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Comparative Literature Studies 40.1 (2003) 96-99

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Inventing the Classics: Modernity, National Identity, and Japanese Literature. Edited by Haruo Shirane and Tomi Suzuki. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. xiii + 333pp. $ 60.00 (cloth)/$ 24.95 (paperback).

A collection of outstanding essays on the issue of canon formation in Japanese literary studies, Inventing the Classics stems from a conference held in 1997 at Columbia University on the relationships between literary texts, modernity, and the formation of national identities. This book brings to print a set of ideas that has been with attentive readers of Japanese literature during at least the past ten years, although until now no one had the vision to bring all these ideas together in a publication that is bound to change the way premodern Japanese literature is taught and studied. The editors, Professors Haruo Shirane and Tomi Suzuki, should be applauded for challenging the abused distinction between modern and premodern Japanese literature that has informed readings of the Japanese "classics" for too long, and for reminding us that the "classics" come with an interpretative history which is what has made them "classics" in the first place.

Each essay deals with the modern interpretative history (from the 1880s to the present) of major Japanese literary texts which, in the process of creating a national literature, were constructed as "Japanese" and "literary." In the introductory and concluding essays Haruo Shirane discusses the process of competition between canons—or "genre configurations"—which shapes genres and their place in a hierarchy. He begins the introductory essay with the formation of the most important genre, the "literary genre," whose creation was contemporaneous with that of the Department of Japanese and Chinese Classics at Tokyo Imperial University. In the concluding essay Shirane traces a history of the canons of Japanese studies through medieval and early modern times, comparing the hierarchy within these canons to the nationalistic canons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and to the demilitarized canon of postwar Japan. Readers interested in this topic might want to integrate Shirane's essays with the detailed analysis of the creation of the concept of "literature" in Japan that Suzuki Sadami has recently made in his book Nihon no 'Bungaku' Gainen (The Concept of Japanese 'Literature.' Tokyo: Sakuhinsha, 1998).

Shinada Yoshikazu introduces the notion of "psychological compensation" to explain the reading of the Man'yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, late 8th c.) as national poetry. He argues that the lack of a modern [End Page 96] national poetry inspired scholars to find in the ancient poetic collection a source for the vigor, directness, and unaffectedness that they would have liked to see expressed in modern Japanese poetry. Texts such as the Man'yoshu and the Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) were chosen to fill the blanks of a great national epic that could withstand comparison with Homer, Virgil, and the tradition of European epics. Shinada analyzes the impact that the late Meiji national literature movement, the Imperial Literary Society (Teikoku bungakukai) and the rising of folklore studies had on modern readings of this poetic anthology.

The theme "nation and epic" is further discussed by David T. Bialock, who also appeals to the notion of "compensatory beauty" to explain readings of the Heike Monogatari on the part of romanticist literary critics (Nihon romanha). Bialock shows how this text was used to legitimate warrior authority through the ages, and how the question of warrior versus imperial legitimacy influenced the Meiji appraisal of The Tale of the Heike. The essay ends with a history of how the Heike eventually became a national epic.

Konoshi Takamitsu links the view of the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712) as Japan's foremost mythological text to the process of mythologization that the text has undergone since the Middle Ages. He relates different interpretations of this text to different state formations, interpretations which eventually led to the authentication of the modern emperor system.

Tomi Suzuki explains the canonization of female writings, particularly women's diaries of the Heian period, in light of the formation...


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