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Reviewed by:
  • Confluences: Postwar Japan and France
  • Roy Starrs (bio)
Confluences: Postwar Japan and France. Edited by Doug Slaymaker. Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2002. viii, 185 pages. $60.00.

As Katō Shūichi points out in his essay in this collection: "The France- Japan ratio of influence is anything but symmetrical. . . .the impact that French writing and thinking has had on Japan is much greater than that of Japan on France" (p. 62). Although Doug Slaymaker entitles the collection Confluences (which, admittedly, sounds better than "Influences"), eight of the ten essays deal almost exclusively with unidirectional influence from France. A better case could have been made for creative influence in the opposite direction.

The first two essays, by Matt Matsuda and Jean-Philippe Mathy, make a brave attempt to puff up the occasional writings on or references to Japan of French critical theorists such as Roland Barthes, Alexandre Kojève, and Jacques Lacan into a serious body of work in crosscultural interpretation. I [End Page 533] find this less than convincing and would not regard it as a genuine case of Japanese "influence." The French theorists generally used their own cliché images of the country, culled from a century of Orientalist stereotyping, to lend a kind of illusory substance to their fanciful theories. This literary tradition began with Pierre Loti and should not be confused with Japonisme, which remains the one great example of a widespread Japanese cultural influence in France, confined mainly to the visual arts. Japonisme, a creative use of foreign artistic practices, differed radically from Orientalism, which tended to exoticize, dehumanize, or negatively stereotype the foreigners themselves. Matsuda's attempt to associate the critical theorists' views with Japonisme is thus, in my view, fundamentally mistaken. They did not approach Japan with the openness or intellectual humility of the nineteenth-century artists; rather, with their idées arrêtées, they resembled more the novice in the old Zen parable: having come to the tea ceremony with their cups already full, they could not experience the true flavor of fresh tea.

Refreshing as newly made green tea, on the other hand, is Katō Shūichi's essay on "literature and thought in postwar Japan and France." Getting Katō to contribute to this collection was a real coup, because, of course, he was himself a major player—perhaps the major player—in postwar Franco-Japanese cultural relations. In this essay he is concerned with literary influences (a word he is not squeamish about using) of French on Japanese writers, and on the reading public in general, beginning in the late nineteenth century with Jules Verne and the naturalists Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant, and culminating in the postwar with the influence of writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus on Katō's own generation. Katō's essay is full of fascinating and original insights, such as his discussion of the implications of the fact that most Meiji writers were unfamiliar with the scientific background of French naturalism and read Zola and Maupassant in English rather than French; his elucidation of the way Romain Rolland's great Bildungsroman, Jean-Christoph, struck a special chord with the Taisho generation because of their own preoccupation with personal cultural development (kyōyō shugi); his explication of the influence of Paul Valéry's "sophisticated literary criticism" on Kobayashi Hideo and his many followers; and, above all, his comments on French influences on his own postwar generation.

Katō makes an important and moving statement about his generation of writers: "those of us who had lived through the war were very much surprised, indeed shocked, when we learned of the existence of the French littérature de la résistance, even during France's occupation by the Nazis. . . .we could not imagine an equivalent situation in Japan" (p. 54). Katō himself translated some of this literature. This French example of a literature committed to engagement with social-political issues, especially as embodied in the work of Sartre, helped set the tone and direction of much [End Page 534] of Japanese postwar writing, from Noma Hiroshi to ōe Kenzaburō. Through the latter writer, it continues...


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