A Short History of Japanese Literature, Part 5

Japanese Literature (translations and fiction) in the Meiji era from 1868 to 1912

The arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy in Japan in 1853 is a landmark in Japanese history as the beginning of the opening to the West.

Gasshukoku_suishi_teitoku_kōjōgaki_(Oral_statement_by_the_American_Navy_admiral)(Photo: Commodore Matthew C. Perry with two American seamen)

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 was a result of it with its effect on political, economical, social and cultural reconstruction and adoptions of Western thoughts. The Japanese- Chinese War in 1894/95 and the Japanese- Russian War in 1904/05 were then further turning points in Japanese history.

The rise of capitalism and industrialism had a strong influence on Japanese economy. The society changed under this influence, in addition Western thoughts of individualism and liberalism were newly adopted. These changes are mirrored by Japanese literature.

(Photo: The New fighting the Old in early Meiji Japan)

Modern Japanese literature from 1868 to 1912 is called nihon kindai bungaku 日本近代文学 in Japanese. In the first 20 years after the Meiji Restoration the influence of Western literature can be seen as follows: First there came up translations of Western authors of mainly English, American, Russian, French and German origin. The first Japanese translation was made of Self-Help by Samuel Smiles and Ernest Maltravers by Edward Bulwer-Lytton named  A Spring Tale of Blossoms and Willows.

Ukigumo 浮雲 Drifting Cloud by Futabatei Shimei 二葉亭 四迷 (1864 – 1909) is referred to as the first Japanese modern novel, published from 1887 to 1889. He criticizes the social changes in Japan by telling a story of a young man, who lost his job. Futabatei is also known as a translator of Russian literature.


(Photo: Japanese movie poster of Ukigumo in 1955)

Further modern naturalistic literature of influence was written by Shimazaki Tôson 島崎 藤村 (1872-1943). His novel Hakai 破戒 The Broken Commandment of 1906 is a break with Japanese literature traditions. He writes about a so-called burakumin former eta, e.g. people who were seen as outcasts and are discriminated by Japanese society.

Shimazaki_Toson(Photo: Shimazaki Tôson)

Another important work of Japanese naturalism of this time is Futon 蒲団 published in 1907 by Tayama Katai 田山 花袋 (1872- 1930). He invented the Japanese I novel, 私小説 shishôsetsu, that is storytelling with autobiographic confessions mainly in the first person, which soon became a genre in Japan.

The most popular and influential authors of the Meiji era are Mori Ôgai and Natsume Sôseki who became popular around the turn of the century.

Mori Ôgai 森 鷗外 (1862- 1922), a physician, writer and translator studied and worked in Germany from 1884 to 1889. Ôgai translated many works of especially German authors. He is a very famous and influential writer and is still respected today. His Wild Geese Gan of 1911-13  is best known to Western readers. A social novel about unfulfilled love and women in Japanese society.

Ougai_Mori_October_22,_1911(Photo: Mori Ôgai, 1911)

Natsume Sôseki 夏目 漱石 (1867-1916) is also one of the most famous writer of the Meiji era and still well-known today as a very influential author. He has studied in London as one of the first Japanese abroad from 1900 to 1902. After his return to Japan he became a Professor of English Literature at the Tokyo University. He concentrated on writing novels as his writings were successful after 1907.

His literary works are classics of Japanese literature, here are only mentioned some of his notable works: I am a Cat  吾輩は猫である Wagahai wa neko de aru of 1905, Kokoro  こゝろ of 1914,  The Gate  Mon of 1910 and The Grass Pillow or The Three Cornered World   草枕 Kusa Makura of 1906.

Soseki(Photo: Natsume Sôseki)

End of Part 5 — to be continued …

Next: – Part 6 Japanese literature in the Taishô era (1912-1926) and early Shôwa era – the development of the pre-war novel

3 thoughts on “A Short History of Japanese Literature, Part 5

  1. Pingback: A Short Story of Japanese Literature. Part 4 | Japan Kaleidoskop

  2. Pingback: Book Review: And Then by Natsume Sôseki | Japan Kaleidoskop

  3. Pingback: Readings in 2015 | Japan Kaleidoskop

Comments are closed.