also the arguments, the jokes the monks make, the cigarettes they secretly smoke, and the Master who likes to watch baseball on TV. Human life, in fact, is the same on the inside of Daitokuji's walls, as on the outside. We also see Janwillem struggling with his physical inability to sit for a long time in the lotus position, and with the Japanese language - there are times, he completely misunderstands the Master when Peter is not present to interpret.

Van de Wetering now and then escapes to Kobe to stay with the well-heeled Dutch businessman Leo, where he can drink beer and smoke cigars. Here he also reads his first Judge Dee novels by Van Gulik - much later, in the '80s, Van de Wetering would be active in promoting a rediscovery of these novels in The Netherlands; he also would write a biography about Van Gulik.


When it all ends, Janwillen van de Wetering has not found any big truths. But he has learned the notion of Zen-like acceptance, and how to be detached, even when striving hard. Perhaps that small bit of insight is more important than any broad and sweeping conclusion.
"By leaving here nothing is broken. Your training continues. The world is a school where the sleeping are woken up. You are now a little awake, so awake that you can never fall asleep again." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
After moving away from Japan, Van de Wetering worked in Columbia, Peru and Australia. In Bogota he also married. From 1966 to 1975 Van de Wetering would be active in the textile business in Amsterdam. At the same time he served as a reserve police officer, an experience that gave him the materials for his most famous novels, the fifteen volume crime series about police officers Grijpstra and De Gier. De Gier is modeled on the author and is interested in Zen and jazz. These were the times that hippie culture reigned in Amsterdam, even among the police force - a very different situation from today's more grim climate.

One of the novels, The Japanese Corpse, is situated in Japan. Van de Wetering also wrote a novel about a Japanese detective, Inspector Saito, but this book was less succesful. The early "Grijsptra and De Gier" novels convince because of their authentic atmosphere of the Amsterdam of the non-conformist sixties.

In 1971 Van de Wetering published The Empty Mirror as his first book (in Dutch, the English version followed two years later). In 1975, he wrote a sort of sequel, A Glimpse of Nothingness, about his sojourn at the Moon Springs Hermitage in Maine. Although he left the Hermitage after four years, he stayed on in Maine - the part of the world where he finally found his home. He also died there - in the summer of 2008, just when I had started reading The Empty Mirror for a second time.
The Empty Mirror, Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering (St. Martin's Griffin, reprint 1999)

Other recommended Zen books by the same author: A Glimpse of Nothingness, AfterZen. Published by St. Martin's Griffin. I you want to try his crime novels, have a look at Hard Rain, The Blond Baboon, The Corpse on the Dike, or The Japanese Corpse.

Update of a post originally written in 2008.

The photos in the article were taken by me at Daitokuji.
Non-Fiction Index

"Daodejing, The Classic Book of the Way and its Power" (Best Non-Fiction)

One of the reasons I decided to study Chinese (a decision that shocked both my parents and my teachers at the Grammar School in the small town where I lived) was my discovery of philosophical Daoism. Not satisfied with what the protestant church my family officially was a member of, was teaching, already from a young age I had started looking for wisdom elsewhere. That was not easy in the pre-internet age (something now inconceivable!) – I only had the local library to rely on and that was not much in a conservative municipality.

Happily, at some time I discovered that a certain publisher at that time was bringing out so-called "esoteric" books, among them small-sized hardcover books with translations of the Daodejing, Zhuangzi and Liezi - the three central books of philosophical Daoism.

These translations were not by professional Sinologists, but they served well as a first introduction. I remember I also bought a Dutch version of Wilhelm's The Book of Changes (Yijing) and a direct Dutch translation of the earliest book of Chinese poetry, The Book of Songs (Shijing). Unfortunately, I don't have those books anymore; they have fallen by the wayside during my frequent international removals, after I had acquired better and more reliable English translations. But I still can vividly remember the pleasure those small books afforded me... especially the short Daodejing was very intriguing...
The way (Dao) that can be spoken of
is not the constant way;

The name that can be named
is not the constant name.
The Daodejing is a small book (about 5,000 characters in Chinese) of 81 aphorisms. I have re-read it in the version by D.C. Lau (Penguin Classics), which also contains an excellent introduction and other materials. The Daodejing is the principal classic in the Daoist tradition. Traditionally, it has been ascribed to one Laozi, or "Old Master," a so-called contemporary of Confucius, but as the name already indicates, Laozi is most probably a fictional figure - he is also not mentioned in the Daodejing itself. There were probably many "old masters" and their wise, guru-like sayings were compiled into one book somewhere in the 3th c. BCE (around 270 BCE the text became very influential).

This was an age in which many schools of philosophy competed with ideas about the ideal government. As D.C. Lau, the translator, indicates, that is probably also how the Daodejing was originally meant - a treatise on government and personal conduct rather than a mystical treatise (or both, the one doesn't preclude the other). It advances a philosophy of naturalness and meekness as the way to survival in chaotic and disordered times.
"In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it."
Although beautiful poetry, the work in fact is quite disordered itself: many of the 81 chapters hang together as loose sand and Lau again subdivides them by numbering certain passages, so coming to a total of 196 aphorisms. The title "Classic of the Way and the Virtue ("The Way and its Power" in the rendering of the famous Sinologist Arthur Waley) has been simply taken from the starting words of the two books into which it has been (arbitrarily) divided.
"One who knows does not speak;
One who speaks does not know."
The Dao precedes and informs all other beings in the universe and is basically indescribable. You can only be in harmony with it by an attitude of naturalness, of passivity and of yielding. This quietistic attitude can also be applied to the ruling of the state: no do-goodism or hyper-active planning, but a certain amount of laissez faire is what is necessary. Or in the words of Michael Puett:
"The Daodejing argues that the universe changes spontaneously, without a conscious will driving it. The goals of the sage should be to act in accordance with these spontaneous changes. [...] In the Daodejing the universe operates through a constant process of generation and decay: things are naturally born and then they naturally die. Everything emerges from oneness and ultimately returns to it. The act of differentiation is a movement away from oneness, from stillness, from emptiness. The goal of the true sage is to become still and empty and thus achieve a state of returning to this oneness. This is called attaining the Dao. A true sage acts without conscious deliberation [...] Moreover he is amoral, for the Dao itself is amoral - morality is an artificial human construct and should thus be opposed." (from The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, Columbia UP, 2001, pp. 76-78).
It is the mystic, rhapsodic tone that makes this book so attractive and has ensured its survival long after its political message lost its relevance. It is subtle, elusive and suggestive and can therefore also be read on a "higher level" as a book of mystical wisdom. It is not for nothing the most translated book from the Chinese, every new translator can find new meanings in it, like an ancient Rorschach test.
"Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful."
But thanks to its transcendental attitude, there are many things in the Daodejing that still can interest us personally. It can very well for the basis for a personal philosophy of life. Although I can not claim I have always followed it, to me personally it is a very inspiring book.

Here are some things we can learn from the Daodejing:
  • Force begets force.
  • Material wealth does not enrich the spirit.
  • Self-absorption and self-importance are vain and self-destructive.
  • Victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated, but stems from devastation, and is to be mourned.
  • The harder one tries, the more resistance one creates for oneself.
  • The more one acts in harmony with the universe (the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things), the more one will achieve, with less effort.
  • The qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength.
  • Humility is the highest virtue.
  • Know when it's time to stop.
By the way, Daoism as a religion (with a different take on the Daodejing) is discussed by Kristofer Schipper in his interesting The Taoist Body.
This post quotes from / is based on: 
Tao Te Ching, translated by D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1976) 
Early Chinese Literature, Burton Watson (Columbia UP, 1962) 
The Columbia History of Chinese Literature (Columbia UP, 2001) 
Also see the page on Laozi in the excellent online "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy."
 This a revision of a post I published years ago on a different site.

Non-Fiction Index

Monday, April 17, 2017

Modern Japanese Fiction by Year (1): 1885-1904 - Realism, Romanticism and Pseudo-Classicism

In 1868, at the beginning of the Meiji-period, a complete transformation of Japanese society started under the banner of "Age of Enlightenment" by the wholesale introduction of European science and institutions. Japanese society was overhauled on all fronts, from politics, business and law to social mores, ways of living, eating, and dressing. But an exception was literature, which continued very much in the old vein for almost two decades. In fact, the first thing which had to be addressed was the language itself. There was a widespread discussion among scholars, educators and journalists to abandon the Chinese or kanbuncho style in favor of a relatively straightforward prose closely approximating the spoken language (genbun itchi), as in Western countries, but it took several decades before this was finally realized and a satisfactory modern writing style had been found.

Although the Meiji-period started with a first wave of Europeanization, which lasted until about 1885 or 1886, Edo-period humorous gesaku fiction continued as a form of satire, and useful but naive political allegories and romances were written to assist the country in its all-out effort of modernization. The translation of European novels was also taken in hand, but initially translations were very free and there was no idea of selecting on literary value - they were rather selected for political motives. So this was not a period in which anything exciting from a literary point of view happened. Important new factors were however the emergence of an educated public (thanks to Meiji educational reforms) and of a new generation of young novelists ("Meiji youth"), who had been born at the beginning of the Meiji-period and were educated at the new universities. They were the future elite of the nation.

In the next two decades, starting in the second half of the 1880s, several things change, confusingly in different directions at the same time. We now get translations of works of literary value in a fresh colloquial style. We also get the first modern novel (by Futabatei Shimei) and an essay providing the theory behind it (by Tsubouchi Shoyo), but these remained one-off, "avant-garde-like" exceptions. In fact, the mood of the country turned away from Westernization towards nationalism and romanticism, again valuating things Japanese - it was a period in which also two foreign wars were fought and won. 

So the 1890s were not dominated by modern novels written in a colloquial style, but by an author as Koda Rohan, who had a solid training in the Chinese and Japanese classics (and showed it), or Ozaki Koyo, who wrote sentimental, popular novels and set up the first important literary coterie on a traditional master-disciple basis. Both resisted the modern style with its unity of spoken and written Japanese, and wrote in various, more or less classical styles (the Edo-period writer Ihara Saikaku was an important example). The same was true of another Romantic, Izumi Kyoka, who started writing in this period, and also found his inspiration mainly in Old Japan. All three traditional authors had had a classical (Chinese) education and had remained free from western influence; they all three stemmed from the artisanal class from Edo.

The literary apex of Meiji was finally reached during the last seven years of the period, from 1905 on, but that is the subject of the next post.

As the first period of Meiji, from 1868 to the middle of the 1880s, didn't see any literature of quality, we start our survey in 1885, at the beginning of the second period.

1885
Cabinet system adapted by Japanese government.

Shosetsu Shinzui (The Essence of the Novel) by Tsubouchi Shoyo. A call upon writers to introduce elements of Western psychological realism. Until this time, Japanese literature of the Meiji period had consisted of a continuation of the humorous but frivolous gesaku fiction of the Edo period, of foreign novels in free adaptations and of political novels which were more a vehicle for propagating political ideals than literature (these political novels would remain popular through the late 1880s, until they disappeared naturally after having reached their purpose: the adoption of a constitution and establishment of a parliament in 1890). Shoyo advocated the autonomous value of the novel as a serious form of art, which should represent "the invisible and mysterious mechanism of human life." He emphasized the mimetic depiction of human feelings in contemporary society, portraying subtle, human feelings in ordinary, contemporary characters. The novel should not be a slave to didacticism, but art was important as an end in itself. Shoyo was the first to use the term "shosetsu" as a generic term for prose fiction - the Western novel stood for him at the apex as the "true shosetsu." This new novel should be written in a suitable, new style (in Shoyo's view, this was to be a modern style somewhere between the classical and colloquial style). Shoyo's essay can be understood as part of the larger drive in the 1880s to promote the rapid development and Westernization of Japan as a modern nation state. In Shoyo's view, the creation of a new literature worthy of the enlightened age was an important endeavor - a different assessment of the status of fiction writers than in the Edo-period when they had belonged to the demi-monde, or in early Meiji when they were journalists of sensational tabloids. Shoyo wrote his treatise with only superficial knowledge of Western literature, but it was not meant as a scholarly essay but rather as a "call to arms." His youthful enthusiasm managed to inspire a whole generation of writers, from Futabatei Shimei to Ozaki Koyo and Koda Rohan, however diverse these were in their literary attitudes. Koda Rohan, for example, said that nothing had ever given him such a jolt as The Essence of the Novel - "like tossing a rock into a quiet pond."
(Study: Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Karatani Kojin, Duke University Press, 1993)


As a critic, playwright, translator and novelist, Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859-1935) ranks at the forefront of modern Japanese literary history. Born in Gifu, he graduated in English from Tokyo University in 1883 and became a professor at Waseda University (where the Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum is dedicated to him). Besides being a critic, Tsubouchi was also active as a modernizer of the theater (Shingeki). He is famous for his full, high-quality translation of Shakespeare, which he completed in 1928. Shoyo's own attempts to put his ideas about the novel into practice were less successful. That lines were never drawn very sharply is shown by Shoyo's own love of late Edo gesaku fiction, which influenced his 1885 novel The Characters of Modern Students, a work lacking in realism. His best and most modern work of fiction is the short story Saikun (The Wife, 1889), a description of an unhappy household seen through the eyes of the maid.

The Genbun itchi movement (unification of writing and speech) can also be dated to this year, as the term was popularized in 1885 by Kanda Kohei, a scholar of Western (Dutch) learning (it had in fact been first used by Maejima Hisoka, who in 1866 had pleaded for the abolishment of Chinese characters). There was a large disjunction in Japan between the spoken (kogo) and written languages (bungo). There were at least half a dozen distinctive literary styles, some based on Sino-Japanese, others on classical Japanese. Genbun itchi involved the invention of a new concept of writing as equivalent with speech. It was an effort at modernization similar to the Meiji constitution, but it would take until the beginning of the 20th century until a suitable new style was found. There was also opposition against it, for example by Koda Rohan, who claimed that speech changed too fast to be a model for writing, and in fact, except for Ukigumo of 1886, most modern literature in the 1880s and 1890s was written in some sort of neo-classical style. All writers, however, experimented with style, also for example a conservative writer as Ozaki Koyo, who popularized the use of "de aru" for the verb "to be." The switch was finally helped by the fact that from 1903 on all school textbooks were written in the genbun itchi style; and five years later - paralleling the rise of Japanese Naturalism - all novels, too, would be written in the genbun itchi style.
(Study: Karatani Kojin, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature; Tomi Suzuki, Narrating the Self, Stanford, 1996)

The first modern literary coterie, Kenyusha (Friends of the Ink Stone) is set up by the young Ozaki Koyo and others, all linked to Tokyo University (functions until 1903 when Ozaki dies). As a modern literary movement, the Kenyusha was the most important one that was active in the 1990s. Ozaki Koyo himself was a master storyteller who would become one of the most popular novelists of the late 19th c. Although he was inspired by Tsubouchi Shoyo's influential essay (especially its anti-didacticism and its serious approach to fiction), he based his flowery pseudo-classicist style on that of Edo period writer Ihara Saikaku who was rediscovered in this period, and limited his subject matter mostly to sentimental love stories with highly implausible plots and two-dimensional characters. He used the vernacular for dialogues, but resisted the genbun itchi style. He had a preference for traditional Japan and disliked the mania for European culture of his contemporaries. Ozaki Koyo entertained master-disciple relations with members of his group, which meant he taught them, helped them to get published (often initially under his own name) and generally sponsored their career. This type of master-disciple relation was normal in the Meiji-period (see the example of Higuchi Ichiyo, below). Kenyusha published various periodicals in the years of its existence, to which also non-Kenyusha members as Koda Rohan contributed. The many members of the group (including disciples of disciples) included Hirotsu Ryuro, Izumi Kyoka, Tayama Katai and Nagai Kafu.


Ozaki Koyo (1868-1903) was born in Tokyo. He dropped out of Tokyo University and became a novelist at an early age - his first success was with Ninin bikuni irozange (Love Confessions of Two Nuns) of 1889. The same year he joined the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper as literary editor; all his subsequent novels were serialized in this large national newspaper. Ozaki Koyo's work is not part of the canon.

The term Bundan (Literary World) is used to describe the small group of writers, critics and editors whose work and opinions have determined what qualifies as "literature" throughout the modern period.

Sakuradoki Zeni no Yononaka ("The Season of Cherry Blossoms - The World of Money"), an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice set in the Edo period, is performed by the Nakamura Sojuro Kabuki company at the Ebisu-za Theater in Osaka, the first of Shakespeare's plays to be staged with actors in Japan. 


1886
Ukigumo (Drifting Clouds) by Futabatei ShimeiUkigumo has been called "the first modern Japanese novel" on the basis of its style and psychological realism, introducing a new spirit into Japanese literature. Futabatei believed that a novelist had the duty to uncover the truths unique to his time. In his case, this meant writing a realistic novel about the society he saw collapsing around him in materialism and lack of morals. This is also reflected in the title: Futabatei saw the Japanese of his time as "drifting clouds," buffeted by new technology and new ideas from the West, which had cut them loose from the moorings of their own civilization. To him, Japanese society in the 1880s had lost its moral center. This is demonstrated through the story of Bunzo, a serious and introspective young man from the provinces, who stands outside the mainstream of modern life but rigidly adheres to traditional values of honesty, sincerity and restraint as a sort of a "superfluous man" of the Meiji period. His unwillingness to compromise and toady to his superiors costs him his government job, which is perceived in a bad light by his aunt, with whom he lodges, and his aunt's daughter Osei (the first "Westernesque" femme fatale), with whom he is in love. Osei falls under the spell of the shrewd and aggressive Noboru (lit. "Rising"), Bunzo's friend, who is a glib talker on a fast track to advancement in the bureaucracy (he represents the spirit of Meiji). With his half-baked enthusiasm for democracy and admiration for the West, he is portrayed as a model of vulgar success. But Noboru has his sights set higher than Osei... The characters have a life of their own and are developed naturally. Futabatei's primary model and inspiration was Russian realism (especially Turgenev), of which he had made an extensive study. Except in the first chapters where he was still trying to find his way, Futabatei uses the vernacular, undoubtedly helped by his experience as a translator of Russian fiction. Futabatei's landmark novel was enthusiastically praised by his contemporaries for its innovative subject matter and style, and later re-discovered by the Japanese Naturalists.We should however note that it remained an exception, and had no direct influence on the writers of the mid-eighties and nineties, who, instead of trying to write a Russian-type novel, were more interested in a dialogue with the Japanese tradition.
(Translation: excerpts in The Columbia Anthology I; full translation by Marleigh Grayer Ryan, Japan's First Modern Novel: Ukigumo of Futabatei Shimei, New York: Columbia University Press, 1965; Study: Indra E. Levy, Sirens of the Western Shore: The Westernesque Femme Fatale, Translation, and Vernacular Style in Modern Japanese Literature, Columbia U. P.).


Futabatei Shimei (real name: Hasegawa Tatsunosuke; 1864-1909) was born in Tokyo and studied Russian at what is now the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He became known as a distinguished translator of Russian literature, especially his Turgenev translations were excellent - his translations of several stories from Sketches of a Sportsman would help the development of nature writing in Japan and greatly influenced Kunikida Doppo, Shimazaki Toson and Tayama Katai. Futabatei was a social critic who was constantly dissatisfied with his own work, and steadfastly refused to write for money. He saw literature as a sacred linguistic art for revealing the truth. As Ukigumo was written in a sort of vacuum - no one else was trying to do the same, the book was far in advance of its time - Futabatei fell silent for twenty years. After Ukigumo, Futabatei wrote only two more novels (at the time of the rediscovery of Ukigumo by the Japanese Naturalists), Sono omokage (In His Image aka An Adopted Husband) in 1906, and Heibon (Mediocrity) in 1907, but these were less successful. Shimei initially was a disciple of Tsubouchi Shoyo and Ukigumo was therefore first published under the name of his master. Ukigumo is part of the canon of modern novels in Japan.
(Study: Hiroko Cockerell, Style and Narrative in Translations: The Contribution of Futabatei Shimei, Routledge, 2014)

A Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet is serialized in the newspaper Tokyo Eiri Shimbun.



1887
Peace Preservation Law issued to suppress political agitation.

Chuo Koron, a leading magazine of political and cultural opinion is established.


1888
Privy Council established - Mt Bandai in Aizu (Fukushima) erupts, killing 444 people.


1889
Constitution of the Empire of Japan promulgated.

Koda Rohan writes Furyu Butsu (Love Bodhisattva aka The Icon of Liberty), a story of a Buddhist sculptor who seeks artistic perfection so that "Westerners with alabaster noses like statues" will not look in contempt at his country. He has rescued a young woman, Otatsu, from her uncle who wants to sell her into prostitution; later when he falls ill, Otatsu nurses him back to health and they fall in love. After she is called away by her father, he sculpts a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon in her image. The statue is first normally sculptured with a dress, but the sculptor removes layer upon layer until it becomes a nude statue of the Bodhisattva. In a rage when he hears Otatsu is to marry a certain nobleman, he almost destroys the statue, but then it miraculously comes to life and Otatsu herself stands beside him, like in the Pygmalion legend... so perfect was his art. They then ascend to heaven as husband and wife. The story with its lofty theme (and a new view of love) had an immense impact, despite its lack of realism. It was written in a pithy neo-classical style. Rohan tried to reinvent the Japanese language and its literature for a new era without throwing away its Sino-Japanese heritage (he called the genbun itchi style "Russian style grammar," as the style became first and for all famous through Futabatei Shimei's translations from the Russian).
(Translation in The Columbia Anthology I)


Koda Rohan (real name: Koda Shigeyuki; 1867-1947) was a writer of short fiction, essays and drama born in Tokyo and educated in the Japanese and Chinese classics. After graduation from a technical school, he turned to literature. Rohan was a Renaissance man, a towering figure who combined immense learning with strong principles - he has been called the last kunshi, Confucian scholar-gentleman. He captured the constructive idealism and vitality of the Meiji period and was a precursor of Japanese romanticism and symbolism. His most influential stories, such as the above one and Taidokuro, blend traditional elements such as Buddhist miracles and No play structure to create a supernatural atmosphere. He wrote in a pithy, pseudo-classical style, modeled on that of the great 17th c. author Ihara Saikaku and full of classical allusions. His best fiction was written early in his career; the 1890s were called "the age of Ozaki Koyo and Koda Rohan" (Ko-Ro jidai). Rohan's stories always have an idealistic, didactic intent - he was much more serious than Ozaki Koyo. Later he turned away from the novel to concentrate on essays, and historical and scholarly works, such as commentaries on the haiku from the Basho school. He was awarded the Order of Culture in 1937. His philosophy was an interesting synthesis of Buddhist metaphysics, Daoist mysticism, Confucian activism, Western humanism and Japanese aestheticism. The novella Gojunoto is part of the canon. Rohan's daughter Koda Aya also had an impressive literary career.
(Study: Koda Rohan by Chieko Mulhern, Twayne Publishers, 1977)

1890
First general election - Imperial Rescript on Education - First Session of the Imperial Diet convened.

"Maihime" (The Dancing Girl) by Mori Ogai (1862-1922) is a romantic story based on the author's experiences as a foreign student in Germany. Written in the first person, it describes a love affair between a Japanese student in Berlin with Elise, a German dancer, and is innovative in Japanese literature of that time for its expression of personal emotions. Ogai delves deep into the psychology of his protagonist. The student even gives up his studies to support Elise and her mother, and leads a happy life with her, but is tracked down by a friend from Japan who urges him not to throw his future and his career in his home country away. The student then breaks with Elise (who is just then pregnant and goes out of her mind) and returns to Japan, although on the way back he is torn between guilt and regret. This last element seems cynical but is another theme that would occupy Ogai throughout his career as a writer: the clash between duty and self-fulfillment. Although composed in the neo-classical language, and despite its Romanticism (not something innate to Ogai, but rather picked up by him from German literature) qua intent the story is more modern than Futabatei's Ukigumo. It is about a man whose discovery of his inner feelings and individuality clashes with his place in the world and the allegiances that go with it - the larger question is of course the identity of the self. The story is partly based on Ogai's own experiences (his German girlfriend even followed him to Japan, only to be rejected by his family) - it was through the writing of this lyrical story that he found self-expression and self-understanding.

Mori Ogai wrote two more romantic stories in 1890-1891: "Utakata no ki" (A Sad Tale aka Foam on the Waves) and "Fumizukai" (The Courier). The first is the story of a Japanese painter in Munich, who is in love with a model; from her he hears the story of the "mad king" Ludwig II who was in love with her mother, as an interesting frame tale; the third tale is about a Japanese officer who is invited by a beautiful princess to climb a pyramid together, but instead of experiencing romance, he is asked to act as courier to carry a letter so that the princess - as he later learns - can join the court as a way to escape a loveless marriage. In both these tales the narrator remains an observer, although his experience as a bystander helps him grow in self-understanding. In all three stories Ogai used elements from his own life in Germany, from military maneuvers to aristocratic court balls, adding authenticity to his tales. In the last story, Ogai advocated Goethe's spirit of "labor and renunciation," which he regarded as akin to the traditional East Asian belief in the Way of Heaven. In the 1890s, Ogai would be in the first place active as translator - his translation of the romantic novel The Improvisatore by Hans Christian Andersen exerted a great influence in Japan. He also set up an influential magazine which helped spread Romanticism.
(Translation of all three stories: Mori Ogai, Youth and Other Stories, ed. J. Thomas Rimer; study "Berlin 1888: Mori 'Dancing Girl'" by Maeda Ai in Text and the City, Duke U.P.)


The novelist, critic, translator and medical scientist Mori Ogai (real name: Mori Rintaro; 1862-1922) was born in Shimane as the son of a surgeon serving the Tsuwano clan. Educated in the Neo-Confucian classics and Dutch, the language of medical studies in the Edo-period (soon to be replaced by German). Ogai developed a taste for literature and read widely, also Chinese poetry. After graduating from the Tokyo Imperial University Medical School in 1881 (he was the first generation of students to study modern Western medicine with German professors), he became an army physician and as such, he was sent to Germany to study continental hygiene. He remained in Germany from 1884 to 1888. This experience gave Ogai an important exposure to German and other European literature, as is also clear from a story as "Maihime" (1890) which was among others inspired by Goethe. After his return, Ogai founded a literary journal to introduce the philosophy and literature of European romanticism, particularly Germany, to Japan. He also became known as an important translator of European literature (Goethe, Schiller, Ibsen - in all, over 150 translations). As a critic, Ogai was greatly influenced by the aesthetic theories of Karl von Hartmann. He was a staunch "anti-realist," who assigned literature to the spiritual and emotional domain of life and insisted on ideals in literature. He also opposed modern materialism as that only leads to the pursuit of the gratification of desires. In 1907, he was promoted to surgeon general and was appointed head of the Medical Division of the Army Ministry. After his retirement in 1916 he became director of the Imperial Museum. During his whole life, he combined a very active bureaucratic career with his literary work. Between 1892 and 1909 Ogai was mostly active as a translator and critic, but from 1909, inspired by the success of Natsume Soseki, he again started writing fiction, first contemporary short stories and plays, and – after the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 – historical tales and scholarly biographies of historical figures. Ogai experimented with different modes and in general cultivated a "distanced" narratorial technique – his style has been characterized as "rational, stoic, manly and understated." Like Natsume Soseki, Ogai opposed the Naturalists because of their mechanical attitude to life and their disregard of aesthetic values. From his early stories (discussed above) to his contemporary stories as Gan and his late historical fiction, Ogai is central to the canon of modern Japanese fiction.  
(Study: Mori Ogai by J. Thomas Rimer, Twayne Publishers, 1975)

Literary dispute between Mori Ogai and Tsubouchi Shoyo (1890-91). Shoyo opposed (Confucian) didacticism in literature and therefore praised Shakespeare's dramatic objectivity. But as he called that objectivity a "rejection of ideals," he drew the ire of Ogai who tried to refute him from the standpoint of German idealistic aesthetics, especially Eduard von Hartmann whom he extravagantly admired. What Shoyo saw as negatively didactic intent, was considered by Ogai positively as a universal idea behind the composition of a work of art.

"Tai Dokuro" (Encounter with a Skull) by Koda Rohan is the story of a young man who, after a terrible trek through the snow, takes refuge in a lonely hut in the mountains where he meets a beautiful woman who invites him to stay the night. After a bath and a simple meal, it is time to go to bed - but unfortunately there is only one bed. The woman offers it to her guest, the guest in his turn asks the lady to sleep in her own bed. When the lady proposes that they share the bed, the highly moral young man shudders and recites a Chinese poem warning against lust. They then decide to stay up both, and the young man asks the lady to tell him the story of her life. She was brought up in comfortable circumstances, she says, but on her deathbed, her mother gave her the injunction never to marry (the lady refuses to narrate the reason behind this injunction, but it might be that she had been taught the meaningless of the flesh). When a noble young man fell in love with her, she kept refusing him. When her suitor finally died, she felt real compassion and retired to this hut in the mountains. As dawn breaks, the house and the woman vanish suddenly and the narrator sees only a bleached white skull lying at his feet. Later he learns that a mad beggar woman (who may have been a leper) has strayed into the mountains about a year ago. He apparently has helped release her spirit - this is all in the eerie tradition and style of a No play (although her ghost is not a vengeful one). Now it is his task to tell her tale of Buddhist compassion and salvation to the world. The motif of this story (meeting a beautiful woman in a deserted spot, spending the night in her house, and discovering the next morning that she must have been a ghost) is a traditional one in East Asian literature. This story was much admired by Tanizaki Junichiro. The Buddhist rejection of lust and the ideals of love in this story are typical of Rohan.
(Translation: Pagoda, Skull & Samurai, 3 stories by Rohan Koda by Chieko Irie Mulhern, Tuttle Publishing)

Lafcadio Hearn arrives in Tokyo; Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894) will establish his reputation as a writer on Japan.


1891
Otsu Incident: assassination attempt on Russian Crown Prince Nicholas Alexandrovitch, while on a pleasure tour in Japan - Ashio Copper Mine Incident (environmental pollution) - Earthquake in Gifu an Aichi kills 2,273 people.


The early 1890s saw a nationalistic reaction to the first major wave of Westernization. Magazines with telling titles as "Nihon" or "Nihonjin" were founded and a reorientation to the literary past was reflected in the interest in the style of the Edo period writer Iharu Saikaku by such major writers as Ozaki Koyo and Higuchi Ichiyo. There was also a revival of haiku and tanka, promoted by Masaoka Shiki. The nationalist critic Takayama Chogyu (1871-1902) attacked Tsubouchi Shoyo's advocacy of a literature free from moralizing. He also called realistic literature "anti-nationalistic." Chogyu also founded the magazine Nihonshugi (Japanism) in 1897. Another traditionalist was Okakura Kakuzo (1862-1913) who argued for the superior values of oriental arts and Japanese culture in such works (written in English) as The Ideals of the East (1902) and The Book of Tea (1906).

"Goju no To" (The Five-storied Pagoda) by Koda Rohan again addresses the theme of art and how it can help achieve enlightenment. The story is about a competition between two master builders who both want to be in charge of constructing a pagoda for the Tennoji Temple in Edo. Such an endeavor is in itself a religious act, as the pagoda stands for the Buddha, his teachings through the Lotus Sutra, and the whole universe. Genta is a rich patrician of established social standing, Jubei is poor and socially inept (and has been the disciple of Genta). But he comes into his own as the great craftsman he is when he visits the abbot to present his plan. Although the abbot wants both men to cooperate on the project, Jubei is determined to execute the whole project on his own, and Genta finally yields (a Confucian virtue). Jubei's confidence in his own ability is not hubris or individualism (the pagoda is built by the teamwork of his whole crew) but ambition - willpower on the grandest scale in order to do good for mankind is what separates man from animal, according to the Confucian tenets of Rohan. Jubei builds such a sturdy pagoda that it even withstands the force of a terrible typhoon (the description of the typhoon is famous and was for many decades included in school textbooks). The forces of nature are personified as demons, but note that in Buddhism demons are the guardians of the Law whose mission it is to shepherd erring humans to salvation - intrinsic evil as an antithesis of the Good, as Satan in Christianity, does not exist. Finally Jubei wins even Genta's admiration. Again a story in which the ideals of art and goodness are triumphant. This novella is usually considered as Rohan's best work. Rohan's heroes are not brooding, introspective Meiji protagonists, but masculine heroes who battle with nature and apply their energies positively to their work. Tennoji is located in Tokyo's Yanaka area, but its pagoda unfortunately fell victim to arson (combined with a double suicide) in the 1950s.
(Translation: Pagoda, Skull & Samurai, 3 stories by Rohan Koda by Chieko Irie Mulhern, Tuttle Publishing)


1892
The Romantic critic Kitamura Tokoku (1868-94) urged upon his readers the Western ideal of romantic love. Tokoku participated in the radical Freedom and People's Rights Movement and was also influenced by the American transcendentalist Emerson. Tokoku attacked the Edo period idea that love had no bearing on the relation between husband and wife and promoted what he called, with a new word, "renai" (love from the heart). He wrote: "Love is the secret key to life. If love were taken away, what color or flavor would life possess?" (Keene, Dawn to the West, Part Two, p. 517)

Mori Ogai publishes his translation Sokkyo Shijin of Hans Christian Andersen's autobiographical novel Improvisatoren, which becomes very influential and is considered as a landmark in the short-lived Romantic movement of the 1890s. Although written in the same pseudo-classical style Ogai used in the short stories described above, it is a love story rich in poetry and was widely loved (and became more famous in Japan than in Europe!).   

 
1893
The artist Kuroda Seiki returns from study in Paris and introduces Impressionism to Japan.

Establishment of the magazine Bungakkai (Literary World, -1898), the organ of Romantism. The founding members were much influenced by Christianity. Participants were Kitamura Tokoku (a Byronesque poet and critic, see above), Shimazaki Toson (also with poetry) and Higuchi Ichiyo.

1894
Anglo-Japanese Commercial Treaty - Sino-Japanese War starts.

1895
Sino-Japanese War ended by Treaty of Shimonoseki - Taiwan becomes a Japanese colony.  

Takekurabe (Child's Play aka Growing Up, lit. Comparing Heights), Nigorie (Troubled Waters) and Jusanya (Two Nights Before the Full Moon aka The Thirteenth Night) are three novellas by Japan's first modern woman writer, Higuchi Ichiyo. The much acclaimed Takekurabe is a story of loss of innocence, about children growing up in Daionjimae, next to the Yoshiwara brothel district. Among them, the tomboyish, spirited Midori realizes the day her hair is done up in adult style that her childhood is over and that the harsh reality of life as a prostitute awaits her, like her elder sister who is already a celebrated courtesan. One of her playmates, the shy, bookish Nobu, the son of a priest, has fallen silently in love with her, but is so uneasy about his new affection that he can no longer speak to her. The pain of leaving childhood and loss of innocence is described intelligently, but without any sentimentality. The style is based on Ihara Saikaku, especially in the descriptive passages. The sights, sounds and smells of the Yoshiwara are all preserved in this tale. Nigorie is the story of the prostitute Oriki who is unable to forget Genshichi, a former customer, though his extravagance and neglect of his business has driven him and his family into poverty. The story ends with Genshichi killing Oriki and committing suicide afterward. This a modern, critical variant of the love suicides (shinju) in the plays of the Edo playwright Chikamatsu. Jusanya, finally, is a more serenely sad story: a woman who has married above her station and is mistreated by her cruel husband, returns by rickshaw to her parents' home, but they are unwilling to give up the advantages of having a rich son-in-law and persuade their daughter to go back to her husband. She also realizes that she could not leave her young son (in case of a separation, the children stayed with the father according to Meiji law). The rickshaw puller who brings her back happens to be a childhood friend, forced by circumstances to do menial labor. Takekurabe was filmed in 1955 by Gosho Heinosuke with Misora Hibari; Nigorie and The Thirteenth Night (together with another story, The Last Day of the Year), were filmed in 1953 by Imai Tadashi.
(Translation of all three stories: In the Shade of Spring Leaves by Robert Lyons Danly, W.W. Norton & Company; Study: "Their Time as Children, A Study of Higuchi Ichiyo's Growing Up," in Text and the City, Essays on Japanese Modernity by Maeda Ai, Duke Un. Press, 2004)


Higuchi Ichiyo (real name: Higuchi Natsuko; 1872-1896) was a writer of short fiction, but also poet and diarist born in Tokyo. Interested in literature, she entered a poetry academy, where she was nurtured on the Genji Monogatari and the waka of the Imperial anthologies. But contrary to her fellow students, her family was poor and she was forced to earn her own living by her father's death in 1889. She ran a shop selling household goods and cheap sweets in Daionjimae, in downtown Tokyo, right next to the Yoshiwara prostitution quarter (the setting of Takekurabe). In 1891, she became the pupil of Nakarai Tosui and started writing stories. Tosui was a popular gesaku-style newspaper novelist, and helped her publish her first stories. In 1892, Ichiyo had to end all contact with him due to (unfounded) rumors that their relation involved more than literature. Ichiyo was an admirer of Koda Rohan; she was also inspired by the writings of Ihara Saikaku - her style was classical but her content modern. Ichiyo's stories are wholly Japanese in form and content (defining a mood rather than constructing dramatic frameworks in the western tradition), she never explored any literature west of China. She died in 1896 at age 24 of tuberculosis, after having written her best stories in a miraculous period of just fourteen months, and being recognized and praised by the literary establishment, such as Mori Ogai. She is not only the first outstanding female writer in modern Japanese literature, but also the finest writer of her day. Takekurabe and several other stories are part of the canon.
(Biography: In the Shade of Spring Leaves by Robert Lyons Danly, W.W. Norton & Company. Study: The Uses of Memory, The Critique of Modernity in the Fiction of Higuchi Ichiyo, by Timothy J. Van Compernolle, Harvard 2006)

"Gekashitsu" (The Operating Room, 1895) by Izumi Kyoka brought a new romantic voice on the literary scene. This short story is impossibly melodramatic, but very beautifully written in the neo-classical style. A countess must undergo a breast operation. She refuses anesthetic as she is afraid she will reveal "her secret" under its influence. The surgeon then agrees to operate without anesthesia. The countess bears the pain without flinching, but suddenly grabs the surgeon's hand and plunges the scalpel deep in her breast. In a flashback we learn that the countess and surgeon - then a medical student - met nine years earlier and fell in love but could not marry due to their difference in status. After the fatal operation the doctor, who has remained unmarried, commits suicide as well. This in itself crude plot was sufficiently unusual for Japanese readers to give it an air of glamour. The story is called kannen shosetsu (idea fiction) because it challenges conventional ideas of love by introducing a couple who die for their "illicit" passion. The story was filmed in 1992 by Bando Tamasaburo with Yoshinaga Sayuri as the countess.
(Translation: Japanese Gothic Tales by Charles Shiro Inouye, Hawaii Un. press)


Izumi Kyoka (real name Izumi Kyotaro; 1873-1939) was a novelist and playwright born in Kanazawa. In 1890 he went to Tokyo to become a live-in disciple (shosei) of Ozaki Koyo. Although he made his debut with socially oriented “problem novels” (kannen shosetsu) like "Gekashitsu," Izumi Kyoka developed soon into the supreme romanticist of Meiji literature. His more than 300 novels, stories and plays often deal with the world of fantasy and the supernatural, or are set in the geisha world (these stories often contain interesting descriptions of contemporary Tokyo). In his mastery of such traditional supernatural elements as ghosts, monsters and demonic females, Izumi Kyoka has been called the greatest of 20th c. Japanese fantasists. He possessed an extraordinary ability to evoke archetypal tropes as the demonic/nurturing female and the familiar yet supernaturally eerie landscape. Kyoka wrote in a densely, imaginistic style and organized his material into elaborate plots which operate in a cinematic style with rapid cross-cutting. His style owed much to Ozaki Koyo and Edo gesaku writers. Kyoka was also active as a playwright in the Shinpa style. Later in life he retreated to Zushi, not far from Kamakura. As a writer he is often linked with the later Nagai Kafu and Tanizaki Junichiro because of their shared love of Edo culture and their depiction of life in the pleasure quarters; other devoted fans of his work were Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Satomi Ton and, later, Mishima Yukio and Shibusawa Tatsuhiko. For much of the 20th c. Kyoka was dubbed "a dropout of the modern age," but Mishima asserted that Kyoka was on the contrary too far ahead of his own time to be properly understood. It is indeed true that Kyoka (and also Rohan) look strikingly contemporary when seen from the perspective of the postmodern novel. Unfortunately, there are only few translations of his work - the extraordinary richness of his language makes him difficult to read also in Japanese, let alone render his work into English. A number of his stories and plays have been made into evocative films. Koya hijiri, Uta andon, Onna keizu and several other stories by Izumi Kyoka are part of the canon.
(Study: The Similitude of Blossoms: A Critical Biography of Izumi Kyoka by Charles Shiro Inouye, Harvard University Press, 1998; in The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature by Susan J. Napier, Routledge; and in Dangerous Women, Deadly Words by Nina Cornyetz, Stanford U.P.)


1896
Death of Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-1896).

One of the better Kenyusha writers was Hirotsu Ryuro (1861-1928), who is known for his "distressing" novels about sentimental events in the demimonde. He is now almost forgotten, but one of his stories still deserves attention: "Imado Shinju" (The Love Suicides at Imado), a sort of transposition of Chikamatsu to the realities of Meiji. Yoshizato, a top prostitute, has fallen in love with her customer Hirata, who however urgently has to return to his family in the provinces. She kept an other admirer, Zenkichi, whose infatuation has cost him his business, at a distance. But touched by Zenkichi's sincere love, although he is a rather clownish man, Yoshizato now allows him to stay a few days with her in the brothel, paying his bills herself. In the meantime she hopes that Hirata will come back. That doesn't happen and one day, Yoshizato and Zenkichi throw themselves together in the river. Written in a vivid colloquial style, this story is a superb evocation of the atmosphere of a Yoshiwara brothel. By the way, in 1898, Nagai Kafu (see below) would knock on the door of Hirotsu Ryuro and be briefly admitted as his literary disciple. This story has not been translated.

Hirotsu Ryuro (1861-1928) was born in Nagasaki but studied in Tokyo. In 1889 he joined the Kenyusha. He became known for his "tragic novels" (hisan shosetsu), written under influence of Edo-period gesaku fiction and filled to the brim with improbable events, exaggeration, rampant melodrama and wooden posturing. He stopped writing fiction in 1908. His works are not part of the canon.


1897

First modern labor organization founded. 

"Gen Oji" (Old Gen) by Kunikida Doppo is the first short story by this romantic (and later Naturalist) author. Although Doppo would become known for his use of the genbun itchi style, this first story is still written in the neo-classical language. The story is based on materials Doppo gathered while working as English teacher in a small town in Kyushu, but the major inspiration was Wordsworth's pastoral poem Michael. Old Gen is a boatman who adopts a vagrant boy after the death of his own son. He attempts to communicate his fatherly feelings, but the wild boy is unable to respond. In the end Old Gen hangs himself, but the idiot boy still understands nothing. More than for its sentimental plot, the story is interesting for its nature descriptions, such as an effective evocation of a storm that wrecks the boat of Old Gen. One can say that Doppo tried to discover the meaning of life in nature, which is also clear from "Musashino," a story written in 1898, about the landscape of Musashino in the outskirts of Tokyo. That landscape was not particularly famous or striking, but that was exactly the point, for Doppo saw beauty in ordinary things and ordinary persons. "Musashino" is a beautiful piece of impressionistic writing.
(Translation Old Gen: "Five Stores by Kunikida Doppo" (tr. Jay Rubin), Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 27 No. 3. (Autumn 1972), pp. 273-341)


Kunikida Doppo (1871-1908) was born in Choshi (Chiba) and studied English literature at the precursor of Waseda University. Inspired by the poetry of Wordsworth, in the mid-nineties he started writing lyric poetry. He was also a convert to Christianity. His early works include a diary (Azamukazaru no ki) and a new-style poetry collection. After an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce in 1896 (and that became the basis for the plot of Arishima Takeo's 1919 novel A Certain Woman), he withdrew from the community of Christian social reformers. Instead, he became a close friend of the writer Tayama Katai. In the late nineties, he started writing short stories, first collected in 1901 as Musashino. He became well-known for his lyrical evocation of natural scenes, although there is also a neurotic form of introspection in his work. Several of his later stories are often seen as precursors of Japanese Naturalism. According to Karatani Kojin, Doppo was the first fully modern writer for two reasons: his descriptions of external nature, and his introspection, his internal consciousness (paired with the genbun itchi style). Other excellent stories by Doppo are "Takibi" (The Bonfire, translated in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, ed. Theodore W. Goossen, Oxford U.P.), "Wasureenu hitobito" (Unforgettable People), "Gyuniku to bareisho" (Meat and Potatoes), "Jonan" (Woman Trouble), "Unmei ronsha" (The Fatalist), and my personal favorite, the bittersweet "Kawagiri" (River Mist). Doppo died at age 37 of tuberculosis. Doppo's stories are part of the canon.

Ozaki Koyo starts serializing his most popular novel Konjiki Yasha (The Gold Demon) in the Yomiuri Shinbun. Ozaki was the most popular novelist of his day. His novels were serialized in the Yomiuri Shinbun, ensuring a wide readership. The Gold Demon was Ozaki's most popular novel, but it remained incomplete at his death in 1903. The book is filled with highly melodramatic scenes, and was so popular it was immediately adapted for the stage, but it has aged badly - no modern reader will enjoy the books' most famous scene, set at the beach in Atami, where the exasperated hero abuses his lover, and when she kneels to beg forgiveness, even kicks her. But the novel's depiction of the rise of aggressive merchant capitalism in Japan at the time is sociologically interesting.
(Translation: excerpt in The Columbia Anthology I; paraphrase by A. and M. LLoyd, Tokyo 1917 as The Gold Demon. Study: Practices of the Sentimental Imagination, Melodrama, the Novel, and the Social Imaginary in Nineteenth Century Japan by Jonathan E. Zwicker, Harvard U.P.)

Japan Times, the first English-language newspaper owned and edited by Japanese, starts publication. 
 

1899
First japanese-made motion picture shown at the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo.


Tokutomi Roka writes Hototogisu (The Cuckoo aka Nami-ko), about the grossly unequal treatment women received in Meiji Japan due to the supremacy of the family. It is a rather melodramatic tale about the breakup of a marriage in the privileged class, in which a wicked mother-in-law, a former rejected suitor and finally tuberculosis play out their nefarious roles. The novel was very popular - not only in Japan, for it was soon translated into several European languages. In 1901, Roka also wrote Omoide no ki (Footprints in the Snow), a fictionalized story about his own development as a writer, inspired in part by David Copperfield. It is full of lofty ideals, which appealed to contemporary readers, but like Hototogisu, does not rise above the limits of popular fiction. More than for his novels, Roka is interesting for his powerful eccentric individuality. Another point that should be mentioned is the strong influence of Christianity on Roka and other writers from the 1990s, not so much as a religion (most of them left the herd after a few years) but as a gateway into Western thinking. Many writers also learned internalization from Protestantism.
(Translation: Footprints in the Snow by Kenneth Strong, Tuttle Publishing)


Tokutomi Roka (Tokutomi Kenjiro; 1868-1926) was born in Kumamoto Prefecture. He was the brother of the historian Tokutomi Soho. Roka corresponded with Tolstoy and in 1906 even traveled to Yasnaya Polyana to meet the great man (he left an interesting record of this visit). From 1907 until his death, he lived in a farm house in Musashino (now Setagaya-ku, Tokyo), where he worked the land in the style of Tolstoy. The property now is a metropolitan park called Roka Koshun-en.

Nitobe Inazo publishes Bushido, The Soul of Japan, in Philadelphia.

1900

Public Order and Police Law enacted - Boxer Rebellion in China. 

Koya Hijiri (The Holy Man of Mount Koya) by Izumi Kyoka is this author's most famous novella. A young wandering Buddhist monk from Mount Koya on a pilgrimage to Shinshu takes a rarely traveled path into a mountain wilderness to follow and assist a peddler. On this terrifying path, he first encounters a field of snakes, then a dark forest where it "rains" bloodsucking leeches, and finally - after crossing a little bridge - he comes across a beautiful, alluring woman with mysterious powers. She lives in a ramshackle mountain cottage with her infantilized "idiot" husband and a manservant about to take a horse to market. In other words, the ascetic has traveled from the real world to a supernatural one, inhabited by dead spirits. The woman he meets is both tempting (he is almost seduced by her in an erotic bathing scene) and maternal, a kind of shamaness who communicates with the animals around her (he sees her marshaling her powers to coax the reticent horse to follow the servant to market). The monk spends the night in the cottage, listening to weird animal calls, and reluctantly resumes his pilgrimage in the morning. After leaving, he stops at a waterfall, torn by the conflicted feelings of sexual desire and resistance to that desire. There he meets the manservant again, who has come back from his errand, and who reveals to him that the woman is a demon / goddess who turns lusty man into beasts - the many animals surrounding the cottage are all her victims! In fact, the horse he has just sold, was the errant peddler the ascetic was tracking... Enlightened, the monk escapes the wild surroundings and lives to tell his tale to others. The "shamanic, maternal woman" has been interpreted as the "Japanese tradition" which had been discarded by modernity, but which remained alluring. This mixing of the occult and the erotic, even though working with traditional elements, produces a strikingly new psychological effect. This really is a wonderful story.
(Translation in The Columbia Anthology I; Japanese Gothic Tales by Charles Shiro Inouye; Studies: The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature by Susan J. Napier, London and New York: Routledge, 1996; Civilization and Monsters, Spirits and Modernity in Meiji Japan by Gerald Figal, Duke Un. Press, 1999; Dangerous Women, Deadly Words, Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers, by Nina Cornyetz, Stanford U.P., 1999).

"Tarobo" (A Sake Cup) by Koda Rohan. A contemporary short story written in the genbun itchi style, a beautiful account of ordinary Japanese life and the understanding between husband and wife. A middle-aged man accidentally breaks a sake cup (called "Tarobo"), and this moves him to tell his wife for the first time about his long past love for a young woman he associates in his mind with this sake cup. The recollections of the old affair are presented unsentimentally, as befits a Confucian gentleman-scholar. This story has not been translated.

Kasugi Tengai (1865-1952), a pioneer Naturalist writer, who in 1896 first read Zola, publishes "Hatsusugata" ("New Year's Finery"), a story of a woman factory worker who eventually becomes a successful actress. It was modeled after Zola's Nana. In this way realistic mimesis with significant inspiration from French naturalism was emerging as the standard bearer for a new type of fiction. This has been called the first "wave" of Naturalism; the second one would strike between 1906 and 1910. No translation exists.

Poetry journal Myojo founded by Yosano Tekkan.


1901
Yosano Akiko publishes Midaregami, a collection of passionate tanka verse.


1902-1903

Nagai Kafu publishes essays on two novels by Zola (which Kafu read in the original French), followed the next year by an adaptation of Nana. He also writes three novels inspired by Zola, of which the best is Yume no Onna (The Woman of the Dream, 1903). It is the account of a woman's wasted life, tracing the stages of her descent into degradation. Although these first novels gave Kafu the reputation of being a pioneer of Naturalism in Japan, after this he developed in another direction, although he always shared with Zola (and Maupassant, in fact his greater model) an interest in the demimonde, as well as great objectivity and precision in reporting. (It has been said that Kafu was a more true Naturalist than the writers of the Japanese Naturalist Movement which started in 1906, as these later Naturalists were less interested in objectively depicting society than in revealing themselves.)


As Ueda Makoto has said, "among leading novelists of modern Japan, no one has written more about the lives of geisha, prostitutes, mistresses, and other downtrodden women than Tokyo-born Nagai Kafu (Nagai Sokichi; 1879-1959). His interest in them stemmed from sympathy, but was also motivated by a strong interest in European Naturalist literature, especially the works of Zola and Maupassant. An equally important subject for Kafu was nostalgia for the Edo (Tokyo) of the past, the last vestiges of which he sought out in the downtown parts of Tokyo along the Sumida River. Kafu was a great flaneur who daily made long walks through the city, inspired by Baudelaire (Le spleen de Paris) and late-Edo gesaku fiction (Tamenaga Shunsui). These two interests came together in his stories about the pleasure quarters of Tokyo where he nostalgically detected the remains of a bygone era. Kafu was also a great stylist, who experimented with the form of his novels, and who was more than any other Japanese author informed about modern European (especially French) literature. He had a long, direct experience of the West, having lived in the U.S. and France from 1903 to 1908. After his return to Japan, he became an anti-Naturalist and expressed his anger about the modern horrors of the Meiji-period. From 1910 he was for six years Professor of Literature at Keio University where he founded the magazine Mita Bungaku (in which he introduced Tanizaki Junichiro), but after that he gradually retired from public life, only looking for company in the pleasure quarters. Among his representative novels are Udekurabe (Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale), Sumidagawa (The River Sumida) and Bokuto kidan (Strange Tale from East of the River). Kafu's major novellas and essays are central to the canon of modern Japanese fiction. Kafu was one of the first modern Japanese writers who, upon intensive contact with the West, managed to create a literature that was on the one hand based on tradition and on the other hand marked by universalism. In 1952 Kafu received the Order of Culture. 
(Study and translation: Kafu the Scribbler, The Life and Writings of Nagai Kafu by Edward Seidensticker, Stanford U.P.; Fictions of Desire by Stepen Snyder, Hawaii U.P.)


1903
The death of Ozaki Koyo leads to the disintegration of the Kenyusha group, relinquishing the hold which it had over the literary world and freeing writers from the restricting ties of master-disciple relations. Some, such as Tayama Katai and Tokuda Shusei, would join the new Naturalistic movement.

Japanese philosophy student Fujimura Misao carves a poem into a tree at the Kegon Falls in Nikko before committing suicide over unrequited love.


1904
Russo-Japanese War begins - The first Japanese translation of the Communist Manifesto published.

George Bailey Sansom arrives in Japan, the future author of Japan: A Short Cultural History (1931) and the three-volume History of Japan (1958-63).

[Revised March 2020]
[Reference works used: Dawn to the West by Donald Keene (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984); Modern Japanese Novelists, A Biographical Dictionary by John Lewell (New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International, 1993); Narrating the Self, Fictions of Japanese Modernity by Tomi Suzuki (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996); Oe and Beyond, Fiction in Contemporary Japan, ed. by Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999); Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Karatani Kojin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993); The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, 2 vols, ed. by J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005 and 2007); The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature by Susan J. Napier (London and New York: Routledge, 1996); Writers & Society in Modern Japan by Irena Powell (New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International, 1983).]