With the Meiji Era came a new sense of identity for the Japanese people and a new image of modernity within Japanese society. While the values and virtues from the Tokugawa period and earlier still existed, they were overshadowed by the ideals brought in from the West. These new ideals were meant to usher the nation into greater prosperity and international recognition. Additionally, many traits of the Japanese identity were taken by the burgeoning Meiji society and warped to fit its new vision of Japanese society. The clash between the traditional and the modern did not go unnoticed during this period and this theme is often adopted into the literature of the time, creating conflicts and moral dilemmas for the characters it confronts.
In some instances, the traditional and the modern take a substantial form in literature, with this theme acting as the main antagonist. In The Pier, a woman prepares to bid her husband farewell as he embarks on a trip across the sea to the West (France). For the unnamed narrator, modernity is the main concern. She witnesses Japan’s transition from an insular culture influenced suddenly by the outside world. This transition is seen from the way the people dress to the way people act to the things people do. This story is meant to impart a strong sense of regret and sadness for the obvious change that has come over the nation after the introduction of Europeans. Furthermore, the narrator at the end walks away from this new modern identity, a more Western identity, showing clear disdain for what the Meiji Restoration has made Japan become. A similar theme is held in The Broken Commandment, a story about a teacher who must decide whether to conceal his lower-class heritage or embrace it in the face of discrimination, coupled with his father’s disapproval of its revelation. In this instance, the author reveals that old identities still mattered a great deal to a nation trying transition into modernity. In the end he embraces his past, accepting the harm which comes with it.
The theme of modern and tradition did not have to always exist independently, however, as an important structure already existed within society. Yet, this structure was also changing and, in the eyes of many, becoming more perverse. This structure, the family, was important before Confucianism had been codified and made it sacred. With the dawn of the Meiji period and the influx of Western ideas came a change in the perception of the family and the institution of marriage. The Gate is a story of a couple who struggle with numerous failed attempts at having children and begin to suspect their marriage is tainted, despite their love for one another, due to the affair which led to the marriage. This is used as a model for the “new family,” which rejects traditional values and questions what the true basis of marriage really is. While the story ends without an answer, it is clear that the doubt in this new kind of marriage is very much real and that the belief that it would bring ruin touched on widespread fears in Japanese society. In The Saint of Mt. Koya, a priest’s traditional values are challenged when he falls in love with a maiden that he meets deep in the woods. These vows, taken by priests for centuries, required his detachment from the world and all its desires, especially love. Entranced by the woman, he resolves to forsake the life of a priest and be with her alone. Then an old man tells him the woman’s identity as a witch, telling the priest that if he returns to his love then he will die. The warning in this story is clear: a terrible fate will be met by abandoning the past and accepting the new concept of love given by the outside world. From these stories, it is seen that there are many who still held a firm belief in the traditional family structure and did not want to see it corrupted.
Marriage too saw a new identity under the modern revival. In the past, marriage was not based on love, but rather on social and economic gain. While this identity was not totally erased under the Meiji, it became morphed to make certain allowances for love to enter into the equation. For example, The Gold Demon: Book One is the story of a man who is set to marry a woman who he loves but loses out as she is arranged into a marriage with a wealthier man. In the past, there would be nothing morally uncomfortable with such an arrangement since the woman was fulfilling her duty to her family, but with changing notions of marriage the protagonist could reasonably compete for her on the basis of his love. This is similar for Ukigumo, a story of two men, one representing the traditional and the other Western influenced, who compete for the love of a woman. In this narrative, the traditional man who has lost his job and wouldn’t traditionally be seen a viable contender still stands on equal ground with his adversary. In the end, though, the traditional does seem to have the upper hand over the modern, but no definitive conclusion is given. In this way, it is seen that the new modern identity still cannot completely overshadow the traditional, even if certain aspects are from time to time deemed acceptable. While these stories often try to capture victory of the traditional, this often proved purely a moral one, as culture and literature rapidly changed and adapted to the influx of ideas from the West.
Ultimately, all of the stories presented here show that some were still uncomfortable with the degree of change the West had brought to Japan. Many of these new ideas about family, marriage, and behavior are treated as novel at best or downright toxic at worst. While Japan would continue down the path of “Westernization,” its authors would always try to recapture the ideals of a time that they saw as going or gone. Thus, Meiji literature presents an interesting window into how the intellectual community viewed the changes going on around and despite of them.
The Broken Commandment
By Shimazaki Toson
Annotated by John Grow
Shimazaki, Toson. The Broken Commandment. Translated by Kenneth Strong. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1974. Print.
The Broken Commandment, a novel by Shimazaki Toson tells the story of Segawa Ushimatsu, a schoolteacher from the Nagano prefecture grappling with the implications of his family’s low-caste heritage. Specifically, Ushimatsu and his family are burakumin, or loosely, “village people,” a social group that historically occupied the lowest rungs of the Japanese social hierarchy. Although chiefly a product of the feudal era, the marginalization of the burakumin persisted well into the Meiji period. As a result, many burakumin, like Ushimatsu, chose to disguise their heritage, fearing rejection or discrimination from their peers.
At the crux of the novel is Ushimatsu’s anguish over whether to conceal his identity—as his father and society command him to—or to live authentically in the face of social scorn. The conclusion of Shimazaki’s story sees Ushimatsu ultimately come to terms with his heritage, but lose his teaching post and place in society as a result.
The novel itself, published in 1906, was Shimazaki’s first, and he writes in the sparse prose characteristic of the budding literary tradition known as Naturalism. Distancing themselves from the perceived excess of the Romantic style, Naturalists like Shimazaki instead sought to convey simple, authentic depictions of everyday Japanese life.
By Natsume Soseki, Translated by William F. Sibley
Annotated by Kayla Schroff
Natsume, Sōseki, and William F. Sibley. The Gate. New York: New York Review, 2013. Print.
Soseki’s The Gate focuses on Sosuke and his wife Oyone. Sosuke works morning to night as a low-level clerk, and struggles to make ends meet. Sosuke and his wife are obviously social outcasts, and the reason is slowly revealed as the novel progresses. Despite this, their close relationship is a close and intimate one. However, they are obviously weighed down emotionally by a number of things, chief among them a hidden guilt, and their childless status. Oyone has never been able to carry to term, and this, coupled with the isolation that the couple are put through, has taken its toll on both.
Sosuke’s aunt, at one point during a conversation with Oyone, comments on how different Sosuke is from when he was a child, having become more passive and aged than before. As the two of them have struggled, Sosuke has grown increasingly timid, preferring to run away from conflict of any kind rather than work through it, while Oyone just supports him through whatever decision he chooses to make for them. This conflict avoidance has grown out of a heavy guilt that is centered around the origins of their relationship.
The truth of their marriage is that Sosuke and Oyone not only married for love, but had an affair while Oyone was involved with a college friend of Sosuke’s. As this truth of his and Oyone’s is revealed, Oyone herself begins to think that they are indeed as bad of a match as his family says they are, as they are being ‘punished’ with being unable to have children. As Oyone grows sick, and Sosuke’s brother comes to the struggling couple for help regarding his education, Sosuke goes on a sudden retreat to a temple in search for answers. However, the novel ends without any resolution, as Sosuke rejects any number of solutions and is unable to pass through the proverbial gate that leads to a true resolution.
The Gold Demon: Book One
By Ozaki Koyo
Annotated by Thatcher Whitacre
Ozaki, Koyo. “Book One.” The Gold Demon. Trans. Arthur Lloyd. Vol. 1. Tokyo: Yurakusha, 1905. Print.
The Gold Demon is a novel about the struggles of Kwanichi Hazama in Tokyo in the Meiji era. He is the hanger-on of the Shigisawa family due to a debt owned by their head of household to his father. Initially, he is engaged to marry their only daughter Miya. However, one night during the New Year’s festival, a suitor appears by the name of Tomiyama Tadatsugu. Tomiyama is the son the a wealthy banker who is set to inherit a vast fortune. Upon seeing Miya playing karuta at a private party, he is attracted to her physical beauty and wishes to marry her.
Thus begins Kwanichi’s troubles. It soon becomes apparent that Miya, despite her disjointed love for Kwanichi, has agreed to marry Tomiyama for his apparent wealth. She tries to hide this information from Kwanichi at the expense of her own health and sanity, but it ultimately proves futile. While away in Atami under the guise of trying to feel better, her father tells Kwanichi the plan: Miya is to marry Tomiyama and Kwanichi is to go abroad and earn a degree at a foreign university.While Kwanichi appears to agree with the idea, he sneaks away from school to visit Miya and her mother in Atami and hopes to see her being forced into the relationship.
Unfortunately, it is revealed to him that Miya has already agreed to the task before her and will marry Tomiyama despite her love for him. Grief-stricken, Kwanichi declares that he will go mad and live like a wildman, all because of what Miya has done to him. Throwing her to the ground and dashing off into the woods, he shouts her name as he disappears into the fog of a January night. Thus ends the first book in a three book series.
The relevance of this series of books is in how European values could be seen as “corrupting” to Japanese culture. With the introduction of a non-Confucian definition of the merchant class, the idea of marrying for economic rather than social reasons became a problem in Japanese society. The Gold Demon provides an interesting look into the aftermath of such thought.
By Mori Ogai
Annotated by Thatcher Whitacre
Ogai, Mori. “The Pier.” Paulownia: Seven Stories from Contemporary Japanese Writers. Trans. Torao Taketomo. New York: Duffield, 1918. Online.
“The Pier” is a short story that speaks of the experience a noble woman has watching her husband, a count, set sail to visit France. The story is framed in the present tense to provide the extra punch of experiencing the tale with the woman, whose life is described to us by the unnamed narrator. It begins simply with the description of the the cloudless day and the train trip to the pier. The woman is described in terms of her attire, all of it being foreign in design and color. Next comes the pier and all of the ships, both domestic and foreign, that are docked there. It is here that the woman and her husband are further detailed as being the product of Western learning and Western systems, with the husband being an official member of the Imperial Court.
Further on, we see many descriptions of the people surrounding the woman as she bids her husband and his companion farewell. Many of the people who are there are saying goodbye to her husband, while the rest are merely other travelers. She also observes the staff of the ship, focusing on the waitresses in the dining room. She journeys around the ship with her husband, meeting its French captain and seeing its saloon. She stays aboard long enough to sit with her husband and listen to the crowd of hanger-ons that surround him. Eventually, she leaves the ship before it sets sail, watching the behaviors of the other people as they bid her husband farewell. The story ends with her silently refusing to join the others in waving handkerchiefs in farewell as she observes the enormous hole in the ship-line where her husband’s boat once was.
The relevance of this short story to the overall course on Meiji Japan is the striking image it paints of how different Japan looked after the European intervention. With the comparisons in dress and behavior between the Japanese wife and the Europeans that surround her on the pier, the incongruence of European and Japanese cultures can be fully highlighted.
The Saint of Mt. Koya
By Izumi Kyoka
Annotated by Benjamin Hyde
Izumi, Kyōka, and Stephen W. Kohl. The Saint of Mt. Koya. Kanazawa, Japan: Committee Office, Committee of the Translation of the Works of Izumi Kyoka, 1990. Print.
The Saint of Mt. Koya tells the story of two men, one the narrator travelling home and the other a priest on his way to the great Zen Monastery, the Eiheiji. These two travelers meet by happenstance and spend a night together in an inn before parting ways. On that night, the narrator asks the priest to tell a story, and the priest does just that. After that point, the rest of the story focuses on the priest and the story he is telling, a story of his youth when he was just beginning on his priestly journey. The priest’s story shows the clash between the way the Japanese people strive to maintain their traditional past, in this case those priestly virtues, and the new modern ideas of love and romance.
In the priest’s story, he is travelling and comes to a fork in the road. After a wandering peasant tells him the path he ought to take, the priest goes down the other, harder path in order that he might catch up to a young merchant who had just travelled down that dangerous road. The priest does not come across the merchant, but while on the path comes close to dying from blood-sucking leeches and barely makes it to a small house belonging to a woman and her “idiot” husband who does not know how to speak and cannot move his legs. The woman is very beautiful and permits the priest to stay the night, as well as taking him down to a stream to wash himself. While there, both of them bathe naked and the priest is enchanted by the woman’s beauty. After an interruption from animals following the woman, the two return to the house and the priest sleeps there for the night. During the night, the house becomes surrounded by animals as the woman yells “we have a guest tonight.”
In the end, the priest left the house the following morning and followed the river out of the woods. At the edge of a waterfall the young priest’s thoughts were dominated by the woman and he resolved himself to return to her and give up his priestly vows. Before he turned back, an old man who had taken a horse from the woman to sell in the village for money greeted him and told him the true nature of the woman, who had magical powers and would turn travelers into animals to punish them for their ill intentions. The old man warned the priest that he was the first to escape and that if he returned then it would be his fate to become an animal. Taking the old man’s words to heart, the priest turned continued on his priestly pilgrimage. With this, the priest ended his story and the next morning parted ways with the narrator.
By Futabatei Shimei, Translated by Marleigh Grayer Ryan
Annotated by Kayla Schroff
Shimei, Futabatei, and Marleigh Grayer. Ryan. Japan’s First Modern Novel: Ukigumo. Place of Publication Not Identified: Columbia U.P., 1967. Print.
Ukigumo by Futabatei Shimei is hailed as Japan’s first modern novel. It was written in 1887 and tells the story of a recently fired government official named Bunzo. The novel focuses on four main characters: Bunzo, Omasa and her daughter Osei, and Bunzo’s friend, colleague, and rival in love, Noboru. Throughout the novel, Bunzo is portrayed as a rather idealistic, awkward individual, unable to navigate social niceties with much skill or subtlety. He is contrasted by the ambitious, handsome, and very ‘Westernized’ Noboru, a man who makes no qualms about going the extra mile for flattery, especially towards his boss. This lack of ambition in Bunzo is what starts off the novel’s main source of conflict, namely gaining the hand of the beautiful Osei.
Omasa, who has allowed Bunzo and Noboru to live under her roof, becomes disappointed with the despondent Bunzo after she finds out he has been fired. From that point on, she gradually pushes her daughter Osei, who is a very Meiji-style educated woman, towards Noboru, who is moving up in the world thanks to his willingness to give up a little pride if it means impressing his boss. Noboru dresses in western garb and acts like a western businessman, every bit of him very likely a precursor to the modern day salaryman. Bunzo, on the other hand, is much more representative of the ‘Japan’ left behind after the Meiji Restoration. He is set in his ways and his pride keeps him from making amends with anyone, whether it is his boss or the lovely Osei.
Ukigumo ends with Bunzo once again failing to act on his desire to reconcile with Osei and win her back from Noboru. Osei, after spending a great deal of time ignoring Bunzo due to an argument over his rather weak-willed attitude towards her, starts to smile and flirt at him as she leaves with the household maid. Her resuming interest in Bunzo follows a sudden drop in her interest in Noboru, due to his tendency to place flattering anyone of importance above the company of the woman he is spending time with. Rather than following through with his conviction, Bunzo instead chooses to return to his room to await her return.
The characterization within this novel is important to note, as the novel spends a great deal of time to emphasize both the clothing the characters wear and the way they interact with others as the story progresses. In Noboru’s case, the Western clothes he wears drive home the importance of his near-desperate desire to fit in with more well-off individuals, even if it means sacrificing his personal happiness. His Western qualities are contrasted with Osei’s, who is mainly associated with a more Western style education that gives her a passionate and firm will that frequently throws off the passive Bunzo. With the protagonist, his more non-combative attitude suggests that his happiness and pride could outweigh quickly accessible financial comfort, even though the worry over being able to provide for a family is what made him so hesitant at the novel’s beginning. Ukigumo does not, however, guarantee his happiness by the end, only a possibility of having another chance to obtain it.