A History of Japanese Literature/Book 7

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TOKIO[1] PERIOD (1867–1898)

Some Recent Developments under European Influence

The first half of the present century was a time of profound peace in Japan, during which the feudal system, established by Tokugawa lyeyasu, was in appearance as flourishing and efficient as ever; but indications were not altogether wanting that it was already tending to its downfall. The condition of the peasantry had become very unsatisfactory. They were grievously taxed and oppressed by the Daimios, who competed with one another in pomp and magnificence, and to this end maintained large numbers of sinecure officials and idle retainers. The military organisation was wholly effete, as some collisions with British and Russian men-of-war early in the century proved very clearly. The nation had become tired of over-government. The Shōguns, for want of general support, were obliged to relax their control over the Daimios, the more powerful of whom began to assert their independence in a way which was fatal to the maintenance of the old feudal government.

The opening of Japan to foreign commerce in 1859 precipitated the inevitable struggle between the decrepit Shōgunate and its recalcitrant vassals. It resulted in 1867 in the complete downfall of the former, and the establishment of a new political organisation, presided over by the Mikado, and supported by the chief advisers of the Daimios who had been instrumental in restoring him to his rightful position in the State, so long usurped by the Shōguns.

These men, who combined political wisdom with ardent patriotism in no ordinary degree, built up on the ruins of the Shōgunate the new system of government which Japan now enjoys. It is the most highly centralised and efficient that the country has ever known, and has raised it to an unparalleled height of power and prosperity, liberty and enlightenment.

A very large share in this result was due to the influence of Western ideas. With the fall of the Shōgunate the moral, religious, and political principles on which it was based became more or less discredited, and the nation turned to Europe for guidance. The great political change which had taken place produced no immediate results so far as the literature was concerned. The reorganisation of the constitution, the reform of the laws, the formation of an army and navy, the construction of roads, railways, lighthouses, and telegraphs, and the establishment of a national system of education had first to be attended to. But the visible superiority of Europe in all such matters led to the study of European, and especially English books as sources of practical knowledge.

Before 1867, Dutch, which was studied by interpreters, and as a means of acquiring a knowledge of Western medicine, was the only European language known to the Japanese. About this time the nation was seized with a passion for more extensive European learning. In spite of many difficulties, numbers of young men of good family made their way to Europe or America for study, or were not ashamed to take service in the households of foreign residents in Japan in order to have an opportunity of learning English, even a slight knowledge of which was a sure passport to official positions and emoluments. The school of foreign languages in Tokio received substantial Government support, and flourished greatly. Presently a group of writers came forward who did their best by translations and original works to meet the general demand for information as to the learning, customs, laws, and institutions of Europe. Of these, Fukuzawa, with his Seiyō Jijō ("Condition of Western Countries"), was the most distinguished. Nakamura's translations of Smiles' Self-Help and Mill's Liberty also deserve mention. Kant and Herbert Spencer followed somewhat later. Their writings frequently supply texts for the Japanese able editor, instead of the works of the formerly venerated Confucius and Mencius.

Another sign of the renewed avidity for knowledge was the rise of a newspaper press and of a magazine literature. The first newspaper in Japan deserving of the name was published in Tokio by a Scotchman named Black about 1872. At the end of 1894 there were in existence, in spite of a rigorous censorship, no fewer than 814 different newspapers and magazines, with a total circulation of 367,755 copies.

With the exception of translations and works designed to make Europe known to the Japanese, the literature showed few signs of foreign influence until about 1879, when translations of European novels began to make their appearance. The first of these was Lord Lytton's Ernest Maltravers. It produced a profound sensation, and was followed during the next few years by a number of others.[2] A pronounced reaction against the methods and principles of the Bakin school of fiction was the consequence. Tsuboüchi Yūzō was the principal promoter of the new movement. In a work entitled Shōsetstu Shinzui ("Spirit of Fiction") he denounced the artificial morality of Bakin's writings. More recently he became editor of a literary magazine called Waseda Bungaku, the organ of the newer school of criticism, which derives its principles and standards entirely from European sources. In his Shosei Katagi ("Types of Students"), 1887, Tsuboüchi has given an example of a realistic novel. It is well written, and contains some graphic and humorous sketches of modern student life viewed from the seamy side, but has little plot, portraiture of character, or dramatic incident. Tsuboüchi has also tried his hand at drama. I have not seen his Julius Cæsar, which Dr. Florenz describes as a version of Shakespeare's drama thrown into the form of Jōruri, that is, with a thread of poetical narrative and description woven into it; but I have before me two others of his plays, the Maki no Kata (1897), and the Kiku to Kiri (1898).

The Maki no Kata is in the Kyakubon style, that is, it depends almost wholly on dialogue. The small element of Jōruri which it contains is limited to one of the seven acts of which this play is composed which seemed to demand a more poetical treatment. It is one of a trilogy which deals with the history of the Hōjō regents. The time is the beginning of the thirteenth century, and the subject the crimes and intrigues into which Maki no Kata, the wife of the Regent, was led by her ambitions on behalf of a favourite son. The Maki no Kata is decidedly melodramatic. There are several murders and bloody combats, and two hara-kiri by women. But there are also some really forcible scenes, and although no supreme height of excellence is anywhere attained, there is careful workmanship and a gratifying freedom from the extravagances of the earlier school of Japanese dramatists. Of pivot-words and such-like rhetorical devices there are the merest traces. Most writers of the Tokio period show a marked tendency to dispense with these contrivances.

The specialty of Sudō Nansui is the political novel. This author belongs to the progressive party in politics and social science, and his pages bristle with allusions to "things European." He quotes glibly, "To be or not to be, that is a question" (sic), and talks familiarly of Shakespeare, Dumas, Gladstone, and O'Connell. The extent and variety of his reading may be inferred from an airy reference in one of his prefaces to Lytton, Bakin, Scott, Tanehiko, Hugo, Shunsui, Dickens, and Ikku.

The Ladies of New Style (1887) is a good example of his works. It is a novel of the future, when Tokio shall have become a great port, with all the appliances of an advanced civilisation, such as wharves, docks, tramways, and smoking factory chimneys. The heroine, whose charms are depicted with a profuse expenditure of ornate diction, is a dairymaid. Let not the reader suppose that this occupation is meant to suggest pastoral simplicity. On the contrary, it indicates to the Japanese public that the lady is in the forefront of the progressive movement. Formerly cow's milk was not used as food in Japan, and when this novel appeared none but a truly enlightened person would dare to affront the old-fashioned prejudices against it. This dairymaid's favourite reading is Herbert Spencer's treatise on education. She is a member of a ladies' club where croquet and lawn-tennis are played and women's rights discussed. Other characters are—an adherent of Arabi Pasha, who, after his leader's defeat by the "great warrior General Wolseley," was banished from Egypt and took service with a Japanese gentleman; a Chinese cook, who is naturally assigned the role of a subordinate villain, and a number of politicians of the Conservative and Liberal parties. Among the incidents we have a balloon ascent, a contested election, and a dynamite explosion, which is prevented from doing harm by the sagacity of a dog of European breed. All this, it will be observed, indicates a high degree of civilisation.

In the last chapter the dairymaid is married to the advanced politician, who, on the auspicious occasion, wears a clean standing-up collar and a white silk necktie, with white gloves, and a small white orange blossom in the left button-hole of his coat.

The Ladies of New Style has really considerable merit. There is plenty of incident and a coherent plot, and the writer can not only quote Herbert Spencer and Mill, but, what is more to the purpose, has an excellent command of his own language, more especially of the Chinese element in it, which is so prominent at the present time.

The Local Self Government (Sudō affects English titles) is a work of a similar character.

Yamada Taketarō, a contemporary of Tsuboüchi's, is the principal champion of an attempt to substitute the modern colloquial grammar for the grammatical forms and rules of the traditional literary dialect. He has produced a number of novels and stories written on this principle, which, if universally adopted, would save the Japanese nation the trouble of mastering a second grammar for purposes of reading and writing, in addition to that of their ordinary speech. His Natsu Kodachi ("Summer Trees") is a series of short stories which bear numerous traces of the author's studies of European literature. One is a Japanese version of the story of Appius and Virginia, and another a pastoral idyll obviously suggested by a European model. Yamada's later writings I have not seen. Dr. Florenz describes them as "cleverly written, the characters well and naturally drawn." This is high praise to give a Japanese novelist.

Yenchō, a blind story-teller of Tokio, also composes in the colloquial style. Indeed his novels are first delivered in a spoken form, and are taken down in writing by his pupils. Their language is simple and easy, and they may be recommended to any European who is beginning the study of Japanese. Some of his plots are said to be taken from the French.

One of the most popular and voluminous novelists of the present day is Ozaki Tokutarō (Kōyōsan). In his earlier works, which I have not seen, he made great use of the pivot style, but his Tajō-takon (1897) is written in the colloquial language. An acquaintance with English is evinced by the short sentences, the copious use of personal pronouns, and the frequent introduction of words which, although composed of Chinese elements, can only be fully understood when we have recognised the English word which they are intended to represent. Such English-Chinese-Japanese words are by no means peculiar to Ozaki. They now form a considerable part of the vocabulary of newspaper and magazine writers. Ozaki frequently gives the impression of having thought in English, and then presented his readers with a literal translation into Japanese. He is said to be an admirer of M. Zola.

The Tajō-takon ("Much Feeling, Much Hate") is a study of sentiment. It opens with the lachrymose lamentations of a disconsolate widower. At the eightieth page the hero is still plaguing his friends and exhausting the reader's patience with a maudlin grief, which must be even more obnoxious to Japanese feeling than to our own. One weary reader left him at this point, wiping his streaming eyes with a borrowed pocket-handkerchief, and complaining that he had now nobody to wash his own dirty ones for him.

One of the most considerable literary figures of the present day is Kōda Nariyuki (pseudonym, Rohan). He writes in the ordinary literary dialect, using the colloquial speech only for the dialogue, and in some of his writings not even for that. He has imagination, lofty aims, and a fine flow of language, never descending to vulgarity, and rising frequently to poetical descriptions of a high order of merit. But the action of his stories moves slowly, and the speeches of his personages are terribly lengthy. His Hige-otoko (1897) is a historical novel of the civil wars which preceded the establishment of the Tokugawa Shōgunate.

The general impression left by a very imperfect examination of the drama and fiction of the last twenty years is on the whole favourable. The moral standards are less artificial, there are fewer offences against good taste and decency, and there is a prevailing sobriety of tone and an avoidance of the glaring improbabilities of every kind which abound in the writings of such authors as Chikamatsu and Bakin. We no longer meet with such monstrously long drawn-out stories as the Hakkenden. Comparatively much shorter than its predecessor, the recent novel shows more signs of conscientious care in its composition.

The social position of Japanese writers of fiction has of late been completely revolutionised. In the Yedo period they were Bohemians or hommes déclassés, who were in constant trouble with the police, and were classed, along with actors, among the lowest of the people. Now they are respectable members of society; some of them, like Tsuboüchi, being graduates of the Imperial University. Notwithstanding the low prices at which their works are issued,[3] a popular novelist now commands a fair income from his works. Yano Fumiō, out of the proceeds of the sale of his Keikoku Bidan (a novel of Theban life, with Epaminondas for the hero), was able to treat himself to a tour in Europe, and to build a fine house with the balance.

The art of writing history has not made much progress in recent years. Modern methods of investigation and principles of historical criticism are known and accepted; but a great sifting of the existing heterogeneous material must be done before history, as we understand it, can be written. Nobody has yet made any serious attempt to distinguish the true from the false in the old Japanese annals, though it is pretty generally acknowledged that this process is indispensable. Philosophical history is still in its infancy. The numerous historical works which have appeared during the last twenty years are chiefly uncritical epitomes of Japanese, Corean, Chinese, and European history, and simple mémoires pour servir. Shimada Saburo's Kaikoku Shimatsu (1888) is one of the most important of the latter class. It is a collection of material bearing on the opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1859.

The Shōrai no Nihon ("Japan of the Future"), by Tokutomi Iichiro, is an attempt to forecast the future of Japan by an examination of its past history. Mr. W. Dening describes it as "more philosophical in conception than most preceding publications of its class, and surpassed by none of them in point of style. This work, in the space of two years, ran through five editions, and competent Japanese critics pronounce it to be one of the most remarkable books of the age. The writer is a Christian."

Among other works of a serious kind may be mentioned Marquis Ito's Commentary on the Constitution, and a treatise by Ono Adzusa on the same subject. Mr. Dening gives high praise to Nose Yei's Kyōikugaku, a work on education. The author's aim is to adapt Western principles and ideas to the local requirements of Japan, and in this he has, according to Mr. Dening, achieved a high degree of success.

It can hardly be maintained that the Japanese nation has up to the present time produced much poetry of striking merit. The Naga-uta of the Manyōshiu, notwithstanding its limited resources and confined scope, gave a promise which was not destined to be fulfilled, and the tiny Tanka which succeeded it in popular favour was precluded by its very form from being a vehicle for the utterance of any but the merest atoms of poetical thought or sentiment. Again, the poetical element to be found in the Nō and Jōruri drama is so disfigured by ornament of questionable taste, and so imperfectly freed from prosaic dross, that we can only allow it a very modest place in the history of the art. Its importance lies rather in its keeping alive the national taste for imaginative writing than in any intrinsic merit which it possesses.

The conditions of the present day are more favourable than those of any previous time to the production of good poetry in Japan. The ordinary language, by the more thorough assimilation of its Chinese element, has gained considerably in fitness for poetical purposes, and its phonetic capabilities are now appreciably greater than in the time of the Manyōshiu. Still more important considerations are the great stimulus which the national life has received from the introduction of European ideas, and the attention which has been recently directed to the poetry of Europe, especially of England.

The credit of being the first to recognise the advantages which the Japanese poet might derive from a study of European models belongs to Toyama Masakazu, a Professor of the Imperial University, Yatabe Riōkichi and Inouye Tetsujiro, whose joint publication, entitled Shintaishishō [4] or "Poetry of New Form" (1882), marks an epoch in the history of poetry in Japan. It is a bold attempt to revolutionise the art. The writers ignore the Tanka altogether, and set an example of a kind of Nagauta adapted to modern conditions. The old principle of the alternation of phrases of five and seven syllables is retained, the seven-syllable phrases, however, being usually put first. A decided improvement is the division into verses or stanzas of equal length. But it is chiefly in the language employed that the new style is distinguished from the old. Toyama and his colleagues, finding the ancient classical language unequal to the expression of the new ideas, and largely unintelligible to a modern public, frankly adopted the ordinary written language of the day, which had hitherto been only used for popular poetry of the humblest pretensions. In their choice of themes, in the length of their poems, and in the general tone of thought, the influence of European models is plainly traceable.

Some experiments in rhymed verse by poets of the new school confirm the opinion already expressed of the unsuitableness of the Japanese language for this form of poetical ornament.

The Shintaishishō contains nineteen poems of no great length. Of these only five are original, the remainder being translations from English poets. Bloomfield is represented by "The Soldier's Return," Campbell by "The Mariners of England," and Tennyson by "The Charge of the Light Brigade," of which two versions are given. The same compliment is paid to Gray's "Elegy" and Longfellow's "Psalm of Life." Shakespeare is represented by four extracts, and Charles Kingsley by his "Three Fishers."

The original poems include verses written before the colossal image of Buddha at Kamakura, an ode to the four seasons, and a war-song. Neither the original poems nor the translations have striking merit in themselves, but they attracted a large measure of public attention, and gave rise to a lively controversy between the adherents of the old and new styles. They also produced a school of imitators, among whom the novelist Yamada was one of the most eminent.

More recently (1891) Toyama, the chief originator of the movement, brought out a poem on the great earthquake of 1855, which has not only considerable merit in itself, but occupies a unique position in Japanese literature as a descriptive poem of some length.

Dr. Florenz, writing in 1892, says that 1888 may be taken as the culminating point of the favour shown to the new style of poetry. A reaction then set in, which, however, was of short duration. The last two or three years have produced a considerable quantity of verse more or less in the new form, of which all that can now be said is that, on a hasty examination, it reveals some promising features. Regularity of form is more carefully attended to—a great desideratum in the longer kinds of Japanese poetry.

The day of Tanka and Haikai seems to have passed. These miniature forms of poetry are now the exception and not the rule.

The following specimen, which may be taken as characteristic of the vague and dreamy style of most recent Japanese poetry, is translated from a little volume of prose and verse by three authors, entitled Hana Momiji, or "Flower and Autumn Leaves" (1898):—

The Bamboo Flute by the Shore


"In the shade of the firs of the craggy cliff,
To-night again a bamboo flute is heard:
Is it some fisher-boy, solacing his heart
From the woes of a world bitter with salt and seaweed?

Moonlight or dark, he little cares,
Night after night he visits these fir-trees' shade.
In the music of his bamboo flute
There may be heard cadences which tell of yearning love.

A day had passed since the courtiers of the lord of the land
Held night-long revel here, wandering forth upon the beach,
While the bark of the autumn moon
Pursued its crystal course;
When the fisher's fiute was for the first time heard.

A day had passed since the ladies of our lord,
Mooring their gay pleasure-boat, held revel here,
Attuning the music of their golden lutes
To the song of the breeze through the fir-trees on the cliffs;
When the fisher's flute was for the first time heard.


On nights when the dew lay heavy on the reeds of the chilly shore,
And the wind of the firs came in gusts down from the crags,
He never failed to come—this fisher-boy:
His bamboo flute was heard in clear-sounding notes.

On nights when the rattling of the hail was loud,
And the ripples on the beach were changed to ice,
He never failed to come—this fisher-boy:
His bamboo flute was heard in subdued tones.

On nights when evening fell, wild with mountain blasts,
And the sand was whirled up into the air,
He never failed to come—this fisher-boy:
His bamboo flute was heard in confused notes.

On nights of rain, when darkness came down with a sound of
moaning waves,
And the rocks were steeped in moisture,
He never failed to come—this fisher-boy:
His bamboo flute was heard, languid and faint.


To-night the autumn moon has changed,
So long his yearning love has endured.
Still his bamboo flute is heard,
Its tune and measure ever more entrancing.

With the storm from the cliff it was troubled,
With the echoes from the fir-trees it became clear,
With the surges from the deep it was frenzied,
With the waves on the rocks it became choked.

Even the clouds over Onoye[5] paused to listen
To its notes, now calling clearly, and now with strangled utterance.
What wonder then that some one descends from the bower above,
And comes forth absorbed in reverie!

For awhile the fiute ceased its importunities;
But hark! louder than before
The music of the bamboo bursts forth, making the sky resound,
And in accord with it, how sweet!
Are heard the notes of a golden lute.

Sometime the wide-spreading clouds descending from Onoye
Bore away with them the musicians of the fragrant rocks below,
Up to that region where the bark of the moon,
With altered helm, steered straight to meet them.

Shiwoi Ukō.

Thirty years is far too short a time for the seed sown at the Revolution of 1867 to grow up and ripen literary fruit. We have seen that the intellectual movement to which Iyeyasu's establishment of the Yedo Shōgunate led, did not reach its climax until a century later. No doubt things move more rapidly in the present day, but it seems reasonable to believe that what we now witness is only the beginning of a new and important development.

The process of absorbing new ideas which has mainly occupied the Japanese nation during the last thirty years, is incomplete in one very important particular. Although much in European thought which is inseparable from Christianity has been freely adopted by Japan, the Christian religion itself has made comparatively little progress. The writings of the Kamakura and two subsequent periods are penetrated with Buddhism, and those of the Yedo age with moral and religious ideas derived from China. Christianity has still to put its stamp on the literature of the Tokio period.

There are some considerations which tend to show that important results in this direction may be expected during the century which is nearly approaching us. The previous religious history of the nation has prepared Japan for the acceptance of a higher form of faith. Buddhism did not a little towards fostering ideals of holiness, humanity, and detachment from worldly things. Confucianism provided high, though it may be somewhat distorted, standards of morality, and a comparatively rational system of philosophy. Shinto taught a reverence for the Divine powers which created and govern the universe and man. But none of the three sufficed by itself to meet the heart, soul, and mind want of the Japanese nation. Can it be imagined that when a religion is presented to them which alone is adapted to satisfy far more completely all the cravings of their higher nature, the Japanese, with their eminently receptive minds, will fail in time to recognise its immense superiority?[6] They have already accepted European philosophy and science. It is simply inconceivable that the Christian religion should not follow. Probably, as was the case with Buddhism, it will not be received without some modification. Their previous history suggests that this may take the direction of a more rationalistic form of Christian belief than that which prevails in Europe. ἀλλ᾽ ἦτοι μὲν ταῦτα θεῶν ἐν γούνασι κεῖται. The historian of the Japanese literature of the future will have more to say on this subject.

  1. The name of the capital was changed from Yedo to Tokio in 1869, when the Mikado took up his residence there.
  2. Among European writers of fiction whose works have been translated into Japanese may be mentioned Dumas (Trois Mousquetaires), Cervantes, Rider Haggard, and Jules Verne. Télémaque and Robinson Crusoe (commended for its excellent moral teaching) have also been translated.
  3. The Tajōtakon, of five hundred pages, with illustrations, is published at about 1s. 6d. of our money.
  4. Dr. Florenz, Professor of Philology in the Imperial University of Tokio, has given an interesting account of this movement in a paper contributed to the German Asiatic Society of Tokio, March 1892.
  5. The mention of this place shows that the scene is the same as that of Takasago. See above, p. 207.
  6. There are even now 113,000 native Christians in Japan.