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Text and the City: Essays on Japanese Modernity. By Maeda Ai. Edited and with an introduction by James Fujii. Duke University Press, 2004. 391 pages. Softcover $24.95.

Few will miss the pun on the popular TV series in the title of this book, although, needless to say, it is a serious publication. Eleven paradigmatic texts by the critic Maeda Ai have been carefully selected and rendered into effective English by nine translators, whose own careers, we are told, intersected in various ways with that of the author (p. vii). Except for one member of the Ph.D. candidate generation, all the translators are themselves accomplished scholars in the fields of study covered by the essays, namely the social and cultural history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japan and late Edo as well as modern Japanese literature. In his concise foreword, Harry Harootunian describes Maeda's interpretative strategy as that of cultural studies "before the letter," bringing together history, urban geography and planning, ethnography, material culture, and literature (p. xiii). Text and the City is indeed an apt condensation of the concerns of the author, who took literary texts as his point of departure and as the primary instrument of analysis in an attempt to decipher the city as the very site of modernity. The emergence of this new urban space, which absorbed the countryside as well, is the core subject of Maeda's cultural analysis.

James Fujii's introduction contextualizes Maeda's work, pointing out his creative assimilation of what Fujii terms "continental high theory," while also mentioning— although not elaborating on—Maeda's continuation of the legacy of earlier generations of Japanese intellectuals such as Nishida Kitarō and Watsuji Tetsurō as well as Marxist thinkers like Nakano Shigeharu and Aono Suekichi (p. 4). In passing, we may note that Fujii somewhat overshoots the mark by stating that, unlike Japanese intellectuals, their European counterparts "typically know nothing of non-European thought," even though he is certainly right in pointing out that a term like "cosmopolitan" may often denote nothing but "a parochial Western European continentalism" (p. 5). We often encounter this kind of perspective in Japan scholars eager to [End Page 137] do justice to their objects of study in the face of the long history of (passive) misperceptions by others. All too often, however, the researcher ends up creating a new imbalance by extending his or her discerning gaze only to the Japanese side while employing a totalizing language for the "West." If Japanese intellectuals do not deserve these sweeping statements, neither do Europeans, not a few of whom, notwithstanding certain flaws in their attitudes, have looked increasingly to the "East" since the late nineteen hundreds.

Text and the City arranges Maeda's eleven essays in four sections. The first section, titled "Light City, Dark City: Visualizing the Modern," includes three essays, the first of which deals with conceptions of the prison and utopia as they unfold in the work of literary and artistic figures in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Maeda develops this theme further by showing, through a discussion of Matsubara Iwagorō's In Darkest Tokyo (Saiankoku no Tōkyō), the "dark underside of the city beneath the veneer of civilization and enlightenment" (p. 21). The second essay discusses Tokyo in the early years of Meiji, centering around the best-selling New Tales of Tokyo Prosperity (Tōkyō shin hanjōki). Here, Maeda observes the diminishing of sociality and the rise of a conception of the city rooted purely in material things, a phenomenon that in itself provides "an elemental model for the structure of the modern city" (p. 87). In the analysis of a short story by Nagai Kafū titled "The Fox" (Kitsune) that forms the third essay, Maeda beautifully limns what has elsewhere been termed the nonsimultaneity of the simultaneous in the patchwork that makes up the modern city, with its echoes of times supposedly long gone. The dark and wild space in the garden of the narrator's house evokes an archetypal "maternal" past as opposed to the surfaces of frenetically modernizing Tokyo.

The next section, titled "Play, Space, and Mass Culture" features Maeda's famous study of Higuchi Ichiyō's novella-length "Growing Up" (Takekurabe) in which he reads the story of the entry into adolescence of several young boys and girls whose parents live off the world of adult play of the licensed pleasure quarters against the backdrop of two neighborhood festivals as "a way to understand labor, friendship, the working class, monied relations, and, of course, childhood in the new calculus of social relations in Meiji Japan" (p. 11). In the chapter "Asakusa as Theater," Maeda presents Kawabata Yasunari's daunting but incomplete and highly complex modernist prose narrative of gender-bending and intrigue The Crimson Gang of Asakusa (Asakusa kurenaidan) as a site of "the urban theater of TOKIO in 1930" (p. 152). Maeda's analysis in chapter 6 of women's magazines in the 1920s moves beyond the frequently found binaries of negativity accompanying the combination of women, popular culture, and middle-class consumption by regarding the magazines "as a legitimate literary response to a multiplicity of social and historical contexts" (p. 164).

"Text, Space, Visuality" conjoins two essays on the rise of the modern Japanese reader, focusing on practices of reading and of writing as performance and "how they played key roles in the production of the modern prose narrative form" (p. 223). The communal recitation aloud of the Chinese classics with which early Meiji writers had grown up imbued them with a shared fondness for the rhythms of sinified prose and poetry. The spread of journalism and new printing techniques from woodblock to printing by movable type led to the replacement of communal recitation by silent reading. This shift, together with the commercialization of literature, necessitated new styles of writing as well as new standards for literary appreciation. In his essay "Modern Literature and the World of Printing," which forms chapter 8 of the book, [End Page 138] Maeda characterizes the new way literary texts were produced and read as a "visual revolution."

Section 4, "Crossing Boundaries in Urban Space," presents urban space as the "site of productive friction" (p. 15). Chapter 9, an essay on Narushima Ryūhoku's travel diary of his trip to the West from 1872 to 1873, contrasts Ryūhoku's perceptions of Paris with the official reports of the Iwakura mission. Mori Ōgai's Berlin, as it unfolds in his "Dancing Girl" (Maihime) of 1890, is read in chapter 10 as a movement through the exterior space of cityscape and as a passage through different aspects of the protagonist's subjectivity. Chapter 11 thematizes the reorganization of urban space as mirrored in Sōseki's novels.

The book concludes with an afterword by William Sibley who, instead of delivering personal reminiscences, engages in an edifying discussion of Maeda's writings and their idiosyncrasies. With disarming frankness, Sibley confesses to not having been able to understand Maeda's highly theoretical introductory chapter to Literature in Urban Space (Toshi kūkan no naka no bungaku), the 1982 volume from which most of the chapters in the present book have been taken. Many readers will certainly be grateful to Sibley for his confession, including this reviewer, who remembers stumbling through "The Texts of Space, the Space of Texts" in the early 1980s with a steadily decreasing confidence in her ability to read and a growing impatience toward the book which did not give its insights away easily. Sibley's paraphrasing and discussion of Maeda's more easily accessible introduction to critical theories about literary texts in A Primer on Literary Texts (Bungaku tekusuto nyūmon) leads us, notwithstanding his sometimes rambling style, to reflect on a metatheoretical level, on some of Maeda's epistemological premises. It also opens up avenues for a critical consideration of Maeda's approaches and accomplishments. Sibley asks, for example, why, in his argument concerning the body-mind dualism Maeda should resort chiefly to recent French critics without tapping his deep knowledge of various traditional Japanese models of human nature. Such observations remind us that a critical distance is desirable, although Maeda's elaborations read so compellingly that one tends to forget the existence of other avenues for dealing with modern literature apart from his spatial-topographical approach.

The translations are carefully executed and edited, with identifications of all the many names, titles, and places as well as the sources for Maeda's citations, making his work much more accessible than in its original form, which takes for granted the reader's familiarity with a dizzying array of details and diverse texts. Each essay is headed, moreover, by a brief summary of or an introduction to the literary work under discussion, an addition that enables a smoother reading of the main text. Anyone with experience in translating academic works from the Japanese, which often reflect standards of readability and supply of evidence different from those in the West, will admire the translators' and the editor's work. The acknowledgments, which thank forty-three persons by name and a number of institutions, plus one "canine companion," gives us an idea how demanding such an endeavor can be. Some of the translated versions, for all their useful academic apparatus, even convey a literary flair and thus recapture Maeda's attempt at modeling his own narration on the aesthetic qualities of the texts under discussion.

Translation as an academic exercise has long been under fire in our field by those who claim that Japanese studies live on theory-soaked "original" research. The considerable scholarship and creativity on the part of the translators required to produce [End Page 139] a translation such as this book make it clear, though, that our field likewise depends on the willingness of our peers to dedicate themselves to this kind of project. One wishes, however, that the original titles of the journals discussed had been included together with the translated name. No one looking for the articles mentioned will find them in journals named Women's Review or Housewife's Friend. Proofreading could also be improved, as there are occasional inconsistencies in the use of macrons, such as toshi kukan (p. xiv), furyu (p. xv), and Ogai (p. 230), or a missing note (note 7 on p. 331).

This collection of texts not only makes accessible the work of an outstanding Japanese scholar of literature, history, urban geography, and material culture in a format that even Japanese readers of the original might envy, it also represents an attempt to help redress the imbalance in the transfer of intellectual information from West to East. Now at last the time seems ripe for such an initiative, all the more so as Japanese, like other East Asian thinkers, have their own history of accommodating, negotiating, and reconceptualizing ideas originating in the "West." Maeda Ai, whose life ended prematurely in 1987, is a lucky but all-too-rare beneficiary of a meticulous effort to introduce his work to a larger, non-Japanese audience, and one hopes that this fine book will set a standard for more translations to come. Without having been translated, Kawabata and Ōe would never have received the Nobel prize. After all, it takes japanologists to introduce Japan's intellectual legacies to the world. [End Page 140]

Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit
Freie Universität Berlin

Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Launched on MUSE
2005-05-09
Open Access
No
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