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  • Confronting the Modern: Kōbō Abe's The Box Man and Yumiko Kurahashi's "The Witch Mask"
  • Andrew Hock Soon Ng

The "I-novel" in the Context of Japanese Modernism

Modern Japanese literature, as Reiko Abe Auestad notes, "has been from the outset defined and evaluated in its relationship to mainstream Western literature,"1 as much of its distinctiveness borrows from European modernist philosophies and discursive practices. In particular is the I-novel, or shishōsetsu, which flourished considerably during the Taishō period (1912–26) and continues to form the metanarrative of Japanese literature and criticism up until today. This genre coincides with what Karatani Kojin sees as the "discovery of interiority" in Japanese literature, in which the self, or the exploration of it, forms the central theme.2 The paramount characteristic of the shishōsetsu is its exploitation of the alleged transparency of language to convey the author's "self" directly; or, in Karatani Kojin's words, this literary mode conflates the "'I' who confesses and the subject of confession."3 Even opponents of this tradition, who criticize "the immaturity and the absence of the modern self in the Japanese novel," assume in the end "that the ultimate meaning of these texts resided in their 'origin,' the author's 'self.'"4 This notion of "self"—autonomous and individual—is "part and parcel of all other sorts of 'modern' ideas suddenly being imported from Europe and America" during the Meiji period (1868–1912).5

But self is a notoriously slippery signifier, and, as several scholars have demonstrated, the shishōsetsu is not always consistent in its claim, simply because this is impossible.6 As much as modern Japanese literature textually embodies the transparent self, it is also a self rent between increasing Westernization and stubborn adherence to a slowly vanishing Japanese identity, which results in a bifurcation that led critic Kobayashi Hideo, as early as 1933, to declare that "the fundamental feature of contemporary Japanese culture is a pervasive spirit of homelessness and loss."7 Kobayashi's [End Page 311] ruing of this "unreal" world of Japan is linked to the "phantasmal quality of modernity [of which one effect is] the massive internalization of foreign culture, which has already advanced to the point that 'self' and 'other' can no longer be effectively distinguished."8 Japanese modernism is reacting not only against outmoded cultural forms, but against a foreign culture, as well.9 Part of the inevitability of Japanese literature's importation of the "autonomous" self from Europe is the inheritance of a literary discourse that articulates this self. Or, conversely, it is the race to modernize that sees a direct correlation between the increasing consumption of Western literature and the realization of the "modern self." But, as Seiji Lippit has observed, modernist writing is

[f]ormally characterized by the fragmentation of grammar and narrative and by the mixing of multiple genres, which in part is a response to new forms of expression and representation, including the impact of media such as film. In this sense, modernism expresses the dislocation of the novel as the central genre of cultural production within the explosion of mass culture in Japan in the 1920s.10

As such, modernist literature exemplifies the breakdown of the process of negotiating between selves. And if the I-novel is an attempt to faithfully render the self visible through language, then the entire shishōsetsu tradition (at least in its critical articulation) has become, in a sense, a paradoxical literary creature that captures the ever-vanishing, impossible self. This necessarily creates a "dissonance" in the representation of the self: the "I" hovering between enunciation and obscuration.

Gender and Literature

An equally contentious issue with this concept of self in modern Japanese literature is the fact that self is always gendered male. To understand this continuum between gender and literature, a brief discussion of the sexual politics in modern Japan is useful. The Meiji Reformation and the advent of the modern made important advances in redrawing gender boundaries by opening up divergent spaces for women in the social and economic fields. In fact, as Nina Cornyetz observes, women became categorized as "people" for the first time in Japanese history, a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 311-331
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-28
Open Access
No
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