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Between Men, Androids, and Robots: Assaying Mechanical Man in Meiji Literature and Visual Culture
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Between Men, Androids, and Robots:
Assaying Mechanical Man in Meiji Literature and Visual Culture

Despite the seeming ubiquity of androids, robots, and their biomechanical kin in contemporary Japanese popular culture, we are sorely beset by a lack of understanding of their discursive origins. Conventional narratives on the subject all too often breezily skip from eighteenth-century karakuri (handmade automata) to postwar icons such as Tezuka Osamu’s Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and beyond, with scant mention of the major developments that transpired between them. 1 Even pioneering studies such as Inoue Haruki’s Nippon robotto sōseiki, 1920–1938 (1993, The genesis of Japanese robots, 1920–1938), which have done much to refocus attention on the intellectual ferment of the interwar years, essentially bypass the half-century of industrialization and technological innovation in the Meiji period (1868–1912). 2 The frequency with which tropes of “machine-like” (kikai no yōni) and “mechanical” (kikaiteki) human beings are expressed in modern Japanese literature and visual culture, however, necessitates closer scrutiny of the episteme of “mechanical man” that arose during this time. It further raises the question how these notions of mechanization ought to be reconciled with the Meiji ethos of “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika) that placed strong emphasis on Western [End Page 44] humanism and Romanticist philosophy. If Meiji thought culminated in calls for emancipated individualism such as Natsume Sōseki’s “My Individualism” (1914, Watakushi no kojinshugi), it did not forestall the disquieting apprehension of the individual’s limits under the conditions of what can rightly be called Japan’s first machine age.3 To that end, this article seeks to assay—I intentionally use this term from the hard sciences to determine the quantity of metallic or biological substance in a given object—the recurrent trope of mechanization that appears in Meiji literature and visual culture. Even as individuality was being discovered in modern Japan, so too were its technologically and socially defined boundaries.

My critical approach is principally informed by the methodological insights of Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800/1900 and Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick’s Between Men. 4 Kittler identifies a new class of privileged, male authors, protagonists and readers in German Romanticism for whom Woman (not individual women) is elevated to sacred Muse of Nature and Beauty, who does not speak for herself but instead circulates as a signifier in Romanticism’s constellation. While we may already detect in this arrangement the internal workings of what Sedgwick calls “homosociality,” I wish to argue that the continuum of male–male relationships in Romanticism and its outgrowths is always already tempered by the simultaneous apprehension of machinery as a metaphor for degraded or servile humanity. 5 Accordingly, Romanticism can be seen as much a reaction against mechanical instrumentality as an endorsement of the supposedly innate ties of blood, soil, and spirit. 6

In Meiji Japan, Romanticism made substantial inroads from the 1890s, effectively transforming the literary landscape with the modern, realist (shajitsu shugi) novel and free verse poetry (shintaishi) as its primary conduits. At the same time, Western-style typography, lithography, and visual arts began to articulate the promises and perils of a mechanically organized way of life. In the three sections of this article I seek to fill in some of the blanks in this lacuna of origins for mechanical man. The first section examines the origins of the concepts “android” and “robot” in the West that chronologically bracket developments in Meiji Japan; first, to demonstrate the permeability of these two concepts well into our own time, and second, to argue that the literary texts under consideration here owed more to Romanticism per se than to the incipient genre of science fiction. It is particularly with respect to the homo-social question that these texts can be drawn into productive comparison with Meiji representations of mechanical man.

In the second section I analyze several examples from Meiji visual culture that attest to the crisis of the individual under mechanical civilization, first [End Page 45] with the convergent arrangements of human bodies and machines in a page of advertisements from the Tokyo asahi shinbun (1889), then in the disturbing representation of a tortured mechanical...