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Nagai Kafū’s Occidentalism: Defining the Japanese Self by Rachael Hutchinson (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 40, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 185-190 | 10.1353/jjs.2014.0018

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

Few writers in the history of modern Japan appear to be as disputed as Nagai Kafū (1879–1959), who is revered as one of the great figures of modern literature alongside Mori Ōgai, Natsume Sōseki, and Shimazaki Tōson. He is a stylistic giant on his own terms, producing highly evocative prose inspired by his deep familiarity with Western, particularly French, literature and with Edo-period literature. On the other hand, there is the image of Kafū as a “scribbler,” a sobriquet reflecting the writer’s self-proclaimed gesaku stance associated with a frivolous aloofness and a nostalgic escapism from the modern, taken up in the title of the first book-length introduction into this writer’s world in Western languages by Edward Seidensticker in 1965. In the introduction to her study on what she identifies as Kafū’s Occidentalism, Rachael Hutchinson classifies Seidensticker’s book along with Stephen Snyder’s Fictions of Desire, the other book-length Kafū study, as exercises in an overall Western attempt at “orientalizing” Japan since World War II (p. 6). Kafū’s ambivalent image even among his contemporaries, due to his erratic behavior and eccentric personality, notwithstanding, Hutchinson sets out to highlight aspects she regards as underrepresented in the discussion, namely, to understand him as an intellectual of his time and as a “serious critic” on par with Ōgai and Sōseki (p. 3). Kafū, she states, presented “a reasoned and sustained critique of the Meiji approach to Japanese modernization,” and the texts’ binaries, which define Japan through contrast with the West and affirm its status as “Self” in contrast to these “Others,” entitle her to read his writings as “Occidentalist works in their own right” (p. 3).

Occidentalism as a central notion of the study is used in a wider sense than the rather negatively connoted versions in contemporary political discourse. Basing herself on Xiaomei Chen’s definition in her 1995 study, Hutchinson understands Occidentalism as “a discursive practice that, by constructing its Western Other, has allowed the Orient to participate actively and with indigenous creativity in the process of self-appropriation, even after being appropriated and constructed by Western Others” (p. 7). In discussing the notion as it has been applied in Japanese and Western scholarship on Japanese literature, the author thus sets herself off from the model of a closed binary system, which, in applying Edward Said’s rather monolithic structures, objectifies the “Oriental” Japanese and denies them agency. Kafū, she argues, appropriates and uses Western Orientalist discourse “to his own ends,” constituting “a critique and counter-discourse to the Meiji state” (pp. 9–10). It remains somewhat open, however, whether her project aims at an individual case or is more concerned with wider implications and paradigmatic aspects. Ideally, of course, both purposes will be served by such a study. Let us therefore take a closer look at the author’s approach.

In altogether five chapters, Hutchinson discusses Kafū’s stance through close readings of his fictional and essayistic works and negotiates critical opinions of other researchers roughly following the author’s biography. Chapter 1 begins with Kafū’s departure for America in 1903 and aims at showing how he represented the West in his collection of short stories Amerika monogatari, written between 1903 and 1907. She focuses on the constructedness of the texts, categorized as semiautobiographical travel writing, and traces the “process of disillusionment” (p. 22) regarding a formerly idealized America in a set of stories that deal with the Japanese immigration experience. The stories deal with racial prejudice and discrimination against Japanese and Chinese workers, registered by an embarrassed narrator who is “ashamed to be associated with this so-called ‘fellow countryman’” (p. 26). Here the question arises as to how the narrator in the story sees himself. In this context, the answer is postponed in favor of following the author as she develops, through her reading of other texts from the collection, their dominant theme, namely, the “efforts of a Japanese intellectual to cope with the hostility of American society against the ‘invasion’ of Japanese laborers” (p. 28). The binarism and complexity of constructing the West in Amerika monogatari is highlighted through the writer’s “relational positioning...



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