Japanese literature history 20th century

How the Transitional Period of Japan, From a Traditional to Modernized Country, Mirrored the Japanese Literature in the 20th century

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When talking about modern Japanese literature, no discussion will be had without mentioning Haruki Murakami. His novels, all of which have been translated to English, have sold tens of millions of copies outside of Japan alone . His works deal almost exclusively with themes of anxiety, depression, sexual desire and, most importantly, alienation and mental isolation. It is no coincidence that the novel that put Murakami on the radar of literary scholars was a novel published in 1987, titled “Norwegian Wood” or “Noruwei no Mori” followed the story of a thirty-seven year old Toru Watanbe who reminisces about the 1960s, while he was in college, and about his friendship with fellow classmates, Kizuki and Naoko. The novel itself deals with suicide, sexual desire and utter loneliness which are topics that are not exclusive to only Haruki Murakami, but the literary scene of Japan as a whole. This is all to say that Japanese literature focuses mainly on emotional issues, as opposed to plot or development. The broad school of writing utilized by these writers is called Buraiha or decadent school of literature, a term coined by Fusao Hayashi and Ango Sakaguchi, literally meaning “hooligan” or “hoodlum”. This term encompasses all works of literature that deal with existentialism and depict the aimlessness of life and identity crisis of the individual. To understand the reason why the Buraiha school of writing became so popular in the mid- 20th century, the historical context behind it must be firstly examined.

The Edo Period

The Edo Period, otherwise known as the Tokugawa era, was the final traditional period of Japan. It was, as Britannica states “ a time of internal peace, political stability, and economic growth under the shogunate (military dictatorship) founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu”. Ieyasu was a shogun (military ruler) who achieved hegemony over Japan by making Edo (modern day Tokyo) its capital and requiring domainal lords or daimyo to reside in Edo households for several months every other year as a further measure of control, by balancing the tozama, daimyo who Tokugawa deemed hostile and the fudai, a class of daimyo who Tokugawa deemed as close and powerful allies. During the Edo period, Japan’s society was operating on a feudal system in which the emperor had very little power as opposed to the military which held the most influence in Japan. The citizens were divided into 5 classes: daimyo, warriors, merchants, artisans and farmers at the very bottom. To ensure stability, mobility between social classes was prohibited. A large number of samurai who belonged to the warrior class, had taken residence in Edo and became bureaucrats, while 80% of the population which belonged to the latter 3 classes were considered peasants and were prohibited from engaging in nonagricultural activities in order to ensure a stable income of money and food for those at the top of the social ladder. Despite this caste system, the people living in this era were generally happy and content. In 1549, was when the first Christian missionaries, Jesuit Francis Xavier, set foot in Japan for the first time. Soon after, many missionaries arrived in Japan, building Christian schools and introducing Western culture and customs to this previously untouched Eastern country. Because of this intrusion, in 1633 the shogunate banned foreign travels and outlawed the return of overseas Japanese citizens to stop the spread of Christianity and Western influence. Furthermore, in 1639 the shogunate banned visits from Europe and Japan entered a state of national isolation, known as sakoku. During this period, international trade was conducted only with the Chinese and the Dutch because of their restricted contact with Europe and was done through the port of Nagasaki. Because of this, Japan was economically declining and, despite being a shogunate, Japan was militarily weak and technologically backward to the rest of the world, according to the ex-deputy Asia bureau chief, Isabella Stegar. All of this led to internal discord in the Japanese nation and the ruling class was being constantly challenged. However, what brought Japan out of the sakoku era was the sailing of the “black ships” into Japan. On July 8th, 1853 a squadron of 2 steamers and 2 sailing vessels, commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry on behalf of the U.S. Navy had set sail to Japan. The reason for this voyage was to force Japan into opening their trade to the U.S. and demanding a treaty to permit American ships into Japanese ports. This was done at a point in history when all Western powers were seeking to widen their markets abroad. Japan, having no navy to defend themselves, was forced to sign the unfair treaty imposed on them by America. Soon after, Russia, Britain, France and Holland followed America’s example and forced their own treaties upon the Japanese. Up to this day in Japan “black ship” is a form of expression, used when a foreign ideas enter and disturb the status quo. A prime example would be the app Spotify which changed the way Japanese folk consume music.

The fall of the Shogunate and the Rise of the Meiji empire

After failing to apprehend and stop the spread of Western culture in Japan, the shogunate’s structure became even more unstable due to its incompetence in protecting and preserving Japan. This added further to the internal discord Japan was previously facing and it incited the Satsuma Rebellion, a revolt against the shogunate organized by a group of nationalistic low ranking samurais in Satsuma and Choshu in what is today’s Kyushu. Their aim was to modernize Japan in order to repel Western powers and to disenfranchise the shogunate and replace it with a proper emperor which was represented by their slogan “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians”. It was a battle in which the odds were stacked against the rebels. “The only advantages enjoyed by the rebel Satsuma army were high morale and better training. But generally unable to recruit more men other than those who had rebelled initially, Saigō (1 of the 3 great nobles who led the rebellion) was forced to carry on the war with the ever-diminishing original number of soldiers and was soon short of both troops and weapons.” states Professor James H. Buck in the journal “Monumenta Nipponica” in an article on the Satsuma Rebellion. The following years consisted of chaos and violence. The forces of the rebellion seeked to seize the Imperial Kyoto court which was the nominal ruling government of Japan at that time. Foreigners and Japanese collaborating with foreigners were killed including a killing of an Englishman named Charles Lennox Richardson in what came to be known as “The Namamugi incident”. Parallelly, both the shogunate and the rebellion had been modernizing their militaries in preparation for a war. The final straw for the end of the shogunate and the rise of the Meiji empire was the Boshin War. After the forces of the shogunate were defeated at the 2 day long battle at the southern entrance of Kyoto in 1868, several influential daimyo switched their allegiance from the shogun to the emperor. Discouraged by the secede of the daimyo, the shogunal forces gave up their defences of the Osaka tower which was conquered by the imperial forces. Furthermore, the Western powers recognised the emperor’s government as the rightful government of Japan, although that did not stop the targeting of Westerners, and in the same year the 14 year old Meiji (personal name Mutsushito) became emperor. Led by the aforementioned Saigō Takamori, the imperial troops surrounded Edo in 1869 and the shogunal forces surrendered unconditionally marking the end of the Tokugawa period and the beginning of the Meiji restoration, translating literally to the restoration of the enlightened rule.

The Meiji Restoration

During the period of the Meiji rule, many changes were brought about the political, social and economic status of Japan that modernized and Westernized the previously traditional country. The early goals of the new government were expressed in the “Charter Oath”, presented in 1868 which seeked to bring 5 changes: “1. Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by public discussion. 2. All classes, high and low, shall unite in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state. 3. The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall each be allowed to pursue his own calling so that there may be no discontent. 4. Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature. 5. Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.” With these goals set by the Imperial government, it is clear that the Meiji empire sought to gravitate towards a more democratic government, to mobilize movement between the social classes, to stray away from traditions they deemed unnecessary and finally, most importantly, to educate the citizens of Japan regardless if the knowledge came from other cultures. The first actions this new government brought about were the relocation of the imperial court from Kyoto to Edo which was subsequently renamed Tokyo (Eastern Capital) and the dismantling of the old feudal system. By 1871 all administrative reorganizations were more or less achieved and all of the previous domains had been abolished in favor of a prefecture system that has stood the test of time to this day. In the same year, a national army was formed which was considerably stronger than Japan’s previous military as the army had been modernized and later strengthened by the universal mandatory military enlistment. Another area in which Japan had undergone reforms was the educational system. In 1871, Japan established its first Ministry of Education in order to develop a national curriculum of education which later led to promigulatio of the Gakusei, more commonly known as the Educational System Order in 1872. This introduced universal education in Japan which primarily favored Western learning and teaching. High ranking samurai have studied literature and Confusicm at their hanko (domain schools) and commoners have learned reading and writing at, the equivalent of today’s public schools, terakoya (temple schools). Both samurai and commoners also pursued medicine, military science and, interestingly, some practical arts. By the time of the Meiji restoration, some of these schools had already developed a high level of instruction for science and technology and during the reforming of the education system had been on par with western schools. Following the Restoration, Western studies, particularly English- language studies, grew in popularity, and Western culture invaded Japan. The Meiji administration sent research committees and students to Europe and the United States, and the so-called Westernizers beat the conservatives who fought tooth and nail to keep traditional education alive. On top of all these changes, Japan had kept undergoing subtle reforms and the political system kept getting finely tuned until it reached a government that somewhat resembled that of the Prussian constitutional system in the 1890s.

Correlation to Literature

During the 20th century, Japan had undergone a good amount of assimilation to Western culture, however because of its strong culture, tradition and history, Japan did not become a fully westernized country. This placed it in a limbo state between being too Western to be considered a traditional Eastern country, but on the contrary, too Eastern to be grouped among the same cultures as those of Western countries. This was also the case with Japanese literature. Its ideas, dealing with existentialism, had been too Western to be accepted by traditional Eastern critiques, while on the other hand the cultural difference was large enough to alienate it from Western critiques. Furthermore, the mindset of the people had been plagued by both World War I and World War II and with that in consideration it is no surprise that the dominant themes of the works of literature at that time were those of depression. For example, a name that is often brought up when discussing this period of Japanese literature is Osamu Dazai and his most famous novel, No Longer Human. The book is regarded as semi-autobiographical, wherein Dazai documents the themes and emotions in his life, but not the exact events that transpire. Sadly, it is also considered his suicide letter as the 38 year old author committed suicide shortly after he wrote it. The novel follows the story of a man named Oba Yozo, who from birth has felt utterly alienated from other people and their customs. He is portrayed going through life, falling into bad habits such as drinking, gambling and abusing substances, spiraling and falling further into the depths of alienation. He lives in a constant paradox of engaging in bad habits because of his feelings of alienation, feeling shame due to engaging in bad habits which alienate him further and so on while also dealing with an identity crisis at every stage of his life. This directly mirrored the state of Japanese literature at the time the novel was written. Another example of alienation in Japanese literature in that period of time would be Sakunosuke Oda’s Stories of Osaka Life. It is a depiction of Japan’s gritty reality as opposed to the exemplary ideals in which Oda focuses on the hustlers, bunglers and misfits of Osaka, in other words people alienated by society. The characters portrayed in the most famous tale are a hard working woman and a sponge husband who absolutely do not accompany each other well. While their interactions are depicted in a humorous way, their underlying struggles are ever so present as neither neighbors nor coworkers want to interact with them. Donald Keene, the translator for No Longer Human, covers this phenomenon of literary isolation concisely in the translator’s note for the same novel. “The fact that these articles will never be read abroad (referring to articles written by young Japanese scholars about Western writers), not even by specialists in Leconte de Lisle or James Knox Polk, inevitably creates a sense of isolation and even loneliness among intellectuals. Some Japanese of late have taken to referring to themselves as "the orphans of Asia," indicating the fact that although Japan has become isolated from the rest of Asia, the Western nations do not accept her literature or learning as part of their own. The Japanese writers of today are cut off from Asian literature as completely as the United States is from Latin Amer-ican literature, by the conviction that there is nothing to learn.”.


In conclusion, the Tokugawa Period, which was characterised by the shogun’s, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s, rise to power through careful control of advisories and allies, freezing of movement between social classes and the military-led government known as the shogunate, was brought to an end by a rebellion. The rebellion was incited by internal conflicts within the shogunate that were themselves incited by the powerlessness of the shogunate to repel Western powers from influencing and intruding on Japan’s culture and land. The rebellion sought out to give the power to the Emperor, which at that time was the 14 year old Meiji, to strengthen their military to repel the Western powers more effectively, although this goal was soon disregarded. Most importantly the Charter Oath was established which expressed the goals of the Imperials to institutionalize a more democratic government, to mobilize movement between social classes, to eradicate traditions and customs they found evil and unnecessary and most importantly to refine the education in Japan. This all served to modernize and, in turn, westernize Japan. However, unlike other countries going through the process of westernization, Japan has such a rich and dense history, culture and tradition that full westernization of the country is still ongoing. This led to the 20th century of Japan being one of cultural limbo, wherein Japanese culture was too Western to be accepted by traditional Eastern cultures and too Eastern to be accepted by Western cultures. This phenomenon was portrayed in the literature scene of Japan in which the works that were written at that time were alienated from Western and Eastern cultures for the same reasons. The works themselves also mirrored the said phenomenon through dealing with themes of loneliness, isolation and alienation. This is a prime example of art mirroring life even if it is not intended to do so. The works of Osamu Dazai, Sakunosuke Oda and other buraiha writers, when contextualized, draw inspiration from the sense of isolation that was felt among the Japanese people alongside the sense of pointlessness and aimlessness that was brought about by the wars that had been waged. It is a testament of how the human mind gets influenced in such subtle ways that it is almost undetectable, yet still present. Many of modern day Japanese writers, at least those that delve in themes of existentialism, such as Haruki Murakumi, were influenced by the writers of the mid-20th century Japan. I, personally, see this as evidence of history just being one infinite colony of dominoes knocking each other over indefinitely. If the Edo Period never happened, Japanese tradition would have been less prominent in the 20th century and Japan would have succumbed to Western tradition much faster and easier and the cultural limbo that influenced the works of the buraiha writers never would have occurred, thus snubbing the world of novels such as No Longer Human. On the other hand however, if the Satsuma rebellion failed, Japan might never have come to be a modern Western country as we know it today and the buraiha writers would have never been exposed to Western culture, yet again eliminating the stage in Japan’s history of cultural limbo and yet again robbing the world of novels such as Tales of Osaka Life. In other words, history is simply the study of how every single event, occurrence, happening is simply a response to the influence of other factors.

Works Cited

Buck, James H. “The Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. From Kagoshima Through the Siege of Kumamoto Castle.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 28, no. 4, 1973, p. 427., doi:10.2307/2383560. “Commodore Perry and Japan (1853-1854): Asia for Educators: Columbia University.” Commodore Perry and Japan (1853-1854) | Asia for Educators | Columbia University, afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/japan_1750_perry.htm. Dazai, Osamu, and Donald Keene. No Longer Human. Tuttle, 1990. “Education in the Tokugawa Era.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/education/Education-in-the-Tokugawa- era#ref302804. “Japan.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/education/Japan. Keene, Donald ed. Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid- Nineteenth Century. Grove Press, 1955. Martin, Paul. “The British in Bakumatsu Japan: The Namamugi Incident.” JAPAN Forward, 2 Oct. 2021, japan-forward.com/the-british-in-bakumatsu-japan-the- namamugi-incident/. “Meiji Restoration.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/event/Meiji-Restoration. Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Random House UK, 2013. Oda, Sakunosuke. Stories of Osaka Life. Columbia University Press, 1990. Steger, Isabella. “The Complicated Legacy of Modern Japan as It Celebrates Its 150th Birthday.” Quartz, Quartz, qz.com/1423834/modern-japan-is-turning-150-heres- what-you-need-to-know/. Szczepanski, Kallie. “Japan's Boshin War: End of the Shogun.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 1 Nov. 2019, www.thoughtco.com/the-boshin-war-in-japan-195568. “Tokugawa Period.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/event/Tokugawa-period

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2 thoughts on “How the Transitional Period of Japan, From a Traditional to Modernized Country, Mirrored the Japanese Literature in the 20th century”

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