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  • Uchida Hyakken: A Critique of Modernity and Militarism in Prewar Japan
  • Alisa Freedman
Uchida Hyakken: A Critique of Modernity and Militarism in Prewar Japan. By Rachel DiNitto. Harvard University Asia Center, 2008. 304 pages. Hardcover $39.95/£29.95/€36.00.

Single-author studies provide valuable insight into both a particular individual's creativity and the larger social, economic, and political forces influencing his or her cultural activities. Amplifying one writer's voice also reveals how literature is defined at certain historical moments and shows the power of stories to change worldviews. Authors do not merely react to history; they shape it. Rachel DiNitto conveys these insights in Uchida Hyakken: A Critique of Modernity and Militarism in Prewar Japan and reintroduces an author whose works were widely read during his prolific fifty-year career and have been the subject of films and theatrical productions but are now rarely studied. Uchida Hyakken's (1889–1971) writings included short stories, novels, wartime diaries, travelogues, children's fiction, and thirty-two volumes of zuihitsu (literary jottings). Using an approach influenced by cultural studies, DiNitto closely reads Hyakken's prewar stories and sketches, which straddle fiction and nonfiction, adding her voice to debates about modernity, especially those about the advance of Japanese consumer capitalism and the commercialization of literature, and demonstrating another way in which authors responded to war and government propaganda. A translator of Hyakken's literature, DiNitto seeks to prove that this author, known for dreamlike fiction and personalized zuihitsu, was more socially and politically engaged than most scholars have believed. She argues that Hyakken's literary language and repeated use of such images from personal and cultural pasts as haunting specters, folkloric creatures, half-understood memories, actuality films of the Russo-Japanese War, and Tokyo landmarks predating the 1920s are part of a critique of interwar Japan and an effort to dramatize the confusion people felt living among visual evidence of sociopolitical contradictions.

An author's life is not the key to interpreting his literature, but it is one essential clue in the case of Hyakken. Born Uchida Eizō in Okayama prefecture, he began using the penname Hyakken when he wrote haiku in high school. The sobriquet signifies one hundred ken (around 200 yards) and alludes to the width of a dry riverbed near his hometown. Hyakken's career followed a trajectory similar to that of other prewar authors. He attended the University of Tokyo from 1911 to 1914 and studied under Natsume Sōseki, who became his literary inspiration and whose career his own paralleled. Hyakken wrote a parody of Sōseki's 1905 I Am a Cat, which he titled A Fake "I Am a Cat" (Gansaku wagahai wa neko de aru, 1950), and he edited his mentor's collected works. At the recommendation of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, whom he met at Sōseki's Mokuyōkai ("Thursday night group"), Hyakken took up appointments teaching German literature, first at the prestigious Imperial Japanese Army Academy [End Page 428] (Rikugun Shikan Gakkō) and then at the naval engineering academy (Kaigun Kikan Gakkō) in Yokosuka. He also was a professor at Hōsei University from 1920 until resigning in 1934, in part because of school politics. He continued to advance his literary career while working at other jobs, serving, for example, as a consultant for the Japan Mail Steamship Company (Nippon Yūsen Kaisha) on voyages through Asia; he described his experiences in Taiwan in several late-1930s travelogues. Hyakken sold his writings to both general-interest periodicals and intellectual journals, thus exemplifying how up-and-coming interwar authors crossed genres and complicated notions of elite and popular literature. His works were reprinted both during and after his lifetime and, as was also true for his peers, were adapted for cinema and the stage. DiNitto discusses Hyakken's disapproval of some of the results.

Yet, as DiNitto demonstrates, Hyakken's career was distinguished by his devotion to zuihitsu and by his eccentricities. Zuihitsu, a genre in which an author intimately connects with readers, was popular in the prewar and immediate postwar periods, times when various types of short writing proliferated, but it was not highly regarded by the literary...


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