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  • 文学 Bungaku/Literature
  • Dennis Washburn (bio)

Since the late nineteenth century bungaku has come to refer primarily to “literature” in the sense roughly equivalent to contemporary English usage—that is (to paraphrase the definition in Webster’s New World Dictionary), to writing of a creative or imaginative character that is distinct from historical narratives, scientific writings, and news reporting, that implies a notion of cultural value, or that suggests writing defined by period or national origin.1 This particular definition of bungaku, which was fixed more than a century ago and has changed little over that span of time, is readily apparent in a large number of common phrases that, taken together, provide an outline history of modern Japanese literature: kokubungaku (national literature); Nihon bungaku (Japanese literature); kindai bungaku (modern literature); gendai bungaku (contemporary literature); taishū bungaku (popular literature); junbungaku (pure literature); puroretaria bungaku (proletarian literature); seisan bungaku (productivity literature); nōmin bungaku (rural or peasant literature); dōwa bungaku (children’s literature); joryū bungaku (women’s literature); posutomodan bungaku (postmodern literature). A more recent usage has arisen in the phrase conpyūtā bungaku (computer-generated literature), which in turn has given rise to an intriguing complementary phrase, ningen bungaku (human literature). In all of these examples the meaning of bungaku is so fundamental, so obvious and given, that the word seems to bear relatively little of the semantic load compared with the terms that modify it. As a result, it may be easy to overlook the work performed by the word, which is to convey a conception of knowledge crucial to the notions of national identity and modern culture.

Just how fundamental and firmly established this definition of bungaku has become is apparent in the following passage from the preface to Kobayashi Hideo’s Letters of van Gogh (published in 1952). [End Page 116]

Reading literature (bungaku) in translation, listening to recorded music, viewing pictures through reproductions … we all do these things nowadays. Indeed, our initial awakening to the modern arts depends for the most part upon such experiences. And yet the derogatory phrase “translation culture” is now being heard more and more frequently. Perhaps it’s a natural distinction to make, but no matter how natural it may be, if carried too far it becomes a distortion. Saying that modern Japan is a translation culture is one thing, but to then say that our joys and sorrows can exist only within a translation culture, that there is no longer a Japanese culture, is an entirely different matter.2

Kobayashi’s understanding of the word bungaku as pointing to writings of an artistic nature conforms to common contemporary usage. However, it is noteworthy in this particular context that Kobayashi’s usage fails to extend his own awareness of the hybridity of modern Japanese culture to the meaning of bungaku itself. After all, the recently acquired sense of the word as “literature” was a product of a process of translation that both reflected and promoted profound political and cultural changes, which in turn determined the course of development of Japanese society during the Meiji period. Although Kobayashi conjures associations between bungaku (and the arts in general) as a consumer product and the anxieties produced by the so-called translation culture of modern Japan, his observation nonetheless renders invisible the recent etymology of the word.

That a writer so acutely aware of and sensitive to the ironies of cultural synthesis as Kobayashi would fail to remark on the foreign origins of the word bungaku, which, given the force of his own analysis, makes the phrase “literature in translation” something of a redundancy, suggests how easy it is to overlook the primary work performed by the word. The association of bungaku with the process of translation is now deeply embedded within current standard definitions, and this association becomes apparent when we consider the history of the word. The Great Dictionary of the Japanese National Language (Nihon kokugo daijiten) glosses the earliest meanings as gakugei, “literary arts/letters,” and gakumon, “learning” (definitions found also in the Great Chinese-Japanese Dictionary (Daikanwa jiten) and the Encyclopedia Nipponica (Dai Nihon hyakka jiten). These two senses of the word—“learning” and “letters”—were fused early on in...


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pp. 116-126
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