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The Kiso Road: The Life and Times of Shimazaki Tōson (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 189-193 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0012

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

When I give lectures on the history of modern Japanese literature, I tell my students that Japanese critics generally refer to three literary titans who emerged during the course of the Meiji period. Of course they all guess Natsume Sōseki and, at a push, some of them might even mention Mori Lgai, but I do not recall any student ever having volunteered the name of Shimazaki Tōson. This may well be due in part to my own failure to emphasize Tōson’s pivotal position in the development of a modern Japanese literary consciousness. However, the truth is that Tōson’s work just does not grab the attention of most readers with the same immediacy of Sōseki’s raw explorations of human psychology or Ōgai’s grand views of the intellectual landscape of his time.

The fact that not many English-language scholars have chosen to explore Tōson’s literary signficance in depth would suggest that it is not only my students who hold this view. There are, of course, honorable exceptions. Edwin McClellan’s Two Japanese Novelists (University of Chicago Press, 1969) remains an important starting point for any such study, and Janet Walker devoted considerable attention to Tōson in The Japanese Novel of the Meiji Period (Princeton University Press, 1979). Michael Bourdaghs’s full-length study of Tōson, The Dawn that Never Comes (Columbia University Press, 2003), stands out in the way it considered the author from a range of contemporary critical viewpoints in order to present his literature as a rich source of competing versions of national identity that emerged out of the Meiji period. But William Naff began it all in 1964 with a critical biography of Tōson for his doctoral dissertation. He continued to build upon his initial research, and the final result is The Kiso Road which was completed shortly before his death in 2005. Thomas Rimer has in general done an excellent job in his rearrangement and editing of this long and complex manuscript. In addition, an extremely useful and detailed Index of Important Persons has been added. In the last sentence of his book, Naff summarizes why he considered it worthwhile to devote so much of his professional life to this single author: “No one who wishes to come to a better understanding of that world can afford to overlook the experience of Japan during the past century and a half, and no one who wishes to understand Japan during this period can afford to overlook the life and work of Shimazaki Tōson” (p. 520).

It is to Naff’s great credit that The Kiso Road makes it seem obvious that the viscissitudes of Tōson’s personal life do indeed offer real insights into the broader social and cultural changes of the time not only in relation to Japan but also to world literary and intellectual developments. The book very much takes a “life and times” biographical approach—the sort of approach that has lost favor among many literary critics in the last few decades—but, as Bob Danly’s In the Shade of Spring Leaves (Yale University Press, 1981) also showed in its similar treatment of Higuchi Ichiyō, in capable hands it remains a powerful form. Naff sets out the general events in Tōson’s life with which most of us would already be familiar: his move as a young boy from his native Magome in Nagano Prefecture to Tokyo; his education in the enlightened and progressive atmosphere of Meiji Gakuin that in some ways condemned him to what Naff calls a “spiritual no-man’s-land” (p. 303), cut off from the lived experience of most Japanese at the time; Tōson’s groundbreaking poetry collection Wakanashū (Young herbs, 1897) that stirred an entire generation, and his impoverished life as he tried to complete Hakai (The broken commandment, 1906), the work that would establish him as a major novelist; his trip to France between 1913 and 1916; and Tōson’s complete devotion to his literary craft that would culminate in his longest novel, Yoake mae (Before the dawn, 1935), in which he set out not only the history...



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