- The Strong and the Weak in Japanese Literature: Discrimination, Egalitarianism, Nationalism
Fuminobu Murakami’s latest book, The Strong and the Weak in Japanese Literature: Discrimination, Egalitarianism, Nationalism, is a challenging analysis of Japanese literature from the perspective of what the author has termed “the weak-strong binary.” Murakami constructs a detailed study of how the seemingly contradictory notions of “admiration for the strong” and “sympathy for the weak” work together in tandem to create a unified and coherent text. To postulate such a template and apply it to various literary genres, including philosophical, religious, and political texts as well as fiction, is quite risky because of the danger of oversimplifying the complexities of texts written in different styles and in different time periods. However, Murakami clearly and convincingly presents his case and allows his reader to come to important insights into how Japanese literary and philosophical works should be understood.
The Strong and the Weak in Japanese Literature is a significant new contribution not only to the field of literary criticism but also to cultural and sociological studies. It is a further development of a trend in critical works that began in the early 1970s. At that time, older interpretations of major works of Japanese literature were being jettisoned in light of advances in structuralism and semiotics. One might refer to the volume edited by Michael [End Page 217] K. Bourdaghs titled The Linguistic Turn in Contemporary Japanese Literary Studies1 to appreciate the changes in literary scholarship that began at that time when Japanese scholars were showing more confidence and creativity as they reevaluated their nation’s literary texts in light of contemporary Japanese values and ways of thinking rather than relying on Western literary paradigms. Thus, this new work is an expansion of the author’s earlier book, Ideology and Narrative in Modern Japanese Literature (Van Gorcum, 1996), in which the idea of the “self” in Japanese literature was examined in the context of a largely European philosophical framework. The Strong and the Weak in Japanese Literature is a much more ambitious undertaking, in which Murakami uses primarily Japanese concepts to analyze Japanese literature written in the classical, early modern, and modern periods. Murakami’s work also follows on H. Richard Okada’s 1991 book, Figures of Resistance: Language, Poetry, and Narrating in The Tale of Genji and Other Mid-Heian Texts (Duke University Press). This work also attempted an interpretation of Japanese texts that was not dependent on Western categories of literary criticism, but Murakami does not limit himself to classical texts as Okada did.
The range of genre and works that Murakami has chosen to tackle is impressive. His analysis includes a study of early Buddhist philosophical writings, Genji monogatari (The tale of Genji), Heike monogatari (The tale of the Heike), Nansō Satomi hakkenden (The eight dog chronicles), political writings of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and several stories by Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972). Many Western readers may not be familiar with all of the works that Murakami examines. Hakkenden by Takizawa Bakin (1767–1848), for example, has never been translated into a complete English version, but Murakami’s analysis of this work will be of great interest both to scholars of literature who have never read the complete work as well as to readers whose knowledge of literary criticism might be limited to Western literature.
Murakami argues that the backbone of successful literature is a dynamic interplay between a conflict and subsequent compromise involving the weak, the ugly, the indecent, and the lowly, who are despised and discriminated against, and the strong who sympathize with, assist, save, and placate them (p. 4). This dynamic interplay provides a key to the understanding of the literature. Examples of this thesis are found in the contradictory insistence on “sympathy for the weak” and “respect for hard work” in the works of Genshin (942–1017) and in the contradiction between “absolute egalitarianism” and “approval of the current hierarchical social ranking” in the works [End Page 218] of Itō Jinsai...